From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul 2

Confessions of a Stepmother

When I met Larry, my husband-to-be, he came complete with an eighteen-month-old daughter, McKenna, and a four-year-old son, Lorin—on weekends.

The day I met the children, we walked around a pond, Larry holding the diapered McKenna in his arms while Lorin ran around finding frogs to show me. I was stunned. These children were an enormous piece of the man I loved and yet had really nothing to do with me. How did this stepmother thing work?

I quickly fell in love with Lorin’s impish grin and McKenna’s pudgy baby body, warm against my chest as I held her. I was completely captivated by my new and charming “instant family,” but the children’s mother, Dia, was a different story. We had a wary relationship, the edge of hostility between us only thinly veiled. I did my best to ignore her and focused instead on the two adorable children she’d borne.

The children and I got along well, though Lorin was somewhat standoffish. Perhaps it was loyalty to his mother, or being a boy, or at four simply wanting more independence. McKenna, being so little, had no such qualms. She loved me and let me know it, unreservedly and with a sweetness and innocence that took my breath away. I couldn’t resist her love and when I fell, I fell hard. Almost immediately, we formed our own mutual fan club—two hearts that beat as one.

In fact, it was McKenna who proposed to me first. We sat together in an airport waiting room, on our way to visit Larry’s parents. She was almost three, and she sat facing me in my lap, playing with my necklace and every so often looking into my face with worshipful eyes. I smiled at her, feeling the fullness of love for her present in my own heart. Larry sat beside us and Lorin was motoring around the rows of plastic seats, making engine noises with his mouth. To the casual observer, a typical young family. But we weren’t a family because Larry hadn’t popped the question yet. And although I didn’t want to be pushy, we both knew my patience was wearing thin. What, I wondered, was he waiting for?

Then McKenna pulled her pacifier out of her mouth and returning my smile, said brightly, “Will you marry me?” After a moment of shocked silence, we all laughed till our sides hurt. Me with delight, Larry with the release of tension and the children simply because the grown-ups were laughing. Happily, it didn’t take Larry long to follow up with his own proposal.

As time went on, I got used to part-time parenting—and having the children’s mother as an unavoidable part of my life. I really liked Dia, but our positions seemed to dictate a certain grumpiness with each other that I did my best to squelch. Sometimes I had the guilty wish that the children’s mother would simply disappear. A quick and painless illness and on her deathbed, she would make me promise to raise her children for her. Then the children could stay with us—truly be mine—and we could be a “real” family.

Fortunately that never happened. I didn’t really want her to die; I just was jealous that she’d had children with my husband. All right, so he was her husband at the time—it still rankled.

I watched the children grow, changing from toddlers to schoolkids. And their mother and I continued our civilized and awkward interactions, arranging for the children to come and go and negotiating vacations and holiday schedules.

My friends all told me that Larry should deal with his ex-wife, and for a while we tried that. But as an active and willing caregiver, I was involved with decisions, so Dia and I went back to our previous arrangement. And as the years went by, I noticed that our phone calls changed. I actually enjoyed talking to Dia about the kids. And I think she realized that there were very few people in the world who were as interested in, charmed by or concerned about her children as I was. We began a slow but perceptible metamorphosis that was completed the year Dia sent me a Mother’s Day card, thanking me for “co-mothering” her children.

That was the beginning of a new era for Dia and me. And while it hasn’t always been perfect, I know now it’s been extraordinary. I have a few thank-yous of my own:

Thank you, Dia, for being big enough to share your children with me. If you hadn’t, I would never have known what it was like to hold a sleeping infant and feel the complete trust displayed in the limp, silky-skinned limbs gathered carefully in my embrace. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to marvel at the twists and turns a little boy’s mind makes as he tries to make sense of a large and complex universe.

I would never have known that children could cry so loudly when their stomachs hurt or that after they threw up, they could smile so radiantly at you, the tears still wet on their cheeks, their pain already forgotten.

I would never have watched a boy struggle to become his own person, or have been so closely involved with the painful and serious process of “growing a teenager.” I would never have had the awe-inspiring privilege of watching that squirty twelve-year-old who could drive you wild with his questions turn into a heartbreakingly handsome hunk with the megawatt smile and charming personality. As he gets ready to leave for college, I know he will drive a new generation of women wild—for entirely different reasons.

I wouldn’t have felt the thrill of seeing our beautiful daughter on stage, expressing herself with a grace and depth of emotion that seemed too old for someone so young. Or had the distinctly undeserved (and guilty) thrill of vanity and pride when someone who didn’t know us commented that McKenna looked like me.

Thank you for making Christmas morning a communal occasion, so the children never had to feel divided on the holiday they held so dear. I looked around one year as we all sat around the tree, while the children delivered the gifts. There we were, you and your husband, Larry and me, the kids . . . and surprisingly, I felt at home.

I understood then that you didn’t have to disappear for us to be a real family.

Carol Kline

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