I was 18 and in college when I got pregnant with my oldest son. Instead of the “freshman 15,” I packed on a freshman 50 that culminated in a bundle of joy. Over the years, my son and I have navigated some pretty heavy stuff — an autism diagnosis, family deaths, surgeries, and lots of growing up — but nothing had prepared me for the biggest test of our lives as mother and son: marriage.
My boyfriend called me while I was in Target. We chatted, and my son, who was 8 at the time, was in the background asking for some sugary cereal. I was accustomed to tuning him out when he was interrupting, but my boyfriend was not.
I knew my son didn’t do well on the phone. Besides the communication issues he experienced due to autism spectrum disorder, he was much too fascinated by things in front of him to be entertained by a voice coming through a device. He awkwardly held the phone to his face and the conversation began. He answered a few yes or no questions, said, “okay,” and handed me the phone before gleefully jumping on the back of the cart.
It was their first interaction, and I was comforted knowing that he had an interest in my little boy.
I had known my boyfriend for more than a decade, though we spent many of those years in an on-and-off relationship. At this point, we were very much on and serious — with two and a half hours between us. We knew that if we were going to make it work, one of us would need to move. Without hesitation, I applied for jobs in the same city as him, and received a job offer within a couple of months.
The move was easy, and so was the engagement. It was the merging of the households that got tricky.
Sure, I read the books on marriage and blending families. But what I really needed was a friend to talk to, one who had gone from being a single parent for almost a decade to a wife — and came out alive on the other end.
Now that I’m a few years into this marriage thing, I can recognize how I could have made this transition easier for my son.
I should have remembered that if he’s engaged to me, he’s engaged to my child.
Engagement is so exciting. It seems like there’s never enough time to contemplate wedding colors and pore over wedding magazines. The conversations are always so hopeful and conclusive, and the time leading up to the big day is fantastic. All that matters is that you and your soon-to-be husband are in love — except that there’s a kid involved. I was in the process of changing this kid’s entire life, and I hadn’t talked to him about where he stood in the relationship. As wonderful as I thought my fiancé was, my child needed time to get to know my partner. I’d known my husband for more than 10 years, so the least I could have done was allow my son the time and opportunity to get to know him, too.
I needed to understand the exact role I wanted my husband to play in my son’s life.
Did I want a husband, a father for my child, or both? For the single, never-before-married mom, it’s appealing to imagine a family instantly forming once the marriage certificate is signed. Although my son’s father has always been in his life, I was delighted over the idea that he would have another father figure in the home 24/7 — but it wasn’t that easy. I wanted my husband to be my husband, and I wanted him to let me do what I’ve always done — parent my son. I needed to continue to be the primary disciplinarian as well as nurturer. It’s what I had always been, and what my son had always known. Younger children are much more moldable, but at his age, he just needed stability and familiarity.
I shouldn’t have compromised my parenting values.
Compromise is a really sweet notion. It’s in all of the marriage books that I read. It’s a great word, really. It makes it seem like you can single-handedly resolve a conflict by taking a deep, cleansing breath and letting go of your strong convictions for the sake of the other person. As sweet and selfless as that idea seems, compromising on your parenting styles and values can cause serious damage to your child’s emotional stability. My 8-year-old finds comfort in knowing what rules to expect. Allowing someone to come in and switch up those expectations and rules creates a volatile and reactive environment full of uncertainty.
I believe children should relax after spending so much mental and social energy performing at school. My husband believes that children need structure, including a schedule of after school activities to complete at home. Allowing my child to have a timed break after school before getting into his scheduled activities seemed like a nice compromise — but it wasn’t. Timing my son and checking his progress every 20 minutes became a chore, filling me and my son with anxiety and resentment.
My marriage won’t come first, and that’s okay.
Sometimes it will, and sometimes it won’t. If you or your husband are stuck on the idea that the marriage comes first always and forever, then you’re in for a lot of conflict. While the honeymoon phase is for the adults, the grieving stage is left for the kids. Maybe they thought mommy and daddy would end up back together one day. Maybe they just miss the attention and affection that used to be solely reserved for them. My son didn’t communicate this directly to me, but I knew that, for him, my marriage meant losing the close relationship we had. It meant the end of taking impromptu trips to the trampoline park and hanging out at the toy store just to window shop. His grief was real, and I respected it by balancing his needs with the needs of my marriage. Keeping everybody happy and sane, including yourself, means leaving space for priorities to change.
When I changed from a single mom to a wife, the hardest part was realizing that the fantasy of a “blended” family is just that — a fantasy. People don’t blend. People learn to adjust, adapt, negotiate, and navigate a delicate situation. Trying to force traditional family roles will result in disaster. We learned the hard way that reinforcing rigid expectations of what a family should be prevents everyone from connecting in authentic ways. Hindsight is 20/20, and now I see clearly what my family needed.