Child Two started Hebrew School this year. It was his choice to learn Hebrew and begin to study for his bar mitzvah. His sister did not attend Hebrew School and was not bat mitvah. Sig Other was in his Hindu period during her formative years and thus Child One grew up more inclined to lunch at the Krishna temple than to snack time in the sukkah. And Child Two is often drawn to pursuits that are in direct opposition to Child One’s interests – a wise effort to distinguish himself from the glow surrounding his sister. She played piano. He likes drums and is showing an interest in guitar. She loves horses. He likes bike riding and soccer. There is crossover, of course (dogs and cooking and reading and things). But Hebrew is his and his alone. Intellectual and spiritual learning notwithstanding, Hebrew allows him a secret dialogue with his father. In Hebrew they can swear and make fun behind our backs and share things that only father and son should share with one another. Hebrew is his daddy-bond.
But Hebrew School is inconvenient. The Temple of our beloved Rabbi is far away and class often conflicts with soccer, work and sleeping in. But Child Two asks little and endures much. So if Hebrew School he wants, Hebrew School he shall have. Day One arrived and I felt it important to take him myself. Sig Other was out of town and Ex-Wife unfamiliar with our shul. So I took the afternoon off work and schlepped the sweet boy across town for his first day. He seemed calm and relaxed and my anxiety grew and grew as we neared. My own insecurity of not being quite Jewish enough, not being quite smart enough, simply not knowing enough, was taking over and I made light conversation about anything else to cover. We arrived, early of course, and made our way inside where immediately my own fears melted away as familiar faces and warm greetings reminded me, once again, how silly I can be. I deposited Child Two in his classroom with his lovely teacher, John, and made my way downstairs. My plan was to find a nice cozy place to sit and read and make phone calls while Child Two was in class. I’d make myself a nice little mobile office and alleviate the guilt of having left the office early.
I may not have mentioned but our temple is poor. It is young and vibrant and inviting and inspiring. And it is poor. There is no permanent facility so we are housed at the JCC, which may have been chic and sparkly in the 60s, but is now just old and dumpy. So finding a comfortable place to settle was a challenge. I picked a shabby but no longer chic sofa in the corner and hunkered down with blackberry and scripts. Twenty minutes later, a woman came and plopped herself down opposite me, shattering my solitude. “Do you have a child in Limudim?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied. Sometimes I just say yes because it’s simpler than explaining that Child Two is my stepson. And sometimes I say yes to avoid the inevitability of what comes next. But the woman was friendly and also had a child in school and we kept chatting and of course the moment came when I explained that Child Two is my stepson and not my bio-son. And she did what most people do when that moment comes – she did exactly what I was trying to avoid. She gave me a “Good for you!” And she meant it quite genuinely.
The woman went on to tell me that she is divorced, that her ex has a new girlfriend and that she is trying to help her kids understand that liking the new girlfriend doesn’t mean they are choosing one woman over another. She’s been trying to tell them there’s room for everyone. She was talking about helping her kids adjust, talking about putting her own anger aside for their sake, talking about coping. And she said something rather profound. She said, “I could never hate my ex as much as I love my children.” She told me this, I think, because she was representing the ex-wife point of view on allowing another woman to care for her children. And I appreciated that.
I should say here that I quite like this woman and expect we’ll be friends. So the fact that I'm pointing out that she did the thing that makes me so uncomfortable is not meant as criticism. It's just the perfect example. And it wasn’t that she was talking about her divorce and her ex and his new girlfriend – I like all of that. Talking about divorced families and how to cope is one of my favorite subjects. The thing that makes me uncomfortable is the conversation that assumes that the ordinary things a parent would do fall into the category of extraordinary once you’re a stepparent. I know it genuinely and sweetly struck this woman as terribly nice that I was taking the time to drive my stepson to Hebrew School. But really, it wasn’t nice at all. It is just what you do. It’s completely normal and a little bit of a pain in the ass. And I also realized it would be almost impossible to say this to the woman without sounding either falsely modest or sort of school-marmish. So I just listened and nodded and smiled and said, “thanks.”
This conversation is not unusual to me. In fact I have it rather often. Often people act surprised and commend me for my exceptional step-parenting skills. But I do not want to be commended for doing the thing you’re supposed to do. I don’t want accolades for doing the same thing a bio-mom would do. And I find it odd that we live in a world in which stepparents doing things that bio-parents do all the time is commendable. It isn’t right. I don’t want to be singled out. I don’t want a pat on the head and I don’t want to be told what an exemplary stepparent I am. These are my children. Of course I drive them around. That’s what people do. The idea that someone would do more or less for a child depending on whether or not there is a biological connection is shocking and gross and foreign to me. Is that what other steps do? If so, then shame on you, bad stepparents, wherever you are. You’ve given the rest of us a bad name.