My daughter is seven. Over the past two years, many of her favourite bedtime stories have included the inevitable Cinderellas and Snow Whites. And like many other children, she hasn’t been a fan of the stepmothers and stepsisters – characterized as cruel and ugly, and quite frankly not particularly inspiring intellectually, either.
In most fairytales, the ‘step mother’ is the result of the passing on of the ‘real mother’. In real life however, our relationships are more complicated – my relationships are anyway.
My daughter is my only child. My husband has three children – our daughter and two sons from an earlier marriage. The boys are grown. They live with their mother in another city and come to visit often.
So I became, to my horror, a proxy parent for the times that the boys came over to see their father. Not a step-mother, because really there’s no need. But a kind of step-in something for a few days every year.
The stories I read never prepared me for some of the simplicity that is possible in these complex relationships.
More than their relationships with me though, what has been so warming to be part of, is the relationships these three – my daughter and the two boys – have built for themselves.
Children stay in the moment you see – they see and respond to what’s in front of them, the baggage is left behind. (not always, it’s true; but most times.) So for my daughter (let’s call her Sunaina), every time her Amit bhaiyya shows up on the door-step, it’s squeal-time, throw-yourself-at-him-time, you’re-the –best-time, lets-do-this and lets-do-that-time. When the younger bhaiyya comes over, it’s squabble time – both of them quarreling for the same ice cream spoon, the last scraps of a cake that’s been baked, the paint brush they both like. It’s endless. It’s a mela. It’s happiness time.
Sunaina asks my husband why he has two wives (facepalm time!). She asks me where the boys’ mother is. She asks whether I knew them when they were little. Or why they call her father papa. She asks it all – we tell her the truth each time, every time. I know she still doesn’t understand fully, but that doesn’t stop her from having a good time!
This summer vacation, we tried teaching Sunaina to cycle. My husband tried. I tried. Our nephew who was over at the time tried. We took off the training wheels. We ran alongside her. But really, the cycling wasn’t happening. Then, in a cloud of smoke, with a clap of thunder and with all the cool of Hugh Jackman, in steps the older brother. In one evening – I kid you not, ONE EVENING – she was cycling on her own. He spent two hours with her, patiently guiding her through the basics. She had ears for no one else. She didn’t fall once.
I stood on the side the whole time and thought to myself how much easier my life would be if I could respond to these two young men just as individuals. To allow them their quirks and irritableness rather than worry about it and fret that I should do more or less. Or that I should behave this way or that way. The stories all tell us that these relationships – the ‘step’ ones – never work. The stepmother is wicked. The stepsisters ugly. The stepfathers cruel. But here, right here, in my life, none of these is true. We are all only people who are linked together by an affection and set of relationships that sometimes we find difficult to explain.
The next time I find it difficult to explain, I’m not going to explain it. I’m going to respond to the moment, in the moment. The rest will happen when it has to.