It really pays to have married a man who was once a teenage father.
Huh? you ask. OK, let me explain.
“Crap!” Two years ago, I was sitting at the computer at our country house, sweating over the fresh-hell news that a story I had spent six months reporting—a sad, unjust, hugely complicated tale of a good mother who lost a custody fight to a father who was an expert at lawsuits—might be scooped by the (less detailed) cover story in a competitive publication. Such was the hectic horse race of monthly vs. weekly print journalism back then. (Today, it’s much worse, as the fact that you’re reading a digital magazine proves.)
Without Sue to listen to my angst, I don’t know how I would have made it through that night.
We were all going to go out to dinner—my good friend Sue, my husband, Sue’s kids—but I felt neurotically bolted to the computer upon hearing my tireless editor’s worry that the editor in chief, a famous man of good taste, could choose to kill my story because of the other magazine’s faster pending cover.
“I’m a wreck—I can’t leave!” I said to Sue, and she completely got it. I handed her my credit card (the dinner was going to be my treat) and my car keys. She called from the road and from the restaurant to see how I was doing, and when the crew returned, Sue brought me my thin-crust pizza and bruschetta salad and she and I sat up until the wee hours talking about the risks of magazine investigative journalism. She understood; I knew she would. My story survived (whew) and was published, but without Sue to listen to my angst, I don’t know how I would have made it through that night.
Earlier that day I had gotten an earful of her anxieties and helped her with it, too. She had just come back from four months in Bangkok, where she was the director of a major NGO that helps build democracy in fragile countries, a job for which she was sublimely qualified after 25 years of work in the field. She had turned down jobs abroad like this before because she was a mom of young kids, but this was her moment to reap what she’d sown and to help people, too. And, hey—we’re all feminists! If dads can travel abroad for good-works work, why can’t a mom? Her kids had remained with their dad in the community they all lived in, a community whose very name shouts, MOST CRAZY-ASSED LIBERAL AND FEMINIST CITY IN THE USA!
She disgorged an hour—two hours, maybe?—of her shock and pain at their judgmental attitude. And she did so with her trademark humor.
But what had happened when she returned from her overseas assignment? The most P.C. mothers in America—people who use the pronoun “they” in deference to the daily-changing gender-fluids among them and who compost religiously—these moms tsk’d her having left her kids for four months to save Third World moms’ kids. Sue and I were at the beach and she disgorged an hour—two hours, maybe?—of her shock and pain at their judgmental attitude. And she did so with her trademark humor. In listening to her and talking it through, I hope I helped her. I think I did. Holy shit, when my kid was her kids’ age, the Mamas’ Judgment Squad had yet to be born. I could feed my little boy Chicken McNuggets and let him watch TV all day so I could finish an article. I think she laughed at that.
And one of the reasons she laughed is that that little boy is her brother. Yep, Sue isn’t just my friend; she’s my stepdaughter.
The Evil Stepmother? Ha!
I certainly grew up understanding the Evil Stepmother meme. My father had left my mother to marry a cold and beautiful woman who had been married to my mother’s brother (I know, confusing, if not bizarre) and, as a result, my relationship with my father, and much else within the family, was dramatically, irretrievably broken.
But because what transpires in teen years stops counting when one becomes a young adult, solipsistically obsessed with your own stuff—in my case, Farrah Fawcett’s hair, dancing in platform shoes at the new discos, and still trying to think of myself as the bohemian I temperamentally never was—I didn’t think of my own bad stepmother story when I met John. He was even at the tender age of 32 the father of a preteen daughter. In Greenwich Village at the time, this was rare and even rarer 12 years earlier, when John was the only New York University history student who raced home with diapers instead of grooving in the park with a joint to the Lovin’ Spoonful.
At the beginning, Sue was insurance that my Bad Boy boyfriend was also an endearingly concerned father.
At the beginning, Sue was insurance that my Bad Boy boyfriend (what self-respecting girl in the ‘70s wanted a straight arrow?) was also an endearingly concerned father. The devilishly cute guy with the huge Irish Afro who drank too much (I’ve since replaced him in that regard) was capable of rising at 4 a.m. and scouring the streets when his daughter and her friends didn’t come home from seeing The Rocky Horror Show for the 14th time.
She was also a touchstone of lifestyle familiarity to me. In those days before identity politics, people still sought the Other—or fell into it, randomly and naively—and John’s and my backgrounds were very dissimilar. I was a secular Jew from Beverly Hills; he was a (lapsing) Irish Catholic from Boston. I have to admit that those early visits to his hometown were jarring to me, and Sue—raised in Westport, Connecticut—was my cultural soul mate, a reassuring auguring of the person that her father (still reeling from a divorce and dipping back into his childhood culture for comfort) would eventually iron himself out to become.
For me, the presence of young girls in our apartment (taking exotically inordinate time to blow dry their hair) livened a coupledom that could turn insecure—even slightly dark.
Weekends at our Village loft apartment were also fun because of Sue: She’d come with her best friend Laura, we’d all go to still-under-the-radar-hip Soho for dinner, then come home and dance around to the BeeGees soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever, the mere 15-year age difference made bopping around with your stepdaughter and her bestie something that was not ridiculous. Sue and Laura would sleep on the living room couches (when they weren’t at Peter Frampton concerts or—we didn’t know this—sneaking out to serious clubs with fake IDs), and they looked at those weekend Village getaways from proper Connecticut as something eye-openingly cool. For me, the presence of young girls in our apartment (taking exotically inordinate time to blow dry their hair) livened a coupledom that could turn insecure—even slightly dark. I loved those weekends. What I didn’t know then, but felt, is how much Sue loved them, too.
Two years into our relationship, John and I broke up. I went out to L.A. for a couple of months to test out staying there (I flunked the test or it flunked me) and when I returned, I remember driving to Fairfield County, Connecticut, for a McCalls magazine assignment, and bursting into tears on the Merritt Parkway (such a thin-laned, dangerous strip of road for an emotional breakdown).
When I got back to the West Village, I called John—then crashing with a friend uptown. When we got together at Our Bar, I told him that the intolerable thought of losing Sue was a good reason to try to get back together and make things work. “I’m surprised that connection was so intense,” he said. So was I. But it was. My stepdaughter represented the best of my boyfriend and much of what was good in our briefly suspended life together. And I just plain cared for her—a lot.
“I’m surprised that connection was so intense,” he said. So was I. But it was.
We got back together, got married, and had a son, Sue’s half brother Jonathan. We had to weather things that stepmoms and stepdaughters do: her college tuition just when we’d hired an expensive baby nurse; what I sensed was her perception that a father in his thirties has more maturity to give to a child than a terrified father in his early twenties did and that she might have unintentionally gotten the short end of a five year old’s stick.
Stepmothers and Stepdaughters Relationships: Bringing Out the Best
But we stayed close. I came to parents’ day at her college. We cheered on each other’s careers. When the man who would become Sue’s husband proposed to her, John immediately got on a plane, unasked, and walked her down the San Francisco City Hall steps for a wedding that she and her fiancé had originally insisted be fast and parents-free. This was proof of his dad-menschness. Thanks, stepdaughter, for bringing out the best in my husband at times when I might be looking at him with critical eyes.
The closeness in age made the friendship quotient higher with every passing year.
But here’s the thing. Aside from the ways in which Sue helped my marriage to her father was the fact that I cared for and respected her. I watched her build her career and family with hard work and sacrifice (as she watched me build mine). She was funny and sardonic—she could laugh at herself. This was very important to a wry self-deprecator like me, and it reminded me that right before I met her father my two criteria for a man were (what kind of asshole romantic was I?) poignancy and irony. She got her father’s irony, all right.
The closeness in age made the friendship quotient higher and the stepmom-stepdaughter aspect less significant with every passing year. And an abiding reality is that my husband has two extremely creative, productive adult kids, from two different mothers. So even when I’m grousing about him, I have to admit, via simple math, that his genes are responsible for a lot of what’s made them great.
The Mutual Admiration Club
To this day, when I’m in need of a pep talk, and this is not infrequently, my stepdaughter regales me with stories of how cool she and Laura thought I was when they were teenagers—and how revelatory my and John’s life in the Village (pretty ordinary, by downtown standards) seemed to Connecticut-private-school them. She evokes memories that briefly rekindle the young-adult, slightly-on-top-of-the-world moment that now feels long ago. She says it so convincingly that if I close my eyes I can “see” it and how it fueled me then. It fuels me now. Hot damn, the stepdaughter as emergency ego builder. Who knew?
She says it so convincingly that if I close my eyes I can “see” it and how it fueled me then. It fuels me now.
From the start, I viewed my stepdaughter as a boon, an ally. I think she viewed me the same way. When we met, her mother was already re-partnered; now, finally, her dad had himself a girlfriend. She was relieved. We started out positively in 1977—she shy, me careful—at a tiny restaurant that still exists: Elephant and Castle. John introduced us with the sweep of a hand, like a parody of a maître d’. We rented bikes and pedaled around the old railroad tracks that are now the High Line Park in Lower Manhattan. Whenever she and her friend biked through a corridor with a low-hanging awning, they stood high on the pedals and raised their hands to tap the awning. It was kind of like a tween high-five.
Come to think of it, Sue and I have been high-fiving ever since.