My children’s father and I, while divorced, have forged an amicable alliance. True, we didn’t initially see eye to eye, and our divorce was painful, but those days are behind us. We text frequently, chat at exchanges, and sit next to each other at the 642 kid events happening every week.
My feelings about his wife, however, are a different story. My ex, Billy, married a woman with two children of her own. She is kind to my children, and they have a positive relationship. But the truth is my feelings about her aren’t all sweetness and light.
I’m sometimes jealous.
When they first started dating, Billy told me Stephanie was so petite he could literally sweep her off her feet. She’s smart and funny and has thick wavy hair that seems to swoop and curl effortlessly. She’s lovely; after an adjustment period, I’ve accepted that.
It’s the man she’s married to who gives me pause.
When Billy and I were married, he was not terribly affectionate. I was the organizer in our relationship — grocery shopping, cooking, and managing the calendar. I was the adventurer, coaxing and cajoling him to join me on a weekend away.
The man Stephanie is married to just spent three weeks touring Europe with her. The children tell of him kissing her in the kitchen as he cooks dinner. He does the laundry and grocery shopping in that house.
This isn’t unusual. Like many of us who have ended a marriage, Billy learned important lessons from his divorce. Like many of us who have found the right partner, Billy is energized and inspired by Stephanie. I am happy for him, truly, and deeply glad our children can witness their healthy relationship.
It’s just that the Billy she knows is the Billy I once desperately wanted. I am sometimes jealous that she inspires him to be the man I couldn’t.
I sometimes treat her as an afterthought.
Sometimes my children’s stepmom doesn’t exist for me. Not in a purposeful, exclusive way, but rather an I’m-busy-doing-my-thing-and-forget way.
Early on, Billy and I agreed to keep the co-parenting communication between the two of us for simplicity’s sake. Stephanie doesn’t pick up or drop off the children and is often busy with her own children’s activities as Billy and I share bleacher space at events for ours.
I don’t see her often, so I sometimes forget about her. My history and interaction still sit with Billy.
But the truth is, the same is not true for our children. Stephanie is a huge part of their lives and the home they have with their father. She matters — to Billy, to my children, and thus, to me.
I realized early in their marriage that I was often unthinkingly referring to their home or car or time as “Dad’s” rather than “Dad and Stephanie’s.” It wasn’t purposeful, but as a stepmom myself, I knew it could have a broad negative impact.
I changed my behavior. I try to include her when I speak about my children’s father. I encourage their relationship with her. I want children free of painful loyalty binds, and so I make an effort to remember their stepmother’s critical role in their lives and speak up.
Sometimes, I’m sorry for her.
There’s the clichéd reason, of course. Whatever flaws of Billy’s I escaped in our divorce are now Stephanie’s to manage. There are full websites devoted to exes crowing about how happy they are that their once-true-love is now someone else’s problem.
That’s not what I’m talking about here.
Sometimes I see or hear of Stephanie genuinely and kindly trying to connect with my children only to have them reject her. My heart aches for her every time.
Early in their relationship, Stephanie issued a gentle and appropriate correction to my son and he shot back with “you’re not my mom.” My daughter reports that my other son often refuses to eat because Stephanie’s recipes are “too weird.” I once watched my daughter refuse an offer of a denim jacket in her size and exactly her style, shaking her head and saying she didn’t think it would fit. If I’d been offering the jacket, she would’ve loved it.
Mostly, I am overwhelmingly grateful for her.
I am grateful to her for bringing out the best in their father. I see her influence smoothing his rough edges. He is happy and secure in her love. I am thankful my children see a man who loves and honors his wife and fully partners with her to run a household.
But that’s just the start of what I have to thank her for.
I know my children. I know their quirks and their fears and their strange dietary preferences, and I know they are not always easy. Sometimes, in fact, they are infuriatingly difficult.
Stephanie doesn’t have to do this hard and holy work with Billy and me. She couldn’t have known what she was signing up for. And yet, she keeps showing up. She shows up after being rejected and forgotten. She shows up when they have been surly and rude. She shows up when it would be so much easier not to.
She loves them, wholly and genuinely and with room for me and the other members of their tribe. And for that and for her, I am eternally grateful.