Saturday, May 12, 2012

In Praise of Step Moms, on Mother's Day

Stepmothers get bad press, even from those of us in a collective rush to pat ourselves on the back for our modern family outlook.  Yesterday at Target, I looked for a stepmom card in the Mother's Day section, and had to revert to the blank card section.  Hard to believe Hallmark hasn't caught up.

The stepmom in my life is not my own, but that of my children. We're not friends, as she is married to a man I once was. That would be, I think we'd both agree, weird. We don't even know each other that well. Yet I am grateful every single day for her presence in my kids' lives.

My own mom had a stepmother who didn't do much to disabuse the stereotype.  Their uneasy relationship marked her own with me and with that of my former husband and the children we had together.  A couple of Christmases ago, we ran into my former husband and his wife in the parking lot at the local grocery store.  I was buying last-minute items and when I came out all the hellos had been said and we headed off.  Later, my mother told me, tears in her eyes, that stepmom had jumped out of the car and embraced the children, to their mutual delight.  "If She had ever done that with me, my life would have been so different," my mother said, shaking her head with simultaneous disbelief and happiness.

This past October I went to China for a work trip.  As luck would have it, two days before I was to leave my son had an asthma flareup for the first time in three years. Back when the kids were small and I travelled rarely, I used to say that someone always started throwing up when I drove through the gates of DFW airport.  It seemed their dad spent all of my few trips away at the pediatrician's office.  With that burden of guilt as I headed into this voyage, I ran through the San Francisco airport towards the international terminal and called to see how The Boy was doing.  He was with stepmom at the office of that same pediatrician.  They'd gotten some steroids and when I talked to him, he had that cough that instantly makes me feel I'd bargain with devil to take it away.

This wasn't an optional trip.  I said it sounded silly but if I'd been somewhere in the US, I wouldn't feel so helpless.  But I was going to be half a world away.  "I know it's hard, but I'll take good care of him," she said. "I know." I did. I hung up before she heard me burst into tears. I was heartbroken to leave but recognized how extraordinarily blessed I am for this kind, loving woman who had voluntarily taken my children into her life and her heart.

I am an only child and don't share with ease.  In the early days of co-parenting, we would hand off on Sundays, which meant I could wrap up my weekend and get off to a fresh start to work.  After a legal wrangle a couple of years ago, we switched against my wishes to Monday mornings.  I wake at the start of every other week with a wooden heart; after I drive away from the carpool line, I inevitably shed tears at leaving the two dearest souls on earth to me.

Last Mother's Day, the kids arrived with a beautifully wrapped package for me.  It was a flower vase  I would have picked out on my own.  It came from a store I know we don't have in Fort Worth, so it was clear that stepmom had to spend some time ahead picking it out.  I sent her a text to thank her, and she wrote back, "I'm glad you like it.  The kids thought you would. Happy Mother's Day."  Yesterday, my daughter and I went to pick out a little something for her.  The kids love her and I hope she is reminded of that.

Stepmothers (and stepfathers, lest I forget) often haul a good share of the water in child-rearing, but get little credit in our society. So to all the people with the stickers on their cars with the Perfect Family--the Dad, the Mom, the three kids, all holding hands--I have a message.  Not all of us get the life we had planned. We can sit around pointing fingers at society or each other or blaming ourselves.  Or we can open heart our hearts to what grace we receive and take every opportunity to raise our children with consistent love.  And that's pretty good. 

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