“All I know is, when we have a baby, I don’t want her to see it, hold it, or have anything to do with it. She just needs to stay away!” Those were the sentiments of Carol, my children’s stepmother.
Luckily, I wasn’t around to hear this.
Because “she” meant… “me.”
But now, here I was, lodged in the green velvet chair of the living room, next to a snazzy, new diaper bag full of jammies, clean diapers, and an extra bottle. Teething rings were cooling in the freezer. My daughters, M. and S., were happily tucked away in the family room, watching a movie.
Six-month old Jacob was leaning heavily back into the crook of my arm drinking from a bottle; big, blue eyes framed by long lashes, looking intently at my face. I gently combed his fine, blonde hair away from his forehead with the tips of my fingers and felt my heart catch. His hands tightly pressed down over mine on the bottle as if to say, you are not allowed to move and he swallowed steadily and loudly. Why have I always loved the sound of babies drinking?
It was all pretty surreal….
Quite a leap from there to here. And certainly where I never imagined I’d find myself: babysitting the child of my ex-husband David and his second wife.
I found out later that Carol’s worries about kids started from the very beginning of their relationship. She wanted children — but he already had two (and a vasectomy meant they would most likely need to adopt). If it were up to him alone, he would have been “happy with what he had,” but once he understood how important it was to her to have more, it became a priority for him too.
The more he thought about what it would actually be like to have another child, the more excited he became, despite memories of intense sleep deprivation and the weight of two other eighteen-year commitments.
Privately though, Carol fretted that he wouldn’t love their baby as much as his own. What if he always ending up feeling more connected to his first daughters? Could she bear to see their son or daughter ever for one single moment treated as second best? The very prospect pained her deeply.
And life as the other “hands-on parent” made it even easier for her to daydream about how much better it’d be with her own child.
It was the Stepmother’s Curse in action — you work your ass off to win over the children, to try and bring structure and order and harmony to their lives in that woman’s-overview kind of a way, and what do you get in return? They fall down and wail for their mother. They’re rewarded at school and they instinctively run to their dad to celebrate, even though you helped with the project too, maybe even more. You try and give absolutely to your marriage, but some doors never open to receive you, rooms already full and brimming.
From her vantage point as a woman longing to be a mother, we, the parents, slacked off on some of the hard work, like consistency and consequences; yet reaped all the goodies, like instantaneous forgiveness, unconditional love and affection, and boundless, unreasonable enthusiasm.
My brain had kicked into overdrive when they started dating too. When I’d heard they were actually going to marry, a part of me panicked. I fished for details about what she wanted in terms of children in awkward conversations with my ex- (imagine!). It’s bad enough knowing that your children are going to be exposed on a continuing basis to someone you barely know or approve of, but when you think of her and your ex- adding to their lives—a whole, new family unit that your kids now have to integrate with—truly, the mind boggles.
She and I were like wary dogs circling each other in the beginning – distrustful, nervous, suspicious. We had no good reason to think well of the other. She was young, beautiful, artistically and domestically gifted in spades. I, well, I was the older, haggard single mother, not so full of promise and the blush of youth anymore, but trying to make do, nevertheless.
Over time, and perhaps out of selfish necessity, we began taking peace-making baby steps in the opposite direction, just to ease some of the nail-biting stress of dealing with each other. It wasn’t easy – we’d proceed along nicely and then some little thing, some perceived slight, would set us back again for weeks or even months. There’d be strained conversations, little eye contact, knots in the stomach.
And then we’d try again.
Bit by bit, we got to a neutral, casual place; one that you might reserve for neighbors you wave hello to in the morning.
And, gradually, it took. Still, when it came down to cave-woman concerns about my clan and theirs, all those efforts at social lubrication flew out the window. From that base of cool and efficient self-interest, I flatly didn’t care what Carol wanted; matter of fact, I could barely remember.
When it became apparent that Carol and David were now going to add to their family in earnest, my first line of thinking was, great, but how is this going to affect us financially, on a survival level—our bottom line? Is more of a burden for unanticipated expenses going to fall on me? Are they going to become uptight and unreasonable about every little thing? Is responsibility for the girls going to fall lopsidedly my way?
I listened like a hawk for layers of hidden meaning in my daughter’s responses to the possibility, trying to detect their true reactions. I worried about was what was best for them, and honestly, what was best for me.
It doesn’t make any sense, but even against the backdrop of such thinking, our friendship continued to grow and became more than superficial chit-chat during drop-offs and pick-ups. I discovered the person beneath the role, like a wax figure slowly coming to life, and actually looked forward to talking to her. We connected on the phone in occasional marathon phone sessions and I marveled at the both of us: look! We’re becoming real, honest friends!
Who would have ever thought it possible?
And yet, on another level, it stunk, because now I had a choice to make.
The stronger our friendship, the harder it was to return to my own selfish priorities; I was well aware that a new child might mean something “negative” for our household. It was an odd conundrum. If I was going to let Carol in—really reach out to her with acceptance and support, just the way I would a “normal” friend, I’d have to let go of the last vestiges of that us/them mentality and turn it into a collective us.
And sometimes I had to remind myself: and why?
I didn’t want to make any stupid, weak-willed, decisions that I’d regret later—motivated by a desire to please, or avoid conflict — to preserve the young sapling stretching out in the sun, but forget the two plants behind me that were my ultimate charge and calling.
What would win out?
Come back on Monday to read the rest of the story!
© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved