I was 24 when I met my husband. A unique series of events landed me (literally) at his door, and when he smiled at me for the first time, I felt as if my heart had been jump-started. We knew almost instantly that we were meant to be together.
One night early on in our courtship, he sat me down and told me there was something I should know. “I’m divorced,” he said.
Okay, I thought. Not a deal breaker.
“And I have children.”
It’s not that I didn’t like children; at the time, I made my living as an elementary school teacher. But according to the timeline I’d mapped out in my mind, I wouldn’t be having my own children for a long while yet. Marrying a man with kids would throw a heavy-duty monkey wrench into my best-laid plans.
“Do you have a picture of them?” I asked.
He produced a wallet-sized snapshot of two little girls in matching dresses, one three and one four, smiling brightly at the camera. The older one had dark hair and a sweet-cheeked Eskimo face. The younger one was lighter and still round with baby fat, but she shared her sister’s smile.
They were lovely.
My limited experience had shown that to be with someone you love, sometimes you have to make compromises. You learn to let go of the little things — the gossipy best friend, the obsession with fly-fishing — and accept the bigger ones. This was how my own parents, one observant and one firmly not, had lived in tandem together, mostly happily, for three decades. If I wanted to marry this man, it would mean chucking my timeline and diving into parenthood right off the bat.
I looked from the little faces in the picture back up to his and knew I’d already made my decision. We were married a few months later.
Not What I Bargained For
According to Jewish tradition, the first year of marriage is a rich time for couples, allowing them to iron out the details of making a home together while growing in intimacy and connection and enjoying their special time alone. With Naomi and Arielle as part of the equation, our first year of marriage did not quite fit the mold. When the girls came to stay with us we were in full parent mode, devoting most of our energy and attention to them. Any free time we had was spent caring for them, getting them dressed, putting them to sleep and shuttling them from their house to ours and back again. Our social life was cramped, our plans compromised, and our time alone piecemeal. The reality of step-parenthood quickly blew the romantic haze away with the force of a hurricane.
The reality of step-parenthood quickly blew the romantic haze away with the force of a hurricane.
Even when the girls were not with us, we had to make decisions with them in mind. Moving to Israel after our wedding was out of the question. We had to find a place to live within a certain distance of New York where the girls lived. Exploring Jewish communities on the West Coast or down South was simply not an option for us. Accustomed to picking up and going wherever the wind took me in my single-gal days, being forcibly rooted felt like a jail sentence.
Then there was the money. Like it or not, a good chunk of whatever my husband earned went to the girls. Intellectually, knew it was rightfully theirs, but I couldn’t help but think of how much easier it would be for us if child support was not part of the picture.
A few months into our marriage, I found myself on hands and knees in the middle of the night, scrubbing the bathroom after one of the girls had a physics-defying bathroom episode. While my husband facilitated a quick pajama-change in the next room, I looked down at the sponge in my hand and thought, This was so not what I signed up for.
I never had to consider others in my decision-making process before I got married, nor make serious sacrifices for anyone, let alone children that were not even mine. Like a thief, resentment crept in. I didn’t like sharing my husband, his attention, his time, or his money. I didn’t like having to compromise my own plans and desires. Being a stepmother was a nice idea in theory, but in practice, it was a drag.
I became irritable and snappish whenever the girls came to stay with us, and in my heart, I distanced myself from the children.
But what amazed me is that the girls didn’t seem to notice. From the beginning, they opened their hearts to me with abandon, with no trace of jealousy that I was taking so much of their father’s attention; I was just someone else to love them. They would curl into me like kittens when we read together, and bring me projects and pictures that they made for me in school. Even when I lost my patience and stormed around the house, they would quietly give me my space until I was calm; then they would ask if they could help me make dinner. Once in a while I was able to soften, but mostly I stewed, deliberately ignoring that when it came to handling our blended family, I was more a child than they were.
Then I got pregnant.
Like most new mothers, I was both fearful and excited about bringing a new little person into the world. As for the girls, they were thrilled. Throughout the pregnancy, they would touch my belly and whisper to the baby inside. They came up with lists of possible names (my suggestion of “Cookie Monster” was unanimously ruled out), and grew more and more excited their soon-to-be-sibling’s arrival drew closer.
How could they give their hearts away so easily? Didn’t they see him as a threat, a competition for attention?
The day after my son was born the girls came to the hospital to see him. They stared down at him with awe and wonder, touching him lightly and smiling into his little face. They held him with unbelievable care and giggled at his sleeping noises. Instantly, they were in love.
How could they give their hearts away so easily? How could they just accept this baby into their lives? Didn’t they see him as a threat, a competition for attention? How could they not see what they were losing?
I, meanwhile, felt the urge the build up the walls around “my” family. In my eyes, the girls’ presence cast a shadow over what should have been a special bonding time for my husband, our new son, and me.
My Mother's Love
A few months later, my mother passed away. I was devastated, and felt as if there was suddenly a gaping hole in my spirit. Aside from my siblings, who else could have understood, really, what it meant to lose such unabashed, unconditional love? It broke my heart to think that my babies would never know her or the amazing things she did for her family.
The girls felt the loss intensely. From the time they came into my life, they considered my mother as much a flesh-and-blood grandmother as the real thing. My mother, in turn, loved them completely, and took every opportunity to make life an adventure for them. She would tape some wrapping paper to the table, shake up a bottle of Bisquick and transform her kitchen into a “Dora the Explorer Pancake Party”. She took the girls to the Big Apple Circus and on their first Subway ride. Mom even made a visit to the American Girl Store so exciting that we all forgot the biting cold as we walked the streets of Manhattan. She made sure the girls knew how much she loved them, telling them constantly and showering them with affection. As I watched her love my stepdaughters, I could see her weaving magic into their memories, the same magic I recalled from my own childhood.
The following spring my second son was born. Between planning his bris and the wild, exhausting transition of having a new baby in the house, I barely registered that Mother’s Day was coming up. I would have forgotten about it completely if Naomi had not approached me with a card.
“I know you’re not my real mother,” the card said, “but I love you like a real mother.”
I was amazed.
They had known so much confusion, so much loss, these girls, and yet they still had the strength to keep their hearts open. I had acted, in my worst moments, like a real-life Evil Stepmother, in my best like a petulant kindergartener, but my stepdaughters loved me anyway.
After becoming a stepmother, I was too busy focusing on what I was losing to realize how much I’d gained.
Suddenly, I remembered a conversation I had with my mother that last year, when she and my father had taken the girls on a late-night run to Toys R Us. Mom was undergoing chemo and was almost bedridden, but wanted to get the girls Chanukah presents.
“Thank you,” I said to her one time after she had arrived home.
“What for?” Mom shrugged. “These are my grandchildren.”
It was as simple as that. She loved the girls because they were given to her to love. She didn’t see them as an inconvenience or a drain on her bank account; she saw them as an opportunity.
I had been so blind. After becoming a stepmother, I was too busy focusing on what I was losing to realize how much I’d gained. My stepdaughters were a gift, straight from God to me. I realized I was lucky to have them; not only were they sweet, good girls, but they had given me the finest education in what it meant to love.
The same opportunity my mother recognized could still be mine, if I took it before it was too late.
Since then, my resentment has been replaced with joy, gratitude and even humor. The girls are not my real daughters, but I love them as if they were. And they know it. All of my children adore each other and the house is filled with laughter when everyone is together. Finally, we are truly a family.
More than that, I no longer have to worry that my babies will never know the wonderful things my mother did; they have two big sisters who are more than happy to tell them all about it.