She has always been a child to me. I did not know her as a baby,
never saw her sucking a bottle or crawling, did not hear her crying in
the middle of the night, did not hold her tiny body to my breast for comfort.
She was a child already walking. Maybe this is why she is called “stepchild.”
I have always called her “cchillld,” with a long and southern drawl, to bring her closer to me, to eliminate that “step.”
It seems so ugly, that “step.” People do not smile when you say you have a stepchild. Their eyes do not light up and they do not ask, “How old is she?” as they burst to tell you a memory of their child at that age. Instead, they look at you solemnly, as if you have just told them bad news.
This has always bothered me. There were times before I gave birth to my own daughter when I was tempted to say, “We love each other! She is a real child! I am a real mother!”
But I didn’t say this.
Would they have believed me?
* * *
She is young, in kindergarten. She comes home from school and, after a snack of milk and apple, wants to draw. So I get out the crayons, and we sit at the kitchen table and begin.
Because I have always worked part-time, and because my mother was never home after school, I have always been home with Laura in the afternoons when she is at our house. I draw next to her, thinking how special is this time, when the sun is low on the horizon and dinner is cooking and the house is quiet and calm.
She finishes her drawing, a huge heart in rainbow colors, bursting with love, and in the upper right hand corner, she has written, “To St. Mom.”
* * *
I read that a stepmother should not try to replace, or be, a mother. She should be more like an older sibling, or an aunt. So this is what I have tried to do.
And I am certainly no saint. I am naughty. I am the one who gives an extra treat, the one who wants her to stay up a little later, the one who forgets to remind her to brush her teeth.
I know I am not her mother. I hesitate when people ask what year she was born. I decide this would be a good test for kidnappers — if they hesitate, they are not the child’s parents. A real mom would never forget.
* * *
She cackles and rides the wind in her boat made of a mortar, using her pestle as an oar. She is old, and ugly, and wicked. A witch.
She could have been the stepmother to Sleeping Beauty. Offering the apple that would put the girl to death.
She could have been the stepmother to Cinderella, mean and cruel, unfair and heartless, preferring her own blood kin and making the poor girl pay for being the one who does not belong.
These are the images that swirl before one’s eyes when you tell people you are a stepmother.
But she is not the stepmother to Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. She is Baba Yaga, the old Russian crone, goddess of the harvest. She is wild. She is too old to care what people think. She cuts them down, like wheat, and grinds them into what we need to be fed.
The woman in the sweet house who wanted to grind up Hansel and Gretel is her bitter sister.
* * *
Being a stepmother is a wild ride.
Looking back on the years I have been with my stepdaughter, I see Baba Yaga in myself. In her, too. I see that what our culture has turned ugly and mean is in fact a kind of craziness, a kind of amazing giddiness that comes from living so close to someone who is not your blood, and not meaning to love them, and not expecting to be loved, and having it happen anyway.
* * *
We pick her up from school together. It is her last day of third grade, a warm, gray day in early June. It looks like rain.
We come home, sit in our places at the table, eat gingerbread and orange juice, and hear the beginning of pattering rain on the roof.
We sigh. It hasn’t rained for weeks, and we’ve missed it.
“I want to go outside,” she says. “I want to welcome it.”
We smile. “Okay,” we say, and she is up and on her way out the door.
Outside, she turns on the hose and helps the rain. She dances, and shrieks, and sings, “Summer, summer, rain, rain, rain. Welcome, welcome, you came, came, came.”
She turns the hose on herself, wetting her head, and swirling. She peels off her wet shirt, and her shoes, and soon, she is buck naked in the back yard, yelling and dancing and celebrating the rain. We watch and laugh from the porch, amazed.
* * *
This is how to be a good stepmother: you let the child dance in the rain.
* * *
She is eleven. I am getting dressed, my plump thighs squeezing into tights below my big pregnant belly. She comes into the bedroom, sits on the bed.
“Which orgasm is better?” she says. “When you masturbate or when you have sex?”
This is how to be a good stepmother: you answer the question.
“It depends on whom you’re having sex with,” I answer.
“How about with dad?”
This is how to be a good stepmother: you don’t answer the question.
“I can’t answer that, child,” I say. And I smile. And we giggle.
* * *
If she had been my baby, I might have shown more fear. I don’t know. But I have always been the one she could talk to, ask the hard questions, get answers from.
Once when I took a trip by myself out west, and was gone for weeks, I called home from a payphone at the Grand Canyon and she said, “When are you coming back? Nobody tells me anything when you’re gone.”
* * *
Some people might call it bad parenting. To be so open. To be the kind of parent who does not scold a child for prancing around the house naked, showing off her changing body. To be the kind of parent who lets a child be wild.
But imagine if we’d all had that kind of parent. Someone who was far enough away to be open with.
* * *
We are playing basketball. She’s in fourth grade. I’m telling her to use her whole body when she shoots, the way the New York kids taught me to do when I worked at a summer camp for homeless kids during college.
“I feel it in my feet,” I say. “The shot comes up from my feet and I feel it there and I know the ball will go in.”
“Yes,” she says. “I know when my shot’s going to make it, too. I feel it in my vagina.”
* * *
She mowed me down. Like grass, unkempt and unruly. She made me into the kind of mother I am today. Bold. Unafraid of what is bawdy. Mothering from my body. Able to laugh from my belly.
* * *
I think of all the witchy stepmothers in our history, their haggy ugliness, big noses and brooms, and I wonder.
How did we get so afraid of what is wild? I think of Baba Yaga, who did not ride in a broom, but in a mortar and pestle.
The pestle, what was a tool for transforming the harvested herbs into sweet, wet flavors was turned into a broom, a tool of burden, a chore, what wipes out the dust and dirt.
We think of stepmothering as a chore, a burden, an awful shifting of dust and dirt. But it is not. It doesn’t have to be.
The rebellion and anger and craziness children exhibit around their stepparents is a wild herb. It is our job to harvest it.
Gather it up and mix it all together, make it mushy and messy, blend the flavors as we blend our lives, not with a machine but by hand, gently, with our fingers, tasting the way the different essences compliment each other when they are so close together.
* * *
I did not become a mother when I gave birth to my daughter. I was not a new, springtime mom. My stepdaughter initiated me into mothering before this, at the harvest stage. The seeds of my mothering came from her tall and tender, strong and wild stalk. This wild child made me into the mom I am.