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What Do Stepmothers Want?


Princeton, New Jersey. -- New York, a semi-elegant East Side restaurant during the mid-1980s:

I am home for Mother's Day and my parents have taken me to a chic lunch spot. They did not know, nor would they think I care, that the restaurant's success is due, in part, to its status as one of the few nice places where children are welcome.

Sitting amid munching toddlers and mewling babies, I am seized by a string of unwelcome epiphanies. I am now in my not-so-early-30s. The harried young mothers around me are my contemporaries -- me, who can't even manage a steady boyfriend. I burst into tears.

I sob through lunch and weep my way up Madison Avenue. My parents, surprised by my uncharacteristic distress, buy me a new pair of earrings. They are silver with big rose quartz stones. I like them immensely. My equilibrium soon returns.

* * *

Baltimore, the bridal suite in a downtown hotel several years later:

I managed to whiz past 35, deaf to my biological clock, by changing jobs, playing the field, working out. Today is the pay-off: I am getting married. Oh, yes, the groom has two daughters.

Before the wedding, Sara and Erin come to my room. My soon-to-be-step-daughters, 6 and 10, have known me for several years. They treat me like part of the family -- a favorite aunt. They are excited and a little nervous about being flower girls. I am excited and a little nervous about being a bride. They need someone to fuss over them -- to straighten their dresses and comb their hair.

A friend with two daughters steps in. She coos and pats, making it look very easy. Watching from the corner of my eye, I think to myself I can do that.

* * *

Princeton, 18 months later:

I can hear those tinny little voices even though my study door is shut tight. Those girls are jabbering away. Erin and Sara, alien intruders from a past life, are --ing all hopes for my marriage. Holed up with a stack of magazines, I feel like a prisoner, nursing my grudges to keep them warm. I rehearse an all-too-familiar litany -- the way they chose their father's company over mine, their annoying habit of constantly quoting their always-perfect mother, the many nights when they shrug off my ministrations.

It hadn't started out like that. At first, I don't resent my part in the cooking and chauffeuring, shopping and schlepping. I even have some ideas about improving things. Friends with children of their own offer contradictory advice. "Jump in!" says one. "Step back," warns another.

I go with my instincts: The girls need more discipline. They eat too many sweets. They watch too much television. They stay up too late.

I can bring order to their lives. I have work to do.

But as fast as I devise stratagems, Erin and Sara foil me. I stop buying cookies and they bring candy from their mom. I tell them to turn off the television, but after a bike ride around the block, they're back at the tube. I insist they get ready for bed at 8:30, and at 8:25 they remember their homework.

Dismayed by my failures, I withdraw. Let them eat cake . . . and cookies and potato chips and ice cream. Let them watch television until their eyes bug and their brains pop out.

Now alone in my study, I seethe. Those girls are winning. They even have their father to themselves. I want so desperately to be a part of this family that I am turning myself into She Who Must Be Obeyed.

* * *

Princeton, several months later:

I am back in my bedroom after a short stay in the hospital. Erin hands me a homemade get-well card. It reads: "I miss you a lot. I hope you come home soon. I love you vary [sic] much. When you come home we can play Barbie together." Erin, who idolizes Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, is not much of a Barbie fan, but she knows I like dressing up dolls.

I went to the hospital unexpectedly. When the girls hear about it, Erin calls from her mother's house to see how I am feeling. Sara remembers to wish me well, too. Assured I will live, she dives into what she really wants to discuss: the YMCA dance.

Sara and I talk a lot about dances, make-up and shopping. I

wonder if I'm being a good role model.

* * *

Thrift Drug Store, Mother's Day 1993:

Ambling through the paper-goods section, I stop at a selection of Mother's Day cards for stepmothers. My pulse quickens: a blessing or a curse? I doubt that Sara and Erin will send me a Mother's Day greeting. No matter. More important are their spontaneous acts of love which I am just beginning to recognize. Gradually, I am learning the first lesson of parenthood: you don't necessarily know what you are looking for until you have already found it.

Diane Winston, a former Sun reporter, is a doctoral student at Princeton Theological Seminary.

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