So how have things turned out in our complex family?Terrific!My daughter, now almost 23, has graduated from college and is working in Washington; my 19-year-old son is a freshman in college.My wife and I spent last year together in Beijing, and this year she is working in the US. My kids' real dad is still in Vermont with his wife and two small children. My children say that they have four parents and more than twice as many grandparents. Everyone, while still grounded in our unusual family structure,is striving to develop independent, productive lives, motivated by curiosity and passion, directed toward doing some good in the world.
Why does our family seem to have worked? I think it's because we talked to each other all the time, about anything and everything. No topic was off limits, no subject was too embarrassing or too controversial; no mistake or good deed, no conflict or success passed without comment or analysis. We asked questions. We gave answers. We criticized. Sometimes we fought. But we always talked. We listened and we each expected to be listened to.
We learned from each other. But I do not mean to give you the idea that talk is all it takes to be a good parent or stepparent. Parenting occurs on a constantly changing field. Children who are angels one day may be monsters the next day. They can exercise judgement and show a wisdom that affirms all the teaching and talking and discipline, and the next day throw a snowball through the church window or carve their name in an antique.
Fortunately it was never my goal to supplant their real father in their affection. They always called me Dan and were sweet to me, but there was a gap that would not close; they were just a bit reluctant to engage in things with only me. One day a couple of monthssintosour life together, the kids and I were riding our bicycles around the neighborhood. David started to fuss about being tired, then hungry, then bored, and Jane provoked him by assuming an air of maternal superiority. An argument broke out, and for the first time I spoke to them sternly. Listen, I said, you don't have to think of me as your father - I'm not interested in replacing him. But I am married to your mother. I know you didn't have any choice in this matter, but here we are, living together. As an adult I have a responsibility to look out for your wellbeing, which includesshavingssome fun together. So I'm probably going to act like a parent until you're grown up. We might as well find ways to get along. So, right now, what do you want to do: go home or ride your bikes?They both chose to ride on, and we had a great time that afternoon. I think they were relieved to hear me say that I was not trying to replace their real father.
I don't think either of them ever questioned my love for them. I always told them that I loved them, but it was perhaps even more important that I talked to them, listened to them, respected them and made no special demands on their loyalty.
Yet this analysis is so glib, so incomplete. The truth is more complicated. Of course our sane resolve to avoid the horrors of some divorces and some stepfamilies was essential. But let's be honest: luck was also on our side. Health has never been a problem, and my stepchildren have known a host of older relatives. Their real father and stepmother are both college professors with doctorates. My wife, with an MA, has been a school administrator for over twenty years. Reading, writing, analyzing, problem-solving and philosophizing have always been part of my children's daily life. And my stepchildren were encouraged to dream, and taught that their dreams could come true.They were encouraged to work hard, and told by their society that their hard work would lead to a good life. They have expected a good life. But any child from any country would turn out well with such abundant good fortune.
I have always thought that being a parent had little to do with biological connections. For one thing, there are so many bad parents who are biological parents. And history is full of nurturing adult-child relationships that have nothing to do with blood. As for the perpetuation of a name, what is one Warthman or Wang more or less in the world? My stepchildren will perpetuate whatever they think is important - things from me, their mother, their father, their stepmother, their teachers, their friends. What makes me happy is that they are independent thinkers, insightful and perceptive, clear-headed; that they are kind; that they care about the world and its people. I am honored to be a part of their lives, to be able to claim them as my family.