I met Jake* when he was nearly 2 1/2 and I was nearly 24. We went to the zoo with his dad, my not-just-nearly-boyfriend, where Jake was delighted by the animals, the massive playground, and the little train that went around the perimeter. He had yet to master the pronunciation of "r" and we giggled as he exclaimed, "Beah! Beah! Look at the beah!" A bonafide Bostonian, even at his young age. At the time of our first meeting, I knew that my character had already been attacked by his mother on Facebook, and my perceived "flaws" were insinuated in long, rambling, 3am e-mails to my partner. Taking my own mother's advice, I never responded and resolved to stay silent. Mom said, "This too shall pass," though I wasn't sure I believed her. We settled into an awkward joint-custody agreement, and I figured it would work itself out.
Over the next year, I adjusted to having a toddler in my life. Priorities changed. I read parenting books, but I attempted to abstain from "actual parenting." Despite this, I found myself ordering fruit and vegetable shape cutters online for his school lunches, and soon all of my conversations with friends and family were increasingly peppered with anecdotes about Jake. I pressed to start potty training, and I remember the first time he used the toilet on his own accord and the family dance party that followed. I remember crying when he didn't want to sleep in his own bed, frantically calling my mother for two weeks past midnight because this kid was still awake and hysterical and my partner was insisting we needed to remain firm. My partner and I learned to co-parent with one another and our life became more and more routine. During this first year, I framed myself as more of a pseudo-babysitter, someone to have fun with, someone who would guide but rarely reprimand, and certainly not a pseudo-stepmom. People would note that I was a parental figure to him and would remark on how much I did for this kid, but I'd brush them off. No, no, I'm just his buddy. I had no contact with his mother and things remained tense and strained. In many ways, I felt like a very young adult playing house.
Each morning, Jake would run down the hallway to jump into bed with us so we could "cuddlebug." Jake knew I was going to be starting graduate school, but he did not quite comprehend that my 8am class would mean waking up earlier to leave the house on time. On my first day of school, I watched him throw open his bedroom door, run down the hallway, and notice that I was in the kitchen getting my things together, already awake and ready to go. His little face crumpled up, his lips quivered, and he threw back his head in the most heart-wrenching sob I had ever heard. Even as I walked to my car, I could still hear him wailing, "I don't want her to go to school! We didn't get to cuddlebug!" I was wracked with guilt. In one of my first classes, we were discussing life stages and the professor went around the room randomly asking students to comment on what life stage they believed themselves to be in and why. When I vaguely described my situation, my personal "milestones" that I felt were indicative of my life stage, my professor remarked, "It must have been a difficult transition to go from a college student to parenting a two-year old in such a short time. Did you have ever imagine your life looking like this a year or two ago?" No, no I did not.
During the past several years I have been accused of countless things, and I have been endlessly insulted. I've seen her Facebook friends encourage that Jake be made to hate me when she complained that I took him to a park and chatted with another parent. My partner and I have cried together after countless incendiary incidents, and we've been hurt and stressed regularly. I've been the focus of some truly childish gossip spread around his school, and I've felt helpless to defend myself. I became more distant with Jake when I should've been providing more support and stability; I thought a more distanced approach would dissipate the vitriol. Things certainly weren't passing, as my mom promised they would, and I struggled to figure out my role in Jake's life. Concurrently, I was figuring out my own identity as a professional, as a partner, and navigating this new adulthood.
Things have changed, and it is in large part because my attitude and my perspective have evolved and grown. A few months ago, my partner was planning to attend our friends' monthly poker night when he had to pick up Jake from school on an unscheduled day. My partner said he would stay home so I didn't have to deal with the pick-up. Ultimately, I forced him to go and felt I needed to "act like a grownup" about things. Jake's mom and I were cordial to one another, and I subsequently bit the bullet and wrote her an e-mail. I acknowledged that I should've initiated dialogue sooner, and I told her that I genuinely apologized if I had ever done anything to hurt her. I told her how much I loved her son, though I never wanted her to feel I was encroaching on her role as his mother. I told her that I wanted things to change between the three of us as Jake gets older and wiser, and I'd be willing and open to hear whatever she had to say. We agreed to meet up. Things are improving, but it can be a slow and confusing process.
My partner will be at a conference for the next few days and he will unfortunately miss Jake's last pre-school graduation. We'd been to his graduations in previous years, and it had been unclear whether or not Jake was going to be present himself, as his grandmother is visiting and they were discussing taking a trip. On Sunday night, as we were discussing his dad's trip, Jake looked at me and asked, "But you'll be there, right?" His mom had spent the past three years gossiping about me to other parents, I haven't seen his grandmother since she followed me around recording my every move at his 4th birthday party, and despite our recent progress, residual awkwardness abounds.
I've wiped his boogers away with my bare hands, and I've cupped those same hands for his chewed-up and spit-out food when a napkin or trash can isn't handy. I read him stories every night before he goes to sleep, and he sits on my lap as he sounds out the words in his favorite Dr. Seuss and Eric Carle books. He reaches up his arms for me when he's upset, and he asks me endless, curious questions about the world. He holds my hand when we creep toward the ocean, and he grasps it harder when we run away squealing from the waves. He draws pictures of his family at school, and I get choked up each time I see the stick figure illustrations of the four of us, all together and smiling. He asks his Dad when he'll mine a diamond for me in real life, like they do together in Minecraft, and when asked who I am, he replies, "she's my chartreusecaboose, my family." He wants me to be at his final pre-school graduation, and I'll be there.
*Name, obviously, changed