In 2006 I became a custodial stepmom to five kids. While it had been in the works for a few months, the official decree and custody transfer happened suddenly. I flew to LA a single woman dating a great guy who just so happened to have five kids from his previous marriage, and returned to New Jersey a day later the parent of four girls ages 13, 11, 8, and 6, and one boy, age 4. We immediately moved into the house their father was renting, a place so small that I didn’t even have enough room to unpack all my T-shirts, let alone my designer pumps and cosmetics.
My friends kept asking me if I was ready. I laughed in response. How, exactly, does one prepare for such an occurrence?
In time I learned: by lowering one’s standards.
(Speaking of lower standards, if you’re one of the kids I’m writing about and you’re reading this, I should warn you that at some point here I am going to talk about having sex with your father. If you read that part, it’s your own fault.)
Lowering my standards has been the key to retaining any shred of sanity I may once have had. It is also a technique crucial to considering myself to be a decent parent.
When we first got the kids, they had my undivided attention. I responded to every comment they made:
Them: Patrick just fell off a cliff and his head came off but he grew a new one and now he’s too smart for Spongebob!
Me: Wow, that’s something. I never thought Patrick would be smart!
I answered every question they asked:
Them: Do you think it’s funny that Patrick just fell off a cliff and his head came off but he grew a new one and now he’s too smart to be Spongebob’s friend?
Me: Yes. That’s hilarious.
I complied with every request to play: indoors, outdoors, board games, Barbies, shit they made up. I crafted, for god’s sake: fingerpainting, Shrinky-Dinks, friendship bracelets. I let them brush my hair–which, for the record, is the kind of curly that should never, ever see a brush.
Giving five kids my undivided attention left me with split ends and a raw scalp, frozen foods that thawed in grocery bags on the table while I answered questions and refereed arguments, and an appreciation for anything on television with an absence of talking animals.
I felt exactly like I felt when I quit smoking: irrationally irritable and unable to complete a single thought in my head, let alone a solitary task. So I began to practice the parental equivalent of sneaking cigarettes: “Just a minute, sweetie.”
Absentmindedly repeating platitudes gave me precious moments to stare wide-eyed and horrified at another of my new tasks: cooking. Picture a pescetarian who knows how to steam vegetables, bake fish, and make toast. Period. When my husband worked overtime and the cooking was left to me, I befriended cookbooks and the crockpot. New recipes for every meal.
- They hate anything with more than three ingredients, and one of those ingredients better be sugar.
- There is no one thing–not even chocolate, not even ice cream–that all the kids will eat.
- They hate anything new the first time you make it (most of them), like it the second time you make it (though not all of them) and carry on liking it for an indeterminate period of time, at which point they hate it again (though not the same ones who hated it the first time).
For myself I discovered that if I buy good enough (read: expensive and kosher) chicken I can’t taste the slaughterhouse in it. I learned that I can’t eat mac & cheese from a box anymore, and that any treat I buy “for them,” I eat. No matter what. I gained twenty pounds. I call it my baby weight. I plan on losing it when at least two of them are in college—on scholarship.
I fantasize about that day in the future with two fewer specimens of humanity to clean up after. People who knew me before kids would say that my housekeeping standards could not possibly have gone any lower than they already were. Those people are wrong—dead wrong. The kids trounced my barely-acceptable-to-begin-with-skills and I lay on my dirty, sticky floor waving the surrender flag.
That moment of true surrender came when their father and I were stealing a few moments of romance in the only room in the house with a lock on the door: the bathroom.
The only bathroom, shared by all seven of us.
It is perhaps the most shameful moment of my life. More shameful than that quickie in the donut shop bathroom back in high school, worse even than sex with a roadie for a backstage pass. Down on my hands and knees, trying to keep a towel between my flesh and the semi-dried urine spots in front of the toilet, I placed my hand directly into a giant hairball embedded in a blob of toothpaste. Each subsequent place either of us tried to grab to gain better traction was slimy, crusty, or sticky. I closed my eyes and tried to conjure up some kind of fantasy to make it through—some kind of hostage scene where the kidnapper got off on nabbing squeamish women to force them to have sex in filthy family bathrooms.
We finished. We looked deep into each other’s eyes and swore: never again.
Was it time for a house cleaning service? We were past that point. Within a month, we moved to a house with more bathrooms, more locks, and more space. Not really enough space for each of us to feel completely comfortable in, but definitely enough space to lose track of more things.
I had once had high standards of what awareness meant: awareness of homework, of friends, of what the kids were doing with their time. I found that I care—truly, I do. I just can’t keep track. Everything blends together and all the friends have similar names and wear the same clothes. I still make the kids tell me who they’re hanging out with, even if I have no idea who they’re talking about. I pretend like I recognize the friends when they come to the door, much as I pretend to remember which of my kids is on which softball team and which one did the project on Narwhals. Never underestimate the power of “Act as if.”
That often means acting as if I’m not going to totally lose my shit sometime in the next ten seconds.
Early on, I had expected myself to always keep my cool, to never lose my temper. No matter what, I would be the voice of reason and sanity; I would make “behavior suggestions” in such a manner that all problems would instantly dissipate. I would never need to raise my voice.
I came to understand that people who hold that expectation are people who don’t have children or are heavily medicated. Or both.
Patience, I have come to believe, is overrated. When you set an intention to be more patient, you get more situations that annoy the living shit out of you. You know, so you can practice. I’ve decided
Lowering my standards has made this whole parenting thing more enjoyable, and, frankly, possible. I can be unphased by bedrooms with wet towels moldering on the floor and milk solidifying in cups on the nightstand as long as I can shut the door. I will grant permission for unrestricted screen time if it means I can get to a yoga class that will make me fit to spend time in the company of humans when I’m finished. I will continue to buy as much dark chocolate as I want because I know they don’t like it and there’s no risk of it having all been eaten when I need it. I’m gonna let them play dress-up with my Emilio Pucci heels and wear my expensive perfume and lipstick because that shit is funny, and honestly—where do I wear the Puccis anymore?
Once I let go of how I thought everything was supposed to be, it became a lot easier to enjoy what was actually happening.