“He’s on the defensive line, trying to keep the other team from scoring,” explained my husband Steve, as we sat in the stands during his son’s high school football game in August.
I pretended to understand. As a newish stepmom to a teen, I grabbed at any chance to connect. But this was futile. I just didn’t get it. And it wasn’t the only thing I didn’t get.
For decades, I’d been an Irish dancer. I’d performed in shows throughout North America, in London and on Broadway. Living in New York for twenty plus years, I attended anything related to art. Life then took me back to Missouri where I met Steve, a father of three. Two were adults, and the youngest, the football player, lived with us part-time. In the nearly four years since being with Steve, I’d never met his ex.
“Have you seen his mother?” I asked, wondering if she was also in the stands.
“No. We have an unspoken rule — she sits on that side; I sit on this side.”
I nodded, disappointed they couldn’t sit side-by-side to show unified support for their child.
The announcer said my stepson’s name. I shouted, still confused but determined to cheer him on.
Three Augusts earlier, when my husband told his long-term ex about the seriousness of our relationship, she declined meeting me. I was relieved. After we purchased a house with a room in it for each of his sons, Steve received a message that he was not to contact his ex unless it was an emergency. We focused on creating our new home, which wasn’t easy for me, a long-term single, childless lawyer. I picked up the youngest from school. I stopped my work and greeted each boy as they arrived home. We had group birthday dinners and hosted parties.
Increasingly, I was uneasy about having never met the woman who lived five minutes from my house and had birthed the children living part-time under my roof. I wondered what she could share about rules and expectations or advice on helping with her trio.
Based on guidance from divorced friends and therapists, I sent my husband’s ex holiday flowers and a note, saying it was great to get to know her boys, attempting to reassure her that she was the mother. I gave her my number. She never contacted me.
The announcer repeated my stepson’s name. Deep in my thoughts, I had missed the action.
“What happened?” I asked.
My husband explained how my stepson had blocked a player.
After the game ended in victory for our team, I folded my chair. Steve began speaking with a woman a few rows behind us. I strained to catch each word and tried to place the woman. Was she the mom I’d met at the park? Or the one whose house my stepson often visited? Maybe she was Steve’s patient, and he'd had HIPAA to uphold?
Not wanting to be rude, I asked, “Whose mom are you?”
With a pinched face and shoulder shimmy, she declared herself my stepson’s mom.
“OH! I didn’t realize. So nice to meet you,” I said, sounding as if my brain had taken a break, my smile huge while inside I screamed.
I’d seen old photographs and had been struck by her beauty, a petite blond with a pixie nose. But in a baseball hat on a humid night decades later, she wasn’t recognizable.
While she avoided eye contact, a silence hung among us.
In the parking lot, Steve said, “That was awkward. I’m sorry. I should have introduced you, but I was surprised she was there and sitting on my side.”
“Good thing I didn’t introduce myself as your son’s stepmom.” Encountering my husband’s ex in the stands, I’d witnessed bitterness I’d only felt second hand. Her lack of interest to meet me three years ago should have been a red flag, but I was too blinded by love and hope. I thought of my friend in California who’d hosted her divorced husband’s 50th birthday party along with their child and her new husband and baby. I envied what she had.
I paused, thinking of the boys. How much negativity had they absorbed?
I grew up with parents who often hollered at each other. Several times, I asked my mother to get a divorce. She refused, her religious beliefs strongly pro-marriage. For years, I sought therapy and attended workshops to get guidance on healthy communication and boundaries, and deal with my struggles. After moving to Missouri, I continued this work to create a better home environment — one filled with respect and love — for my new family. Together with my husband, we strive to deepen these lessons.
It’s been nearly ten months since that football game, and my youngest stepson is now officially an adult like the other two. But parenting doesn’t stop at a certain age, and parenting isn’t severed by divorce. Since I’m planning on a till-death-do-us-part union with my husband, I’ll always be the trio’s stepmom. Even if I can’t magically create a bond with their mom or understand football, I’m still going to show up in their lives. That’s a goal I can grasp.
Tess Clarkson is a former professional Irish dancer (“Riverdance” and “Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance”) and financial regulation lawyer in New York, is working on a memoir. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, HuffPost, The Independent, Next Avenue, Motherwell, YourTango, AARP’s The Girlfriend, and AARP’s The Ethel. She lives in Missouri with her husband and is certified as a yogi, astrologer and end-of-life doula.