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The Reluctant Stepmother: Learning to play house.

Eight years after he’d dumped me, I ran into an ex in a Barnes and Noble foyer. Since then, I’d been through six failed relationships and three therapists. I was busy being alone (yoga, salad, primetime television). I didn’t recognize him at first. Still handsome, but his beard had gone gray and the circles beneath his blue eyes darkened. He said he’d gotten married (“Congrats,” I said); had a daughter (“She’s beautiful,” I said about her wallet-sized photograph); and gotten divorced. Then he asked for my number.

No way, I thought. I’ll never go out with him again.

Three weeks later, I was meeting his two-year-old at the Tot Lot in Prospect Park. I was lying when I’d said she looked beautiful in the photograph – I’d actually thought she looked a little homely. In real life, she was beautiful. Her mom was Japanese, but Kim had pale skin and reddish hair and eyes like green agate. She looked up at me from the sandbox as if I were a monster. “She can probably sense your nervousness,” Rich said.

She wanted to swing, which she communicated with a combination of hand gestures and noises I couldn’t interpret, but Rich nodded at me and I bent to lift her. She ran the other way. The best part of the afternoon came when she fell asleep in the stroller, and I could smooch Rich all I wanted. Our doomed fate was certain. I gave us another week before we split.

A year later, they moved in, Kim with us three-and-a-half days a week. We kid-proofed my living room. My sister-in-law painted a mural of a unicorn on Kim’s wall. Rich worked funny film industry hours, and I was thrust into an amorphous caretaker role, picking Kim up at school, cobbling together her dinner. Her mother prescribed the traditionally over-scheduled Manhattan childhood: expensive, exclusive preschool, ballet, Japanese school, swimming lessons. At times, I was a volunteer chaperone, though I secretly loved riding the subway with Kim, to think others would see her in some part as my achievement. At school, during craft time, when the teacher asked her what she wanted to write on her construction paper heart, she dictated, “I love Daddy and I love Lisa.”

I was determined not to reenact either of my childhood step-parenting models: my overbearing stepmother whose relentless attempts to win our affections allowed my father to retreat to a comfortable place of intoxicated indifference, and my distant stepfather, who withdrew in response to our stepmom complaints. But sometimes, I thought stepmothering included all the parenting unpleasantness without the rewards: wiping drool, washing clothes, changing diapers, without seeing the fruit of my own loins bloom. I have always wanted to see how my own kids turned out, with the Davis musical genes, sense of humor – to tell them the funny stuff in my head and see what they do with it.

Love for Kim grew inside me, but it grew slowly, like a shade plant. I didn’t feel like sharing my bottled water with her (and introduced her to the word backwash, by way of explanation), or mopping up her vomit when she got carsick. If I got angry, grabbed her wrist, sent her for a time out when Daddy wasn’t there, guilt drowned me.

“Be like a really fun aunt,” my friends suggested; most hadn’t yet procreated and none had entered this virgin territory. Fun aunt didn’t work. The fun aunt doesn’t live with the kid. I was at least partially a caretaker, a disciplinarian. It wasn’t about fun; it was about doing what was best for the kid.

I began to realize that I had different ideas about what was best – different not only from Kim’s mother, but from Rich. For all that lacked in my childhood, I agreed with my mother’s basic approaches: whole foods, very little television, more high culture and less mass culture. I objected to the morning viewings of Cinderella, the Barbies, the Devil’s Tower of Christmas presents consuming a corner of the living room. Rich’s miserable childhood and relentless generosity made him want to give her everything: junk food, TV, stuffed animals.

Animals, yeah, I said. But 400 of them?

I stealthily inserted my values into their rituals: replacing the chicken nuggets with health food versions, snapping off the TV. I told the kid some of the funny things in my head – how I didn’t agree with messages in her fairytales, in which a woman remains helpless until rescued by a man. “You mean she doesn’t help herself?” Kim asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Women need to learn to help themselves.”

After that, when Kim saw a subway ad for Xena, standing tall with her sword, she’d say, “There’s a princess who helps herself.” I felt better when he asked me to marry him. I’d be a real stepmom, and not just Daddy’s girlfriend.Satisfaction circulated inside me, the way a parent must feel when the kid scores a goal or aces a solo in the Christmas pageant: I’d gotten a four-year old to think critically, put her on the path to a PhD in media studies.

What I settled on, after much trial and error, was a kind of big sister stance. My job was to be the grown-up in charge when Daddy wasn’t around. I could enforce the rules, not make up new ones. I had some power, but I also indulged in sweetly devilish undermining.

Rich was less sure of my new philosophy. “I have the final say,” he told me. “I’ll listen to your objections, but in the end, it’s up to me.”

While I loved Rich’s reasonable stance and endless well of love for the kid, I felt a faint sting of rejection, both from him and leftover from childhood. I had thought stepmothering would illuminate my parents’ and stepparents’ decision-making process. It only made it more confounding. Did my father ever intervene, soften my stepmother’s regime? He’d preferred my stepmother to me. I suppose on some level, selfish as it was, I wanted to be Rich’s preference.

I felt better when he asked me to marry him. At least I’d be a real stepmom, and not just Daddy’s girlfriend. Our engagement was unofficial, as Rich’s divorce hadn’t gone through. He had Kim present me with a small velvet box. I didn’t wear the ring. “It’s too big,” I said.

Then Kim left for three weeks, off to Japan with her mom to practice what she’d learned in Japanese school. It was strange in the house without her; Richard and I had nothing to argue about. Something tugged on my insides. I recognized that I missed her, and it startled me. Love wasn’t a shade plant anymore. It had blossomed.

Kim returned just in time for Rich’s sister’s wedding, to which his ex-wife was also invited. I appreciated this twenty-first-century arrangement, so different from the contention that boiled in my own blended family. We were grown-ups. We could share.

Only in those three weeks overseas, Kim had grown fiercely attached to her mother. Night-night phone calls ended with, “I miss you, Mama,” whereas before she’d been indifferent to the ritual, content to be with whichever parent, or stand-in, was there to tuck her in. She’d moan “Mama,” as if on her deathbed and murmuring “rosebud.”

“I love this,” I told her. “Keep it up.” The anger in my voice frightened me.

We took Kim to the wedding in an opalescent green dress. She darted from us the minute she saw her mother. She cried when we seated her at our table during the reception. Rich and I growled at each other on the dance floor when she scurried out from between us. All my self-help books and philosophizing on stepmother-as-big-sister couldn’t prepare me for the reality that descended then: I was sort of okay with being her stepmother; being his wife was harder. Our relationship wasn’t strong enough to sustain the constant, pounding pressure of stepparenting.

Rich’s sister’s ex-husband was giving a toast. Everyone was handling it beautifully, graciously, behaving like adults.Our relationship wasn’t strong enough to sustain the constant, pounding pressure of stepparenting. Handshakes and near-convincing smiles and small talk, and I just bowed my head down on the table and began to cry.

“What?” Rich pulled my hair away from the b’chamel sauce on my plate. “What’s going on?”

I looked up at him, at his deep blue eyes and his juicy lips: he has a beautiful face, a real handsome mug. “What is it?” he asked again.

I shook my head. I said, “I’m done.”

When we told Kim that she and her father would be getting their own place, she smiled and said, “Now I get to sleep in the big bed with Daddy!” Something sealed up between them as soon as I stepped away. They found an apartment one subway stop away, so I could see them regularly. I still picked her up from school. I made my exit slowly, so she wouldn’t notice.

Rich painted over the unicorn while I was away. I came home one Sunday night and there was the space that had been hers, all white, our little life together erased.

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