I am a stepmother and I never know how to respond to the question “Do you have children?” Neither “yes” nor “no” answers the question. Yes, because Beloved, my husband, has two adult daughters. No, because I have never given birth. Yes, I have grandchildren whom I count as my own flesh. No, I did not raise their mothers.
Yes, because Beloved’s daughters, “B” and “C” as they shall be called for purposes here, are often in my thoughts. When I read a book either might like I make a mental note to mention it the next time we talk. If one calls to worry over a problem it is never far from my thoughts as I go through the days of my own life. No, because I do not share the clouds of memories they can wander around in at will with their father.
Yes, because both are as close to me as some of my best friends. No, because our friendship is based on our mutual agreement that loyalty to their mother will always take precedence.
Yes, because I would do anything to save either daughter’s life. No, because I wouldn’t be asked unless a long line of blood relatives, including their mother, had been asked first.
Stepparenting requires treading the fine line between underperformance and over-commitment, particularly if the second marriage followed closely the break-up of a nuclear family. Fortunately, that is not our case. Beloved and the mother of B and C had been divorced for several years before he and I got together. Fortunately too, both B and C were adults when I met them. They needed little more from me than to lead a happy life with their father. So the doubts and wonderings I experience are largely of my own construction. I wonder what it might have been like had I been their mother.
Looking at the stately B of today, I want to know how heavy she felt when she was tiny enough to have been bathed in a sink. Or what the sound of C’s sudden cries might have done to the hair on the back of my neck when she suffered one of her many hapless childhood injuries. What would those girls and I have fought about, laughed about, cried about? What might we have done to scar each other or endear us to one another for our lifetimes? What events of our temporal worlds would have been shaped by each other’s sharing of the same experience?
Being a stepmother, though, is so much more than speculation about the past. There is enough challenge in the present to keep a person constantly alert. What confidences are to be shared, or not, between a father and his daughters when you are the intermediary? When does a wise woman step out of a scene and let the family dynamics that have developed over a lifetime play themselves out?
I will never know, with absolute certainty, how it feels to be a birth mother. My life has led me down only one side of this street: the side reserved for stepmoms. But giving birth simply was not my fate, and I know that if I continue to wonder what it looks like from “over there,” I could miss the remarkable views from my path.
There are gorgeous qualities unique to being a stepmom. Because I did not give birth to B and C, my relationship with them is not founded on shared DNA, but rather on what each of us chooses to contribute to it. For the sake of general peace we need to be civil to each other. But we love each other because we have decided that is what we will do. Moreover, we share in common not the father of their memories, but Beloved, as he exists today. The retired, ice fishing, woodworking, bearded guy.
We are weaving a crazy quilt of shared experiences that we will wrap around each other and ourselves in the years to come. “Remember when…?” We have shared birthdays, holidays, summer days and snowstorms. We have cooked together, traveled together and built together. We have been sick together, bored together and downright cranky together. We have moved residences and changed jobs, all while we were part of each other’s lives. We are developing our own sets of dynamics rife with their own landmines and pinnacles.
Then there are the six grandchildren. Two were born after we were married, and we cheered the entry of another into the family circle by means of marriage. Together we have seen them leave the diaper stage, lose their baby teeth, and march bravely into the first day of kindergarten. Side by side we have rooted for our budding athletes in football, soccer, basketball and tee ball. They are our grandkids and we are all of us, exes and steps and biologicals included, granted the status of grandparent.
I will be forever grateful for the bountiful love my own mother gave me. It was unconditional, overprotective, old-fashioned and moralistic. In the end, it was almost always exactly what I needed. And so, with a stepmother’s love, which is not the same as a mother’s love but substantial enough in its own right, I will continue the tradition by giving loving gifts to B and to C. Because, I am their stepmother and they are my girls.