Graduation day: When everything, including motherhood, was possible

On June 7, 1974, I sat with my fellow journalism graduates in the middle of the football field at San Jose State’s Spartan Stadium, baking in our caps and gowns. Everything was changing that month. After 16 years of school, I would finally be free of classes, homework, finals and term papers. I could pursue my blossoming career in newspapers, and in two weeks, I was getting married.

I don’t remember who spoke at the ceremony. I have vague memories of people passing marijuana cigarettes and tossing a ball around. My classes done, I was obsessing over clothes. A sewing maniac in those days, I had made the blue and white seersucker mini-dress that I wore under my robe. I was making my wedding dress, one of the bridesmaid’s gowns and new outfits for the honeymoon. I was dealing with flowers, photographers, and last-minute bridal showers. I was setting up our new apartment, which I had no doubt would be only a temporary home until we bought a house. Soon I would be having babies and writing books, living the life I had always expected to live.

I was so very young, 22 going on 12. Look up “naïve” in the dictionary, and you’ll find a picture of me. Webster defines it as “deficient in worldly wisdom or informed judgment.” That pretty much nails it. Raised in an extremely restrictive home, I hadn’t had my first date until my first year of college. By the middle of my second year, I was engaged. I had had three actual boyfriends in those 18 months or so before I hooked up with Jim.

Hooking up didn’t mean what it means now. I was a virgin until three months after I started dating Jim. And I probably would have stayed a virgin a bit longer if he hadn’t pressured me so hard to have sex, and if I hadn’t gotten drunk and let him because I knew he’d dump me if I didn’t. Ladies, how many of us have given in simply because we were afraid to lose the guy? Anyway, coming from this strict Catholic background with minimal knowledge of the world, I assumed that since we were having sex, we were getting married. And since he was getting pressured by his parents to find a wife, he said, yeah, sure, we’ll get married. No ring, no down-on-his-knees proposal, and oh by the way, let’s not tell anybody yet. Anybody hear warning bells? I heard them, too, but I thought I had made this commitment and had to stick with it.

As for having kids, I had no idea he wouldn’t want them. He was great with other people’s children, and I just assumed he’d be great with ours. Did we talk about it? Nope. He did escort me to the college health clinic to get birth control pills. He did have a supply of condoms on hand. After we were married, his theme song was “not yet.” Turns out he wasn’t big on employment, monogamy or sobriety either, but lest you think he was just a big shit, I loved the guy with all my heart. We had a wonderful time together. The sex was amazing, and we could talk for hours. I thought we’d be married forever.

I thought I’d be a mom, and our parents would be fabulous grandparents. I’d also have the career of my dreams. Like I said, naïve. As the marriage died, we agreed that we could have had a fantastic affair but should never have gotten married.

If I had just said no to sex with Jim or enjoyed the sex but realized I didn’t have to marry him, my life might have been completely different. He would have dumped me, and I might have married someone with a good job, someone who wanted the house and kids, maybe even someone who’d go to church with me. But no. I thought this was it. It didn’t have to be “it.”

I haven’t talked to Jim in over 30 years. I have heard that he remarried two more times and never had any children of his own. I don’t think much about him or our six-year marriage. Fred, who came later, was my real husband. I didn’t have babies with him either, but the love we had was worth it. And we did talk about it.

On that hot day in San Jose when I graduated from San Jose State, I had no idea what was coming. What would I have done if I’d known? Should a person get married two weeks after graduation? I don’t recommend it. Live a bit first. And take time to make sure you have the right partner. Life is not like “The Bachelorette,” where you have to make a decision in 10 weeks. Be sure. And if you’re not sure, don’t do it.

Does this stir any thoughts or memories? I’d love to hear your comments.

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Graduation and the childless stepparent

It’s graduation season. Does the thought make you feel a little queasy because your stepchildren are graduating and you don’t know where you fit in? Welcome to the club. I know you don’t all have stepchildren, but enough do that graduation issues are starting to come up in the comments. Graduation can certainly magnify the awkwardness in the family when there are both biological parents and stepparents.

Let me share some of my experiences.

The first graduate was my stepdaughter Gretchen, who had dropped out of high school when she got pregnant with her first child and went to an “adult school” to finish her classes while she was pregnant with her second child. Her mother was living in Texas, so the “family” that attended was her father, her brothers, and me, the new wife. Honestly, it went great. I took lots of pictures and had this warm mushy feeling that I finally had a family. Whatever arguments we had had before didn’t matter.

I was also the mom on duty when Michael, my youngest stepson, graduated from middle school a few years later. Again, his mother was not there, but my parents joined us for the outdoor ceremony. I was working for the local paper and ran around taking pictures for a story, split between my roles as reporter and mom. I loved it.

Four years later, when that same stepson graduated from high school, everyone was there: Fred and I, Michael’s siblings, my parents, his mother and HER parents, all sitting in the bleachers on the football field. Now, this was June in San Jose, so we were dressed in our summer clothes. The few clouds overhead were a welcome relief from days of relentless heat. But shortly after they got through the L’s and Michael received his diploma, the clouds turned black and it started to rain, a hard soaking deluge that sent people scattering for shelter.

At that time, Fred, Michael and I lived across the street from the high school, and the party was happening at our house. I handed my mom my keys and asked her to put the lasagna in the oven while we looked for Michael. Soon we were all gathered at our house, and I was handing out towels. Although things could have been weird, we all got along and felt like one big happy family, laughing over the rained-out ceremony.

Of course there are always those awkward moments. “This is my mom, this my dad, this is my, um . . . .” Know what I mean?

Years later, when Gretchen’s daughter Stephanie graduated from high school, I wasn’t there. Fred was in a nursing home, and my nephew was graduating from a college nearby on the same day. I went to his ceremony instead. There was still time afterwards to get to Stephanie’s graduation, but I was riding with my dad and he didn’t want anything to do with my step-family. (Someday soon I should do a post on the relationship between our own parents and our stepchildren. Now there’s a tricky relationship.) Anyway, I missed it.

And when Gretchen graduated from college a few years ago, I was widowed and living in Oregon and was not invited. Nor did I expect to be, even though I’m very proud of her. I’m proud of all of them, but sometimes that “step” between us is huge, especially with their father gone.

None of the kids came to my late-life master’s-degree graduation from Antioch University in Los Angeles. Fred was the only family there while other grads had big groups, including their children. But then if I had children, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to go back to school.

Enough about me. Graduation can be tough. When your stepchildren graduate, whether it’s from kindergarten, high school or Harvard, are you pitted against their biological family? Are you not invited? Are you expected to smile, give gifts, and be the hostess for kids who aren’t your own? To make nice with people you can’t stand? Are you gulping back tears because you may never watch your own children graduate? When you hear the band play “Pomp and Circumstance,” do you think back to your own graduations and how you never imagined things would turn out the way they have?

Let’s talk about it. You can let it all out here. I look forward to your comments.