In my first year of stepmotherhood, the approach of Mother’s Day filled me with the same sort of dread that I always felt as a teenager, bracing myself for the anniversary of my younger brother’s death. He died on May 1 — it was a glorious, fragrant, voluptuous springtime of mind-boggling natural beauty. It’s always been poignant to me, that contrast between the loveliness outdoors and the cramped hollowness of anxiety and pain that I felt inside at the end of each April, as the anniversary approached. My brother’s loss was so stupid and so mean: he died far too young, he was in too much pain, and we all stood by in dull-witted confusion, utterly helpless to do anything to stop the loss. He was laid to rest on a day filled with tender sunshine and the soft beauty of springtime; it made absolutely no sense whatsoever.
Then I became a stepmother, and suddenly there was Mother’s Day, marching along right behind that anniversary, staring me full in the face with a defiant reminder of my helplessness of another kind. Everyone knows that Mother’s Day is a holiday for real mothers, not for artificial (step) mothers like me. Any Hallmark card can tell you as much – they placate us, “You’re Like a Mom to Me” they’ll say, or they’ll put “Mom” in quotation marks, like punctuation’s way of reminding us that you know, you’re sort of a mom, but not really.
On my first Mother’s Day as a new stepmother, I had planned to spend the day at home alone, planting in the yard, reading a new novel I’d been saving, cleaning up my desk a bit. I told myself that I was looking forward to this quiet time, and there was some genuine truth to that. In the previous six months, my life had been totally reorganized around the care and well-being of a two year old. For me, this had been a shocking change from the adult independence I’d known up until that point; I felt somewhat dizzy and exhausted in the face of it all. Todd had planned a day at the office, catching up on work that had long been put off. He would cook me dinner later.
We were drinking coffee together that May morning, reading the Sunday paper, when the phone rang. It was my stepdaughter’s mother calling, saying that the child had woken up with a stomach flu; she had a low grade fever and diarrhea. But that was not the reason for the call. The reason for the call was that she had reservations for brunch, and she had been looking forward to celebrating Mother’s Day at her favorite restaurant with her mother and her sister, who was visiting from out of town. She didn’t want to bring the sick child to a restaurant, so she was wondering if she could drop the little girl at our house while they went out to eat. It was too late for her to find a babysitter. Todd explained that he was leaving shortly to spend the day at the office, so he couldn’t help out. Then he put his hand over the phone, turned to me and explained the situation, asked me if I’d be willing to watch her. Of course I said yes.
Sometimes when I tell this story, I’ll mention that her mother didn’t thank me for helping her out (not that day; not ever, really), that her aunt and grandmother didn’t even open their car windows to be introduced to me, sometimes I’ll explain that this was but the first instance in a long line of such treatment. But that’s not the part that matters to me now. What matters to me now is that it turned out to be a beautiful day. I was sad that I got to spend the day with her only because she was sick, but we had a sweet and quiet time together, she and I. She sat in my lap all the while, dozing occasionally between sips of apple juice and bites of banana. We read stories. I rubbed her back, brushed her tummy, gently massaged the outer edges of her ears. And I sang to her from time to time, “You Are My Sunshine.” That was the song I used to sing to my brother sometimes when he was home sick too.