Family Matters: Dream Come True, With Complications
I used to dream of getting married and becoming a mother. And as one of four kids, I always wanted four of my own children. And now I have them, in a sense, with just one pregnancy.
When I married my husband, Daniel, five years ago, I became a stepmother to his two daughters. And then we took it one step further and had two more children, twin boys. They just may be the glue that binds this blended family of divorce and remarriage, stepchildren and half siblings, together.
It was much simpler at the very beginning. I was single, in my midthirties and wanted to meet the right guy. Daniel had been divorced for several years and, despite the wonders and challenges of life as a single dad with joint custody, wanted to meet someone and try married life again. We had already gone out on a few dates a couple of years earlier, but it just did not gel. I was not interested in dating a dad; he found me interesting, but not quite compelling enough. Two years later, things had changed. I was more serious and realized that there are benefits to dating someone who has been married before. And he had liked what he had seen before, enough to call me when he heard that I was still available.
Figuring out that we were right for each other was the easy part. As for my two future stepdaughters, 8 and 14 at the time, I felt I could handle the challenge. And as one of my fellow stepmother friends likes to comment, it is better not to know everything before you get married.
True enough. Because, as it turns out, there are unexpected issues that arise in a blended family, problems and fears and questions that you never would have expected.
When my husband and I got engaged, I received a call from an acquaintance who was a stepmother, inviting me to join her stepmothers group. “Nah,” I told her. “I don’t need it. We’re fine.”
Fast forward about two months, and I gave her a call: “When do you meet?”
It is no secret that there are many issues—and tissues, as one friend says—in any family, and in blended families in particular. Some can be anticipated, others not so easily.
Consider, for example, Shabbat candle lighting. I had had a habit—I would have called it a minhag—of not lighting Shabbat candles when I was single. I was a fairly observant Jew throughout my singlehood, going to shul on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, hosting friends for meals, setting timers for lights and to heat up food. But I did not like lighting candles because lighting candles seemed like the ultimate act of a Jewish wife and mother.
I even went so far as to leave the silver candlesticks left to me by my maternal grandmother at my parents’ house until I got married. Granted, that period of time lasted until I was 36, but I was more than ready to light my own candles when I finally did get married.
It was on our second Shabbat together as a married couple that we encountered the Shabbat candle-lighting conundrum. We were living, temporarily, in my husband’s apartment, and he and the girls always lit candles together. Their custom was for all three of them to each light a set of candles, something that I had never encountered before in my very traditional upbringing.
I had not anticipated how upset I would feel at having this moment interrupted by my stepdaughters’ ritual. And it took some time for us to find a solution, having to do with timing and who says the blessing first.
The challenges continued. we moved, requiring settling into a space that was new for all of us, and we tried hard to make it work for everyone. We found new rituals, such as using honey instead of salt on our Shabbat halla, so that we will always have sweetness in this new life. We have our pizza and movie nights, a time to hang out, relax and enjoy time together. When we planned our backyard garden, we had long discussions over which fruit trees to plant—based on who likes what fruit—and now enjoy eating and cooking the limes, peaches and passion fruit from our trees.
We have gone on vacations together, creating our own set of memories apart from those now painful early ones of their former family unit. We also spend a lot of time with both sides of the family, including my mother, siblings, nieces and nephews, some of whom have become real cousins to the girls.
There are family friends who have become friends to this new unit of ours, and I think that for the girls, it has also been important to watch their own cousins become my true niece and nephews, allowing them to appreciate me as much as their cousins do. We can joke about certain sensitive subjects, and I am happy when the girls tease me about my need for neatness. (But nothing makes me happier than when they fold the laundry.)
At the same time, the pain of being part of a divorced family continues. No matter how hard we tried to ease my younger stepdaughter’s weekly transitions from house to house, she has had a hard time living two lives. My older stepdaughter had less of a problem, but now that she is out of the house, she still feels compelled to spend equal time at both homes, not an easy task when you are trying to figure out your 19-year-old self. Holidays are always fraught with emotion, as the girls have traditionally split time with their families on Rosh Hashana, Sukkot, Hanukka, Purim, Pesah and Shavuot into halves. The religious aspects of Shabbat and the Jewish holidays are also a veritable minefield, given our observant way of life and their mother’s secular lifestyle.
But we try. Sometimes we succeed in finding our way, other times we handle things incorrectly, be it with the girls or their mother or each other. If most couples battle over money or sex, our biggest battleground is often our relationships with my stepdaughters and our perceived methods in navigating those relationships. We are well aware that some 67 percent of couples with blended families end up divorcing, and we don’t intend for that to happen to us.
I am not worried about that possibility, partially because of my deep belief in the love and friendship that my husband and I have, and because of our twin sons, Ziv and Lev, now 2 years old. I had heard from my stepmother friends that these babies are the glue that binds the blended family, but given the years we spent trying to have a baby and the experiences we have had raising the girls, I could not be sure. I wouldn’t be so glib as to promise that possibility now that the boys are here, but I get it.
Ziv and Lev are our children, the product of this marriage, but perhaps more important, they are the girls’ brothers. Not half brothers, not the sons of their stepmother and father, not the new family, but their little brothers who adore them, look like them and look up to them. I didn’t know how the girls would react to the twins, given the age differences—17 and 11 years. But there was a lot of anticipation from the very beginning, even though my younger stepdaughter did, at times, refer to them as her half brothers. We chose not to encourage that term too much. There were a few bumps along the way, including choosing not to tell them, or anyone else in our very tight-knit families, the sex of the babies. We did not share name possibilities, either, given the predilection for opinions. My older stepdaughter bought a funny little book toward the end of my pregnancy called What Should We Call the Twins? and we joked that we would name them Mike and Look-A-Like or Pete and Repeat, as the book suggested.
But when Ziv and Lev were born, despite the stresses of a birth six weeks early and underweight babies who spent 10 days and 5 weeks in the neonatal intensive-care unit, respectively, the girls’ only reaction was joy. They loved coming to Hadassah Hospital’s NICU to hold their brothers and stroke their tiny bodies.
The homecomings were joyous, as were the two separate brit milas, one at home and the other larger and more party-like, where the girls took part in passing their brothers along the chain of grandmothers, aunts and uncles to the mohel.
They were a tad annoyed that we had not let them in on the naming game but offered their approval fairly soon after the names were announced. And they immediately embarked on the nickname race, finding their own pet names. Zivoosh and Levoosh, Ziv Ziv, Lev Lev, Duck and Monkey, Ziva and Levkins.
As the boys have grown, so has the girls’ ability to take care of them, and love them. They do not run to change a dirty diaper, but they will both happily spend time feeding and playing with them and developing their own relationships. Ziv’s first word seemed to be a version of the name of one of his sisters, and they both light up when either enters the room.
For that I am grateful. I think about the fact that the girls are Ziv and Lev’s elder sisters, they will be their advisers and caretakers when their father and I are no longer around. As a youngest sibling, I know how important that role is. And I am glad that we have the family unit to make that possible. Turns out that I do have four kids.