Hot (and unsurprising) news just in time for Valentine's Day: Maddie and Riley seem to have no understanding of what a romantic relationship is.
I have not consulted The Literature to see what five year olds typically understand about the different kinds of love people have for each other, but Maddie and Riley are particularly and charmingly clueless about romantic love. They know I love them, and they could probably articulate some of the ways I express that: through direct speech (we are a big "I love you"-saying family), through physical contact (we are also big huggers, kissers, and general snugglers), through actions (although this might be too abstract for them to articulate even if they feel it, this notion of taking care of one another). M&R also see how I act much the same with other people I love: members of our extended family, close friends. But Maddie and Riley have never seen the day-to-day interaction of a partnered couple, which for many children is their first resource for understanding a romantic partnership.
This leads to some funny conversations. We've had plenty of talks about who you can and can't marry and why you'd want to or not want to marry any given person. To be sure, this comes up for all children, not just single-parent kids. Maddie and Riley have both expressed a desire to marry me, to marry their grandparents, to marry each other, to marry their friends, to marry their teacher. They've also expressed the feeling that it would be great for me to marry my dad (who is, admittedly, awesome). I've asked Maddie and Riley about why they want to marry certain people; they don't have a very clear answer on that, but it certainly relates to how much they care about the person in question. I've asked them what they think it means to be married to someone, and that's a mystery to them, but their explanations come back to an understanding that many—nay, most—of their classmates and friends have two parents at home, and that those people are, by and large (when the law allows and when then choose that option) married and that it's a thing for parents and grown-ups. For them, the notion of marriage seems to be grounded in a decision to want to spend a lot of time with someone, rendering age, sex, and bloodline insignificant. For now, I've told them that getting married is for grown-ups who love each other so much that they want to be a part of each others' families; that explanation seems to satisfy them and also helps them in some way to understand why they can't marry people who are already a part of their family of origin (no need to get into the genetics just yet, methinks).
Where Maddie and Riley's charming ignorance about romance intersects with our family life is clear: what does it mean for the twins that I am dating someone whose presence in my life—our lives—is slowly become more significant? When, why, and how do I explain that to them?
We are blessed to have many, many friends. We have people over to our house a lot, and we spend a lot of time visiting others. Maddie and Riley have had the good fortune to meet and love many people already in their first five years of life, and they've dealt many times already with the effects of moving, transitioning from one caregiver to another, death. Perhaps because of all this, perhaps because of their general nature, both Maddie and Riley are fairly quick to form friendships and are quite open to meeting new people and welcoming them to their lives. They also at this age seem quite adept at understanding that some friends come, and some friends go. They express that they miss people we don't see as much as we once did (hi, Boston friends!) but they have at every turn seemed less broken up about such transitions than I would have expected. There's a resilience to their dealings with the comings and goings of people in their lives that surprises me.
All of this leaves me at a loss when it comes to how to represent T to the kids. To them, he's a friend like any other friend, and I've just been rolling with that. They have said a number of things that clearly indicate to me that they have no clue that my relationship with him is quantitatively different than any other close friendship that I have, and I'm not sure what I'd say to them to explain the difference that would have any meaning to them whatsoever. The potential for that relationship to have significance in M&R's lives that transcends that of our other friends' is great, but for the moment, their rudimentary—if accurate—understanding of the situation is perfectly adequate. I don't want to make a big deal out of something that for M&R is not a big deal at all, but I don't want them wondering what's going on or feeling confused.
As I write this, I'm thinking, "Who am I kidding?!" Anyone who has met Maddie and Riley would laugh to think that those two wouldn't just ask me what was going on if they were curious about something. I can't quite put my finger on why I'm feeling somewhat of a need for M&R to have a deeper understanding of the situation. I think part of it is seeing their nascent attachment to T develop and knowing that there is a potential for the twins so experience loss there—and knowing that the same potential exists for me. Part of it is logistical: T and I are talking about taking a vacation with all the kids—how will that feel to M&R? We've vacationed with friends before, so maybe it's not a big deal, but T's kids are older and have a more nuanced understanding of our relationship. Will M&R sense that or pick up on that? What will that mean to them? What would they think if I told them T was going to spend the night at our house?
I tend to give information about Big Emotional/Adult Concepts to Maddie and Riley on a need-to-know basis. I answer their questions truthfully and completely, but when it comes to these types of constructs, I try to keep things as simple as possible. They aren't pushing me on this, and it's my instinct not to push them. But I want to be ready when and if they ask.
In their charming innocence of societal constructs around love, M&R are thrilled by the idea of Valentine's Day. They are looking forward to exchanging cards with their classmates tomorrow, and have somehow figured out that Valentine's Day and chocolate go together. They each picked out a box of cards at the store yesterday (Star Wars themed for Riley, puppies and kittens for Maddie) and painstakingly write "to my friend" and "from Maddie/Riley" on each of them. So sweet. I'm planning to make them heart-shaped toast with strawberry jam for breakfast, and I have a card for each of them. T and I aren't doing anything tomorrow, but are going out for a nice dinner on Wednesday. You don't have to know me very well at all to know that I'm not much of a celebrant of Big Days. But I confess that it's nice to be in a relationship that gives me a reason to enjoy the parts of this Hallmark holiday that appeal to me, like the excuse to go out for a nice meal and spend time with someone I care about. Not that I need a reason to do that, but if one presents itself, seems a shame not to take it.