The first extended family gathering to which I brought D., my soon-to-be-stepdaughter, was so large it required renting a conference room in a Marriott Hotel. I count scores of aunts, uncles, and cousins on both sides—the result of tight-knit families from my grandparents’ generation who all lived and worked and reared children within blocks of each other, and sometimes in the same house. This particular event was a Passover Seder for my mother’s family. Her uncles and aunts used to take turns hosting, but with subsequent generations traveling thousands of miles instead of a couple of blocks, a one-off meal in a hotel became more manageable for all involved.
I was as excited to bring D. to the Seder as if I had given birth to her myself and was presenting a newborn for the first time. I knew that whispers and speculation about my divorce had circulated throughout the family, as these things always do, especially since my own daughter, T. was just three years old when we split. It was a salve to my ego that instead of appearing at the Seder diminished, missing a member of my own clan, I had multiplied to become a family of four. The girls looked adorable; my fiancé and I watched them run around the hotel lobby shrieking happily as we held hands and sipped cocktails.
A giant marble fountain dominated the center of the lobby, spraying water high in the air out of an ostentatiously carved phalanx of dolphins. The girls adored it, and kept dipping their hands in the water when they thought we weren’t paying attention. A woman not part of our gathering threw a few coins in the basin for luck. D. and T. looked at her, then ran over to us. D. pulled on my arm.
“Anne, can we have some coins to throw in the fountain to make a wish? Please?”
I was flattered that D. came to me with her request and not to her father. We still operated primarily on two parallel tracks with the children: my daughter and I were a unit; D. and her father were a unit. Both girls were four and a half, and we didn’t want them to force affection if it wasn’t there. So the fact that D. ran to me, looked up at me with her beseeching brown eyes, was thrilling. The rush of warmth that her acceptance brought, especially in this large family setting, surprised me with its intensity. I dug through my purse for nickels to give the girls. D. grabbed my hand (another thrill!) and brought me with them to the fountain.
T. tossed her coin right in and wished she had a lollipop. Then, looking right at me, D. threw the nickel I gave her into the water and said, “I wish my mommy and daddy would get back together again.”
I’d like to say that I put my arm around her and said, “it must be hard for you to be surrounded by all these strangers who really aren’t your family. I bet you miss your mom tonight.” But I didn’t.
I’d like to say that I thought to myself: “this is a normal thought for a child of divorce to have and I need to be mature and consider her sadness.” But that took several hours to occur to me.
No, I have to admit that the only thought I had at the moment was “How dare you wish that on MY nickel!” I was furious. I stood at the fountain and said nothing, glad only that her father was back at the bar and couldn’t hear the exchange. The girls ran off to play on the leather sofas nearby.
My fury quickly turned to shame. How stupid was I thinking that I had created the perfect little family to display for aunts and uncles and cousins and sundry? My ego was driving my behavior and I was not putting D.’s needs before my own. Had I brought her into a big family gathering too soon? No matter how much research you study or people you consult with when starting a stepfamily, nothing can prepare you for the stunning moments of rejection when a child makes her true feelings known. And while I had not come around until her parents’ marriage was already over, that didn’t change what I was to her: an obstacle to her wish that everything could go back to the way it was before I existed.
I try to be the grownup in my relationship with D. and sometimes I think I do pretty well. But that moment at the fountain, and many that have followed, slammed right into my heart and left me feeling petty and hurt rather than mature and kind. I wish on a million nickels that I could rise above those feelings all the time, but I’m pretty sure that’s about as likely to come true as D.’s wish in the Marriott Hotel lobby.
Musings From the Evil Stepmother is published monthly. Never miss a column again. Just click on the author’s name at the top of the story, then select “Be notified when writer publishes” at the top of the page. We’ll send you an email as soon as a new monthly column is published.