My children have gone back to school after a wonderful summer…my eldest to start college and my baby to start his junior year of high school. The inevitable bleakness of their departure has been substantially enlivened by the presence of my two new stepdaughters who moved in a couple of weeks ago. I really enjoy having these two blossoming people in my space, both physical and emotional. They’re not from my world at all, these two. Different upbringing, different experiences, different expectations of life, adults, the future. It makes me realize how the years of mothering my own children have smoothed the interactions between us into an intuitive, gentle dance where all the partners know the steps and can navigate the complexities of getting their needs met without a second thought.
Not so these two. They know the steps to their own mother’s dance, not mine. They don’t have any idea what to expect from me, or even what they want from me, let alone how to get it. It shows in their awkward courtesy, their unwillingness to share their real feelings or their desires with me. What an immense upheaval it must be for them, uprooted from their home to start a new chapter of their lives in a house and community they didn’t choose, under the eye of a woman whose only role in their lives so far has been to force them to share their father’s love.
This is an amazing experience for an introvert, most comfortable in quiet and solitude, at ease only in the presence of those she has known and loved for a very long time. Now there are two young, frightened, infinitely dear new people here, and I have to come out of my shell and figure out what they want and how to make them welcome. I have to find a way to let them know that I have no desire to trump their mother’s place but that I would be grateful and proud to be their friend, to help as much as they’ll let me. Of all the challenges I’ve faced in my unconventional life so far, this one is the biggest, the deepest, the best. These are not my children, and yet they are. I love their father, and so I love them. I can’t raise them; at 14 and 16 they’re already finished with that. They have a full set of habits already, skills acquired during the years I wasn’t there. My task is to learn to understand their signals, to become fluent in a language I was never taught.
And I must also avoid comparing them to my own children, who I know as well as I know myself. Of course I adore them—they’re mine, and I have brooded over them and wept over them and rejoiced with them since the day they were born. I wouldn’t trade a minute with them, and look forward to a long and close future with them as they build their own lives. But these two new daughters are an unknown quantity. Where my own children are an open book, these two are a mystery. How inadequate and powerless I feel when I am unable to connect. How easy it is to turn that into a judgment against them instead of owning my own anxiety and fear. This is quite a job for an introvert!
As the reality of being a stepmother starts to sink in, I’m beginning to understand what I have taken on, and the realization is both daunting and thrilling. How amazing to be able to share with my husband these last few years before his nestlings spread their wings and fly. What a test of myself and of what I believe about love and faith. What a chance, to share in these young women’s lives as a loving, interested presence with no axe to grind. I have nothing to prove, and thus nothing to lose. My only role is to love them and to offer them my friendship and support to the extent they allow. This is a gift—chaotic and scary and overwhelming though it sometimes feels to my introverted soul. This is where the rubber meets the road, where years of watching and studying and mulling must be turned to action. I am humbled and blessed by the opportunity.
©Mary Braden 2013