Lottie and I walk to the bus stop together every morning. It’s about a third of mile, and we spend the time admiring the the trees, spotting deer and chatting about the day ahead. Topics are wide and free ranging, and because it’s just the two of us and the dog, often include Lottie’s worries and deeply private eight year-old thoughts. Not today, though. Today’s topics included our outfits and planning playdates.
The conversation on our outfits focused mostly on mine. Lottie’s was reportedly “on point.” My outfit required more discussion. Apparently you’re not supposed to wear the same thing you wore yesterday to the bus stop, even if it is clean, and right-side out this time (“good job on that, Mom”). Although, in my defense, the fact that I am upright and talking sociably, with no coffee or other stimulant, and clothed at all should be a win. Not naked = dressed appropriately at the bus stop in my book. I digress.
The playdate conversation was much more noteworthy. Lottie wanted to invite two new dance friends over next weekend. Lottie seems to have lots of friends at school and dance, but rarely invites new people home. Her best friends are two sets of sisters she’s known since she was very little, girls who witnessed the divorce, moves and remarriages. Girls who don’t require her to explain her family. Those girls are invited over often, and staples at parties, but new girls or boys don’t often make the cut.
That’s largely the same for the other kids, too. Most of the friends we have over are ride-or-die besties, the ones who’ve had front row seats at our family’s transition. They’re comfortable with both sets of parents, know both houses, and understand the schedule. Their parents are too. Simon once told me, right after Gabe and I married, that he didn’t want to have his friends over to our house because “all these people are too hard to explain.” Somehow, even though 50% of marriages end in divorce, we can count the other blended families we know of on one hand.
We’ve tried to make it easier on the children. We have a huge summer party every year where each of the six children invites three friends AND their families. For those of you doing the math at home, that means we have a group of nearly a hundred people over. The sole purpose of that rager (as much as a summer afternoon family party with photo props and crafts can be called a rager) is to introduce new kids and parents to our family, help them understand our dynamics and see our home without putting each kid in the position of explaining over and over that this is one of their two homes, these are some of their stepsiblings, etc. The party is much-anticipated and a well-loved tradition, but it hasn’t altered our playdate playlist much.
As we walked, Lottie asked if I would text her new friends’ mothers. I agreed almost before she was finished asking, and spent the rest of the walk wishing my little one didn’t feel so alone on this blended family topic.
And then, almost instantly, the universe granted my wish.
We have a new little girl at the bus stop. Laney is a year younger than Lottie, and she just moved into the neighborhood. She lives with her mom and dad and two little brothers and sits next to Lottie on the bus. Their friendship is the shy new stuff of whispered hi’s and admired backpacks.
Laney wasn’t on the bus earlier this week, and Lottie and I were missing her. She appeared today, hopping happily out of her dad’s car to say hello and wait with us.
“We missed you, Laney,” I said. “I hope you’re feeling okay.” Laney didn’t look at me. “I’m okay,” she said to the grass. “I was just at my dad’s the last two days.” She avoided my eyes in a way I know well. That’s how Lottie looks when she is begging people not to notice that she just let it slip that her family is different from theirs. Please just move on, don’t ask me any questions about what I just said, please let me be just like you. But because we are just like Laney, I didn’t move on. “Oh,” I said brightly. “Lottie stays with her dad every other week. She always comes to and from the bus stop with me, but she spends half the time with her daddy.”
I watched this sameness sink in for these two little girls. I saw Lottie look at the car, where the man she thought was Laney’s dad sat. “Is that your stepdad?” she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she continued “I have a stepdad too. His name is Gabe. He comes to the bus stop sometimes.” Laney looked right at Lottie and asked “Do you have the same days with your dad? I have different days every week because of his work schedule.” “I have the same days,” Lottie replied, “but our schedule changed this summer. Do you go to your dad’s with your brothers?” “Only one,” Laney said. “My other brother is a step.” Lottie laughed. “I have SO MANY siblings,” she said. “I have four brothers, two are step.” “I don’t think I could take that many brothers,” replied Laney, shaking her head sagely. “It’s tough,” Lottie agreed.
This. This, where it’s the brothers that are tough, not the stepfamily. This, where two little girls bravely broach the topic they both think makes them different and find they are the same. This is the stuff that moves us forward, that helps us heal.
The girls got on the bus, chatting animatedly, and the dog and I turned and headed home. As I walked, I thought about the secret biker wave that motorcyclists use to greet each other on the road. Gabe taught me about it when we first started dating and I was anxious to learn everything I could about my badass biker boyfriend (he’s was a banker at the time, so not actually THAT badass). The signal is not visible to car drivers, but conveys a lot of information to other bikers. Today made me wish that there was a secret blended or stepfamily hand signal kids could flash each other. One that didn’t attract attention or set them apart from other children, but that allowed them to recognize each other and belong. I’ll work on developing that right after I change my shirt and set up these playdates.