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



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 



WO Colorblind artBy Emma Kate Tsai

I had no idea what he’d look like.

I only knew what I could find out with a wave of a wand. Gender, length, amniotic fluid. But it didn’t tell me what everyone wanted to know: Would he have my hazel eyes, my Chinese father’s olive skin, my mother’s blue eyes, my husband’s red hair, or the blonde hair Mom once had? I didn’t know the answer to the questions the Chinese half of my family didn’t have the grace not to ask: Would he look like them or white like my mother? Of course, I look like neither.

“Do you think he’ll look Chinese?” Toni, my oldest stepsister, asked me over lunch when I was four months pregnant.

I had just announced that my first baby would be a boy. Every one of their dark-topped heads bobbed up and down, as they let out the breath they’d each been holding. My three stepsisters, their spouses, my stepmother, my father. All Chinese. (My stepmother and her family from Taiwan, my father from China.) As if to say, boy = good. I was sitting next to my father on the leather sofa, my stepsisters spread out around the living room, cross-legged on the pearly bamboo floor. Their heads were bowed, long, straight black hair cascading over bare shoulders. Shih-tzus clicked their nails on the floor around them.  My own short hair is the darkest brown it can be. Visually at least, I look the part. My skin isn’t too white, my eyes more brown than blue. I’m half-Chinese, but to them, since I’m not all-Chinese, I am basically not Chinese.

I looked over at my father. He was wearing that polite smile that told me he was barely listening. Baba, as I called him (Chinese for Dad), met Toni’s mother, Ines, in a Chinese drama club. My mother—a beautiful brunette with blue eyes and freckled skin—he met at university, shortly after setting foot on American soil. From their union, I, my twin sister, and my brother were born. Half-Chinese, AmeriAsian, mixed breed. Whatever you want to call us, we are only part Chinese. Richard, my fiancé, is all white.

I know what Toni wants to hear: that I will have a Chinese-looking boy. My father doesn’t care, or so I lead myself to believe. A traditional Chinese man he may be, but he’s not a traditional Chinese father. He never pushed me to marry a Chinese man, or to marry at all. When I first brought Richard home, he liked him because he was friendly and respectful, and treated me well. Not a single word was ever said about race. But then again, he could hardly argue with something he’d done himself.

I give a non-answer, filling the silence with truth. “I don’t know.”

“Well, you don’t have that much Chinese, really, anyway,” she says. “Only half, right?”

Her words sting, cutting my otherness from me. Baba doesn’t respond, only clucks his tongue a bit at a joke that isn’t all that funny. My father is stout and muscular, his skin brown against my own, his black hair makes mine look caramel. His big eyes remind me of melted chocolate, so dark his pupils get lost in them. My eyes are hazel, a color created by my particular genetic inheritance. Baba’s nose is wide and flat, while mine is flat at the top and narrower at the nostril, an exact blend of my two halves. My high cheekbones and full lips come from my mother. Baba’s lips are little more than two plumped-up straight lines. He could never wear a mustache well with a mouth so slight. What would my son get? Mom’s Marilyn Monroe mouth? Baba’s big eyes? My hybrid nose? Or would he bypass my side altogether and come out as All-American as my husband? The Chinese can be facially stereotyped, but what features define an American?

I’ve always called myself half-Chinese, never half-American. I wear my father’s Chinese name and so I have always had to come up with an answer for why I look American but have a surname no American can pronounce.

I wait for Toni to say something, to accept my mixed heritage, to withdraw her judgment and offer some sort of apology. Instead she just stares at my father, as if he doesn’t look Chinese at all, either.

“Yeah,” I say, “he’ll probably just look like a regular ole white kid, blonde hair and blue eyes.” I feel defeated, as if my son is already here, denying my maternity and culture. Toni nods slowly. I have confirmed what she already believes.

Later that night, I tell Richard about Toni’s question. He laughs.

“Of course he won’t have blonde hair. Brown is the dominant gene.” I Google genetics, trying to figure out the probability. It is too much science, and my pregnant brain can’t make the calculations. When I try to picture my son in my mind, I can’t. I only see a fuzzy outline. No colors. Chinese is what I have, what’s different from Richard, what makes me stand out. Will I vanish within recessiveness if my son makes his entrance looking far less different than I always have?

Soon, I find out for myself. Five months later, Oliver arrives after twelve hours of labor and pushing. About a half hour after the countdown starts, the head nurse announces, “I see dark hair!” Her exclamation is a cheer, one for my team.

“Really?” I breathe. Dark hair means Chinese. Dark hair means me.

But when Oliver emerges completely, he proves us all wrong. The nurses roll up my sweaty, bloodstained nightgown and place him on my belly, and he looks up at me and stares. I stare back and get lost in eyes that are not my own, blue eyes that should belong to a character in a story.

They are not the murky newborn blue many babies are born with. No, Oliver’s blue could be a Pantone color, a gradient created by a graphic designer. Not a placeholder for brown or hazel, but my mom’s blue, and my husband’s. After five minutes or thirty—I have lost all sense of time—the nurses scoop up our baby and take him for his first bath. When they wheel him back in, we stand to greet him and see it: blonde hair. Mom’s blonde, the blonde she was born with, the blonde Richard was born with.

My baby is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy.

When my father comes to see Oliver nine hours later, he laughs. “He looks just like you!” he says to Richard. My husband beams. I nod, as if it was my joke too. Our baby boy looks just like his daddy. It is like I am not even there. My dad leans over Oliver and whispers, “So, so beautiful.” He never stops saying it. Not that day, not the next week, not for several months. Even when he isn’t saying the words, you can see them in the way he gazes at our child. As if he’s afraid Oliver is a mirage that might disappear if he looks away. Is it because of Oliver’s fair skin and eyes? Is white more beautiful to my Chinese father than whatever I am? Has that been the reason why my father has been so uninterested in me, why he’s now so interested in my son? Why my mother came and went, then came and went again? I don’t look enough like either of them. I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, someone neither parent can attach to.

A couple of days later, my stepsisters come to meet the new baby. Their feet have barely crossed the threshold when the declaration is made. “He looks just like Richard!” Toni says, and her words are echoed by the others. “He looks so…WHITE,” Georgette informs me, as if I needed to be told. My white fiancé holds my white baby, while I sit in the corner and eat a Chinese meal of rice, bok coy steamed with garlic, and roasted salmon. I watch as the other within me—my Chinese family—surrounds my two men, protecting them from the outside world. From me. As if he is Richard’s baby, and I just happen to live here. I stare at Oliver in the center of their circle, who now feels so far away. They have turned him into a question of either/or and forgot all about how Oliver came to be. I don’t care what he looks like, why should they? Why does it have to be a competition? Richard vs. Emma, White vs. Chinese.

“Look, I did all the hard work,” I hiss through clenched teeth.

“Well,” Georgette says, “maybe he’ll look like you later on.” Then, as if on cue, Oliver starts to cry. I steal him away and mount the stairs to feed him. As soon as I place my nipple in his mouth, he stops crying and I start, my family’s words reverberating in my heart. It is just one more way my Chinese heritage has subjugated me. The meals and parties and holidays I sat drowning in my father’s foreign tongue, the family from Taiwan he chose over his own, spinning tales in Chinese that his own children couldn’t understand. The mispronunciation of my name every single year in school, the “what are you?” questions, the Chinese boys who tried to date me then gave up, the American men who wished I could cook Chinese food. Can’t Oliver just be whatever he is without the label of Chinese or white?

Color was masking everything, in his case. His blonde hair and blue eyes distracted viewers from the shape of his eyes—Chinese, like mine—and the shape of his nose. If you looked hard enough, you’d see him for what he was: a quarter Chinese.

It wasn’t just my family who was colorblind. It was everyone. Out in the world, I felt like his nanny, his nursemaid, anything but his mother. I would force Richard to take my picture with Oliver positioned just so, hoping to catch a shot of our complementary features, offering the world evidence that he was part Tsai, part me. Here, try to say you don’t see any resemblance.

It would be four months before Toni finally says, “He looks more and more like you.” And more than that before everyone else agreed.

When we are out together now and someone gives Richard claim to Oliver’s face, Richard does his best to turn a sole proprietorship into a partnership: “He has Emma’s nose.” Usually he is met with a quizzical look, as if he is speaking a foreign language. In fact, he is: he is speaking Emma, and all they know is Richard. It is the Chinese in me, in Oliver, they don’t see. The very reason Oliver looks the way he does is because of my mother’s American heritage and mine, not in spite of it. You’re just seeing color, I want to shout, there’s more to us than that. But am I talking about Oliver or about myself? Am I really asking others to see me as something more than the sum of my parts?

That majority ruling pulls at my heart more than the pain in my abdomen or the pulsing in my nipples after a long feeding. It’s a feeling that lasts longer than the days Oliver cries for hours without a pause, or pees all over the bathroom walls. All of that lingers in the background, as Oliver smiles and erases the identity theft of the immediate past. This feeling of disconnectedness from my child—in the eyes of the world—comes back again and again. They are subjecting him to a label that does nothing but segregate him. From me.

Eventually, Oliver becomes a part of the world, his own person, even though he’s only seven months old. He looks like Oliver, a growing boy who could be something out of a Precious Moments catalogue, with his round nose, huge eyes, and a lower lip that he likes to tuck in. As his hair comes in, it appears to be different shades of dark blonde and red—reminiscent of Richard’s hair, but not identical to it. His face has the delicate roundness of a baby’s. He has a tiny belly, unlike Richard, and long legs, very much like the both of us. Now and then, someone will say he looks like me; now and then, someone will say he looks nothing like me. In his very own way, Oliver has become more about Oliver, and less about us, and that’s what we had wished for all along.

Emma Kate Tsai is an editor and writer in Houston, Texas. She has been published online and in print, including an essay entitled “Chinese-American Girl: Drinking from East to West” in the anthology Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up, and the lead essay in the self-published anthology Loving for Crumbs entitled “Spell of Starvation.” Emma has an essay upcoming in Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience, pending from Seal Press, and is currently at work on a memoir that focuses on identity through the lens of an identical twin.

Photo: Lesley Shone