The Car Seat

This week marks our three-year anniversary (my favorite holiday). Since APW (of course) started as me writing about our planning and wedding, anniversary week always makes me particularly thoughtful. How does our wedding (now three years ago) relate to our marriage? How do relationships change and grow? So this week we wanted to talk about an idea that’s integral to all long-term relationships: The Breaking Point. That point where you come upon something that can either break you, or make you whole. This week, we’re exploring how major events can enrich a relationship. And first up, we have A., writing about becoming a stepmom to a seven-year-old, at thirty-two.

Wedding planning traditionally involves shopping for silver, linen, and crystal. Flowers, candy, and jewelry are typically considered to be romantic gifts. Three weeks after moving in with my fiancé, he went out while I was at work and bought something for me: a pink car booster seat. I arrived home to find it in the foyer. He had picked it out with his seven-year-old daughter, my future stepdaughter, for use in my car when she rides with me.

I will admit right now that my first reaction was not positive. I am very glad to have my future stepdaughter, S., in my life. She’s funny, smart, and eternally curious. I enjoy her company, and I feel like we’re doing a pretty good job figuring out this whole living together as a family unit thing. But a car seat… in my car? My sporty single-girl truckette, now to be turned into a child-hauling grocery-getter?

A note of explanation on my relationship to my vehicle: My petite four-wheel-drive is practical, cute, and ready for adventure—words that I hope also describe me. It’s not just a prized possession, paid off early through years of scrimping, but also one of my most personal spaces. Lacking a private study or home office, my car is the place where I can be by myself, crank up the music, and think. As in so many other areas, we have a gender role reversal in our relationship, as my fiancé couldn’t care less about cars, while I tend to view mine as an integral part of my lifestyle (especially living in an area where public transit is not viable for our daily commutes). Suddenly, confronted by the brightly colored child safety device sitting in my new home, destined for a place in my motorized sanctuary, my head was spinning and the past few weeks of remarkably little moving-related tension seemed to fall away.

I had driven S. places before, but had always just borrowed the booster seat out of her dad’s car. The purchase of a new car seat for my vehicle was precipitated by a commuting crunch. He’s a professor at the university in the next town over, and is teaching an 8 a.m. class this summer. That means he has to leave early, and on the days we have S. with us, it would be impossible for him to get her to her summer day camp on time, plus make it to class. My work starts later and is near her camp, so it follows that I drop her off when she is with us. Thus it also follows that it made sense to buy an extra car seat for my vehicle.

Because I’ve always been cautious about the idea of parenthood or stepparenthood, we had, prior to moving in, tried to keep clear boundaries drawn around the work of parenting. He’s the parent and I have been, in sequence, Daddy’s friend, girlfriend, and now fiancée. But I have never been a parental figure, to her or to anyone, up to this point. In fact, I would go so far as to say that being childless has been a defining point of my identity. In a society that encourages women to define themselves by their child-having status, and when you are of an age when many of your friends are having kids, it becomes easy to define yourself as “not-a-mom,” and to incorporate non-motherhood into your self-concept.

The thing is, now that we’ve moved in together as a baby family, the lines are blurring, physically and emotionally. The physical manifestations of this blurriness are easy to point out: We eat groceries out of the same pantry. We share a mailbox. Possessions like towels, vacuum cleaners, flatware, and dishes are now held in common regardless of who originally bought them.

The emotional blurriness is harder to pin down. I do mundane parent-y things now, like asking S. to set the table and reminding her not to jump on the sofa. We also do fun things as a trio—like volunteering at the local food pantry together, taking walks that detour through the neighbors’ lawn sprinklers, and planning Princess Bride movie nights. S. and I have found common ground in a mutual love of glittery nail polish and history books. Slowly, the lines that once separated us into two distinct social units—him and her as family with me as a visitor—are starting to get fuzzy.

As I’ve discussed before on APW, the decision to marry my fiancé is also a deliberate decision to create a family with him and S. Like any engaged couple, we’re creating a baby family—it just has more people in it than some, and thus is a little more complicated in the set-up.

As we prepared to move in together, we took inventory of our possessions and decided which items we could get rid of. Some things were easy—having two identical Ikea garlic presses meant we just had to put one in the charity box. Other things were harder. I gave up my favorite napping sofa. He gave up his 1960s sleeper couch and his bedroom dresser. Some negotiations over objects seemed little, but were actually kind of a big deal. I made the decision to use his fruit bowl in the kitchen, although I liked mine a bit better, because he was attached to it; he puts up with my enormous collection of FiestaWare dishes, to which I have my own unreasonable emotional attachment.

Feelings are a different matter. Difficult emotions aren’t as easily discarded as a spare spatula. We can’t transfer our feelings by putting them in a charity drop box. And we can’t compromise on everything as easily as where we put our apples. So we have to talk about how we feel—ad nauseum, it sometimes feels like.

While walking and talking with my fiancé, I confessed that I felt a little weird about the car seat. The thing was, as long as I was just borrowing his car seat, I was also just borrowing the mantle of “parent” and all that goes with it. With the installation of the booster in my backseat, it felt like I was taking it on full-time, and that freaked me out.

My fiancé found this kind of amusing because, as he noted, our culture tells us that men are afraid of parenthood, marriage, and “settling down,” while women push for it. Here we were, reenacting a clichéd scene in reverse. I was the one balking at the idea of any trappings of domesticity, from putting a car seat in my car, to having dinner on the table at a reasonable time every evening (a big change for someone who used to eat cereal for dinner when feeling too lazy to cook). Although he found this funny, I wasn’t laughing—I was a little scared, as I felt like I was being pushed into a mold that didn’t fit, needing to compromise who I had been for most of my adult life in order to accommodate our relationship and impending marriage.

Then, this morning, as I was driving S. to camp, her sitting in her pink-flowered car seat, I cranked up the radio. She said, “I know this song!” and started to sing along. I sang too.

She said, “My mom and dad always just listen to news in the morning.”

“I like to listen to music, to get going,” I said.

“Me too!” she responded.

So, we jammed to Top 40 the rest of the way to camp. I was doing things differently than her parents, and that was okay. We were having fun together, doing what I always do in my car in the mornings. I was being myself, and she was being herself. We were getting glimpses into each other’s worlds as I listened to her talk about her friends, and she approved my choice of morning drivetime music.

Just as our stuff has gotten mixed up since moving in, our lives are all becoming ever more swirled together. Growing our baby family doesn’t start when we say our vows next Spring—it starts now, through every small act of daily life. There are going to be concessions made, emotional fences dismantled, and self-concepts redefined. The process may get messy at times, just as our new home started as a mess of jumbled boxes. But as my future mother-in-law said, if we can blend our lives as well as we have blended our possessions, we’ll be okay.

And I have to say, I think S. liked having her own seat in my car this morning. I certainly liked having her there. Next time I think I’ll bring some Cyndi Lauper (one of her favorites and mine). Girls just want to have fun, after all, whether they’re seven years old and getting a new stepmom, or thirty-two years old and becoming one.

Photo from A’s Personal Collection

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