That Kind of Hell

“I wouldn’t wish that hell on anybody,” confides the woman seated to my left at Tony Starlight’s Christmas show. We are strangers at a charity event and she is winding up the story about her daughter being a stepmother, not knowing that I am a stepmom.
What kind of hell is it that she wouldn’t wish?
The hell of knowing that if my husband ever decides he doesn’t want me, these children are lost to me, too.
It’s the hell of having my sister, absorbed in her divorce proceedings, tell me that she knows her soon to be ex-husband will probably have a girlfriend or wife again, but she can’t stand the thought of another woman pretending to mother her child.
It’s the hell of knowing that the only reason I’m present in this role, in the lives of my children, is because of a broken union.
The hell of going to pick up our oldest boy from high school for a doctor appointment and being refused at the main office because I’m not an “authorized person.” Maybe the stereotypical snippy lady working the counter didn’t say it quite the way my memory recalls it, but close enough: “It needs to be his real mom for us to release him, she’ll need to pick him up.” I turn away with cheeks aflame and bite my tongue until I can curse in the parking lot because, thanks to a few DUIs, his “real mom” is in the county jail for the next 10 months.
It’s the hell of knowing that when they need me most it’s because mommy has gone off the deep end again and is drowning in pills, wine, or her man. 
It’s the hell of having missed whatever portion of their life it was that I missed – first cry, first smile, first word, first giggle, first step. For each of them, I’ve missed something important, essential, to who they are – the cracked skull, broken collarbone, lost teeth, pony rides, baseball games, and birthday cake smeared onto a happy toddler’s face.
The kind of hell of being absent at the moment of their conception; knowing it’s not and never will be the connection between my husband and me that sparked their lives.
It’s the hell of being on the inside until some invisible line is crossed and I’m suddenly on the outside.
It’s the hell of parenting with tenuous rights; of loving without much societal encouragement for that love to be given or returned.
The hell of knowing that another woman is out there hurting, must be hurting, because whenever her babies are with me they aren’t with her.
It’s the hell of brokenness, unmet expectations, disappointed hopes, and dreams that didn’t work out the way any of us thought they should.
Its fires are stoked by the idea that there are those who manage in some way to be exempt from its misery because their family is just perfect enough.
This kind of hell torments with the perception that stepmotherhood is an aberration, rather than a most common and timeless experience.
It blazes because we forget that all families are forged new, over and over with every entry and departure. We wade into its fiery ache by way of our strange attachment to seeing stepfamily love as intrusive, unnatural, and unlikely. 
Reminiscing over my childhood scrapbook, I study the heights and weights my mother recorded for me when I was Little One’s age. I note that my measurements at age 10 equal hers at age 12 and am initially surprised and curious there is such a difference in our growth. Bewildered pain cracks my heart. My brain apprehends that the comparison I’ve been making between her body and mine is irrelevant. Abruptly, I remember that I will find no clues to her development in my genetic past because, she is not mine.
I fall into an abyss of meaninglessness and grasp, confused, for some fixed connection. I flail about to grab a solid thread that will tether us together forever. Blinded by my own fixation with the ugliness I see in the preface “step” and the separation I allow it to create, I find nothing. Accepting the pretense that suffering in love can be differentiated and ranked, sorted by blood or water, I am complicit in making this hell.
Out of cowardice, shame, or discretion, I admit nothing to the holiday party chinwagger. I don’t disclaim the five kids I’d mentioned earlier as “ours” when making introductions. I don’t confess my own “step” title. I don’t acknowledge that this kind of hell has been wished upon me. I allow her to think that my body has nobly borne five beautiful babes with the handsome father seated on my right. Offering a polite, solicitous smile, I remain silent.

(This piece was read at Listen to Your Mother - Portland 2016:
Image courtesy of Elizabeth Sattelberger:

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