Once upon a time there was a little boy with hazel eyes, a dimpled chin, and freckles scattered across his wide cheeks. His parents split up when he was three and his dad went to live on a farm in Seven Valleys, Pennsylvania, where the boy and his sister got to visit him on weekends. The sister, four years older with wild dark brown hair, thick eyebrows, and a very high IQ, constantly teased the boy, making fun of his chipmunk cheeks. Yet he was her slave nonetheless.
The farm had no cows or sheep, but it did have a flock of awkward, flightless birds with spiky, ashen feathers and round, rust-colored eyes. The emus pranced in slow circles around their pen, making a thrumming drumming sound, a sound you would not expect to come out of a bird at all. Just down the hill there was a creek you could fish in, and an old-fashioned train went by in the evenings. The train was always full of fancy people leaning out the windows, laughing and pointing at the emus. It moved so slowly that if you were close enough you could see the tables with their white cloths, the trays of sparkling glasses, the jacketed waiters.
Maybe, the father replied vaguely, when the boy asked if they could go on the train, maybe someday. It wasn’t that it was expensive, though indeed it was. While the father was not a wealthy man, he was not averse to credit card debt. He was simply not the ye-olde-dinner-train type. He was the bowling type, the Frisbee type, the nature hike and homemade-tree-swing type, and he had never heard of the misconception common among grownups that you can watch too much television. At his house children ate oatmeal with candy dinosaur eggs for almost any meal and went to Wal-Mart to buy a toy almost anytime. He read stories to them every night for as long as they could stay awake, and let them sleep in his bed when they nodded off.
Then the father got a new wife who came from Texas with two big stepbrothers and two cats and they moved to a house where you couldn’t see the train. To the boy, the best thing about this new situation was the brothers (though they proved to be rather violent—the older one liked to play a game he called “Which Hurts Worse?”). But the bad part was that it was now much, much harder to get his father’s attention. Often the boy had to ask many times. Can you read to me? Can you read to me now? Can you read to me? He couldn’t sleep in the bed with his father and stepmother. Sometimes at night he would call his own mother secretly. Hearing her voice would make him cry and then he might be allowed to go home.
The big sister thought everything about her new stepmother was just fine. She took one look at her wild brown hair and intense gaze and saw one of her own kind. Before long, the two of them were involved in an endless round of Scrabble, learning arcane two-letter words and ways to use Q without U. Across the playing board they would roll their eyes at each other about the little boy and his obsession with his father. Any time he lost track of him for a couple of minutes he would wander through the house saying, Where’s Dad? Where’s Dad? And five minutes later, Where’s Dad?
Once upon a time there was a stepmother who was not evil or murderous or mad, though at times a little jealous and impatient. She had a problem with messy houses and improperly balanced meals and purchasing toys on every Wal-Mart visit. Nonetheless, she planned to be a magnanimous, bountiful stepmother, a pal to all, and in the new home of her blended family, there were kittens and video game systems and a giant trampoline in the backyard.
One of the first birthdays they celebrated together was the little boy’s eighth, and she bought everyone tickets for the dinner train, where it turned out neither the food nor the entertainment was very good by big-city standards, but no one seemed to mind. Look at the emus! The little boy seemed amazed to have this dream finally come true. After dinner, the grownups made out in the disco and the children ran up and down till they found the double-decker observation car at the end. Up a spiral staircase with a neon banister they went. They lay down on plushy forties banquettes under an arched glass roof as a crescent moon and the Big Dipper floated above them.
However, life was not always a birthday party. Every weekend, the little boy would come and take up all the time and space and every drop of his father’s attention; then when it got dark out, he’d have a nervous breakdown and need to leave. If he’s going to cry all the time to go home, maybe he shouldn’t come in the first place, the stepmother would say to her husband. Then she would hear herself, shudder, and go to the kitchen to make the boy a quarter pound of bacon and a tray of cinnamon rolls.
The stepmother had not fully appreciated the complexities of stepparenting before she got into the business. She could see that there were many adults in the world whose love for children exceeded the biological imperatives. Actually both of her husbands had been raised by stepfathers whom they adored, and she knew many people who had adopted kids, who had foster kids, people who would take any kid to Disney World. Her own mother had not been this type, though. She was very devoted to the two girls she had borne, but her enthusiasm for childcare did not extend beyond them, and she did not seem to have a lot of unused capacity in the family department.
The stepmother could see she fell somewhere between these two poles.
Also living in the kingdom was the real mother of the boy and girl. She was nervous from the start. Who would not have been nervous about a stranger in her children’s lives? But one day the mother and stepmother met for coffee and bagels and saw how easily they could be friends, and soon they were the ones on the phone figuring out how to divide the camp fees and fight the insurance companies and plan the weekend visits. Soon the stepmother realized she was no longer resisting the secret urge to un-plan the visits. Around this time the boy began to laugh at her jokes.
Then one day he said, Where’s Dad?
I don’t know, the stepmother replied wearily, why?
I wanted to go to the video store, he said.
I’ll take you, she replied, certain he would say nah, that’s okay.
Great, he said.
On the way, they talked about a program he liked on MTV, which she could not quite believe was called Pimp My Ride, and at the store she did all the things she normally frowned upon, such as renting more movies than could possibly be seen in the time allotted and purchasing candy at inflated movie-store prices.
Things were changing; the kids were growing up. The stepmother and the girl took trips to New York and to Texas, and they went jogging and to yoga classes together and told each other secrets. The boy turned eleven, and then twelve. His palate began to broaden dramatically. Now he loved the stepmother’s cooking and brought her gifts for her kitchen that she used every day—a Japanese rice steamer, a banana hanger, a retractable vegetable peeler that shoots out like a switchblade. Because no one else in his family was interested in the culinary arts, she knew it was because of her that he started to want to make soups and bread and pies.
Fortunately, the boy was already a teenager by the time his mother remarried and became a stepmother herself.
Today when the stepmother is asked, she says she has five kids—four teenagers and a four-year-old. Though there doesn’t seem to be any other correct answer, she still feels awkward about saying this. She has come to believe that ordinary life offers few varieties of moral education more potent, and more underrated, than stepparenting, and she admits to being a little inconsistent in rising to the challenge. The fact is, she simply does not feel like a mother to her stepchildren. They already have a mother. And she already has children.
Perhaps her stepchildren’s mother pinpointed it best. The mother had accidentally discovered her daughter’s online diary and read a few sentences before she stopped herself. From these few sentences she gleaned that the girl had many secrets and that the stepmother knew them all. She was able to forgive the stepmother for this appalling situation by remembering an aunt she had been close to when she was young. How fortunate it was that she had had her to talk to because there were some things a girl was not going to discuss with her mother.
Friend, aunt, mentor: some combination of those things might be it. In any case, the stepmother will tell you that the wry, tolerant, uncrazy relationships she has forged with these children, one easily, one not, bear no resemblance to the mother-child relationship as she knows it. Ask her other three.
And yet when the girl plays a seven-letter word to come from behind and beat her at Scrabble, when the boy spends all of Thanksgiving in the kitchen helping her with dinner, she feels something that can only be described as maternal pride. It has a surprising sweetness, perhaps like love found in an arranged marriage, or faith in a religious conversion: in any true thing that is made, not born.