Friday, May 27, 2016

Thanks for All of It

It’s been some time now that I’ve associated the idea of midlife crisis with the end of the “I can be anything and do anything” opportunities and optimism of younger years when most everything in life is still at least a theoretical possibility.
I now reflect that a contributing factor to whatever sort of midlife ennui is experienced may also be associated with the unnerving awareness that the morning when I wake up and sense I am fully equipped to handle whatever this day brings may not come.
Only a decade ago, I was aspirational that I could follow a plan and get things in order based on an underlying paradigm that there was a certain age at which, if one tried hard enough, one arrived at the place of knowing how life worked. Even five years ago, I still believed that I could learn enough, improve enough, practice enough to really get the hang of living life and at least master most of the basics – leaving myself open, of course, for new adventures. The idea that I would someday arrive at a place where I no longer feared that the day might prove too much for me was plausible.
Midlife – crisis or no – in my life is a stretch where time turns and twists, managing to warp hours as I used to know them. A period of five years, which as a child was an entire lifetime, can pass like a month and a year can happen in a week. I look at Little One, our youngest, and expect to see a child that never existed – a combination of her at ages three, seven and ten, and get startled by her height, mature voice and demeanor, and the stunning fact that she is nearly 13.
The midlife celebration, which asserts that the 40s are fabulous (and they are) may follow a honorable adios to getting it all together. There’s freedom in recognizing I will never know enough or do enough to be fully prepared for even my regular and habitual circumstances. If I’m not going to work or learn my way to the place where I’ve got it down, where I’m fully what I thought “adult” would be, then what relief.
I may continue for the rest of my days to awake with some doubt about my capacity to do what needs to be done. Allowing that possibility, I’m suddenly released from striving for an illusory achievement. There’s room to shift to simply alright, maybe going so far as aight. Instead of hoping for some distant future when I’m really grown-up and have this life down, I’m at liberty to keep stumbling along and, if I really want to, stressing out. I can consider a work project, or deal with a relationship issue, welcome my old friend inadequacy and say “Hey, I guess we’re doing this together so we may as well have fun and get on with it.” I’m free to say “Thanks for all of it,” whatever each day brings and however prepared I am for it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

We Need More Words for Snow

It’s one of those grade school lessons – the Eskimos have 50 words for snow because it’s a central part of their landscape and because it comes in so many variations and forms. We continental folk see snow, and hail and sleet, but those are different. Really, if it’s white and it floats from the sky when it’s cold, we call it snow.
We need more words for mother. The biological parties to the family of origin are a male and female, father and mother. Relationally, that is the most familiar form. But we know by now that many, many children experience other forms of parenting – either in addition to or in place of the biological dad and mom. Our vocabulary remains severely limited in describing and capturing the many varieties of parenting. We add a prefix to the words mother and father but the initial connotation is not that of a close and loving relationship, it’s more scary person than safe parent.
Somehow we understand the language labeling children and grandparents, aunts and uncles, to encompass multiples, each of whom is likely loved, but we haven’t expanded the definition of dad or mom to allow for more than one. If, as a stepmom, I identify myself as my kids’ mom, it feels like I’m somehow usurping or displacing their other mom – their first mom, the one who gave them birth.
Am I a real mom or not? I feel like a real parent. If I were to take an assessment test and check off the boxes that diagnose parenting, a sufficient number would be marked to qualify me. Sometimes it’s acceptable for me to say I’m a mom – when it’s just easier than explaining the whole situation or when it’s Mother’s Day and my husband and I are someplace public where they want all the moms to stand up for applause and appreciation, and he urges me to stand up and be recognized. (This experience used to invariably induce involuntary gagging – the calling out, not his encouragement – but I’ve learned to control the reflex, for the most part, although I do still fear that a spotlight will zoom in on me and an alarm sound as the loudspeaker blares, “IMPOSTER! We’ve got an imposter! Get her out of here!”)
I’m snow, I’m just a slightly different form of snow and there’s not yet a good word for me. I’m not the snow piled up on the ground that we see all around. I don’t think anyone would describe me as softly falling snow – there’s not much soft about me and when I fall, it’s hard and fast. Maybe I’m snow that’s slightly icy and good to drive a sled, or a more crystalline form of snow – the kind that you don’t recognize the texture of until you scoop up a handful to make a snowball and find it doesn’t pack together very well. Whatever I am, I’m not what people expect when they hear the label mom because I didn’t carry my kids in my uterus and I haven’t been with them from the beginning. And they have a mom.
I sometimes get labeled a “Bonus Mom” – which is cute, and friendly and sort of a sweet way to attempt to deal with this vocabulary problem. But it’s also somewhat dismissive and extraneous and a word you almost have to say with a fake smile because it’s oh so super extra special and everybody wants one! I really don’t have a solution, I just know I live in this awkward, in-between place at soccer games, graduations, on school emails, and introductions, and on Mother’s Day when I stand kind of part way up, keeping my knees slightly bent, my body turned to the side and my hand on the back of my chair, ready to sit back down quickly the moment I see a skeptical glance that tells me someone is going to pull the warning signal, setting off the “She’s not a real mom!” siren.

But, I love my children, we are in each other’s lives now as a family and that’s real – whatever you decide to call it.

Friday, May 6, 2016

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: