The husband’s oldest daughter went to my book launch party a few months back, and as I introduced her to a friend also in attendance, the friend looked at us and said, “Oh! This is his daughter? So that means you’ll be her step…” In unison she and I held up our hands and shrieked Don’t say it! Neither of us wanted our relationship defined that way—who would? The evil of the fairy tale stepmother has long been established. She’s a vain, selfish gold-digger, and those are her good qualities; she’s also cruel, tyrannical, and devoid of maternal instincts. She eats men for breakfast, children for lunch, and small, cute, fuzzy animals for dinner, often posting pictures of her cringing, terrified meals right before they are devoured alive. So, no, there will be no “stepping” here. Maybe I can make “slightly older female friend-like person” a thing.
Because it’s not yet a thing, his daughters call me, and introduce me to others, by my name. That works. They come over Thursdays for dinner and we go out Sundays for brunch. They are funny and smart and they frequently make me laugh so hard I forget there was a time these meetings were awkward and uncomfortable. After one of the first Thursday nights a couple years back, I remember turning to him once they’d left and mumbling an apology. “I don’t know how to be a mother.”
Of course he said that didn’t matter, but the question remained in my mind, just what could I be to them?
What they are to me is a lot easier to understand, though it still churns up some complicated stuff for me. They are, in so many ways, a lot of things I wish I could have been at their age. I didn’t act in school plays, didn’t run track or cross country, didn’t sing, didn’t create show-worthy works of art, didn’t play musical instruments (other than my half-assed plinking at the piano every once in a while), wasn’t an especially noteworthy student and certainly wasn’t a star. They are also already a lot of things it has taken me this long to be right now. Like princesses in a fairy tale, they have gifts: they can be brave in the face of daunting obstacles, they can be driven to exceed all limits, they can shrug off misfortune with a smile and keep moving forward.
This is good, because there’s a lot of bad shit out there, worse than in the fairy tales, and the world can be harder on a young woman than any fairy tale stepmother could be. But they have a lot going for them, including each other. I was never really close to my sister until about six years ago, after the point when both our lives started to implode and we finally could bond over how fucked-up things had gotten for us. My three slightly (OK, very much) younger female friend-like persons are close, so close they were aghast when they heard their father recently say he hadn’t spoken to one of his brothers in 15 years. “You are my best friend,” they said to one another over brunch pancakes; “I’ll kill you if you go 15 years without speaking to me!”
So they have each other, and a mother and father, and friends, and their own selves; they do not need me for anything. They certainly do not need my approval, and therein perhaps lies the answer. They don’t need my approval and hopefully they will never need it. So much of the lives of girls and women seems to be spent seeking approval, acceptance, validation. We are pushed to believe that the way the world sees us is far more important than the way we see the world. That gets to be exhausting. So maybe the one thing I can do for them is say just this: you do not need me at all; you are strong enough without me; you have done things all your lives without me, and you will continue to do so just fine—and so, though you don’t need me to tell you this, I will tell you anyway: I am so glad I get to witness this in the time that lies ahead.