She held my hand as the flight took off, but a little too firmly. She put her arm around my neck, tight enough to choke me. She squeezed and pinched and laughed when it caused pain. “That’s what the relationship between a stepmom and stepdaughter is supposed to be like” she giggled, looking out of the airplane window at the lights of the city she had grown up in becoming tiny specks.
We were on our first flight together towards Singapore where we would start our life as a family – she and her dad, my daughter and me.
“Hold on” I said to my new stepdaughter (who was later conferred the title of tween Princess). “ All the books I read said it was the step mom who was mean to the girl, not the other way around. This doesn’t look like Cinderella to me. Are you saying our story is going to be different?”
She smiled but didn’t reply.
“We should find a new name for our story.”
“How about Pinderella?’’ she ventured, with the diffidence of a ten year old who wasn’t sure about the turn her life was about to take.
And thus began the story of our life.
When my husband, HH (short for His Highness on account of the girls being named, Drama Queen and Princess in chronological order; or Handsome Husband, which is what he secretly wishes to be called) and I decided to get married, we braced ourselves for exciting times ahead. And five months later, it has been all that and more.
Becoming a mother is a unique and universal experience. Each woman who has given birth can attest to the contradictory feelings that motherhood sets off in us after months of pregnancy. While multi-tasking like never before, you feel inadequate. While dealing with the strength of maternal instinct, you grapple with vulnerability where your child is concerned. You love fiercely, live fully and revel in the maze of motherhood. A large part of motherhood is based on instinct, honed by the special relationship you had with your biological child in utero. How then to prepare for mothering a child who is now yours but who did not, as Kahlil Gibran puts it “come through you”?
Being a stepmom is tough and it begins with the title itself. No matter how old the child is, or who has been the primary caregiver, you are the one who starts with the wrong title. I never liked that term, with all its negative connotations, assumptions and behaviors.
Princess calls me “Ma”. I call her “my little girlie” when she is good and “Pinderella” when isn’t. She tells me about school as she sits on the kitchen counter while I cook. She sulks when I ask her to clean her room and makes faces when she has to eat veggies. I comb her hair. She teaches me how to swim. I ask her about her friends in the new school. She enquires about my job hunt. She borrows my sandals. I take her shopping. We bake sometimes. And talk for a few minutes each night before bed. She is learning to share her dad with me. I am trying to see how best to help her turn into the bold, brave, beautiful young woman I know is hiding below the tantrums and tears that have been her coping mechanism thus far.
One day on a bus ride, we both observed a little baby, busy playing with his toes, the pacifier, a rattle and his mother’s hair.
“What did you want Drama Queen (DQ) to be before she was born, boy or girl?” Princess asked.
“I knew I would have a daughter” I replied.
“What did you want me to be?” she asked, tongue-in-cheek.
I was speechless.
I had always hoped to have another baby, a sibling for DQ. But life did not grant me the chance to have a biological one. Instead I was handed this child, many years after I gave up on that dream. I was not given the luxury to choose. It was a package deal, a husband plus his child. I embraced them both. This time around, I am learning to expand my heart further. Once again, a wife; once more, a mother.
The day after we got married, we visited the home of a childhood friend. His kids were friends with Princess just as their dad and HH had been all these years. The grandmother of the children was home that afternoon. HH introduced me as “Princess’ new mother.” I smiled in relief.
I will take the title of “new mother” for a while, until its time to graduate to just “mother”.
As Gibran says in “The Prophet”
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you.
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”