I was once told that I was the reason that stepmothers get such a bad rap in Disney movies. My crime? I’d written an essay about my complicated relationship with a divorced father of three, and in it I’d admitted to the occasional bout of jealousy in the beginning of our relationship. I wrote that sometimes, I couldn’t help but feel a little left out of the things I wasn’t allowed to participate in yet: vacations, the kids’ sports games, birthday dinners.
In the comments section, one reader said that if jealousy was a problem for me, then I was responsible for all the bad PR stepmothers get. Then she used some very colorful language to tell me to grow up.
I was just trying to be honest: As someone in her mid-30s who never planned on having kids, being the girlfriend of an older man with three teenagers is a challenging place to be. And in the beginning, it could be a lonely place.
Then last month — three years into our relationship — my boyfriend Kevin received a text from his ex-wife: I’d like to have coffee with Dani.
Oh what I wouldn’t give for the days when I felt left out.
The fact is, Kevin and his ex are model co-parents. At their divorce hearing, the judge complimented them on how thin their file was. Someone recently told him that the word on the cul-de-sac i that he and his ex “did divorce the right way.” They both love their children very much and try to do what’s best for them, regardless of how Kevin and his ex feel about each other.
It made sense that she wanted to meet. Kevin and I had just moved in together, and the logistics alone of our now intertwined lives called for a face-to-face sit-down. Better to get that first awkward meeting out of the way in a planned and private way. I knew that if I were in her position, I’d want to meet me, too. And so I agreed. Numbers were exchanged, and I soon found myself texting my boyfriend’s ex-wife to make plans.
Despite Kevin’s reassurances that I’d do fine — and that he’d still like me even if she didn’t — I wanted to make a good impression. So naturally I thought about all the ways that I might not do that: What if she asks me about my misspent youth, and I have to account for that chunk of unproductive years (my entire 20s)? What if she demands to know what kind of example I think I’m setting for her children, living in sin with their father? What if she starts talking to me about what a great basketball player her son is, and I mistake that as a cue to tell her about how my parents really let me down by not putting me on any sports teams, and that ultimately I’m pretty sure that’s where most of my intimacy issues stem from?
All sorts of scenarios played out in my mind as I tried on several outfits, before settling on something that I thought gave me a “maternal-but-not-too-maternal-because-I’m-not-trying-to-replace-anyone’s-mother” look.
Then I made my way through the snowy streets of Jersey to Starbucks.
When I was younger and drawing up plans about my future, this was not in any of the preliminary sketches. Knowing from a fairly young age that I didn’t want to have kids, I never imagined that I’d be stepping into a situation in which I was in any way accountable for three of them — and yet here I was.
I do consider myself accountable to those kids — not as their mother or stepmother, but as someone who’s a part of their lives in an intimate way, and whose very presence has changed the dynamic between their parents. When I got into this relationship, part of what I signed on for was considering these kids’ best interests.
And here’s the punchline: There is no punchline. There was no drama, no aggressive confrontation, no traumatic oversharing at my coffee with Kevin’s ex. Mostly it had the awkward feel of a job interview — except that we were both applicants and neither of us knew exactly what we were applying for. We talked about the kids, about what I do for work, about what she does. We talked about the Giants and the Knicks, about some of her fears for her kids. We talked very little about Kevin. We were in and out of there in 20 minutes, and I felt like such a grown-up that I didn’t know what to do with myself.
So if I can take this opportunity to rebut my dear commenter — no, I don’t think that I give stepmothers a bad name. I think I’m in a situation in which I never thought I’d find myself — a situation that overwhelms me sometimes — and I’m doing my best not to muck the whole thing up.
Maybe Disney should take it easy on stepmothers. It’s not such an easy role to play.