Few book titles are as catchy as My Father Married Your Mother. The essays in this anthology tread the squishy ground that represents what some have dubbed the “post-nuclear” or blended family. Editor Anne Burt envisioned this collection because she was seeking answers when, after her divorce, she fell for a man with a daughter. This forced her to reckon with the cultural implications of her decision — she wanted something more than the role of “Wicked Stepmother,” found little in literature to help her out, and so began her creative process.
One of her first insights came in looking to the word “stepmother” itself:
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of the prefix “step” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “steop.” It means “bereaved.” Of course, I thought: I wasn’t about to become a stepmother because I would “step” in to parent Delayna, nor would I be a “step” removed from her. The archival meaning of the word “stepmother” addressed the grief inherent in our situation: why, then, didn’t any of the books? I had found the Evil Stepmother at last, only to discover that she had been buried under mountains of sunny advice on the blended family and finger pointing at the nature of divorce. (p24)
With this in mind, Burt pulled together a group of writers with perspectives as stepparents, stepchildren, and those who fell in categories somewhere in-between or outside the conventional definition of a stepfamily. The book is organized as a series of essays with no categories. She abandoned the notion that the essays should be divided along the lines of stepparents and stepchildren, to give the book a sort of “meta-conversational” tone.
Indeed, many of the essays seem to speak to each other. Jacquelyn Mitchard’s essay “Losing Janey” is about a stepmother’s and stepdaughter’s respective journeys: stepdaughter Janey from little girl to grown woman — wife and mother — Mitchard’s from young and naive woman to older and more self-reflective woman. In retrospect, Mitchard can tease out factors that hindered her relationship to Janey, and her ability to be an adequate stepparent. Mitchard writes “I had begun to see that, for most of my adult life, I had worried about how she fit into my portrait, not how I could help her paint her own. I wanted to buy her a mockingbird; but I never considered that it might be the last thing she wanted — from me. She had a mother in full. She didn’t need another.”
The following essay, Andrew Solomon’s “On Having a Stepmother Who Loves Opera,” chronicles the evolution of his relationship with his stepmother. He writes of making peace with the addition of a stepmother after his mother’s death. Already an adult, Solomon wasn’t in search of another mother. However, the potential stepmother in question was, it turned out, more important than anyone realized, which became obvious when she missed a family trip. Describing his father as operating in a “sort of towering grumpiness,” Solomon observes how “we all realized that Sarah B. was a sort of shock absorber, taking all the bumps in the road and giving the rest of us a smooth ride.” Both essayists come to similar conclusions, Mitchard from the perspective of the parent, and Solomon from the perspective of the child.
The rest of the book includes essays from the likes of Susan Cheever, Leslie Morgan Steiner, and Barbara Kingsolver. Writers from the same family have essays placed next to each other: Phyllis Rose writes about her second husband’s role as a stepfather and her son, Ted Rose, writes about his difficult relationship with his stepbrother. Kingsolver writes the concluding essay, which seemed to break off from the others in its less than personal tone. She sums up her family situation with an offering from her daughter: that she gets the best of both worlds. “Our house is in the country and we have a dog, but she can go to her dad’s neighborhood for the urban thrills of a pool and sidewalks for roller skating. What’s more, she has three sets of grandparents!” Kingsolver argues that nuclear families rarely worked throughout history, but have become an impossible ideal. She backs up her argument with enlightening historical examples that tell an important story, one we often forget when we think of marriage. She ends her essay with a suggestion. Change the stepfamily tale from Cinderella to a favorite tale from her childhood, “Stone Soup,” in which a village builds a pot of soup, starting with a couple of stones. Once every member has added something, the once suspicious village has “fed itself grandly.”
This essay is uplifting, almost too much so. I found myself wishing for the deeper perspectives of the other pieces — a look into the grittiness and beauty of a life. Kingsolver seemed intent on destroying the myth of a “broken family,” but for me, after reading the preceding essays, that myth was already destroyed. Her need to make the blended family sound perfect (“the best of both worlds”) came off as a bit overdrawn; and her criticism of the cultural disdain for divorce — while on point — was almost repetitive after the complexity I had savored in the preceding essays. I longed for Burt’s insight — that step wasn’t simply a “step into” another family, but that it symbolized a mourning, and the work that all families go through to earn the title of “family,” step or not. Ultimately I wanted a more “pros-ey” piece, with scenes from her life, rather than a repetition of ideas.
While the conclusion could have gone deeper, My Father Married Your Mother ultimately achieved its goal of exploring the uncharted waters of the modern family from as many different perspectives as possible. I admired the depth of the stories, and the honesty and thoughtfulness with which they were told. The book did for me what all reading should: it shifted my perspective.