I have a dirty little secret, one that was born about 12 years ago.
I’m a mother of a seven-year-old boy and I’m a stepmother to two teenage girls. My metamorphosis into mother happened naturally, whereas I never mastered the rules of being a stepmother. Over time, my understanding of positive stepmothering has grown opaque and my interest has also waned. I have no interest in being a modern-day Mrs. Brady.
It started at a cocktail reception. A well-suited man shyly approached me. Within minutes he referenced his ex-wife and children, proudly sharing a photo of two blonde girls, one barely out of diapers. I didn’t—even for a moment—consider his intentions as romantic. I had just moved continents and was taking a sabbatical from romance, after one too many Latin lovers had swept me off my feet with arduous compliments and promises that never materialized. I realized this man had neither complimented my eyes nor my legs, wasn’t plying me with flutes of champagne, and hadn’t leaned in or nervously laughed. This was safe territory.
Or so I thought.
Despite an itinerant childhood that took me across three continents, the happily-ever-after story that circulated in every schoolyard was straightforward and consistent: Boy meets girl, they fall in love, and enjoy a life of adventure and love, forming a family along the way. No schoolgirl aspired to meet a man who would burden her with the financial, emotional, and logistical baggage linked to children and an emotionally unstable, malicious ex-wife. Experience has since taught me that the Easter bunny doesn’t exist, gravity is a bitch, and the perfect family is a social construct—even more so when it has been patchworked across culture, language and continent. But twelve years ago, I believed in the myths of the schoolyard. My naivety was plastered across my face in bright neon letters.
We began to date, albeit casually. After a year, my closet space allotment shifted from the guest room to the master bedroom, and he asked if I was ready to meet his children. We were still living in separate African countries and while I wasn’t considering trading in my Harley for a Volvo, I agreed to accompany him on a family holiday. In line with my overly-organized self, I purchased a few parenting and step-parenting books, made relevant notes, phoned friends who had been in similar circumstances, and bought gifts for the girls. I was armed with the necessary emotional and pragmatic tools to embark on this new endeavor. Just follow the yellow brick road, right, Toto?
They arrived. It was awkward. His girls were aged 4 and 6 and their English was even worse than my French. Nevertheless, games, gifts and a dance party in the living room broke the ice. The following morning we drove to the ocean, overflowing with hopes of what was to come.
We stopped at a national park and the youngest needed the loo. Because of my gender, I was expected to accompany her into the woman’s toilet (to this day, I still think it was a conspiracy). I managed to maneuver her into the bathroom and place her on the toilet. Desperate to accomplish the mission, I strongly encouraged her to sit and pee. She refused, staring at me with defiance. “Where is papa?” she asked. “Waiting outside, he is not allowed into the female bathroom,” I replied. Pure physical need overcame her obstinacy, the delightful pitter-patter echoing in the stall. After she finished, she stomped out in search of father and away from my evil-demanding-capricious-must-be-a-stepmother ways.
I was frozen in place. If this was motherhood, it was wildly overrated and even unappealing. I wore glamorous shoes and went to glamorous parties. I didn’t wipe a strange child’s dirty bottom.
A few hours later, this same child was snuggling in my arms, and I relished the sweet scent of her newly washed hair, bubbles still floating near her fringe, talcum powder nestled into the crevices in her neck. Her innocence was blinding and for a moment, I wondered whether I could love this child and her sister. I hadn’t had a baby shower, but I also hadn’t suffered 9 months of gas, stretch marks and elephantiasis of the bottom.
Then she tried to push me out of bed. My bed. Her little feet purposeful as they shoved and kicked me. What started as subtle taps magnified in intensity and I found myself sliding onto the floor! She smiled at me, wrapping her arms around her father, gracefully and forcefully expressing her determination to charm him.
This first holiday foreshadowed the relationship I would have with the girls, vacillating from one extreme to the other and definitely not adhering to the careful rules I had mapped out. My boyfriend became my husband and his daughters became permanent fixtures in my life, but since they live with their mother, our two families exist in parallel. Over the years our time together has been consistent and constant but still unnatural and forced since they would appear every few weeks, only to disappear again. When our son was born, the layers of complication only grew and intensified.
I find myself increasingly resentful of the sacrifices I have made for children who are not mine, who neither appreciate nor recognize my efforts, who unsettle my family dynamics when they come to visit. Vacations are planned, meals are cooked, and activities are arranged out of a sense of obligation rather than genuine altruistic love.
For years I was ravaged with guilt: Why don’t I love them, why doesn’t this relationship work, shouldn’t I be more empathetic since I also have a stepmother? I already suffer from suffocating, senseless, quotidian guilt. I spend too much time at the gym or I avoid the gym and opt for a full bag of Twizzlers. I work too much, neglecting my son or I spend decadent hours constructing Legos with him, forgoing any career advancement. I peek for too long at my absolutely breathtaking neighbor or I pamper my husband and feel like a member of the Stepford wives’ club.
I happily hold my son when he is sick; I make party favors until 3am for his birthday party; I cross the entire city twice a week so he can continue with his beloved Kung Fu teacher. I would do anything for my son, but I am irritated by the sound my stepdaughter makes when she chews her dinner. They aren’t mine. Not in any way. I did not carry them. I did not feel their toes tickling my womb. I wasn’t aware of, much less awed by, their birth. I did not choose them. The only connection I have with them is the love I have for their father.
So I have a dirty little secret. I don’t love my stepchildren. I don’t. And I no longer want to feel guilty about it.
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