Here’s the question: Which came first, estrangement from our dad, or our stepmother? I have a complex guess. But instead of guessing I’m going to stay with the facts. Distance and a sense that we were interrupting a mid-life love affair, were problems. We, my sister and I, had a hard time finding a way inside their relationship and dad didn’t know how to make us a priority, insisting that he have time just with us. And who knows, maybe that was too hard, to weird, too much of strain inside their cocoon of new love. Whatever the reason, this making solo-time for kids seems to be a common occurrence for men in second marriages.
From day one of their love affair, dad and his wife talked a lot and often about their time together. Like they might not have enough, get enough or create enough. They mandated their time together. I felt suffocated when they discussed a typical week of time logged reading to each other, working in their garden and running political campaigns.
I leaned back in my beach chair, sunglasses askew, two-point cheese stick (thanks Weight Watchers) aloft, and dismissed my sister’s attempts to understand. To understand when things got too strange with dad and his wife of twenty years. Had things begun going south years ago, when they’d immigrated to the US, Mexican border? I shrugged.
Recently, our stepmother began a campaign on behalf of our dad. She has told various family members, at various family events, that he is sad and confused. He misses his daughters but , his daughters don’t give him the time of day. He feels unloved. Our stepmother’s campaign has been more successful with different family members than others. When I was told about our father’s sadness and his wife’s concern for him, I listened respectfully and then reminded the messenger that if our stepmother had something to say to my sister and me, the most direct route would be to our faces. In other words, it’s usually not a good sign when you’ve been co-opted into family drama as the messenger of hurt feelings.
My sister is authentic. I’m a bullshit artist. I can pretend to like anyone. She can’t. She genuinely tried to keep a relationship with dad and his wife. She called. She visited. Her boys love sports, our father loves sports. My sister reads all the time and dad reads all they time. They share a certain intellectual quirkiness that I have only an ounce of. And yet, our father missed out on the opportunity to build adult relationships with us or grandparent relationship with our children. He chose distance, geographical and emotional. I’m okay with this for various reasons amounting to years of therapy. My sister, she’s nicer than I am, and she has continued to try long after I quit, to have a relationship. My sister has tried to make it otherwise.
Last summer, after my son had a bad accident my father and his wife stopped by for dinner. They were in the area because they summer a few hours away from us. And every year we are invited and every year, I think about the awkwardness of such a visit and decline. My sister, she goes. She tries. Anyway, I hadn’t seen my father in well over a year. The unspoken tensions in the room included a conversation where my stepmother and father rated the well-being of their adult children. I had just spent a harrowing time hoping my kid’s skull wasn’t cracked and that his concussion would heal. Yet somehow, rating the lives of their adult children was where the conversation meandered that humid August evening. I continued eating while they rated us, their messy adult children. Our lives and secrets laid bare on the table while the evaluated and judged. I kept eating, shoving my face with food. I knew I wasn’t going to win the “looks fit and trim award” when dad and his wife were done!
They concluded that our stepmother’s daughter, the daughter with the least amount of money was the happiest. She had the happiest marriage and the happiest children. I said I thought that was swell. And then, my father tried to offer me some kudos. Something about me writing and taking care of teenagers. I gotta admit, kudos from my dad still feel good. And then, bam, his wife verbally tackled him. She reminded him that when she’d been a single mother, she’d worked full-time, graveyard shifts, super-heroine-like. I told her that she had clearly had a much more difficult life than anyone else in the history of single-parenting. And I was glad I had not. And in fact, I did not consider myself a single parent. That settled that. My dad took my kudos away.
The trick with our stepmother, I said to my sister, cheese stick still aloft, is letting her know she’s amazing. The trick to our father is accepting that he thinks the woman is amazing. And knowing, that he’ll do anything she tells him to do. We all want to be amazing. We all want another to think we are. Nothing new here. Nothing new at all.