A Love Letter to My Stepmother
When he called from Italy to tell us, he phrased it like this:
“You’re getting a stepmum!”
Even then, in the midst of the spasm of joy that followed, I remember thinking it was a strange choice of words. Not I proposed to Sarah, not We are getting married, but You are getting a stepmum, as if she were a toy we’d requested after seeing it in a TV commercial. There was, within it, the promise of newness, of a whole different person—yours to take home today!—which is, mind you, what people used to think actually happened when women got married.
And, to some extent, it is what happens. The next summer, in the somewhat inexplicable presence of a Catholic priest, we all said goodbye to Miss Wietzel and hello to Mrs. Seresin (a person my own mother, in her brief marriage to my father, never chose to become). More thrilling for my younger sister and me, though, was saying hello to our very own stepmum.
For a long time we had begged them to get married, not because marriage would really change anything, but because we’d wanted so badly to have that word, stepmum. To hold it and wield it in our hands. This is the kind of impulse that comes from growing up in a family like ours: lopsided, always requiring explanation. For four years we’d struggled to know what to call her, scavenging for some way to summarize what she meant to us and always coming up empty-handed. “Dad’s girlfriend” may have been accurate, but could not describe the person who knew the names of all my teachers, who accompanied me to grimy bathrooms in foreign countries, who was the first person I told when—secretive, shy, 11—I got my first period.
Not only that, it dislocated our connection by a degree. “My dad’s girlfriend” does not contain the undertone of ownership we all, on some level, crave in our relationships. My best friend, my fiancée, my roommate, my teacher, my stepmum—myriad bonds tied together by the same infantile word: mine, mine, mine.
“Do you like her?” people ask, often grimacing, picturing Cinderella.
What to say to this? She understands how to talk to people—to me—like no one else I’ve ever met. In sixth grade, my darkest hour, I would spend hours in my room playing loud and terrible R&B on my CD player and crying myself to sleep, and she loved me even then, even though I was objectively horrible. When people ask me if I like my stepmother, I want to say not “yes,” not even “YES!”—I want to tell them it’s a ridiculous question.
On the first night of the first trip we took together—a short and low-stakes weekend in the country—my sister Ruby grew suddenly flustered, turned to Sarah, and yelled:
“You can’t be Papa’s girlfriend. I’m his girlfriend!”
Ruby at that time was five years old and prone to wearing our dad’s baseball caps on her tiny head, where they resembled upended boats. None of this prevented her from seeing herself as competition for my stepmum, who was 23, 5’11”, and modelled for Tom Ford at Gucci— and, among these other advantages, not my father’s biological offspring (though a whole string of waiters over the years have assumed otherwise).
This episode is one of our family jokes. Today, when we laugh about it, it is with that particular ruthlessness of families, a laughter that promises catharsis from future conflict by confirming that our old traumas are truly dead and cold.
Sarah, on the other hand, has a relentless capacity for sympathy. One way in which she sticks out: She is never as thoroughly cruel as we are.
“You must have felt like I was stealing your dad.”
This is probably true. But it’s funny, how we talk like this––as if the people we love are things that can be stolen.
“I don’t know what’s happened to you. But remember: There’s no problem too big for Jesus.”
I had been nakedly sobbing for 13 subway stops when the elderly woman sitting opposite me decided to pat me lightly on the knee and tell me this.
“Thank you,” I sniffed. I more or less agreed. The imminent deadline of my senior year extended project—a play I’d written, for which I’d planned to compose an as-yet-unfinished score for solo cello—was likely not too big for Jesus. But it was indisputably too big for me, a fact I remembered immediately, the tears streaming again.
When I arrived at the house that, at this point, Sarah still shared with my dad, my face was swollen and twisted as a red balloon animal.
“Sit down,” she said. “Let’s sort this out.”
My parents—all three of them—are of the “hands-off” school of child-rearing. This is a fact for which I will always be grateful. I recently watched a documentary that chronicled the life of a bourgeois black kid in Brooklyn whose accomplished parents would circle and criticize him every night as he struggled to get through metric tons of private school homework. Watching with horror, I understood properly for the first time what people mean by “helicopter parent.” Seeing these two adults hover and hound and peck at their son, however, I could not help but feel a more accurate term might be “vulture”.
On the rare occasion that my own homework would lead me to sit morosely at our kitchen table and weep, my mother always provided the same, usually sage advice: “Just don’t do it.” My dad, connected to my academic life only in the third degree, never knew these moments even occurred. When he called from abroad and asked how school was going, it was never during those occasional blips when I couldn’t honestly tell him it was great.
Some days, though, I did need help.
“Here’s a pen. Write down a list of everything you have to do.”
I obeyed. Once the list was complete, Sarah looked at it.
“Right. So now you have to do it.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
She shrugged, but not in an unkind way. No—this shrug was more like a gift.
“I mean, you just have to. That’s all there is to it.”
There is something beautiful about British pragmatism, a method of problem-solving guaranteed to cure even highly-advanced strains of emotional hysteria. Neither of my biological parents are British, but Sarah is, and though I generally feel rather estranged from the culture in which I grew up, at this moment I could have got down on my knees and kissed the Union Jack.
But it was more than just that. I needed my stepmum’s help at that moment because of how little she cared— how little she was capable of caring. Make no mistake: We have come to love one another unconditionally, a love grown from the ground up, the way a colossal oak tree blooms from the tiniest of seeds. Yet unlike a “real” mother, Sarah does not see an image of herself in me.
I used to think about this during parents’ evenings at school, which always reminded me of the first scene of 101 Dalmations, in which Pongo watches dogs and owners who resemble each other in comic ways—the same sloping walk, the same fluffy hairstyle—parading together down the street. There was something in the eyes of the parents that betrayed a feeling that each triumph, each sting of embarrassment, belonged as much to them as to the child being discussed (hence the evening’s unfailing atmosphere of high drama).
Mothers and daughters are especially susceptible to this conflation of identities. I have a friend who starts dieting a few weeks before every vacation in order to make sure that, when she gets home, she’ll fit into her mother’s clothes. My relationship with my own mother has, thank God, never come close to resembling that one. Yet sometimes, in the middle of the simplest conversations, her eyes glisten—with tears of pride, concern, or simply the ferocity of maternal love.
Writing on pregnancy in The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir reflects: “[The mother] experiences it both as an enrichment and a mutilation; the fetus is part of her body, and it is a parasite exploiting her; she possesses it, and she is possessed by it.” It is from this intense reciprocity, this place of possession, that my mother’s tears flow. And it is for this same reason that, when I have spent 13 subway stops sobbing about a minor problem, I go to see my stepmum.
Since I’ve been in college, we’ve made a tradition of drinking bison-grass vodka at her kitchen table and talking until I miss the last train home to my mother’s apartment. This winter, when I call to arrange this, she says my half-sister, Marnie, has been sick with a consistent 109 temperature and they’ve all been trapped inside for a week.
I picture the three of them confined indoors: my half-brother crazed as a puppy to get outside again, my stepmum celebrating New Year’s Eve alone while Marnie sleeps in the room next door, her lungs rattling like little radiators. I tell Sarah I will make us dinner.
This is the kind of thing I relish about growing up: making promises like this, embarking on a special trip to the grocery store to buy fresh herbs and tahini, and refusing Sarah’s offer to pay me back. It’s a particularly adult way of showing love, a performance I’m still in the process of learning.
When I think about how families are supposed to love, my mind drifts to nouns: a good wife, a good parent, a
good daughter (that the nouns are skewed feminine should not require explanation). Such phrases litter our culture. The Good Wife is a popular CBS television show; Simone de Beauvoir herself called her first autobiography Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. There is no such thing, however, as “The Good Stepdaughter”—not even “A Good Stepdaughter.” There is only me, insisting that Sarah sit still while I look for an ice-cream scoop, opening all the wrong drawers.
Often, when people talk about non-biological parents—step, adoptive, or otherwise—they speak in terms of a special connection that’s supposedly missing. I won’t deny such a connection exists. As a kid I was once involved in a horse-riding accident, and before my best friend’s mother (whose watch I’d been under) had a chance to let my family know, she got a call from my own mother, miles away.
“Sorry to be paranoid, but is Indiana alright? I just got a weird feeling.”
Regardless of the unconditional love that has over the years steadily blossomed between my stepmum and me, regardless of the fact that I consider her as much a parent as my own dad, I doubt she would ever experience this kind of cosmic tug. Here’s another example: When I was nine, I fell off a boat. Within seconds, my father, the only person capable of commanding the boat, jumped in after me. The look on his face is still frozen in my mind, and there is no way to describe it other than stupid: eyes round as coins, lips pursed single-mindedly.
All instinctive love is stupid, and without it, none of us—not one dumb, devoted mammal on God’s green earth—would survive. Yet its consequences can be disastrous. For just as one child was heroically saved that day (more so by her lifejacket than her father’s love, but that’s not how this story is told) the other was left stranded on a boat, yelping, accompanied only by a stepmother who didn’t know how to sail.
This story, too, has become a family joke, albeit one we approach with more caution. For years afterwards it remained charged with the potential to provoke an argument between my stepmum and my dad.
“It’s the one rule of sailing!” Sarah would cry in exasperation. “If you’re the only one who can sail, you don’t abandon the boat!”
After the birth of my half-sister, however, her anger subsided.
“I do get it now,” she tells me, a tinge of disgruntlement lingering in her voice. “It was still a terrible idea to jump in after you, but I get it, because I would probably do the same.”
What actually ended up happening was, while my dad and I bobbed fairly contentedly in the warm water, my stepmum and sister zoomed off toward the horizon, propelled by a suddenly violent wind. Sarah—25 at the time, only three years older than I am now—had no idea how to even begin slowing the boat, let alone turning it around. She didn’t even know the three-digit emergency number, the only means of contacting dry land. Meanwhile, the shoreline withdrew, and the wind swallowed my sister’s screams.
After an undetermined stretch of time—to my dad and me, minutes, for Ruby and Sarah, years—a yacht cruised by. Restraining her panic, my stepmum managed to communicate with the two experienced sailors aboard, slowly regain control of our boat, and eventually steer it back toward my father and me, who were still buoyed by our life- jackets and amusedly comparing our plight to the movie Open Water. With some fumbling, we climbed aboard— me first, then my father—into an emotional thunder- storm of relief, fading hysteria, and furious glances.
Not for the last time, my stepmum had rescued me.