Monday, November 28, 2011

Play Your Position

“When I grow up, I really want to be a stepmom.”  Who says that?  Understudy, back-up quarterback, substitute teacher, adjunct. Know the role, play it when something bad happens to the lead, the star, the tenured one. Get ripped by critics, commentators, students. Are these all people who missed the mark? Are stepmoms just failed aspirants?

Mother. Step-Mother. Real Mother. Wicked Step-Mother. Mommy. Step-Monster. Mommy Dearest. Dad’s Wife. There is a chasm of difference between a “real mom” and a stepmom. A mother can fix her identity on her children regardless of her actual success in performing her role – she is a mother by basic biological fact. Even if she abandons her child at birth, she is a mom. A stepmother is the father’s wife. Being a biological mother is a great burden and responsibility, but I’m not particularly interested in talking about that right now. This is my rant. Mothers have tremendous presumptive benefits on their side. I’m not debating the merits of this, just observing. Children, parents, society, we each expect that mothers love their children. We presume that mothers want their children. We assume that mothers are naturally good. We know that being a mother is honorable. These suppositions can create tremendous guilt in the heart of mothers and can be proven false, but it takes a lot of havoc-wreaking to do so. Even in the midst of the rubble, children long to believe that their mothers love them and mothers want to believe that all they did was out of love.

Stepmothers are surmised to be evil. If not evil, at least improper. Certainly inconvenient – a sign of something broken and, many suspect, the cause of the brokenness. If a stepmother exists, someone died or got divorced. And you kind of hope they died because, apart from the burden of following in the footsteps of a now sainted mother, at least the “I came after death” role has some nobility in it. Some might say that marrying into divorce is downright foolish and you get whatever you deserve. Why not do it the right way, like everybody else. Stepmothers are an unnatural phenomenon. Contrary to motherhood, the presumption about stepmothers is we do NOT want these children. Instead, we are awaiting, eagerly, to seize upon the moment when we can lead them into the dark heart of the forest and leave them there, lost and alone, to be baked in the witch’s oven.

I should say we treat stepmothers as if we are an unnatural phenomenon. In terms of frequency, history, and commonness, we are quite prevalent. But, shhh!  Please do not say this aloud in polite society, or around recently married women or new mothers. Inadvertently, they can’t help but think a stepmother is like a black cat crossing their path. A stepmother is an adulteress, waiting to steal husband and children.

When mothers snap at their children, we know they’ve had a hard day. When mothers question whether they really should have had children, we know they are overwhelmed and just need a break. When mothers mess up their lives we know they really love and need their children, and if only those children behaved a little bit better or tried a little harder maybe mommy would be ok.

It’s a baseline thing. From whence do you commence to measure? Stepmothers snap and it proves it, everyone knew we were bitches. Stepmothers wish, for a moment, these children weren’t our responsibility and we are chastised with the “you knew what you were getting into” mantra. Stepmothers make mistakes and it confirms we aren’t fit to have children.

These inferences go both ways – child to parent and parent to child. Some days it feels as if every interaction is tenuous, a constant striving to be on the love side, the family side. People imagine that stepkids are going to be rotten. Stepchildren and stepmoms both fear that they won’t be loved, liked, or wanted. It’s easy to perceive every complaint from the mouth of the child, or, even worse, the teenager, as pointed criticism of the woman playing the part of Mom. Of course, it’s not always this way – not every day and not in every stepfamily situation. But this is the reasonable doubt that must be overcome to prove not guilt, but innocence.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


“Well . . .” 
“Well,” followed by a long pause is a much more frequent performer in my verbal repertoire now than before I met and married a man with five children. I think it may have first come on stage in response to T-Man, age 12, plopping down beside me on the couch one morning and relating that something strange was happening to his bed sheets. Though he knew he wasn’t wetting the bed, lately there had been small damp areas on his boxers and his sheets when he woke up in the mornings. He thought perhaps something might be leaking through onto his bed from the ceiling.  “Well . . .,” I replied.
. . .
“Well,” followed by a long pause came up again one summer day when Little One started talking about relatives.  She had just returned from spending a week at her aunt’s for “Camp Melssa” – a summer tradition for the little girl cousins to craft and raft with Aunt Melissa and Uncle Mike.  Little One wanted to ask about how she is connected to my family but she couldn’t think of the right terms or remember some of the names. Our conversation stumbled around for a while, me offering up people I thought she might be asking about and she making the exasperated noises of one who knows what they want to say but can’t get the meaning across. Finally, I recognized that she was asking about my sister’s children, Matthew, Molly and Courtney. I went on to name the children of my husband’s sisters, and told her they were all my nieces and nephews.
I had been sewing and she sorting through the button tin while we worked out this minor bit of genealogy. It got quiet and we both turned our attention back to our tasks.
Then she said, “And I’m your daughter . . . well, half-daughter.”
“Step-daughter,” I replied quickly, hoping it wasn’t abruptly.
“Oh, yeah, yeah. And we’re blood-related,” she offered, with the sound of a question lightly coloring her voice.
“Well . . . no.”
The “no” sounded so loud to me that I wished that I had just left the “Well . . .” hanging in the air. How uncomfortable, to have to say no. To admit, again, that, no, we aren’t kin. I’m not her mother, not anyone’s mother. Blood-related is a powerful thing. In that moment it seemed such a comforting thing. I wanted to let her trust it, to find security and explain our connection through it. I wanted to let her be a real daughter. It wasn’t a mournful longing and I didn’t worry about my own heart aching. Instead, I was more afraid that by contradicting her I’d further disrupt the order of her world. But I said, again, “No.” And then I sought to reassure her that I loved her just the same as if we were “blood-related”, as much as if she were my real daughter.  And I want to believe it, even though I can’t really know.
In truth, she didn’t seem concerned about whether I loved her. Rather, she was still puzzling out the mechanics of things. Me, I was getting a bit sappy and starting to feel that this could be a Really Big Moment. Little One was into classifying. Her Mad Science brain was clicking away, sorting out how all the parts of this family fit together. And so she said, quite matter of factly, “But you and dad are married, so how does that work?  I’m confused.”

All I could offer in reply? “Well . . . it is confusing.”

Sunday, November 20, 2011


I wish I were more of who my husband wanted me to be. I know he wishes that I believed I am who he wants me to be. I remember being a happy child. Innately curious and generally hopeful. How is it that some are able to maintain a sunny outlook and others get clouded by life? I’ve discovered that I am a faux vase – believing that I had a certain design to me, but finding that it’s been chipped away over the years and that my real composition is different and blander than I’d always presumed.
There’s a general rule that the true nature of a person is revealed in crisis. I’ve never broken my neck or lost everything, but I’m no Joni Eareckson Tada or Job, grateful and worshipping in the most dire of circumstances. The worst I’ve had lately is being let go from a job and a ruptured Achilles tendon – both of which did not reveal much Christ-like resiliency in me.  In fact, I felt rather sorry for myself in each instance and still sometimes do even two years later.
There’s another rule – one attributed to Anton Chekov  that goes something like this:  “Any idiot can handle a crisis, it’s the day to day living that wears you down.” Daily living does indeed get me down. I don’t claim to be a realist, and I hate being labeled a pessimist, but I know I’m not all sunshine and flowers. I also hate being thought a depressive but, when shaving your legs, tweezing your chin, running out of milk, changing the cat litter, finding a parking spot, paying the bills, brushing your teeth, for goodness sakes, when all these daily things start feeling like the rock of Sisyphus, worn down is where I am. When so much of life feels like failure, how do I turn it around?
I want answers to why I am angry with the world. I want to know why I let that rather cheerful little girl get shutdown. I want to believe that she is still me but perhaps I’ve seen too much of the world. Correction – I’ve actually led a relatively mundane life compared to the tragedies and adventures that lives can hold. Though comparison gets me nowhere, what I look at does affect what I see. Rather than deciding that life has beaten me down, it is perhaps more accurate to say that I have spent a disproportionate amount of time looking at the beatings. My focus guided by the mistaken belief that if I scrutinized them long enough, I could somehow learn to avoid them.
My mindset has been very honorable and diligent. It’s even more alarming then to realize that my approach has been worse than ineffective – it’s actually been counterproductive. It has taught me instead to see and anticipate beatings at every turn, creating instances of unnecessary failure and atrophying the skills of victory.
I’ve become an expert in my weaknesses and fostered them, rather than championing my strengths. I know what I don’t like, what to avoid, what I’m no good at, what I need to try harder at, and where I really fell down. Even in the things I do well, I mostly know the areas that I could have done better.
It is incredibly difficult for me to say what I want, what I like, or for what I hope. And I wonder who I think this serves? I’d always envisioned it as being humble and self-effacing.  It is a sort of self-erasing but it makes the scrubbed marks more noticeable than the pencil sketchings all around. Others, too, are wiped out by my efforts to make myself innocuous. I don’t know where to go from here. I don’t know how to live in my own skin and admit that, while drying my hair and vacuuming the floor seem relentlessly tedious tasks to me, there are things I can get lost in. (I’m panicking right now, saying – think, think!  You must know what they are.  It can’t just be Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune.  That’s just a phase; it can’t be as little as that!)

Friday, November 18, 2011

It's Personals

I wanted a really good story about how I met my husband. I didn’t know who he was going to be, or if he even ever was going to be, but I knew wanted an enticing answer to “So, how did you two meet?” when it happened.

My husband and I met online. Neither of us wanted that story. We’ve struggled to come up with another one that we could both tell with a straight face, but we get too embarrassed about lying and find it’s easier to just mumble and walk away. Of course, the longer we are married, the less we care about how we met.  But at the beginning, it seemed devastatingly serious. We could see people assess the odds of our relationship and the trustworthiness of our selves immediately upon hearing our disclosure, and the judgment on both counts was low.

I met one guy at a college casino night. He was dealer and a professor and seemed so mature and intellectual. I was an administrator and played my cards right. I knew I was in love and went overboard. He knew I was a summer fling and went abroad.

I met another guy, a Jamaican Rastafarian, at a reggae bar. Perfect match for a small town Protestant prude from Eastern Oregon.

I met a guy at the restaurant on top of the Hotel Washington when my mom ordered a Sam Adams. He was a waiter and a tennis coach from Morocco and he charmed me. It turned out he was a compulsive gambler and a control freak and two months later we parted ways, but it had the makings of a good story. I should have known it would end badly when he told me I better get cable and a recliner in my apartment or he wouldn’t be coming over. I did know it would end, badly or not, when he tried to open a credit card with my social security number and when he showed up one day, suitcases in hand, planning to move in.

I met another guy at a friend’s backyard barbeque. She was introducing me around and I pointed and asked about the guy at the far end of the deck. My friend informed me, with a smile in her voice, that his name was Dave. I commented, somewhat as an afterthought, that he was kind of cute.  Surprised, she asked if I didn’t remember him. I definitely didn’t and wondered why I ought.

“Well . . .” she replied, “You two dated.”

Shocked, I was. The story unraveled that we had in fact gone out on a few dinner dates, arranged by this same friend, several years before.

“Well, what happened?” I demanded.

We were reintroduced and, apparently, he’d stood me up the last couple of times due to various family problems. Once he named the places we dined, knowing him vaguely came back to me – he’d even met my father! But, somehow, I’d blotted most of the memories out. Here we were, given a second chance at love and a really good story. It turns out we should have stopped at chance number one. This time, a year and a half later, it ended badly. (When you’re looking for love, if it ends, it is most often badly – even if you are better off in the long run.) It was my time to be in tears, told I was “just too intense” and left broken-hearted shortly before Valentine’s Day. Coward.

In my effort to be strong and prove I didn’t really need a man, I became uber-active. I worked out more, skied more, and got a German Shepherd-Rottweiler named Tanya from the pound who drug me around the block to walk more. I filled my schedule up well into March, and then promptly threw out my back. I’d done it before, but this time was worse. I couldn’t walk and I couldn’t feel my right leg. The diagnosis was a pinched nerve due to a herniated disc, but even when sensation, accompanied by severe pain, returned, my foot drug along beside me in a useless and awkward way. 

Laid-up on medication, seeing dot-to-dot pink elephants dancing on my white closet doors, I decided that when life bucks me off, I should get back in its saddle. A few days later, less drugged, I was still spending more time horizontally than vertically and logging lots of hours on my laptop. I was also still clinging to my determination to get back into a social scene. Enter Yahoo! Personals. I made a brilliant profile. It was witty and engaging, carefully constructed to not be too intense and or too silly. It was just right for me, and for the sixty-five men who responded in the next day.

We are a lonely world. I am a woman with some cleavage and a smile. I was stunned and amazed, flattered and overwhelmed. And then I was creeped out. Because, it did seem that the people who spent the most time on the personals were somewhat lower down on the trustworthiness scale and perhaps a bit higher up on the perverted scale.  I made it four days into my seven-day free trial before having enough and jumping off. Keep in mind that during these four days I was still largely immobile and still somewhat recovering from a broken heart, so I, too, was one of those people who spent quite a lot of time in this enchanting land of the personals. This overexposure may have led to me reaching my saturation point sooner than I expected.

All was not lost for there were a few intriguing, if not good, men out there. I decided to create a new email and let these select handsome gents know that, should they wish to pursue me further, they could find me in the land of Gmail for I was departing Yahoo!

I met one guy for a walk in the park with my dog on Saturday afternoon. He was shorter than me, which shouldn’t matter, but it did surprise me because you really can’t tell that sort of thing online. He was quite nice and I felt like I was hanging out with my brother, if I had one.

I met another guy for cocktails on Saturday night. He was a lawyer. He didn’t really try to hide his dismay when I told him I, too, was a lawyer. And, then, he didn’t even try to make conversation.

I met a third guy for coffee Sunday morning. He never looked in my eyes and spent most of the conversation reminiscing about a band he and a friend started in his garage when he was in high school twenty-plus years ago that would have gone really big if the friend would have just stuck with it. I am not kidding. He ended our conversation by complementing my boobs, noting that they were real. He apparently really appreciated this, he generously explained, even though mine weren’t as big as his last girlfriend’s, because hers were fake. He’d moved up to Oregon from San Diego, so perhaps he felt compelled to embrace the Pacific Northwest back-to-nature ethic as a means of fitting in.

And then I met my husband. He looked like a bad boy in his pictures. There was a gleam in his eye that told me he was going to break my heart and I was not even going to care. I went back-and-forth for days, well probably only hours given the overall length of my online stint, before deciding to throw caution to the wind and say “Hi” to him. Yes, I said the electronic hello to him – all these other fellows reaching out my way and I ping him. We had some wonderful email exchanges before we spoke on the phone. This part I remember vividly. Talking to him on my landline cordless phone in the kitchen of the Roselawn House. Going back over the where did you grow up, what do you do territory, and other parts of the making an acquaintance refresher course – so you have kids (me to him), so you went to law school (him to me).

“So you have kids,” I say, because I’m particularly curious about this given that I’m 36, never been married, and currently live alone with a dog and a scared-of-the-dog cat. “How many?” I ask.

“Five.” he says.

“F  I  V  E!!!!!” I mouth, silently and dramatically, as I dance around the kitchen in disbelief. I never in my wildest dreams expected so many. And then, quietly, with a calm, composed voice, I respond, “Five, eh?  Wow, so you Mormon?  Catholic?  Just really fertile?”  What, I wonder, is his story?

And so we began, telling each other our story. Two days later we went out for dinner and two more days after that we went out for coffee and two weeks further on we went to a Cinco de Mayo party in that friend’s backyard who had reintroduced me to the guy I'd forgotten I'd dated, and another month passed till I met his parents and his kids, a few at a time, and then all together. Another couple of weeks beyond that, he made the trek to meet my parents.

The best memory I have from those early days of coming to know and fall in love with him is when I came home one day to find a package waiting for me on my front stoop. I opened it up to find that this man I’d just met and barely knew had sent me a box of books. My heart soared. Books. Shipped directly to my house from an online order. Bliss. I read and read through Jan Karon's Mitford series and emailed him quotes that I loved in the middle of the night and said, “Hey you,” and knew I meant, “I love you.” And I do.

He tells me his sweetest memory, the reason he fell in love with me, was my writing.  The story I told about myself in that silly little personal ad and the emails I wrote him about the daily little details of my life, those books and the thoughts they triggered, and my wondering, hungering, eager asking about him. Now the story is writing itself and writing us into it and it turns out to not really matter how it started, only that it did and it is beautiful.


It was easier to maintain a bit of self-deception when I lived alone. Living in family strips me of my anonymity and blindness. In a way, it’s like living with a bunch of mirrors and echo chambers. When I lived alone, there were no witnesses. I could construct an identity to present to the world and there was no one at home, except the cat, who politely never spoke of it, to challenge my consistency. There were no eyes in which I was reflected, no voices repeating my words. I felt mature, responsible and grown-up. After all, I lived alone and took care of myself. I had a job and fed myself, put myself to bed, and, most mornings, woke myself up. Such a big girl! Now I go to bed afraid I won’t be able to fall asleep and awake afraid I will be tired. Instead of having compassion for a little one’s nightmares, I dread middle of the night disruptions and feel like crying when they occur because, selfishly, I know I’ll struggle to get back to sleep and I am tired.
I want to be angry with the kids. I am angry with the kids. It’s not right or fair of me, and that makes me even angrier. I feel like I’ve been poked with a hot stick. I feel shaky and scared and I don’t understand. I don’t know if I even want to understand. I want to run away from this hatred, this anger, this confusion, all the lies and fakery. And yet, what have I got in my own life but deception when I refuse to explore or know what it is I want to do, how I want to be? I don’t want to be like this – bitter and defensive. I pretend I’m unworthy, undeserving, or insulted, just so I can avoid actually being me.
Who owns my life? I feel sick and paralyzed if I even allow the question to enter my mind. I don’t want to have to answer for it and I don’t want to answer that I don’t even know where to start to answer.  I’ve set out to capture it, or at least pursue it, and I choose to do so at the keyboard rather than with pen and paper, that exploration of unknown territory in a rustling, inky, wet, messy and too real way. It’s safer to be typing. I feel shielded by the computer. I feel clinical. I feel in control. Nothing will seep out or sneak out that I can’t backspace over or delete, like I just did to get “can’t” right. I’m still editing, I’m still suppressing, I’m still withholding.
I’m still stuck and I feel not so much angry as ashamed, less indignant and more defeated because I’m not brave enough to really look. If I look and know, then I might have to do, or at least try. People will watch me try and they’ll have to know I am trying and they’ll question and wonder and be skeptical and expect that it’s not going to work, or wonder why on earth I decided I wanted to do that and shouldn’t I just do this, it’s much more suitable, much more predictable, and ought to be good enough.
Then I think it’s that I won’t be able to do what I want to do, or there won’t be enough money, or security, or certainty in who I am. It will uproot our lives too much and I don’t want my life changed. Yet, I want life, don’t I? I want to be me, don’t I? But how can I when I’m not even sure who that is or how to do it? I’m afraid again that I’ll fail, again. I can pretend now, but what if I look in the mirror, see myself and realize how far away I am and how hard it is to get there? And if I know where I am, I really have no excuse not to try. In fact, I know I won’t be able to let myself not get there.