For someone who hates math, I have a surprising fondness for equations. 1+2=3, and that’s a guarantee. You can apply this mindset to a recipe, a proof, or a science formula, but it’s a hard thing to administer in real life.
Especially when you’re dating a father.
There are four sides to this story. Mine, my boyfriend’s, his ex, and their son. You and me and baby make three, except not always. In my case, we’re four. Four brains with their own agendas, four bodies chasing their desires, four mouths struggling to speak, and four hearts susceptible to break.
I was the free spirit—career-oriented, nomadic, and serially single. I never thought I’d fall in love with a dad.
I never imagined myself as Dad’s Girlfriend. Before dating John* those words immediately conjured up either a very beautiful or very ugly woman with nasty plans: Cinderella’s Wicked Stepmother, The Parent Trap’s greedy Meredith Blake, the Evil Queen in Snow White … and me? Uh, no. I was the free spirit, the girl who worked in coffee shops, turned her car into a camper, and slept on couches and in national parks. I was career-oriented, nomadic, and serially single. I never thought I’d fall in love with a dad.
When I met John at a wedding, I knew he had a son. He talked about his kid with a special combination of warmth and pride, the sort of emotions that allow a neat freak’s living room to end up littered with plastic trucks. John and I danced until the DJ left, talked for hours, and stole a bottle of Trader Joe’s Cherry Blossom wine from the kitchen after everyone else had gone to bed. I still have the red stains on my bridesmaid dress.
Fast forward to a year later. It’s a Friday night, and John and I are cozying up to watch Forgetting Sarah Marshall on his couch. John has just offered me bites of an orange from homemade Manhattans, made with the good whiskey I bought for his birthday and citrus the color of a nearly collapsed sunset. We’re in comfy clothes, our limbs folded over one another in the puzzle-piece way that comes from relaxed intimacy. Then there’s a knock at the door.
Even though she’s not in the room, I can feel the energy of his ex all around us.
It’s nearly ten p.m. and I can’t imagine who it is. John gets up to open it and through the crack I see a woman in uniform holding a thick packet of paper.
“I just filled these out,” John says, confused. “I already sent them back.
“I’m just delivering them, sir,” the woman says. “Have a good night.”
Child support papers. It’s the second time they’ve come, I learn, and they must be hand delivered. Even at 10 p.m. on a Friday night.
John spends seventy percent of the week with Ben, his son, and provides for his childcare and health insurance, but in these papers his ex is listed as the primary guardian. Frustration fills our lungs, thick air that prevents us from talking. I can feel fear coming off him like cold mist. And, even though she’s not in the room, I can feel the energy of his ex all around us, too.
The weeks following our wedding meet-cute were filled with playful text messages and late night phone conversations. I lived in Portland so John flew up from his home in Los Angeles for weekend visits. I showed him my favorite coffee shops and we wandered the rainy streets after the lazy breakfasts he cooked for me.
In our respective cities, we were glued to our phones; we drank in one another’s messages like we once drank that Cherry Blossom wine, drunk on hunger and infatuation. We shared our fear of failure, our yearning for adventure, and our histories of independence.
“This feels special,” I told him. It was. It is.
My job, a contracted position in television, was ending. The option for me to move back to Los Angeles floated into our conversations.
Would I move for him?
I thought of the roasted sweet potatoes he made me; the night he picked me up in the middle of the street to swing me in a circle.
Could I see myself being with this person?
I remembered how he made beer come out of my nose from laughing so hard.
My yes was as clear as the Portland summer sky.
And then a second, bigger question.
Could I see myself as a stepmother?
I watched John swing his son above a fountain, the water gliding through both of their fingers. I fell in love all over again.
When my Portland job came to an end I flew to California to accompany John to a wedding. On the same trip I met his son.
We met in a park. Ben, who was just over one-and-a-half years old, brought me a pink camellia twice the size of his fist. I wore a blue and white dress. When I saw them approach, Ben perched on a small stroller-bike, the world felt as if it were moving in slow-motion. I watched John swing his son above a fountain, the water gliding through both of their fingers. Seeing John hold the miracle he made—on a day that he likely thought was as ordinary as any other—made him seem heroic to me. I fell in love all over again.
I moved to L.A. and landed a dream position at my dream company. I couldn’t have planned it better.
But there was another person I needed to meet. The partner in the unexpected project that was Ben: his mother, Kay.
We met outside of a Starbucks on a day that was warm even for Southern California. Sweat formed on both of our brows. Hands that had both held John’s nervously fingered the straws in our plastic cups. Kay warned me about John’s spending habits, instructed me on what she wanted Ben to eat, and told me she was uncomfortable with me sleeping over. She also told me she liked me and wanted to have us over for dinner. Maybe even that night?
Exhausted, overwhelmed, and dehydrated, I came back to John.
“Are we still together?” he promptly asked, only slightly kidding.
I chugged a glass of water.
There are many online lists of “What it Means to Date a Dad” and I have read nearly all of them.
He will always put his son first. Of course.
Know that the ex will be in his life forever. Obviously!
It will be impossible to gross a dad out. Totally true. I know this because John does my laundry.
A buttoned-up list could not prepare me for the tidal wave of conflicting emotions that have come with entering a divided family. My reality is not a listicle or a Pinterest post. My life with Ben and Kay and John is frustrating, beautiful, ugly, exhausting, elevating, immensely rewarding, and scary. It’s nothing I read online. It’s nothing I could have planned.
I am afraid we will have to make plans around his ex’s desires and ambitions. I am afraid to have children of my own with her in the picture. I am afraid I am too afraid.
Dating a dad means possession. I didn’t notice it at first, but Kay is everywhere: her art on the walls, her end tables in the corner. I beg John to rid her things from the house, but Kay is stubborn.
“What do you want me to do?” John asks. “Leave them on her front step?”
No, I don’t really want that. I consult Google and find a Facebook group of stepmoms and step-girlfriends. That’s not normal, they tell me. She needs to get her shit out. You’re the girlfriend now. I am a new level of territorial.
Dating a dad is normal. We go away for long weekends to Lake Arrowhead and play chess by a campfire. We fight over his bad habits and my indecision. I watch him sleep in a hospitable bed when he contracts bacterial meningitis. He comes rushing when a Hyundai slams into my Nissan in a dark intersection. We make eggs. We fight over dishes. We take care of each other. We go through shit. We grow.
Dating a dad is scary. I am afraid of falling short of John’s expectations, and I’m afraid of being a bad stepmom. I’m afraid Ben won’t like me when he’s older and of what could happen if John and I break up and I never get to see Ben again. I am afraid we will have to make plans around Kay’s desires and ambitions; that my career goals will be considered selfish; and that I will never get to make my own decisions again. I am afraid to have children of my own with Kay in the picture. I am afraid I am too afraid.
Dating a dad means falling in love twice. I break when I see parts of John in Ben’s face, in his words, in the way he lays on the couch and eats a snack. I am destroyed when he holds my face in his tiny hands and says, “I love you so much. We are happy.”
Jobs will come and go, custody cases might happen, and child support papers may arrive in the middle of the night. The smile of a young child might just pierce your soul and fill it with light.
Dating a dad means relinquishing control. I don’t want to make decisions based on Kay’s life, and she doesn’t want to make decisions around mine. I beg John for formulas, solving for an equation that doesn’t exist.
“You like guarantees,” John tells me one night as we stare soberly at each other from across the bedroom. “And those don’t truly exist.”
He’s right. Guarantees don’t exist. Jobs will come and go, custody cases might happen, and child support papers may arrive in the middle of the night. The smile of a young child might just pierce your soul and fill it with light. The answers to our questions might not reveal themselves until years later.
Dating a dad means dating John. A few weeks ago, we drove up to Joshua Tree for a last-minute camping trip. There were no available campsites, so we booked something quickly off HipCamp. The ground was hard, we’d forgotten our mattress pad, and the wind was so strong our tent nearly blew away; we couldn’t hear one another speak over the shrill pierce of the air smashing into the polyester walls. We shared a glance and got to work. If we can handle our lives back at home, the look said, we can handle anything.
That night, we slept in the car. It was not part of the plan. The best things rarely are.