By Teri Carter
I’d been J’s stepmother for four years when his mom and I had our first conversation. I called her at work. “J isn’t getting any sleep,” I said. “He says he’s in bed, but I know he’s up all night playing video games.”
I told her I didn’t want to play the evil stepmother by taking away the games altogether, and wanted her advice. Plus, I was calling on a dare. J is smart. He knows his mom and dad make the decisions. He knows his mom and I never (why would we?) speak. He knows I have less authority than a teenaged babysitter. “What are you going to do?” he’d said sarcastically over a giant bowl of Cheerios. “Call my mom?”
J and his mother live in California, and J spends a month or more every summer with his dad and me in Minnesota. He has already been to two camps, and this year I’ve quit my job to go back to school, so with the exception of one night class I have the summer off. While my husband is at work, J and I go to the park and the swimming pool and the bookstore and the zoo and the science museum and the theme park at Mall of America. I feel like a Disneyland parent, constantly on the go, wracking my brain for ways to entertain a 10-year-old boy. When I have to run grownup errands, J balks. He can’t find his shoes; the movie he’s watching is almost over; it’s raining and he doesn’t have a jacket; can’t I for once let him finish this video game?
By the time my husband gets home from work, J and I have retreated like prizefighters to opposing corners of the house.
I know what it feels like to be J. My dad remarried when I was nine, and I remember the swirling, nervous division inside me, how I both dreaded and looked forward to time with my dad and his new wife. Even as my mother rolled her eyes and made snarky comments like “Well that was fast,” and “I hope he knows what he’s getting into,” I remained immeasurably curious. What new adventures might this woman bring to weekends with my dad? What kind of books did she read and did she like sports and what would we talk about? Or would I just be in the way? What if I didn’t like her or, more terrifyingly, she didn’t like me?
Mostly, I soaked up subtle clues. Her relaxed or forced smile when I arrived on a Friday after work. Whether my photographs remained prominently displayed and multiplied, or disappeared. How long something I’d drawn or painted stayed on the refrigerator door. The way she answered the phone politely and even conversationally when my mother called. The absence of drama.
By the time I called J’s mom at work, I’d had it. That morning, when I’d brought up the issue of J’s late-night gaming to my husband, he didn’t see the big deal. “It’s summer!” he announced while pouring a mug of coffee to go. “Relax. Let him sleep in if he wants.”
But he didn’t have to spend all day with an exhausted, grouchy, soon-to-be 6th grader. The instant I heard the garage door close, I left J with his Cheerios, shut my bedroom door, sat cross-legged in the middle of my bed, and dialed.
After her initial panic at hearing my voice—because surely something was critically and/or medically wrong if I was calling—J’s mom shared that he’d been complaining about me. I was too strict. I was mean. I never let him do what he wanted. “He says he’s so tired because you’re dragging him around the science museum every day and then quizzing him and making him recite a book report.”
She paused, and we both laughed.
“When you go to bed tonight,” she said conspiratorially, “unplug all the game controllers and take them to bed with you. That’s what I do.”
This summer, as usual, J will come to stay with us and, once again, I will look after him. It is an awesome responsibility to be entrusted with the care of someone’s child, but for the first time I’m less anxious about it. J’s mom and I have already talked. In a few weeks, she will take him through airport security in California where she will wait for her only child to board a Delta Airlines jumbo jet, alone. She will fake a smile and tell her boy to have a great time, and she will wave but she won’t blow kisses because, J says, kisses are for babies and can’t she see how big he is? She will watch his plane push back while she stares down the departure board, and she will wait there until she knows, knows beyond any doubt, he has taken off. And then she will call me—the stepmother picking him up on the other end—to let me know her son is on his way. “Call me when you have him,” she will say. “And if you need anything.”
Teri Carter is a writer living in California and Kentucky. Find her at http://www.tericarter.net.