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A stepmom’s breakthrough moment

I didn’t really know what my stepsons thought of me. Then lightning struck.

Alyssa Gonzalez for the Boston Globe

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The crack of thunder woke me out of a deep sleep. The night sky flashed like daylight; rain slapped violently against the roof. My husband started briefly, but I could tell that any consciousness was temporary.

I have always loved storms. After all, I am a New Englander, now transplanted to Canada’s capital. Here, thunderstorms aren’t as frequent. I welcomed the interruption, the drama outside, the sound of the wind, the hissing leaves, and imagining the ocean tumbling onto beaches far away.

Suddenly, almost imperceptibly, someone slipped into bed beside me before the next flash of lightning could strike. He pressed his little body against mine and pulled the covers over his head. It was 9-year-old Antoine, my younger stepson. The storm had quite a different effect on him. Here he was, looking for shelter and comfort, but most extraordinary was that he had come to me.

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For most children, parents are like gods. My husband’s two boys regularly fix him in their gaze, like benevolent snipers tracking a target. At dinner, they look at their food, and they look at him. The most desirable spot is at his side, and when he is out of sight, chants of “Papa?” ring through the house, sometimes in quick succession: “Papa? Papa?” Because they call for him so frequently, their absolute reverence mostly goes unnoticed.

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As a relatively new stepmother, I am often unsure of my role. Since marrying their father three years ago, I have taken a hands-off approach toward the boys, choosing to stay in the background. I’ve never hesitated to grab my friends’ children and twirl them around or give them a hug, but with Theo and Antoine, I didn’t dare. A child of divorced parents, I didn’t want to overstep boundaries or impose myself. I didn’t want the boys to feel that I was stealing their father’s attention or competing with them in any way. They were already dealing with their parents’ divorce, bouncing between two homes. That’s a lot for anyone, and they were only 6 and 9. I wanted to make sure that they never viewed me as an obstacle — or, worse, a threat.

For the first year that I lived with them, I always asked if I could hug them good night. Eventually, I asked if I could give them a kiss. Now, I hug and kiss them without asking, and even manage to give them a little squeeze before they go to school.

Stitching together a new family is never easy, and there are always awkward moments. Once, at a funeral, someone mistook me for Theo’s mother, causing us both to fall silent. I knew such awkwardness was sure to happen again. I looked him in the eyes and whispered, “Sometimes people are going to think I’m your mother, because I am a woman and you are a child, but please don’t let it bother you. You have a mother, and I am not trying to take her place. No one can take her place.” He nodded. Later, he gave me a Mother’s Day card — my first — thanking me for “what you do and what you don’t do.”

I recently turned 48; I am unlikely to ever have a child of my own. I had always hoped to be a mother, especially after having finally found someone I loved enough to make that happen. Initially, I had hoped for a little person to sew us all together, to really make me part of the family, not just “Dad’s wife.”

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The night Antoine’s little form slipped into bed beside me was a turning point. His having chosen my side of the bed as a safe place, having chosen me to be his protector during that storm, is one of the biggest compliments I can imagine. Maybe it’s time for me to accept myself and my new role. They have.

Former Bostonian Jessica Lee writes and teaches French in Ottawa. Send comments to connections@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.

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