When Even a Toddler Can Tell You Don’t Belong

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Modern Love

I used to drive the morning car pool with my son, Angus, and another boy, Niklas, and one day Angus gave Niklas a crash course on the blended family. He told Niklas that my husband had been married before, that he had two children who were Angus’s brother and sister, that I wasn’t the mother of those children but I was the mother of Angus and his little brother, and that there was another wife somewhere (Angus was a little shaky on that detail).

Niklas was quiet for a moment and then asked, “So where’s Angus’s real mom?”

“I’m Angus’s real mom,” I said.

“Not that other lady?”


Another pause. “You don’t seem like a real mom.”

“Why not?”

“You’re not … serious enough.”

Yes, well, that has been an issue, me being taken seriously. Although up to that point I thought I could at least fool a 10-year-old. “I am serious,” I said.

He looked doubtful. “You drive us to school in your bathrobe.”

“That’s actually a sign of how serious I am. I’m not bogged down by the superficial. I’m not distracted by shallow worries about my appearance.”

Angus spoke up suddenly. “I thought it was because you had trouble getting up in the morning.”

“That, too,” I admitted.

“Remember that time,” Angus said, “when you had to go into the bank in your —— ”

“I think we should be quiet now,” I said. “I need to concentrate on driving.”

“One more thing,” Niklas said. “Are you part of the main family or just sort of stuck on the side?”

What a good question that was!

I don’t think anyone grows up wanting to be a stepmother. Stepmothers have a bad rap, at least in nearly every fairy tale ever told. I met my husband, Ian, in New York City when I was 26. At that point I wanted to be 1) someone who looked sexy in black, 2) the owner of a Coach handbag and 3) Stephen King (albeit female).

Stepmother wasn’t on the list. Mother wasn’t on it. Wife wasn’t even on it.

Ian was British, dashing and sophisticated. He had two children who went to boarding school in England, but that only added to his appeal, making it clear how loving and supportive he was.

When I was 29, I moved with Ian to London, where we lived in a red brick house with French doors leading to a charming little garden. My stepchildren were 15 and 13. They were still in boarding school, but now they could come home for weekends.

How did I picture us all living together in that house? I didn’t. I was like someone who shows up a bridge tournament and says, “Oh. I didn’t know we’d be playing cards.”

I didn’t want to play cards; I wanted to play house.

Most everybody knows teenagers can be disrespectful, sarcastic, ungrateful, self-righteous, superior and lazy. Imagine living with two teenagers who aren’t related to you. Now imagine being a teenager and living with a 29-year-old woman who’s disrespectful, sarcastic, ungrateful, self-righteous and superior. (I wasn’t lazy but only because I couldn’t afford to be.)

Conflict simmered, then boiled over. Being snide was everyone’s favorite weapon. No subject was too small to argue about: vacuuming, laundry, taking out the trash, eating the last chocolate biscuit, using the last square of toilet paper.

One argument about forgetting to put the milk back in the fridge lasted for weeks. I wrote Y.A. novels at such a great rate and with such suppressed emotion that I wore the letters off my computer keyboard.

My whole life was about teenagers. I lived with them, wrote about them and — this is painful to admit — had the emotions of one. I wanted what every teenager wants: to fit in. But in my new household, I was an American among Britons, a writer among radio listeners, a peanut butter devotee among Marmite fans, a Midwestern twang among smooth plummy accents.

I am 16 years younger than my husband, 14 years older than my stepson — and the result was that I felt in limbo, a star flung out into space.

We adopted a sweet, patient yellow Labrador we named Brandy, and at last there was something we could agree on: how much we loved her. We bounced a lot of conversation off her — “Brandy loves it when we watch TV together,” “Brandy doesn’t like it when you go into your room and shut the door” — but at least we were talking.

Ian got posted to Washington, D.C., and we married shortly before the move. We asked the local vicar to perform the ceremony, and she said, “Of course! I marry anyone, no matter how scandalous!” My stepchildren attended, as did Brandy, who ate a plate of salmon pinwheels at the reception.

I got pregnant during our first year of marriage. I was nervous about how my stepchildren would take the news but their only reaction was to make us promise never to send the baby to boarding school. They asked me questions like, “What color is the baby’s hair?” and “Does it look like you or Dad?”

They seemed to think the baby was something I was building in a hidden workshop and could inspect anytime I liked.

It was a difficult pregnancy with so much bed rest that I almost forgot a baby would result. When Angus was born, I was unprepared for how much I would love him and completely unprepared for how much my stepchildren would love him.

My stepson holding Angus for the first time is my favorite of all our newborn photos. My stepdaughter flew from London to Washington on a Friday and back on a Sunday just so she could hold him. She stroked his spiky newborn hair and admired his long eyelashes. Then she looked up at me and said, “I can’t believe there’s someone who’s half us and half you.”

Oh. There was still an “us” and a “you.” But at least no one said, “Look what you had,” which is what I had feared.

We had a second baby, Hector, who spoke in full sentences by 18 months. One day he looked at me and said, “Why are you Katherine Heiny and why do you got blue eyes?”

I saw his point: Everyone else in the family has my husband’s last name and brown eyes. Even a toddler could tell I was an outsider.

We moved back to London, where my stepchildren were now in college. The move was difficult for Angus and Hector. I don’t know how we would have managed without my stepchildren. Having their brother or sister drop by was the only sure way to get the boys to smile. And I loved the ease with which our lives intermingled — trips to the park and the movies, impromptu spaghetti dinners, endless wine and conversation.

We moved again, this time to the Netherlands. It was hard to leave London now that we were finally functioning as a blended family. Angus and Hector loved my stepson so much that they would start crying when he arrived to visit, already sad about his departure.

My stepchildren came for Christmas our first year there, and on Christmas Eve we decided to bundle up and walk on the dunes. I went upstairs to change and came back down to find they had all gone without me. I was furious. More than that, I was wounded.

Of course they left without me, I thought. I was so forgettable that no one even noticed if I was there or not. Not only had they left me but the breakfast dishes too. I loaded the dishwasher so forcibly that I’m surprised the plates didn’t shatter. (For the record, I think everyone left when they did because they had finally managed to stuff the boys into their snowsuits. With small children, it’s all about forward momentum.)

When they came home, they were contrite. “It was really fun; you should have been there!” my stepson said, so mock-innocently that I laughed. He has always, always, been able to make me laugh. My stepdaughter did the dinner dishes while I took a bath. Peace was restored, but it was alarming how quickly I had reverted to feeling like an outcast.

We live outside Washington now, and Angus and Hector are teenagers. They leave moldy sandwich crusts in their bedrooms, use up the hot water with their endless showers and, yes, they leave the milk on the counter. Who cares? Surprisingly, not me. I seem to have a lot more patience; Brandy would be proud.

Maybe it’s that I already have been through the teen years with my stepchildren and know we’ll all survive and be stronger for it. Or maybe it’s just that I have, at long last, come of age.