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It Takes a Village (aka Stepmothers & Other Strangers)

Updated: Apr 2

I met over lunch with my ex-husband’s new wife the other day. My son’s new stepmother. In fact, it was I who suggested the meeting (an example of my outwardly taking the high road while the smaller, more reactionary voice in my head screams no, no, don’t do it, you must hate and distrust her, and cling to that feeling of betrayal and resentment!).

Ugh.

Of course, when I married my ex years ago, I never imagined I would say the words “stepmother”. One wouldn’t, right? One imagines ‘til death do us part’ and all of that. But life sometimes (often) has other plans.

She – the stepmother – is nice enough. Kind, smart, not much younger than my ex so not a whole ‘new younger model’ that some men seem to go for. And as I have told my son when she first appeared on the scene “You can never have too many people love you.” Something my brother’s late wife used to say (she was full of wisdom that we still often quote).

The challenge lies in living the words beyond simply saying them, and therein lies the rub.

I really did want to be married. To have a life partner, someone with whom I could share memories and build dreams. I still want that. But our partnership was never a fully healthy one, a fact of which I was painfully aware years before it was no longer at all possible to stay married.

But still I became a mother to my beautiful son, who might have been why I got and stayed married in the first place. Thank goodness for him! I think motherhood for me has been partly about having someone to love as fully as I have it in me to love, which is a lot. Maybe too much for some folks. With a child, they can perhaps absorb more love, care, attention, and it helps them thrive.

And it really does take a village. I got divorced when my son was in preschool so have been a single parent most of my now 18 year old son’s life. I worked full time for most of my parenting years, and part time for most of the others. But I relish the memories from when my son was a baby and we lived in Brooklyn, and we would spend long lazy summer days strolling the neighborhood and playing in gorgeous Prospect Park (for my money, the nicest urban park I have ever experienced), learning to say “truck” and watching kitties and dogs on the streets and other kids on the playground. My mother, my sister, a few babysitters and lots of friends helped us through the years, from pre- preschool to moving back to the west coast, divorce, finding the right schools, new jobs, sold houses, the whole wild cornucopia that makes up our lives.

I have tried my best to be a present and mindful parent, to practice what I preach, which gets more challenging as babies become toddlers, kids, adolescents, and then teens, fully equipped with their own opinions, tastes, friends, and ways of looking at the world. I am hoping – and the evidence looks good thus far – that my son has absorbed some bits of wisdom from me; I can say for sure that he is a kind person, extremely driven, smart, responsible and funny. He has wonderful friends who are also kind and smart and has had one girlfriend for the last 4 years aka all of high school. I can confidently say that he is doing great thus far and I could not be prouder. As long as he is thriving, everything else is gravy.

I could not have done it, raised this wonderful young man, without the cast of characters to whom I earlier referred, and his life would be poorer if I had either by intent or circumstance kept any of those folks from participating in his life. That includes his father, who was largely absent for much of his early years but, I think aided by the grounding influence of his new wife, my son’s stepmother, has been an infrequent but consistent presence in his young adult life. Which is of course good.

Yet I still partly choke on that word – “stepmother.”

“Should I go?” I remember my son asking a year or so back when a calligraphied envelope that screamed ‘wedding invitation’ arrived at our house before I had heard anything about it. Through initially clenched teeth I said “Weddings are joyous and if it makes your dad happy, that makes him a better person, and if he is a happier person, he can be a better dad, and that is good for all of us.” Ugh, did I really just say that out loud, all that Hallmark sentimentality? Shit, fuck, I hate everything.

“Yes, go!” I said with a smile, remembering a Sex & the City episode where the world’s fattest twins, 2 brothers, married 2 very lovely, slender women, and Carrie remarked on how men always find new partners, seemingly no matter the man’s physical, emotional or financial status. Whereas women over the age of 40 or so seem to flounder when it comes to finding new mates. Thus far I am among that group though there is always hope…

Suffice to say, the day of my son’s father’s wedding I made plans to be busy with friends doing something fun and distracting and that involved plenty of wine. My son was trotted out to be in the wedding, decked out in an overly priced, destined to be worn one time only suit in tow, and off they went.

I have worked hard to stay mindful, positive, and inclusive, even when grumbling under my breath about my son’s dad and new stepmother. Even when, after a week of homework, cooking, trash can duty, bathing the dog, cleaning the bathroom, paying the bills, and all the humdrum of daily life, my ex and his new wife whisk my son away to go buy a fancy new car or to go see a hot ticketed Broadway show.

But I remind myself that it has partly been my constant presence – my son has never spent the night with his dad with perhaps 2 single exceptions in 18 years - my dependability, perhaps even my sometimes cheesy words of wisdom, that have helped ground my son and give him the security to reach farther than I could at his age, to excel academically, to feel confident and brave, safe and seen.

And yes, I do truly believe that you cannot have too many people love you. That if she is a good and kind person than my ex’es new wife, my son’s stepmother, improves all of our lives, and that is undeniably a good thing. If there is one thing parenting forces one to do it is to practice what you preach; any parent or teacher can attest that kids watch what you do more than listen to what you say, which is sometimes a horrifying thought (cut to me having a solo, whooping James Brown dance party in the kitchen, glass of wine in hand).

The funny thing is, by taking the high road despite the devilish voices in your head, the moralistic feelings actually begin to seep into one’s own bones and heart and mind. It makes one’s soul feel taller, broader, more ample - there is no denying that it just feels good to be kind, to be open hearted. And that feeling is one that I hope we can all get more and more used to until it becomes a national habit. I know, call me a dreamer.

So I will continue to be open to my son’s new stepmother (though the jury is still out on her invitation that I come to their house for dinner sometime - I do have my limits after all). And though Hallmark may have nothing on me, I have lived the truth that, if one can remain open and welcome to it – which can be a challenge even for an actual grown-up - it really does take a village.

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