Stepmother in love

I work twice as hard for my stepson's love -- and it's worth it.

Published April 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Being a stepmother is an uphill battle. In fairy tales, literature and television, stepmothers are portrayed as cruel, selfish, unfair and usually insane. But life is rarely as black and white as it is in fairy tales. The life of a stepmother is definitely not so sharply defined. It's filled with frustration, love and a kind of pain that most people don't realize exists. In my mind, I can see a support group of stepchildren: Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella. Every famous put-upon waif is there, and I kick them all in the shins. They've made life very difficult for me.

My stepson Billy is a wonderful child. He is also a horrible child. Like all children, he jumps from wonderful to horrible with no predictable pattern or warning. He is moody. He has a sense of fairness that extends to everyone around him. He roots for the underdog. He is hyperkinetic and as clumsy as a newborn pup. He has big brown eyes that beg you for love and tell the whole world the state of his heart. He's more like me than the children I gave birth to. My evil stepmother membership card was revoked when I fell in love with him. It was impossible not to.

Nine years ago Billy's mother came to terms with the fact that she was gay. She left not only her husband, but Billy as well. Not because she'd found herself, but because she knew she was also a drug addict. She couldn't raise her son as well as his father could. For a long time Billy never knew when he would see her, although things are more regular now. She's been through a lot and Billy witnessed most of it from the sidelines. He's 12 now and still fiercely loyal to her, I think, because he has seen her pain and like most sons he wants to protect his mother. He loves her just because she is "Mom" and that's enough for him. Sometimes I think maybe he is trying to make up for all the awful things that have happened in her life. I can't prove that, but Billy is the kind of kid who will give his 5-year-old brother the candy bar he's been saving for a week. I think he'd give his mom a whole lot more if he could.

I am the woman who knows his favorite foods, tends his wounded knees and feelings and valiantly keeps my mouth shut over his choice of wardrobe. I'm the one who helps with that ridiculously detailed school project, gives him "the talk" over that C-minus on his report card and wakes up the minute he has a nightmare. I am all the things a mother is to any child, save one; I am not first in his heart. That place is reserved for his mother.

Billy isn't as sure of my love as my other children. He hasn't lived with his "real" mother since he was a toddler, but he knows he loves her best. With that childish logic of his, he sometimes reasons that therefore I must love my "real" children best. It's not true, but it affects our relationship all the same. Sometimes we dance around each other like two porcupines, scared of our own razor-sharp emotions.

All mothers have foul moods from time to time. A reasonably good mother can be a total grump for a day and not scar her children for life; her children are sure of their place in her affections. A reasonably good stepmother doesn't have this luxury. A bad day for a stepmother can usher in a week of insecurity for a stepchild. Too many bad days and you're looking at a lifetime of therapy bills.

They say that love is the answer, but I'm not sure I know the question. The fact that I love Billy is a wonderful thing. Here is this child who didn't put me through labor and yet I love him. Billy loves me too. But it hasn't made things any easier. If we didn't love each other -- if we only liked each other -- we wouldn't be so insecure. My bad moods wouldn't send him into a tailspin; his bad moods wouldn't awaken a gnawing guilt in me. If we only liked each other we could go through our days without stepping on each other's feelings because our feelings wouldn't be as large. When you are a stepmother in love, you work twice as hard for half the reward. When you are a stepchild, you want to make everyone happy and still be loyal to your "real" mom. Love complicates stepfamilies.

When people think of stepmothers they usually think in terms of the "sacrifice" it is to be one. I've had people, out of the blue, attempt to sympathize with me about how hard it must be to raise and love someone else's child. People just seem to assume that I find it harder to love him than to love the children who are "mine." These people are right, but not for the reasons they think. It's easy loving the kid; what's hard is always playing second fiddle to the woman who gave birth to him.

The gifts he makes in school for Christmas, Valentine's Day and Mother's Day always come home with her name on them. I suppose I should be glad that he trusts me enough to tell me how he wishes he could live with her and his dad, but it hurts to hear it. Sometimes, and this is the worst, he'll take a happy memory that should belong to me -- a shopping trip, a funny story -- and give it to her. In his mind, it's she, not I, who was there for all the fun.

I'm so jealous of that woman I could scream. She doesn't deserve all that unconditional love. I do. Sometimes I think those evil stepmothers of popular myth knew something that I didn't. They were cold and aloof out of self-preservation. Then I think of what his "real" mother is missing. She didn't get to read the first story he wrote. She didn't witness his first crush, the first time he beat a video game and every other first that has happened in his life since she left to live somewhere else. I get to experience all that. I get to watch him grow up. I get to share his childhood with him. She may get the presents and a stray memory or two, but I get all the real stuff.

When I get jealous or my feelings get hurt, I'll try to keep that in mind. The headaches, heartaches and feelings of insecurity are just the unlikely wrappings around a wonderful gift. I may not be the momma but most of the time I'm smart enough to realize that that doesn't mean I don't count. Whenever I look into Billy's eyes while he snuggles next to me on the couch, I know better. I may be playing second fiddle, but the music is beautiful.

By Arlene Green

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