Friday, June 12, 2009

The Wicked Stepmother

Okay, so I had one of these. My stepmother wasn't the kind that was outright wicked, but mean enough to say, leave the house when I was 13 and lock the door without telling me the alarm code. For a few hours. (You couldn't get in or out of my father's house without a key.) I was all, uh, what if there's a fire? And she was all, uh, I can't help you with that one, and your father's not home so you're not my problem.

Oh, you want to talk to someone who had Rapunzel issues? (Meaning I wanted to save someone, and in turn, be saved.) Talk to me.

My stepmother didn't do much to develop a relationship with me or my brother. We just sort of co-existed in the house without speaking. It was as if there were two separate families. Eventually, she began telling her daughter to stay away from my younger brother because he was a "bad" kid. Because ostracizing works, I guess. Then, my charming stepsister decided to stop talking to me altogether. I'd walk in the house and she'd lock herself in her bedroom. Needless to say, I begged my father to stop the custody arrangement when I was 16. He agreed.

With all of that wonderful avoidance stuff said, I actually have some semi-fond memories of my stepmother. She was an artist, kind of weird and interesting all at once. She painted beautifully abstract, large paintings with shapes and colors that blended into each other like clouds. She collected baby jar bottles and stacked them perfectly in her studio which I always found to be fascinating. (Maybe more OCD than artsy, but whatev.) She taught me that food could look beautiful, and would admire the way mozzarella cheese melted into the tomato sauce when making Thomas English Muffin pizzas. (Remember those?)

Are you surprised when I tell you that after eight years of marriage, my father and stepmother were on the brink of divorce? She lived on the third floor of his house. They didn't speak. Neither would move out to protect themselves from the dreaded divorce decree of abandonment. It was like "War of the Roses" -- an I'm-not-leaving-this-house-unless-someone's-dead scenario.

During that time, I was 21 and needed a break from living in and going to school in Manhattan. My father and I had started talking again while I was in college, and when Dad invited me to move back into the house, I said, sure! No rent. Tall oak trees in backyard. Rekindling relationship with Dad. Lovely.

My stepmother was not as pleased. Here's how that exchange went:

Dad: I want Hayley to move in here next month once she graduates.

Stepmother: Over my dead body.

Dad: Okay, done. Then you're dead.

Settlement and divorce ensue. I move in the house. Daughter triumphs! Okay, maybe not triumphs... but it was the first time my own father stood up for me. It was not my stepmother's fault that my father and I didn't have a relationship, but she did nothing, not a thing to help bring us together. And sorry ladies, I don't care who disagrees. The mother sets the tone.

With that said, I do blame my father for the disarray. He could have, and should have, taken control of the situation -- or at least tried. He should have helped us work on problems as a family. I talked to my father about this after their divorce and he owned up to it: "I was having my own problems, and you're right," he said. "I didn't think about you kids the way I should have. I didn't handle things well."

Look, we're all human. In stepparenting situations, as cheezy as this sounds, understanding and compassion needs to come first. So does maturity. A lot of it. When Andy and I first started dating, there was full disclosure. You don't like me for all this baggage I come with? Then it's not gonna work. (Clearly he did like me.) "He's not a hater," my friend Sara said about Andy when we first started dating. I think that's key for all parts of a stepfamily. If one person's a hater -- then we all suffer. My stepmother and stepsister? Haters.

I know not all blended families are like ours. There are a lot of crappy people out there who are haters. Who refuse counseling. Who are impossible to deal with. The Wicked Stepmom blog is a great example of one stepmother who is a true ally to her stepdaughter. The biological mom in their situation is dangerous and abusive -- the hater. At least the teenage girl in their situation has one strong woman: her stepmom.

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