After thirty years tap-dancing through life as a childfree woman, Dani fell in love with a divorced dad of two and stepped into the amorphous role of a parent’s live-in significant other—or, babysitter without compensation. She writes about her journey in her memoir, The Girlfriend Mom.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Chappaqua, NY—45 miles North of NYC. (Home to the Clintons—unless that no longer scores points, and then I don’t know if they still live there). It was a typical small town and I couldn’t wait to get out. I wanted the big city where I could pursue my big dreams of performing on Broadway. My parents are still together after 57 years of marriage and I have one older brother. Both of us are divorced and clearly weren’t influenced by our parents. I’m a recovering musical theater performer. My first show was a production of Westward Expansion in 5th grade. I think I peeked the summer after freshman year of high school when I starred as Roxie Hart in the Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Camp production of CHICAGO. I went to NYU film school and then The American Film Institute in L.A.
I spent my most of my life in show business, in some way or another—including but not limited to production assistant, theater producer, writer’s assistant, stand-up comedian, screenwriter and filmmaker. I was laser focused on a career and profession—I never thought that I’d get married and I certainly didn’t want kids. Every job that I had, and every decision that I made, were toward one goal—a career in show biz. After nearly 17 years pursuing my dreams in L.A., I decided that it just wasn’t going to happen. I was tired, and I also knew that it was time to shift my focus. Making the decision to leave it all behind was liberating and I took it as a sign that I was making the right decision.
I immediately enrolled in a program to teach English as a second language in Prague. I sold my possessions—from fork to car, and off I went. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out and I returned to the states—more specifically, to a guest room in my parent’s house in Chappaqua. It’s not true what they say, that you can always go home. You can’t, especially when if you’re 38!
When did you start to think about making a change?
As I say above, the first change (although I was only 38) was leaving L.A. But when I failed as an English tutor in the Czech Republic, I spun out and fell into the throes of a movie-worthy midlife crisis. I pulled myself together long enough to finish a film and write and perform a one-person show (for one night only) in New York. Afterwards, I was back to where I had started before I’d left L.A. I’d gone back to the show biz well, and it hadn’t gotten me anywhere—again. I was at a total loss as to what to do next or what I wanted.
I moved out of my parent’s guest room and into NYC, where, two months later, I met Julian and his two kids: Nicole, 13, and Tyler, 8. This was my next act.
Tell us more about that next act.
So here I was, at 38, in love with a man and joining his family already in progress. I never wanted kids, but I also wasn’t a kid-hater. It just wasn’t an aspiration. After about a year and half of dating, we moved in together. I didn’t think having the kids on alternate weekends would be a problem. If he had had full custody, it might’ve been a deal breaker.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
It wasn’t hard in the beginning because I was so deliriously in love. Most of the time, the kids were an abstract thought—barely real to me because we didn’t see them that often. In my head, I was still living a child and carefree life. There’s no way that I could have prepared for this new living arrangement. I had no guide, no manual, no friends or family that had been in a similar situation. I was flying by the seat of my pants. Every event and situation was challenging and virgin territory.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My family and friends were surprised when I moved in with my ex and was going to be involved in his kids’ lives. They’ve only known me as childfree by choice, so this was a big leap. That being said, they were very supportive and knew how I sometimes struggled with the arrangement—not having a voice in certain matters, walking around blindly following my ex.
I was truly shocked, however, after Julian and I broke up. He dumped me for a natural (and younger) blonde. Ending any romantic relationship is heartbreaking, especially after 7 ½ years, but I had no idea what this would mean for me and the kids, and I felt like I’d become a cliché and a statistic.
Certain family members, and a few friends, couldn’t understand why I’d fight to stay in the kids’ lives. They knew it was tearing me apart and some suggested that I walk away—it would be healthier. But I couldn’t walk away. I couldn’t, nor wouldn’t, abandon the kids. This was going to be a solo path.
What challenges did you encounter when you became part of these kids’ lives?
Accepting the kids as living and breathing humans, and a part of my boyfriend’s life, forever, was eye-opening. We were no longer playing house or acting out scenes from a Rom Com movie. These were his flesh and blood, and I had to recalibrate and adjust my thinking.
My boyfriend had expectations of me when it came to the kids. He thought being around his kids would be a natural fit—because I’m a woman—but it wasn’t. They weren’t my kids, I was childfree by choice and they demanded my boyfriend’s attention—which meant less for me, when they were with us.
I had a lot of growing up to do. And there was an extensive learning curve. I never knew how the kids felt about me, because they weren’t verbal, and nor was my ex. I spent many months, perhaps years, full of insecurity and self-doubt. My ex had his own divorced dad hurdles and therefore wasn’t all that helpful with my struggles.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
Wow, where do I begin. I learned that I can be petty and childish. Living with my ex’s kids unearthed a maternal and nurturing side of myself that I hadn’t tapped into. I learned that simply because I was (and am) childfree by choice; it didn’t mean that I couldn’t have loving relationships with kids—not all kids, these two specific kids.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Yes. I would have asked for help. I wouldn’t have been so stubborn in my thinking, believing that I could handle the situation alone. I would’ve spoken up more when I disagreed with my ex on certain matters pertaining to the kids. I would’ve trusted myself more. I knew things but, because I wasn’t the parent, I dismissed myself.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
I see reinvention as an opportunity. Starting over is scary and it can be excruciatingly painful. However, each time that I’ve stepped outside of myself and turned away from all that I knew, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the growth and gained knowledge. When your feet are held to a fire, you learn pretty quickly what kind of a person you are. It’s a chance to grow and test your mettle. I’m always looking to see how far I can push my limits.
My resolve, strength, and stamina were tested in a hundred different ways as a member of this family. Now that I’m on the other side, I am stronger and wiser. Not only was it all worth the fight, but I can’t imagine not having these kids in my life. When I look at my relationships with my ex’s kids, I don’t see the heartache or the buckets of tears that I shed along the way, I see loving and grateful connections. I can’t imagine my life had I not taken a chance, turned the page, and jumped in (heart first).
What did you learn about parenting another’s children?
I was not a disciplinarian in this situation. I was very conscious not to overstep or to make assumptions—about anything. The biological parents made most decisions and my opinions were sometimes scoffed at. I wasn’t the parent—no matter how much I might’ve felt like one. In the beginning, I was so afraid that I wouldn’t, nor couldn’t love someone else’s kids, those that I didn’t share a bloodline with. Hell, I wasn’t sure that I’d even like them. My worries were fortunately and gratefully unfounded. There’s no instant anything when it comes to being a part of someone else’s kids’ lives. Thankfully, time was my friend. I let things happen organically, and it was best for everyone. At times, I had to tamp down my instincts, emotions, and reactive behavior because I knew that I couldn’t force myself onto the kids. Instead, I took my cues from Nicole and Tyler, and they set the tone and pace.
You can read my memoir, The Girlfriend Mom, if you’re interested in my story, but we’re all on singular journeys. I wouldn’t have listened to anyone’s advice, nor would I have wanted to hear others’ stories when I was in the thick of it and stumbling down my path. I had to see for myself, and in my own time.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
Of course. My life has only been in acts. This next act is the publication of my book, The Girlfriend Mom, and to see where it takes me. What started as a healthy way to share my unique (and hopefully humorous) situation with others, quickly became a salve. Writing about my experience gave me perspective and it helped me work out what had happened. It was cathartic and healing and ultimately it brought closure and perspective.
I’ve started writing my follow-up memoir, The Ex-Girlfriend Mom, which delves deeper into my relationship with Julian’s ex-wife and how my relationship with Nicole and Tyler has developed over several years. I can’t imagine what the future holds for me and Nicole and Tyler, now 26 and 21, respectively, just like I couldn’t believe how I was going to love them when we first met.
I’m also in the early stages of creating a podcast called Old Broad City: Wiser & Nakeder. I think the title speaks for itself.
Connect with Dani Alpert:
Book: The Girlfriend Mom: A Memoir
Facebook page: fb.me/DaniAlpertAuthor