I’ve barely been at this stepmother thing six months, but I’ve already learned an important lesson: there is always someone to remind me who I am not.
By Teri Carter
Motherhood begins, like it does for most mothers, with me sitting in the bright-lighted waiting room of the gynecologist’s office. I am thirty-one. I have not been married six months.
It is late February in the Minneapolis suburbs, just after three, and I’ve anchored my body into a pink (they’re all pink) corner chair next to a square oak table piled with the worn-out pages of Parenting Today, Fit Pregnancy and Pregnancy and Newborns, holdovers from last summer, their crinkled covers advertising so much pretty promise with skinny smiling moms in tank tops and swooshy skirts, chasing toddlers, and moms-to-be with taught bellies bulging behind spandex leggings, painted toes in strappy sandals, and cute swimsuits. I zero in on the swimsuits. Not a dimpled thigh nor overflowing breast among them. I imagine my own body cut and carved and photo-shopped into tapered, motherly perfection. I feel relief in the imagining.
In the chair next to me, my stepdaughter fills out an intimidating stack of New Patient forms clipped to a board. Chloe is sweet sixteen. This is Chloe’s appointment. I try to give her some privacy by pretending more interest than I have in the pages of Fit Pregnancy, and page after page she leans forward, hiding behind her long blonde hair, reading or pretending to read every word, until finally tapping me hard on the arm with the clipboard. “But I don’t know any of this stuff,” she says, pointing to a series of boxes and questions on family medical history. I gently shove the board back onto her lap and whisper instructions to put question marks where she doesn’t know the answers so the doctor or, rather, Katie, the nurse practitioner she’s seeing, will know she’s read the questions and just doesn’t know. I also tell her to try and remember some of the questions so she can ask her mom next time they talk. Chloe rolls her eyes and leans back. I ignore it and say, “You need to know this stuff, or at least you’ll need to know it eventually, so you should ask your mom. Really. It’s important. Or might be important, someday.”
I go back to Fit Pregnancy. Chloe keeps at the forms.
When you’re over thirty and you tell people you’re marrying a man with children, they nod and smile and voice obligatory congratulations. Good for you! they cheer. With your mother and stepmother and Aunt Mary, you also hear their intense relief because, no matter the modern world, they know and you know that the likelihood of your meeting a man without an ex-wife and children at this stage is akin to discovering a real live unicorn. Hence the nod, the smile, the deafening relief. The assumptions.
Everyone assumes if you’ve married a man with kids, these kids will hate your very existence on their earth and barely tolerate the sight of you because they live with their mother; they assume you’ll be a part-timer, barely tolerating them as well, because you’ll have to house and feed them every other weekend and for some weeks, maybe, in Summer; they can see you standing silently aside while your husband and their mother duke it out about who gets Christmas Eve (the loser) and Christmas Day (the winner); they will ask the polite questions: how did you meet, what do the kids think, when are you going to have a baby? They perk up at the baby part. You can’t blame them. Who doesn’t perk up at the possibility of a baby? There’s no way to let them down gently, so you come right out with it and say, with well-rehearsed cheer, that you’ve married a man thirteen years your senior who has for years had sole custody of his children—a girl about to get her driver’s license and a boy starting fifth grade—and you’ll have these kids 365 days a year because their mother lives in a southern state far, far away. They are rightly confused. Wait. Wait! This is the wrong script. And they are noticeably worried; worried you don’t have the first clue as to what you’ve gotten yourself into, especially this whole teenage girl situation and their mother whom you haven’t even met, and yet it all passes in a whir because you can’t possibly string together enough assurances to make them feel better. To make yourself feel better.
This, this is your beginning.
In the waiting room, Chloe’s name has been called and she’s disappeared. I’ve found the unisex bathroom with built-in plastic changing table, also pink. After I flush I lean in and stare at myself in the well-lit, gold-trimmed mirror, and then I turn in profile. I smooth my cotton shirt. I cup my size C+ breasts in my hands to lessen the relentless weight of them. My always-bra-ed breasts now that I’m married and living in the house of a boy aged nine who has sleepovers with other boys aged nine where I am in constant fear of seeming too free, inappropriate or, dear god, sexual.
Back in the waiting room I am only alone for minutes when two heavily pregnant women arrive for appointments. They check in with the nurse behind the glass and choose opposing corners, moms-to-be moored by their bellies. The ponytailed brunette drapes her hands heavy like an Achilles shield over her stomach, eyes closed, deep chest breathing, while the alert blonde who looks no older than Chloe frantically thumbs crinkled pages splayed under smallish breasts, and I, with no task at hand, clasp and unclasp my hands, fold my arms across my empty center and, in my head, name the baby I’m not having. Ann Marie, the expected family tribute using my grandmother’s first and my mother’s middle; Helene, the name of the cute girl who used to give me pedicures and yet would seem like a dedication to, and thus win me free points with, my new mother-in-law; Katherine with a K; Rachel; Georgia if not for the whole midnight train thing; Elizabeth, whom I would be a tenacious bitch about everyone calling Elizabeth.
I first sat in this chair a year ago when I was single and relocating to Minneapolis for work and needing to get through that checklist you have to get through when you arrive in a new city: set up a local bank account; get an insurance agent; find a veterinarian and a dog walker for Bailey, my three year old Cocker Spaniel, to cover my long working hours; a dentist and a general practitioner and an OB/GYN, preferably a woman. Check, check, and check. With one big glaring snag. If you’re my age and you’re not making a baby, and if you don’t have cancer or endometriosis or a fertility panic, it is outside impossible to become a New Patient of a well-respected OB. Which is how I ended up with Katie, the nurse practitioner. Which is the reason for Chloe seeing Katie today. Katie is all I have the power to get. Real doctors, it seems, are all booked up solid with real mothers.
The week before Christmas I received a card from my first are-we-going-together?-boyfriend back home in Missouri, my first date to a high school dance. The card declared Peace and Joy in stock red print under a drawing of the Virgin Mary holding her baby Jesus, with my friend’s handwriting, the same as when we passed flirty notes, scrawled across the bottom: P.S. I can’t believe you’re somebody’s mom! I remember thinking, I can’t believe it either.
I’ve barely been at this stepmother thing six months, but I’ve already learned an important lesson: there is always someone to remind me who I am not. Sometimes it’s the mom across the street or at the bus stop; sometimes it’s my son’s teacher at back-to-school night; and sometimes it’s just me starting into a mirror. Today that someone appeared in the form of a nurse behind the receptionist’s window. It went something like this:
Hi, my daughter Chloe has an appointment with Katie.
Your daughter? Honey, you don’t look old enough to have a daughter this age!
Well, actually, she’s my stepdaughter.
Oh! Oh, I see.
Having already taken Chloe to the walk-in clinic for a sinus infection, two strep tests, and her first (non-injury) car crash, today’s exchange is already our norm, a calling-out just loud enough to tell the entire waiting room that we are not the mother and daughter we are pretending to be. Today, Chloe has had enough. We’ve barely sat down when she mocks, loud enough to pierce the glass, “‘Oh! Oh, I see’ like she knows us, like she knows anything about me.”
“Shhh, she didn’t mean anything.”
Chloe gets louder. “No, you know what I’m going to say next time? I’m going to say, I know, right? My mom looks good for 50, don’t you think?” And though I don’t do it I want to grab her up right in front of the glass and hug her like I do everyday after school and kiss her on the lips and say Love you, Love you too like we do every night at bedtime. I want the nurse to see us, to give us credit, for the family we are making up as we go along. For the family we are all trying so hard to be.
And yet I’m no better. When I meet a stepfamily, I immediately look for the signs. The unpracticed or one-armed hug. The lean-away. The way a kid needing permission looks to one parent while making a show of dismissing the other, and the way the other chokes while laughing it off. The lack of lingering eye contact. A stepparent’s glaring avoidance of public discipline, verbal or physical. The careful choosing of chairs at a restaurant table. At home we have a rectangular, white kitchen table with two chairs on each side. My first week married coincided with the first week of school. I made dinner and called everyone in. I took a seat on the side next to my new husband. Nine year-old Austin walked in and stood his ground next to me. “That’s my chair.”
To which I said, “How about you sit by Chloe and I’ll sit here by Dad,” so proud I was of my quick-thinking, cheerful diplomacy.
“But … he’s not your dad,” Austin said.
I got up.
He sat down.
I took another chair, humiliated and defeated, heart anxiously pounding while I smiled my way through asking questions about each kid’s first days of school. My hands shook as I cleared the table, as I did the dishes. And when I thought enough survival time had passed, I took my dog for a walk so I could cry as hard as I needed to without anyone feeling sorry for me or, dear god forbid, offering me the chair.
Some nights later at the table, I did something my own mother would have done in jest. I made fun of Chloe for whining—for the dozenth time to get out of going to school—about having a headache. “Awwww,” I said. “Is it a brain tumor? Do you have cancer?” She went to her room and did not go to school the next day. Another night I filled a lull at the table with a joke about Texans until Austin’s lower lip quivered as he said, “I was born in Texas.” It was like being hit with curare dart.
I analyze where I fail. I make these mistakes when I let the curtain down, when I start shoving aside the fantasy and cautiously ease into feeling like I belong, like I’m the mom and Rex is the dad and these are our kids and there’s breakfast to fix and homework to get done and Chloe asks if I’ll do her nails while we watch The Simpsons and Austin warns me he’s going to freeze his plastic Batman so I won’t be alarmed when I reach in for ice.
And I realize I make most of my mistakes when I’m being myself. As well as things have gone these first six months, with our goodnight kisses and Love you, Love you too’s, I know in my hollow un-pregnant gut that the nurse behind the glass can see right through me to the fraud-mother I am so desperately trying, and failing, to shed.
I call my own mother almost daily. For comfort, for advice, for the minutes of the day when I can be a real daughter instead of the mother I haven’t the first clue how to be. Mom is a thousand miles away in Southeast Missouri and, now that she’s finally quit her decades-long factory job, she answers on the first ring. She listens. She asks without asking if I’m trying to get pregnant. Are you still on the pill? Because I’ve been reading it’s unhealthy to be on the pill this long. My youngest brother Chuck has a one and a half year-old baby girl but he’s not married to his child’s dark-skinned, Polynesian transplant from California, mother. I encourage my mother to vent about this so she forgets, at least temporarily, my own babylessness. She says, Why don’t they just get married. She says, Why won’t they just let me baptize her? If they don’t believe what difference does it make? She says, I’m so embarrassed when I take the baby to Walmart because everyone thinks she’s black, and I have to explain about the Polynesian mother so they won’t think she’s black and I don’t even know where Polynesia is! I take these opportunities to climb on my big liberal box with, well fuck that and who gives a shit what your racist neighbors at Walmart think. All of which keeps me shining the neon spotlight away from the secret I’m keeping. That no, I’m not on the pill. I’m not on the pill because I wasn’t even married a week when, without any forethought and with a manic urgency I can’t explain, I talked my new husband into getting a vasectomy.
What kind of mother, I think now, is that?
In the waiting room, the brunette and the blonde have both been called back. I am surrounded by empty, pink chairs. I can hear the rude nurse behind her glass wall shuffling and stapling paper, the trill of the phone ringing, the making and canceling of appointments, the whap whap of the copy machine, the busyness and naturalness of it all.
I stare at the closed door and wait for Chloe. I have nowhere lay my hands.
Teri Carter lives in Kentucky and California, where she is working on her first book. Her essays can be found at http://www.tericarter.net/publications.html