John and I spent three beautiful days with his daughter Lillian this past weekend. We decorated Easter eggs, made Springtime cookies, watched Frozen, played games and went to a town an hour away to see Cinderella (great movie by the way).
I can’t describe the gratitude I have for this special little girl coming in to my life now. He obviously had a daughter with his ex-wife later in life so now at the time many of our peers are being introduced to grandkids, his life is focused on a 3 year old. And I love it.
Not being blessed with children of my own and being in a sliver of a category of women who wanted kids and felt they should have had kids but didn’t, I feel so lucky to land in a relationship with the perfect man for me who has a very young child. I didn’t allow myself to feel all of this right away and the wonderful ramifications of this darling 3 year old are trickling in to my psyche little by little. The thought of travels with her, taking her to Disneyworld, doing fun girl things with her have all started to ignite a maternal fire in me that just keeps burning brighter. She calls me “Kaffy” and asks to sit on my lap and for me to take her to the bathroom and to read to her at night. It’s just ecstasy for a woman like me.
I woke up this morning without hearing her little voice outside our bedroom door and in that silence contemplated my own journey to land in this role. My stepmother Marj basically taught me every single thing not to do-not to be-in order to create a successful bond with Lillian.
I laid there wondering just when Marj started beating us-how early in our relationship she started to lose it like that. I know I tried to run away from home very early on after she came in to our lives. Within months if not weeks. I remember at around age 11 running down the road in desperation, destinationless with Marj finally chasing me down in our family station wagon. I remember her making me get back in the car and as soon as I did, reminding me I had nowhere to go, no one to run to. The mental abuse had started to ramp up by then. There was no attempt to understand me, just to control. I had never, not for a second, thought about running from my home before she entered it. I thought about escape plans obsessively after that. I prayed she would leave and never come back.
Marj had no natural maternal instincts. She was manly in stature and attitude. She was 40 when she got together with my Dad and I believe never had a boyfriend before. Later, when Cindy and I became boy-crazy and would inquire about her dating life, she would dodge those questions and only speak about some gay male friends she once had. We thought she was being private. Now I believe she was being self conscious as she had no names or stories to fill in those answers with.
She had no pets nor close relationships to friends’ children-both of which I’ve naturally drawn myself to my entire adult life. She was childless and her primary child relationships were the institutionalized children she studied at the Children’s Research Center where she worked when she met our Dad.
I lay in bed this morning thinking although she physically abused me from age 11 to 19 when she last beat me, she did not pound her rage in to me. It just didn’t stick. I looked at the ceiling thinking about little Lillian and anyone laying a hand on her. How I only feel a tenderness for this child and a desire to enter her world slowly. How it’s natural for me to respect her mother and honor her role in Lillian’s life in a non-competitive way.
None of these attitudes were present in Marj. She blasted right in to our lives with Behavior Modification plans. When those failed, she erupted in to immediate and forceful violence beating us with whatever she could grab nearest–a kitchen utensil, hairbrush, hanger or her hands with fingers cemented so tightly together they became their own version of a steel spatula. My brother John recently recounted a story where he’d placed his clean socks on the kitchen table as he walked past intending to sit down and put them on. How Marj saw this and immediately blasted in to beating him around the face and head with that steely hand accompanied by her vicious and controlled deep loud hiss “do NOT put your dirty socks on the table, you do NOT put your dirty socks on the table”.
I asked him what his response to that was and he replied “I didn’t say anything, I just went up to my room”. None of us said much. We knew by then that our father would always take her side and/or look the other way and we had to just deal with it. We had somehow normalized this pattern of assault. Years later however I would speak to my father about this and he agreed that in this day and age she’d be arrested. She left marks on our bodies and psyches. Cindy and I often went to school covering extensive bruises.
Yet she didn’t leave any scars in me that influence my role as a stepmother beyond knowing exactly the rules of what not to do.
Honor Thy Mother is an important one. Marj’s insecurities forced us to only use terminology of “real mother” with her and “first mother” about our natural mother who had birthed us, raised us even while dying, thankfully instilled security and kindness in us at those tender ages. Marj once slapped me in the face in my bedroom repeatedly for not using the term “real mother” about her “in an appropriate tone”. I don’t think anyone would have believed this PhD level educated social worker who worked with disturbed kids had this in her. Trust me, it was the dirty secret lurking in the dark corners of our home almost immediately after she joined it.
(Marj the only person in this picture, our holiday photo that year, gripping an oar)
Marj was never a “real mother” in any realm other than the legal world after she adopted us. She was a guardian, an enforcer, at times a teacher, sometimes a friend, a caretaker and an abuser. She rarely spoke to us of our deceased mother. Habits we’d adopted after our mother died such as saying at the end of our dinnertime Grace “please keep Mommy happy in Heaven” quickly faded away. Our frequent visits to our mother’s grave became fewer and farther between and Marj awkwardly refused to get out of the car when we did go. When she spoke of our mother it was through thin tight lips and at times snide remarks would leak out. She was clearly threatened of our mother so we naturally avoided the discomfort it would bring all of us if we brought her up. I remember laying in my bed in my teen years reaching my hand toward the ceiling, sobbing, praying for my mother to grab it and reach in to me. Her presence had been nearly erased in our home by then. All the pictures were put away.
This was Marj’s posture toward a dead woman who couldn’t speak for herself. Her posture also included beating that dead woman’s children.
I shudder to think of these things. I still deal with anger toward my father for allowing them to occur under his roof on his watch. She was wrong often, her entire orientation toward us was wrong and yet we knew he would side with her every time. This also was wrong. We knew early on we had no one to really trust in positions of power in our home. And we all suffered for it in adulthood.
Yet, miraculously I find myself although traumatized by those years, a person who didn’t go the way of repeating those awful patterns as can often be the case. Abused children can grow up to be abusive parents. Not with me though.
I know I will not speak ill of Lillian’s mother to her or in her presence as I consider her role in my life from a position of gratitude and respect. It is not in my makeup to compete with her. It is my inclination to follow and not lead. I have one goal which is to learn to bond with this tiny person and learn the family system I am entering as I tread softly following their rules. If I’m lucky and maintain a loving relationship with this child throughout her life and influence her in the ways only I can from my unique personality and perspective that will be enough.
John corrects me if my instincts aren’t correct in responding to Lillian (I tend, unsurprisingly, to over-permissiveness) and I learn from him. I am here to fit in, not impose my ignorance (I mean that in the literal sense of that word) to their way of raising their daughter.
Marj, if she’d been a different person and undamaged herself, would have and should have walked out of that car with us at our mother’s gravesite and held our hands helping us in reverence to grieve and hold the love of our mother in our hearts.
Instead she tried to beat it out of us.
And she died with none of us near her. And she died with accolades, outside of our family, for her noble role in taking us on in some Saint-like way. And no one knew she’d cut us out of her Will-her legally adopted children who she forced to call her “real mother”.She took every last dime she had of her own and what she’d gleaned from my father, all her valuables and willed them all to her sisters, nieces and nephews.
And my father held that secret for her.
She also went to her grave with no one knowing, or even being confronted herself truly, of the violence she inflicted on “her children”. Or the mental abuse that filled it’s place once she stopped beating Cindy and I.
There are times in life when the primary lesson someone of influence teaches you is how not to be.
So in this moment, ready to embark upon the sacred role of Stepmother to my fiance’s darling young daughter, I can muster a small bow Marj’s way. For that one critical lesson: showing me now it’s not done.
And another part of me raises two fists in the air, victorious, declaring “you didn’t get my innocence. My mother, my real mother was and is inside me all along and nothing, absolutely nothing you did took that from me”.
Or in the words of Cinderella in the movie we just saw “you are not my Mother, you will never be my mother”.