“Difficult” is not what this is. Difficult is the geometry problem from hell; difficult is to chiffonade basil without bruising the leaves. (It takes a sharp knife.) This is not difficult. This is something else; an Sisyphean task undertaken because you must and there is no getting out of it. This is a hellscape; this is year five.
This is the rocky ground; it is the sandy soil. Little vines planted with such care, parched and withered in the light, this thin light, choked by thorns and desperately clinging to life. Optimism is in ample supply. They’re young, I think to myself, we have plenty of time to work through what has been and will be quite obviously a trauma in their lives.
And you do. The sudden change in levels of domesticity is astounding, but I was waiting for it all along. For a variety of reasons, I was never comfortable with the idea of having children with my ex, but now I was endorsing getting involved with four that were not Fruit of My Loom, but favoring biology over choice is for rednecks and wicked stepmothers in fairy tales. This was a choice freely made and one which I would make over, and over, and over again if I had to. Now there were four small people and soon a Squish, and as American a family you ever did see. Cracks in those early days aren’t really cracks, you see, they’re opportunities, they’re growing pains, they’re That Which Will Pass, you tell yourself. And so you tell yourself.
Until, one day, it hasn’t passed, and the cracks are yawning abysses out of which the black soot of your joy curls. You’re in half a decade, and biology and shitty circumstances made manifest is standing there, surly in a hoodie and shitty Bluetooth headphones, sending you nasty text messages and screaming hackneyed cliches about real dads. It’s not even, strictly speaking, biology – it’s just an insistence on the familiar and familial. You’re second, see. Late to the party, an unwelcome imposter in the delusional but powerful landscape of fantasy and trauma.
These facts I knew going in. I knew them then, and I know them now. I know them when I drive to their appointments, I know them when they complain about rules and dinners I make and consequences incurred. I know these facts when I sacrifice, in a million little ways, to the greater good of the community we call family. It is community. I don’t regret those sacrifices, and I don’t resent them. They’re necessary and good in this multifaceted social structure.
And yet ingrained within the fabric of the wider American culture is the supremacy of biology. You are reminded of this every time you have to fill out a form that even hints at legal anything and have no choice but to put down Not You. The evil or duplicitous stepparent is such a trite and banal cliche in media of every type that it’s difficult to even bother to point it out; where are the reams of fiction about worthy stepfathers who sacrifice and care and lead lives of quiet desperation, yearning for the acceptance they are predestined to never gain? The moment you’re referred to as “dad” can be a moment of stupendous joy, but this is fleeting. It can always be taken away from you, and it will be, wielded as a weapon to cut at your soul with reckless hate. In occurs in subtler ways too, being introduced to a group of friends and she can’t bring herself to even say the word, just standing there awkwardly going “This is uh…yeah” as though you’re some sort of subhuman leech unworthy of the most basic social dignity and not the person who drives her, cooks for her, makes appointments, lends money, proof-reads stories and makes her laugh, shares shows and movies and in-jokes with her. Despite being the person who showed up, not the one who can’t be assed to make it to any event, ever. It doesn’t matter. You’ll still be referred to by your first name in conversations with friends (if you’re lucky) as though you’re a nobody. Because you are.
Oh sure, you can try to leave this desert with doctors, psychiatrists, therapy of every sort. But in the end, time is fleeting, development follows the pace that it will follow and the wounds of the young ossify into something much more immutable and troubling. Nuggets about horses and water and drinking remain true. You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into, and reason is of limited utility for matters of the heart.
In the end, it feels like no escape is possible here; the parched terrain stretches on boundlessly. No amount of tears or blood will satiate the angry cracks in the mud, swallowed up as they hit the ground by the profound anger and resentment that spring eternal. In my darkest moments I imagine myself far away, in the deep midst of some nameless pine forest, the sweet aroma of the trees and the mint blue sky overhead and the sunshine on my face, with these responsibilities nowhere to be seen; the freedom and carelessness of utter detachment.
And then I am ashamed.
Exit, stage left.