On my very first date with the man who would become my husband, he told me there was something I should know: “I’m divorced.”
Okay, I thought. Not a dealbreaker.
“And I have two kids.”
It’s not that I didn’t like kids. At the time, I made my living as a teacher. But having my own children was a milestone way, way, way ahead on the timeline I’d laid out for my life. If I was serious about this guy, it would mean swapping out my plans for instant parenthood.
“Do you have a picture of them?” I asked.
He produced a snapshot of two little girls in matching dresses, one four and one five, smiling brightly at the camera. The older one had dark hair and a sweet-cheeked Eskimo face. The younger one was lighter and still round with baby fat, but she had the same smile as her sister. Had they looked like hairless cats, I might have made a run for it. But they were so cute. And I couldn’t defy the force, powerful and elemental as gravity, that had pulled me into this man’s orbit. I looked from the little faces in the picture up to his, and decided to give my vision of “happily ever after” an overhaul.
As I prepared for my first meeting with the girls, my mother, a preschool teacher, insisted we go to Barnes and Noble to buy them a little something; my chances were better if I showed up with presents. So I chose a copy of “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Elmer”, along with matching stuffed toys, in hopes of buying their affection.
The first I saw of them were the tops of their heads over the island in my future mother-in-law’s kitchen. Their smallness fascinated me – as did my fear of people so little. Instinctively, I crouched down and looked into their faces, dangling the gift bags from my fingers like carrots before a horse. They didn’t smile, but they softened. Their eyes turned curious – curious enough to follow me up the stairs to their aunt’s bedroom, where I could read them their books and we could get to know each other. By the end of the second story, both girls had migrated from the opposite end of the room to my side, where they leaned against me to look at the pictures.
I suppose I made a good impression, because their father married me six months later.
The problem was, I was so concerned with their impression that I forgot to ask myself about my own. Because, I soon discovered, while I thought the girls were adorable, I wasn’t actually interested in being their stepmother.
Before our wedding, I pictured stepmotherhood as a mindless part-time job; instead, it was a monolithic commitment that bled into my full-time life. The reality hit me like a sledgehammer the first time the girls came to stay, and my new husband and I were forced to abandon our newlywed bliss for the exhaustion of parents of young children. I found myself rooted to the east coast, where the girls lived – a veritable jail sentence for a gypsy like me. Then, of course, there was the money. I knew the girls deserved every penny their father sent them, but my inner kindergartener didn’t like to share. One night, I found myself on hands and knees in the middle of the night, scrubbing the bathroom after one of the girls had an accident. While my husband facilitated a quick pajama change in the next room, I looked down at the sponge in my hand and thought, This is so not what I signed up for.
Like a thief, resentment crept in. I grumbled under my breath, threw tantrums, and picked fights with my husband, somehow thinking if I behaved badly enough, this “complication” would just disappear. The girls, meanwhile, were much more adult about the whole thing than I was. They volunteered to help me cook and curled in my lap like kittens when I read to them. They even brought projects and cards they’d made for me at school, which made me feel like a pygmy. When the first of their three little brothers was born, they cuddled and cooed over him like it was their job, while I growled at their father for leaving me alone at the hospital to go pick them up.
Once or twice, the thought flitted across my radar that I was acting like an evil stepmother, and I was making a big mistake. But I didn’t know how to do it differently.
It was my mother who righted my thinking. From the moment the girls entered their world, my Mom and Dad transformed into a fantasy grandparents. They took the girls to the circus, on their first-ever subway ride, to buy American Girl dolls that cost more than my car payment, and to our family’s summer home in Cape Cod, where the girls splashed in the low tide with their father. One Sunday morning, Mom covered the dining room table with Dora the Explorer wrapping paper and woke the girls up, to their sleepy delight, for a “Dora Pancake Party!” I was dumbstruck by how easily they absorbed my stepdaughters into their life, especially when my adjustment was so bumpy. It seemed like everyone in my family had left the train station, while I was still kicking and screaming back on the platform.
One night, my parents decided to take the girls for a late-night run to Toys R’ Us. At the time, Mom was waylaid by aggressive chemo treatment for Stage-IV bladder cancer. Yet, as promised, she roused herself from bed, put on her coat, and hustled the girls out the door.
“You sure you want to do this?” I asked, taking in her grey face.
“I told them we’d go,” she insisted, and rushed off to the elevator.
When they got back, the girls were mad with excitement over their presents, while Mom looked like she’d left her entire blood supply in the cab.
“I’m fine,” she assured me. “We had fun.”
“Thank you, Ma,” I said.
She gave me a puzzled look. “For what? They’re my granddaughters.”
That was the moment the cartoon lightbulb over my head illuminated. For my mother, it was simple: they had been given to her, so now they were hers. True, she had the luxury of spoiling them while I had the responsibility of co-raising them. But still. I had made the grave mistake of thinking of them as the catch in the deal, when really, they were the bonus.
That night, I got on the train.
It wasn’t an easy beginning; this wasn’t like the spontaneous love I felt for my son from the moment I saw the plus sign on the pregnancy test. This was love I would have to learn. Blindly, I stumbled after one question: “What would I do if I loved them?” And then I did that. I took them to the movies and to get their hair done. I gave them books and showed them old movies I loved. I told them I missed them when they weren’t with us, and that I loved them when we said goodbye. When I got pregnant again, I pulled them close to listen to the baby’s heartbeat through the midwife’s stethoscope. I took them to get their ears pierced and refused to take them for a second hole when their mom vetoed it. I hugged extra. I listened. And I talked to them about the things I struggled with, my many imperfections, and the things I wish I’d known, for there is no better asset to a young girl than an honest woman.
My mother died just a few months after that trip to Toys R’ Us. My girls were only six and seven at the time, but they will tell you almost a decade later how special she was – and how special she made them feel. They understood what I’d lost, because they’d lost it, too. They told their brothers about her, remembered her with me – and in the process, helped scotch-tape my heart back together.
About a year after my mom’s death, my father got married again. It was a shock walking into the ceremony; I understood for the first time that my mother wasn’t coming back – and that I was now a stepdaughter. And I could see with perfect clarity what I’d put at risk with my girls, the damage I could have done if I’d decided to keep them shut them out. To be a stepparent is not just to make space for the “extras,” but to build an entirely new family with a place for everyone. To shirk that responsibility is to leave that family unmoored. I held the girls extra close to me throughout the reception and into the next day, as if fearful I would never see them again.
Eight years later, those little Eskimo babies are in high school. They get sassy and push buttons and little by little are staking their claim in this world. (I like this about them.) They’re also capable of great tenderness. Last fall, my older one, now 16, asked me to take a walk with her. We let the crisp air flush our skin and heard the leaves crunch under our feet as we laughed at silliness and talked in hashtags.
As we approached home, she got quiet.
“I just want you to know,” she said softly, “I’m really grateful for you.”
I realized I no longer had to ask myself what I would say if I loved her.
Because I already did.