Am I ready to be a stepmother at 21?

I love everything about living with my boyfriend. If only his daughter could say the same thing about me

By Emma Cline

Published February 1, 2011 1:32AM (EST)

I had only play-acted at domesticity with my college boyfriends: the one-month sublets over winter breaks, the air mattress in the dorm room that leaked so we woke half-touching the floor. It was new to me to come into someone's fully formed life, moving in with my 34-year-old boyfriend after college at the age of 21. David owned furniture. He cooked and cleaned for himself, watered plants that he arranged with his curated objects, the mouse bones and World War II leg splint and his daughter's drawings. I was giddy with the idea of settling down. I bought my first cookbook, marked it optimistically with Post-its.

"Honey," he said gently, "if you mark every page it's not so helpful anymore."

I cooked in the clumsy way of novices -- expensive and time-consuming, totally illogical, going to the corner store three times, sheepishly holding up leeks or butter. But I was proud, plating my first risotto nervously in his mismatched wooden bowls, my one nice dish.

"This is gross." Anna sits across from me at the table, listlessly pushing her dinner around with her spoon, looking everywhere but at me. (Anna, like David, is is not her real name.) "I don't want any."

"Anna, it's good. Very good. Emma made it. Eat four bites."

"Egggh, it's yucky. I don't like it."

I know from being around children all my life that this is totally normal. But I felt irrationally hurt. I was only 14 years older than she was, just out of college, dating a man in his 30s who looked like my kin, both of us pale and redheaded. We spent our days so richly, the morning espresso we paid for in change, the white-papered charcuterie, the fancy knives we scrounged for at yard sales. David brushes my hair. He pedals me to acting class on his bike, both of us lustily singing old mountain songs. We sneak into hotel pools and eavesdrop to get dialogue for our short stories, take the moped to the market and come home with so much fruit it molds before we can eat it all.

But when Anna comes, four days a week, I feel at loose ends. I am quiet at dinner. I don't engage. She is needy, hanging off her father and looking straight at me, watching me when I kiss David quickly on the mouth. She is upset when I wear her father's clothes, so she makes us tags for the drawers of the filing cabinet where we keep our stuff, her father's reading "David ONLY." One night I wake in the strange blue of our bedroom to see her standing barefoot on the carpet.

"Can I sleep with you guys?" she asks.

I squint at her. "I don't think so," I say. She turns and leaves, and in the morning glares at me across the table.

Children's attentions, mercurial and unformed as they are, mean something to me. I feel pity when I see people talk clumsily to children, courting their approval in the wrong ways, desirous of the blessing of it. We imagine that children have a mystical ability to sense our core intentions, our goodness, like the animals that growl at the villain in movies, lick the hero's hand. (I like men whom animals like, who can tumble with big dogs.) In my idea of myself, children like me. I have five younger siblings and was always corralling them, seducing their attentions. I receive the mysterious celestial smiles of infants, making their mothers laugh quizzically and onlookers imagine a benevolent maternal future. But now a 7-year-old girl and I were not getting along.

My mother tells me, over a colander of wet cherries we eat absent-mindedly, that dating someone older is good for you, it's great. She knows I wouldn't be happy dating a man my own age. When she was in her 20s, she turned down a marriage proposal from a boyfriend who was almost twice as old as she was. But still they speak on the phone every couple of months, and she is happy and far away when she hangs up.

"It's great to be with someone older," she says. "But he has a child, and I know you, Emma. You'll want to be first. But you can't be. Children will always be first."

He is a good father. He lopes at her, making faces until she shrieks with pleasure. He builds her a bunk bed and a science lab. When she asks for a necklace with a pony on it, he finds a horse bead and sits up late at the table, knotting it carefully. He works at her school two days a week, and in the grocery store her classmates run up to him, clutch his legs. I love these things about him, his tenderness and care, the shape of him and Anna walking together, of them chattering in the early mornings. I see also that it is separate from me. At my worst, I think: If I dated someone my age, I wouldn't have to feel like my time was always limited. We could travel. I get a drunken phone call from my friends still in college while Anna is asleep in bed in the other room. My friends are laughing and shouting affectionately. It had been a difficult day with Anna, and there suddenly is the distance between my life with her and her father and my life as a young person. I wouldn't feel guilty about swearing, about my cigarettes on the counter, about sleeping late. She asks her father why I get to leave my shoes under the table when I ask her not to leave her Crocs in our room.

"My father's room," she corrects me.

"No," I say, "our room."

Finally, her father and Anna and I have a talk. She cries, embarrassed, won't look at us. She says, "Why does my dad tell you everything?" I can feel so clearly how terrifying this must be to her, how confusing. She has never known her parents together, shuttles obediently back and forth between their houses.

He says to me that he knows it's hard. He says, we'll work on it.

I think of idyllic young couples, how their sense of life expands over their time together, how they watch their contemporaries change and grow and settle into themselves. How they choose one day to start a family. I know our narrative together isn't traditional. I didn't want to be with a man who already has a family. But I find in strange ways we become our own family. That there are choices left to me.

In June, I take Anna to the Jelly Belly factory, out past an auto mall in Fairfield, Calif. In the car she is excited, squirming in the seat belt and sitting on her hands. I tell her about the field trips I took there when I was her age, about the whole busload of third-graders singing songs from "Grease." I sing a little bit from the song at the end, the one with a lot of wop-babba-loop-bop. She is enthralled, eager to be part of it. She makes me sing it again, slower, so she can start to pick up the words, and she chimes in quietly, then enthusiastically.

"You've really never seen 'Grease'?"

"No," she says, embarrassed.

I reach over tentatively and go to smooth her hair, move it behind her ears. My hand stops before it gets to her hair, and her face goes blank and distant, all of a sudden bored, watching the passing cars and dry hills.

There's a long line when we get there. A family with four girls, maybe 9 to 14 years old, smile at Anna, at me. They wear long homemade dresses in the same fabric, ribbons in their hair. They look like their parents, obviously belong to the tribe of their family. I am wearing jean shorts and a loose linen shirt, trying to get my boyfriend's daughter to like me more. I think how it must look to them, a young woman like me and this girl. They keep turning around in line to watch us, and I wonder if they are trying to figure out our relationship. I see the mother glance at the inch of skin showing between my shirt and shorts, and I straighten involuntarily, pull the hem down. Anna keeps running off to get samples of fudge or booger-flavored Jelly Bellys, running back to me. I put my arm around her, eat the samples she brings back, grubby and melted from her little hands. She doesn't want to wear the paper hat. She is anxious to get to the front of the line. She leans on me, her hot forehead, her thin corn-silk hair. I say, Babe, we all have to wear the hats. They won't let us go if we don't wear the hats. And she puts her hat on, patiently lets me adjust the band around her forehead, tug it down in the back. She itches at it, but keeps it on.

The family can tell I am not baby sitting. All they say to me, finally, is, "She's beautiful."

And at the end of the tour we both clamor to see a picture of us, taken at the beginning, on either side of a huge jelly bean. We are laughing and looking at each other, embarrassed, pleased. We look like some weirdo family, gathered around this lurid stuffed jelly bean with a face, but we are happy and game and we clutch at his chubby arms like people who love each other.

Emma Cline

Emma Cline's work has appeared in Tin House, and is forthcoming in Post Road.

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