“YOU KNOW WE’RE totally screwed, don’t you?” my husband said as he flopped backward onto the bed. It was our first night together as a new, blended family.
At first, I was stunned. And then I figured maybe he was just joking, as he was prone to do, in an overwhelmed, I-can’t-believe-we-did-this sort of way. So I started to laugh, and couldn’t stop. But when I looked over and saw the catatonic expression on his face, his eyes deadpanned at the ceiling, I realized he was drop-dead serious, and scared out of his mind.
“Oh, come on,” I said through my laughter tears. “It’ll be fun! You and me against the world, right?” I said, reminding him of the song I often sang to him.
We had just joined the statistically doomed ranks of the second-married. Both of us had endured heartrending loss at the abandonment of our first, temple-sealed spouses. Each of us had weathered court dramas and years of single parenthood. He’d first noticed me on an LDS singles site and had sent me a message, which read simply, “You shine.” Just two words. Something about those first words intrigued me. Our first conversation had us still enthralled over the long distance phone lines when my children woke up in the morning. As the weeks passed we both developed painful “telephone elbow,” and we both burned out the batteries in every cordless handset we owned.
Within eight ridiculously long-short weeks we were married by my former bishop in a lovely outdoor ceremony in Midway, Utah, surrounded by family and our five children. Two were his; three were mine. I put my house in Draper up for sale and we all moved to Los Angeles, where my husband had been living and working as an actor. But the house didn’t sell for months. The company my husband worked for as his “day job” transferred ownership and laid him off. Suddenly we had two houses to pay for, seven mouths to feed, and no income. And then I got pregnant. That was just the beginning.
Nobody tells you how difficult a second marriage will be. Nobody tells you that you won’t instantly love your stepchildren, and worse, you may not even like them at times. No one warns you that it’s unnatural to place loyalty for your new spouse above loyalty for your own children, and that resentment grows faster than weeds. We’d only been married a month when I realized I did not come first in his heart. He reserved that place for his two children, guarding it fiercely, after a multi-year court battle that finally resulted in joint custody. He was making up for lost time. The first time he believed his child’s word against mine, no questions asked, I was devastated.
My husband is also a free-spirited, young-at-heart dad who cares little for routines. He likes to indulge the kids in late-night play, video games, junk food, and candy. I, however, thrive on a more traditional family structure that includes seated meals together, assigned chores, and scheduled bedtimes. In my fantasy, he and I would become the center of our newly formed solar system, all our children happily orbiting us. He would see the wisdom of my way, and his life, along with the lives of his children, would be blessed. In reality, our differences created a stark division in the family: Him and His, Me and Mine. Our solar system hurled out of orbit.
Even as lifelong members of the Church, we struggled to agree on how to keep the commandments. Our versions of modesty differed. Our definitions of “regular” scripture study and family home evening didn’t match. We couldn’t agree on how much prayer was too much prayer. Our standards of appropriate movies, television programs, and video games didn’t line up. Sabbath day practices became one of our most polarizing arguments. My tradition included staying indoors, no television or video games, and no friends on Sunday. But he wasn’t used to such stringent observances, and the children honed in on the fissure between us. As a result, the Sabbath was blown to hell every week with resentful, griping children; a bitter husband; and a well-intentioned, but steaming, wife. Nothing “holy” about it—even I could see that. As we worked through our differences, we would put out one fire only to find ourselves standing in another, and another.
I sometimes wondered quietly to myself and out loud to God if this second marriage was the right decision, and if so, why was it so hard? We tried to find help, but rare is the marriage counselor who is truly adept at handling the complicated emotions and logistics of a blended family. Giving up sometimes seemed the only solution. We spent hours in the bishop’s office hoping for divine intervention, wisdom beyond our own.
The repeated image remains fixed in my mind: I give my side, he gives his. He sits slouched, arms folded across his chest; I sit slumped over, a puddle of tears and hopelessness. The good bishop says, “You each need to give a little.” But how can we give at all, when we are each so convinced that our position is the only right way?
Each anniversary approaches on tiptoes, as if to say, “Are they still hanging in there, or should I slither on by unnoticed?” Some years it’s an hour-to-hour play-by-play. This last one was no exception.
Four years. Four whole years. Only four years? I mean, how many does it take to feel like you’ve made it the second time around? From twice-married veterans, I’ve heard seven to twelve. On the one hand I sigh with relief, “Oh good, we’re not supposed to be good at this yet.” On the other hand, “One of us will be dead before we reach that milestone.”
This year we’d had an especially difficult period of insufficient employment and continual financial stress. I was working toward an RN degree and teaching fifteen piano students. My ex-husband had dragged me out of state and into court for the fourth time in as many years. My husband’s sister was seriously ill in another state, and he felt burdened but helpless to do anything for her or her children. We both were serving in presidencies in our very needy ward. The encircling turmoil translated into heated marital tension. Preoccupied with blame and resentments, we were unable to offer each other solace. We were thinking seriously about throwing in the towel, figuring it might be better for everyone.
The night before our anniversary, my husband was working late. After putting the baby to bed I created a slideshow of pictures and music as my gift to him, and titled it, “The First Four Years.” I pulled up all the digital photos and began at the genesis with our first date. Then, our first meeting with all the kids together—a weekend of sun and swimming at my best friend’s pool in St. George, Utah. The engagement. The wedding. Moving. Loading that maximum-sized moving van practically by ourselves, and driving to our new home in California, him in the truck with his two kids, me in my little car stuffed with the cat and the rabbit. I remembered how he and every member of the elders quorum cursed me for being a reader as they carried in box after box of heavy books.
On through the pictures, I remembered first days of school, with a stair-stepped line of children, all neatly dressed and combed and outfitted with new backpacks. Graduations, soccer seasons, baseball seasons, broken boards at Tae Kwon Do tournaments, school plays, and dance recitals. Family dinners and company dinners, game nights of Guesstures, Settlers of Catan, and Skip-Bo, and karaoke jams when Dad tends to hog the microphone.
I saw something wonderful emerging. While the years had been filled with challenges and opposition, another thing had been happening in the background: we’d been building a new family and a life together.
I could see it in our first family Christmas picture. Two weeks before Christmas, we discovered I was pregnant. We decided to tell the kids on Christmas day, in a special way. We did the Christmas shopping together that year, as I was fending off nausea, and we purchased a small baby toy which we wrapped and addressed to all the children. Hidden behind the tree, it was the last toy opened that morning. We saw confused looks on five young faces, but then the girls lit up and exclaimed, almost in unison, “Are we having a baby?” That newly revealed secret twinkles in every child’s eyes in our family picture that year.
I found the picture of our baby, fresh from the womb and wrapped in a blanket, tucked in the arms of a big sister, siblings hovering all around on the bed. He was born right here at home, with a midwife. I remembered circling the long dining room table, walking through contractions, with my arm around my husband’s neck as he supported me, while the kids sat eating their oatmeal. When the pushing began, two of the children stayed in the room, with the other three just outside, ears pressed against the door. A cry. We all heard it together.
In other photos, I saw a baby blessing, baptisms, ordinations, advancements in scouting. Pictures of each boy, year after year, beaming with their too-big adult teeth, as they clutch pinewood derby trophies. Pictures of the oldest kids, outside the Los Angeles Temple, ready to do baptisms for the dead with their grandfather. And pictures of our first beach trip when, for laughs, we set the baby on a blanket and sprinkled crackers all around him, then stood back to watch the seagulls flock down and surround him. Look at his delighted face! How he loved the birds!
I saw kids growing up before my eyes. Teens emerging out of thin air, and more on their heels. Crooked teeth becoming straight. Short hair growing long. All the firsts of babyhood, then a toddler, now almost a preschooler. Girls’ camp, Scout camp, day camp. Homeschooling, public schooling.
A whirlwind of activity as a new life is being forged from two broken ones. No, make that seven broken ones. And one new little addition, related to each of us by DNA, who binds us all together. With all those blessings and triumphs, smiles and memories, how can I put more focus on the trials than on all the goodness that has been developing right under my nose?
So we’ve had some setbacks. So it hasn’t all been happiness and harmony. So we’ve gone through a couple of marriage counselors and added gray hairs to our poor bishop. The important thing is we’re still trying. And while I’ve baked a lot of cakes and cooked a lot of dinners, created holidays, taught countless family home evening lessons, read oodles of bedtime stories, and scrubbed a lot of floors, faces, toilets, tables, hands, sinks, walls, bottoms, noses, counters, and carpets, I haven’t done it just for me, and I haven’t done it all by myself. I do have a husband who is trying to love me and serve me too, even when the journey includes long stretches of uphill, and who, when it’s all said and done, is still here too. Fighting. And I’ve gotta say that I love him for that, bruises and all.
Just after midnight, my husband trudged through the door after work. He found me at the computer, finishing up. He asked what I was up to, and noticing the time, I realized it was now officially our anniversary. I sat him down next to me and clicked play.
A familiar melody on the piano introduced the first image, a black and white he’d taken of the two of us the first time we met in person, faces pressed together, lit up with hopeful love. It was the song we played at our wedding in the mountains just two short months later. The photos continued, and Rascal Flatts sang, “I set out on a narrow way, many years ago . . .” We oohed and ahed, laughed and cried, reunited by all the memories playing out before us. Tears spilled down my cheeks. I reached for the hand of the man sitting next to me as Rascal Flatts sang on, “God bless the broken road that led me straight to you.”