Here was her proposed solution: “Next time you get an ultrasound, have them write down whether it’s a boy or a girl and seal it in an envelope. When you get home, just give it to me so I can find out. I promise not to tell you.”
I reminded her that I was only three months pregnant. She was confident that she was ready to be the only person to know the sex of the baby for the next six months.
After she went to bed, my husband and I talked it over. I worried that we were making it a game to keep secrets. But I also thought she was a genius, and I liked the idea of giving her a special connection to the baby.
After our next ultrasound appointment, my husband gave her the envelope, which she read alone in her room. At dinner that night, she offhandedly turned to me and asked a question about the baby, and “his room.”
I searched her face. “Hooray! It’s a boy!” I yelled. Had she messed up? Or did she say “he” on purpose to tease us? I couldn’t tell.
She didn’t blink. “Or her room,” she said, quiet and steady.
After that she alternated pronouns. She suggested girl names and boy names with equal interest and sincerity. She sometimes referred to the baby as “It” as in, “How long will you have to stay in the hospital when it’s born?”
What sort of creature is a pregnant stepmother? When I was five months pregnant, someone at a nail salon asked how many children I had.
I didn’t even think about it. “None,” I said. “How many do you have?”
My friend Teresa listened in from behind her People magazine. As we stepped onto the sidewalk in disposable flip-flops, she said, “I can’t believe you said you don’t have any children. I hate to break it to you, but you have three.”
By Mother’s Day, I was hugely pregnant. I told everyone that I was not going to wait another year to celebrate the holiday. “This is my first Mother’s Day,” I declared.
When my family arrived for our annual brunch, I realized my husband had told them to count me among the mothers. My parents handed me flowers and a card. My brother and his wife gave me a bracelet engraved with a “T,” short for our unborn baby’s nickname: Trouble.
The following weekend, my stepdaughter returned from her mother’s house and noticed my Mother’s Day cards. “If you’re pregnant, does that mean you’re a mother?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve been asking myself that same thing.”
“Well, you’re definitely a stepmother,” she said. “But that’s not the same thing as being a mother. And when the baby is born you will definitely be a mother. So it’s like you’re two one-halves.”
Her honest curiosity was so comforting. I hoped she could work it out with fractions once and for all. How many halves make a real mother?
My stepdaughter kept the secret for the whole pregnancy, and she was with me when my water broke, three weeks early, on a family vacation. After a trip to the local ER, we started the three-hour ferry and car ride home. Because I was not having contractions, our frenzied packing and departure was more amusing than painful.
On the ferry, my stepdaughter asked my husband and me to guess the sex of the baby one last time. She was setting up her favorite joke.
“Boy,” I said.
“Girl,” said my husband.
Her face betrayed nothing. “One of you is right,” she said.
Jennifer L. Hollis had a boy. She is the author of “Music at the End of Life: Easing the Pain and Preparing the Passage.” You can connect with her at jenniferhollis.com or @JenniferLHollis.
You might also be interested in: