MEMBERS ONLY: How To Be A Surrogate Father

For the last two weeks, before school started this past Tuesday, I was in full Stay-at-Home Daddy mode. Jordan was done with summer school and summer camp was over both Jordan and Anastasia. They would get up, I would make them breakfast, I would get some work done and by lunchtime, I would be ready to keep them occupied for the rest of the day. This was pretty much the same as other summers past.

Except for this year I also had Lila. Lila is my next door neighbor Claudia’s kid. She’s a few months older than Jordan and she’s recently become my second daughter. More or less.

I wrote recently about how Claudia and Lila came to live next door to us and how we became such a tight-knit group. I even touched on how Lila had come to see me as a father figure. These last two weeks were different, however. This was the first time I was a “father” to Lila for an extended amount of time and as far as I could tell, she was deliriously happy about it. God knows she needed it.

Not that I enjoy airing other people’s personal problems but Claudia’s ex-husband is phenomenally bad at being a father. I can’t tell you if it’s cultural (He’s Egyptian) if he’s just a jerk or a combination of the two. Whatever the reason, he’s been singularly bad for Lila since the divorce. Again, this is not based on just Claudia’s word but on how Lila reacts to him and what I’ve personally witnessed. Some people are simply not capable of stepping outside of themselves to put their children first and in the process, they hurt their children terribly.

And so it went earlier this summer when Lila was supposed to stay with her father for two weeks as per the divorce agreement. A normal father would have arranged at least one, if not both of those weeks as vacation time. He would have planned activities of some kind. The pool. The movies. Playdates. Something. Anything.

Instead, Lila’s father planned no time off (and, yes, he could have) and treated the entire thing like a burden. By the end of the first day, Lila was hysterical crying and her father essentially told her to go home. So she did. And then he was “busy” the next night when she was supposed to come back. Mind you, this is the time he’s supposed to have his daughter but he was “busy.” Apparently, he had gone out to dinner with his friends or something. Because, you know, who cares about the kid?

It got worse and at one point, Lila was sitting on our couch between Debbie and myself, sobbing while we held her. Claudia started to get a bit frantic because school started for her earlier than it did for Lila and she had been counting on Lila staying with her father that first week where she would be going in early and working really late. Teachers make it look easy but a lot of work goes into getting those classrooms ready for the first day of school.

I told her I would take care of Lila and she should stay as late as she needed. We’re family and we had her back, always.

And so began two weeks of incorporating Lila into our daily routine. Mornings were mostly quiet. Some days she would spend them in our apartment while I worked, others she would stay in her own (with me checking in on her regularly). Lila is not a morning person so she prefers to veg in the AM. Truly, a child after my own heart.

I let her pick her lunch most days: Annie’s mac and cheese, a salad with tuna, taquitos, a toasted cheese sandwich, etc. Always with some veggies or fruit on the side. Then we would go to the pool for the afternoon or play video games (I recently got both Lila and Anastasia playing Lego Star Wars and Lego Marvel Super Heroes). Sometimes Anastasia would go to play with the kids down the hall and Lila would just hang out with me and watch some TV while Jordan watched his tablet and drew his pictures (as he is wont to do).

Both weeks, we went to a movie because it was $5 Tuesdays and $20 for one adult and three kids is a deal that can’t be beaten. We stuffed ourselves with popcorn and on the way home we stopped and picked up Sweet Frog.

Dinner was whatever I made. I’m flexible with breakfast and lunch, not so much with dinner. Not that it made much of a difference; she always wolfed down whatever I made. And almost every night, I had a plate waiting for Claudia as well. A 12 hour day is rough and it sucks to have to come home and cook yourself dinner.

If this all sounds boring and mundane, it absolutely was. The goal wasn’t to fill every moment with excitement; the goal was to keep them from being bored and anxious about the first day of school. And other than the time where I still had to work in the morning, they weren’t. More importantly, as far as Lila was concerned, she was part of our family from morning until night. I treated her just like I treated Anastasia and Jordan.

I gave her the attention she needed when she needed it just like my own kids. When she wanted to roughhouse, I tossed her around like a rag doll while she squealed with laughter and mock outrage. When she wanted my approval for her artwork, she got it (she’s quite good at drawing manga and getting better all the time). When she wanted to snuggle on the couch while we watched TV, under my arm she went. When she did something wrong, she was chastised and she pouted, sometimes storming off to her apartment for an hour to sulk. Then she would come back, I’d give her a hug and everything would be fine.

As a single child, Lila’s never had to share a parent so I was surprised but not really surprised when she started to get jealous of Anastasia. When I would praise Anastasia for something, Lila would jump in demanding similar praise. When we were playing in the pool, she wanted very much to monopolize my time, going to so far as to literally get between me and Anastasia and push her away. Not in a mean way but it was pretty obvious what she was doing.

For her part, Lila did not do this when Jordan wanted my attention. As an autistic child, Jordan spends a lot of his time doing his own thing so when he wants my attention, he gets it pretty much without reservation. Anastasia used to get jealous about this but once she understood how infrequently Jordan wanted to be the center of attention, she let it go. Lila already knew this from spending time with us over the last two years and while she sometimes stayed with me while I was playing with Jordan, she didn’t try to take my attention off of him. Her “sibling rivalry” was only with Anastasia but it didn’t escalate; mostly because Anastasia was super cool about it.

Debbie and I had spoken to Anastasia a long time ago about how Lila was going through a rough time with her parents divorcing and how we needed to be there for her and her mother. Being the helpful person that she is, she got that without us having to elaborate much which is why it probably didn’t phase her when Lila started referring to herself as one of my daughters. It surprised the hell out of me but Anastasia just went with it.

And this is where the terror comes in. As much as I love Lila, she’s not my kid. I can never forget that even as she looks to me as a stand-in for her own incompetent father. It’s possibly the most precarious position I can think of. Everything I say or do carries more weight than it would if she actually were my own flesh and blood.

For example, in July, I accidentally sent her into a crying meltdown because of an offhand comment that I didn’t think meant anything. But it did because it came from me. When she calmed down, she came back and apologized as if she’d done something wrong. I had to explain to her that she should never apologize for something like that. I had said something that upset her, even if I didn’t mean to, and that’s not something to apologize for.

It’s a hideous amount of power to have over a child that’s not your own. It’s one thing to loom that large in the eyes of your own children but to be that important to someone else’s daughter? What if I screw it up? I have all the time in the world and an entire lifetime of context with my own kids to buffer any mistakes I make. That’s not the case with Lila. She hasn’t grown up with me. She doesn’t live with me. Maybe after being close neighbors for another 5 years, we’ll have that shared life experience to draw from but for now, it’s a fragile thing.

And then there’s Claudia. I could easily step on her toes as a parent. We talk about Lila regularly to make sure we’re all on the same page but I worry just the same. She’s a single mom and I love being able to help her but are we (as a family) overbearing? How many times have we encroached on her prerogatives as a parent? I can’t really say.

But mostly, I worry about hurting Lila and not being able to undo the damage. Her father’s already done such a number on her that I’m loathe to add to her problems. I want her to be strong and independent and confident (you know, like any father wants his daughter to be) and I worry that I’m not doing enough to help her become that. Then I worry I’m pushing her too hard. And then I worry I’m doing too much and stepping on Claudia’s toes.

The best I can do is go with my instincts as a parent. So far, they’ve served me pretty well and even though Lila isn’t my daughter, I’ll treat like she is for as long as she needs me to. Someday, she won’t need a surrogate anymore and I don’t know if I’ll be proud as hell or heartbroken. Probably a mixture of both. But that’s what being a father is all about, right?