So. Last week I wrote about my wedding, and The Knucklehead’s role as best man. That was a great party. The best part of that day (well, apart from the whole exchanging of vows and whatnot) was the bringing together of people from various parts of our lives and having them all in the same room together. Even The Knucklehead got to add some of his pals and their families to the guest list, and it was My Bride who came up with the idea of giving Knucks and his pals their own table at the reception (smack in the middle of the hall, so everybody could keep an eye on them – even lovestruck, My Bride’s no dummy). At The Knucklehead Table was a bag of auto-safe paints and markers and a bunch of streamers; we tasked these gentlemen with preparing the cars for the honeymoon trip. They did a fine job.*
But weddings are short and marriage is long, and we three were soon into the day-to-day business of our new family. For what seemed like the hundredth time in my fatherhood, I was treading new ground, something my own experience had never prepared me for. As was My Bride. As was The Knucklehead.
Keep in mind that I shared custody with The Knucklehead’s mom (who had not remarried since the divorce). Knucks had a fully functioning, perfectly good mom; he had no need for another one, no need for someone to try to insinuate on the long and loving history unique to a boy and his mother. At the same time, My Bride was an adult charged with his care, and she happened to love him, as he did her. To try to shoehorn them into a standard mother/son relationship (whatever that is) would be a lie, not to mention an insult to the woman who’d nurtured and loved him since before he was born. There’s technically a word for what My Bride had become to my boy, but stepmother is a word way too loaded with bad connotations to be used with comfort, or even affection. Knucks just called her by her first name, as he’d gotten used to doing while we were dating.
Years earlier, I’d read in a parenting book dealing with divorce, advice that when re-marrying, the new parent should be given the first year off from parenting responsibilities. Any new rules or disciplining should come through the established parent, at least during the first year as the kid(s) and the new parent felt each other out. That seemed to make sense at the time I read it, and we made that the policy in our home. My Bride is remarkably easy-going (she’s married to me, duh) but new rules, mostly involving the removal of shoes and where stuff went, required adjustment on both our parts. These, I introduced to The Knucklehead, and I enforced. When it was obvious a rule was Bride-initiated (i.e., the positioning of the toilet seat) I’d usually say something like, “This is her idea, and it’s a good one. Honestly, we should have been doing this years ago.” Discipline wasn’t a huge deal, but as The Knucklehead is the average teenager when it comes to keeping his room clean, that’s where those opportunities arose. For the first year, it was me who said, “it’s time to clean your room.” Never “she says you need to clean your room.”
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What this did was to free up My Bride and My Knucklehead to get used to living with each other, to each discover the other’s oddities, quirks, opinions, endearments, and aggravations. It also gave each of them the opportunity to trade notes on my oddities, quirks, opinions, endearments, and aggravations as well. I’m a nice enough guy. In general I mean well, but let’s face it: I’m no day at the beach myself. I’ve gotten more set in my ways, less spontaneous as the years have drawn on, to a point that irritates even me. I can be cranky, petulant, and stubborn. I can be easily exasperated. Trust me, dear reader, whatever you may think of my blog, you’re getting the best of me in my writing. Knucks and My Bride get the reality, and it ain’t always pretty.
So each got in the other a sort of release valve. At times when I was being, well, me, each could turn to the other for support. That’s something neither had before. Someone else to talk to, who also loved me, but knew how I could be. Example:
One day, the three of us were taking the dogs for a walk, and something had put me into an irritable mood that day. I have no idea what it was, just got up on the wrong side. As we were setting off, one of the dogs got tangled with the other while “investigating” a squirrel, and I yelled out, “Dammit!” My Bride stopped, faced me and said, “why don’t you head back to the house. Knucks and I can take the dogs from here. We’re good.” She didn’t yell, but she was firm. Boy, was she firm.
I was embarrassed, defensive, and irritable all at the same time. Mostly because she was right. I was in a pissy mood. As I sorted through various responses in my head, she just waited me out until I finally settled on the correct answer: “OK.” Knucks was silently watching us both the whole time, kind of curious how this would play out. I handed him the leash, and went back to the house.
At home I realized that My Bride was right; the exact thing I needed at the moment was a Time Out. I needed to take a few, de-stress, acknowledge my mood and move on. Fifteen minutes later, I was good (if a little bit sheepish, the hallmark of the middle-aged white guy). About a half an hour after that, Knucks and My Bride arrived home, and they were laughing and having a great time. I never needed to ask what they talked about. I’m sure it started out with My Bride saying something like, “I love him, but sometimes he drives me nuts. He’s a good man, but he needs help when he’s in a bad mood.” The Knucklehead would have immediately responded with a few of the thousand examples he’d witnessed in his lifetime, and the two of them would be off on a normal, healthy bitch session that only the two of them could have. I felt better knowing they had each other. This relationship, whatever it was, was suiting both of them fine.
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It was The Knucklehead who came up with the term madrastra for My Bride. Madrastra is simply the Spanish word for stepmother, but it at once sheds the Brothers Grimm connotations of the English word, and has an affectionate ring to it besides. Knucks took Spanish in school, and My Bride could get by in the language, so it sort of made sense in those terms, too. He’d still call her by her first name, but Madrastra would get thrown in there, as well. I’m not sure when it happened, but I remember it was in place by the first Mother’s Day after we got married.
I have no idea how other people handle Mother’s Day, but for us it required some attention. After all, My Bride had assumed many of the responsibilities of parenthood when she married me, including turning a room of her house over to The Knucklehead. The boy was a part of me, and weekends home began to revolve around his activities. All of this, My Bride assumed with grace and joy. But she was not his mother, had not given birth to him, had not endured the 2:00 AM feedings, the teething, the potty training that Knucks’ mom had been through. How does one acknowledge the love and sacrifice of the stepmother without detracting from the love and sacrifice of the mother who’d been with him since before the beginning?
Madrastra Day turned out to be the answer. We celebrated it a week before Mother’s Day, which left The Knucklehead free to spend the traditional day with his mom. Everything you might do for Mother’s Day, we did a week earlier on Madrastra Day. Knucks could honor both of these women in his life without feeling like he was disrespecting the other.
And on Madrastra Day, the restaurants are less crowded.
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There was another sacrifice My Bride made when she married me. At the time of our wedding, The Knucklehead and I were 2/3 of the way through a promise I’d made to visit each of the 30 major league baseball parks. We had ten left, and that meant that vacations for the next four years were spoken for while we knocked the rest of the ballparks off the list. She was cool with that, she liked the idea of it. She was happy to join us as we finished off the rest of the parks. “Just give me a tropical vacation when we’re done, just you and me.” I did.
(It should be noted that My Bride loves baseball as well. Knucks and I found we had rekindled her love of the game, so this wasn’t quite the sacrifice it might have been for someone else. Lately, when watching a game on TV, My Bride prides herself on identifying batters by their previous MLB teams. She’s usually right.)
The summer before we got married, Knucks and I took our last dudes-only ballpark road trip (see “Bar Talk and The Knucklehead“). The three of us had joined some of her family in Pittsburgh for a Pirates games, but that was just a quick one-off, driving out there one day and then back the next. The real first week-long trip with the three of us would be to Missouri to see the Cardinals and the Royals.
Whenever Knucks and I would take a week to knock a couple ballparks off the list, we would also try to do something else non-baseball related in whatever part of the country we were visiting. Since we had a week and just two ballparks to visit, we’d have lots of opportunities to do some other stuff. “Now remember,” I told The Knucklehead, “your madrastra gets to pick out some of the stuff we do. That’s only fair. We may not like what she’s into, but we go in with a good attitude and not mess up her day.”
“Deal,” Knucks solemnly swore.
Needless. My Bride’s choices turned out to be the non-baseball highlights of the vacation. The first was the City Museum in St. Louis, which is best visited at night, and it’s indescribable good fun. It’s like a small zoo and the Museum of Modern Art were in a collision and Pee Wee Herman put it all back together. With a funky Goodwill store on top. Spectacular. Bride, 1.
The other was the Missouri Botanical Gardens. This was the one Knucks and I had really steeled ourselves for; we would never have chosen something like this on our own. But a deal’s a deal, and we were ready to take it like men.
For myself, it was a lovely place. I enjoyed strolling through with My Bride, and when I was flowered-out, a botanical garden has no shortage of quiet beautiful corners to sit, pull out the Kindle, and enjoy a good book. My Bride is cool with that; it frees her up to check out the surroundings to her heart’s content. Knucks, for his part, discovered his inner photographer. He must have taken 500 pictures with his digital camera, experimenting with close-ups, landscapes. We had to drag him out of there. Late that night, he and My Bride went through his photographic work in the hotel room. In the trips to come, we made sure to include a visit to local botanical gardens.
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So that, for now, is a little slice of our first married year. It turned out to be a good thing for all three of us. We’re happy. I think the key to it was not to force anybody into predetermined roles, just figure out what it took to help three humans live, love, and laugh together over the long haul. We’re still working it out, and probably always will be. But we like this thing we’ve got. It nourishes us. We’re good for each other.
*We never said anything like “keep it clean” or any other instructions; we just handed them the art supplies and said, “you’re in charge of decorating the cars.” It’s amazing what a bunch of 12-14-year-old boys will rise to if they know they have your trust. And talk about trust: one of The Knucklehead’s pals was a Yankees fan.