He had ample opportunity to hate me, but he didn’t. He stuck with me until I learned to be a good stepmom.
Brian and I married 13 days after Brian’s son Spencer turned three. On an evening soon after our wedding, Brian and I were entwined on the couch when Spencer asked me, “Can I call you Mommy?”
“Oh, Spency-bird, that’s so sweet you want to call me Mommy. It makes me happy, but Mommy is a special name for your own mom. You can call me Adrienne, or you can make up a different special name to call me, OK?”
Spencer considered for a minute, pooching out his lips the way he did when he was thinking hard, then cackled, “I’ll call you Carrot!”
We all laughed and Spencer called me Carrot for a day or two before he forgot about it and returned to calling me Adrienne.
I begin with that story so that, when I tell you the next story about how radically I overstepped every reasonable step-parenting boundary, you’ll know it wasn’t because I didn’t care about Spencer’s mom’s feelings.
* * *
A few weeks after Brian and I married, I took Spencer to daycare and when we got to his classroom, the teacher was sitting at the desk, staring into space while the children watched cartoons. She neither greeted Spencer nor looked in our direction so I gathered Spencer up, stomped out, and called both of Spencer’s parents at work and said we had to find a new daycare immediately.
Brian agreed readily enough, but Spencer’s mom was less eager. “We work weird hours,” she said. “We need evening and weekend care sometimes and that’s the only daycare that offers it.”
“Well, I don’t work weird hours so there’s no more need for that,” I said, and remembering that conversation, I feel my face get hot with shame.
I tell you that story so that, when I tell you a story about Spencer’s mom, you won’t think I blame her for what came after. I’d hate you to think I believe myself innocent.
* * *
When Spencer was four, his preschool teacher asked each child’s parents to bring in a family photo. Brian sent Spencer to school with a copy of the studio portrait we’d had taken on our wedding day of the two of us with Spencer and my two children.
That evening, Spencer’s mom called to tell Brian that we had to come to her apartment right away. When we arrived, she slammed our studio portrait down on her dining table and said, “This isn’t Spencer’s family.” Next to our wedding picture, she laid a portrait of herself, Brian, and Spencer, taken when Spencer was a baby. “This is Spencer’s family. We can get a new portrait with all six of us if you want but this,” she indicated our wedding day photo, “will never be his family.”
I tell you that story so that, when I tell you how badly I messed everything up, you won’t think I was the only one making mistakes.
* * *
I resented many people, especially Spencer’s mom for her intrusions into our lives and my husband for not putting a stop to it. Instead of handling my feelings as an adult does, I was petulant and unkind. Worse, I chose a child as my target. I was impatient with Spencer and dismissive of his feelings. If he said his bath was too cold, I told him he was fine. When his mom was late to pick him up, I let my unhappiness about that situation bleed into our time together. When the kids argued, I was quick to assume Spencer was at fault.
Eventually, as I treated Spencer evermore harshly, his behavior deteriorated. A child will live up or down to a caregiver’s expectations, and I was setting a very low bar for him. We churned against each other, me trying to discipline him with ever sterner correction, him doing as he pleased because he couldn’t make me happy so why try?
I tell you that because, as shameful as it is, the truth is inescapable, and because Spencer deserved better.
* * *
I heard or read somewhere that you can induce warmth for a person by faking affection, so when Spencer was seven I decided I would smile and request a hug every time I saw him. This wasn’t without its amusing moments, as a surprised Spencer was greeted with a hug whenever he moved around the house.
It worked, and thank God because had it not, I’m quite sure we wouldn’t be a family anymore. The more often I hugged him and smiled at him, the more willing I was to give him the benefit of the doubt, or to let little things slide, or to pour his milk instead of insisting he do it himself. I set aside some spaghetti sauce before I added the zucchini because I knew he hated it and let him stay in the bathtub until his fingers pruned because I like the sound of him chattering to his bath toys.
I tell you that story because you might know someone who you wish you could feel more warmly toward.
* * *
This summer, Spencer will turn 18. In spite of our expectation based on his diminutive size in his early years, he’s grown to six feet tall. He’s gracious, kind, and intelligent, and our relationship is among the most vital in my life. I admire his steadfastness and his peaceful spirit and I am grateful down to my toes for his presence in my life. He had ample opportunity to hate me, but he didn’t. He stuck with me until I learned to be a good stepmom.
I love him.
I tell you that because it’s true.