So pretend for a minute you’re a young divorcée with a three year old son, and you meet a man you really, really like. He’s divorced, too, and has a daughter off somewhere far away–both pluses, in your mind. He’s not some dope without a past, he’s a real grown-up who understands what you, too, have already lived through–marriage, divorce, and even a kid. What’s more, he’s phenomenal with your son, and your son–whose father lives far away, in the accepted tradition of 1970s divorced fathers–instantly, unstintingly adores him.
Pretend you move in together in a haze of bliss and good fortune, ecstatic to have found each other, not really thinking about the future, because who knows what the future might bring? And then pretend it’s your very first summer under the same roof, and his six-year-old daughter suddenly appears for her yearly five week visitation. You’re slightly nervous, the way one is often nervous with kids who are older than one’s own. (Three-year-olds you understand. Six-year-olds? An undiscovered country.) You’re determined to do your best, though, both for this unknown little kid (whose situation you sympathize with, since you’ve often thought about your own son’s once-yearly custodial visit to his father and new stepmother) and for your boyfriend, whom you’re still, let’s be honest, eager to impress.
You’d thought it would be fun to have a girl, for a change; you imagined braiding her hair, sharing confidences, cutting out paper dolls. But the moment your boyfriend and his daughter arrive, after a couple of days driving back from whatever godforsaken place he’s had to take time off from work to go and pick her up, you realize things are going to be harder than you thought. She’s awkwardly skinny and stringy-haired, not immediately friendly. While your boyfriend comes in and hugs you, then scoops your son up and hugs him too, she hangs back at the door, not saying anything. You can see her father in her, but she has none of his easy charm. This is not what you’d pictured. At dinner, she’s quiet, though your boyfriend has told you time and again that she never stops talking. You can tell your son’s already smitten with her–a new kid, a bigger kid, a mysterious kid come to live with them for half the summer!–and she smiles at him and him alone, answers his questions without hesitation. After dinner she clears her plate–your son copies her–and they disappear down the hall to his room. You can hear them playing in there as you wash the dishes. So there’s a start, your son likes her just fine–but then again your son’s a nice kid, who likes everyone just fine.
It’s hard to know what to ignore and what to insist on. The first day, for instance, she doesn’t make her bed. She doesn’t close the door when she goes to the bathroom, which shocks you, but you don’t know how to bring it up without sounding prudish or doctrinaire. It doesn’t seem right to you, but then you remember that your son streaks naked through the house on a regular basis. You ask your boyfriend what he thinks, and he looks at you funny. “She’s just a little girl,” he says, and you’re ashamed.
You know you should go easy on her for the first week or so. After all, it’s got to be hard to be whisked away from your family and plopped down smack in the middle of someone else’s. You know that last year she had her father all to herself, and now she’s got you. But simply knowing she’s around makes you spooked and self conscious. Your routine with your son feels strained and disrupted, and it’s hard work having two kids to feed, to take on errands, to clean up after. She’s quiet and restrained all day, but blooms when her father comes home, and it annoys you that he lights right up in return, that he’s so obviously happy to see her, so thrilled she’s there. She climbs into his lap unselfconsciously, drapes her small arm across the back of his neck. At supper, she dominates the conversation, and your son and your boyfriend laugh, listen carefully to her stories, play along with her games. Your boyfriend begins to plan special outings–a day at the pool, a camping trip–and some small part of you is vexed that everything is happening now. You wonder why your constant presence isn’t enough to warrant special trips, why this strange little girl is the sudden catalyst for everything fun and exciting in your summer.
And the kid herself turns out to be harder to love than you’d hoped. You’d hoped, though you hadn’t quite realized it, for someone like you as a little girl; in your memory, you were pleasant and chatty and accommodating and eager to please. This little girl seems to do whatever she wants. Sometimes she’s a perfect companion for your son, inventing all manner of games they play in the yard, or on the porch, or with his motley collection of toys in his room, but sometimes she curls in a corner and reads for hours, while your son hovers around, bored and miserable, waiting for her to notice him again.
You also weren’t prepared for how much she looks like your boyfriend’s ex-wife, whose picture you’ve surreptitiously studied. When her father is home, she mentions her mother a lot. Her mother is not someone you’re particularly interested in talking about, or in hearing your boyfriend talk about. After a couple of days you draw the mutinous (but inevitable) conclusion that you’re not wild about her: she’s spoiled, you decide, and she’s too possessive of her father, and she’s capricious with your son’s affection, and she’s suspicious of you.
And then one day she comes shyly up to you and asks you if you wouldn’t mind braiding her hair? She has always wanted braids, she says, but her hair is too wispy to do much with. You comb it carefully, do the best you can. She’s delighted with the results, and thanks you politely. “My mom can’t braid,” she volunteers, and some part of you swells with illicit pride. You decide to sew a sundress for her, and take her to the pattern store with you. (Your motives are not entirely pure. You happen to know her mother can’t sew, either.) She is awed by the patterns, spends a long time choosing, lifts her arms obediently to be measured, watches carefully while you cut and piece and sew. The sundress comes out perfectly, and she goes flying to her father to show it off the evening it’s finished. After that, she wears it every single day. You have to wash it at night, while she’s asleep in the pull-out bed in the room she shares with your son.
Sometimes in the morning you go in and find them in bed together–your three-year-old son almost as big as she is at six, their heads side by side on her pillow, their faces relaxed and innocent. It’s easy to love her when she’s asleep. She’s just a little girl, you tell yourself, feeling slightly ashamed. You have to love her if you are to love her father. You have to make her part of your family if you want to have any family with him at all. But in the back of your mind you’re already counting down, looking forward to the day you’ll pack her suitcase for her, send her back home (to her real home, you think, to the place she belongs) for another year.
That week you make paper dolls for both children, and help them cut everything out. They play with them for hours under the kitchen table, then run together to greet your boyfriend when they hear his car in the driveway. The following summer, though you don’t know this yet, you and your boyfriend will marry. He’ll want to wait until his daughter can be there, and so you’ll organize the wedding (and the honeymoon, which will include both kids–you can’t afford anything else) around her visit. You’ll help her pick out a special long dress, with daisies printed on the fabric and an eyelet apron, and she’ll get so excited about it that she’ll beg to be allowed to wear it just for a few hours every day in advance. You’ll let her, though you think you probably shouldn’t on principle, because somehow it’s less worrisome to spoil a child who isn’t yours. But she is yours, you’ll realize, in some fundamental way. And at some point that same summer, after the wedding, she’ll ask you whether it’s all right if she, too, calls you Mommy.
You will, of course, say yes.