Becoming a stepmother is easy. You find a man who has children, and when one is a certain age, and given the divorce rate, this is more likely than finding one without children. You date him for an acceptable period of time, at which point you become engaged and then have a wedding. The moment that ring slides on your finger, the very moment the words “all the days of my life,” finish traveling out your mouth, you are a stepmother.
There is no time to become used to the child or children in question. You have no gestation period to fill your memory with dreams of the great things the child will be. The child descends upon you already formed, with half of you not in him, with no nose of your mother and chin of your paternal grandfather to find in her. There is no relationship created by necessity. Your relationship is founded and built upon a long series of choices, the same as any relationship you have with any other person.
When I became a stepmother, I made the decision to assume that my stepchildren wouldn’t like me much. We have the peculiar difficulty of a language barrier, so I’m not a user-friendly stepmother. I see them twice a year, so we don’t have much time together. Children can’t be expected to like an intruder like that. So I stayed out of their way. Turns out, this is the experts’ advice. “Don’t force a relationship,” I read somewhere after the fact, “but try to be involved on a very small level. Do the dishes together. Be open when approached, and answer honestly when asked. Don’t demand attention.” Oh, I get it. Do the same thing to get them that you did to snare the father: play hard to get. Perhaps a new stepmother shouldn’t look to Dr. Phil for advice; perhaps she needs a copy of The Rules.
Or perhaps she needs to watch a little reality TV. I saw one and only one episode of “Wife Swap”, and learned something very important. One of the wives on that episode made a very good showing of herself, and the children liked her, because she kept one thing in mind: children like to do things. Something a friend of mine once said clicked in; “I always liked when there was some little something to do, so I’m getting a craft project for my niece,” he told me. Wife-swap-mom brought all the materials the children needed to make a “Welcome Home” quilt for their mother. She showed the children how to make banana ice cream. Even children living in the heart of Los Angeles with every toy ever made still want to smear paint on things and call the resulting mess beautiful.
Aha, I said, that’s the idea. I went out to the craft store and bought beads and elastic cord, and I bought popsicle sticks and paints and glue, and went with things to do. Some nights we were up until eleven making bracelets and painted wooden boxes, thick as thieves the whole time. I decided to answer patiently when my stepson called my name twelve times an hour to tell him how to do things. I chose to keep my voice steady when telling him for the sixth time how to make a coil of wire. I made myself understand that he doesn’t want to do things wrong, so he asks how to do things right. In that case, it’s nice that he’s asking me.
I chose to praise my stepdaughter’s work, which she does independently and quietly. She’s easy to forget since she doesn’t speak up. I have to choose not to forget her. “Look at the earrings she made,” I say, “see how lovely? She’s quite the artist.” I reach back to remember myself at twelve, when I was and other girls are like those plants that pretend to wilt and die when too much handled. Look at them sidelong, pretending to notice something else, yet demanding the world notice the result of their having been there. I’m probably wrong, and oversimplifying, and saying a thing that won’t work when someone else goes to try it out. That’s true of girls of twelve, too. They let you know that some of your choices are going to be wrong.
Wrong choices have to be fixed, or lived with, or left behind but made up for. Wrong choices, or any other kinds of choices, however, cannot be wished away. Living as though you wished you had that clean and simple kind of marriage between two tidily childless people won’t cut it for this reality you’ve created. Living the proof that you want the boy and the girl that come with the man does much better. If you’re lucky, lucky like me, the children make the choice to get along with you, too. My boy demands that I come to play with him. My girl sidles up to me when I am cooking and doggedly learns what I am doing. If we’re having that kind of fun, it’s because they make the effort to be good to me, and for that I am grateful. If they didn’t, then I would have to make the decision to live with that, and to be happy anyway.
Being a stepmother is messy. It violates the vision of Happily Ever After. An ideal and a dream have to have failed for there to be a stepmother, who becomes the living embodiment of Life Is Not Fair. Such big ideas aren’t very happy thoughts. Think them once, then, think them through and let them make everyone miserable for a half an hour. Then grab a dishtowel and a pair of pliers and live with it. A real life with someone or several someones is lived from one moment to the next, and one decision to the next. Sometimes, between the moment and the decision, there’s some love that makes it worth the trouble.