"Do you have children?” For the majority of the world this question is so easy to answer, it is almost a reflex. For me, this query kicks off a fairly sophisticated calculation in my head. Who’s asking? What is my relationship with the asker? How much of this do I want to get into?
Spies are trained to run this same brain path as a safeguard against revealing secret information. My position is only slightly less dangerous.
I’m a stepparent.
In the course of a lovely, one-hour ceremony in a small church I went from being a single gal with a cat to a wife with three kids, six, ten, and sixteen years old.
My best friend said “I cannot imagine you as a mom.”
I replied, “I’m not going to be a mom. They have a mom. I’m going to be an ancillary adult with no discernible purpose. I’m the appendix of parenting. But more charming.”
It was like starting a book on page 224. I didn’t know any of the characters, I barely knew the setting, and I sure as hell didn’t know the plot.
“Can I go to Pat’s house today?”
How would I know? Are Pat’s parents Ward and June Cleaver? Or people with a chainsaw collection and pets that keep disappearing? Will you end up stealing hubcaps if I let you go? What if they trigger your allergies? Do you have allergies?
I spent the entire first year of my marriage saying, “Ask your father.”
The first holiday season after our wedding, Robert decided I should spend a day alone with the kids to bond with them. As the teenager, Eric was convinced he needed another parent like a pig needs eye shadow and opted out.
That morning we had a couple of false starts, like when the jelly I gave them for their toast had a touch of mold in it. I tried to tell them it was a hedge against strep. No sale.
Angela and David and I had a good time wandering the mall, ending with chicken fingers and ice cream. But my rising heart nosedived when David announced he needed to use the restroom. All six years of him was adamant that he could use the men’s room unescorted. I was petrified. Is there a firm age on these things? Had the Internet been invented, I would have been Googling the hell out of the issue.
I instructed David to go in, do his thing, and come right back out. Do not speak to anyone. Do not make eye contact with anyone. If you need me, call me. I said this with the earnestness born of fear. He nodded solemnly and headed in.
I stood in front of the bathroom door, glaring at every man in the restaurant, daring them to give in to their bladders. Not on my watch.
After a few minutes of quiet, my watch was shattered by a desperate cry.
I had never before felt the combination of panic and adrenaline that flooded my system. I all but took the bathroom door off the hinges, charging into the small space with murderous intent.
I was prepared to confront the gang of kidnappers that everyone knows hangs out in mall restrooms. Instead, I found David, standing at the sink, rocking up on his toes to reach the faucet. He was waving his hands under the motion-activated water, the delight evident on his face.
“Look! I don’t have turn the water on and it comes on!”
As fast as the surge of energy poured through me it drained out, and I slumped against the door, barely able to stand. The red haze cleared my eyes and I managed a smile.
“That’s great, D. Just...great.”
There were many more moments of varying shades of panic in the ensuing years. There was yelling and tears and anger and sweet laughter and times of near perfect family love. I stumbled my way through, complete with lots of wrong decisions and bucket loads of self-doubt. In many ways, the kids and I grew up together.
I became someone I couldn’t even have envisioned for myself. Did I really make a blanket fort out of the living room furniture and crunch my spine lying on the floor to watch a Disney movie? Was that me, yelling myself hoarse and clapping frozen hands on soccer sidelines? Who was that woman, staring at the ceiling at midnight until I heard a key in the door and the reassuring sound of the refrigerator swinging open?
Yet, I never considered myself a parent. I had never given birth, never walked the floors with a fussy baby or been there for first steps and words. Step-parenthood is a gray designation that leaves you with one foot in each of the Mom/Not Mom camps. Thus, the difficulty in responding to a simple question about my parenting status.
When she was about eleven, Angie and I were at the grocery store when the cashier smiled at her and said, “You look just like your Mom.”
She smiled back and said, “Thank you.”
As we went out the door, Angie looked up at me and said, “Sometimes it’s best just to go along, isn’t it Maggie?”
Yes, Sweetie, it is.
Happy Mother’s Day to me.