Leslie Jamison is stepmother to Lily, age six. Lily’s mother died of cancer just before she turned three, and in this essay from the New York Times Magazine, Jamison explores fairy tale stepmothers both as the rare “port in the storm” and the much more common “stock villain” stereotyped by cruelty and abuse, as she navigates the fraught role of stand-in parent.
The evil stepmother casts a long, primal shadow, and three years ago I moved in with that shadow, to a one-bedroom rent-controlled apartment near Gramercy Park. I sought the old stories in order to find company—out of sympathy for the stepmothers they vilified—and to resist their narratives, to inoculate myself against the darkness they held.
My relationship with Lily, too, was not like the story we inherited from fairy tales — a tale of cruelty and rebellion—or even like the story of divorce-era popular media: the child spurning her stepmother, rejecting her in favor of the true mother, the mother of bloodline and womb. Our story was a thousand conversations on the 6 train or at the playground in Madison Square Park. Our story was painting Lily’s nails and trying not to smudge her tiny pinkie. Our story was telling her to take deep breaths during tantrums, because I needed to take deep breaths myself. Our story began one night when I felt her small, hot hand reach for mine during her favorite movie, when the Abominable Snowman swirled into view on an icy mountain and almost overwhelmed the humble reindeer.
For me, the stakes of thinking about what it means to be a stepmother don’t live in statistical relevance—slightly more than 10 percent of American women might relate!—but in the way stepparenting asks us to question our assumptions about the nature of love and the boundaries of family. Family is so much more than biology, and love is so much more than instinct. Love is effort and desire—not a sentimental story line about easy or immediate attachment, but the complicated bliss of joined lives: ham-and-guacamole sandwiches, growing pains at midnight, car seats covered in vomit. It’s the days of showing up. The trunks we inherit and the stories we step into, they make their way into us—by womb or shell or presence, by sheer force of will. But what hatches from the egg is hardly ever what we expect: the child that emerges, or the parent that is born. That mother is not a saint. She’s not a witch. She’s just an ordinary woman. She found a sled one day, after she was told there weren’t any left. That was how it began.