Between Mom and Stepmom

Sarah Menkedick reflects on the very different—and complementary—ways in which her mother and her stepmother have nurtured her.

Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | May 2017 | 15 minutes (3,743 words)

 

Meg first appeared to me as a nimbus of curly red hair, looming above my top bunk late at night. The hair, backlit and aglow, was so remarkable that I reached up and patted it as though it were a rare creature. Meg offered the nervous, extra-buoyant “hi” of the girlfriend meeting the boyfriend’s kid for the first time. In reply, I stroked the hair.

I was five; she was 25. Just a few weeks before, she had met my dad at an art opening. He was up-front about the fact that he was 37, divorced, with a 15-year-old and a five-year-old. She was working the second shift at a hospital, reading dense Buddhist texts, hanging out with a band of artists whose blue velvet berets and psychedelic hand-stenciled trunks would later color our house. They met in February and married in October. The ceremony was in the backyard of our old brick house near downtown Cincinnati. There was carrot cake, a smoldering fall sunset, an exchange of vows inspired by a California guru. Meg walked down the aisle to the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place.” In November of the following year, my brother Jackson was born.

His birth, at home in the front room of our house on a bright November morning, marked the beginning of a new era of family life. For years, it had just been my dad and me. After he and my mother divorced when I was three, Dad took me and moved into a dank basement apartment at the edge of Cincinnati’s struggling downtown, across the street from a park. He bundled me in mismatched ski masks and scarves and oversized mittens to go sledding, read me Shel Silverstein, carried me on his shoulders through the lush, damp forests of southern Ohio. My mom, after a decade of child-rearing and family life, longed for a new, independent, bohemian self. In Europe, in art, in independent film, in D.H. Lawrence and coffee shops and gritty diners, she sought what she had been too uncertain or young to pursue when she was twenty, newly married, and pregnant with my sister. I was the baby who cracked open the marriage’s vulnerabilities. I went with my dad; my sister stayed with my mom.

Then Meg came along, and suddenly I had two mothers. One gave me a unique, unusual independence; a heightened way of seeing the world; a model for how to buck conventionality and become an artist. The other sustained me, kept me fed and on time for play practice and morally oriented and as level-headed and capable of self-care as might be expected for a budding English major. For a long time I felt the need to reassure Meg, without her ever asking for it, that she too was my mother. I needed to let her know that I recognized all the love and care that seemed cast into doubt by the gloomy, culturally imposed umbrella of stepmotherhood, the default assumption that she was second place. My mother also needed reassurance that she was my mother, vital, central, although she had not been the one to tell me for the 700th time not to leave my wadded wet towel on the carpet.

The familiar narrative is that Meg and Mom must be inherently at odds with one another, that the task of motherhood is a solitary one performed by one woman in one household. Mom would thus be forever faulted and guilty for having left, for not being the one shaping my everyday; Meg had stepped into Mom’s presumed role, though she couldn’t fill it completely because she’d always be tagged with the stigma of “step.” They were culturally defined, as mothers often are, more by their lack than by their substance.

When I became a mother, I understood in a new way their need for consolation, the crushing pressure on a mother to be everything—to give birth, to nurture and rock and hold and tend twenty-four hours a day, to teach creativity and independence and manners and compassion and resilience, and to do it all with pluck and Zen equanimity—and the reality that no matter how hard she tries it is never enough. Of course it isn’t, because one human being can never be all that sustains another.

As a mother I stop thinking of Meg and Mom in terms of justifications—“She’s my stepmom but really she raised me”; “She didn’t raise me but really we had a close relationship”—and instead come to comprehend motherhood as a suite of complex and contradictory functions: the everyday and the existential, the disciplinary and expository and conciliatory and iconic and the simply-being-there, the comfort of the body and the comfort of adult control. In my case, these were shared by two women. I could not fully understand this until I gave birth to my daughter. While I labored, one mother stood at the head of the bed, one at the foot; one the body I needed to hold me, the heart to which I needed to synch my own, and the other the mind, the presence, and wherewithal I needed to guide me. In the months that followed my daughter’s birth I felt both the significance of physical motherhood, the corporeal and biological bond, and the meaning of a love that transcends that bond.


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In the first months of pregnancy I ran headlong into an intense, unforeseen depression. I staggered around Meg and Dad’s farm (where my husband and I were living in a tiny 19th-century cabin) nauseated, hormone-addled, crying, as if a meteor had just plummeted into the center of my life and I was wandering its crater dazed. Meg made me soup. She did not rush in to console or convince. She stood by until the morning I came down to her house and wept, “I don’t think I can do this.” Sitting next to me on the couch, holding me while I shook with the force of the fear, she said, “We will support you whatever you do.” I felt the foundation of all of her labor then, the nearly thirty years she had spent taking care of me, like training wheels I had never realized were still on the bike. I knew she would support me, no matter how much my decision disappointed or saddened her, and with this support I walked back up to the cabin, drank tea, read, began to write again, emerged day by day from the crater of strange grief and became a mother.

It is only remarkable to me now, when I have a two-year-old daughter of my own, that I never felt resentment toward Meg, or at least none I can recall. Her arrival was not a tornado but the unfolding of a bud, an opening both so gradual and so unnoticed that it seems as if the flower has bloomed whole. I say this having likely been on the receiving end of a strategic deployment of cheese sandwiches and infinite on-demand readings of Go Dog Go, so my memory is not to be trusted. But I recall no awkwardness, no discomfort, no questioning, just a new is.

Only once in my entire childhood, when I was nine or ten years old, did I interrogate Meg. We were coming back from a Michigan vacation in a huge, duct-taped, lumbering Dad van, on one of those endless stretches when Dad tries to cheer up the grumpy lot of us with Trivial Pursuit and sparks a minor war. I remember shouting, “You’re not my mother!” Meg turned around, crimson, and seethed through clenched teeth, “You do not say that!” The car was silent. I knew I had trespassed on sacred territory. I never said it again, never thought it, which is stunning considering that I was a feisty, righteous, smart-ass adolescent who launched into didactic tirades about the tyranny of American imperialism, and would offer impassioned resistance to even the smallest directives on how to load the dishwasher.

Along with my dad, Meg rode out the tantrums, doctored the wounds, zipped up the snowsuits, made the rules and the casseroles, waited at the table until said casseroles were finished, traced the wriggly bodies of tadpoles and the bright arc of blue jays, read and snuggled and soothed and commanded and bathed and lullabied and tended in that bleary, nonstop care of parenthood. Meg painted The Baby-Sitters Club logo on my sweatshirts with puff paint, nudged me to try avant-garde young adult novels in addition to Sweet Valley High, waited ten years to tell me how horrific my five-inch foam platform heels looked with overalls.

With Meg I have a passel of long-standing jokes: the time she found a pile of half-smoked cigarettes in the backyard while she was mowing the lawn, and looked up to see she was standing right below my second story window; my dad’s hopeful, inevitable answer of “Raquel Welch?” to every Trivial Pursuit Arts and Entertainment question; the phase when I was taking high school algebra and she was forced to take a math class for her masters, and both of us loathed it so much we threw our textbooks across the room in shared fury.

Meg knew when not to say anything about my loser long-haired boyfriends reeking of stale pot, and when to take me out for investigative inquiries disguised as coffee dates. She knew how to slowly let out the rope of adult control until our relationship in high school and then college and then adulthood became a friendship without ever losing the essential, comforting hierarchy of parenthood. All these measurements, calibrations, judgments both minor and crucial: all of these Meg took on in becoming my mother. Once, when I was sick, she sat in bed with me all afternoon, teaching me to write in cursive. She held my hand in hers and traced the o’s and the c’s.

This is all the more profound considering the fact that Meg was fifteen years old when her mother died of a rapid and devastating brain cancer. Her sisters and brother had all left the house, and Meg was alone with her grieving dad, who couldn’t cope with the misery and confusion of a teenage girl. Her years of searching began then, and finally calmed with the bloody, ear-splitting joy of Jackson’s birth. Her quest was not over, but it had new meaning and direction. It came in the form of two small beings, warm and chatty and hungry, whose needs she satisfied, questions she answered, tiny bodies she clothed.

Meg, I see now, has always been a quiet believer in motherhood as redemption. My experience echoes hers in ways I never anticipated, my own emergence from the crucible of pregnancy illumined by a new faith, a new vision of the transformative power of care, which traces its lineage to so many years of her example. Mom, meanwhile, likely saw motherhood in the way many contemporary women also see it: as a complex alchemy of joy and oppression. Her pregnancy with me marked the split between a suburban family life and a tumultuous independence, and while it would be unfair to heap all the blame for this split on me alone, surely I weighed. The mother I idolized grew largely out of the decision to let my father and Meg parent me. My arrival gave her the propulsion to strike out on her own and discover what she loved and wanted and how to build her own life. She came into motherhood in the age of Betty Friedan, Ms. Magazine, Shulamith Firestone, and the first wave of feminism that portrayed the home as a prison.

During the weekends I spent with her, my mom took me to the downtown Cincinnati YMCA and let me paddle around the pool alone in a pink inner tube while she lifted weights upstairs. It was a unique moment of solitude—contemporary American family life rarely allows for younger kids to be alone, and especially alone outside the house—and one of the gifts of self-awareness Mom gave me. The water echoed as I maneuvered, then stilled into the cavernous silence of indoor pools. In that silence, I sensed my distinct presence in the world.

Then Mom would come rushing in, sweaty, breathless, and cry, “Sarah, are you drowning?” which only added to my gleeful self-satisfaction. We’d go upstairs to the whirlpool and steam room, women lifting their reddened bodies from the foam, padding half-blind through the heat. The world felt prickly with sensation; I was learning to see it.

Mom’s Cincinnati was steeped in the glamour of a foreign country. “I’m going to Cincinnati this weekend,” I’d tell my friends, as if I were hopping on a train to Paris to meet my lover. The transition from familiar to foreign, mundane to exotic, was one I’d seek out decades later in the gray haze and chaos of Lima, Peru; in the hutongs of Beijing; in Borneo and Mexico and South Africa. I found it first at Tucker’s Diner in Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine district, where the short order cooks flirted with Mom as they fried her goetta and the customers were loud, salty workers and artists.

In the afternoons we’d walk to Joey’s Deli, a one-room bodega run by the eponymous white-haired Joey. I’d get a massive blue slushie from the Slush Puppy machine, and a peach sparkling water to demonstrate my cosmopolitanism. On Sundays we’d brunch at The Alpha, a hipster joint where we ate potato pancakes with sour cream and stole packets of Sugar in the Raw, and where Mom wrote notes to herself on napkins (“Maintain the balance of body and self.” “A habit of mindfulness.”) Afterward we’d head to Duttenhofers, where we cracked the spines of old books to inhale their cold perfume, and where, if I spent more than two minutes browsing alone in the basement, Mom would come down the rickety wooden ladder urgently whispering, “Sarah, Sarah, Sarah?”

“You scream if anyone comes up to you on the street, you understand?” she would ask. “What do you do?”

“I shout fuck shit damn fuck shit, Mom, really loud.”

“And then you pretend to have an asthma attack.”

“Right.”

With Mom I discovered the symphony, which I loved not only because at that time I still thought I might become a violinist, but also because I could ride the escalators in a Polly Flinders dress with a plastic cup of bubbly Sprite and get a chill from my own sophistication. Mom met people at intermission, heads above me leaning toward her, her peachy cheeks blushing at innuendos that to me were all part of the same symphony: the music, the people, the dresses, the little plastic cups, the echoing click of heels on marble floors.

On Saturday mornings we went to Findlay Market, a sprawling outdoor European-style affair that reeked of bloody meat and cheese and old shoes and discarded heads of cabbage. Mom moved through it with grace, elegant as a cat slow-stepping over tangled vines, the subject of men’s darting eyes. I probably wore something like the Coon Hound sweatshirt I bought with my own money for ten dollars at the Caesar Creek Flea Market. It had a photo of a noble, redtick coonhound silkscreened over a gray background and below that it read COON HOUND. I wore it with a total lack of irony as late as the eighth grade. Mom, tall and very thin, with high cheekbones; soft, wavy hazelnut hair; and feline green eyes, would wear seventies-style dresses: striped cotton in beryl blue, or russet numbers with high waists that made her look like Audrey Hepburn. She put on flats whose tiny straps traced her delicate ankles, and scarves: the scarves that she has given up one by one over the years, and that now color the walls of my changing apartments.

In Cincinnati, I started paying close attention to people, setting, sensation. Mom and I would buy a baguette, Gouda cheese, and the grainy Dijon mustard that comes in a pudgy jar. I ate it by the spoonful. “It’s your blood type,” Mom would point out. “It makes you long for intense flavors.” We’d sit at the kitchen table, munching our wedges of baguette, not talking.

It was perhaps the not talking, above all, that made it adult, the silence making room for an inchoate self-awareness. If in Columbus I had the stability and the parental solidity that would allow me to venture to the far corners of South America, in Cincinnati I began to develop the vision.

Mom didn’t have to clean up the kitchen after I’d had a little adventure trying to make purple cookies. She didn’t wake up at 6:30 every morning and make sure I brushed my teeth. Ours was a different kind of bond, one in which she permitted me my first forays into adulthood via the creation of a unique space. She was my icon, a figure whose aesthetic and independence I swooned over, inhaling the lingering scent on her scarves.

This changed with my baby’s birth. I called my mom en route to the hospital, jittery, excited, the pain still a thrilling novelty. She rushed up from Cincinnati and knocked on the door to the triage room shortly after my husband Jorge and I arrived. She was carrying a black-and-white cloth box with a plush bunny, a monkey rattle, diapers. I had been alternately pacing and sitting up in bed, riding out contractions that were growing intense. I stood and hugged her and felt a fundamental need for her body: a need I recognize now that I have answered it in my own daughter. On the cusp of the most annihilating pain of my life, I craved the comfort of being held to her. I needed my mom in a way I hadn’t for as long as I could remember, and I still do; it is a physical longing that has been reawakened by my own mothering.

At the same time I could not have labored, might not have arrived at the final triumph of expelling that hulking body, had Meg not been there. She arrived giddy and nervous, and she and Mom greeted each other with the respectable distance that has long characterized their relationship, each leaving the other her own space to interact with me. I had watched Meg labor twenty-five years earlier on a Cincinnati winter morning, heard her violent screaming and saw Dad beside her gentle and calm, saw the placenta floating bloody in a bread bowl. Meg stood at the head of my bed, and Mom at the foot, and in the most intense moments at the very end, when I was pushing and half-sobbing and moaning and I finally wept “I can’t do it anymore,” Meg leaned over and said, “You are doing it.”

It was so simple and true and undeniable that I did it, I bore down, and not long after the baby slid out in one big rush, bright red, screaming at full pitch. The midwife hurried her to my chest and I stared into her gleaming black eyes, everyone laughing and crying, me saying over and over “My baby, my baby.” She emerged between the two of them: the mother who bore me and the mother who raised me.

Later, on my first walk through the riotous Ohio woods of mid-June, the birth still fresh in my mind and playing on constant repeat, I understood that there was a distinction between my and Meg’s relationship and her relationship with my brother Jack. I saw clearly that he would always be her baby in a way I would not. He had made of her a mother, and had made her motherhood of me possible in new ways. I could not feel the difference between him and me until I had carried and birthed my own daughter. At first it made me sad; it was a new separation. Then, through the seasons and months as the baby grew, as taking care of her became more and more work, more exhausting, more awestruck, more vexed, I understood just how enormous an act of love and faith it was for Meg to take me on as her own child. She hadn’t held me as a restless wrinkly infant to her chest, calmed me with her skin; she hadn’t nursed me. She didn’t have the biological cushioning to fall back on when I was an insufferable know-it-all, but she did it anyway, out of love.

Mom, meanwhile, ate chicken tetrazzini by the pound when I was in her belly, nursed me for a year, got the cards from relatives that predicted I’d be a fireball of a baby. Mom took me back from these relatives when I turned green with fury and clutched my little fists and screamed, earning myself the moniker The Incredible Hulk. Mom kept a log of the first time I crawled, walked, the first sentence I uttered (The precociously literary “No eat cat food.”). Mom is the one I go to when I need the clutch of body to breast, when I need a support that is unnamable and fierce. Meg is the one I rely on for thorny decisions and practical guidance and cheesy delicious casseroles. Two mothers, one at the head, one at the foot, and as I mother my daughter I am struck with gratitude at having had them both. I cannot imagine stepping into the role of parent for someone else’s child, nor can I imagine watching someone else parent my child, and yet growing up I never felt a twitch of discomfort, judgment, bad faith between them, even when they likely harbored it, or vented it elsewhere.

I think now, as I walk in endless loops around the driveway with my daughter, pointing out snails with outré enthusiasm, of my mom, Meg, and my sister eating sandwiches while I labored. I think of these women, talking and laughing on stiff couches, while outside it rained and inside I curled under the shower and imagined the contractions as waves. I think of them breaking bread, swapping stories of their own births, their motherhoods overlapping like ocean currents, part of something so much larger than them that it swept up their individual lives, choices, failures, labels, insecurities, it embraced them and held them, made them one in the surge of a new body from the womb into the light.

* * *

Sarah Menkedick is the author of Homing Instincts, out this month from Pantheon. Her writing has been featured or is forthcoming in Harper’s, Pacific Standard, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Oxford American, The Paris Review Daily, Aeon, Guernica, Amazon’s Kindle Singles, and elsewhere. She is the founder of Vela, an online magazine of nonfiction writing by women. She lives with her husband and daughter in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Editor: Sari Botton