The Real Mother

The Real Mother

Author and daughter

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.

OBGYN office

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



My Stepdaughter-to-Be Helped Me Heal

My Stepdaughter-to-Be Helped Me Heal

By Bonnie Jean Feldkamp

Al and me Ceremony

My boyfriend’s daughter processed her trauma in bouts of rage. It echoed through every corridor of the house. Her eruptions started with slammed cupboards in the kitchen and ended with shouts of fury over feeling unloved or unwanted. My love, she recognized as an intrusion on her time with her father. Only Dad could pack her lunch for school, and only Dad could help her with homework. If she couldn’t find an article of clothing she wanted to wear, only Dad could help her find it, even if I had done the laundry.

I was there to love her dad, not her. Right? We weren’t married yet. She wasn’t even my stepdaughter. I didn’t have any obligation to even pretend to love her. But I did love her. And I loved her for reasons that had nothing to do with where she came from or who fathered her. I loved her spirit, her resilience, and her sassy humor. When she was open, we talked, ventured out into the city together or sat in front of a good movie and crafted string bracelets. But when we got too close she didn’t trust it, so she raged. She wasn’t angry with me. She was angry with the woman who let her down. I got the “redirect” the therapist said.

Once, she raged to the point of destruction. She pulled the framed graphite and white pastel sketch of herself from the wall to smash it. It had been a gift I commissioned for her father. I recognized her disappointment in life. She refused to be a commodity or pawn, some leftover from her father’s previous marriage. I’ve been there and I’ve felt that. I grabbed her by the chin. “Listen to me,” I said, “I love you.” Her dad swooped in to catch her collapse. Her rage melted into sobs on his shoulder, she released the sketch from her grip. We repeated, “I love you,” to her over and over again. The words had to penetrate and disarm.

Summertime arrived and she went to a week-long wilderness camp for girls. It was the kind of camp that stripped away superficiality and uncovered a woman’s inner strength. Tents on a freshwater beach, no showers, and when they had to “go,” they nature-peed in the sand. They even filtered their own drinking water from the lake. The girls learned about womanhood, cycles, and sexuality. All of the empowerment a Red Tent community could muster. No technology. Complete seclusion. She got to celebrate her individuality in an atmosphere of supportive women.

At home, her dad and I transformed her bedroom from that of a girl’s to one that represented her crossover to womanhood. She was thirteen-years-old. Bamboo hardwood replaced carpet and we bought her a pillow-topped queen-sized bed. My week focused on the positive forces in her life. I rallied the women in mine and her father’s families. I asked for their stories of strength. One grandma wrote of her journey to the United States from Mexico as a child and the other wrote of being tear-gassed during civil rights protests in college. I filled the book with these stories along with positive photographs of her childhood.

The camp week ended ceremoniously with the girls and their female mentors. No boys allowed. I sat in an open barn with the mothers of other campers. Nervous. We were each given a red boa to symbolize our child-bearing position in womanhood and were told to wait. I didn’t know anything about her week yet, but I was already proud of her accomplishments. She had done it. I wondered if she would swear to never do it again, or tell me that roughing it was not for her. “How dare you send me out in the wilderness with these hippy chicks and no bathroom?” I imagined her saying. But I knew her spirit well enough to know that she would approach it with enthusiasm. She enjoys a challenge and loves to learn. For her, the anticipation was the hardest part.

I saw her come over the hill from the woods with the group of campers. She looked dirty and bug-bitten, but she wore a smile. They gave her a white boa to symbolize her stage in life’s cycle.

In the barn, the chairs formed a semicircle and when she sat next to me she grasped my hand. The girls each lit a candle and placed it in the circle. Each camper told us what they saw as their personal contribution to the world. She said that she contributed reliability. Of course she did. Her responsible nature was rooted in a childhood of self reliance by necessity.

We all played a game together. It involved a roll of twine that got tossed back and forth across the circle. Each person held on to the string as they tossed, which resulted in a large web. We set it at our feet. One-by-one in front of the group, Mothers sat with their daughters to tell them how wonderful they are and offer their boasts of pride and growth. Each mom removed her red boa and gave it to their daughter to welcome her into womanhood.

My heart pounded and my nerves shook me. It was our turn. I sat across from my girl at the open end of the semicircle. Words wouldn’t come. They choked in my throat with false starts. I stared at the web on the floor. She reached across and slipped her hand under the one in my lap. She squeezed it and I looked at her.

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave…” were the first words to come out of my mouth. “I’ve been through a lot of crap in my life. And you, you are my reward.”

That was the moment that I understood that I knew how to love this girl because of what I had survived — a mother dead at age seven, a stepmother I resisted through my adolescence, a stepmother who left us when I was 17 and a dad who threw me out shortly after I graduated high school. A child-in-waiting who never came to be at age 19.

She made me grateful to know what I know. Some people do go away and it hurts like hell. Others come back, like my stepmom did. We reconnected five years after she divorced my father. I have also reconciled with my dad. I know how to do this. I know how to heal and I know how to let go. And I can show her that some people do stay. She belonged with her dad and me. No matter how much she had tested us, pushed us away or how much she had raged through her own abandonment, we were there. While I helped her through her own hurt, she also helped me through some of mine. She helped me look through my own abandonment and see that it wasn’t about me at all. I saw it so clearly within her circumstance that I couldn’t deny it in my own. My stepmom loved me when I let her. My dad was grief-stricken for the second time in his life. It wasn’t about me at all, even though the time I was cheated out of should’ve been.

“You make the pain in my life make sense,” I told her.

I stood up from my chair with tear-filled eyes. The red boa still around my neck, I had forgotten the whole point of the camp ceremony. I stopped short and put the red boa on her neck and said, “Oh… and welcome to womanhood.” I heard a few chuckles and remembered the audience. They were crying too.

A photographer snapped pictures of us. We walked away from the group. I put my arm around her and said, “I feel like we just got married.”

She laughed. “We’ll have to tell Dad you married me first.”

I gave her my gift and she handed me an envelope. She had written me a letter. In it, she wrote, “I want you to know who I am… and even though you did not give birth to me, I am writing this to you.”

We had gotten married. I am forever hers.

Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a writer, wife, and mother of three. Find her on Facebook at or Twitter @writerbonnie

Blending Families: When My Kids Met Her Kids

Blending Families: When My Kids Met Her Kids


You know those swings at the carnival that spin around in mad, sickening circles? You get going so fast that you levitate and you fear, because of some basic laws of physics, that the chains will break and you’ll be hurled off in a straight line to the next county. But you never do. You remain somehow preserved in the rush of that circle, round and round and round. This is how things are.

Summer, as it did last year and the year before it, came again. Spring, if it had a mind to, could just as well launch us into some scary and unknown season, but it, dependably, never fails to slide seamlessly into summer. And with it, summer vacation, the sun, pools and the repetition of contradictory days, boring, fun—days that last forever and end in a blink.

Before this summer, I had met my girlfriend’s kids several times and she had met mine, but this summer brought a whole new experiment. We would for 3 days become a group of 6, going to the Field Museum in Chicago, Lincoln Park Zoo, Navy Pier, and kayaking. What could go wrong except everything?

So, we all wondered in the privacy of ourselves, how is this going to work? One thing is certain. The idea, the prospect of this meeting as an event that loomed in the future, was terrible for all of us. My girlfriend and I were of course concerned about the psychic well-being of our children. I mean, we’re firmly established as crazy in love but how fair is this to the kids? We’re lovers. We’re parents. But now these roles were about to collide into some undefined something and would they be okay? Would they like each other? Are they predisposed to despise each other? Even at the zoo? And even though the kids expressed a willingness to do this, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to surmise that, for them, this whole idea was icky and weird and confusing. The kids they were each about to meet: Who were they exactly in relation to them? I imagined them wondering Will I like them? and, of course, the question that never ceases to haunt us all: Will they like me?

But, as usual, nothing happened that resembled the hopes or fears the 6 of us brought to Chicago. It’s always something else, or maybe, in its own tricky way, it’s always all of it. Meeting new people is as predictable as the seasons. Nervous strangers slip into people with whom you are suddenly laughing and using chalk to draw pictures on the driveway.

At Navy Pier, we bought a 10-Ride Family Pass (awkward). All 6 of us rode the Ferris Wheel, around and around. From way up there, from that perspective, you can see the whole city and the very same city you spent the day walking through is now different and new. With only 4 tickets left, the kids ran toward the spinning swings. My girlfriend and I sat next to a fountain, waiting for them as they stood in the hot sun and long line. It was the first time our kids were gone, together. “I think we’re doing a pretty good job,” she said. I thought so too. The sky was so blue you might cry.

When we finally saw our kids running toward the ride, they had the option to sit in a single swing or a swing built for two. Our two young girls, 10 and 11, sat in a swing for couples. As it began its slow rotation, they looked nervous and by the time it was circling full speed, they were screaming with big frightened eyes. Their initial shrieks appeared to be genuine howls of terror but somewhere in the spinning, in that elusive seamless seam, the screams—like spring sliding into summer—became laughter, though it sounded much the same.

Photo credit: Instagram @mhook