The Stepfather Question
Ethan was three and a half when Richard and I separated. Becoming a single mom wasn’t that difficult a transition for me. Richard was not a very involved father in those early years. He worked long hours, and started graduate school when Ethan was two. At home, he often sat at the computer well past Ethan’s bedtime. Parenthood was my territory as far as he was concerned.
Fortunately, Richard’s attitude toward fathering changed with the divorce. Now that he saw Ethan only on weekends, he really focused on his son when they were together. Our breakup was the best thing to happen to their relationship.
It was a good change for me too. I parented Ethan on my own as usual, but now I didn’t have a husband coming home to tell me everything he would have done differently. For a time, it felt fine that the only men in my life were my father and brother. My Dad came by once a week to fuss over Ethan and fix things. About as often, I called my brother who was good at making me laugh and listening to me when I cried. But mostly, when I needed someone to talk to, I turned to my women friends.
When I finally found myself craving male company, I visited my friend Sean from graduate school. We went for a walk in the woods behind Sean’s house and laid pennies on the railroad tracks to be flattened. Sean entertained Ethan with goofy voices and elaborate stories. I came home that afternoon feeling ever so slightly in love with him.
“He’s great with Ethan,” I gushed to my girlfriend Susan. “Interested and attentive. The complete opposite of Richard.”
“Okay.” She sounded unimpressed. “But how attentive was he to you?”
“Oh, he…” I paused. The answer was not very. I didn’t need to say it aloud.
“Just think about it,” Susan cautioned. “Would you want to be with a man who was more focused on your child than on you?”
“No,” I admitted. “I’d feel neglected after awhile.”
“You deserve more than that,” she said.
What I deserved. It seemed a radical concept. I’d settled for so little in my marriage. When it ended, I expected to feel bereft. Instead I found myself exploring great questions. Did I want a man in my life? If so, what shape did I wish that relationship to take? And just how involved should this person be with Ethan?
I didn’t know the answers yet. I did know that, after what had become a mostly celibate marriage, I wanted a physical connection with someone.
“I’ll find a sex boyfriend,” I told Susan. “When that blows over, I’ll figure out what I really hope for.”
“At least your goals are attainable,” she quipped.
I was introduced to Paul at a friend’s art opening, and made love with him the very next night. He was easygoing, sweet and complimentary. The perfect antidote to the damage Richard had done to my ego. In the morning, he put his hands on my face and pushed at my cheeks with his fingers.
“What are you doing?” I asked, laughing.
“I’m trying to make you un-beautiful. But it’s not working.”
We started seeing each other regularly. At first, I spent time with Paul only when Ethan was at Richard’s or late at night while he slept. Though neither of us planned it, we grew closer. Paul wasn’t a reader, so we didn’t have that in common, but he was kind and fun to be with. Our relationship soon became a big part of my life. Yet while Paul was warm to Ethan, he made it clear that he had no desire to take on a parenting role. He was a divorcé with three grown children.
“Been there, done that,” he teased whenever I described a challenging experience with Ethan.
For the most part, Paul’s hands-off approach suited me. I liked their playful, bantering relationship. Paul joked with Ethan. They watched adventure movies together. Paul also got Ethan started on playing drums. But if the two of them were awake before me on a weekend morning, Paul would make himself breakfast without offering anything to Ethan. That lack of involvement felt extreme to me.
Dan and I met in a poetry workshop. Because I was still with Paul, we tried to remain mere friends for awhile. We shared the richest conversations either of us had ever experienced. We talked about books, writing, disability and relationships. Though he’d been married, Dan never had children. Still, he always asked about my life with Ethan. If I’d had a rough day as a mother, or an especially good one, he wanted to know about it. It became clear that our “friendship” was in trouble when we found ourselves imagining having a child together, going so far as to name her. Paul and I broke up a few months later.
I introduced Dan to Ethan on an early spring day in Manhattan. Ethan was shy at first. Having never known a blind person, he studied Dan cautiously. Once, I caught him closing his eyes and feeling his way down a few feet of sidewalk.
We went to Union Square Park where Ethan ran around the playground while Dan read to me from Poetry Magazine. After awhile, Ethan appeared at Dan’s side and brushed his fingers over the Braille.
“Will you take me to the slide?” Dan asked him.
Ethan looked surprised, but he put his hand in Dan’s and led him away. I watched as he showed Dan where the ladder was. Laughing and talking, they went down the slide several times. Afterwards, Ethan ran toward me. Then, remembering that Dan can’t see, he rushed back to get him.
“That was fun.” Ethan said before chugging from the water bottle I’d brought. Soon he wandered off toward the jungle gym.
“He seemed like he needed some company,” Dan said, settling back in with our magazine. “Where were we?”
That was two years ago. Now, Dan and I are deep in discussion about what it would be like if we lived together. Dan is giving a lot of thought to what his role with Ethan should be. He knows he can’t take Richard’s place as father, nor does he wish to. Yet he wouldn’t want to just be a roommate either.
“He’s important to me,” he says. “If I’m going to do it, I want to do it right.”
“If anyone can find that balance, you can,” I tell him.
We don’t have all the answers yet, but I love how we think about these things together.
Meanwhile, I do know the answers to the questions I asked myself after my marriage ended; the ones about the kind of relationship I hoped for. I’m fortunate in that I figured out what I wanted by finding it. Dan is not only sweet with Ethan, he’s thoughtful about him. But Dan is also interested in all aspects of who I am: the poet, the disabled woman, the lover, and Ethan’s mother.
6 replies on “The Stepfather Question”
Thank you for yet another wonderful glimpse into your family life. It’s lovely.
Ona, what a wonderful article about love, life and your son — great!
I look forward to your column every month. Thanks for sharing. (And Dan sounds like a great guy!)
Ona, this is beautiful!
There are tears in my eyes. This is so full of heart. Thank you, thank you. I needed this.
Ona, once again, brilliant, on point. xo! Val