Being a parent is hard. You’re literally responsible for another human being’s survival, but that’s not all. You also have to help them become a person- teach them about sharing, fairness, following the rules and listening to elders. Then you have to balance that against encouraging them to pursue their individuality, protect themselves, ask for what they want, and eventually break all the bullshit rules you taught them. It’s not easy.
It’s even harder as a step-parent. At least as a parent, you have a kind of automatic authority built in. This kid listens to you because you’ve been there every day, cared for them every day and loved them. They give you a hard time, but for the most part they yield to you. As a step-parent, you have to build a level of trust that took biological parents years in about a quarter of the time. I haven’t had to experience that yet, but my ex-wife’s husband has as the step-dad to my son. Gabe’s a good kid, but I didn’t envy the task of getting to know a seven year old.
At least those arrangements, fraught as they may be, have clear lines of relationship and authority. Parent, step-parent. Pretty easy to understand. But what’s the word for your brother’s father? What’s the relationship there?
When Zoraida told me she was pregnant, I started thinking about that. This isn’t my kid, so I don’t have any responsibility for her. But she’s going to be my son’s sister, so maybe I do? I mean, there were some obvious things. Don’t be a dick to this kid. If I’m with Gabriel and buy him ice cream and she’s around, buy her ice cream too. Duh. I was thinking more of the weird gray areas. Do I buy her a Christmas present when I get Gabe one? I take Gabriel places sometimes; when she’s old enough, do I invite her too? There are a bunch of other ones, but you get the idea. I knew from the beginning that I would treat my son’s sister well, but I didn’t know how I would actually relate to her. Who is she to me, and who would I be to her?
It was an academic question for most of the last two years. Soleil was a baby, so relating to her wasn’t a pressing issue. She got older, but I would only see her here and there when her parents would drop Gabriel off to my house for the weekend. Eventually I started paying for Gabe to take an Uber to my place, so I would go weeks or even months without seeing Soleil. Our interactions were reduced to the occasions where I would pick up or drop off Gabe with a friend, and I would play with Soleil for a few minutes. Still a baby, still only seeing her now and then. No need to worry about the stuff I’d been thinking about.
That changed when Gabriel got a sweet new PC setup for Christmas, and asked me to go to his mother’s house to see it. I was ostensibly there to watch him play Fortnite in stretched 1080×1080 resolution, but Soleil easily dominated my attention. She was coming down with a cold, and boogers were running down her face like a contaminated river. I wiped her nose a few times, and made the big mistake of calling them “gross boogers.” Well, now that Soleil knew I thought they were gross, her mission became to gross me out as much as possible. She accomplished this by digging up her nose and then wiping her boogers on me, cackling the whole time. Exposing me to disease was the funniest thing possible to Soleil, so I had to find some way to distract her. I grabbed her and put her on my shoulders, and pretended like I was going to drop her several times. My second big mistake. For the rest of the visit she would walk up to me and say, “I want to go in the sky!” I was sick and my quads were burning by the time I took Gabe to my place.
That was it. Before I knew it, I was talking to Zoraida about Soleil and how we could best help her when she got into school. Soleil is a rambunctious, physically active child, and schools don’t do well with rambunctious, physically active children, especially girls. We would have to be prepared for the possibility that she wouldn’t do well in school, not because of a lack of ability, but because schools simply aren’t built to accommodate willful, active children.
Wait. Why am I using “we?” This isn’t my kid. She has two active and involved parents, and extended family that are pouring time, money and attention into her. They don’t really need me throwing my two cents in, unsolicited at that. There are clear boundaries that I intend to respect, both as the ex-husband and as someone with no blood relation to this child. But I’m interested in this kid’s success because I like her. I like her alot.
I’ve joked that no one will ever believe that Soleil and Gabriel are related. Who would believe that this vaguely Puerto Rican-looking kid is the brother of an Asian girl nine years younger than him? They couldn’t look more different if we’d tried. Their differences extend far past their physical appearance too. Gabriel never played with Legos, while Soleil builds skyscrapers in her free time. Gabriel likes to read books and talk about them with his mom, while Soleil is more likely to pick up a screwdriver and try to fix a computer like her dad. Gabe was a chillaxed, go-with-the-flow baby and remains that way as an older kid; whenever I call Zoraida, I can hear Soleil carrying on in the background, demanding that everything be just so.
Soleil is so different than Gabriel, and that’s one of the things I like about her so much. It’s fascinating to watch her grow and develop into her own person that’s related to my son, but entirely distinct thanks to genetics and environment. I like her because she’s spunky and combative, mischievous and even a little mean. She beats up Gabriel regularly, and made no qualms about letting me know who was in charge when I came to her house. Yeah, she’s my son’s sister, and yeah, children are the future blah blah blah. I’m invested in this kid because she’s actually pretty fucking cool.
And she likes me too! The last time I talked to Zoraida, I could hear her shouting in the background as usual. Then she got quiet as she approached her mom. “I want to talk to Jamil!” she said. How she knew it was me on the phone, I have no idea, but she did. Apparently, she’s been asking for me since the visit to her house.
So yeah, 2019 has already graced me with a new BFF, a booger-wielding, tower-building, brother-abusing maniac. I can’t wait until the next time I see her, and I’m just as excited to see what kind of adult she becomes as I am for my son. In the meantime, if you can think of a word for “my brother’s father” that we can use to describe this budding relationship, I’m all ears.