with an aching in my heart

It is, according to scientifically-proven math, eleventy million degrees outside. To escape the heat, Anne and I went to the beach today.

It was just gorgeous. The air was significantly cooler at the beach than it was when we got into our car, the water was warm and clear, and though the beach wasn’t particularly crowded (it is the middle of the week in September, after all), we were around a number of families with small children who were too young for school.

I watched a dad walk down to the water with his son, who I figured was about 4 — the same age Nolan was when I entered his life. They wore matching hats, with wide brims and long black cords that went underneath their chins. The hats were the same size, as if they had been in a store and the little boy wanted to have a hat just like his dad’s. They held hands and walked slowly and carefully into the edge of the sea. When waves came in, the father picked up his laughing son by his hands and carried him over the frothing water. I watched them, and remembered doing something very similar with my boys, when they were that small, almost 20 years ago.

We sat on our towels and I read a book — Carter Beats the Devil — that I’ve owned for years but never started. It held my attention so magnificently and perfectly, the hours of 2013 passed around me at the beach while my imagination was transported to the early 1920s in San Francisco. It took the laughter of a nearby child to break me out, and bring me back into the present.

A little boy, probably about 6, was with his mom and dad in the surf. His dad was throwing him up in the air and catching him, while his mom took pictures with her smartphone. A few times, the dad caught him and fell back into the water, splashing his mom who pretended to be more concerned about her phone than she was joyful that they were all together at the beach.

I watched them play, watched all the young families around us play, and I felt an overwhelming surge of emotion. I turned to Anne. “Watching these families play makes me feel a strange kind of sadness,” I said. “I think about when our kids were that age, and how their dad just worked so hard to make them feel like they should be unhappy when they were with us. I see these dads with their kids, and I hope they appreciate how lucky they are to just be a family, without a selfish monster doing everything he can to ruin the simple joy of existence for them.”

Anne was thoughtful for a moment, and then said, “I used to be really angry that I wasted six years with him, and really resentful that he took so much away from us … but we can’t do anything to change it, and we have two really great kids because I spent those years with him.”

I watched a little girl with chubby little legs ungracefully chase the receding tide down the shining sand, then run as fast as she could away from it as it came back in, right into her mother’s arms.

“Our lives are a tapestry, right?” I said, thinking about one of my favorite episodes of Next Generation, “and if we pluck even a single thread, the whole thing unravels.”

I paused for a moment, and continued. “I love our lives, and I love the relationships we have with our kids. I’m so proud of the young men they are, and watching them level up into fully-functioning adults, especially knowing how much they suffered because of their biological father, has been one of the greatest joys of my life.

“I know that the life we have now is a tapestry woven from a lot of threads, many of them very, very painful … but I wouldn’t change anything about our lives together because I love the life we have. I love the life we’ve created for our family.”

I closed my book, and looked out into the ocean. Anne was quiet. I looked to the horizon and thought about how, to that vast expanse of water and motion, I am as insignificant as a single grain of sand on the beach. Then I thought about how, in my children’s lives, I have been as significant as the moon is to the tide.

I walked down the beach, and put my feet into the water.

73 thoughts on “with an aching in my heart”

  1. As a step-daughter, I’m keenly aware of how important my stepfather was in my life growing up. Although my adoptive dad loved me, and my mother went out of her way to make sure he was part of my life, we were such vastly different people that it made having a relationship with him difficult.

    I’m grateful to my stepfather (whom I simply call Dad now) for everything he’s helped instill in me: my work ethic, my sense of right and wrong and justice, my compassion, and my passion.

    Stepfathers are a wonderful thing. It takes a lot of courage to step in and raise someone else’s child and to open your heart to them as though they were your own. Your and Anne’s boys are a true testament to the idea that blood may be thicker than water, but nothing beats love.

  2. I have a five year old and a one year old now. I’ve done those things.

    I’ve said this before to you, but I grew up without a father. My mom dated, but never found a man who was willing to love her children as much as she loved us. You may lament the difficulties with the ex, but you should take joy in the difference you made by taking on the responsibility of raising them with love. I remember being in my mid-20’s and thinking I could never take on the responsibility of raising someone else’s children. I continue to be amazed that you did so. That is the thing that I most respect and admire about you.

  3. Just watched that episode, and it, and this, are heartening. There is no wasted time. Pain is avoidable, but misery is optional. Sounds like a nice day. Thanks for sharing part it.

  4. Thank you for sharing such personal thoughts with us. Honestly, it’s posts like these that remind me not to give up on the world. That regardless how evil humanity can be sometimes, there are individuals within it like yourself that provide wonderful things for those around them.

    1. This, Wil, is why, no matter how much my ex-husband and I broke each other’s hearts, we vowed to keep our little girl in mind and make sure we were always amicable. How on earth could such a small being ever understand the complexities behind adult relationships. Why should a kid EVER be put through that. It’s been hard for both my ex and me to deal with this divorce; there is anger and sadness. But out of that relationship came that joy that we both know as the light of our lives. Even though the separation and divorce – and all the mental crap that comes with it- was difficult – the EASIEST decision either of us has EVER made was the decision to be friends and make sure our daughter was NEVER caught in the middle. She’s 5 now and I’m still not sure she really understands why we live in different houses, but she knows that she has two parents who love her and who are going to work together to give her the best possible future. I’ve seen so many kids just torn apart by feuding parents. I’m so glad that, despite your children’s father, you were able to be there for the boys when they needed someone loving and able to scoop them up and say “hey, it’s alright and we’re gonna get through this”. Cheers to you and your family, and thank you for sharing.

      1. It’s really wonderful and amazing that you two can set your differences aside and be good humans for your child. Anne’s ex never got that, and her kids really suffered because of it. Good on both of you.

  5. That bit about life being a tapestry always resonated with me. I think back on my life, all the mistakes I’ve made, all the times I messed up, all the things I wish I could change, but then I think, how much of those mistakes, and what I learned from them, made me who I am today.

    I think we each weave our own tapestry, and when we connect with someone, some of their tapestry gets interwoven with ours.

  6. My stepdad passed away suddenly in July (at the young age of 49) and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how now, as an adult (32), I can look at his impact on my life as Brent, the dad and Brent, the man. Brent the man chose to be Brent the dad. He chose to love us and care for us — and to do those things as best he could with someone else’s mistreated and broken children as though they were his own. I loved my stepdad very dearly and I miss him like crazy but it’s a new level of love and respect I have for him now thinking of how amazing a man he was too.

    He made us whole. He took the word ‘dad’ which had previously inspired fear and anger in me and made it something so beautiful, so meaningful. I am a better person for having been raised by him.

    I’m so happy to read of your love as a stepdad. I admire you too. Thanks for strengthening my admiration for men who step up and love and care for children and letting them be yours.

  7. What If’s are the source of most good fiction…and the source of bad sleepless nights.

    In the words of another Captain (in, sadly, a truly awful movie): You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They’re things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. …If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away. I need my pain.

    You would not be who you are if the thought of what Anne’s husband did DIDN’T cause you pain.

  8. This was beautiful, Wil. Thanks so much for sharing. Anne and your boys are extremely lucky to have you.

    It hits home for me, because my parents divorced when the four of us ranged between 2 and 8 years old. Being the oldest, I’m the only one who really remembers what went on and the ugliness displayed.

    However, despite the mistakes they may have made, my parents have made it clear that they’re glad we resulted from their union. I’m also grateful for them, and for the people who later became my step-parents. Regardless of the labels or societal norms, I truly feel as if I spent a huge part of my childhood with four parents who genuinely cared for me instead of only two. Despite the hurt that resulted from what happened, I still feel fortunate to be a part of the madcap family born of those changes.

  9. Beautiful and poignant. I’m trying to be the dad to my kids that mine never was to me. I mean I used to want to change so many things, pine over what I never had…

    But what good does it do? I can’t change a thing, and looking back, I wouldn’t want to.

    I have a good life.

  10. Very well said. I’m a father of two daughters myself, and now that I’m a dad my one driving ambition is to be there for them and to help them learn and grow into fully functioning adults. My little tsarinas are my pride and joy, and being their dad is my finest accomplishment.

    In fact, Wil, you met my youngest daughter at GenCon this year. She was a tiny three-month-old baby in a car seat/stroller combo with whom you had an excellent ten minute conversation, or so my wife told me. Her name was Natalia. My wife got a great picture of the two of you. Talkin’ about games I assume.

      1. She really does, doesn’t she? Both her and her big sister are excellent smilers. Seriously, dadding is the best thing I’ve ever done, and I got exactly what I wanted in my daughters. I couldn’t be happier.

  11. What great food for thought. I, like your wife, wasted time being angry at my ex husband for so many things instead of being grateful for the fact he gave me four beautiful children. I’m even grateful for the woman he left with because without her I wouldn’t have been able to find a man that wants to share everything-good and bad-with us.
    Thank you for sharing this. It is always nice to hear a man talk about how much he loves his children.

  12. Oh man this is gonna make my wife a-bloo-bloo in the morning. My daughter just turned three and it was funny…this summer at the beach, my wife and I were actually just sitting in the car chatting after picking up some dinner for the family and I (of whom expressing emotion is not exactly a primary trait) admitted to my wife that my daughter had become my whole world (didn’t leave my wife out for any reason other than she knew what I meant! I’m a stay-at-home dad so the kid really has kind of become my world…but I’ve grown to relish it).

    I am the product of a nasty divorce and a very unpleasant few years with an abusive step-mother. That said, sometime later my mother remarried a man who accepted me into his life with such absurd selflessness I find it hard to imagine to this day. He’s my real dad. I haven’t seen my biological father in years. Like me, my step-dad’s forte ain’t expressing emotion, but we both know the score. And yes, he’s pretty thrilled to be a granddad! Just wish we didn’t leave 1000 miles away :-(

  13. Oh, good, I was worried I might not cry today. :) This time of year with kids, it is so easy to get bogged down in the details- the grainy-sandy parts. Thank you for realigning my perspective tonight.

  14. I am very lucky that I am at a point where I feel like I can look back and be grateful for everything in my life, including the bad people, because of where I am now with my family. My husband and I recently finalized the step-parent adoption of my eldest daughter and it has brought tremendous peace. It has often made me ashamed that I ever had any association with the man that is her biological father, he was so poisonous. But now when I look at my husband and daughters; I would gladly do everything over again because we are so blessedly happy together.

  15. Same boat, different time!

    Met my OH when her sons were 4 & 5. I had no idea how to be a Dad, nor what it would need from me. Just knew at the time I wanted to be part of her life, no matter what the cost. Turned out the cost wasnt a cost, but a reward. The boys are now 14 & 15, and though its not been a traditional childhood (one is autistic, one is dyspraxic) I hope its been a good one. They now have a 5 year old sister, despite me saying that I didn’t want my own ‘biological’ kids, as I was worried my feelings may differ. (They don’t…)

    Like you, I had to deal with the asshole (can I say asshole here? (oops, just did! (Twice!))) Ex. Who made hundreds of promises to the kids he had no intention of keeping, refused to help financially, and disappeared any time we caught up with him. He’d show up once a year, when his family were having a gathering, because he wanted to show his parents what a good set of boys he’d raised. More promises about missed birthday presents and christmas presents, followed by another year before he showed up again.

    But, I’m not bitter. Not any more. The Boys know now what he is. They know what his promises are worth, and at night, when they have a bad dream, or when they get home with a difficult piece of homework… It’s not him they run to. Its me. And thats a wonderful reward! (Unless its Art homework, I suck at Art)

  16. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Greater love has no man than he that loves the children of another.

    I truly feel that way, and I’m grateful for people who do so.

    Thanks for sharing what sounds like a great day with us, Wil, and best wishes to you and yours.

    Also, my tapestry has some scorch marks and is pretty worn in places from poor treatment, but it’s mine, and without it, I wouldn’t be where I am. Where I am isn’t so bad, so I’ll take it.

  17. Carter Beats the Devil is a damn good book. Written in the UCI MFA in Writing program. There was talk of developing it into a TV series. I would love to see that show.

  18. Well now I have to go to work with red eyes. Well put, Mr Wheaton. Everyone has a roll in creating each tapestry, and everyone has a different pattern to end product; unique and beautiful. In order to move forward and live a contented life, we must embrace the flaws, and realize they are a part of what we have woven into the fabric to make it so beautiful.

  19. Wil, thank you for being such an amazing dad. I can’t bring myself to call you a step-dad (not that the wording matters I guess.). In all that you have written about your family, you have always come across as a loving, caring, and proud dad and husband.

    How you speak of your family reminds me of how my dad would speak of his. My mom had four children from her first marriage, and dad had two children from his first marriage, and then, he and my mom had my sister and I (8 kids! Whew!) There was never a separation for him or for us. We were a family, and though we had pain and sadness sometimes, it’s ultimately the good things, the love and kindness my dad showed to each of us (mom was pretty awesome too!), that made us feel like a family and it’s the happiness and the good we remember.

    While your family has had to deal with someone that caused them so much pain, they had you in their lives to help them through it. It’s the good you have taught them, the good you have done, and the happy moments that they will remember over what pain they had to go through.

    So, I just wanted to say thank you for being such an amazing human being that you love two boys not just because they are Anne’s sons, but because they are yours too.

  20. Wil,

    Thank you for this post. Things have been a little rough lately and I keep looking at the negative side of things. My wife keeps saying I need to realize that what I have is enough and how lucky I am to have such a wonderful wife and two amazing kids. Your post provided the clarity I needed to help fix my perspective. Thank you for offering to share so much of your life with us.

  21. I’ve only had two and a half short years with my daughter so far and we’ll be welcoming a brother for her in January and I’m very excited for all of the moments like this that are to come for our family. I may not live near a warm beach, but am already looking forward to the snow this year. I don’t even like snow but my daughter is just so excited for snow men and practices making snow angels on the floor. It’s hard not to be excited when kids are so enthusiastic about things like that.

    Sometimes she may frustrate me to no end, but I she’s a stubborn ginger like her mom and so determined to do everything by herself. And after I just have to laugh and grab the camera, despite a whole pound of butter spread on the floor and a giggling toddler “skating” in it. She can always put a smile on my face and I’m afraid of time flying by and blinking and she’ll be all grown up.

    There are things that I wish hadn’t happened in my tapestry, but I wouldn’t be where I am if they hadn’t.

  22. Wil – I read your posts faithfully and have done for years. I laugh often and, like this one, cry, but not of sadness. Thank you for posting this. Like Anne, I spent too long with the wrong guy but found the right one when my daughter was 11. She is now a wonderful woman, wife and mom, whose life would not be as rich had she not known the difference between a good man and a wrong man. I’m happy for Anne and the boys that she found the right, good man. And happy for you that you were able to be that man. Thank you.

  23. This hit close to home. I was 22 when my now stepdaughters came into my life. They were 5 and 12 and I had never been so nervous of meeting anyone. What if they didn’t like me? Fast forward 8 years- they must like me ok :). I love them fiercely and there are time when their mother does things that I just cry because I can’t understand doing something just to piss off your EX that is going to negatively affect your child. It can be difficult at times, but I wouldn’t trade my time with them for the world.

  24. As someone who grew up without a dad I swore I would never do that to my kids if I ever had them. The while pregnant I lost my fiance. As devastated as I was for my own loss I was even more so for our daughter. I was worried so often about the impact it would have on her life and learning how relationships would work. I was terrified that she would seek out men in the wrong ways(daddy complex). Then when she was 4 I suddenly found the man I was meant to spend my life with. He is quite possibly the best dad in the world. We don’t use the step word. He is a awesome mix of old school parent and big kid who made our family complete. Now almost a decade later and a son together you would never be able to tell which child was biologically his. We have even blended all three extended families really well and my kids are blessed with more grandparents then they can handle.

  25. Reading your thoughts on parenting really hit home. Problem is that usually they make me think about all the times that I haven’t been the Dad I know I should be. All the excuses pop to mind – work stress, financial stress, just being physically and mentally tired from the “adult” crap everyone deals with, etc… – but the point is – I think – as a parent you need to shield your kids from all of that. Luckily I have my wife of 18 years to help. We have moments like you describe, but sometimes I think there aren’t enough of them. They should come easily or more easily than they seem to. Something to focus on and work towards.

  26. Who’s cutting onions? Beautiful post, sir. Mother ocean has a way of making us look at life so simply and without any of the judgement. She is a wonderful teacher. Your words reflect that, and I thank you.

  27. Thank you so much for sharing this. I have two amazing friends who have been married for the past 10 years. Before they were married, the wife was married to an abusive, jealous asshole, and he has spent the last 10 years trying to ruin their lives and drive a wedge between both of them and her 5-year-old daughter by her first marriage. He even went so far as to have a restraining order put on her new husband for a while that meant whenever her oldest daughter was with her, her husband could not be in the house (which also meant that he was barred from spending time with his biological infant daughter whenever his stepdaughter was at the house).

    They persevered through it all, and they are raising three amazing girls today. So few people realize or understand what they have actually had to endure from her ex. What you wrote reminded me of them and made me smile at the wonderful goodness that can come from such terrible times. I’m fiercely proud to know them, and I love that something as far removed from my amazing friends as your blog could remind me of them. You and your wife, and my friends, are proof of the goodness in this world.

  28. I had (and have) a not-very-good stepfather who made a lot of my childhood very unpleasant. Between not wanting to be like him and seeing amazing stepparents like Wil, I was absolutely determined to be a good stepmother to my husband’s son. He was in his early teens when I met him, and I’m told that’s the hardest time. I like to think I did well. He grew up into a wonderful young man (who doesn’t call his parents nearly enough 😉 ) and I am so much better for having him in my life. I joke that they were my insta-family, just add Sarah. But it’s true, in a way – we became a family in the blink of an eye, and now I would never want to be separated from them.

    Of course, now I cry over things like this post, but I think that’s an acceptable flaw, given how great the buff is to my other stats.

  29. I hope that one day the dust settles between my ex and I and my children are able to build a relationship with my better half because he so desperately wants to connect with them but is fearful of how their father will “work them” as he has done with their relationship with me. Children are so fragile and so wanting and giving of love. I’m so glad that your family has been able to find the balance – you show great love for them and are truly blessed – Much love!

  30. As a fellow step-dad, this blog really hit home for me. My wife had a pretty volatile relationship with her ex, and I am grateful that we met when our girls where still young enough that they didn’t see it for what it was (they were 4 and 5).

    I have watched them grow into amazing young women, and they are the biggest source of pride in my life. I came into their lives at only 22 years old, so it was a big risk for their mother to let me step in and try to build a loving family environment for them. 8 years later things have worked out better than I ever would have imagined.

    Most of the people I went to high school with probably drank their way through their 20’s, I married an amazing woman and helped raise two beautiful little girls into informed and caring young women. *high five*

  31. You kids were very lucky to have such a good person in their lives. My son had no male influence in his life – even his school screwed up the mentors they promised to have available to him. Yet I’m lucky he turned out to be a good child.

    I recently had a conversation with my cousin on my father’s side who I thought had a wonderful life as his parents stayed married while mine divorced and were more focused on damaging each other than raising their kids. We were talking about how the dysfunction of the parent is handed down and just like myself he made mistakes in his relationships based on how his parents who did stay together treated one another. Unfortunately, he just realized it after his children began making the same relationship mistakes.

    I was lucky enough to be VERY honest with my son when he was old enough to understand (early teens) not only about making horrible choices, but where the dysfunction comes from and what he could do to try to avoid my mistakes. Children are a lot more resilient then we give them credit for. My life would have turned out very different if I had only known that my mother’s dysfunction with men was not the status quo and that people were capable of having real, balanced relationships and respect for one another. Had I not been honest with my son, he would have thought any old relationship would do having no role model.

    It’s amazing how one little thread in life can change an entire lifetime of not only the living, but some of the people who have yet to be born. I just thank God the era I grew up in where everything was swept under the rug or kept secret to save face is long gone.

  32. Thank you for being such an awesome stepdad. I wish I had that growing up. My parents tore themselves apart in their divorce when I was little. Then, my stepdad came into the picture. He was the monster that haunted my nightmares for the rest of my childhood and years to come into adulthood. Somehow, my husband made it through his own broken childhood alive, and we found each other. Together, we vowed to give our daughters a childhood that we both wanted. After 15 years together, I hope we’re doing something right. It’s an understatement to say that I’m proud of my girls. They simply amaze me the kind of people that they are becoming. My youngest, Mia – the girl from the Denver Comic-con panel, recently was voted president of her 4th grade class. She really took to heart the words you spoke to her in the panel. She’s been more outgoing this year and stands up for other kids in her class that can’t speak up for themselves, even the girl that was bullying her last year. My oldest is going into pre-engineering in the 9th grade and loves it! I try not to get all weird emo-mom on them when I tell them how proud of them I am, but it’s not working. Tears start welling up, and they end up feeling awkward. Happy, but a little weirded out by mom. I’m ok with that. Actually, more than ok.

  33. You and Anne sound like wonderful parents to Nolan and Ryan. They seem like amazing kids.

    My daughter is 5 and we are recently adjusting to becoming a family with my current partner. She has never had a father figure in his life so it is difficult for me to share responsibilities and give up control at certain times.

    When I finally made the decision to come back into his life with my daughter (we have been in love for 10 years but the beta of our relationship — which was over 2 years long — took a big toll on us and we are both finally in the “right” place to be together for once and for all), it was you who I thought of. The way you have impacted your sons’ lives, and the way they, and Anne of course, have enriched yours.

    I am proud to say that yesterday was her first day of school and he is listed as the stepfather for all intents and purposes. They are adjusting to and learning from each other and it’s just a beautiful thing for a mother to see someone love ‘someone else’s’ kid as if they were their own.

    You helped me realize that I wasn’t doomed to be alone for the rest of my life just because it didn’t work out with my daughter’s father. Our lives are tremendously better and full of love because of it.

    Thank you for your words, and for sharing pieces of your heart. It really means a lot to me. <3

  34. I can relate to your post, my son and I had some tough years because of his dad. I look back and can see that while those years were so hard and emotionally draining, it made us both the people we are today. I am strong, and know I can handle anything now. I now have a husband who has never let us down and I know will always have my back. My son has grown into a thoughtful caring and successful young man. I worried for years how we would come out in the end and we won, we won big!

  35. Thank you for sharing these moments with us, Wil. Your honesty and openness with the complete strangers of the internet is one of the reasons I so enjoy following you and am such a fan of your work. Thanks for doing all that you do.

  36. I’m always impressed with the honest emotion you can put into a post, Wil. It’s one of the many reasons you continue to be my internet hero. Well… one of them. Don’t worry. You’re in good company. :)

  37. As a soon to be stepmother, dealing with a (ahem)…difficult biological mother who wants nothing but to hurt me for being in her children’s lives, this really spoke to me and made me grateful that I can give my step-children the love they so deeply deserve from a mother figure and show them an example of what a healthy, functional relationship can be.

    I think it’s raining on my face.

  38. My daughter was Nolan’s age when her dad came into our lives, and she, too, had a biological father who sought to only bring sadness and fear into her life. I suspect our two families have a lot of similar stories. I will never forget the sight of her dad running up and down the street behind her first two-wheeled bike on a hot July afternoon, encouraging her, keeping her safe, setting her free, all at once. Her father simply didn’t have the patience and made her cry. And when she got married three years ago, it was her dad, not her father, who walked her down the aisle. And we all had a little something in our eyes, because we knew the separate, painful, joyous journeys we’d taken over those intervening years. Her father missed out getting to know an amazing human, but I’m grateful beyond words to the man who became her dad. I see a lot of him in her … osmosis? I don’t know. But it’s people like you and him who throw your heart and soul into being a parent in those circumstances that give me hope. You’re showing the world a better side than the one that might have been. On behalf of all the parents out there who have people like you and my husband come into their lives, thank you for loving our children as wholly and completely and without reserve as we do and for being a part of the parenting team.

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