Although I became a mother late in life, two girls have been teaching me about parenting for the past several years: the 15 year old girl I mentor and my 16 year old step-daughter. Of course, mentoring and (non-custodial) step-mothering is not the same as parenting. It is much less intense and you do not make important decisions in that girl’s life. However, I know from my own experience as a step-daughter that step-mothers and mentors can have profound, lasting effects.
I have known Stacia, the girl I mentor, for the past 10 years –longer than I’ve known my husband. I’ve watched her grow from a somewhat hyper, cute 6 year old into a poised, articulate young woman who makes me laugh out loud. She’s been raised by a single father and the absence of her mother has been a topic of conversation between she and I, and has caused me to think a lot about the importance of mothering. In addition, she’s helped “train” me as a mother, taught me how to deal with tantrums, play dress up, plan activities, and relish the wonderfully unpredictable utterances of outspoken girls (I’d give examples of the hilarious things she says, but she’d kill me!). Although I became a Big Sister in order to “make a difference” in her life, I’ve lost track of that goal; we have a relationship and I can’t imagine my life
My relationship with my step-daughter began in a less intentional, but typical way: I fell in love with her father and decided to make a life with him. I met her and liked her, but I don’t think I realized what a big part she (and by extension, her mother) would play in my life. Being a step-mother is more complex than mentoring. I am very aware of the negative stereotypes step-mothers carry. I cringe whenever I read fairy tales to my 5 year old daughter, sometimes substituting “bad lady” for “step mother,” wanting to shield her from the legacy of distrust and poison apples.
This week my 16 year-old step daughter moves in with us for the summer. She is, I hasten to explain, an exception to all of the stories I hear about dreadful teenagers. She is a joy to be around: smart, kind, considerate, and easy-going. Still, it’s an adjustment adding another daughter into our mix, partly because I know that it’s only temporary. Just as we get into a groove, it seems, she is leaving to resume her “regular” life with her mother. I know from personal experience how awkward this transition must be for her. I remember being yelled at by one of my father’s girlfriends because I didn’t know how to operate the washing machine, a chore I wasn’t taught to do in my mother’s house. While many of my friends are jealous that I have this convenient babysitter, I hesitated to use her that way, concerned with being
selfish and worried about intruding on her precious time with her father.
Step mothering is weird, not less when one has been a step-daughter oneself. I had a step-mother that I liked, then feared, then almost hated, and now love. Go figure. Because I remember what it felt like to be the object of my step-mother’s rage, I am (perhaps pathologically) careful not to express anger at my step-daughter. Of course, this is pretty easy, since Ali is unusually well-behaved. Nonetheless, I think I have been paralyzed with fear that I would hurt her in some unintentional way.
Over the years, my relationship with my step-daughter has gotten more comfortable. Part of this is watching her love for my daughter, who in turn adores her beyond anything. This reminds me of my love for my own younger brother, who was born when I was 16. Whatever issues she and I had, my step-mother knew that I love him –her only son—unconditionally. He was the bond that kept us connected, even after my father and step-mother divorced. Now I realize that she is one of the people I call whenever I have important news, or want a confidant to discuss academic politics with (she’s now a professor in another discipline). More important, she’s now “Bubbe” to my daughter, her first “grand-child.”
I don’t know what role I’ll play in Stacia or Ali’s futures. But I know that I’m in their lives for the long run.