"Will you marry us?" he asked.
With those four words -- uttered by my future husband -- my life forever changed. A confident, career-driven, 20-something New Yorker had just said yes to a life I'd warned my friends about.
My love life had started simply enough: At 19, I met the man I thought was perfect for me. I knew he was "The One" because everyone told me so. At 22, I married him. Three months later his career took a turn, and we opted into an 18-month contract in Texas. I became a stay-at-home wife who did a lot of entertaining, and even more shopping. I say that not with pride, but with honesty.
As the first year of our contract ended, so did my marriage. I was 23, two-thousand miles from home, spoiled, and unemployed.
As I saw it, I had two options. I could go home, back to New York and my career in finance, and live with my parents until I got back on my feet, or I could suck it up and give this Texas thing a whirl for six months. I chose the latter and enlisted the help of my two best girls, Linda and Pinot Grigio.
One night, when we all went out, I met my rightful husband.
The only problem: He came with two Kidlets. Not to mention one angry ex-wife, who promptly renamed me Homewrecker. Never mind that the first time they'd separated I wasn't old enough to have a driver's license. To hell with the fact that divorce papers had already been filed, and he was living happily in a one-bedroom by himself. Their divorce was no longer about her drinking problem or return to rehab, she decreed. Oh no. It was me.
Thus began six years of, "Daddy doesn't live here with us because he loves Minnie better than you." Six years of her showing up at sporting events, teacher conferences and recitals drunk or over-medicated, telling anyone who would listen that I was Satan -- embarrassing herself, my husband and me, and most importantly, the Kidlets.
And I knew the new life I had chosen -- insta-stepmother to two little ones I already loved -- wasn't going to be a walk in the park.
Two years after meeting, and much to the shock, disdain, and disgust of our very Catholic families, we moved in together. A better position from which to help the Kidlets. The divorce granted 50/50 custody, and because the love of my life coached two of their sports teams, we had them more than half the time.
What we never anticipated was that at 14, the Boy had had enough of living with Her. He called one night and said, very simply, "I'm done. Come get me."
And we did. (Though please don't think it was that easy: I put the lawyer's daughter through medical school. And, holy hell, do you know how frustrating it is to "buy" your own kid back?)
That Boy, he excelled in our environment. His grade point average went up TEN points the first semester. He was kicking butt on the field and on the court. He'd gained 10 pounds and never shut up. If I'm being honest, I think he was VERY comfortable falling into an only-child role.
His full-time status at Casa de Minnie acted as kindling for the fire that was "The Marriage Debate." The debate consisted of my husband listing all of the reasons -- emotion, spiritual, financial -- for us to be married. I would remind him that I wasn't going anywhere, and we were fine the way we were.
In year four I agreed to get engaged as long as I didn't have to be nailed down to a date right away. In year five we got married on a Tuesday evening, in front of the fireplace in my parents' living room.
I wore a silver Calvin Klein cocktail dress. The Girl wore a platinum dress of similar style. The Boys wore shirts and ties. We all put on our wedding bands and came back to Texas exactly as we were, and yet totally changed. I would now be raising two children who were closer to my age than their father was; in fact, I'd have two teenagers before I turned 30.
But their father -- he had my heart. My soul. Everything good about me, I wanted him to have. Every minute, even the bad ones, I wanted to spend with him. And let's be honest, two carats of awesome was shoved in my face by the babes I'd adored for five years. How do you say no to two
men down on their knees outside on a cold November day? How?
I'll tell you: It. Can't. Be. Done.
In less than a year I had a black lab and a chocolate lab, both named after cocktails. I was baking cookies for the football team and monitoring Facebook pages. Somewhere around our sixth month of wedded bliss my stepdaughter decided to join her brother and live with us full time, as opposed to living with her mother. With her came basketball and coordinating team dinners for seventeen 14-year olds and playing Banquet Hostess and -- holy crap -- all the hormones of a teenage girl.
When I mentioned "date night" to a friend, she made an off-the-cuff comment about the honeymoon being over. And while I'd never say that every day consists of roses and unicorns and rainbows flying out my butt, I will say that my husband and I had both learned -- the hard way -- what a bad relationship was and to try hard to avoid those triggers.
Just shy of our one-year anniversary we decided that carving out a date night for US and only US had to take priority. My husband and I were wise enough to see that if our relationship wasn't healthy, the Kidlets' environment wouldn't be.
Those of you with teens just LOL'd.
How could WE go on a date when our Boy is going to the same movie? With a girl. Whom we may or may not like?
How can we go grab a cocktail and leave our Girl home knowing that two of the Boy's friends that are at our place have a raging crush on her?
The next option was to actually enforce visitation. In theory, the Kidlets were supposed to be at their mother's house every other weekend.
Let's try it,
Light bulbs on, choirs of angels singing, duh!
Except, when you have two teenagers, one equipped with a driver's license and a vehicle, um, they just kind of show up
anyway. Even if every light in the house is off, the doors are locked, the alarm is on, and your bedroom door is open, because, "Hi, CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? WE'RE HOME ALONE!"
Even if you go into ninja-stealth mode and manage to pull yourselves together, one of those kids will want to come in and sit on the bench at the foot of your bed and tell you about their evening. As you're red-faced, trying to catch your breath and your husband pretends he's asleep.
The truth is, my story isn't that different from many others. We are a couple with two teenagers, two dogs and two full-time jobs. I just have the added aggravating obstacle of being a step-wife, but some of us are just lucky I guess. And we have to work on our relationship like anyone else does.
We tell the Kidlets that they'll get out of something what they put into it. We show them that by making time for us -- for ourselves and for our family.
Sometimes "date night" consists of sitting on the front porch glider with a glass of wine, while the kids are tearing up the backyard with friends. Other times it's cocktails after a booster-club meeting, rather than just going straight home. Still, there are days when it's just a text that says, "You're loved."
Even if the Boy and his friends giggle, throw elbows, and walk away when my husband wraps his arms around my waist while I'm washing dishes, I've seen that it changes the Boy's attitude. He knows that WE, and therefore his life, are secure. When the Girl and her besties are doing one another's hair, and her father walks in to borrow nail polish remover so he can do my toes, they "oooh" and "aaah." She giggles, a little embarrassed -- and knows she wants a partner who will treat her that way.
I watch as Louis Vuitton purses turn into mere vessels for athletic tape and ankle wraps, allergy medicine, Neosporin and permission slips. I cringe and giggle as a pair of Ferragamo pumps clack around the house with basketball shorts and tank tops on top. I smile because this is my life. Our life. The one that we've made.
As the Kidlets gain independence, it's easier to make time for ourselves. As they gain independence, it's too easy to see that they'll be gone long before we're ready for them to leave.
The days when I'm making dinner for six kids, the evenings when I'm scraping gum off the driveway, and the mornings when I'm pulling Capri Sun straw wrappers out of the lint catcher in the dryer, date night sounds like heaven. But listening to them laugh, knowing that they are happy, healthy and loved -- that makes it easier to put off date night until next week.
Or at least to lock the bedroom door.
Minnie is a 30-something stepmother with full custody of her two teenage stepchildren, who she loves dearly.