They say step-mothering is a thankless task.
They are wrong.
Maybe I just have an amazing kid. Maybe what I lacked in uterine contractions I gained in on-the-job training. Or maybe Buddha was right when he said, “Cease expecting, and you have all things.”
I certainly thought I knew what to expect when I married a man with a 10-year-old daughter. I'd been a champion babysitter. Mary Poppins on steroids. Children would actually beg their parents to go out so I could baby-sit.
I had the Awesome Aunt thing down, too. My nieces and nephews viewed me as a five-year-old trapped in an adult's body. I was up for a shift at the Play-Doh Fun Factory anytime, day or night. At my place, couch cushions were for building forts, not sitting. I'd create “treasure hunts” with a trail of notes and prizes hidden around the house, and blow basketball-sized bubbles from a single piece of Bazooka.
By the time I got a puppy named Spencer, it was official. I was The Coolest Grown-Up on Earth.
So, when I met John and heard about Ann, I was psyched. At 40, ovarian odds were I'd never bear a child of my own. But with Ann, I could be a mother – without going through labor, teething, or diapers. Score!
Because John lived in Seattle and I lived in New Hampshire , our relationship began slowly. A mutual friend gave John my e-mail address, so we started writing, sometimes three times a day. Two months later, he came to meet me, and six weeks after that, I flew to Washington .
I was actually more nervous meeting Ann than John. After all, I'd gotten to know John pretty well through his letters. He'd told me a lot about her, but I knew if Ann and I didn't click, John and I were…what's the word I'm searching for? Oh, yeah… doomed.
While I waited in John's apartment, he went to pick up Ann. It was like a combination blind date (“I hope we like each other”) and audition (“So, you wanna be my stepmom…”). I had pit stains the size of dinner plates. I could hear the rattle of John's key in the door, and Ann's sweet voice relaying a story about what happened in school that day.
This was a Now-or-Never Moment. In she came – all long hair and glasses and braces. “Hello,” she chirped with a shy smile. I knew at that instant that it's possible to love two people at the same time.
Within minutes, Ann and I were talking like we'd known each other for years. She was funny, smart, and loving; despite the pain of her parents' split (she told me that weekend over ice cream cones, “I couldn't take another divorce”). And the spookiest part of all? Ann reminded me of me growing up.
Aside from our shared interests in swing music and baking, we both loved old movies. During my stay, we watched “Singin' in the Rain,” and in the months to come, ripped through all six “Thin Man” films, went on a Hepburn binge (Katharine & Audrey), and discovered Buster Keaton.
I wanted to marry them both. John proposed during a visit the next month.
Ann's first trip to New Hampshire came three weeks later. She loved the snow, the neighborhood, and of course, Spencer sealed the deal. I was fun, but c'mon… a dog? During her visit, I asked Ann to be one of my bridesmaids.
Everything was so easy. It would always be this easy, right?
Hey, what's that noise? Oh, right. It's the Reality Police. Breaking down the door of my naiveté with their battering ram.
Even in the happiest of circumstances, blending lives is messy. Yes, Ann wanted to be part of what she called “a real family,” but all of the giving up seemed to come from her end – she left her school, friends, and the only life she'd known “just because you and Dad fell in love.”
She was angry. Who could blame her? And I was insecure enough in my new role to take it personally when she wasn't having a blast 24/7. We decorated her room. Signed her up for riding lessons. Adopted a guinea pig. And yet, there were many nights when she would cry herself to sleep. I didn't know what to do.
Then, one day six months into the marriage, Ann and I were expressing our mutual annoyance with each other. Exasperated, I blurted out, “Look, I don't get it. I've been trying so hard to make you feel happy here, and you don't seem happy!” Ann (channeling Buddha) replied, “Stop trying so hard.”
Wait a minute. “Trying hard” had gotten me everything I'd ever wanted: a business, a house, and now, a family. How could not trying be the way to maternal bliss? Yet I knew she was right. I couldn't “make” Ann happy. That was the thankless task. And it left us both feeling miserable.
I stopped trying so hard. I let go of my expectations about what kind of mom I should be, or how Ann should feel. We just started being (tah-dah!) ourselves. And in doing that, we became (as Ann now jokingly puts it) “one of the least dysfunctional families” she knows.
Jeannie MacDonald is a freelance writer, wife, and mother of one, who lives on the New Hampshire seacoast.”