A mother called me today. Actually, a stepmother. She is a little worried about Megan. She isn’t sure if she should be. And she doesn’t know if she even has a right to be worried. Could she come in? After all, I probably know Megan already since I am the school counselor.
I ask if Megan’s father will come also.
“Does he have to?” she wonders. “I don’t want to upset him if I’m worried for no good reason.”
I hesitate for a couple of reasons. First, I have been caught before in the middle of parental battles over a child’s welfare and I do not like being manipulated and used as a weapon. The fact that Megan has three parents can make being in the middle even more complicated. Besides, the parental rights of a stepparent are almost nil. Ethically, should I agree to talk with her without the permission of a parent?
Second, I made this same phone call myself ten years ago.
“Come in,” I answer. “I have some time this afternoon.”
Jane, Megan’s stepmother is correct. I do know Megan. She has been referred to me by her sixth grade teacher because of her loud, attention-seeking behavior and apparent lack of interest in getting her work done.
Once a week, for the past two months, I have observed Megan in one of my friend groups, organized to help smooth the sometimes rocky transition between childhood and adolescence in middle school. She alternates between pouty silences and exuberant goofiness and I still do not have a handle on what makes her tick. I know, however, as I think about her stepmother’s phone call, why I said yes.
Megan reminds me, to the point of pain, of Rosie.
Rosie was just ten when I married her father. At first, she called me Susie and wrote me love notes, leaving them on my pillow or on the table for me to find at breakfast. She and I made cookies and teased her father, and I taught her to use my sewing machine. We shopped together, giggling and comparing legs in fitting room mirrors. We redecorated her room, lavender, of course. We talked about her changing body and celebrated her first menses with sundaes.
I tried to be subtle as the soft drinks and snack foods in the cupboards were replaced by fruits and whole grain breads. On the weekends that she was not at her mother’s home, we planned family activities. I played board games when I would have preferred going for a long walk. The Visher’s book, How to Win as a Stepfamily, became my bedside companion, and I followed their advice and worked hard to let Rosie know that I wasn’t taking her father from her. I was a good stepmother, not an evil one.
Of course, I expected Rosie to have chores, to keep her room clean, to be on time for dinner. These were normal family expectations, weren’t they? And when Rosie forgot or just didn’t seem to care, I would tell Bob and ask for his help. “Could you tell her you want her room to be clean, too? So it isn’t always me?” I asked. And he said he would. And perhaps he did, but Rosie’s room became so cluttered and chaotic that I finally asked her to keep her door closed so I wouldn’t have to look at it as I passed by.
“I don’t understand,” I complained on night, an untouched meal at Rose’s place at the table. “Is this the way it was before we were married?”
We were eating without her for the second time in a week. “No phone call? Just comes in when she pleases?”
“I don’t remember. I guess I didn’t notice or care so much about the little things as you do. I thought we did pretty well,” Bob answered. And then he added, “Sometimes you make me feel like I did a really lousy job raising her.” We finished the meal in silence.
I began to notice other disturbing things. The way the back door was sometimes open in the morning. The fading aroma of brownies or muffins when I came home from work. Rosie’s new clothes never seen again after a first try-on. A occasional whiff of cigarette smoke in the basement. Evasive answers to my questions about after-school activities. Thumb-sucking blues. When I asked her what was going on, she stomped to her bedroom and slammed the door.
I told her father, “She is eating crap. She is smoking and sneaking out at night. She is trading clothes or giving them away. She is having kids in the house after school. She is sucking her thumb, for God’s sake!”
Bob sighed and turned away from me, “Why can’t you ever say something good about my daughter?” he wondered. I could not think of something good.
I called the school counselor, an acquaintance of mine. “I don’t want to interfere,” I said, “but I think Rosie might be in trouble… a new stepfamily, me, in particular. If you could keep an eye on her, perhaps let her father know if she’s having problems?”
“Rosie?” he repeated. “Oh yeah. Her teacher mentioned that she not getting work done. Said she would call and let you folks know. Rosie seems like a good kid. You two get along okay?”
“Yes. Most of the time. . . a few problems. . . .” It felt like a betrayal to say any more.
“It’s the hormones. I’m always getting calls from sixth grade parents. Girls, especially. Give her a few years. She’ll be okay.”
I was dismissed. The teacher did not call. After he saw her report card, Bob told Rosie he expected her to work harder.
About this time, I became the house detective. Under the guise of looking for laundry, I found myself searching her closet, finding bowls encrusted with unbaked cake dough, a well-licked spoons, dirty cupcake pans and abandoned cookie tins. Another day I found the crumpled chip bags stuffed into a desk drawer. I bent into her clothes basket and pulled my one pair of sexy honeymoon panties out of the heap of unwashed, forgotten discards.
And then I found her diary.
“Jackie is such a bitch. I hate her,” she had scribbled. “Bill came by today. I really love him. I hope he comes by tomorrow.”“Went to Mike’s house and had a ball. Bill was there, too, but he and Josie were playing kissy-face and ignored me. Shitheads.”“Can’t wait ‘til Friday. Told Dad I was staying over at Emily’s.”
Her diary was addictive. Daily, I would find a secret moment to go into her room, to look for it, to rifle through its pages searching for a new entry. Sometimes she would leave it out on top of her desk, carelessly tossed on top of the clothes and papers and books that were always piled there. Other times I would have to turn back the mattress or hunt through a book bag to find it. I began to suspect that she was playing a game with me with me, sending me messages, forcing me to be as rotten and unloving as she believed me to be.
“I hate her so much,” she wrote one day.
I couldn’t tell her father about the diary, about my reading it. Telling him would reveal too much about me. I feared for us, for our marriage.
In June, Rosie asked if she could have a birthday party. Twenty kids, she thought. Ice cream and Cokes and music in the basement party room. I urged Bob to say yes. At last, a request, so normal. For a week we planned and shopped and worried together. That night the chips and dip were set out, the stereo playing, the balloons and crepe paper floating by the time the partygoers began to arrive. Boys and girls said hello to us at the door and filed down the stairs, a silent, motley bunch, I thought. A little scared, I guessed.
“We should go down and see how they are doing,” I suggested an hour later. We had not seen any of the kids since they arrived. Instead, Bob called, “Ice cream,” down the stairway and we waited for the partygoers to meander up to grab their sundaes and then retreat into the rock and roll ocean below. One or two said thank you.
“Bob, they’ve turned off a lot of lights.”
He looked at the kitchen clock. “They’re only here for another half hour.”
He sat at the table reading a New Yorker, carefully folding back the pages one-by-one. We are talking about twelve-year olds, I heard him think. He glanced up and smiled and then returned to his article.
I could feel the beat of the bass through the floor. They were dancing.
Or more likely, standing around wishing they were dancing, the way kids always do. I allowed myself a moment of calm. Then I heard laughter from the backyard. Rosie had promised they would stay inside.
Bob had heard it too. “It’s probably hot down there.” He closed the magazine and stood up. “Guess I’ll walk the dog for a few minutes before we end this thing.”
I needn’t have tiptoed. The music rumbled up through the door and drowned any sound of my movement down the stairs and into the darkened hall. Ahead of me the back door was open and I could see figures silhouetted against a blue-black sky, a glowing tip of a cigarette arcing gently. Two boys sat in the doorway, their backs to me. They guffawed like old men in the midst of a good story. I listened.
“Then she said, ‘I’ll suck you if you’ll eat me.’”At first I thought he was speaking a foreign language. “She smelled like fish, just like the joke. Whew!”
The second boy laughed, in disbelief, I hoped, but I didn’t wait to hear what he answered. I went upstairs and sat down at the table and waited for nine o’clock.
When Megan’s stepmother comes in this afternoon, I will try to listen to her.
And if her story is anything like mine, I will let her know that she has a special role in her family. That she is an observer whose vision is not clouded by parental history, that her observations are valuable to Megan’s parents.
I will warn her, though, that she cannot bring about a change in her stepdaughter. How could Megan be so disloyal to her parents, to change what they have created just because a stranger asks her to?
Instead, Jane’s job will be to help her husband accept her as a partner, his partner. That while she is trying to learn to love Megan, and perhaps the learning going both ways, she is first and foremost his cheerleader as he goes about his job of being a parent, nurturing and providing structure which Megan needs now, more than she ever has before.
I will advise Jane to be clear with him about her own need to be a silent partner in this bifurcated parenting, and the two of them will talk behind closed doors and argue and compromise until they can agree on what they want their family with Megan to look like.
And then they will walk out to meet Megan, hand-in-hand, a team ready to support and love this child in the best ways they can devise.
And somewhere in all this jostling, Jane will create the role she will play in Megan’s life. Megan has two caring parents already; she may not need another.
What is left for a stepmother? Friend? Advisor? Coach? Housekeeper? Benign observer? And perhaps later, much later, years later perhaps, a different kind of mother, with all of the connections and trust and love that up to now have been so difficult to achieve? It is up to Jane. She can choose.
That is what Rosie taught me. That I had a choice. I found a calm moment the day after the party and told Rosie’s father what I had heard, what I feared. Then I stepped back, let her mother and father take on the responsibility of dealing with this angry little girl, entered into therapy with them and their daughter, a third adult who cared what was happening to her.
Then I chose to not be a parent to Rosie. I chose to be her friend, someday.
Now, ten years later, Rosie has grown up, and I am her friend and she is mine. Her parents and I are pleased with the person she has become, a responsible young mother and wife. Rosie lets me know every time we laugh together that she is glad I am in her life. And I tell her, “Me, too.”
That’s what I will tell Jane when she comes in this afternoon.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem