Monday, April 11, 2005


Tajh’ Short (Picture by Andrea Smith)

I feel as though I have been transplanted into somebody else’s rose garden. This is my house; I bought it a few years ago. I was single at the time, and found one big enough to work out of. The entire back half of the house serves as my clinic, but otherwise the house was empty. It didn’t stay empty for long though, just eight months after moving in I managed to fall in love with a man name David, and with him came two beautiful little girls. Well, not quite, he actually moved in alone. The girls came along every other weekend setting me up for an emotional cycle that I wasn’t at all ready for.

At first I considered the girls to be occasional visitors. I made them as comfortable as possible, planned child-friendly activities, and forged a friendship with them. It didn’t occur to me to consider this situation to be a parental one, but it ended up that way. What can I say, I managed to fall head over heels in love with them, and all of a sudden, I didn’t recognize my life anymore. For two weeks at a time, life was normal. I am self-employed, so I would work part-time while continuing my journey through academia. But then every other Friday would show up, and I would start get a little antsy. Children are coming, I need to make room for them to play, I need to plan activities that they will enjoy, and I need to wait and wait and wait for them to arrive.

I no longer work on the Fridays the girls arrive. It’s just too much, being a caregiver to my clients and shifting from a childless life into a family all in one day, it’s just too much. I go through some anxiety before they arrive. Do they still like me? Am I stepping on either of the parents’ toes? Am I making choices that are in their best interest? And then they get here, and I am overcome with joy. They climb into my lap and tell me about their week at school. They show me homework assignments with stickers on them. They ask me questions regarding things they are curious about. We talk about boys and friendships and each time they come, we grow a little closer. But then they leave, a process which takes close to seven hours to complete.

When David and his first wife divorced, they lived here in Iowa City. She moved on into a new relationship immediately and moved the girls to the other side of the State. On Fridays, the girls are brought here by their mother, and on Sundays, it’s our turn to do the driving—324 miles of driving—round trip. When you factor in bathroom breaks you are talking about six to seven hours of time and the children hate it, we hate it too. In addition to the long drive, there are emotions to be factored in. In my life as it is now, my greatest joys come from the girls being here, but with all of the driving, we only have about two days of waking time together per month. As chaotic and busy as every other Friday is, every other Sunday is down right dreadful. On a few occasions, after dropping the girls off David and I have been so distraught that we have had to pull off of the road to shed the tears that always seem to come.

It’s a vicious cycle and it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. The girls do not have a close connection to their mother, so they are turning to me for the maternal support that they need to be healthy and strong. Each weekend that they are here, they cling to me and cry. They beg me to visit them more often, ask me to come to their school activities, to meet their friends, to go to their dance recitals. Some things we can get to, but due to the distance, the weekday events are usually out of the question. It’s just too far, and our time together is just too short. More and more of our weekends are spent on the couch with a girl clinging to each arm. They need the closeness, they need to be held and reassured and listened to. They need advice, and questions answered, and to know that no matter what, someone is there for them, even if that someone is 162 miles away. The cycle is unending, and letting them go after each visit is physically painful for me. Nobody in their right mind would sign up for this lifestyle, would they?

Well, I did. Three months ago, David and I got married. It was a simple ceremony in our family room; I did all of the cooking. The girls were our only attendants. Both were flower girls and both were ring bearers. Katie was my ‘girl of honor’ and Jenna was the ‘best girl’. This gave them bragging rights on the playground “I got to be everything in my daddy’s wedding!”

Even though a wedding is traditionally considered to be a union between two people, this wasn’t the case here. For us, the wedding was about forging a family. Becoming a stepmother is something that I have taken very seriously and something that has only brought me closer to the girls. After swearing vows to David, I took a moment to swear vows to the girls as well. I stepped away from David and took each girl by the hand. I looked them each in the eye and told them that my life has been forever changed just by knowing them. That I have fallen in love with them, and that our wedding wouldn’t be complete unless I made the kind of promises to them that I had made to their father.

I Tajh’ take you Katherine and Jenna to be my stepdaughters
From this day forth
I promise to be there for you
I will always make time for you
For whatever it is in life that you may need
I will always provide for you to the best of my ability
As your stepmother
I will lead, guide, love, and cherish you
Regardless of the choices you may make
The love I have for you now
Will only grow stronger

I then presented each girl with a gold ring with a heart on it. The ring was sized for an adult, to demonstrate that this is a commitment that is going to last their lifetime. To compensate for their little fingers, I put the rings on a golden chain, and after swearing the vows to the girls, I put the necklace around each of their necks. I slid the ring onto their right ring fingers and told them that the heart on the rings represents the place in my heart that is forever dedicated to them.

Shortly after the ceremony, the girls sought me out for extra hugs and comfort. They were touched by what was said during the ceremony. We hadn’t told them ahead of time that a portion of the ceremony would be about them, as children I didn’t want them to feel obligated to say or do anything in return. We talked about how we are a real family now, and I was asked if it would be ok if they called me MamaTajh’ and finally I wept. I had managed to keep my eyes dry up until that point, but being referred to as a maternal figure burst my heart open in an new way.

So here I am, transplanted into somebody else’s rose garden. According to tradition, families are planned, planted, and nurtured from the start. But that isn’t the case here, nor is it the case for many families out there. My husband and another woman planned, planted and nurtured this garden, then the garden was torn in half, the roses were moved elsewhere, and my husband came to me with little buds in need of love. I don’t believe that the sun and the rain woke up one morning knowing how to make a garden grow, but they have learned, and so too will I. Our family isn’t structured in the way that families have traditionally been structured, but we are a family, a long distance family, but a family nonetheless. I may not have planted these seeds, but I am here to watch them grow, to nourish and to protect these flowers until one day they are ready to go off and create gardens of their own.

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