You are not their father. My kids have a father. At least that’s what I was told. Adults make plans and children fail to understand them. God laughs. Kids tend to live in the present, with much less of an eye to the future. When you are among them, you might as well be a parent, regardless of how you might choose to qualify your role. No one found this more initially terrifying than me. But it was a responsibility I seem to have adopted more smoothly than I ever thought.
I assign it to simple biological response. We are, after all, often inclined to be adaptive to children, if not to birth them. Biology often intercedes where intellect cannot. Had they both been holy terrors, I think my patience would have evaporated and weariness descended in its place. But they really were good kids. One boy, one girl. Despite what they had been through with the divorce they were playful and fun-loving, two qualities I thought I would never regain myself. And while surrounded by them, their earnestness and innocence gave me permission to be free-spirited once more.
The ways of the adult world had taken hold on me. My voice once was musical and lilting, but now had adopted the same robotic tone that most people dubbed “serious professional”. I had never been a fan of stiff handshakes and stiffer starched collars, but playing follow the leader was basic protocol. I dwelt in a world where a curt terseness was the lingua fresca. But now I didn’t have to be so guarded and, honestly, so miserable. What force decreed that this must be the way of things? Human beings are not supposed to be driven by anxious inter-office politics and leap frog.
Brushing off a few cobwebs, I suddenly remembered I could do a few plausible vocal impressions, which both children loved. Its success gave me the confidence to ad lib, and ad libbing in general was how I typified most of my conduct in their presence. Once I learned to trust myself, I had no need to plan out what to say or how to react. This wasn’t work, after all, and I found that children are far less critical. I wondered what made us all so reactive, insensitive, and short-tempered. Which isn’t to say that I romanticize childhood. I still bear emotional scars to disprove that. But for someone who had shied as far away as possible from even the thought of parenthood in any form, I found my prior assumptions challenged and in some ways entirely invalidated.
My efforts were apparently a success. One of the children, the boy, aged eight or so, developed a severe case of hero worship. He started to use many of the same turns of phrase as I did and even chose to part his hair the same way I do. I very nearly had a panic attack at the recognition, because I felt I could never live up to an impossible standard. Should anyone place me on a pedestal, I always recite the phrase that I’d very much like to be taken down, because I’m scared of heights. If I could ever get my anxiety to subside, I knew I should take the child’s response as a high compliment. I did gather that I must be doing something right, but all of those old phobias and fears of fatherhood came rushing out of the woodwork.
Being an unintentional step-father was not nearly as difficult as having children of my own. I could always look forward to the times that they spent time with their father, leaving me alone with their mother. When they were gone, we could pretend, as lovers often do, that the very world itself revolved around our romance and that pairing. Every other weekend this fantasy was allowed to grow and flourish. She did love her children, but also loved a break from them, too. And I always looked forward to our times alone, though every now and again I did miss the kids. What was most difficult for me was the awkward transition from the ways of childhood into the ways of adulthood. It felt a bit like immersing oneself in a new language, only to cast it aside entirely, returning to a space where nothing carried over or was even applicable.