Our kitchen table just took another hit last week. The big oblong shape formed when all three leaves are inserted in the tiger oak table lost a leaf last year when our first kid hit the college road. This September, I took two leaves out. Now, the table that originally served as the meal meeting place in my Great Grandmother Oates’ house, and then sat in my Grandma Boitano’s kitchen for decades, is a circle. A table for four. It feels less lonesome without those empty chairs, and as one of the remaining two kids reminded us tonight as we sat down to eat, “there’s less room for activities.” That reminded me of the movie “Stepbrothers,” so I said, “Ok, Brennan.” The best part, for me, is that my husband and I can lean in and high five each other when we deliver particularly witty comebacks to our kids’ remarks.
Saying sayonara to our second of four kids, my eldest step-daughter, hasn’t been the same as saying goodbye last fall to the Tall One, my eldest biological child. (For people who don’t have the privilege of step-parenting, I differentiate when I refer to them, and when I introduce them, out of respect for their mom. In other words, they have one; I don’t take the credit for the birthing process, or the many stages that happened before I came along, for that matter. It isn’t because I love them less than my bio tots, but I do love them differently. It’s hard to explain if you aren’t a fairy step-parent, so I’ll just leave it at this: Bio relationships and step relationships are different, and they feel different when those little smackerels leave the nest, as I’ve recently learned.)
Last week, my little step-princess packed up and flew the coops; yes, two coops. Two beds, two closets, two dressers full of mementos, and two carefully decorated bedrooms; two kitchen tables; two family rooms with cozy couches; a total of three dogs, three cats, three siblings (two if you don’t count the one already out of the nest) and three parents left behind. What’s that like for her, having everything in sets: parents, houses, siblings, pets, belongings, lives? I don’t know. Does it mean double the amount of any sadness or discomfort she’ll feel to leave the sweet-smelling oxygen (not that I’m comparing children…that wouldn’t be nice) of her two bedrooms? Perhaps. I guess if I was one to always look on the bright side, I’d say she’s got two soft places to land when college life encourages a break.
Last weekend, we headed to the Central Coast, cars packed full of coop stuff, and moved her into her dorm. Leading up to that day, I had a lump in my throat for most of the summer. In fact, it was a warm, early-summer night while sitting outside with my husband that I sort of allowed myself to crack a bit, and it took me by surprise. I asked him how he was doing, and as the words left my mouth, I was the one that got choked up. I don’t even remember what he said. He may have been slightly achoke also.
A few days prior to that evening, I sat at the desk in my home office, in the loft of our upstairs, directly across from our three daughters’ bedrooms. Keely poked her head out of her room and told me about the bedspread she’d ordered, and the towels her nana bought her, and it hit me: My little friend is going away. The one who has for the most part treated me like the benevolent babysitter that I have always tried (though not always succeeded) to be.
Another reason this one has felt different is because I’ve been a little more focused on my husband than myself, and how he’s dealing with his first child’s departure. But like most things, he’s handled it like a warrior. This year, as opposed to last year, I have felt a little more like an observer than a direct participant. Not an outsider, but a lucky witness. Like an eager relief pitcher with my mitt, sitting on the bench, I’ve watched my husband and Keely’s mom prepare to send their firstborn child out into the universe.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve watched my step-daughter gather and organize her things, decide what to take and what to leave, and pack everything neatly into containers and boxes. I checked in now and then and said, “Need anything else? Need a few more things for the dorm? Need a break from packing? Let’s go shop. Let’s go to lunch.”
I met my little friend when she was 5-ish. She was too young to fully grasp what her world was dishing out to her, which is exactly what my little ones were going through. But her innocent heart let me in right away, temporarily booted me out occasionally, and abruptly threw up the caution tape now and then—sometimes after the fact. Many an evening did I sit staring into space, wondering, “What just happened? What did I do?” With careful untangling of knots, I’d figure it out, and I’d learn a lesson. And that’s one thing I can say with certainty, as trite as it sounds: I’ve learned so much about myself—my fears, weaknesses and insecurities—through parenting all my children. Kids have a lot to teach us about life and about ourselves. Caution tape is a funny thing. If it’s present, it must be respected, whether you understand who put it there, why it was put there, or when it is coming down.
The fundamental difference in step relationships compared to bio-parenting relationships is ego—or the lack thereof. And that’s where the “benevolent babysitter” role stems from. My ego isn’t in the game with my step kids. I put dinner on the table, I tell them not to run with scissors, I clean, and I suggest alternative ways of behaving without seeing ME in THEM. And that is supremely less exhausting. With bio kids, well, there’s a common refrain: Hello ego my old friend…I’ve come to talk to you again…
With each passing year, and with her maturity cup filling up and my “relax it will work itself out” meter finally working more efficiently, an easy, satisfying relationship, at least from my perspective, took shape. I know Keely will probably miss me, but not the same way she is going to miss her dad or her mom—the two loves of her life (up to this point). Maybe she’ll miss my nanny-like qualities: I cook, I iron, I clean, I support, I shop for, I dry tears when they pop out of her eyes, I smile and nod when some rotten friend has committed an unjust act of unfriendliness. I keep her safe, and I try not to be a bad role model (when she’s looking).
As a step-parent to Keely, I’ve had the muffin top without dealing with the paper wrapper and the crumbs. I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying the sweet melody of this little bird whom I’ve fed and watered without having to deal with the birdcage liner. I miss her face, and boy do I miss her sweet smell.