I Love Being a Stepmom, a Role I Was Afraid to Take On
The first time my stepdaughter, Autumn, called me her wicked stepmother, I experienced it as a relief and a kindness. She was well into her teens by then. I’d known, loved, and part-time-parented her since she was a wee tot. Still, the easy affection that passed between us when she said it, her certainty that I would know she was joking and laugh, affirmed the depth of our connection in a way our visits back and forth over the years hadn’t fully for me. Because of my own troubled upbringing, I’d always worried I might be a terrible stepparent in some way that I couldn’t see.
More than a decade before this, in 1996, I’d accompanied my boyfriend, Max, to the southwest Florida town where Autumn, then two years old, lived. He and I agreed that our relationship was still new enough that it wouldn’t make sense for me to meet her, so I spent the afternoon at the public library, wallowing in a collection of stories I loved about failed relationships, Lorrie Moore’s Like Life. I tended to believe then that my own attempts at love were as doomed the ones in the book, but the existence of a child complicated my fatalism. I was as certain at age twenty-four as I would always be that I never wanted to have a baby. But despite being a stepchild myself, I’d never seriously contemplated the possibility of a role in the life of a partner’s child. I feared that I might scar Autumn through my own dysfunction, that she’d be hurt if (when?) my relationship with Max came to an end. I dreaded the prospect of being remembered as his unreliable girlfriend.
Autumn was three when I met her after Christmas a few months later, a funny, capable blue-eyed presence who named the stuffed bear we gave her “Crantzy,” firmly declined to join us in a sing-along, and denounced everyone whose houses still had holiday lights up. At an indoor play area, she introduced us to the ball pit with the charm of a tour guide. When she needed to use the bathroom, Autumn took my hand rather than Max’s. The tenderness that welled up in me at being chosen to supervise her use of the toilet took me aback, and confirmed the impossibility of taking on any role in her life casually.
I’d read many parenting books by the time Max and I married when she was four, but even so I often worried I’d be exposed as an imposter. Declaring a time-out on the steps of a museum during one of her rare toddler meltdowns, I wondered what I’d do if she refused to cooperate. My own parents had two ways of dealing with defiance: shouting and spanking. My plans for open revolt were less combative but not reassuring: calm insistence, then panic. Luckily, Autumn’s mom and stepdad had already established time-outs as a process that could not be refused, and Autumn was a cooperative and optimistic child by nature. She once interrupted her own crying spell on a drizzly day at a theme park to exclaim over some impatiens. “We love flowers, don’t we, Maud!” she said, beaming as the last of her tears spilled.
As the years went by, sometimes I felt I could detect my influence on Autumn in joyful ways. On one holiday road trip from Miami to Cape Coral, after I’d finished up an article in our hotel room, Autumn, age twelve or so, pretended to be a reporter named Janet X. Cotton, narrating inventive news-of-the-weird article drafts aloud as Max and I cackled and chimed in. In her absence, though, I brooded over the ways my relationship with Autumn might be hurtful to her, in part because we saw each other in person so rarely. She was only five years old when Max and I moved to New York City, and between the distance and the cost of travel, we were only visited back and forth a couple of times most years, for a week or two at a stretch. We called, of course. And we wrote letters and email and sent cards and gifts. But our shortcomings haunted me, as did our distance from Autumn’s everyday life.
Having a stepchild I loved at too great a distance gave me an unusual perspective on what mattered over time. Most things I worried about on her behalf sorted themselves out. A day care classmate’s insistence that girls should always wear dresses did not permanently harm Autumn’s sense of self or determine her fashion choices beyond a few days at our apartment when she refused to wear shorts at the age of four. And being homeschooled was an experience she treasures as much now as she did at five and eight and fifteen years old, when I privately agonized over whether she spent enough time with other kids.
As she grew older, our different personalities and approaches to life led to hard but important conversations. Why, she asked me in her late teens, was I so drawn to stories about sad and horrible things, to shows like The Wire and intense, difficult novels. I tried to answer honestly without oversharing about my upbringing or coming in at her with a catalog of the world’s malfeasances and atrocities. Her optimism was beautiful, something I didn’t want to taint, but I also wanted to be real with her. She asked other hard questions, about my self-critical tendencies, my political cynicism, my propensity to simmer about and dwell on the world’s atrocities, and my constant self-second-guessing. These conversations were loving and necessary, and disorienting and painful. I showed up for them as best I could, with openhearted candor. And as our relationship deepened further and she began to write the most gorgeous poetry and share it with me, I came to see her presence in my life as a gift I had done little to deserve.
Autumn is twenty-eight now, older and far wiser than I was when we met. Our relationship is one of the most important in my life, and increasingly I can see how we’ve influenced each other for the better. I’ve never before now confessed this to her, but once, when she was in college, I rang her and she picked up accidentally rather than sending the call to voicemail. I heard voices in the background; someone asked a question. I didn’t realize at first that she wasn’t talking to me. “Yeah, Mom is my rock,” she said. Not a surprise, her mom is truly fantastic. She paused. I thought she was wrapping up another conversation, until she said, “And Maud is — “ By then it was clear that I was eavesdropping. My finger moved toward the red button that would end the call, and hovered there. “My sounding-board,” she said. A happy relief, though I was disappointed in myself for having listened to an affirmation, not meant for me, of what I already knew to be true.
I’ve often apologized to Autumn for all the ways Max and I weren’t present in her life day to day. It could have been nice to see each other more often, she agrees, but the physical distance created space for a special relationship she would never have known otherwise — a relationship built on trust, honesty, love, and confiding regularly over a great distance — a relationship that also turned out to be exactly the right amount of mothering for me.