Stepmoms, ever so much more than stepdads, get a crap deal. It’s as if we’re cursed from the start, with our wicked portrayals in Disney films and Grimms’ fairy tales. No matter what we do, we’re still not the real mom. And regardless of what went on before we arrived on scene, we have to clean it up. The blending of families has its rewards, and you may find yourself with an even better family circle than you had before. But step-parenting doesn’t always go well. Despite our best hopes and intentions, suppressed traumas have a way of making themselves known.
* * *
I was running behind that morning, trying to get everyone where they belong. I practically wore my pjs to school with the Boy, but we were still first on the playground, at the elementary school next to the bay. He began running around and saying, “Catch me, catch my shadow.” So my shadow chased his shadow all over the playground. I was running like Frankenstein to catch him. Then another kid joined us, then his best friend Sadie, and pretty soon about seven kids were running around saying, “Catch me, catch me.”
I was in Ugg boots and sweats and looking pretty Ugg-ly but it was refreshing to run around, and I was just having fun. Then he asked, “Will you take my book bag to Mr. Johnson’s room?” I said I’d hold it for him till the bell rang. He ran off and played chase for a while, and I chatted with one of the dads. For some reason, I turned around and the Boy walked straight into my arms. I held him in a long, warm hug.
“The water is so pretty this morning. Look at all those ducks.”
“I know,” he said. “I’ve seen hundreds of them.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice to get in a rowboat and just sail away over the water, out to sea? King Triton would come out of the water with his trident, riding the back of a sea horse. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
He snuggled up to me. “Uh-huh.” The bell rang, and that means everyone has to freeze until the yard duty lady blows her whistle. We were molded in that hug for the five seconds. The whistle blew, and he stepped back.
“Have a good day,” I said. “I’ll see you after school.”
“OK.” And off he went.
* * *
I can hear him pee from two rooms away. He stands, I’m sure, feet apart, directing his torrent like a fireman. He slams the toilet lid, usually forgets to flush, may or may not wash his hands, leaps across the hall and slams his bedroom door. The video game music rises again, vibrating the walls and windows with bass notes. Later, he emerges and forages for snacks. He won’t eat the dinner I cook. When he comes out to talk, he obsesses about the minutia of his latest video game. He wins every battle. He is the best player in the history of the universe. No one can match his prowess. He also lifted 200, no, 300 today in gym. Maybe it was 400. Maybe it was 1,000. Whatever the number, it is more than anyone has ever lifted and he should be carried around the gym on his peers’ shoulders, but for some reason, I never hear about these feats from anyone else. Perhaps they are just daydreams.
I am the stepmother of a seventeen-year-old boy. He has had a hard life, with self-esteem issues from the womb. His birth mother is bipolar. She’s OK when she takes her meds but scary as fuck when she doesn’t. My husband held on to fractured family life to keep the new baby and his daughter safe. Eventually the marriage crumbled into violence, madness, terror, broken glass, sirens, restraining orders, financial ruin and divorce court ― where, inexplicably, the mother was given shared custody. That scenario offered untold years of damage to the Boy. His older sister got angry, into trouble, and ran away, and we were left with just the Boy, and the split custody, until that arrangement crashed and burned one September night in a colossal clusterfuck of epic proportions — more sirens, more tears. At age fifteen, he was finally freed of the court order to see his mother. But the damage was done.
And I’ve been here to catch him, to clean up the mess, to handle the details.
I’m the stepmother, sitting in Mission Control, managing the care and feeding of seven humans. Laundry, groceries, vacuuming, toilets, towels, vitamins and tampons. I have three daughters of my own, who grew up alongside my steps, though all the girls have grown and flown by now. Just the Boy is left at home. Just the Boy and his dad, and me and my PTSD.
* * *
Post-traumatic stress disorder used to be called shell shock. It’s what happens to some soldiers after particularly gruesome or terrible trauma in battle. It also happens to some non-military people who are attacked, abused or otherwise terrorized — about seven percent of the population, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs. I was molested as a child by two different neighbors, one young and one old. I was sexually assaulted by a college student in my own studio, and then quickly married the worst kind of wrong husband for a person like me — a rigidly religious closeted homosexual who blamed me for my inherent Eve-like tendencies. (I have a vagina, ergo, I’m a seducer, a temptress.)
My PTSD had specific attributes: I wore a nervous rash that wouldn’t go away, that sometimes covered most of my body. I couldn’t poop to save my life. I had panic attacks trying to park the car. I sometimes hallucinated my own violent death so vividly that I thought it must have happened. My negative thoughts raced from zero to 100 when I faced anything that felt fraught, from family gatherings to a ten-minute drive to the store.
Damaged young woman that I was, I thought my first husband, a “good” man, would help lift me up, save me, but he crushed me further, emotionally, spiritually, and finally, physically, as we split. I had yet to be diagnosed by anyone in the medical field. (Most people with PTSD are not diagnosed; they are walking wounded, with anxieties they don’t even understand.) Cataclysmically, we separated. I struggled on as a single mother with undiagnosed PTSD, awaiting the next horror that was sure to ruin me.
A few years later, I met my future husband when we both tried to shepherd our tween daughters through middle school registration as single parents. Our daughters adored one another. We began dating as a family. We moved to the same town, then to the same street, and finally to the same large house. We worked on finances and tried to show stability to these daughters, this son. All of us, separately and together, got therapy. I finally got my diagnosis, learned to recognize how my body reacted to fear and stress. How I shut down or lose my ability to speak when danger appears. How I dissociate and shiver uncontrollably. The nightmares. The terrifyingly lucid daydreams. The colon cramps that strike at the worst times.
A single tablet of Celexa per day makes the difference between can’t and can. Shuts out the screaming voice of terror: “Run! Hide! Help!”
I have relentlessly tunneled into the shit that clogs the back of my mind. I’ve done the work. I’m not cured, but I’m a lot saner than I used to be.
I see things, I hear and feel them, and I don’t hide much anymore.
As a stepmom, I have been steadfast, I have been calm and patient and dependable. I’ve made the lunches. I’ve done the wash. I’ve rescued the forgotten homework or gym shoes. All the things the birth mother wouldn’t do, or was unable to do, I have done in spite of my own tethers.
* * *
On a certain day in my memory, the Boy is just a little kid, maybe seven years old. It’s midweek, late afternoon, time for his mother to pick him up. She pulls up in her BMW two-door, and idles loudly in the middle of the street, looking at her phone, cigarette in her mouth, radio on. She honks for her son. I walk the Boy to the door, make sure he has his backpack. (It will be left at her house; I will have to use the spare, or get another one, since she hoards his things.) I make sure he has his completed homework. (We have to do a whole week’s worth in two nights because she can’t be relied on to get it done or even get him to bed before midnight.) I give him a snack for the road, because even counting on her to give him dinner before nine is a crapshoot, but she’s his birth mother, and the courts couldn’t have been wrong.
He runs down the steps on this day, trips on the sidewalk, falls on his face, splayed on the asphalt, and starts to sob. He rises on his elbows and looks back at me. I don’t want to go out — I cannot even convey my horror of the birth mother, who has harassed, stalked and threatened us in the past, me especially, for “stealing her family,” how she needles my PTSD into full alert. But of course I go to him; I dash right out and pick him up, wipe his tears, look at his elbows, and the woman still hasn’t even looked up from her phone.
She finally looks out the window, and then starts cooing at him from the car, “Oh, oh, baby, are you hurt?” She doesn’t get out. She sits there and lets her sobbing child come into the street and around to the passenger side, where there is no car seat, and he gets in and off they go. I have to let him go again and again into that woman’s car, her arms, her clutches, and I form a kernel of hardness around my heart because I can’t love him too much — it’s too hard to give him to her every week, to bear her sneers and her abuse from the car, or replayed from the message machine, or in emails and texts to me, how I am a sorceress, a whore, a witch, how she’s going to tear my head off, not to fuck with her kids, and she has him too firmly in her thrall.
Not until he is fifteen does she blow it enough that Child Protective Services finally cuts her off, and we are safe from her presence until after he turns eighteen and can choose for himself. It is ten years too late, but we did our best, crippled as we were by the courts, her fluid mental health and our mangled finances.
The Boy, weeping, flat on his face on the ground between us, is our dynamic in a nutshell. He’ll weep for her forever. I’ll dust him off and get no credit, no thanks, until he’s grown, maybe; his sister thawed and loves me dearly. Will he? Can I keep it all the plates spinning that long?
* * *
His teachers are all stupid. They love him so much that he doesn’t even have homework. He’s just there to help out. He can’t explain the C- or the D, the D- or the F; the teacher is an asshole, the teacher hates him; none of his friends are in that class and he hates it. School is stupid. He is simultaneously the best student and the worst. The most beloved and the pariah, depending on the day, the week, or the hour.
He hit puberty in the last year or so and has grown about an inch per month. His clothes and shoes almost visibly shrink. He towers over me, his voice deepens, he stops crying about every little thing. Instead, he makes noise at everything he does, whether eating, crashing into things as he roams the house, slamming doors and drawers. His anger is rising. He has the safe space to feel his feelings, and all the anger of fifteen years is churning like a volcano’s molten core. He screams in delight when he’s winning at video games and snarls, “FUUUUUCK!” when he loses.
When my husband is so exhausted from a business trip that he can’t open his birthday gift, a flat-screen TV, the Boy goes in his room and slams the door.
I knock to check on him, and he’s in there in the dark, flicking his switchblade open and shut, open and shut. His voice shakes. He is either about to burst into tears or explode.
My guts turn to water, in full alert fight-or-flight, but speak soothingly.
“It’s all right,” I say. “Give him an hour or two, and he’ll be ready to celebrate. It’s not personal. He’s just tired.” The Boy glowers and sits like a lone terrorist in his dark room, flicking, closing, flicking, closing the knife. I smile wanly at him, slip out the door and go to my evening work event. I can’t stay in the house another minute, my PTSD thrumming like a vibrato. My hands shake and I am so sketchy I do not even recognize a friend from high school who has driven an hour to hear me read. I get a text later from home that all is well. They are watching TV on the new screen and it is wonderful. Nothing to worry about.
* * *
Perhaps, because of my PTSD, I overreact. I internalize the fear and the drama of the situation. I imagine the worst-case scenario, when maybe it’s just normal teen-aged angst. Or perhaps not. I realized, some few months ago, that when he goes off, I am terrified of him. Anger boils out of him like heat waves off the hood of my car in summer. Why am I the one feeling the loathing, when I never did a thing wrong to him? I don’t think I’ve raised my voice more than five times in ten years. I’ve certainly never punished him.
“It’s not you,” says my therapist. “Those are all the things he feels about himself, that his mother must have hated about him to treat him like that. He thinks he must be worth hating. So the important thing is that you don’t show him your angst, don’t tell him these feelings. Don’t let see how it makes you feel.”
I don’t. I keep it to myself, every day. But is it me?
My husband says, “Don’t worry. He’s just a teenager, just a boy. I didn’t talk to my mom for a year. I hated her. Teenage boys are all ego, all testosterone. They are loud, rude, obnoxious braggarts. They are toddlers in big bodies. They are men with smaller brains. They have semi-permanent erections and little blood flows to their frontal lobes.”
Some of those things are true, and the rest just seem true. I think of the Boy in the dark room flicking his knife and wonder.
All of these things trigger me. My hands shake, my rash blooms, and I put in my earbuds to play trance music: hypnotic, dreamy, like my nights dropping Ecstasy way back when I was self-medicating. I take walks. I go to visit my mother or my daughters, stay out of touch overnight. I find ways to get away from him and the belligerence just a hair under the surface. I hide in the bedroom with a book, or feign sleep. PTSD, my old friend, has come back for a short visit, or maybe a long one, until this boy grows up and moves on.
He’s loud, he’s angry, he’s taller than me by almost two feet, and sometimes, he scares me to death. I know he’s just a sad, worried little boy inside; I see it, and I’m still here, after more than ten years, reaching out my hand, trying to catch his shadow. It isn’t his fault. It isn’t mine, either, I must remember. It’s just something we have to get through, one day, one week, one hour at a time, until he gets through the worst of it. Until we both do. But right now, my teenage stepson is everything I loathe and fear about men — and I must never let him know.
* * *
JP Tracey is a California writer and poet. She has written for Salon, Quill, Paste, Thrillist and more.
Danielle Chenette is an artist living in and working in Chicago, Illinois. More of her work can be found at daniellechenette.tumblr.com.