The perspective of a stepparent who is then, suddenly, not.
The keychain sits on my nightstand. White and multicolored beads strung on white elastic thread, spelling out “Happy Mothers Day.” The memory of receiving my first Mother’s Day gift is just as vivid now as it was when its 7-year-old maker proudly presented it to me in her little marker-stained hands.
I came into the girls’ lives when they were 3, 5, and 9 years old. Their father, already twice divorced, swept me off my feet and across the country to start a new life with him and his girls. It seemed like a no-brainer at the time. I was happy to forego having children of my own in anticipation of my new family. As an only child and longtime solo dweller, it was a transition, to say the least.
In a relatively short time, however, everything fell into place. I was now their “other Mom.” Before I knew it, my thoughts instinctively ran to how I could make their days better. I’d bake special treats so that when they came home after school the house would smell of freshly baked love. I did the regular lice checks when their own mother took a pass. I cleaned up the sickness and “accidents” (Nos. 1 and 2), helped with reading and homework. I did hair and makeup for dance recitals. I learned to ask if they wanted their ketchup on top or in a puddle. I was frequently in silly mode just to make them laugh, which was always my favorite sound.
I answered questions about periods and making babies. I looked forward to the big hug around my waist that was a part of our daily after-school routine. I knew their favorite foods, colors, clothes, and stuffies. I made the Halloween costumes and took requests for birthday dinner menus. I picked them up from school when they weren’t feeling well and set them up on the sofa with soda crackers and peppermints.
I’d plan special outings, have spontaneous living room dance parties, and arrange for surprises and experiences for the five of us to remember. I collected handmade cards that read, “If you were my Mom, you’d be the best one ever!” and “I love you forever and ever and always.” I created our family traditions. I encouraged them to be kind, thoughtful, and independent people. And I let them know I loved them for who they were, no matter what.
I didn’t give birth to them. They weren’t my children by blood. I wasn’t even a legal guardian or next of kin. But for five and a half years, I was a mom to them. And in my heart, I knew I would always put their needs, safety, and happiness before my own.
The first time their father was unfaithful, my world came crashing down. My head said to leave, but my heart couldn’t bear the idea of leaving behind the family and home I loved and worked so hard to build. He swore it was a huge mistake and that he wanted me to stay. So I did.
For another 18 months, we worked through it, and I honestly thought we’d come out on the other side. Until we hadn’t. Another woman surfaced. And I knew that, this time, staying wasn’t an option. I had no choice but to leave behind the life, home, and family that I thought was forever.
One of the worst nights of my life was tucking them into bed and hugging them goodbye for the last time. I frantically prayed that time would stop so that I wouldn’t have to actually leave. I knew they couldn’t comprehend the permanency of what was happening or the real reason why. I’ll never forget their tear-stained faces and confusion, and my anguish in knowing I’d failed in sparing them this upheaval.
Months later, I’m on the other side of the country, trying to start over. I promised the girls I would always answer the phone if they wanted to talk or Skype, and I’ve kept that promise. But the calls are getting shorter and less frequent. I knew it might happen, and perhaps it’s best they forget about me as time goes on.
But I won’t forget. How do you recover from the loss of children? Will they be frozen in time in my mind? Will I always feel a lump in my throat when I see girls playing outside or walking to school? How do you set aside the feelings and habits of a parent? There’s no switch to turn off. It’s not something that just stops and goes away. A part of me that I was so proud of and grateful for just doesn’t exist anymore. And yet I still feel it.
I find I have to remind myself not to buy that cute sweater or game or book that I know they would love. I can feel my stomach sink when I catch myself noting moments in the day based on their schedules. I’m frequently embarrassed by sympathetic silences when I start regaling a story about the girls, only to remember they’re gone.
When new acquaintances ask if I have children, I simply shake my head. But my heart says otherwise. I know what it feels like to have kids. I know what it is to be terrified and grateful at the same time for that gift of responsibility. I know what it means to be a parent — to love and marvel at those little souls. I was a mom, once.
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