For the most part, I consider myself fairly blessed in the life department. Aside from some poor choices I made in my late teens and early twenties (like getting an Impaired Driving conviction when I was 19 and dating that jerk for way too long who beat me up at least once or twice), I really wouldn’t change a whole lot about who and where I am in my life now. I mean, from the outside looking in, I’ve got it pretty good. I have a rock solid marriage to a wonderful man; he has fathered two healthy, beautiful boys (one mine, one from his first marriage); together we own two properties, three vehicles, and live comfortably. Our house is (usually) peaceful, clean, and feels like a home. We have two dogs — one of which is a Golden Retriever. Our picket fence is grey, not white, but all in all it looks like we’ve made it.
As for me, I’ve clawed my way to an upper-middle class life. I was always proud to uphold a spot at the top of my class academically; a die-hard perfectionist, my need to be above average kept me out of a lot of trouble. I graduated with a pretty useful degree as a Bachelor of Science educated Registered Nurse (but y’all — I hate being a nurse). I bought my first house, without a cosigner (read: all by myself!) when I was 26 years old. For a girl who grew up below the poverty line, was raised by a (goddess of a) single mother of 4 daughters, and was fathered by a street-level junkie, I’d say I was pretty ahead of the curve as far as the odds were concerned. So when I met my husband – a charming, handsome (as frick), intelligent, sensitive, masculine, respectful, handsome (wait did I already say that?) man, and scoped out his left ring finger to find it bare (yessssss!), I was in a place personally where I was ready to settle down. I’d had my fair share of completely awful relationships and I was absolutely, positively not going to settle for anyone less than the best; as such I had some criteria that I expected the man of my next serious relationship to meet. These criteria included:
1) Absolutely does not, has not, and would never use drugs. As I said above, my dad was an IV drug user who lived on the inner city streets of Edmonton from the time I was 9 until he died when I was 23. He left my mom to raise their 4 daughters alone – after stealing tens of thousands of dollars from her – never once being the husband or father that he had promised he could be. He would only ever call us (his daughters) either at Christmas (every few years) or when he’d been put in jail. Both his presence, as I was a young child exposed to his out of control addictions, and his absence throughout my life, contributed to some of my severely unhealthy and self-destructive behaviours. Thankfully, drugs were, and always have been, a total dealbreaker for my relationship screening process. (Now, my naïveté is another story for another day.)
2) Must have never, or would ever, lay a hand on a woman. Again, as I said above, I stuck around with an abuser for far too long. Thank God I finally realized my self-worth and got out of that toxic mess. Thank God I was also in a place where I’d not settle for that kind of nonsense again.
3) Must have no children. *crickets*
Ok, so when I met my silver fox of a now-husband, he met 2/3 of those criteria. Except for the no kids part. I battled with myself, for so many reasons, over why I should not be true to myself and let it slide that he’d already procreated with another woman. I understand the biological drivers behind why kids are made. I understand the societal pressures to create families; I’d find myself constantly justifying myself to strangers in my late twenties as to why I didn’t have children (sick, right?). I understand all too well the choice a woman has to make when she finds out she is pregnant, even though she doesn’t want to be. I know that of all the things in the world somebody can become, they can never un-become a parent.
When he told me he had a son, I felt my heart drop into my stomach. You know the feeling you get when you’re on a roller coaster, after a big loop-the-loop when your guts are still at the top of the ride but your body has been rocketed to the bottom? Yea, that’s how it felt. I had known, had been attracted to, and had sincerely cared for this man for a significant amount of time before I found out about his offspring. Crap.
So now what, I asked myself. What are you gonna do, now that you’re in love with someone who broke one of your cardinal dating rules?
Spoiler alert: I went ahead and fell in love with him anyways.
But what was my issue? Where was this complex coming from? What was so awful about being in love with a man who was an amazing father already? I’ll tell you what.
Him already being a father meant that he had shared one of life’s most extraordinary and intimate moments – the birth of a child – with someone other than me. I’ve since had a child, and I can tell you there is a lot of really intense stuff that goes on when it comes out: poop (so much poop), screaming profanity like you are having a demon exorcised from your body, blood, more poop, and the climax – an incredibly helpless slimy little alien that God only knows how to make come out of such a small opening. And now, you are responsible for keeping this thing alive and trying to teach it to be a good, productive member of society. As someone who had always wanted children, and who became a stepmother before I had a child of my own, I felt like I was robbed of sharing that experience with my partner. I was second place, the runner up.
Him already having a baby meant that I would never be the first woman whose growing belly he’d place his loving hand on, feeling those miraculous first kicks. The first belly-pulsing hiccups I felt would be old news to him – a repeat. When I was waddling around my house, trying every trick in the book to coax my baby to make his or her exit, instead of having anticipation about the full-sized infant about to emerge from the smallest hole on earth, I worried that my husband would have our birth blurred by a distant memory of the first time his first tiny human made his debut. Nothing my husband said or did would lead me to believe he was any less excited for the birth of his second baby. But nothing he said or did could convince me that the second time is ever as monumental as the first.
Every time his first tiny human would come around, I’d be reminded that my husband had a whole entire life before me. He once told me that on Christmas Eve when his first son was young, after his boy was in bed for the night – covers pulled up over his head so Santa would think he was sleeping – my husband would climb up on the roof, banging and clomping around so as to stage the landing of Santa and his Reindeer. When what I should have been feeling was love for this man, I was clouded by an ugly green wave of jealousy. When he proudly boasted that he had purchased a collector car to gift his first son with when he turned 25, I felt my insides bubble up with anger and dismiss his thoughtfulness as being frivolous. Instead of applauding my wonderful spouse for providing his first son with a life in which he wanted for nothing, I was overcome with negativity, focusing instead on the sense of entitlement his child blatantly and outwardly expressed.
Falling in love with a man who was already a father would mean having the mantra: If that was my kid, I would not stand for/allow/be ok with/etc. __(insert behaviour)_. Falling in love with a man who was already a father would mean that the university degree I struggled to pay for by myself, to work at a career that afforded me financial stability, would be used to help financially support the woman who stole all my firsts. Falling in love with a man who was already a father would mean reworking the holidays, having inflexible schedules for date nights, and having tiny bedroom intruders appear when we could really use some alone time (hubba hubba). It would mean feeling like an outsider as they reminisced upon memories they’d built over a lifetime. It would mean proving myself to the in-laws and to all of his friends that I was nothing like the first wife was. It would mean replacing wine with milk (yuk). It would mean being cast as a villain (thanks Disney) through no fault of my own. It would mean doing all the work that a Mom does without getting nearly enough thanks to call it worth it. And perhaps the toughest pill for me to swallow is that it would mean if it came down to brass tacks, and he had to choose between me and his child, I would never, ever, ever be chosen. My entire life would be at the mercy of a child I did not choose to have.
(Ok, that was heavy, but I promise there’s a light at the end of this tunnel. Don’t stop reading. It will feel better soon.)
This is the part where I tell you (I spoiled it above, remember?) that even though there were 6 million reasons I could have chosen not to end up with a man who had a child before I came into his life, I am so eternally beyond grateful that I scrapped Cardinal Dating Rule #3 and fell in love with him anyways. For my husband, him already being a father meant that he had an immeasurable amount of respect for women. As a complete and total feminist, I am a huge fan of men who believe women are their equals (and of women who believe men are their equals). You can’t watch a woman grow a human and not be incredulous at what our bodies are capable of. Secondly, it meant that he was really good at taking care of me when I was sick! I’m such a strong, independent woman, but when I get sick — Lord, I’m a total wimp. But that man can make a mean bowl of chicken noodle soup and has discovered the absolute best brand of popsicles. This can and only will be attributed to his experience as a father. True story.
Him already being a dad meant that his heart was softened to the simple things in life that only children seem to be aware of: splashing in mud puddles; the way the air smells in the springtime after the grass has been cut after an especially long winter; the way that no matter what, a cuddle can fix anything; the complete hilarity of scaring someone so that when they emerge from a doorway and you jump out, they scream. It meant that he had an undying, unwavering, unbreakable commitment to another life, and would do (and does do) absolutely everything in his power to protect that life. He has since extended that loyalty to me and our son, but when you know a man possesses that capability, it makes you weak in the knees (hubba hubba). Perhaps the most importantly of all, the fact that I fell in love with a man who had a child before me, meant that he had been completely broken when his first marriage did not work out. Though I would never wish the pain of a divorce on my worst enemy, for me, this meant that he would be the absolute most amazing partner a girl could ever even dream of. This man learned the absolutely profound and non-negotiable importance of communication in a relationship. Because he has a child who can act out, have temper tantrums, be a total jerk, and express himself in ways that are not emotionally regulated, he understands that if I have an off day, it is because I am a human and not because I am bad. After a man becomes a father, he develops a sort of compassion and empathy for humans that he would likely not exhibit had he not been privy to raising one. We all do the best we can with what we’ve got. And even though we can struggle sometimes, every human on this earth is just trying to be happy.
Even though I’m known among my friends as having the only relationship in which a husband and wife are actually happy and in love, our life is by no means perfect. We are challenged, as is everyone else, with new obstacles to overcome. I really believe the only difference between our relationship and the relationships of our not-as-happy-friends is that no matter what, we are spouses first, and parents second. And in order for me to be the best wife I can be, I make sure to take care of myself first (to find out how, click here or here). You cannot fill from an empty cup. We can always find reasons not to be with someone, but what happens when you focus instead on the reasons that you should be with someone?
How do you feel about being with a man who had kids before you? What are the challenges you face as a couple? What are some obstacles you’ve overcome together? As Stepqueens, we are committed to ending negative Stepmother associations. How have you recently risen above the Stepmonster label? Comment below with your thoughts, or feel free to drop me a line!