Almost every day I find myself repeating the mantra, “not my monkeys, not my circus.” The actual saying is, “not my circus, not my monkeys,” but for me it is the other way around and takes on a pretty literal sense. For those of you who have never heard the expression, it essentially means, “not my problem,” or “none of my business,” and “don’t get involved.” But what if it is kind of my business, and what if they are sort of my “monkeys?”
I am certain that step-parents have struggled with this for as long as there have been step-parents. There are so many blurred lines of responsibility and love that come with marrying someone who has kids. To love someone so completely, then to be expected to take a backseat when it comes to the little beings that they love more than anything in the entire world; it’s impossible. That love doesn’t just stop at your partner, it trickles down in a big way. So, where are the lines? What can I care about, and what can I help with?
For some context, I am what some people might call a “fixer.” I definitely have some co-dependent tendencies and although I’m aware of them, I have a hard time turning them off in certain circumstances. If someone is struggling, I need to help. I need to “fix” it. If something is unjust, or just plain wrong, I want everyone to see the truth. I want the trespassers to be held accountable – I want justice.
With this is mind, imagine an unimaginable outcome for something that seemed so clear. Imagine the person you love, and the people that he/she loves the most, being wrongfully punished and destined to a future that will almost certainly damage them. Imagine the path of dozens of people’s lives changing completely over the course of 16 hours in court. Imagine hearing, “my kids are being moved 400 miles away next week,” and not being able to find the words to make it feel better – because nothing could ever make it feel better.
I was at a conference called Dreamforce in 2017 when I got that phone call. Over one hundred thousand people gathered to learn, collaborate, and celebrate. I was sitting in a giant auditorium. So many people were talking that I couldn’t focus in to listen to one specific voice. The building was bustling as I sat there in shock. How could this happen? I asked myself over and over again. How could the hundreds of pages of evidence go ignored? How could the judge not see the truth? How could such a monumental decision be made for a two and a four year old without a full evaluation of the situation? And what now?
I felt a sense of grief wash over me that mimicked the feeling I‘d had when learning of a loved one’s death. My blood boiled and my heart broke within each passing minute. And then I thought of Eli, and how he must have felt. He sat through hours of lies and gross exaggerations, of being made out to be an uninvolved father, of looking at someone who he had trusted and had married, only to see that it was all fake. It was all part of a larger plan that he had been completely blind to. When I finally got home to him, I tried to be strong, but somehow, he ended up comforting me.
That night, and over the weeks following, my brain went into overdrive trying to find solutions. Appeal, have a psych evaluation ordered, have a complete custody evaluation where background checks were done, review prior lawsuits, have professionals observe each parent’s time with the children – take a closer look. Text messages from the years past should have been reviewed so that all of the patterns and behaviors could be brought to light. If only we had tens of thousands of dollars to pay for those evaluations – to pay for more time – the decision could have been overturned. But we didn’t. So it wasn’t.
Months had passed before I could settle into what would be our new reality. Although they weren’t my kids, and although I barely knew them when they were moved away at the end of February, 2018, I felt like a piece of my heart was ripped out. I looked at Eli, day after day, knowing that a huge part of him was missing. He had been robbed of his most important duty in life – one of the key things that made him, “him.” Not only did he not get to be a Father day in, and day out like he had done for the last four years, but his children, and his time with them, was at the mercy of someone who had a completely different perception of reality.
From what I had seen firsthand, I had no doubt that Eli would get through this and persevere. And he did – he does everyday. He takes the situation, and makes the absolute best of it. Instead of focusing on the pain, or on the time they have lost, he writes down his goals, he talks about our plans, and he looks on the bright side. So why did/do I feel so horrible? Why does this get to me the way it does? P and Z were not, and still aren’t my kids, so why do I feel compelled to “fix” this?
Enter my total and complete love for, and faith in my husband. I see him parenting my kids almost every day, and let me tell you something – he is a GREAT dad. Like, not just a good dad, not just an involved dad, he is a truly amazing parent. He is patient, kind, thoughtful, fun, and incredibly engaged. He has an ability to think big-picture when the kids (and myself) are in the weeds. When there is an argument or a tantrum, or pretty much any crying over anything, he has the foresight to stop for a second and think about what he can teach them in that moment.
To know that his kids don’t get to benefit from being with him frequently, even half of the time, is infuriating. There are a ton of lousy, and even abusive parents out there who have the luxury (whether they want it or not) to parent, and to make a difference in their children’s lives every single day. Then, there are good parents who don’t appreciate the fact that they get to see their kids every day, or every week. These parents don’t understand what it feels like to have someone fighting aggressively to limit their children’s time with them, to break their bond, and damage their relationship. I was one of these naive parents. Before I witnessed what Eli goes through on a daily basis, I couldn’t even fathom what that would feel like. But now I see it – and it kills me.
It’s not fair, and it’s not right, and that is why I care. That is why I can’t simply separate myself from the conflict, or the “circus,” if you will. I care because I know that his kids deserve to have him daily, or weekly at the very least. He can, with enough time with them, single-handedly change the course of their lives for the better. He alone can restore their sense of normalcy and consistency. I want those kids to be as happy, stable, dedicated, and fulfilled as their Dad. I also want them to be allowed to be their own people, not simply an extension of someone else. They deserve that opportunity.
So, is this me being selfish? Are my intentions pure? To answer this question, which I revisit frequently, I visualize a possible reality… If his kids lived with us, even part time, our lives would change dramatically. Most days, we would have 4 kids to pick up and drop off at school. We would have 4 kids with after-school activities, we would have 4 kids with friends’ birthday parties to go to. We would have to volunteer in 4 kids’ classrooms and help 4 kids with nightly homework. We would have to stock the fridge every week for FOUR kids.
And you know our date nights, and our “alone time” that I talked about in earlier posts? Well, yeah, those would be gone. And so would the decision that we have now of possibly having an “ours” baby. With 4 kids around pretty much all the time, all of their “stuff”, and the cost of all of their activities, welcoming a new baby into the family just wouldn’t be an option. You get where I’m going, right? A lot of sacrifices would need to be made.
But even with all of that change, all of that sacrifice, the extra costs, the lack of enough hours in a day, etc., I will continue to work tirelessly towards the chance at welcoming P and Z home with open arms. Why? Because I love them, and I want what is best for them. That is how I know that my motives are good. It’s not about winning or losing. It’s not about pride, or about punishment. It is about love and hope. So although they are not technically my “monkeys,” I will suffer through the manic, unpredictable, demented circus if it means that I may be able to give my step-kids the life that they deserve.