Friday, January 13, 2006

Ten Years After?

I wrote an essay years ago on being a stepmother. It has gotten me more response than any other single thing I’ve ever written. I didn’t try to publish it anywhere but my webpage, but since then it’s been published in a couple of newspapers and periodically someone writes me and asks me if they can put it on a website about parenting and/or stepparenting. I always say yes.

I get an average of about an email a week.

They always say ‘Thank you’. Often in the subject line. They are usually a lot like this one:

I just read your stepmother essay online. I cant stop crying right now. Tears are pouring down and I feel inexplicably sad. Your words are so true. I am 33, soon 34. I am engaged and common law with my fiance who has three children 10, 11 and 13 - boy, boy, girl.

Being their stepmother IS the hardest thing I have ever done. It sometimes makes me want to run. I fantasize sometimes about having a partner without kids, no baggage, free to start a life with only the two of us.

I guess I just wanted to say thanks. Although you describe a tough, often thankless job, (and it made me cry!) I feel good knowing there's someone out there feeling these feelings. I am glad I am not alone.

Bob says to me that I should do a follow-up essay. A couple of days ago I came home to a phone message from Adam telling me about something that was bothering him and asking me to call him back. I called my kid back and we talked awhile. He’s at college and doing really well. He’s just my kid now. I’m lucky because of who he is and how he lives his life. He’s still the person who can get under my skin faster than anyone else in the world. And I suspect I can get under his skin just as fast.

I could write an essay about how well it all turned out. A happy ending.

I don’t want to, though. The women who are writing me…a lot of them will not have happy endings. Second marriages where children are involved are more likely to fail than first marriages. A lot of times it’s money. It’s hard to send money to support someone else’s kid. Hard to wait for money to raise someone else’s kid.

Not all kids are my Adam. Not all of them are smart, funny people who make a lot of the right choices. Not all of them would make any parent, biological or step, happy. Sometimes the situation is so complicated that from the outside, it’s hard to see how it could make anyone happy.

So if I write an essay called Ten Years After, I’m afraid I will steal consolation from the people who write me. I will make them feel that I’m different from them. That they are alone. I don’t think my writing is going to change the world. Very little writing does. But I like to think that I have provided a bit of consolation.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with you here, Maureen. I don't think you're robbing anyone of consolation if you follow up with your own happy ending.

I wasn't a stepmother--I did the opposite. I gave my son a stepfather. That has its own set of omigods. We, too, have had a happy ending, although I know that's not the case for everyone in our situation, either. But in the depths of every crisis, the knowledge that a happy ending was possible was what kept me going.

When you're in the maelstrom, one of the main things you ask yourself is, Is it always going to be like this? Is there any possibility that it will ever get better?

I think that telling your story ten years on will hold out hope to other women, which might well help them make their own happy endings. But if they don't know that everything turned out well for you, they might not try as hard--they might give up, figuring what the hell. You know?

January 14, 2006 6:25 AM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

I'm with Pat. I'm going through my own set of familial maelstroms right now, and one of the things that keeps me going is hearing the stories of families who have come out the other side. They don't guarantee that ours is going to be one of that number, but on a day when I want to file off my name and join the circus, the suggestion that this is just one part of a long continuum is hugely comforting.

I'd love to read "Ten Years After."

January 15, 2006 4:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read your essay on being a step-mother this morning. It was beautiful. I am not a step-mother myself, but I am a step-daughter.

I have a good relationship with my step-mother, but it certainly is a different relationship than what I have ever had with my own mother, or than what I expected when she became my step-mother. There's a distant feeling there that I've never completely understood. Even though I've had this relationship for almost thirteen years, it took reading your essay to begin to understand why, in some respects, that probably is.

Thank you for that. It means a great deal to me.

January 15, 2006 9:38 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Pat and Madeleine,

I've been thinking about what you say and it makes perfect sense.

But I still resist writing the happy ending. I'm trying to think about why. I know when I wrote the essay there were a bunch of places I could go on the net where people would give each other advice on how to be successful. (I got a very hostile reception at one of those sites when I suggested some of the things in my essay.) I had books that told me how not to fail. A lot of them helped a great deal. A lot of them had many examples of happy endings.

Part of it is that the happy ending is different than what I really wanted, which was that I would be magically turned into a different person, a better person. A person worthy of what I had been entrusted with.

The other thing was that I knew people who had managed the whole ordeal and things had turned out and people who hadn't managed the whole ordeal and things had gone wrong. Some of that was under the stepparent's control and some of it wasn't. In my essay on being a stepparent I tried not to talk about ways to be a good or bad one, but just to talk about what being a stepparent was because that was something no one had prepared me for.

If I write about Adam and me, then doesn't that shift it somewhat to that other thing, the usual self-help article? I don't know for certain, but I think what women respond to in my essay (which focuses so much on why everything is so wrong) is that it helps see the way things are.

I guess I could write about being a stepmother ten years after, but I don't know if that would be fair to Adam. By now its all so caught up in the particulars of who we are. The same broad outlines are true as were ten years ago. The difference is the fifteen years of our relationship that we have and what we've made out of it. I'm his parent, he's my kid. But I'm not his mom. I'm something else. I'm his stepmother, and he knows what that means and I know what that means. We're good with that, if you know what I mean.

I didn't keep going because a happy ending was possible. I kept going because there wasn't any alternative. Things were hard but everything else was worse. Maybe there is an essay there. It might feel like cold comfort, though.

January 16, 2006 8:42 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Maggie, thanks. I never thought about my essay helping stepkids, but yeah, I guess anything that makes things more understandable can help.

January 16, 2006 8:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chacun a son gout, then. Still, I stand by my original statement.

Incidentally, when I say we had a happy ending, I don't mean everything's swell and we have butterflies and hummingbirds flying around the house and happy theme music. In fact, I can't really claim there's been any kind of an ending. A good outcome in this case is an ongoing process. I still have to work at everything and so does my husband. My son is going to be 21 in July and we still have some bad days from time to time. What "happy ending" means to me is, you get through the bad days--nothing completely beyond repair happened--and over all, there are fewer bad days than there are good days.

I suppose everyone uses a different motivator to keep going. I preferred not to dwell on the fact that I really had no other choice. That there was no other viable or acceptable (to me) choice was a given--old news.

January 18, 2006 7:27 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

I'm still wavering, Pat.

Maybe I need to write an essay about how much I did dwell on the fact that I had to keeping thinking I had no other choice. Because, having walked into the situation I could have walked out. Leaving chaos in my wake, of course.

How is Bobzilla? Is he still avant garde?

January 18, 2006 4:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, you can make that "The Artist Formerly Known As Bobzilla." These days he will only answer to Rob or Robert. He is both avant garde and highly responsible--while he was deciding what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, he got himself a job as a secretary/office manager to a real estate agent in South Kensington. Then he and a pal found a house to rent, so he's moving out at the end of February. At some point, he's going back into education to study sound design. (This is what the course is called--sound design. Or so I've been told.)

In the meantime, he's been selling his own cds online. (It's music, Jim, but not as we know it.)

He's 20 and a lot of the time when he's around me, he has a vile disposition. I'm comforted by the fact that it's not even half as vile as my own disposition was at the same age.:)

January 27, 2006 4:00 PM  

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