Stepmotherhood: a reckoning now that Dad’s back
So this idyllic and companionable relationship I’ve had with my 15-year-old stepdaughter the last six months while Dad was deployed? Weathering and cracking like unfinished wood since he returned.
Last Saturday, my husband and I returned home after a late-night groceries run. I was in the kitchen putting the last of the produce away when Sean came in and said, “A— is crying on her bed. She says you are over-controlling, but then when there’s things she wants you say you don’t have to because you’re the stepmom.”
What? I was stunned. A— and I have always had—or I thought we’ve always had—openness with each other, we’re teammates. We revisit our shared vision for where she’ll be as an adult and I have always taken the time to explain myself so she trusts I will get her there. But maybe she wasn’t as onboard as I thought she was? Had she, all this time, just been going along with what only I wanted?
My husband leaned in from across the counter. “Well, what are you going to do about it?” he said.
What am I going to do about it? This isn’t the first time A— has retreated to her room upset—though it’s the first time my husband has been here to witness. I’ve learned (the hard way) that it’s best to wait until she comes to me on her own terms. In part, because it allows her time to formulate what she wants to say. And also, because I want to reward her for being assertive in how she resolves her problems. Maybe I wouldn’t do this the same way with a different kid or with her at a different age, but it’s what I believe is best for her now.
But my husband is a man of action, a fixer, a man who roars in on the fuel of his assumptions and expects gratitude in return. He was growing increasingly agitated as I continued to stare unmoving at the counter. He leaned in again: “It seems from your reaction that you don’t care about our daughter,” he said.
What I want to say is, I don’t care?! And where the f—k have you been the last six months? All the air in the world and still I feel like I’m drowning.
Finally I said, “Well if she has a problem, she can come and talk to me.”
I know, right? Two kindergarteners in a sandbox.
Later, I will tell my husband later that I wish he’d said to A—: You know you can always talk to Kyra. Why don’t we go into the kitchen together and try?
Since my husband returned from the Middle East, I’m afraid we’re all a little disappointed in each other.
I don’t know where A— is at, exactly. The first day her dad came home she was already asking him for things to which she knows I would say no.
But also, I wonder if Real Dad isn’t quite measuring up to Fantasy Dad. Before A— moved in with us last fall, he was the summertime, weekend, fun dad. But now she gets more of the 60-hour work week and triathlon-training dad, the dad who travels half the month. I don’t know if this is something she’s having to process or not. I don’t know if the frustration she’s venting toward me as her stepmom is related to disappointment that Fantasy Dad hasn’t swooped in and fixed the things that were hard for her when it was just me, like having to take the bus to school.
Last Wednesday, I spent an hour-and-a-half cooking dinner while Sean was at a work event. She ate four bites and said, “Where’s Dad?” I know it’s because she wants to be with him. But also, it’s hard to not feel like my presence is just a filler until her dad comes home.
Mostly to appease my husband, I finally went into her room and sat on her bed. It turned out the only thing I was over-controlling about was her screen time. And that the only thing I hadn’t done for her is to take her to school on two mornings where she had to bring in her instrument.
“I obviously can’t drive myself and I don’t have anyone else to ask,” she said as I stroked her arm. “I have to do all these things myself!” The loneliness suddenly expressed across her face broke my heart. Perhaps I’ve been so caught up in how hard it was for me to be a single parent that I haven’t appreciated how hard it was for her to have only one parent.
“I’m sorry,” I said again.
Later, I get into mind spirals of defensiveness. I mean, maybe she has only me to help her, but who do I have? (And I know how childish this sounds.)
What I want her to understand is that I’m barely keeping it together on the “have-to-dos”, like getting dinner on the table five nights a week and giving her rides when there’s no bus option at all. So yeah, I do need her to take responsibility for herself. If I do have extra time, I want to spend it doing something fun or meaningful, not driving her to school.
Right or wrong, selfish or not, while I absolutely want to be the best stepmom I can, it will not be at the cost of abandoning yoga or my dreams of competing in the Ironman World Championships in Kona as a pro triathlete.
And also: You’re fifteen! A lot of what I ask her to do is not because I don’t feel like doing it, but because she needs to take on more while she’s still living at home with a strong safety net.
I can feel myself withdrawing, holding back affection. Am I retreating into the bedroom because my well is empty? Or because I’m angry and trying to make a point? Sometimes it’s hard to know.
But also, fifteen! What a hard, hard age. She is supposed be fully absorbed in herself: She is trying to set the cement for who she will be as an adult and that requires reexamining everything she thought she knew and asking, “Was that just something I copied or accepted without knowing it? What is it that makes me me?” The school and social pressures on her are enormous—and that’s in addition to the stress of moving into a new home and starting at a new school last fall.
I kick myself every time she asks, with love, when she gets to see Daddy again and I turn it into a comparison against me; she’s not saying I am a lesser-than stepmom, I am doing that to myself. I am frustrated when I even think she would compare her responsibilities to mine; she’s a kid, I’m a mom, this is how it works!
I know A— needs a strong structure within which she can explore, make mistakes, and forge her own identity. And I know that I am the one to provide that for her. Sean is much better than I am at showing affection and will eagerly jump into spontaneity and fun. Actually, if he and I could stop arguing, we would perfectly compliment each other.
The structure I built for her while Dad was deployed doesn’t work now that he’s back. A— is pushing up against old walls, seeing which will break. And at the same time, she is looking to her dad to step into this process of parenting, to build up new walls and hold them for her so she is safe and knows love. I don’t know what our new family will look like. But I know I need to give it time, let the house creak and shift until it settles.
It’s been hard to talk about these things with Sean. But recently I was telling him how it feels when I’m showing up for her and she’s only about, “Where’s Dad?”
Sean laughed. “She does the same thing to me when you’re not around!” he said. “It’s always, ‘Where’s Kyra?’”
My heart fluttered. “Really?” I said. “She says that?”
“And she’s making you a cake for your birthday,” he said. “She was really insistent about wanting to do that for you.” My shoulders crumple and I think I might cry. I’ve been so warped by my anger that I’ve missed the most important thing: It’s not that I want to be right, it’s that I want them both to love me and it hurts like hell when they don’t.
Something else I don’t consider until much later: I didn’t think about how, when Dad came home, A— would also get less of me. For the last six months, I have thought only about myself and her. Now, some of the attention that used to belong to her is being drawn away be Sean’s presence.
Maybe I’ve been wrong, maybe it’s not about pushing aside the stepmom in favor of Dad. Maybe it’s that she had a single mom for six months and now both of her parents are back together and she, just like Sean and me, is trying to figure this out. She may not be pushing me out at all; she may just be trying to figure out how the remodel will accommodate her whole family. All of us. Together.