Baby daddy: take two

I was scared of comparisons

This second time around.

A second baby,

With a second father,

A second husband.

A man who’s done it all before.

I would ask him questions

About the pregnancies and

Births of his two first kids.

A lot of it he said he didn’t remember.

But some things he’d describe:

He was a long-haired 21-year-old

Making big decisions,

Trying to do the right thing.

He said after his daughter was born—

The only Packers game he’d missed

Since he started watching football—

He came out in the waiting room

Where his parents were,

Tried to tell them it was a girl,

Started sobbing.

This time around,

Three months pregnant,

Touring the L&D ward at Regions Hospital

Joe started telling me about

How nice

The hospital was where his

Kids were born:

Wood floors,

Homey furniture,

Decent food.

Comfortable pillows.

Tears gathered in my eyes and

I snapped at him:

“That hospital isn’t covered by our insurance.”

He looked at me in surprise.

“You keep comparing.

I’m scared of you comparing,”

I said.

“But I’m not comparing,”

He said, mystified.

“It just feels like you are,”

I said, crying a little,

I’m sure not the first

Expectant mom to

Cry during the tour of the

L&D ward.

“Okay, I’m sorry,”

He said,

Ginger with me.

I wasn’t an emotional wreck during pregnancy,

But there were a couple topics that got me flared up,

And “comparison” was one of them.

This was a man whose

First wife heroically gave birth

Twice

With no pain killers.

With my first son,

I had asked for every pain killer they had:

Gas,

Local topical anesthetic,

Epidural.

I wanted to try for

“Natural”

This time around,

But what if I couldn’t make it without

Pain killers,

And Joe would compare

This birth

To his older kids’ births,

And I would fall short?

As it turned out,

I did have Rocky with no pain killers

In a steadily progressing,

Eight-hour labor with

Twenty minutes of pushing.

(It’s funny to think of me

Worrying that I would be

Concerned with comparisons

During labor and delivery;

I had forgotten how completely

Consuming

The process of giving birth is.)

I didn’t dream

As a little girl

Of having

Two

Baby’s daddies

And a husband with

Private memories of the

Births of his first children

That I’m not a part of.

But now that Rocky’s born

The comparisons aren’t as scary.

The story’s been amended.

The tension of pregnancy

Released.

Life is good.

Life is peaceful.

Our family has taken its shape:

Yours,

Mine and

Ours.

Advertisements

Step parenting is hard

I broke my own rule the other night:

When Joe is disciplining my son,

And I don’t agree with what he’s saying

Or how he’s saying it,

I support him at the moment in order to provide a

Unified front,

And bring it up with him later,

In private,

In our bedroom,

After the kids are tucked into bed.

That’s the ideal.

But it didn’t work quite that way on Friday.

Me, Joe and my six-year-old Victor

Went to a circus-like burger and malt shop for dinner,

Magenta and azure murals of dancing cartoon figures on the walls,

Us glaze-eyed from a long week of school and work.

My boy wasn’t listening:

“Don’t run,”

And he’d run.

“Don’t put your burger on the table,”

And he’d put his burger on the table.

The more he didn’t listen,

The more Joe fixated on him not listening:

“If I have to talk to you

One more time,

You won’t get a root beer.”

Victor tried to climb into my lap.

“Mom, I get a root beer, right?”

“Not if Joe says you don’t,”

I said wearily.

It went on like this for a few minutes:

My boy lapped at his water like a dog,

And Joe told him not to.

My boy blew bubbles in his milk,

And Joe said, “Stop.”

I tried to restrain myself,

But I finally couldn’t.

My mouth just opened and

Brightly, I said to Joe,

“Let’s talk about what Victor’s done right today.”

Joe’s gaze swung across the formica table top

To me,

And then he and I started going at it:

“You need to lay off.”

“But he needs to listen.

It’s a safety issue.”

“But this isn’t working.”

“He’s doing it on purpose.”

“No he’s not. He’s six.”

“Well, something needs to change.”

“Does it? Is something wrong?”

And on and on.

So here’s the underpinning of this

Conflict:

Joe doesn’t love Victor like he’s his own son.

Victor has a dad,

And Joe has children.

Those roles are filled.

Same with me.

Joe’s kids have a mom;

They don’t need another one.

We both love our step kids;

But not in that

Blindly unconditional way we do our own.

When Victor doesn’t listen,

I assume he’s just a distracted six-year-old

Developmentally incapable of following

Every

Single

Direction

He’s given.

Joe sees some insolence,

Some intention in the behavior,

That would

Never

Occur to me.

The thing is,

We’re both right.

And sometimes,

We can both admit that.

Step parents can offer a lot:

They aren’t befogged by unqualified love–

Their objectivity can clarify the most

Confounding parental delusion.

Joe and I can do that for each other–

Not every time,

But enough to be hopeful.

Somehow,

On Friday,

It happened:

We had a productive conversation about

Step parenting

At the moment of disagreement,

In front of one of the kids.

I truly witnessed Joe’s face

Soften

With hurt feelings as he described how

Victor ignores his attempts to

Ask what happened at school

Or at wrestling practice.

And he listened

Non-defensively

To my points about

Developmentally normal behaviors

That don’t always need to be

Disciplined.

Afterwards,

It was Joe who was the lightest of all

Walking out of the restaurant,

Jokey with Victor, and flashing

Grateful looks in my direction.

So it worked

This time,

And for today.

Maybe it was the malts.

That’s not my name: Mrs. Joe Brzycki

It’s started

Just as I knew it would:

With Christmas cards the first holiday season

After the wedding

Addressed to

Mr. and Mrs. Joe Brzycki.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful,

Because I truly enjoy Christmas cards,

Even the drugstore ones with the dashed-off signature and nothing else.

But it makes me chuckle:

Mrs. Joe Brzycki?

There’s no such person.

I get it:

People assume that I changed my name,

Because that’s what most women do.

Or they don’t know my last name,

Or they know it but are unsure of the spelling.

Actually,

Of the three last names in our house,

Mine is probably the easiest to spell:

Brzycki (Joe and his kids),

Hietalahti (my son),

Niemela, (me).

I’ve thought about those smooth gray stones

You can order at the State Fair:

“Welcome to the Smiths!”

The neat and tidy family surname:

Everyone in the house with the same last name!

We’d need a boulder for all the names in our family.

But I love all our last names.

There’s a lot of history,

In the grand sense:

Polish and Scandinavian immigration to America–

And the modern dramatics of a blended family–

Marriage, kids, divorce, remarriage.

(And now another kid on the way who,

Incidentally,

Will have my last name

Because,

Why not?)

Here’s the deal,

Ladies:

I don’t care what you do.

Change it,

Keep it,

Hyphenate it,

Tack it on at the end,

Slip it into the middle,

Make up a whole new name so

Everyone has to get a new drivers license!

For me,

Ever since the age of eight or nine,

When I realized that

Most women take their husband’s names,

I knew I would keep mine.

I haven’t wavered in that.

Ever.

There are so many reasons I’ve kept my last name

Through one marriage and into another.

(Never had to change my passport

Once.)

Yes, it’s about

Gender politics,

Symbols, and–

Dare I say the F-word–

I’m gonna say it–

Feminism.

To me,

The idea of being Mrs. Joe Brzycki

Subsumes me into Joe

In a way that anyone who knows us

Would find absurd.

But I also kept my last name

Because I just like it.

I know what it means:

Peninsula, in Finnish.

I imagine a point wooded with pine and birch

Jutting into a clear,

Boulder-bottomed lake.

Like a Boundary Waters campsite.

I’m a writer.

Words–

Names are words–

Are important to me.

Not just the aesthetics of how a word looks

Or sounds.

But what words mean.

Why choose one word over another?

Loneliness,

Or solitude?

Brzycki,

Or Niemela?

Does it matter?

It does,

To me.

Professionally,

Personally,

Even as part of a family unit,

It’s my policy to keep a part of myself

Just for me.

And my own name,

From beginning to end,

Is a manifestation of that part of myself.

It’s like the

Silent,

Black

Space

Just before I fall asleep at night,

When no children,

No husband,

No job,

Need me.

The divine chemicals of sleep

Bathe my tired brain.

It’s just me: Jennifer Niemela

At rest.

But I don’t WANNA ask for help

Image from telegraph.co.uk

Got back Thursday night

After four nights on a business trip.

Took a taxi home from the airport through the

Dark streets of my city.

I came in the front door

And stood for a moment in the dimmed, quiet living room.

Then I went into my son’s room and let myself

Wake him up a little–

I couldn’t resist–

By rubbing the warm back under the shirt.

My son speaks in complete sentences

When you wake him up,

As if picking up in the middle of a conversation:

“Will you sleep down here tonight?”

“No, but I’ll check on you before I go to sleep.”

“Do I have school tomorrow?”

“Yes, tomorrow’s Friday. Go back to sleep now.”

And he does!

I hate being away from home overnight because

Yes, I miss my family,

But also because

When I’m gone on a school night,

I have to ask three or four people for help.

And I hate asking for help.

I have to ask Joe to change his schedule,

I have to ask my brother or dad to

Come over in the morning to

Get my son to the bus stop,

I have to ask a neighbor to take my son after school once or twice.

And of course I have to ask my son

To be good, don’t be sad

While I’m gone.

So many people inconvenienced,

I always think.

So I call Joe the second night and ask about my son,

“How is he?”

Expecting reports of tantrums and tears.

“He’s fine,” Joe says.

“I think it’s good for him to get some time with me.”

I get a voice mail from my brother:

“Hey it was nice to spend some time with him.

I don’t want to wake up at 6 everyday to do it,

But every once in a while,

It’s really cool.”

And the neighbor:

“Yeah, the boys played cars and it was great.”

And my boy after I got home:

Perfectly normal,

In fact, particularly well-behaved.

Unaffected, it would seem

By my absence.

(I forget:

I’m not as important as I think.)

The fact is,

I don’t want to ask for help.

I don’t want to owe you,

Or have you balk at my nervous request.

“No, no, we’re fine. I got it,”

Has been my mantra.

But,

If I don’t ask for help,

You don’t get the chance to help me.

It’s selfish to

Not

Ask for help.

I need to give you the opportunity to be of service,

And give my son the opportunity to have a

Different experience–

Without me.

It’s scary though.

What if you say no?

Well I guess I’ll find out on my next overnight trip:

The day after Halloween.

All Saints Day.

Give my brother the chance to grope for sainthood by

Waking up an hour early to come over and help get

My son to the bus stop.

You’re welcome, Doug.

The sacred lunch hour

My son comes home after a summer with his dad and

Everything changes

Schedule-wise.

That’s what I’m looking for, actually.

A wise schedule.

The one thing I know is

Exactly how to spend that

Workday lunch hour.

Five free hours per week.

No kids!

“I never know what to do with my lunch hour.

I just wander around the skyways.”

I’ve heard people say.

Not me.

I know exactly what do with it.

Lately,

It’s swimming laps at the YMCA,

Or today, writing my blog post.

Sometimes it’s a 12-step meeting.

Use that hour

Effectively.

‘Cause evenings and weekends,

They don’t belong to me.

Which is great.

I love the hectic family life.

But my lunch hour is sacred.

If I schedule a lunch with you,

I’m giving something up.

You don’t need to know that;

I’ve thought it out

And made the decision after some deliberation.

And once a week,

That’s not a big deal.

But I might say,

“Sorry,

I can’t this week.”

And the secret is,

It’s because I gotta

Hide at the corner table of a

Skyway cafe

With a styrofoam cup of soup,

A plastic spoon,

My journal,

And a pen.

An hour to gird up

For the ceaseless action of home life.

So if you see me sitting alone

At a two-top

In a skyway coffee shop,

Don’t go out of your way to say hello.

Believe me,

I won’t take it personally.

We can even pretend we didn’t see each other.

For all I know,

You’re on your way to your

Lunch hour hideout

For your own delicious

Hour of solitude.

Have a good one.

See you around.

Got my son back

People asked in the days before I left

To bring my boy home,

“Are you excited?”

“Yes,” I would say

Slowly.

“Of course.”

But the truth is,

It’s not excitement I feel.

It’s relief.

Relief because this

Separation

Is nearly at an end.

Relief because I’m nearly whole again,

Whereas when my boy is gone,

There’s a bit missing.

So excitement?

I don’t get excited about much these days.

I’m a tough sell.

Steadiness and

Peace,

My watchwords,

Preclude excitement

For good or bad.

Relief is the right word

Relief to squeeze the small body to me.

(It is painfully unnatural to

Not

Touch your child for

Months on end.

Painfully.)

My separation time is over for now,

Which means his father’s is just beginning.

At the airport

His father watches us go through security.

I hoist the boy up three or four times to wave.

His dad stays until he can’t see us anymore.

Six days till I get my boy back

On Friday, I fly to Finland to

Bring my son home.

We’ve been doing this for three years,

So I’ve got some experience with the

Airport reunion.

Last year

When I went to get him,

I hadn’t seen him in person for

Seven

Months.

(Every-other-day Skype chats

Make this all possible.)

At the Helsinki airport

I came out a different door than

He and his aunt were expecting.

As I came up from the side,

I could see him

Standing on his tiptoes,

Looking for me to come through the

Security doors.

Smiling.

He was smiling.

That’s important.

I grabbed him from the side;

He never saw me coming.

The body was stout and thicker than I remembered;

The giggling face rounder.

Leaving the airport,

He became shy with me and

Ran up to his aunt,

Grabbed her hand.

No way, I thought.

I scooped him up,

And gave him a fart kiss on his belly,

And he laughed,

And had no problem holding my hand after that.

After seven months in Finland

He wasn’t speaking any English.

There were times I had to ask his aunt or his father,

“What’s he saying?”

But I decided:

I’m the mom,

And I’m not going to waste one minute not acting like it.

I’m not going to

Ruminate on

What it means

That I have to ask someone to

Translate for my own son.

No.

Stop.

Act like the mom.

Take him to the bathroom.

Pay for his lunch.

Help him put his shoes on.

Choose his clothes, and help him get dressed.

Don’t stop and think.

No analysis and no self-pity.

(Even jet-lagged.)

Because there he was at a Helsinki park:

Scampering to the top of a small cliff,

The sun in his butter-yellow hair.

He pointed to where he wanted me to stand,

Then leaped off the rock,

Laughing,

His solid body hurtling toward me,

Completely trusting that I’ll catch him.

“Saada minut!” he yelled.

Get me!

I will, buddy.

That’s why I’m here.