Being a stepmother is different from being a mother. And maybe that is a good thing.
I date a man with a daughter. I don’t see much of Kate in the beginning, which I understand is intentional. She is only two-and-a-half, and single parents can have rules about these things, not wanting their kids to bond with people they are casually dating, not wanting their children to see strangers affectionately ruffling their parents’ hair, sleeping in their bed.
But after a couple months, I visit the boyfriend and his daughter for a long weekend in Maine. It takes me a plane ride and a taxi and a ferry to get there. I am flattered and excited to have entered the-meet-the-kid-stage. I am also nervous as hell. Kids don’t lie, especially little ones. What if she just hates me?
I come to breakfast our first morning with a turquoise kikoi tied around my head that Boyfriend says makes me look like Keith Richards. Since I’m not used to being upright and conscious on a weekend morning before eight a.m., I’m also incapable of worrying whether I’ve blown it already with the odd headgear. This is good. Instead, I blithely choose to take my new Rolling Stones persona and Boyfriend’s toddler for a morning swim. A little grey stony cove waits for us where the lawn ends. What good is a rented house on the water, if you don’t go in?
Now there is cold water and there is water so cold, it stabs and curls the toes. This is the latter. Stubborn pebbles punch the undersides of my feet as I shuffle in. Such are the joys of coastal Maine in June. The only thing blessedly missing is a thick blanket of fog.
Still, I’m a big girl and the little girl feels good on my hip, thin arms circling my neck, soft belly pressed against my side, thighs locked around my waist. Her father waves to us from the shore, his hair spiky with bedhead, his jeans rolled up to below his knees. We wave, we look at one another, smile, she giggles. I walk in deep enough for the water to catch her toes. She squeals.
“You want to go under?” I say. She nods. “It’s cold,” I warn her. The last thing I need is a wet, crying two-and-a-half-year-old. Maine is lonely without friends.
But something in her expression, a mixture of courage and trust and mischief, convinces me that it’s going to be okay.
One, two, three. I make her count it with me. We’re in this together after all.
One, two, three! And I drop us into the bone-chilling, heart-stopping water.
Are we gasping when we emerge? Yes. Are we screaming? Does Kate’s dripping, stunned face have a look of pure terror? Only for an instant. Is Boyfriend whooping on the shore impressed? Most certainly. But that hardly matters. What matters is Kate.
We shriek, we hug each other tight, we grin from ear to ear, and I hurry us back to dry towels and Boyfriend on the shore. As I place her carefully down at the lip of the water to run into her father’s outstretched, towel holding arms, she looks up at me, shiny, shivering, but radiant. When I smile at her I feel an easy peace come over me. We have had our first adventure, our first experience of complicity, and just like that, I know we are in love.
Her father? I’m not so sure how I feel about Boyfriend yet. But he does look so tender bundling Kate up in the faded striped towel. Rubbing her sides, laughing, telling her she is so brave.
Eight months later I’m walking out of a church, ring on my finger. Boyfriend is Husband and his right arm encircles mine. In his left he holds Kate. The three of us descend the steps to a waiting car and pile in.
Kate sits between us, a flower crown circling her head, black Mary Janes on her feet. She looks like a mini Snow White and it dawns on me that with a simple “I do,” I’ve become the villianess of all her favorite fairy tales. Will she make the connection?
Kate curls into her father, sleepy. She must wish, somewhere in her young heart, that her father had married her mother instead of me. But she’s a kid, so she rolls with it. We all do.
Now stepmothers get a bad rap. We’re evil and conniving. We’re jealous and petty. We’re unloving and unlovable. So bad are the tropes, near strangers used to corner me at kids’ birthday parties after seeing me and Kate hug, me tie her shoelaces, her rush up to tell me one thing or another, things so unremarkable between a mother and daughter you’d cut them from a movie script.
So, these mothers, because it was almost always mothers, would rush up and say, “You’re so close!” And it was like, yes, we are. But the gushing would continue, and I’d add how I got along with Kate’s mother, that I’d been in Kate’s life since as long as she could remember, that Kate’s parents were never married. I’d add all this by way of explanation, because I believe it does, in part, explain things, but you’d be surprised at how many people would still shake their heads in wonder at our bond before they drifted away with the drained looks of real parents trying to parent their real children.
These parents, they tear their hearts up over every conflict. They try to hide it, but they bleed. They speak in measured tones. They are patient. They are trying to be grown-ups, but it’s not easy. These kids, their kids, unwittingly hold up funhouse mirrors and trigger old wounds, activate frustration and shame in the most unpredictable ways. I know this because I am a real parent too. Kate has a younger half-sister. Her name is Madelyn.
I think I might’ve been a better parent to my step-daughter than I am to my daughter.
With Madelyn, if there is too much feeling I start to adopt it, embody it, like the umbilical cord was never cut. I claw my way toward steady ground, toward some kind of healthy emotional distance from which I can parent, from which I can be a mature adult, from which I can be wise and be a guide. But often I lose. I can be reactive, sarcastic, vindictive, withholding. I can be childish.
If Kate was scared, I made her feel less so. If she was unhappy, I cheered her up. If she was angry at me, I didn’t feel angry back. I fixed it. We talked things out. There was something rational going on. Usually.
* * *
“You’d never have married me, if it wasn’t for Kate,” my husband likes to say. He’s right. We laugh. What I say less often, but also know to be true is, “If it wasn’t for Kate, you wouldn’t have married me either.”
* * *
Now, Kate is sixteen and going to boarding school. I blame it on Harry Potter and Dead Poets Society, but then I think too the girl is tired of shuffling from one house to another. She wants a place to call her own.
We throw her a party. It is impossibly hot. Our A.C. is broken and we drape ourselves over chaises on the lawn. Her friends sweat in front of hastily purchased fans and eat caramel popcorn and Chinese chicken salad that practically wilts on the fork. But they seem to be having fun. I fret about the hole Kate will leave in our family when she goes.
For ten years she’s been living here one week on, one week at her mom’s.
One week on.
One week off.
Now it’s just going to be off…
As the party winds down, and we lower the music so as not to annoy the neighbors, Kate leaves with her mom and two besties for a sleepover.
Me and my friend Jen, we wave at them and blow kisses as they leave.
“Thank you, Liz, for the party!” Kate says. She looks happy standing on the path, her face rosy and glowing, thick brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. It is dark finally, though not much cooler. The outdoor lights spook up the eucalyptus trees behind her and the wall of bamboo that edges the trampoline.
I feel this immense gratitude welling up inside me, looking at her, this person I’ve known and loved and helped raise since she was a toddler.
I think of getting up from the lounge chair, wading through the water feature that separates us, carpeted with dead leaves, and wrapping my arms around her, but we are so sweaty and really this isn’t goodbyegoodbye. Instead, I continue to grin at her, hoping she can feel the love radiating from my chest.
“Thank YOU,” I shout, my voice cracking like a teenage boy’s. “Thank you for everything.”
I almost starting bawling, right there, but Jen shouts, “For everything! Everything! We love Kate!” like a football chant and Kate shouts, “I love you. I love all of you guys,” and scoots down the steps to the curb.
“She looked really happy,” Jen says, once Kate is gone.
“Yeah,” I say. “She looked loved.”
Liz Tynes Netto is a lapsed journalist, TV producer, and current MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She is the flash prose editor for Lunch Ticket and she is writing a novel.