Of the two very worst things I have ever done, one of them is the way I treated my stepdaughter. I had no excuse; I was well-mothered, as were my parents and my husband. There was a veritable catalogue of loving, generous maternal goodness for me to observe and study. My mother-in-law even gave me a good example of stepmothering; she married a man with four children abandoned by their own mother, and raised them with kindness, fairness and incredible energy. They all view her as their “mother” to this day, because she was.
When I met my husband, I knew that he had a little girl. I met her, and found her to be cute, loving but not “my kind of kid.” She was the child not only of my husband, but of a mother who was unsophisticated, and, as it turned out, seriously mentally ill. I didn’t like the fact that my stepdaughter watched cartoons and movies all the time, that she was uninterested in books, and that she preferred fast and processed food. When I found out that I was pregnant, I began to think about the ways in which our child would be raised differently. There would be little or no television, there would be lots of books, there would be fresh, interesting things to eat, exposure to culture, and high academic expectations. In other words, our child would be raised to be me. I was an elitist, a snob, and the product of a family of academics – a boy broke up with me once, partly because all my family talked about was “the kings and queens of England.” The thing is that I liked growing up in my family, and it had produced two responsible, intelligent, cultured, well-educated children. It was what I knew, it seemed to have worked well, and it was natural (I think) that it was a pattern I sought to follow as a mother.
It was clear within months that we could not have weekend visits from my stepdaughter and live my Utne Reader Dream Life. She liked to watch TV, particularly “Rugrats,” which I found absolutely appalling. She liked McDonald’s, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, and Chi Chi’s. She was not a reader, or the kind of kid who is instinctively given to learning new things. Her baby brother adored her, and as he grew, I gave up on the TV moratorium and made blue box macaroni for her when I made my own, homemade version for everyone else. I knew that her mother was not well, that life at her other house was sad and hard, and I kept trying to summon the compassion I would have felt for any other child under the same circumstances. Like a physical blockade, there was something that would not let me open my heart, relax, and accept the fact that no real harm was being done to Sam if he spent a few hours on the weekends watching Nickelodeon. I resented that little girl in a way that made my heart nothing better than a small, black rock.
Shortly after we moved into our house, when Sam was three, it became apparent that my husband’s ex was really, really not okay. There had been signs, but the combination of an oblivious GP and her periods of relative normality slowed the inevitable diagnosis. We knew we could not leave a child in her care, she agreed, and we petitioned for sole physical and legal custody. It was the right thing to do, and I talked a good game about helping her, keeping her safe, and providing a stable home, but I was devastated. The weekend suspension of my dreams was about to become our life; how could a decent human being tell a little girl who had watched her mother fall apart before her eyes that she was barred from any of the things that made her feel comfortable? How could I institute a TV ban, change her eating habits, make her stop talking baby talk when she was traumatized?
I say to myself now, as a kinder, better, less desperate woman: how could you even think of anything other than loving her and making her feel at home so that she could heal? How could you have taken such human tragedy and made it all about yourself, a privileged, beloved, not-all-that-young woman who traditionally loved and cared for every stray, human and animal that crossed her path? I can’t answer. I can only say that at the time, I saw nothing but my own loss, my own overwhelming sense of duty, failure, and anxiety. I could “do” for her, and I did braid her hair, feed her soup, be her Easter Bunny, but I never felt maternal.
As the years passed, a funny thing happened. It was no lightening bolt miracle of compassion on my part, but a gradual process of allowing my stepdaughter to become fully real and deserving of my help. She struggled with Mean Girls, and I was surprised to find that my impulse to defend her and set things right was swift, strong and true. She struggled with school and I pushed and nagged until we got the school district to test her and make a plan to help her work around the processing disorder that made it difficult for her to retain what she read. In high school, she was given an elaborate assignment involving the writing of numerous poems based on the works of Monet, an assignment that might have given pause to a Master’s candidate in creative writing. I tried to coach her, I tried to get the teacher to work with her in such a way that she had a chance of success, I watched her cry in frustration, and then I wrote it all myself without a shred of guilt. We got an “A+” and the teacher asked whether she could submit it to a magazine. We savored that triumph, my daughter and I.
It never became a bond like I have with my own mother; my stepdaughter and I shared few interests, and I often felt that we were not necessarily speaking the same language. In spite of the gaps, she became my child, and I became a person in her life who she could trust to give good advice, and practical help. Kind of a mother, although I was a much better mother to my son. I always had difficulty accepting her without judging her choices, comparing her to others, or feeling guilty about what a bad job I had done. I got her through school, I taught her to write thank-you notes, put her napkin in her lap, and do her laundry, but the real love in her life, the deep, uncritical, ridiculously lenient kind of love came from her father and her (real) mother. I felt it only situationally, like waves that threatened to topple me with their force, but later melted into tame and level waters.
As she grew older I saw that she was naturally a kind person, a hard worker, and something of a pragmatist. She was good with babies, animals, grandparents, and the downtrodden. I admire that in her. She trained in her last two years of high school to be a Nurse’s Aid, and works at a local retirement center. Jjust over a year ago she presented us with a serious boyfriend. Earlier this week, they had their first child, a beautiful, shaggy-haired nugget of babyhood named Chloe with whom I fell instantly and irrevocably in love.
I might wish for different circumstances for her; she is only 20 and unmarried, but I have learned not to judge. Well, honestly, I have learned to correct myself after I judge. She loves her baby, and I see in her a kind of natural, calm maternal spirit that is unusual in the high-strung, internet-obsessed Older Mothers of my acquaintance. She doesn’t over think, she doesn’t ruminate, she just loves her daughter, instinctively and well. She has a chance to make the home she always wanted, now, a home without a divorce, without an unpredictable mother, and without a stepmother who cannot find a way to really, thoroughly love and comfort a frightened and damaged child. I want that home for her, because she is a sweetheart, and she deserves it.
I wish her a happy first Mother’s Day, and I hope that some day she’ll understand that, lacking her naturally accepting and sensible nature, it took me a while to become the mother she needed. Knowing her, I’ll get another chance.