It’s morning and I am strengthening the muscles around my shoulder, holding onto a giant rubber band knotted over the hinge of our guest room door, stretching and relaxing, pulling for a count of three and then slowly releasing. Fifteen times, four different standing positions. One-Two-Three-ONE-One-Two-Three-TWO-One-Two-Three-THREE… I am not a person who multi-tasks well, so having a conversation while I do my exercises is a challenge.
From my daughter’s room comes banging, crinkled plastic, a book thrown down onto the floor and a quiet muttering. I think my daughter is talking with her dolls, but I can’t be sure. She is definitely not speaking loudly enough to expect to be talking with me. “I don’t want to go to school,” she says. “I’m not going to school.” She says this at least three times. Maybe she’s exercising, too. Exercising her power of choice. Stretching her power, stretching herself, trying to see what she can get away with. She knows she won’t get away with this. She is setting herself up for failure. “I’m hungry,” she continues. “I want to read. I’m not going to school. I’m hungry. No. I won’t. I’m not going to school.”
“You might want to change your attitude,” I suggest.
“I can’t,” she says to me now, emerging from her bedroom with two dolls and plopping them on a chair. Her clothes for the day remain stacked haphazardly in front of her dresser.
“Mmmm … Some days are like that,” I tell her as she walks by.
She regards me with smoldering eyes and replies with a verbal stomp, “I’m serious.” Have you ever stood in the path of a grumpy seven-year-old on a school morning?
I continue my exercises. “So am I.”
She returns to her room (without the dolls), closes her door tightly with our spotted dog on the foot of her bed and within three minutes, I hear her cooing and chatting, showering our dog with playfulness and affection. I’m delighted that she’s “found her happy” but I’m nearly done with my exercises and beginning to worry about time. I knock on the door. “It’s time, honey,” I say in what I hope is a voice both gentle and firm.
“I’m getting dressed, Mami.” There is no trace of the dark cloud I sensed clinging to her psyche such a short while ago. Ten minutes later – a school-day record in our house – she’s downstairs nibbling toast, finishing the bubblegum flavored antibiotic she’s been on since she started the New Year with a double ear infection, and chatting amiably with both of us – the people in the house this time – her moms.
We, on the other hand, are less amiable. With each other, anyway. I am cultivating the feeling of displacement which often comes early in my stepdaughter’s trips home from college, but which waited two weeks this time to descend. Progress? My partner is cultivating – What? Fatigue? A general malaise. A headache? Annoyance at last night’s rocky attempts at family bonding after the young one was tucked snugly and safely into bed. Honestly, that’s what I’m cultivating, too. I just have different words for it.
“Kelly’s cranky,” I offer in a clumsy attempt to make light of our mutual (oppositional) frustration.
“You sound cranky, too, Mom,” the young sage pipes in, between bites of peanut butter and nutella toast. What else do you feed a newly avowed vegetarian 2nd-grader for breakfast?
I nod. “That’s fair.” It is.
Our youngest remains chipper. Our eldest remains sleeping. My partner and I remain cloudy, half-lost in our own little worlds. “I really like the way you changed your attitude this morning,” I tell my daughter.
“Thanks,” she says, chewing. “Can’t you?”
Can she see me here inside this cocoon of self-pity? Why do I think she can’t? “Sure.”
“Why don’t you then?”
I have to stop a moment and look at her – really look at her. And smile. Really smile. “This is changed,” I respond truthfully, if a bit ironically, seeing myself finally (however briefly) through her eyes. Mami really is trying to climb out of the bat cave. It’s just that she hasn’t climbed very high.
As a stepmom, it’s easy to have hurt feelings, and easy to feel justified in having them. But it’s a set-up for failure. It doesn’t get me out of the cave.
This is what I know from the other side: It isn’t the start-stop-start stilted conversations I remember most about being a stepdaughter, or the competition for my dad’s affection – these were present, I’m sure, but they’re not what I remember most. What I remember most is how my stepmom tried and tried and tried again. She made overtures. Again and again. She told me when she felt rebuffed. She asked me to try harder. She gave me space. And perhaps most importantly, she didn’t wait for my permission to be let in. She claimed me as her own from the beginning, and let me take my time to catch-up. She always told me where she stood and what she believed about what she could see, but she never pushed me to reveal more about myself than I wanted her to know. She let our connection ebb and flow with my mercurial moods and she rarely took it personally.
The grace with which my stepmom walked this line mystifies me – she was inside my life and outside it, for years and years and years until she was suddenly, as I discovered one day on her patio over coffee and tea, all the way in. Present but not forceful. Something I can aspire to now. But not from inside this cave.
So I take in what my youngest has to say this morning – “Why can’t you?” And I nod a few more times. I’m not yet ready to shed my attitude (my cave, my cocoon). The coffee hasn’t even finished brewing. But I understand finally, perhaps for the first time, that I will.