My parents divorced when I was 4, and twice a year all the way through high school, my parents met at a McDonald’s on the eastern edge of Illinois and exchanged me.
I grew up in Ohio with my mom. My dad lived 500 miles away.
Some of my strongest memories include the anticipation of that meet. Seeing my mother and father together. It always felt weird for me. Feeling simultaneously excited to be leaving with my father and sad to say bye to my mother. And feeling absolutely devastated when I’d get into the backseat of my mom’s car at the end of a long, fun summer with dad knowing I wouldn’t see him again until Christmas.
Time goes fast now. But it’s an eternity when you’re little and sobbing in the back of a car watching a McDonald’s disappear behind you at 70 miles per hour.
There is nothing fair about divorce for children. None of it is their fault. They had no say in the matter. And they are perhaps most adversely affected by the drastic and emotionally challenging lifestyle change.
I write about divorce a lot because it has been a dominant theme in my life for more than 30 years.
These are wounds that never fully heal.
But We Do the Best We Can
Life is hard. And no one tells us how hard marriage is, and the ones who try do an inadequate job conveying the gravity of their advice and warnings.
A lot of us marry young, without as much information as we should have. A lot of us have children. And half the time it breaks. And so many people get hurt, and it just keeps happening over and over and over again.
But we do the best we can.
I have a six-year-old son in first grade and he’s my freaking favorite.
He is the first line of defense and litmus test for every woman I meet. Right or wrong, I ask myself immediately: Could she be a potential stepmom for my son? If the answer to that question isn’t yes, then seeing her again is an exercise in futility.
If I ever find an actual girlfriend, it’s going to take a very long time before I introduce my son to her. That’s because I think children of divorced parents have had enough loss and change in their lives and don’t deserve to grow attached to ANOTHER person that could be taken away from them.
There’s no guarantee it won’t happen anyway. But we do the best we can.
I talk to lots of divorced parents and most share my thinking. People they date often don’t meet their children. I agree with the policy.
I know of one mother whose boyfriend has been involved in her only child’s life for months, perhaps years, but she still has reservations about marrying again (despite him appearing to be a very good man) because of her daughter.
And something dawned on me while hearing the story. Her parents are still together. She has never had any experience with stepparents.
Maybe a lot of people are like that.
My Other Father
I met him on my birthday.
I was young. He brought me candy and a board game. Just some guy.
But after a while, he wasn’t just some guy. He was the guy who loved my mom and who did very dad-like things for and with me.
He was a basketball coach and he took me with him to his practices. Taught me how to shoot a decent jump shot.
He was a sports enthusiast who refereed football and basketball, and umpired baseball games. He taught me all about the games I love.
He taught me to read when I was in kindergarten. He taught me to swim and ride a bike, too.
He supported me financially like a father.
Disciplined me like a father.
Loved me like a father.
His parents became my grandparents. His brothers and sisters became my aunts and uncles. His presence became a familiar comfort while I was missing my dad.
It’s hard to imagine how my life might have turned out without that man’s steady hand being part of it.
He taught me about character.
He taught me about teamwork.
He taught me about choosing to love.
My stepfather and his extended family were a very important piece of my childhood. And while divorce and its hardships hurt me as a child, it would be disingenuous to not express enormous gratitude for the many blessings that also came from it.
My father remarried also. My stepmom, too, is an important part of my life, but growing up under my mother’s roof, my stepdad had a much more direct impact on my development.
These are IMPORTANT, life-altering relationships.
And for all the heartache and fear attached to divorce. For all the protective measures we take on behalf of our children, I think it’s critical to never lose sight of the unknown future and the many good things that could be coming for us.
We hurt because our families are broken.
We feel ashamed because we couldn’t hold it together for those little hearts and minds that mean so much to us.
But unless you had a childhood like me, you couldn’t possibly know it.
That if you make good choices. If you find someone with a kind heart, a good soul, a steady hand, and the ability to truly love? You give your child gifts of value impossible to measure.
We feel sad, broken and frightened sometimes. Afraid of the unknown future. Of screwing up our kids even more.
But maybe sometimes we’re just overthinking it.
Maybe if you just find one of the good ones—and they are out there: good, kind, smart, decent people—you create joyful opportunity for yourself and your children.
Maybe it’s not the same as what you’d always imagined, but maybe on balance, it really isn’t so bad for them. And maybe it’s even a little bit good.
Maybe there are fewer tears and more laughs.
Less pain and more hope.
Because that’s the thing about stepparents.
The really good kind, anyway.
The ones like mine.