Maddie / Carol jean Marine

Aiming for Coconuts
by Jennifer Marine

This essay has only taken me five completely separate drafts to write because I am struggling with how real to be. The nature of writing is that you speak intimately to your piece of paper or your computer screen, whispering, tapping, scribbling, willing your thoughts to congeal, pulling your murky feelings and jangling thoughts out of yourself like a magician pulling a piece of string from a hat. Then, surprise, you share this with whatever complete stranger happens to feel like reading it. Someone who can potentially stop mid-sentence, and mentally grumble to themselvesÖ oh god, what an assÖ

The problem is, Iím afraid of coming across as a bitch, a shrew, a gossip, a pathetically self-absorbed, supposed adult who parades her neuroses and flaws in print for all the world to see, and yet canít see them herself. That will probably prove to be the case somewhere in here, but what can I do? Such are the risks of creative nudity. And if I were perfect, thereíd be nothing left to say. The truth is that I do have uncharitable feelings about my relationship with my childrenís stepmother, who from now on, Iíll call Carol, her real name, instead of some title or designation. I do sometimes feel competitive, territorial and unforgiving and all those things Iím not supposed to feel. I do feel small and petty and stubbornly begrudging, like a little troll.

Eleven years ago, and then again, seven years ago, I was faced with a stunning, monumental fact: WhoaÖ this was going to require some major personal growth on my part -- taking care of this warm, yielding, tiny, breathing bundle in my arms. Had the universe made a mistake in giving me, of all people, such a colossal responsibility?

Lo and behold, eventually I grew into those shoes, and though I still stumble in the dark, I feel like Iíve got a pretty good flashlight, and for the most part, it works. But part of me wants to stop right there, and say, okay, enough. Iíve worked hard enough, the main thing -- trying to do a good job raising these two kids, is tough enough (and dammit, is forever changing). Now I have to add creating a good relationship with my ex-husbandís new wife for both my children and myself to the list? I want to whine and cross my arms and give up. I want to just steal phrases from books on assertiveness training: nope, sorry, I really canít make that commitment.

But of course I know that is entirely stupid.

Feeling my way through creating a relationship with Carol has been some of the most grueling stuff Iíve ever been through, worse than the divorce. Itís been painful and confusing and weird and embarrassing. But, wait -- how odd! Almost two years into it, itís also been a strange relief Ė thereís someone else sharing this load - hadnít expected that one. And itís been good in that kind of way that makes you drive off in your car afterwards and look around you with renewed gratitude that the world can repaint itself in such vivid colors, and fill your heart with a kind of relaxed ease and emptiness.

To my own astonishment, there have been times where Iíve been cracked open like a coconut on a desert island, innards exposed to the warming sun, by the tenderness I have seen Carol express towards my two daughters. I have been completely melted by her thoughtfulness and determined care in a time when I thought Iíd normally be bearing arms -- and have had to recontextualize our entire situation.

There was the time I walked into Carol and my ex-husband Davidís apartment and came face-to-face with an enormous oil painting resting on the floor by the fireplace. It was a portrait, painted by Carol, of my youngest daughter, Maddie (see above painting). It was beautiful, a riot of color and joy. It took my breath away because, obviously, Carol could see what I see in my daughter: her crazy exuberance for life, her freeing glee. I could not deny that this woman loved my daughter, and that is both a happy thing and something that tugs at my heart.

It tugs at my heart because I want to believe that I am the only one who holds that position -- guardian of the secret, innermost selves of my children. I am the only one who can look deep inside them, and see where they need to go years down the line, and subtly shift and shape the direction of their lives to make sure they get there. It is supposed to be a motherís secret power, our elemental role, something men usually never do; our primary function on top of ensuring their survival. And yet, if our children are to grow into their most glorious selves, how can we do this alone? They need as many people as possible to help them get there -- truly, in this case, the more the merrier. But, still, I waited until I was in the car to cry with a bewildering mixture of pride, fear and gratitude.

Itís not easy to hear your ten-year-old confess with breathless excitement how much she likes her new stepmother, how she encourages and supports interests you donít care about, like cool purses, and nail polish (which you donít approve of) and pants that donít make you look like a dweeb. Itís not easy to help your eldest daughter buy her stepmother something for Motherís Day because itís the right thing to do, and to hear her read aloud what sheís written in the card. She writes those things because of the genuine goodness of her stepmother, so different from the evil stepmother stereotype. She writes those things because they are true about their relationship. Theirs. It has nothing to do with you, it is outside your control, your reach, your view. There now exists four more chains of love, four more beams of light headed out from one person towards another: their love for her, hers for them.

It stung to hear those words read aloud. Luckily, I am blessed with friends and a partner who remind me that the fact that my daughter feels safe enough to tell me these things is both an honor and a gift. Mature Self rears its perfectly-coiffed head, and tries to say, patting and reassuring me, youíre doing fineÖ

But Mature Self doesnít stand there with her mouth hanging open at the simplicity but difficulty of the following irony: one of the most generous things you can do for your children is help them develop a happy bond with someone who shares your role. You do this because your children need close, trusting connections with other adults. They need to be shown that life changes, and people change, and relationships are important and deserve to be tended and cultivated, and even in the face of discomfort and squirminess, sometimes youíve just got to pull out your cheeriest self and lean on your good manners. You do this because years ago, you and their father took a hammer and shattered the classic familial bowl, and you still feel guilty as hell. And you do it because now you desperately want to make room for a bigger sense of family that works for them.

One thing thatís helped is for me to really see Carol. I actually like her. I've heard from enough mothers who would love to throttle their kidsí stepmom, but I'm glad I like Carol. She's a real person with real feelings, conflicts, and challenges of her own. She's an artist who paints with skill and feeling, she loves my kids in earnest, and I remind myself that this must be hard on her, too, sometimes. I wonder what this experience is like for her -- what hurts, what's confusing, what she pulls from the depths of herself even though it's tough, and when she, too, would like to give up. I wonder what she sees in my kids that she would like to help grow, like a small plant; what she would like to "fix" or change. I wonder what her dreams are for her place in their lives. I wonder what makes her sad and feel hopeless. I wonder what makes her happy, whatís better than she thought it would beÖ

Iím jumping around all over the place, because I guess thatís how my feelings go: back and forth. Maybe that, if anything, is one reason it's so difficult to write something definitive here. Yes, I want the absolute best outcome for my girls with whoever is going to be a regular and consistent part of their lives, and so I deliberately try to soften myself, to look at what they want, aside from my personal, ego-driven preferences. Sometimes this requires a massive tongue-biting, an anguishing sort of holding back, trying to keep my feelings out of my voice, my body language. Sometimes feelings transform themselves into something better. Sometimes they just hurt, and finally go away when I distract myself. And sometimes Iíve gotten really pissed off, when I felt conflicts were unfairly stacked, itís their two against my one, lines have been crossed.

I have to keep coming back to a vision: what do I want here for the girls? For myself? For Carol, Carol and David, for all of us? I, myself, am in a serious relationship, and eventually, we will be forming yet another family unit. How do I want things to be in our modern mixture of "soft places to fall" for these two little souls?

I have to shoot for the highest in myself, I have to work at resolving conflicts with David and Carol even when I donít want to, or am absolutely sure Iím right; when I have gotten reinforcements from friends who assure me that my position is completely legitimate, and that they, of course, are both full of shit (hey, sometimes thatís what friends are for). I, and we, have to move beyond that mindset of right and wrong, good and bad, and remember that we are on the same side, that we are an arbitrary bunch of human beings with frailties and blind spots who, clichť as it sounds, are doing the best we can, which unfortunately but realistically, also includes periodic bouts of laziness. I have to sit with myself in silence and look at the ugly parts of myself and be brave about backing down. Nothing less than our childrenís sense of themselves, their power and self-confidence, their present and future happiness depends on it. And, though they are only two small children out of billions in this world, that is no small thing.

I think of all the other divorced parents I know out there, all the children who shuffle back and forth between two homes, all the stepmothers and stepfathers, struggling to find their way. Maybe itís just a case of now seeing the brand of car you just bought everywhere, but Iíd swear Iím surrounded by a sea of divorced and newly combined families. Obviously, if the original parents got to that point in their marital relationship, they donít work well as a team. But somewhere deep inside ourselves, weíve got to muster our ability to stare unblinkingly into our shortcomings, and move forward with love, forgiveness and the raw surrender of a newly split coconut on a beach. The world at large reflects how difficult it is to do this. But I invite us all to tryÖ
Jennifer Marine is the Associate Publisher of AustinMama.com