Mom, stepdad and kids work together to create a family

The wedding of our friends Michael and Jessica, celebrated 10 years ago this week, was an event that brought together more than just two people.

For weeks, people prepared the farmhouse of Jessica’s grandmother. In the backyard, the couple were wed by Michael’s father on a platform built by Jessica’s father, covered with an awning sewn by Michael’s mother. The flowers were a year in the making — chosen varieties grown in the gardens of several friends filled dozens of vases.

Jessica’s father gave the first toast, saying everything an adult child wants to hear from a parent. Unbelievably touching then, it became more poignant when he died less than two years later from an aggressive brain tumor.

And when the day gave way to a moonless night, everyone gathered around what looked like a derelict gazebo. Easily 12 feet tall and 5 feet wide, boards of all shapes and sizes created a pattern reminiscent of webs built by drugged spiders. Built by Jessica’s firebug uncle as his gift, he ignited the structure. The celebratory pyre was tremendous, if not a little scary.

Several hours after we’d arrived, my boys, Max and I all sang Strawberry Fields Forever as we walked under the starlit sky to our car, parked a few blocks down the street.

That magical day seemed a nod from the universe. For that’s when my boys first met Max.

Photo from the 2008 wedding: From left, Claude, Hugo, Jules and Holly Christensen, Max Thomas. (Photo courtesy Holly Christensen)

While we had long been friends, a year after I became newly single, Max and I discovered among all the things we shared in common was a budding crush. It was March when he first kissed me, kindling something I thought unavailable to 40-somethings.

Five months later, when Max accompanied us to the wedding, I told the boys he was an old friend. We left it at that during the following months even as Max came to our house for dinners and invited us all to movies.

“What would you think if I started dating?” I asked the boys over dinner one evening in October.

“Oh, no! No, no, no!” said 11-year-old Hugo.

“What if I told you I already am?”

“What? Who?” asked Hugo, bolting up from his seat at the table.

“I know,” said 8-year-old Jules with a sly smile. My quiet boy has always been a great observer (though not so good at remembering names). “The guy with the glasses.”

The next time Max came for dinner, Hugo walked up to him and said, “So, I hear you’re dating my mom. Can I have 20 bucks?” Max politely declined.

At the time, I was taking night courses for my master’s degree. Before long, Max began driving to my house after work to cook dinner and stay with the boys until I returned. The first night, I did not leave instructions with Max, for Claude was 14 and the boys knew the rules.

Silly me, they hoodwinked Max. When I walked in the door at 10 p.m., nobody was ready for bed, all the dishes were dirty and homework was still spread across the dining room table.

That was the first time Max saw me angry with my children.

In the following 10 years, those little boys grew into men and a lifelong bachelor became a seasoned father. In the process, we’ve learned how to accommodate our habits and personalities, sometimes changing along the way.

For instance, Max and I do dishes differently. Before putting anything in the sink of hot soapy water, I rinse off all the muck. Max tosses everything as is into the hot soapy water. The boys do dishes my way. Many times, too many they say, Max tosses a sauce-coated serving spoon or a greasy pan into their wash water. They howl, he apologizes but can’t seem to completely break the habit.

Living together also means polite pretense vanishes. If I am mad at someone, I say so, at times with more diplomacy than others. Oddly enough for an attorney, Max avoids conflict. For years, when something bothered him, he quietly, but obviously, fumed. It drove the boys crazy and they’d call me and say, “Mama, Max is doing that thing.”

Going from zero to five kids in four years, Max soon learned all emotions are valid, even the messy ones. He now tells the boys when he’s upset with them, keeping me happily out of the middle. I’ve had to work on that, too. Raising children with someone who isn’t their biological parent elicits in me what I think is an evolutionary response to protect those genetic packets called children.

I can complain about my children’s behavior, their attitudes and when they disappoint me. I might even yell in their faces (not often and, really, just Hugo). But when Max corrects the boys, my first impulse is to defend them, whether they merit a defense. Even now.

A family photo from 2015. Holly and Lyra Christensen, Claude Christensen, Leif Thomas, Max Thomas, Hugo Christensen, Jules Christensen. (Photo: Shane Wynn)

Sons of single mothers do not need a man in their lives to show them how to be successful adults. Women are adults who can do that. And I did. But my relationship with Max has modeled something invaluable — that a man can love and support a strong woman without needing to control her. And even the best relationships require work and compromise.

Like our friends Michael and Jessica, Max and I came together not as two individuals, but as two larger families. Because of their ages when they met him, each son has a different relationship with Max. Unlike his brothers, Jules has few memories of life before Max. All three frequently tell Max how glad they are to have him in their lives.

And it all started at a rollicking wedding at a farmhouse.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, August 12, 2018.

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