This past Saturday, at 8:04am, The Tortoise turned 12 years old. It was really the first birthday that pained me for some reason. When I hugged her that morning my heart ached, tears welled in my eyes, and I felt like I was never going to let go. Maybe it’s because I still remember what it was like to be 12; maybe it is knowing how much more she will experience before she really finds herself. I’m sure some of my tears came from thinking about all the challenges she has already faced, mixed with joy to see how triumphant The Tortoise has become from overcoming those challenges.
The day started with DW sneaking out at 6am for fresh donuts and flowers for his little girl. I loved the smile in her eyes when he presented her with his offerings – there is a genuine and mutual love between them. I remember the first time that they met. The Tortoise was almost 3 and DW and I had been dating long distance for only a couple of months. He so badly wanted to have a family. Ironically I had already introduced his parents to my daughter and they had fallen in love with her. That seemed easy – potential grandparents. But I was scared to death to let DW and The Tortoise connect. Partly because I was afraid of sharing my daughter, partly because I wondered if he could ever love her as much as I do. We decided to eat dinner at one of my favorite fast food places, Taco Cabana. It seems rude to refer to this place as “fast food” because hands down it is some of the best Mexican food you’ll ever eat. (And great Margaritas). For those of you familiar with the south you know what I mean. Unfortunately, now that I live in the north, I can only dream about fajitas that yummy.
Anyway – we ate outside. It was a pleasant spring evening and things had been going pretty well, until The Tortoise decided she didn’t really want to sit in her seat. I tried talking, negotiating, bribing and eventually pleading. Then DW decided he would try to “parent’ – after all, we were already talking about marriage and being a family.
“Tortoise, ” he said in a very deep, firm voice, “You will sit in your seat or we will leave now.”
She stopped wiggling around. Looked at me. Looked at him, then in one full swoop of her body swiped all the food and drinks across the table, pushing them straight on DW’s lap. I was horrified and faster than you can say “boo” I grabbed one very surprised preschooler and had a little “come to Jesus” meeting in the bathroom.
Almost 9 years later, the only thing standing between them now is just a name on a piece of paper. Their relationship is stronger and deeper than I could have ever imagined. She started calling him daddy only 6 months after we got married. We had referred to him as Big D or DW. Then one evening she needed help with something and came marching into the kitchen, “Daddy – I need you” and that was the beginning of everything.
Being a blended family seems normal and natural. It was like putting on a favorite pair of sweats on a cold, rainy day. Everything just fit right from the beginning. But I think it is because DW and I have co-parented. There is no “his” kid or “my” kid. They are both “our” children and I know that is why it works. Children need to know that they are loved and cherished by everyone in their family equally. They need to have unconditional love, but most of all, I think they need transparency and honesty.
Birthdays bring emotion. They bring age but they bring wisdom too. The Tortoise is becoming less of a little girl and more of a young woman everyday. Maybe I hugged her a little longer that morning because I was so proud to call her my daughter. She teaches me everyday about patience, forgiveness and humility. Her relationship with DW teaches me about relationships, priorities and unconditional love. Together they confirm that family has very little to do with last names or conditions but everything to do with choice. The choice to be the person and the parent you want to be regardless of how your relationship started.