When my son Will found out he was going to become a big brother for the third time, he was thrilled. I wish I'd been as happy about it as I'd been about the births of his other siblings—my 5-year-old Eliza and 2½-year-old Lucas. But this time the woman counting down the weeks, laying in a layette, poring over baby-naming books, was my ex-husband's wife—Will's stepmother.
When John told me he and Diana were getting married, I wasn't really bothered. I rarely saw her. She was a phantom limb on our kooky family tree, showing up once in a while for a performance at Will's school, riding along occasionally when John brought Will home from a weekend visit.
It was on such an occasion that I got what should have been my first hint that there might one day be a baby in the picture. It was a warm spring evening and we were all out in the yard when John drove up to drop off Will. Diana was in the car, and I went over to the passenger side with Lukey, still an infant, in my arms. As I was showing him off, Diana happened to say she'd been knitting baby clothes and putting them away. "I told John," she said, "'hey, you never know.'"
I shrugged off the notion with just the teeniest bit of gleeful disdain. I didn't believe for an instant that John, with his erratic schedule (he's an actor), would agree to have another child.
Although I've never felt that John doesn't love Will, it's been hard for him to be a steady presence—his career won't allow it. There've been times when John's been on the road for weeks. I've always imagined that must be as tough for him as it is for Will—maybe even tougher. John's always called every day and made up for lost time with Will when he could. So it seemed improbable that John would have another child when it's been hard for him to be with the one he has as much as he'd like.
And yet, when John left a voicemail message one evening more than a year later saying he wanted to talk to me, an image of tiny booties and sweaters tucked away in a drawer sprang to mind. I knew he was going to tell me he and Diana were expecting a baby. I was so sure, in fact, that I didn't call him back. Because the idea mortified me.
This essay appears in My Father Married Your Mother: Writers Talk about Stepparents, Stepchildren, and Everyone in Between, edited by Anne Burt, published by W.W. Norton and Company in May 2006.
Getting used to the idea
Why did it bother me so much? A few evenings later John called again: "I wanted to tell you before I talk to Will that Diana's pregnant. There's going to be a little baby soon," he said.
There was such excitement in his voice, it was as if he were telling his best friend, not his ex-wife, and expected enthusiastic congratulations. I dearly wished I could muster such a reaction, but in my pettiness all I managed was, "Oh, okay, I see," called Will to the phone, and slunk away.
It got worse. If, during her pregnancy, Diana wrestled with morning sickness, sciatica, indigestion, or swollen ankles, I bet that her pain didn't compare with mine. I never asked John how she was doing. I wasn't sure when the baby was due, and didn't try to find out. (I'd thought June; it was actually March.) I was horrible, and yet I couldn't help myself. I could tell my friends didn't understand. It wasn't like I didn't have my own kids. It wasn't like this child was going to affect my life at all.
Will seemed genuinely excited about his new sibling-to-be, but his enthusiasm left me feeling deflated. When he said one day, "Well, pretty soon Eliza and Lucas are going to have a new baby brother or sister," I snapped, "The baby won't be related to Eliza and Lucas. It'll be your half-sibling, not theirs." I'd never referred to Eliza and Lukey as Will's half-siblings. How awful of me to try to set John's child apart from my own in Will's eyes, a child whose relationship to Will would be no different than his relationship to them.
Will said nothing more, but I'm sure my words had stung. It wasn't my finest moment, but in that single, scathing response to Will—one I still regret—the reasons for my discomfort about John and Diana's child gelled: I feared that he might love his stepmother's child more than he loved mine. This baby would represent one more lap in the inevitable race of divorced couples to be viewed as the better parent.
I wanted to be married to the better stepparent, provide the cozier home, bear the smartest, cutest, sweetest siblings. I suspect I've been running a lot harder than John has. My prolonged and petty obsession about his child was much more intense than any negative feelings he might have felt when Eliza and Lucas were born. In fact, he's been as interested in and delighted by them as if he were their uncle—never forgetting birthdays, taking Eliza for ice cream, hugging them when he drops Will off. I've always appreciated that. Now I saw how important it is that I respond in kind.
It's been a slow road. Baby Jack's birth took me by surprise: Will told me he'd arrived one Friday when I got home from work. I confess that I didn't act very interested. Nor did I ooh and aah over the images of Jack that John proudly showed me a few days later. When I finally saw the baby, when he was a few months old, all I could muster was, "Well, it looks like he's all there. You did a good job!"
Jack is 7 months old now, and Will hasn't indicated in any way that he thinks he's a niftier kid than Eliza or Lucas. My worst fear hasn't been realized, and it's helped me to soften up. In an e-mail to John, I managed to tack on a line hoping Diana and Jack were doing well. And when one day John picked Will up at my office to take him to lunch, I went down with Will to meet him, figuring that Jack would be there. And he was, an adorable little guy strapped to his dad's chest in a Snugli. I grinned at him—and he grinned back.
And in that brief exchange, one of us entirely innocent of the significance of the meeting, I turned a corner. Who knows where that will lead my son's little brother and me? I don't exactly see our families melding into one—but when we do meet, even if it's only in the driveway on a warm spring evening, at least I can offer him a smile.