My Not-So-Wicked Stepmother

Modern Family

My Not-So-Wicked Stepmother

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza/ Arré

I

was 14 when my father remarried. It was less of a shocker than it probably should have been, but we vulnerable kids from divorced homes tend to shrug such things off. Also, I wasn’t really allowed time to be apprehensive, since my father, from whom I inherit my horror of confrontation and potentially uncomfortable situations, never introduced S as someone he was dating.

The first time I met S, was at a restaurant she ran, where my dad and I often went to eat seafood. She had a big smile and asked me if my father had actually bought me the purple jeans I’d asked for. A naturally suspicious child and wary of people knowing my business, I’m fairly certain I replied with an expressive grunt and shoved more food in my mouth.

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That was the beginning.

I don’t recall how long dad dated S before getting married, but she made every effort to get to know me. I remember going to watch Runaway Bride with S and winning a slogan contest at the theatre. The prize was a giant T-shirt that read, “The Groom Came, I Didn’t.” I solemnly told her that it was perfect since it summed up my outlook on marriage. She looked slightly confused (I was probably about 13 at the time), and then laughed.

Once they got married, I visited their home every weekend. They were sort of like an uncle and aunt that you visit on holidays. S and I were in a semi-comfortable zone, given that she was 11 years older than I was. It didn’t matter at the time because we lived separately and there wasn’t any forced intimacy. This also meant that I didn’t really view her as a mother figure or someone very close. I didn’t bring her up very often in conversation with other people, but when I did, the word “stepmother” rolled off my tongue without hesitation. I saw people flinch slightly, look away quickly each time. As though my lack of a “normal” one-marriage-two-kids family was embarrassing for them.

I liked S enough to decide that my college years could be spent with my father and the stepfamily, without anyone getting too upset. My father was delighted. My mother, by then, was forging a new life for herself in another country. So, I moved.

Looking back, that was when things changed. Nearly six years had passed since I first met S. Both of us had changed while knowing one another only as acquaintances. She was mother to a toddler, wife to a man, who had moved out of his hometown for the first time in 45 years. I was 19, with a freshly broken heart, eager to move out of my grandparents’ home, writing angst-ridden poetry, and with a fierce need for privacy and space. For me, moving in with them was a step toward freedom. For her, it was time to play parent to a difficult child who wasn’t technically her own. I was no longer on the outside, watching from a safe distance while other people grappled with difficult feelings. I had entered the proverbial battlefield.

With her intensely family-oriented mind and belief that there was a right and a wrong way to raise kids, my frantic need for independence and privacy must have been jarring.

The word “step”, with its sharp, staccato ring always gives the impression of the “other” family. The outsiders. The new word for it is the “blended family”, a softer, more inclusive phrase. But it also gives off a rather false sense of complete comfort with all edges rubbed off. That would not be our story.

Sharing living space thrusts intimacy upon you, whether or not you’re ready. I was no longer a visitor – I had to account for where I went, when I came home, and how much of my life I shared. I came face to face with disapproval, even censure that had not been there before. S once told me, “We need to make you a little less spoilt.” My hackles rose and though I didn’t respond, I realised that she truly thought she had rights over me. I was living in their house; they were paying for my education. And we mostly cared about each other.

With her intensely family-oriented mind and belief that there was a right and a wrong way to raise kids, my frantic need for independence and privacy must have been jarring. S would stay up at night when I came home. She would make tea and try to make conversation. I wasn’t keen to share and would often take the tea and some dinner to my room. All I needed was quiet after a day of work. My silence must have been puzzling, even hurtful, but we didn’t know each other well enough to let our differences be.

What saved us in the end, oddly, was my baby stepbrother. He came upon us like a fluffy ton of bricks and instead of recoiling at the thought of yet another person to get to know, I found myself drawn to this screaming bundle, who had inherited his mother’s incredible eyelashes and even more incredible set of lungs. He was all of four hours old when I went to the hospital to visit. I remember S, tired, eyes barely open, but ever talkative. “Have you seen the baby? Did you hold him,” she asked me, as though it was of vital importance. Which I suppose it was. She knew, more than I did, that he could become a bridge between “them” and me, and open up the possibility of me being one of them.

I put my adoration for the brother to good use. His bathing, homework, vegetable intake, were all jobs I did happily and without being asked. Perhaps this redeemed me in S’s eyes somewhat. Maybe she was glad I was behaving like part of the family. “Tia handles him better than I do,” she’d say proudly.

Slowly, S and I built our bridges and made our peace. When I topped the class in college, she wrote about it on her blog. Everyone in the family had code names on that blog – I was sometimes Cinderella, sometimes Princess of the Manor. “The Princess has topped two subjects, so proud” or “Cinderella and I were out for coffee.” For almost a year, she signed her emails to me with “WS” or “Wicked Stepmother” as a joke. When I did finally move out, S, with her lovely taste and pride in houses, was instrumental in setting up my first apartment. Before I left, she wrote me a letter, which ended with, “I don’t know who learnt from whom, but we did.”

The truth is, families, blood or otherwise, can be complicated and relationships seldom follow a set narrative. S refused to go into the “evil stepmum” box and I refused to see her as a mother figure. I see her as someone who makes my father happy, who was courageous enough to marry into our family, and the mother of my favourite person in the world – my brother. Our relationship is real and complicated and that’s just the way reality is. We’ve faced it with as much grace and affection and gritted teeth, as it deserves. Ours is not a relationship spoken or written kindly of. And it’s certainly not easy. But, it does disperse with the myth that family is all about ease and comfort and Sooraj Barjatya songs.

That’s needed too.

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