The Not-So-Gentle Art of Being a Stepmother
I thought being a stepparent was easy, until I became one.
When we were dating, my husband, Darren, made no secret about the fact that he had a daughter from a previous relationship. Ours was a transatlantic romance — I lived in New Jersey, Darren lived in London. His daughter, Nicole, lived with her mum about an hour north by train. The relationship between Darren and Kathy, Nicole’s mum, had ended shortly after their daughter was born. Darren’s devotion to his little girl was one of the things that I loved about him.
I was 42 and loved kids. I’d always wanted to have a few of my own, but shortly after we met I learned that wasn’t in the cards for me. I’d never really thought of myself as the stepmother type — who does? — but I figured if the man I loved had kids it would be easy to love them as well. I started to imagine myself as the “cool” stepmom who dressed fly and looked flawless. I was kidding myself.
I liked Nicole from the moment I met her. She was a tomboy and feisty, with a quick wit and a strong sense of self — she reminded me of myself at her age. I just knew we’d get along and we did, whenever I flew to the U.K. for a visit and then during weekly Skype chats after Darren moved to the U.S. to marry me.
As Nicole entered her preteen years, those breezy video conversations were replaced by moody silences and one-word responses as Darren and Kathy tried to present a unified parenting front — reprimanding Nicole for not helping around the house, slacking off in school and mouthing off at home. As a neutral party, I could usually draw her out and get her talking about what was really on her mind, doing so carefully to avoid overstepping my role. It wasn’t always easy. Kathy was the primary parent and she did a phenomenal job, but sometimes she made choices that I wouldn’t have. Nicole started swearing, a lot, and she clearly got away with it around her mum. I grew up in a house where even looking like you were thinking about cursing got you a sore behind. And Nicole’s feistiness had curdled into a habit of disrespecting her father when she was angry. But it wasn’t my place to lay down the law, so I stayed in my lane, only gently suggesting that she shouldn’t speak to any adult using that tone and those words. Stepparenting? Yeah, I was killing it.
It was in this atmosphere that we arranged for Nicole, who was by then 12 years old, to spend her summer vacation with us — for six weeks. I was thrilled to have her, and Nicole seemed excited, too. With the kitchen stocked with Frosted Flakes and her other favorite foods and new Uno cards and board games in the living room, I thought I was ready for her visit. … I wasn’t ready.
That first night was TV sitcom perfect. We ate a dinner and spent the evening playing Uno and Monopoly. By the next night our blended version of Black-ish already had started to go left. Nicole listed all of the foods that she hated, which were, coincidentally, the same foods she’d asked us to stock. Over the next few days she wasn’t shy about letting us know, at top volume, all the other things she hated:
All the clothes she’d brought
Getting out of bed and dressed before noon
Washing and combing her hair
It dawned on me that Nicole was at the age when kids act out and test boundaries. I should have known what was up when her mother insisted that Nicole didn’t have to be back home until the day before school started. Kathy needed a break from the moodiness and the arguments.
I was well aware of my stepparent status, but this was my house, where my husband and I — and our rules — were to be respected. I started to dip into my upbringing for a few #ThingsBlackMothersSay favorites, hoping the Black American English meaning wouldn’t get lost in translation. Is a British child familiar with Boo-boo the fool, whom I definitely did not look like? Did she have little friends she needed reminding that I was not? Was she aware that I was neither the one nor the two?
For four weeks, every day was a battle of wills as we enforced our rules. The dinner I put on the table is the dinner we’re all eating. Everybody is expected to get showered and dressed every day. And there is no yelling, cursing or carrying on in the house. Period. Although she complied, she seethed silently, arms folded across her chest, her expression hard and resentful. I tried to act unbothered but my heart was breaking — for Darren, who was so disappointed; and for Nicole, who seemed so consumed by anger; and for myself, who just wanted everyone to be happy. Those six weeks began to seem like a prison sentence. Exasperated, I called my parents for advice. My mother told me that no matter how many times Nicole expressed her dislike for me, I should respond with kindness: “If she tells you she hates you, just say ‘I’m sorry to hear that because I like you.’ ” A big ask for someone who was contemplating murder.
Then, one Saturday morning, Nicole and Darren got into a huge blowup. I could see the veins in Darren’s temple start to throb and I braced for him to explode. Instead, he got up and abruptly walked out to cool off. As I stared in disbelief, I could feel my anger rising. Even she realized that she’d gone too far, and suddenly the mean girl act she’d been putting on crumbled and she once again looked like an unsure preteen.
Remembering my mother’s advice, after a few minutes I gently said, “You know your father loves you so much and I love you, too, but you’ve been acting crazy. What’s going on with you?” Nicole seemed shocked that I was sympathetic instead of angry. To my surprise, she apologized, and for the first time during her visit, we started to talk to, rather than at, each other. As she opened up about her anger issues I slipped back into my role as a friendly neutral, advising her on techniques to feel calm. We also agreed that she needed to make amends with her father, which she did, sheepishly, an hour later when he returned. The last two weeks of her visit were a million times improved, and I can honestly say that since that low point, her attitude and our relationship have never been better.
A year ago I realized I had regained my cool points when I helped her find a prom dress. As the years have gone by, she has forgotten most of those terrible early days. Clearly I haven’t, but if going through that is what was required to get to where we are today, it has all been worth it.