When I was growing up, they didn’t have Stepdads, so my experience in that department was zero. With my Dad passing on at an early age, I had little experience in the “just plain Dad” department. Plus, having a brother but no sister, I had no “in-house” experience of “girl.”
It is with these deficient qualifications that I was thrown into the role of “Step Guy” to a four year-old girl.
Tomorrow’s Rachel’s birthday. Not only is she magnificent in so many ways – bright, courageous (tomorrow, she leaves on a month-long trip to Africa) and boundlessly compassionate to humankind and small animals alike, but – now I’ll twist this around to be about me – considering my atrocious record with plants and pets that were left in my care – I am happiest to announce:
She’s still alive.
I was always worried about that. Though I once joked, “I had a stepdaughter before I had a biological daughter. Which is good. I got to practice on somebody’s else’s kid.” – that was comedy, and in no way reflected how it really felt. I never thought of Rachel as “practice.” She was always unquestionably “the real thing.”
When Dr. M (when she was just M) and I would go out, we would drop Rachel off at “babysitting co-op.” (Dr. M has a “progressive” streak.) Later that night, we’d pick her up, and, with Dr. M being the driver of our duo, it fell to me to sit in the passenger seat and hold the, usually, sleeping Rachel till we got home. I experienced my role as the most sacred, and serious, of duties.
There I sat, my arms around Rachel, making every effort to insulate her from sharp turns and sudden braking. Step-parental responsibility, and an awkward sitting position, knotted the muscles in my back. But physical discomfort would not impede me from fulfilling this vital assignment.
I had a job to do.
I struggled to find the appropriate amount of “holding pressure” – tight enough to keep Rachel from bouncing around, gentle enough for her to feel protected but not constricted. Such a delicately calibrated balance can only be determined through trial and error.
If she woke up? I was holding her too tightly.
If she fell on the floor? Not tightly enough.
The responsibility weighed heavily on my shoulders. If the Old Testament has ten Commandments, the Stepdad Testament has only one:
“Thou Shalt Not Kill the Kid.”
Mothers hate it when you kill the kid. It casts a pall on the entire relationship. You’re unlikely to overcome it.
“I promise I’ll do better with the next one”?
No. It’s over.
With “The One Commandment” as context, imagine this tableau: Dr. M shuttling us through the darkened streets of west L.A., and me, sitting beside her, my arms draped firmly but not too firmly around the sleeping Rachel, holding my breath the entire trip.
Was her head too close to the door handle? I shifted her gently to the left, avoiding door handle-brain contact that might trigger learning disabilities down the line, or a small indentation to the skull, harmless in its own right, but requiring imaginative hair styling to conceal the disfigurement from sight.
I’d stroke her head and improvise lullabies:
“Stay asleep, little Rachel
Don’t wake up, and don’t hit your head…”
I’d murmur them quietly, so as not to disturb the driver.
Finally, we were home. Dr. M parked, and came around, lifting my “sleeping bundle” into her enveloping arms.
My job was now completed. The precious cargo had arrived unharmed.
It’s not always easy to know the affect you have on somebody. Sometimes, you can see it; sometimes you can’t. But there’s one accomplishment I will always be certain of.
I got the kid home alive.
Happy Birthday, Wonderful Rachel.
And a memorable journey as well.