The setting is classic: a perfect fall Saturday morning, sunny but breezy. The field behind the elementary school is ablaze with yellow, green, blue, and white team T-shirts as the six-to-nine-year-olds run like crazy, soccer balls flying everywhere. Parents are out in full force, setting up their folding chairs or blankets near their child’s team, each couple staking out a little piece of property from which to cheer their future Mia Hamm or David Beckham.
Except for us.
We take up an entire sideline all to ourselves. “We” are myself, my husband, my husband’s ex-wife, my husband’s ex-wife’s live-in boyfriend, my ex-husband, and my ex-husband’s fiancée—and “we” are the parents of my daughter and stepdaughter. As our girls practice kicking the ball back and forth, I realize that I’m here with pretty much everyone I’ve seen naked and everyone who has seen them naked over the past decade.
This is our stepfamily and I can at least feel pride that, no matter what our individual gripes and grudges against each other might be, when T. or D. kicks a ball in the goal, no kids have bigger cheering sections than they do.
Just getting the girls on the same team was an exercise in stepfamily machinations. D’s mother lives one town over from us, and while we share fifty-fifty custody of D. with her, D. goes to school in her mother’s town. When soccer sign-up came around, D’s mother registered her locally. Our town has soccer as well, but it’s a twice-weekly commitment instead of just Saturday mornings. T. loves soccer, but she’s seven and she loves art, world peace, bicycles, and Webkinz just as much. The girls are at an age where we don’t want to over-commit them to anything but to just give them the chance to try different activities in a low-stress way. Plus we all work full-time and can’t swing yet another weekday obligation. T. and D. more than anything wanted to be together.
So my husband and I asked his ex-wife if we could list T. as a member of her household to sign her up for the same program as D. She agreed. We signed her up under my husband’s last name to match D., gave his ex-wife’s address, explained to my ex-husband that he would need to pretend his daughter didn’t share his last name for an hour every Saturday, and we were off to the races.
My ex-husband’s fiancée is new to the mix. The rest of us have grown together over the past four years into a parenting hydra that might not look exactly like the other couples on the soccer field but that lumbers forward, functioning with or around each other to the best of our abilities and hopefully in ways that help our daughters navigate both regular childhood and divorced childhood (which in many places is synonymous with regular childhood, but by happenstance not in our communities). D’s mother’s boyfriend raised a daughter with his first wife, so he’s been down the parenting road before.
This will be my ex-husband’s fiancée’s first marriage and as of yet, she doesn’t have a child of her own. I like the relationship she is slowly building with my daughter, and to my delight, she and my ex have just bought a house in my town, which puts all of T’s parents within blocks of each other—as good a divorced situation as a divorced situation can get in my opinion, given that we all do get along. On this particular soccer Saturday, the first time she is with our hydra, I find myself wondering what it all looks like through her eyes. She sits on the grass with my ex, sipping coffee and lightly touching his fingertips with hers.
She is in the toughest role right now, stepping up to step-mothering for the first time and doing so before she is a mother in her own right. Watching her watch the girls play, I remember so vividly how tentative I was around D’s mother the first year. I wanted desperately to do everything right, to be the perfect stepmother, to never interfere, to be firm but kind, loving but not smothering. I thought with enough information (and some infinite reserve of patience I had yet to ever discover in other facets of my life but was sure I could muster for my stepdaughter,) I could be that perfect stepmother.
Why is it so hard to learn the lesson that there is no such thing as the perfect anything—not even the perfect fall morning? Gusts of strong wind have already turned the air cold, and I wish I had worn a heavier sweater. I think my saving grace is that before I became a stepparent, I had already resigned myself to imperfect mothering after trying and trying and trying otherwise. What will the path be for my daughter’s new stepmother? Will she find me a help or a hindrance, or—most likely—both? Regardless, though, of what our relationship brings, the hydra will absorb it, growing bigger, lumbering on, making the best of what we have and, if we’re lucky, cheering loudly, lustily, and powerfully for our daughters to succeed.
Read last month’s column: Who Pays?
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