Fairy tales would lead you to presume that a woman occupies only a few roles in life: maiden, mother, and witch. And stepmothers, always wicked, are usually more witch than mother. Perhaps my step children believed that of me at the beginning of our relationship, but I've worked hard to dispute the archetype. I received flowers from them yesterday, along with this note: "Happy belated birthday and early Mother's day to the best stepmom in the world! We love you - Sam and Madeleine."
Let me tell you, not a single bloom I've planted in my garden has made my heart swell like the sweet bouquet I received from these wonderful humans.
Sam was an awkward teenager when Marc & I got married, and Madeleine was struggling in her first year at college. Both of them were still reeling from their parents' divorce, so I wasn't exactly a welcome presence in their lives at that time. Sam shuttled between our house and his mom's, and his time with us usually overlapped with my kids, who were also navigating two households. Sam wasn't used to having younger siblings, and I'm pretty sure he was unaccustomed to taking on some of the responsibilities I expected of him at our home. I bet there were plenty of times when I was dubbed "wicked stepmother" when I asked him to clean up a mess or remind him to take out the garbage or figure out how to respectfully share the bathroom with a younger, much grosser brother. I'm not sure how or when I managed to gain Sam's trust - or when he actually learned to make a sandwich on his own - but I can tell you that being able to take part in his career/college guidance process was certainly a turning point for me in our relationship. Sam is an incredibly gifted artist, and being able to offer my perspective on the value of pursuing an artistic career, which was very different than his more science-oriented parents, made all my years in arts career counseling feel like preparation for that monumental opportunity. Sam has since graduated with a degree in Game Art & Design and is now working as a video game artist in Chicago. I don't claim credit for his successes, but it certainly has been a privilege to witness how he and his work have matured over the years and to realize that I played a part in his journey in becoming a professional artist, not to mention an honorable and responsible young man.
Madeleine was a tougher nut to crack. But I think that's because she was guarding a really tender heart that had been wounded terribly by the breakup of her family when her parents divorced. Even though I wasn't responsible for that damage, my presence in her and her dad's rapidly changing life was probably salt in the wound in those early days. Madeleine ended up in and out of college, in and out of relationships, in and out of jobs, and in and out of several different living situations. I tried to be a supportive presence but often felt rebuffed and unwelcome when I offered insights or advice. I think she finally understood that I really was invested in her life when I offered to courier her, her cat, and her belongings to Montreal for a sojourn at Concordia University. But it wasn't until a couple years ago - when she lived with us and worked as a part-time nanny for my kids - that our relationship blossomed into something more meaningful. You see, I think Madeleine relished the role she could play as Worldly Big Sister. I might go so far as to say that inhabiting that responsibility gave her the strength she needed to launch herself into adulthood. She carted those kids around, snuggled with them, crafted with them, and warned them to get their act together so they wouldn't get in trouble. She helped me prepare healthy dinners and then made clandestine visits to McDonald's for french fries. She helped them with their homework and taught them how to binge-watch TV. I have no doubt that my kids shared stuff with Madeleine that they never shared with me - because she was their big sister, not their mom, and not just their babysitter. It was during this time that Madeleine and I started to share more with each other too. I talked about my daily frustrations and hopes for the future, and she listened and trusted me with her own. We bonded over things her dad did that annoyed us both, and she told me things she probably never told her parents - because I wasn't her mom, and I wasn't her sister, but we did finally figure out how to be friends. It brings tears to my eyes to write that, because now that Madeleine is living on her own and in a stable relationship and holding down a steady job, I realize how much I miss her presence in our daily lives and how very honored I am to be a valued part of hers.
I know my role in Sam and Madeleine's lives is far from complete, and I look forward to being present as their journeys continue to unfold. One thing I can say now as I look back is that those fairy tales missed an opportunity to tell some valuable truths about the privilege of being a stepmother and gaining the trust and love of children who capture your heart like they're your very own. Because they really, truly are.
To all my fellow stepmothers out there, I wish a very special "Mother's Day!" And to all the kids still learning to trust and love them - don't believe the fairy tales.