My Not-So-Wicked Stepmother (And What She Taught Me)
I really did hate her for a long time. It didn’t start out that way. My parents, with my mother at the helm, had dragged us through a messy divorce that left all four of us children in various states of devastation, confusion, and uncertainty. I was desperate for adult concern and caring. When I got the chance to move in with my newly remarried father and his second wife, all I wanted was to escape my own guilt at having abandoned my mother and to live my vision of a normal teenaged life, albeit in a new household headed by a woman I thought was a reasonable person.
Sure, we had a few barriers to overcome in the beginning. The new wife had first entered our lives as our mother’s “helper,” a 1960’s version of today’s “nanny,” when I was five years old. Several years later, she had helped break up my parents’ marriage by engaging in an affair with my father and undoubtedly, although unwittingly, played a role in my mother’s near successful suicide attempt. My mother absolutely hated her, with good reason.
Despite those problematic details, I secretly hoped my step-mother would love me, and I her, even though that longing represented yet another betrayal of my mother. When B.G. officially joined our family and assumed her formal title, I squirmed at her new role, but when I moved in with her and my father a year later, I was ready to behave, not a stretch for a child whose nickname was “goody-goody.” Besides, I believed she held the keys to my father’s heart, and, having already lost my mother (yes, she was still alive, but no, she was emotionally unrecognizable to me after her stint at a mental hospital and continued use of pills and alcohol), I simply couldn’t afford to lose my father.
I was not a renegade. Really. I paid attention to the teachers at my fancy private school with the gross green uniforms, did my homework, got good grades, kept my room clean, set the table, emptied the dishwasher, mostly did as I was told. (Okay, maybe my memory is a bit selective here. I was doing my fair share of drinking — and puking — in eighth grade, started smoking cigarettes and cannabis in ninth grade, and became an expert at stealing records from the music section at Bloomingdale’s, but never got caught). No matter what I did, though, I ended up on B.G.’s wrong side.
When I needed money to buy clothes, she accused me of only loving my father for his money. When my friends came over to hang out and we made food, she complained that we ate too much. One time, I had just put a hamburger in a pan on the stove for my boyfriend Teddy; she swept into the kitchen, grabbed the pod of meat from the heat, ripped a section of the burger off, reshaped it, plunked it back in the pan, and returned the excess meat to the refrigerator. “No one needs to eat that much.” She gave away my cats without warning when I was away at summer camp, only telling me when I returned home to discover their absence. “I’m allergic,” she declared in her own defense. She repeatedly ranted about my mother’s incompetence as a parent, forcing me either to defend the indefensible or to betray my mother yet again.
Not my parent, certainly not a legal guardian, the “Wicked Step” nonetheless weighed in on every decision my father faced regarding me and my future. Whenever I asked my father for anything, she was there to argue no. An expert at conflict avoidance, no matter the topic, he didn’t listen much to me, but sided with his wife. In private he would implore me to “act like a grown up, Ginny,” when I pointed out the Wicked Step’s emotional illogic and nastiness and begged him to consider changing his mind. Translated, that meant “buck up and shut up.”
When I became an Olympic athlete, B.G. shook her head in disbelief. “How can you work so hard?” she asked. Even that she intended as criticism. She didn’t attend the Games, thank goodness, so I could enjoy family time and my father’s attention without having to swim in the undercurrent of her disapproval and dislike.
B.G. didn’t beat us, nor did she force us to move out, back to our unstable mother. We were well-fed, clothed, and extremely well-educated. But she never fought for us, defended us, appreciated or cheered for us. My older sister and I spent hours trying to figure out why she was so mean to us. We could only conclude that she didn’t like children, not a stretch, as she’d told us she never wanted any children. All looked fine on the outside, but the emotional damage was deep and lingering. I lasted a year living with her and my father, fleeing to boarding school, hoping for some distance from constant putdowns and the sense that I had become a problem child.
Time passed and did its magic. I sorted myself out, moving far away from my family of origin. After two plus decades of marriage, my father and step-mother divorced. I was not sorry. By then, I was married with a child of my own and hopes for a larger family.
Imagine my surprise when, a decade later, I found myself empathizing with my Wicked Step. By then, my first marriage had dissolved as well, after fourteen years. With three children and a husband, I’d fallen in love with someone outside my marriage, a woman. I comforted myself that I’d not technically had an affair because I’d confessed to my husband before technically breaking our vows, slim grounds for self-denial. I didn’t see the parallels between my life and my ex Wicked Step’s until I found myself in the role of step-mother. That’s when the wheels came off. Know that saying, “what goes around, comes around?” It applies here.
Let me just say that I got my ass kicked. Granted, my situation was a bit more complicated than my step-mother’s, although, at forty, older than she was when she became a step-parent (twenty-eight), and, a mother myself, I should’ve been wiser. My three children were younger than my new step-kids, as my youngest was six, and the steps were thirteen and sixteen.
I wanted to protect my children from their new step-siblings, those nefarious teenaged influences: their seemingly casual attitude about school and homework, their different eating habits, including a profound dislike of green vegetables, the conversations about sex, the highly charged musical lyrics of the songs they played, their penchant for watching television all the time or endlessly playing on the computer, their emotional ups and downs, their late-night bedtimes, their tempers, their clothing choices, their language, their disrespect of their mother, on and on and on, I could invariably find something wrong about how they behaved, looked, or spoke. My children were not going to grow up to be like them: back-talking, rebellious, disrespectful, entitled rule-breakers. No daughter of mine was going to slam a door hard enough on me to shatter a mirror. No son of mine was going to curse at me when I informed him his computer time had expired. My children would say please and thank-you and act grateful at the right moments. They would obey me even when they crossed the threshold into adolescence. They would trust my judgment, believing that I knew best. They would have happy lives if they just toed the line. My line.
In my zeal to protect my children, I didn’t consider my step-children’s needs. Okay, they were older than my babies, but they were the age I was when I’d moved in with my father and his new spouse. Surely I could relate, no? Sadly, stuck in my narrow view of the world, believing that well-behaved children resulted from good parenting and any deviation from perfect proved bad parenting I missed the parallel, which would’ve provided me with a point of connection. After all, this pair had watched their parents’ marriage dissolve in front of them, loudly, as their father broadcast everything at the top of his voice. They’d had to deal with their mother’s coming out, moving down to the big city of Seattle, away from the comfortable confines of suburban, stable, and safe Shoreline, their birthplace. “Urban Ghettoville” my stepson nicknamed our Capitol Hill neighborhood, nowhere near as urban as the borough of Manhattan where I grew up, and about as far from a ghetto as Tiffany’s. They were suffering, too, as I had, in the aftermath of their parents’ divorce. They could’ve used some compassion and caring, even if I couldn’t quite muster love so early on in knowing them.
So sure of my parenting style and my priorities for raising my children, I never stopped to question whether “my way or the highway” was a legitimate stance. Luckily for my step-children, their mother didn’t behave like my father. She took me on, fought back when I criticized her children or her parenting approach, and created space for her duo to grow up on their own terms. With their mother’s presence in their lives, they weren’t as hungry for connection or desperate for caring as I’d been.
Even though their mother had turned their lives upside down, she didn’t abandon them, but kept them close. Yes, there was a lot of yelling in those early years, with me leading the charge, I am chagrined to admit, much disagreement, but there was also learning. Counseling helped tremendously, especially because I was the one who most needed to change. The biggest lesson I took a long time to learn? Your step-children are NOT your children. You don’t have to love them, but you must treat them with respect, and leave all the heavy lifting to their real parents. Don’t get into the issues about computer time, using the car, homework, whatever. Of course you have an opinion, but it’s really not your place to parent kids who aren’t yours. It turns out you can keep your mouth shut, even if it feels like those unspoken words will burn your gums.
I don’t know if it’s true, but our family followed the adage that it takes the same number of years for a step-child to accept a step-parent as a legitimate parental figure as the child is when the step-parent comes into the family. For my stepson, that meant I would need to wait thirteen years, long past the period when he lived with us. For my daughter, by the time she was twelve, she regarded my partner as a legitimate parent, often approaching her for advice in advance — or instead — of talking with me. Until then, our family counselor advised me to treat my step-kids as I would my children’s friends. “I’d correct my kids’ friends’ table manners,” I protested when instructed to leave all critique to their mother, whom I often felt lacked even an ounce of hard-ass in her personality.
Boy, it was hard. I basically flunked step-parenting. I ignored my partner’s pleadings to let her parent her own children, to let her intervene when they were sassy, or worse, to let her handle the refusal to complete homework assignments or household chores. I agreed with her that her children were her problem, but I couldn’t stop myself from giving my opinion, to her or directly to her kids. Of course I never spoke in dulcet tones at a reasonable decibel. My temper seemed stuck in the lost and found for several years. Amazingly, I never lost my voice, given how often I yelled. I got mad at my step-son for stupid things, like slapping his unlaced shoes on the floor when he walked, and never gave him the benefit of the doubt when he made mistakes. Like the time he hit my son above the eye with a shovel and claimed it was an accident.
I kept telling myself to cut him some slack. He was trying, I reminded myself in calmer moments. Besides, I hated disappointing my partner, who invariably ended up stuck in the middle between her kids and me, defending us to each other. Talk about no-win. I’d convince myself that next time I’d stay calm, then next time arrived. Maybe someone would be rude at the supper table, and then I’d find myself upset and going down the familiar road of yelling and blaming. Good intentions got me nowhere, except defeated and defensive. With young kids, I wasn’t yet ready for the behavior of obstreperous teenagers, the backtalk and boundary-testing. I couldn’t tolerate the idea that not speaking my mind was often the best course of action. I made my step-kids’ lives more miserable than necessary, not to mention my partner’s, my kids’ and my own. Sometimes, less really is more.
Critical elements to consider if you land in the role of step-parent: know your place; recognize you have to earn the right to be viewed as a parent (a timeline that only your young person can determine, not you); understand that respect is more important than love. Not only that, each family has its own dynamics, influenced by the engagement of the pre-existing parents and their attitude towards incoming steps. I thought I knew best when it came to my step-children; whether I did or not, though, it wasn’t my job to finish raising them. I was lucky, and so were they, that someone was around to educate me, even though I was a slow learner.
About five years ago, something utterly unexpected happened. My very own former Wicked Step reached out to me. We had lunch. She wanted to apologize for her behavior so many years ago. She knew she’d done me wrong, not just once, but repeatedly. She told me she hadn’t wanted to be a mother because she was terrified she’d be a terrible one. She was mortified to discover that her worst fears had come true when her attempts to keep her distance from me and my siblings, so as to avoid the negative consequences emotional entanglement, backfired so painfully for us.
Maybe if I’d not been a step-mom myself I wouldn’t have forgiven her so readily. Maybe I’m a sucker for people who are willing to own their foibles and flaws. But the circle completed itself and I forgave her, grateful to learn I’d not been the problem, but she’d been the problem, and remembering that I’d been the problem myself. Now I’m grateful to have her in my life, another person who shares memories from that long ago era when I was growing up.
I’m lucky: my step-children are part of my life today. We haven’t had to wait so many years to sort out the good, the bad, and the ugly of our early years together. We’ve all mostly recovered too, although as to whether they’ve forgiven me, I’m not sure. They know me better now, though, and they cut me slack, understanding that I can’t always shove my own hard-ass out of the way. Hopefully, along with the rest of my body, that will start to droop anytime now.
We are all so deeply flawed, often so stuck in our view of the world, sure we know what’s right. It takes courage to acknowledge our deficiencies and blind-spots, to recognize we may not know what’s best and it’s not our job to decide what’s best for everyone. Knowing your place as a step-parent can save everyone a lot of grief — including you.
A dedicated and battle-tested Mom, Ginny Gilder is a serial social enterprise entrepreneur, co-owner of WNBA’s Seattle Storm, and a two-time Olympian. Her memoir, Course Correction, publishes today in paperback and audio. For more information, check out: www.ginnygilder.com