Ever since Cinderella’s wicked stepmother locked her in the attic, ste mothers have been getting some bad press. The image that comes to mind is one of a snarling shrew with a pinched-in face who probably kicks dogs when no one is looking. Well I am not a snarling shrew and I’ve never kicked a dog in my life. I never planned to become a stepmother, it just sort of happened.
At the age of 28 I married a divorced man 10 years my senior who was the weekend father of two daughters, aged 11 and 14. I blundered my way through the semi-predictable stages of instant step-parenthood: the honeymoon, the first fight, the cold war and finally détente.
The honeymoon was blissful. The girls accepted me immediately, especially when I began suggesting expensive things to do on “our” weekends. The four of us went horseback riding, spent the day at Disneyland and had scrumptious steak and seafood dinners at elegant restaurants.
I sometimes had the nagging sense that the girls were merely tolerating me, but brushed it aside as unfounded speculation. I desperately wanted to be friends with “Chris” and “Lisa.” I needed to probe to Fred that I could make them like me, but even more I had to prove it to myself.
I began making plans to become their best friend, confidante and big sister all rolled into one. At first our interactions were somewhat superficial.
“How are you doing in school?”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“I hate boys.”
With their father rolling his eyes at me from across the room, it seemed the beginning of a memorable relationship.
We usually had the girls every other weekend. I had recently taken up stained glass as a hobby, and a few weeks before Christmas I invited Chris to join me in making a window as a gift for her mother. She took one look at the cutting, grinding, puttying and soldering and politely declined. She backed away and fled to the garage to find her father, accompanied by the Michael Jackson tape blaring from her tape player. (Circa 1979…) I sighed and went back to my craft.
Step mothers, I decided, are an oppressed minority. And those of us who are weekend step mothers have it even worse. We have to share the responsibilities and expenses of parenthood twice a month but miss out on the full time joy. How I wished Fred and I could share in the many “exciting” firsts in his daughter’s lives: the first date, first job, even the first nerve-wracking day behind the wheel.
I was determined to build a close relationship with my stepdaughters and had another opportunity for sharing a few months later. It was the day before Mother’s Day. I managed to interest the younger one, Lisa, in the fine art of dried flower arranging. Two hours later the kitchen table was covered with a two inch layer of shredded baby’s breath, shards of wire and odd-shaped chunks of Styrofoam.
Triumphantly, Lisa held up a small wicker basket holding her original creation—a bouquet of abused-looking straw flowers mashed into a wad of dried moss. I tied a ribbon bow on the handle and prayed for a miracle. The following morning, the gift apparently met with mixed reviews.
“Mom really liked the flower arrangement,” Lisa reported that night on the phone, as Fred happily gave me a thumb’s up sign. Then his face darkened. “I told her Sue helped me make it. She decided to put it in the garage on the shelf above the washing machine; that was she can look at it every day!”
As is so often the norm in divorce cases, the mother has full or joint custody of the children and the father is generally the parent ordered to pay child support. The issue of child support is probably responsible for more aggravation and hard feelings than the divorce itself. Everybody gets into the act. If either parent has remarried or has a live-in love, their new partners are drawn into the fray. Inevitably, the children are caught in the middle and are sometimes forced to take sides. This happened to us and it was the cause of the cold war.
Their mother, “Alexis” took to writing single-spaced typewritten letters demanding more child support and backed up her case with lists of recent purchases deemed essential for the well being of the girls. The letters, which came to be called “nasty grams” by all parties, listed things like $800 spent for school clothes. At one point Alexis screamed at Fred, “If she wants a baby tell her to have one of her own!” A Freudian response to be sure, but there was no mistaking her insecurity.
We slowly began to see less and less of Chris and Lisa. They usually had made other plans on “our” weekends and it wasn’t worth a court fight to change that. Communication slowed, then came to a virtual halt. It was clear what was happening. Alexis had resorted to playing the passive-aggressive “keep away” game to punish Fred for not giving her a blank check. When we did see the girls, our overnight weekends were reduced to four hours on Sunday afternoon. The atmosphere was tense and artificial, with none of the easy laughter and good natured teasing that had been there before.
An increase in child support was eventually ordered, which we could not afford. We took out a large loan to pay for it and cut back on practically everything. After that, we saw the girls on holidays and birthdays and communicated occasionally by phone. I guess that’s what the politicians might call détente.
Over 30 years have passed since my initial initiation into the ranks of stepmotherhood and I have learned a great deal. Getting a second (or third) long-term relationship or marriage onto solid ground is difficult enough without the added burden of a partner’s emotional and financial baggage, including bitter court fights that don’t end until the kids turn 18 or 21, depending on the state.
For example, I thought, naturally, that because we were living together rather than married, that my income could not be considered by a judge when assessing Fred’s ability to pay child support. I was essentially a roommate, sharing expenses but with separate checkbooks, not a community property wife. I was wrong. Because we were in a relationship as opposed to him sharing the rent with a buddy, plus the fact that I made more money than he did, the judge merely asked how much money I brought home and added it to his income. The only way pull my checkbook out of the mix was to move out, which I declined to do, so I ended up paying several hundred after-tax dollars a month for kids that were not my responsibility.
I had no desire to compete with or replace the mother of Fred’s children. I wanted to establish a bond that would complement that one I had with their father; one of love, trust and companionship. I wanted to learn from them, teach them, laugh, cry and dream with them. I hope that now that they are both mothers, they will look back and realize that peace and forgiveness are the only things that matter.