Forget Steps: “Sister” + Friend + Teacher = Parent
Astrid first said the word in her toast.
Completely at ease in front of our 140 or so guests, the precocious 15-year-old spoke about how we met and how our friendship blossomed, all in the span of less than a year. She played on how she hadn’t yet met me, nor had her dad, on October 7th, 2005 (a year before the wedding), but my favorite line was, “Above all, I had no idea that in one year, I would be blessed with the privilege to call her ‘Mom.’”
I well up as I write this, more than ten years later. She, her brother and their father are my proudest achievements — my most guarded prize. The fact that they chose me — that they accepted me — has been the biggest confidence boost I’ve ever experienced.
When I tell people that Astrid and Luke were teenagers when I met them, I usually get, “Oof. That’s a tough age.”
I smile and shake my head. “I hit the jackpot, actually,” is my light reply, trying to not to sound too smug. (But I really did.)
Luke, I won over early. After dragging his feet upon learning that Dad’s new friend was infiltrating their Friday night dinner, a game of Hangman on the paper tablecloth sealed the deal. His word had been “Lundquist,” his favorite hockey player, and I guessed it. I will never forget the 12-year-old’s jaw-dropping stare of disbelief at his Dad.
Astrid took her time. For months, we’d pick her up from soccer practice or take her to a movie and she’d rarely engage with me. Never rude, and certainly never “YOU’RE NOT MY MOTHER!!” but far from embracing.
“Homework!” she’d smile before running up to her bedroom.
I was patient while she remained courteously distant. Six months later, on our way to dinner one night, she wrapped an arm around me. And that was that. I had become her older sister.
Which is how I tend to describe my relationship with them. l am not the disciplinarian; I didn’t sign the report cards (although I did attend back-to-school nights), I didn’t set curfews (although I did adhere to and respect them) and I wasn’t the one who held their heads over the toilet when they had stomach flus.
The maternity bug bit me too late. When my friends were getting married, then procreating in our thirties, I was with the wrong men. By the time I met Bertrand, it proved too late. Truth be told, we didn’t try very hard. We realized we loved our life and I already had the two best step-kids in the world.
But “my kids” has such a nicer ring to it.
From early on, Bertrand encouraged me to drop the “step” from “stepmother,” gesturing toward me when he talked about “our kids.” I would only explain the truth if prompted by “You’re too young to have a 19-year-old!” Fessing up that I didn’t actually give birth to them is never embarrassing. I never feel as if I’ve been caught in a lie. “I just like calling them my kids,” I shrug.
But I love when people believe that I have children of my own. It sits well, if falsely. I have no idea what it’s like to give birth, much less raise a child, so saying that I have kids is stating an accomplishment for which I did not give my whole self to in order to achieve. It’s kind of like believing people should treat you like an Academy-award winning actress when, in reality, you’re famous only because of some Youtube video.
But I know I’ve been an influence.
I introduced Luke to sarcasm and showed him how to use it to flirt by tugging on my proverbial braids. When Astrid started considering colleges, I directed her toward Middlebury. We brought them into our kitchen and expanded their sous chef roles with every meal.
Being the big sister also allows me to play the role of, well, jester, or, if we’re going to get Shakespearean here, the fool. When the two parents are being the disciplinarian, I can speak the veiled language of harmless sibling and say, “You fucked up, kid. Now, fix it,” without being scolding, judgmental or disappointed.
As much as I enjoy my new big sister role (especially since I am the baby in my original family), I prefer the nomenclatures the kids and their father have given me.
Astrid held to her wedding toast, using the straightforward “Mom” when she introduces me with her dad to friends. Luke is a bit looser in that situation — he’ll either say, “This is my dad and this is Jane” or “These are my parents” (He never calls me his stepmom.) If, however, he is explaining something about his mom with me present, he’ll refer to her as “My other mom,” and that warms me just as much.
When Astrid was in college, she started greeting us with the loose term, “Parents!” in emails to the three of us, or in person, and Luke has followed suit.
Parent. It’s almost more powerful than Mom.