While raising our now-grown daughter in Southwest, we regularly took walks down by Minnehaha Creek. The pleasures there helped us with the task we faced: becoming a family.
I had moved in with my husband and his daughter back in 1996, when I was 41. An introvert, I regroup in the quiet. I had lived alone for much of my adulthood and had had control over my living space, over who came through the door. But those days were behind me.
At first, in my ignorance, I thought it was just the arrival of my husband’s ex at our door every other week that I had to adjust to. In-between times we would be an enclosed family of three. When his ex came in to drop off our girl, J., the hair on the back of my neck went up.
But soon we realized that it would work best if we allowed there to be a flow between the two households. There were trips back and forth to her mom’s for forgotten items. There were changes in plans to allow J. to be part of family events at her mom’s house, or at our house.
My husband, of course, had to be in regular contact with his ex to orchestrate all this.
I liked to say at the time that I had not planned to be mature enough to handle anything like the emotional complexities of this give and take. I had to scramble to figure out how to hold my center amid all the churning.
It was the day I found a sock in the dryer that belonged to no one who lived at our address that I concluded this about our arrangement: OK, now I get it, this is polygamy, without the sex.
However hard you think it might be to create a healthy stepfamily, well, it is harder than that. And funnier, at least with our crew, and, I’d have to say, more satisfying.
The triangle of my husband, his wife, and his daughter was broken open by divorce, and it splintered, eventually, into multiple triangles: ex-wife, step-dad, daughter; dad, step-mom, daughter; mom, step-mom, daughter; dad, step-dad, daughter.
Two things: triangles have sharp points on them. And our girl, as young as she was, had to deal with being a part of all of them.
I went to the library back then to learn about step-daughter/step-mom relationships. The titles that came up were all, get this, murder mysteries. While there have been low moments (“If you want to know how to make pie,” she said after she had sampled mine, “call my mother!”) and tough periods (especially pre-adolescence), from the beginning I just plain liked J., whatever you call the relationship between us.
Another thing that helped was that neither my husband nor I felt sentimental about trying to recreate our own families of origin. In some ways, they hadn’t worked all that well. As in dealing with each other, we brought creativity to the table. Here is a new family arrangement, we thought. What can we do to make it work?
One thing we did was take those walks along Minnehaha Creek, which flows from near our house downstream to near J.’s mother’s. A common sight in our neighborhood back then was the three of us, the very tall man, the tall woman, the little girl, and an old black-and-white dog, all just lolling along, occasionally stopping to look, or to ponder the girl’s questions.
Once at the creek, our girl would climb a tree, or she and I would run races, or we would all throw the ball or the Frisbee around. We would take a look at the scilla, or the yellow iris, or the live clams in the shallow water. The creek was one thing we three had in common, and the relationship each of us had to it was pretty much the same.
Of course, the thing I knew about stepfamilies, even back at the beginning, is the thing everyone knows: stepmothers are wicked, a stereotype I naturally came to resist.
J. liked to play a game back then where she would assign us roles and we would act them out. I noticed that I was always asked to be the heavy: the witch, the wolf, that sort of thing. One day I thought, it is time to declare myself.
J. asked me to be the monster, and I bent over her. I can still see her young, eager face looking up at me. “OK, honey,” I said, “I will be the monster, but I want to tell you something.”
“What?” she asked.
“I am the nicest monster you are ever going to meet.” She grinned. She is smart. She knew exactly what I meant.
Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.