This morning was as close to a semi-typical morning as it gets for me and my family. We woke up at 6 a.m., took showers, got dressed and ate, gathered all of our stuff together, and roly-poly-pell-melled into the car by 7 o’clock to drive the thirty-or-so minutes to my husband’s work in Modesto, CA. After dropping him off, I drove my five-year-old, Siobhan, the thirty minutes to school in Turlock, where we live. I parked my car in the only open spot a couple of blocks away from the school, and Siobhan put on her back pack, exited the car, and walked calmly by my side to the school grounds and inside to her kindergarten classroom. I was thankful and appreciative for the cooperation.
I say that this is a “semi-typical” morning because we were missing one person from the equation: my eight-year-old daughter, Nikkie. Every other weekend and a couple of days during the week, she spends time with her father, his fiancé—Jen—and her children. Some days she is with us on our morning trek to get everyone where they need to go, and some days, including this particular day, she is not, as she has spent the previous evening with her Dad. I do have to admit that on these mornings, I really miss having her witty humor to keep me company on the drive. Nevertheless, Siobhan made it to her class on time, and I crossed the second gate of the school to head back to the car. Then, I looked up to see Nikkie running towards me from a car parked in the drop-off zone.
“Mommy!” she gave me a big hug and a kiss. My heart was elated, as my eyes took in her gorgeous smile.
“Hurry up and run to class, baby doll. You don’t want to be late.”
“Okay,” she called out, as she headed past the gate. “I’ll see you later Mommy! Have a great day!”
“You too, baby girl!”
“Hey, Mom!” I looked up attentively, thinking she needed to tell me something important. “I need more cowbell!” she called out in her best Christopher Walkens voice.
I laughed out loud. This is her gleeful personality: always wanting to make people smile. She knew how much I love that SNL skit, and so she decided that is what I needed to be happy that morning. Still chuckling at the joke, I turned to look towards the drop-off zone, expecting to see Nikkie’s father, but instead Jen was in the driver seat of the car. She was cheerful and waved hello to me. I couldn’t help but think she caught some of Nikkie’s happy disposition as well. Knowing that she could’ve driven off as soon as Nikkie exited the car, I realized that she had waited to send me a quick hello before leaving. I smiled and waved back, and she drove off. She always looks so good in the morning, I thought to myself, as I briefly glanced down and saw the shadow-cast of my disheveled hair bun, frumpy t-shirt, and yoga pants across the pavement. Shrugging off any embarrassment, I acknowledged the moment of connection I had with Jen, a bond of motherhood and friendship that I’ve come to cherish.
It wasn’t that long ago when Jen had to make some decisions regarding her own children and their non-existent relationship with their father as well. It’s never easy to contemplate what is best with your children when you have so many of your own worries and fears embedded in a failed relationship. Yet, she knew that her focus needed to be on her children. She once told me that it was a conscious decision to place the kids first and foremost. Later, she came to the realization that because he left so early from their lives, they couldn’t miss what was never really there. Of course, this idea saddens her, but she knows she cannot change anyone else’s actions; she can only control her own actions and the things she can do to make her children happy. I like to think that this is where Jen and I see eye-to-eye. So, when I look at Jen and acknowledge her put-togetherness, it always comes from a place of understanding and appreciation for my co-mother and my friend, for her ideals when it comes to her kids are the same as mine. And also because, well, simply put, she’s one of the best people I know.
* * *
Nikkie’s father, Rob, isn’t so bad either. (As I write this, I can hear his response in the back of my head: “Hey now!”) I have to chuckle a bit at this potential jab because I do realize that, despite everything that has happened between us, he is a good person who has stepped into a father-like role with Jen’s kids, which has helped them to overcome some of the sadness they might have had with dealing in the aftermath of an absentee father. To be honest, it is the same role he took on when he became stepfather to my oldest daughter, Josie, when she was six years old. Now, at twenty-one years of age, she happily reflects on how Rob’s impact influenced her life.
As a father, my husband, Travis, is also thankful to have a positive co-parenting relationship with Rob, especially since Travis’s ex-wife cut off communication with his nine-year-old daughter, Kierra, soon after Siobhan was born. It is an internal struggle my husband fights through on a daily basis, but having the companionship of Rob, as a co-father, helps him to better understand the possibilities of positive co-parenting. It is something both Travis and I hope for with his ex-wife and her husband, but we don’t see it happening while Kierra is still young. For now, we have to focus on the kids within this blended family and teach them how to have healthy relationships through our own actions and behaviors. An example of this comes to mind with Siobhan’s preference to call Rob “Daddy” because this is exactly how she sees him: Rob is her sister’s Daddy, and so therefore, he is her Daddy too. It’s a bit of child logic that makes complete sense, when you look at it from her point of view, and we all know that it doesn’t detract from her relationship with Travis. It is quite touching and humorous actually, and the fact that Travis smiles and encourages Siobhan to call her sister’s father “Daddy” is a testament to his own personal understanding and acceptance of this blended family and the people in it. It’s really a breath of fresh air. More recently, we’ve been able to convince Siobhan to call him “Daddy Rob,” so we actually know who she’s referencing when she talks. This reduces confusion on family outings. All of us. One big happy blended family: Travis, me, Siobhan, Nikkie, Rob, Jen, and Jen’s kids—Lily and Tyson. Siobhan also calls Lily and Tyson her sister and brother because they are Nikkie’s sister and brother. Again, it makes sense that she refers to them as her siblings too, so we’ve never said anything against it.
* * *
When it comes to our family outings, we all make it a point to include each other as much as possible when it comes to things we believe the children will enjoy. Whether it be a birthday party for one of the kids at John’s Incredible Pizza, an egg-hunt and Easter dinner for everyone, a trick-or-treating event, or just going out to lunch together, the inclusivity of everyone in our blended family has become an instinctive natural development, mainly because we saw how upset the girls would be when missing out on holidays or get-togethers without their parents and siblings. Nikkie’s hopping back and forth between the two homes started to become a habit that wasn’t fair for her, or any of the children for that matter. But for as connected as we are now, our blended family wasn’t always this cohesive. A few years back, the messy separation and divorce that occurred between me and Rob almost placed us onto a terrible path. For a long time, we engaged in name-calling, backstabbing, and things done out of spite and revenge. I wouldn’t be joking if I said it was borderline daytime television drama worthy. During that chaotic time, we had started setting Nikkie up to have a heart-wrenching upbringing, and we were far too engaged in our own hurt and pain to see it. At one point, I had to cut off all phone and messaging contact with Rob because the turmoil proved to be too much to handle with all of life’s other hardships, and for over a year, we would only touch base on Nikkie’s upbringing through email. Many times we would rely on Jen to be the third party communicator if we had something more in-depth to discuss. It wasn’t our proudest of moments, and I think I can safely say now that we understand how incredibly unfair it was for us to place Jen in that position. However, at the time, we just couldn’t see anything past our own anger and hurt, which is something many people who have gone through breakups can attest to.
* * *
For many of my friends, this was all too familiar. They would give me advice because they or their family members had gone through similar circumstances. This seemed to validate the normalcy of this type of situation for me. During that time, there was no way Rob or I could even fathom the notion of attempting to co-parent together, but the truth of the matter was that we couldn’t see it as unnecessary drama we had created for ourselves. If nothing else, at least going through the drama helped to highlight the flaws of our actions and to further focus on what we needed to work on.
Some things happened that shed light on our mistakes a little more, and a number of distressing events took place. The deaths of a few friends and family members really amplified the fact that life is way too short. This idea also impacted Nikkie as well, as she became continually afraid that her father and I might die at any moment. That was when we realized that we had to set aside our differences to help qualm her fears. Around the same time, during transitional kindergarten, Nikkie was diagnosed with ADHD. Rob and I both had a hard time adjusting to the things we would have to do to help her, and we struggled with differing ideas of how to approach her condition. It didn’t take us very long to see, though, that being on different pages wasn’t working out for anyone. For Nikkie’s sake, we had to start listening to her doctors and—for the first time—to each other. And, thus began a healing process that brought us to the place we are now.
* * *
It’s still not always that easy. Sometimes Rob and I butt heads when it comes to our individual ideas of how to handle some of Nikkie’s symptoms, but we try not to let those disagreements come between our co-parenting relationship and our friendship. As a matter of fact, the friendship we have now is even better than when we were married, and it has also helped facilitate a stronger co-parenting relationship with our spouses as well. Travis feels comfortable to chat with Rob about anything and everything, sometimes at length (like that time I had to patiently wait for an hour in the passenger seat of our car, after having attended an assembly where Nikkie won a school award, while Travis and Rob chatted about Rob’s new hybrid car). And Jen. Well, Jen is just a godsend for me and my daughters. I am so thankful to have a friend in her, especially when she texts me back late at night to give motherly advice about pre-adolescent ongoings with Nikkie. I’ve expressed this many times to my friends and family, and every time I mention my co-mothering relationship to someone new, their initial countenance is one of complete surprise, until I tell them about an incident that happened not too long ago, when my niece asked Nikkie how Jen makes her feel:
“She makes me feel like we are connected,” Nikkie said, cupping her hands together at her heart, “like we have the same blood.”
As soon as she uttered those words, my heart boomed within my chest and I cried happy tears, knowing that my daughter had such unequivocal love and support from her soon-to-be stepmother, she felt they were one in the same. The next day when I saw Jen, I told her what Nikkie said, and her eyes started to brim with tears just as mine did. I knew exactly how she felt. To have any child love you that much is paramount. But to also know that child sees you as blood-family, despite not being blood-related? I don’t think anything else can compares to it. Jen and I are forever bonded because of my daughter’s mutual love for us. And because of that bond, there is never room for contempt.
* * *
These are things I reflect on each time I think about our co-parenting relationship. For as many trials as my husband and I have and for as many stressors that occur on the daily, I am content in knowing that we have an awesome and supportive co-family. It is a support that is like no other. Sure there is the physical support each co-parent provides for the other—like if either of us needs a babysitter—but there is also emotional support there as well. A simple wave and smile in the morning between mothers, as we part ways to start our day, to say “hey there, I am happy to see you” is a blessing. I love this part of my life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Now, I see how the choice Rob and I made to focus on Nikkie’s well-being (and essentially to focus on all of the childrens’ well-being) also helped to bring so many more loving and awesome people into our lives. This isn’t the norm. But, it definitely should be. Jen, Rob, Travis, and I know how lucky we are to have this type of family bond because we also experience the opposite. We see the damage that disconnect can cause, and we know how easily we could’ve fallen into one of these circumstances. Instead, we continue to focus on the love and well-being of our children, which in turn has given all of the adults in our blended family the ability to focus on the love and well-wishes we have for each other as well. We learned that this is how to actively teach love, forgiveness, and acceptance to our children; we lead by example for them. And so far, it is working out just as we hoped.
Yvonne de la Cruz Sánchez is an English and composition instructor and an MFA candidate in creative writing at Antioch University. She is also an assistant editor of fiction and guest blogger for Lunch Ticket. In addition to teaching, Yvonne likes to think she holds the following titles as well: Singer of Bedtime Stories, Maker of Dreams, Believer in the Future, Self-healer in Progress, Wearer of Heart-on-Sleeve, Organizer of Books & Toys, Imbiber of Words, and Humble Writer Whose Work is Wholly Cast from a Bronze Heart. She currently resides in the Central Valley with her husband and three daughters.