In addition to gaining a permanent mommy a few months ago, since I stopped working long shifts at the hospital and being forced to dodge her hugs until I’d peeled off my scrubs and showered if she happened to be up when I got home, my daughter gained a permanent papa. I married this man she’d been seeing every so often for the last few years, and Ruby and I up and moved to New York to live with him.
The simplest thing to say about Andrew with regards to Ruby was said by a friend of mine who’d watched him gamely entertain and gently care for her: “He is a saint.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t rough patches, and recently it’s become clear despite her placid nature and her extremely sparse verbal communication that there is some emotional turmoil attached to Ruby’s adjustment to this new life. She started calling our apartment ‘home’ immediately, and called Andrew ‘Papa’ as soon as I suggested to her that she could, if she wanted to. She loves going out just the two of them– he likes to run her ragged at the playground, pretending to think that this means she will go to bed earlier– and he’s told me that she behaves perfectly when I’m not around. But when we’re all at home…she’s evidently quite jealous. Specifically, she batters Andrew with blows that range from love pats that she learned from watching basketball on tv with her grandfather, to out-and-out smacks, and she tells him to go away several times a day.
The hitting is the bigger problem. From time to time this has happened at school, and I’ve always been anxious to control it but also not to let it snowball– having witnessed some sad (or blood-boiling) occasions last year where Ruby patted someone on the back or the shoulder in passing, before she could really say hello, and got a nasty, “Ruby! Stop hitting me!” in response. So, at first I asked Andrew not to make a big deal about it, but of course, when she goes and smacks him in the face (or the balls, the unfortunate consequence of her current stature), it is a big deal. So we reprimand her and explain to her how unacceptable this is and she says she’s sorry, hugs him, and doesn’t change. She’s still learning to keep her hands to herself in general, and touching people too much is obviously related to not being able to communicate easily, but the fact of the matter is, she is all over Andrew in a way that’s quite unlike anything else. She just seems to think he’s fair game.
It occurred to me that he handles her more than anybody else– I try my best to avoid picking her up these days because she is enormous– but Andrew doesn’t hesitate to gather her up, give her a piggy back ride, swing her around like a baby. This behavior of his has always made my heart swell with cheesy joy, but I began to wonder if it had blurred a boundary that she has a hard time recognizing anyway, and I suggested to Andrew that he try to be less physical with her.
We have yet to see any effect.
Meanwhile, when I’m in her room getting her ready for school and he comes by, she says, “Away.” He tries to shampoo her hair, “Away.” Walks into the apartment, “Away.” It doesn’t mean she doesn’t spontaneously kiss his cheek, follow him upstairs, pester him while he’s sitting at his desk trying to work, insist that I put earbuds in her ears to copy him as he tries to drown us out with music. She does both.
The fact of the matter is, I’m glad she is able to tell someone to go away– she had never done so before she started saying it to him, and it’s a more abstract thing to communicate than her average “I want cheese” protocol. And I make a pretty serious effort to understand and to honor the thoughts and wishes that she communicates, because she needs to know that her communication is meaningful and effective.
Papa gets banished and battered and loved, and I realize little by little that I cannot simply tell Andrew how to respond to his stepdaughter, or tell her how to respond to him.