Illustration by Christiana Sandoval Woodard
Yes, I have five children. I catch myself, sometimes, waving this fact as a banner of virility and urban chutzpah. Five kids in five different public schools. There’s social currency in being a papa of so many, of mustering extra love and time while managing the chaos and expense of it all. Yet, just behind that, there lurks an unseemly sense of lesser-than. “Five kids? Wow!” someone will say. It’s in that moment when I debate whether or not to fess up. “Well,” I explain, “we’re a blended clan.” It can feel like a bait and switch. Am I a super dad or just a recovering crummy husband?
I’ve explained it so many times that the story rolls off my tongue: She had two, I had two, and we needed some glue, so we made a little Julian. This 3 1/2-year-old is the hub that conjoins our four other spokes, aged 14, 13, 12 and 10. He’s the one thing in which they all have an equal stake. And while my wife and I struck out with our formers the first go ’round, Julian represents how we’ve thus far made good on our promise to get it right this time. Which brings us back to my high fives: five kids and now five years married to Amy Lee.
It’s easy to be a baby daddy, but it’s hard to be a Pop. If Taoism is about “just being,” the Tao of Pop means being an empathetic and responsible parent beyond bloodlines. I know this because my Pop is not my biological father, but my stepfather. Though I didn’t inherit his chromosomes, I’ve had his influence, which is more than I ever got from my own dad. The trick for me, or any stepparent, is to live up to Pop’s example and supersede genes. It ain’t easy.
Isabella, soon to be 15, is not my daughter. Except she is. We don’t share blood, but we’re bound in so many other ways that sending her over to her real father’s place can leave me a little shaken. She’s a writer and photographer who digs travel, music and adventure. That’s been my MO for years, but Isabella’s no copycat. She’s just a few decades behind on a parallel path. As her stepdad, it’s easier to play the friend card and position myself as confidant, but when your surnames don’t match, respect as an authoritarian must be earned. It doesn’t come stock.
Tall, blonde and blue-eyed, Sebastion is my fetching and kind first-born. While Pop runs an egalitarian family circle not defined by last names, my mother can’t help but shine a little favoritism his way. He and I share music, mountain biking, books and big love for Amy Lee, whom he calls Mom (his mother is Mommy). But he shares everything else with his stepbrother, for whom he’s quick to support and defend, especially when I’m showing bias.
At nearly 13, Brooks is finally getting that long-awaited growth-spurt and catching up to his peers. For years, he was mistaken for a much younger boy. His first decade was defined by a sharp chip on his shoulder and an even sharper wit and cavalier attitude in the face of it. He and I butt heads by the hour. Put in basest anthropological terms, I feel the drive to protect Isabella while constantly fighting off the urge to eat Brooks, or at least give him the smallest piece of chicken. Striking accord in this relationship is my single hardest job as a stepparent. But it shouldn’t be. All he wants is to be loved ... and play Dungeons and Dragons.
Cecilia, 10, was but 2 when her mother and I split. She carries to this day a fight against her own affection for Amy Lee as though loving her more openly is a betrayal to my former. Nevertheless, Cia, as Julian calls her, is a true mashup of the two pillar women in her life: She’s got her mama’s features and singing voice, but Amy Lee’s haircut and palate. We connect over food and, lately, fitness. Cia will mince garlic, devein shrimp and pick a lamb bone clean, but she won’t quit talking back. And like my mom with Sebastion, I’m ever-so-slightly more forgiving with Cecilia. Brooks uses this as Exhibit A whenever Cia skates out of trouble he’d be flayed for, and Sebastion is right there to back him up.
As a cohabiting crew, we’ve been at it for almost eight years, but it’s still — and likely always will be — a work in progress. Keep Isabella close, guide Sebastion afar and try not to spoil the baby too much. Those are the simpler tasks. Healing Cecilia’s unconscious wounds and fording the disparate DNA between Brooks and me, well, that may require divine intervention, or Pop. So stick around. I’ll be digging into modern daddyhood here each month. Next time, Passport Papa: traveling with your kids.
Buckle up. Jason Tesauro, writer, speaker, sommelier — and modern papa to a five-some under 15 — invites you to ride shotgun as he hurtles through life at the speed of love/chaos/adventure in this new monthly column.