This week while I was eating lunch at my desk (distracted eating is bad, I know), I stumbled across a blog piece on HuffPo titled “An Open Letter to My Ex-Husband’s New Girlfriend.” It was, in many ways, a really lovely letter from one woman welcoming another woman into her life and into the lives of her children. Throughout the piece, the ex-wife explained the nature of her continued relationship with her ex-husband in the service of raising their boys and drew clear lines around that relationship in a way that I hope the new girlfriend received as reassuring. She also acknowledged that they were all fumbling through this and that it would be awkward at times. I appreciated the authenticity of the letter and the kind spirit in which it was offered. I also appreciated that it must have taken a great deal of courage for the ex-wife to formulate these thoughts and to articulate them so clearly (and in such a public forum).
As lovely as all of those things are, there were also parts of this letter that I found myself reacting to. Strongly. Like this:
You may find yourself sitting through conversations between him and me. Please understand that we need to communicate in order to run our successful “business” of raising amazing humans. Sometimes we need to do it often. And along with the trust I mentioned in the former paragraph, there is trust that you will know when it’s appropriate to chime in. Should you ever feel uncomfortable or insignificant during times like this, I ask that you look at the bigger picture…
My bristling is of course projection. I cannot read things like this and not put myself in the position of being on the receiving end – even though I know, logically, that this letter isn’t to me. Nonetheless, this is where I went: Really? After just acknowledging that everyone is fumbling through this and doing their best, you ask that this new person – who maybe has done none of any of this before – will “know when it’s appropriate to chime in” and that she “look at the bigger picture”?! How on earth could she (I) possibly know when it’s appropriate to chime in? It never feels like it’s appropriate to chime in. Ever. And your excluding her (me) during such conversations with your ex-husband/her (my) partner doesn’t make the guesswork any easier. And look at the bigger picture?! I spend my entire existence looking at the bigger picture and magnifying the needs of everyone else in this situation – including yours – far above my own. All. The. Time.
And in the midst of this reaction, I came to my own Open Letter, if you will. This is, mostly, to the Ex. But it is also to all of you, and to our culture (myself included) who so easily see the position of the bio mom but may not consider what it’s like to be Not the Mama. And for those who may intuitively marginalize, if not also vilify, that role. While there are certainly lots of stepmonsters out there, there are also lots of us who are just doing our very best not to mess everything up for your kids and to try to keep our own heads above water in the process…
It must be scary. Knowing that your kids are not only spending 1/2 of their time away from you but also spending a good chunk of that time with me, someone you barely know. You probably have a lot of questions about me that perhaps you don’t know how or whether to ask. Like me, you probably struggle with what’s appropriate – to do, to say, to ask for – in this new landscape of your blended family. When you were a little girl and imagined what your life would be like now, I’m guessing this wasn’t part of those dreams. It wasn’t for me either. But here we are – trying to find our way in territory that few navigate well and that even fewer talk about. I don’t know where you are in all of this. Nor do you have to tell me. My hope is that by sharing where I am in this blending, we can both be a little closer to finding our way.
I am not here to take your place. You are the Littles’ Mom. You always will be. I want your time with them to be positive and full of wonderful memories. I enjoy hearing the excitement in their voices when they are going to your place. I want to see the joy on their faces as they talk about something they did with you or something you taught them or something they remember doing when your family was you and S and them. And in that I will sometimes feel the sting of not having shared in those memories, while celebrating that I will get to share in others.
I will love your children. Not in the same way that you do. But I will love them. And I will look out for them, and I will be their champion. Not in the same way that you do. But I will. I will listen intently about their school days and swim practices and art projects. I will sit with them to work on homework and talk about the things they’re thinking about. I will laugh with them, play with them, make sure they go to bed on time and sometimes tell them “no.” Not in the same way that you do. But I will.
I will love your children’s father. Not in the same way that you have (or that you will). But I will love him. Not based on the same history and experiences that you have shared and that you will continue to share through your children. But I will love him. Not because he is perfect but because he is perfectly who he is. And because loving him is one of many ways that I will love your children.
I will do my best, and I will mess up. I feel the weight of the responsibility that S is – and to a certain extent you are – entrusting me with. I do not take any of this lightly. This is something I inflict on myself (I suspect you might know a thing or two about how that happens), and it is also something that society inflicts on me. I’m sure it doesn’t feel like it most days, but the world is waiting to come to your defense. You are the Mother. The Real Mother. From Snow White to Stepmom, we are taught in a million different ways that your role in this is bigger. Better. And I am at best a bumbling fool and at worst evil. Over time, I hope to earn your trust, so that when I mess up, you know that I will learn from that mistake, that I am not too full of myself to apologize and that I will do better next time. For now, I ask that you extend to me a measure of grace.
When you are tempted to think the worst of me, know that I’m doing my level best.
When you are frustrated with how I’ve handled something, I probably know it – and am probably also frustrated with how I’ve handled the situation.
When you think to yourself “Who does she think she is,” chances are I’m still trying to figure it out.
I will try to extend the same to you, knowing that we are both just trying to find our way.