Saturday, October 6, 2012


When you take a kid through airport security these days, if the kid can talk, they ask his name, since they don't usually have ID, and check that the name matches the boarding passes. During one of our many trips over the summer, the TSA guy said something to J about his "parents," and J being the almost unfailingly honest little urchin he is, immediately started a monologue in response as he walked away.
"Actually Chris isn't my father, I don't live with my parents and I don't know if I've ever lived together with my parents except maybe when I was a baby..."
Wanting to quickly dispel the idea that maybe I was kidnapping the child, I rolled my eyes and said "I'm his stepfather," and we continued on. Perhaps inevitably, I felt a little sad, even though he's right.

I left Anna and J to go to the bathroom, and when I came back, J walked up and...apologized! We can't remember the exact words, but he very clearly apologized for hurting my feelings. It turns out Anna was explaining to him why that might leave me feeling excluded, and how sometimes it's okay to let people have the wrong idea--there's no harm in letting the TSA guy think I'm his father.

While she was explaining, though, I reappeared and J immediately decided on his own to come apologize. Not your typical Asperger's kid, by any stretch.

I usually refer to J as my son, which works fine until I mention that he's at his father's house for the weekend, which creates understandable confusion. As I explained to him in the airport, though, I do a lot of Dad Things in his life: I take care of him, teach him stuff, play with him, bring him places, snuggle him when he's hurt. We keep getting closer and closer over the years, as he discovers I'm pretty reliable and trustworthy and loving. So I've been thinking a lot about the process of acquiring a pre-grown child by marriage, instead of making one yourself.

With the make-your-own route, you get a substantial head start on your relationship with the child. That relationship still depends on you and the child interacting and feeding back into each other, but you are, always and inevitably, The Mom or The Dad. By default, you're the child's primary--for many years the only--exemplar of that role. In fact, it comes as a bit of a shock when kids learn how different other parents and parent-child relationships can be: both more and less permissive, abusive, demonstrative, controlling, or cooperative than the reality they've known so far. You're the baseline, though. The Ur-Dad.

If you acquire a child by marriage, you don't have the luxury, or the hazard, of not treating the child like a person, with his own already-distinct personality and complex view of the world. You start out as Just Another Guy: he's already got a father, he knows what fathers look like, and you're just someone Mama likes. For this to work, you have no choice but to take him for the person he already is. You're not The Dad. You don't get that head start. You have to get to know each other like any two strangers in the world.

People obviously respond to this differently. There's all manner of possibilities for bad chemistry, bad assumptions, bad relationships. J and I are blessed in really liking and loving each other, and that the three of us have felt like a family together from the beginning. Someday soon he'll be old enough to reflect on his experience, and I'm looking forward to pointing out to him that he made a father out of me.

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