My particular friend and I have Brady-bunched our households recently, in a much less dramatic fashion than the TV show (he brings a near-teenager part-time, D, and I have a teenager, Sicily, who is full-time but who is also a working stiff with lots of friends and is not around as often as she used to be).
It has been challenging, which is an understatement along the lines of “That iceberg looks pretty big,” and “Is it dangerous that this zeppelin is filled with extremely explosive gas?”
It is hard to know whether the best way to do this is to rip the Band-Aid off and just shove everyone together with family-type events or to let things just happen.
If you have teenagers, you know both are loaded propositions. Trying to manufacture a new type of family can be saccharin and artificial, and teenagers tend to mostly want to hibernate in their own rooms. So if we force everyone to a nightly family dinner it might feel fake and super awkward, but when left to their own devices, the two teenagers tend to disappear to their respective rooms, emerging like hibernating bears for food and occasionally to wash a huge load of laundry and shower. This makes getting to know everyone in this new way difficult.
And then there is the challenge of nurturing and growing our own relationship in the face of surly teenagers, differing parenting styles, and the shit that is cohabitating with others (how are there so many freaking bobby pins and single socks in this house?!). How do you manage an adult relationship with children that is not based on those children?
If you are a parent who is still partnered with the other half of your offspring’s DNA, you have exactly zero idea of what I am talking about. That’s totally amazing, and I am truly happy for you in your relationship. DON’T WASTE IT.
If you have lost a spouse to divorce or death, and you have managed to pull your soggy, mangled heart off the wasteland of the floor that is your life and actually get out into the world and meet another person, you are in for a challenge that goes far beyond being vulnerable, confronting loss, and worrying about showing your naked self to someone new for the first time in ______ years.
Turns out, those things are easy when compared to navigating the treacherous waters of parenting someone else’s kid.
For the record, I will never be D’s mom. She has a mom who loves her fiercely, exactly the way a mother should. I don’t share the birth experience with D, and that in and of itself is a powerful connection that only a biological mother can feel.
Side note: I have an adopted brother. Adoptive parents can feel just as powerful a connection in a different way that is no less valid and potent. Don’t get mad and send me hate mail. I mean no disrespect.
But there is no way around it: I am an adult in D’s life, and she is a child in my house. Khristian is looking down the barrel of a 17-year-old teenager (my daughter) who lost a dad of her own and isn’t really looking for a replacement.
Do you see how things can become/have become/are becoming more complex?
Parenting is the worst best job when the kid is your own. I never wanted to be a parent. If I am being honest (which I always try to be), I am not a huge fan of kids in general (which is pretty funny since one of my callings in life has been as a teacher, both in a classroom and now on a yoga mat. But I digress.) So what do you call parenting when the worst best job applies to someone else’s kid?
How do you not be an asshole to a 12-year-old, or, at the very least, not feel like an asshole when you correct said 12-year-old in the same way you would correct your own child but when the 12-year-old is not, in fact, your 12-year-old?
It is complex. Add to this a biological mother who is struggling – understandably so – with this reconfiguration, and the layers begin to look geologic. I started this blog post a couple weeks ago, and as time passed things got more heated. For all intents and purposes, and even though D has moved in, I am an outsider to one of the main struggles in her former-family, looking in on a parental relationship that failed and continues to be problematic for the parents (and increasingly, for the child). The first sentence of this blog in its first draft asked which was harder: death or divorce.
When it comes to parenting the answer is very, very simple: divorce.
Divorced people who want nothing to do with each other are forced to interact when they share a child. That interaction will only get worse as the kid gets older and decisions get more complicated and more expensive. In contrast with Sicily, whose dead father is a keen and deeply felt knife-like absence on (increasingly predictable) occasions, Khristian’s former spouse is a keen and deeply felt knife-like presence in even the most mundane of daily decisions. These are the fogs of a former dynamic that don’t quite seem to be dissipating.
So in essence, as of now, it seems that the house is just not big enough for everyone who is here.
I talked to my therapist about this today (and I don’t care who knows). My particular friend, my sweet love – he is struggling. And so am I. I am angry, explosively so but with no proper target and no real right to be angry. I can see from the outside what I think should be done, but it’s not mine to do. And yet the center, as it is, cannot hold.
My therapist is pretty much right on with most things. Previous examples of her brilliance include the acronym SET when dealing with teenagers (Support, Empathy, Truth), an approach that revolutionized the way I dealt with The Kid when her teenager was hanging out. True to form, today she proposed that I approach the situation with this thing called “radical acceptance.”
Whereas depression says, “Nothing matters, so it’s pointless,” radical acceptance realizes that there is nothing to be done one way or the other; things just are the way they are.
In other words, there is nothing for me to do about the hovering presence of a former spouse.
Getting involved doesn’t help.
Having an opinion doesn’t help.
Getting angry/sad/bitchy about it doesn’t help.
I can listen. That’s about it.
And when I can’t listen anymore, I can even say, “Hey, man. I can’t hear this right now.”
Therapy is a fucking miracle sometimes.
In the meantime, there is always food. That constant thread.
The above-referenced 12-year-old is a big fan of ice cream (and the 17-year-old works at The Charmery in Hampden, bringing home samples after each shift). D is a talented maker of ice cream herself, but she has a palate that is, to be frank, picky, very selective , and difficult to please (it’s hard to compete with grilled cheese and tater tots). I made this sweet and spicy ice cream using corn harvested from a friend’s father’s garden on a whim, not wanting to waste either the corn (which I made into relish) or the cobs (which found their way into this recipe). D loves it, cayenne pepper and all.
I am not naive enough to think that ice cream – however delicious – will make this transition pain-free. As I write this, the adults in D’s life are still trying to get their shit together. All I can do, all any of us can do, is try to recognize that all of the conflict really has nothing to do with me and everything to do with a past that is still present for D and her father. Divorce is its own particular kind of hell, I think, a hell that expands and contracts with each passing year. This particular divorce comes with a morass of painful feelings that sit on our doorstep as we combine families. After supporting the people in my household through this, I figure the very least I can do is give them something sweet.
Spicy Sweet Corn Ice Cream
The first thing you taste is sweet corn, followed by a hint of vanilla and the scratchy burn of just a touch of cayenne. This is pretty much the best summer dessert ever.
4 corn cobs, corn removed (but don’t be too precious about it; you can leave some on there)
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups milk
1 vanilla bean (or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)
3/4 cup sugar, divided
6 egg yolks (make meringue with the whites, or give your dogs a treat)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 cup whole milk yogurt
Place heavy corn cobs, heavy cream, and milk in heavy saucepan and heat until bubbles form on the edges of the milk. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely.
Remove the corn cobs from the cream/milk mixture, scraping all of the delicious bits off the cob with a spoon before pouring the milk through a fine mesh sieve. Return the milk to the heat. Scrape the paste from the inside of the vanilla bean and add to the milk (or add vanilla extract, if using) and add 1/2 cup of the sugar. Heat until bubbles begin to form on the sides of the pan, stirring occasionally.
Combine egg yolks, salt, remaining 1/4 cup sugar, and cayenne in a bowl. Use a whisk to combine completely.
This next part is where you might completely ruin your custard, so go slowly. If you have no experience with this sort of thing, go at half the speed you might normally go.
Using a whisk and whisking constantly, pour a thin stream of the hot milk into the eggs. You can pour a little and whisk, or pour a thin stream constantly; you are bringing the cold eggs up to the temperature of the hot milk (or close) so that you don’t make sweet scrambled eggs (BARF).
Once you have poured and whisked about a cup of the hot milk into the eggs, add the egg mixture back into the pan and return to medium-low heat. This is the second part where you might screw it up, so go slow and keep the heat low. Cook gently, stirring constantly, for about ten minutes or until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon.
Remove from heat and once again pass the custard through a fine-mesh strainer. You need to chill this mixture before processing, but it’s important to bring the temperature down quickly as you have just created the perfect petri dish for bacteria (eggs and sugar and milk that’s warm). To do this, fill a large bowl (bigger than the bowl you have the custard in) with ice cubes and water, and place the custard bowl inside. Stir custard occasionally. When it has cooled enough to touch, remove from ice bath, cover with plastic wrap, and chill until completely cool (at least four hours but overnight is good, too, making this a great make-ahead dessert).
Chill according to manufacturer’s directions on your ice cream maker.