The worst thing I’ve ever done was the way I treated my stepdaughter.
When I got serious with my husband, I met her, and found her to be cute, loving but not “my kind of kid.” Her 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, or that she loved junk food.
When I found out that I was pregnant, I knew 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 like me. I was an elitist, the product of a family of academics. I liked growing up in my family, and it had produced two responsible, intelligent, cultured children. It was what I knew, and it seemed to have worked well.
It was clear within months that we could not have weekend visits from my stepdaughter and live my Utne Reader Dream Life. She watched hours of TV, which I found absolutely appalling. She liked McDonald’s, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. She was not a reader.
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 homemade for everyone else. I knew that her mother was not well, and that life at her other house was sad and hard. 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 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 Sam turned three, it became apparent that my husband’s ex was really, really not okay, and that we couldn’t leave a child in her care. She agreed. We obtained 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, because how could a decent human being tell a little girl who had watched her mother fall apart that she was barred from any of the things that comforted her? How could I cut her TV time, change her eating habits, or make her stop talking baby talk?
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 woman who 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, an overwhelming sense of duty, failure, and anxiety. I could “do” for her, braid her hair, feed her soup, be her Easter Bunny, but I never felt maternal.
With time, a funny thing happened. It was no lightning bolt miracle of compassion on my part, but a gradual process of allowing my stepdaughter to feel like she was “mine. She tangled with Mean Girls, and my need to defend her right was swift, strong and true. She struggled with school and I pushed the school district to test her and make a plan to help her.
It never became a bond like I had with my own mother. My stepdaughter and I share few interests, and I’ve often felt that we were not speaking the same language. In spite of those 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 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. But I felt it.
As she grew older I knew that she was naturally a kind person, a hard worker, and a pragmatist. She was good with babies, animals, and old people. I admire her. She trained to be a Nurse’s Aide, and has worked hard ever since.
Three years ago she presented us with a beautiful, shaggy-haired nugget of babyhood named Chloe with whom I fell instantly and irrevocably in love. She didn’t marry Chloe’s father, but she has a boyfriend now who is everything we would hope for.
I might wish for different circumstances for her, but I have learned not to judge. (Well, honestly, I have learned to correct myself after I judge). She’s a good mother. She doesn’t over think or 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 couldn’t get past her own stuff and provide unconditional love. I want that home for her because she deserves it.
I hope that someday 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.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: nattywoohoo on Flickr