While in line at Whole Foods, the chatty 4-year-old sitting in the cart in front of me says,
“I’m getting a new foot mommy.”
“A foot mommy?”
Her mother turns to me and clarifies, “My ex is remarrying; she’s getting a stepmother.”
“Oh,” I laugh, offer my congratulations to the little girl and give a knowing look to the mother.
I don’t know this woman, but driving home I think about her, and all the other mothers and stepmothers, trudging through territorial minefields this Mother’s Day.
I imagine this woman when she first became a mother. She believed, at the time, that this was her forever family. But it wasn’t meant to be. After a while, she no longer got enough from him; or he enough from her. She discovered that he was selfish or dishonest or disloyal or dysfunctional. She stopped loving him; or still loved him – but couldn’t live with him. He stopped loving her or couldn’t live with her. Whatever the reason – her quintessential family was shaken, redefined, and would now be stretched beyond recognition when he remarries.
Learning that her beloved child will have a stepmother, she steels herself, as if to withstand the punch from a heavyweight boxer. She agonizes over another woman falling in love with her child. And worse, her child falling in love with another woman. She will no longer be the sole source of motherly love. She will need to share.
She anticipates attending her daughter’s first dance recital, the pride of seeing those chubby legs positioned in an awkward demi-plie. And then she sees the stepmother there too, grasping a bouquet of yellow roses, their thorns piercing her sacred terrain. She imagines sitting in the bleachers at her daughter’s first lacrosse match. Clapping when she scores a goal, she spots the stepmother giving her a high-five.
And then I think of the anonymous stepmother. She fell in love with a man, and with him came a child. She comes to love the child – always mindful that she is loving the progeny of another. She will put the child first, knowing she will always be second. She will not take her to the opening day of kindergarten. Nor to the orthodontist for braces. She will not be the healer of broken arms or broken hearts. She will not be the first hug after graduation. Nor the one who prepares the teenager for her first date.
She will never know what it was like to give this child life – to feed her from her breast. She becomes accustomed to her seat in the second row and readies herself for the day when the mother, not her, and the father walk their bride down the aisle.
Both mom and stepmom will miss moments. Times of joy that are hoarded; tears dried with the other’s hand. There will be instants of contention; advice they don’t agree with; rules they find too liberal or too onerous.
And in my fantasy, both mother and stepmother work to hide their jealousy. And they remind themselves that freeing a child to love another without guilt is the ultimate manifestation of motherly love.
Laura Black is an author. This column first appeared in the Baltimore Sun.
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