09/12/2012 03:59 am ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

The Stepfather Dance

My ex-husband either couldn't or chose never to pay child support. Frankly, I've never quite known which.

He was in bad shape after our divorce, going through treatment for alcoholism on the state's dime and unemployed for the better part of a year. When unscrupulous movers stole everything I owned, he famously flew to Providence and helped me. He contributed in his own way, I told myself. And somehow, over time, that just became the way it was.

For years, I worked 14-hour days. In '03, I taught five sections of freshman comp at two different universities, 30 miles apart. Then I lucked into a job as a food critic, but that involved working mostly nights; my kids were on their own a lot, from a pretty early age. I produced a novel during the same period, rising very early -- before anyone else was up -- to write. I filled in with freelance gigs and eventually made my way into copywriting. Between all that and the money my parents silently "gifted" me, I managed. Barely.

Then I met John.

The first thing I told him was that I didn't want a relationship; It would be unfair to him and to my children, then teenagers. I would date him but we had no future. Six weeks later he was in my house helping my kids with their math homework. Three months after that, we were engaged. I insisted we would keep our finances separate but John told me that was ridiculous. Marriage meant you were all in. What was his was mine -- and by the transitive property, what was his was also my kids'.

Meantime, my ex sobered up, found a steady job and met a woman far better suited to him. Once, I toyed with going after him for child support -- our children were then 17, 15 and 11 -- but it seemed strangely unfair. I hadn't minded paying for anything when I was single. In fact, I'd done so without a thought. Now that our combined incomes -- John's and mine -- made life so much easier, it seemed wrong to complain.

And in the weird world order, there was something sensical about this arrangement. My ex was supporting his new wife's children just as my new husband was supporting mine. I imagined us as if we were players in a sitcom -- their Northside household with its jumble of children and, eventually, grandchildren; our Southside one with its colorful assortment of two large boys and a girl. I wanted it all to be sweet-hearted and whimsical. And sometimes it was. But sometimes, frankly, it sucked.

I watched as my husband, a stepfather for three years, then four... now six... put fully half his income to raising these kids he'd inherited half-grown. Yet I watched, too, as my now-adult children struggled to find a place for him. He isn't their father, but he isn't simply their mother's husband, either. He is in great part their benefactor. John is the reason my daughter can go to college debt-free, the reason my younger son's wild escapades haven't landed him on the streets.

The part I can't make sense of (though I know it's a universal truth) is that my kids' still crave their "real" father. Often they rankle at John's involvement in their lives, even as they're benefiting. They roll their eyes at his quiet manner and boring corporate job while enthusing about their father's more interesting way of life. Dad has a big, loud truck and better taste in music and he barbecues excellent meals like elk steak, they tell me. Dad's house is more fun on the holidays; it's raucous and there are tons of people there. Is it any wonder that's where they'd prefer to be on Christmas Eve?

A month ago, when my youngest departed for college, John rented a U-Haul and packed it with her things -- plus a futon from our house -- and drove her 300 miles south to her dorm. There, he unpacked and set up her loft and helped her arrange her room, at one point running to Wal-Mart for zip ties to secure her mattress because it squeaked on her bed. Together, he and I paid her fall tuition, a stunning amount that didn't quite fit on the legal line of our check. We attended her ROTC swearing-in and I hugged her goodbye while John stood by watching. We returned home to our empty house.

We'd marked our calendars for the one great event of fall: a Navy/Marine ball where we would dress in black tie finery and dance. We'd even taken lessons to sharpen up our skills. I turned down a writer's conference because it conflicted. But when I spoke to my daughter last weekend, she was bubbling with news.

"Dad is coming to the ball!" she crowed happily. "He said of all the things I'm doing at college, that one sounds best." Then she paused. "I suppose you and John can still come, too, if you want. But there's no need."

And I'll admit, this was the point where I almost turned into a shrieking harridan. Instead, I told myself that this girl did not deserve a decade's worth of resentment let loose on her during her first week of college and I cut the conversation short.

"What's up?" John asked when I was off the phone. So I told him, still breathing shallowly.

And he shrugged. He shrugged.

"Yeah, that makes sense," he said. "She wants her dad's attention. She wants him to be proud of her. This is the kind of thing he likes. So we'll visit some other time."

And it's true. When I turn it around and look at it from my children's point of view, my husband is exactly right. This parenting thing isn't about fairness, and the moment a divorce occurs, children are forever in a no-win place. They cannot make choices about whom they love according to some balance sheet.

My pledge today is to be a little less self-centered as a mother. And dammit, I'm working on it. But it's hard. So for now I'm just following along, letting John take the lead.