Letter to My Children’s Step-Mother

Post by Olivia Hamilton Jones for the Kind Kindred series.

painting by EmWolf on etsy

Letter to My Children’s Step-Mother

The first time I saw the vaguely skeletal outline of my baby’s face on the ultrasound printout, a rush of awe and love nearly overtook me. Stunned, I thought, “That’s it. I am a mother. This is what it feels like.”

I am still frequently as startled as I was in that moment by the ferocity of my love and astonishment at being a mother, and at the magnificence of the little people I get to call my children.

The first time the kids’ dad took them overnight, he told me he was seeing someone and it felt “permanent” and it felt like time to meet the kids. I took myself to that store where you build your own stuffed animals and made myself a little brown bear. I put three little red hearts inside – one for each of my babies who I knew had to let go of just a little bit. I took that bear home and squeezed the business out of it as hard as I could and waited for the sun to rise. It was a long night.

Their dad had come a long way. He was clean, sober and doing well enough, finally. You had a big part in that, I am sure. From the start, that was all I wanted for him and for our children, and even through the separation and divorce. When I left, I knew I had, at last, gone past the point where I could be his wife, to look at him and not feel the hot sting under my ribcage of all of our old stories pressing into the place where my love for him used to be. Those old stories you will never hear. We each do what we can in this life, and when we know better, we do better.

In spite of all that passed between he and I, I have always been sure in the conviction that I left him, our marriage would end, and essential changes would come to our relationship. I would always, however, do whatever possible to uphold my children’s relationship with their dad.

And so, that had come to mean opening to another mother figure in their lives.

The first time we *really* talked I said to you “One day, when you have children of your own you will understand how this feels.” We were on my front lawn, two young, Italian-born women, raised voices, hand gestures flying, tears…what the neighbors must have thought I can only wonder.

I was trying to tell you that I held no ill feelings for you. Secretly I believed, if not for our circumstance, we would be fast friends. I was trying to tell you it was not your involvement with my children that I was pushing against. I was scared that he was giving too much of his parenting role over to your enthusiastic embrace of step-motherhood.

Still… trying to manage his behavior, even after all that therapy to learn how not to do just exactly that. Anyone who was ever married to addiction understands, that this is a lesson you learn, and relearn and relearn again… and are still surprised when you find yourself slipping back into those old patterns. Just a dollop of codependency. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

You were trying to tell me how much you love my children, how you would never try to replace me in their hearts, how you never could even if you wanted to. I heard you. I believed you. But still… until I felt for myself that “thwap” of incoherent, unfathomable, deep and total love – an emotion that was so strong it felt slightly like losing my mind – I would have said the same things, and I know I would not have really known.

The first time one of the kids accidentally called me by your name it landed on my heart like a paper cut. A tiny sliver. A clean cut. One that was barely perceptible. It would heal easily… but the sting.

When the kids worry about which one of them might be the “favorite” or argue over who is going to get the first snuggle at bed time, I tell them what we all know to be true about love. It is as boundless as the sky.

Metta. Lovingkindness. Gentle rainfall that touches everything, and does not fall here because this patch of grass is more deserving, or there because that patch which has suffered more from drought. It simply falls, replenishing us without qualification. Love’s infinite capacity expands and grows to fill the space we create for it.

I trust this to my bones.

Yet, there is that voice that cries “not enough! preserve! it’s mine!”.

In my wiser moments, I know that my children are so, so fortunate. They have 4 parents in their lives now, who each love them, in the way love is a verb and not just a sentiment. And I know that they, and their love, are not my possessions but rather the gifts of a gracious universe.

Although there are those moments when I forget myself, and my heart grasps out in the fear that I might somehow lose some of the bright glow they radiate out I know… I do know… that this could never be, because there is no place I could turn where it is not shining.

So, know this: I honor their love for you. I am humbled by your love for them.

Still, truth told, there are moments when I don’t know what the hell I am doing.

The first time I looked around my house at Christmastime, and it was full of steps, and in-laws, and ex in-laws, and your mother sharing grandmother stories with mine in the kitchen, and my grandmother holding your infant son, and my husband watching the game with your brother… I thought, “Hellooo, people – this is freaking weird! Where is the emotional barbed wire? The hurt grenades lobbed from opposing sides? The sabotage and vitriol and mind games?”

And then I caught glimpse of my three favorite faces, joyful in the midst of their odd mash-up family, and impervious to any meaning there that was less than the simple truth that everyone they loved on the planet was celebrating under the same roof together.

And I am grateful that you and I both wouldn’t have it any other way.

Olivia Hamilton Jones lives in Philly with her crazy family, and the little brown bear with three hearts. She is the creator of NoWallsUp.com where she writes about Birth, Bioethics, Zen, Mamahood, Sisterhood, Good Divorce, Better Marriage + more. Her mission and her wish for you: living, learning and loving with No Walls Up.
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