I am a stepmom. My stepdaughter is in her 20s. I’ve been her stepmom since her 9th birthday. I think of myself as a summertime stepmom because that’s what I was. At least for a decade of her life from ages nine to nineteen. Stepping through the years, I’ve watched her grow from a little girl into a successful woman.
I am an incredibly strong-willed, critical person. I am not the type of parent who tells my kids how great they are when they draw a stick figure. I’ll say that’s cute, or good, but I don’t go overboard. I don’t praise. I try to encourage.
I’ve always treated her like my own child. My oldest biological child was born when my stepdaughter was the volatile age of 13. I say volatile because, while she was a good kid, she was not so nice that summer she visited, knowing that I was going to have my first child with HER father in a couple of weeks. But, I remembered what it was like to be 13. I remembered how insecure I was. I remembered how sensitive I was. I am a control freak, and I was in serious nesting mode when she arrived that summer. It was my first baby. I wanted everything to be perfect. I could have told her dad I didn’t want her there that summer. I could have been a bitch. I could have. But I wasn’t. I wanted her there.
She was a child. She was my husband’s child. The man I loved. The man I married. The man I chose to make babies with, to have a family with, ’til death do us part, right? She was his daughter, and that made her my daughter too. My family. I didn’t need her to be blood. I learned that growing up in a house with foster children. I learned that traveling through Europe working as a model. I learned that because I’m not exactly close to most of my blood relatives, a couple of them yes but most, no. As an “only” child (other siblings more than 16 years older than me), I craved an extended family—aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, 2nd cousins. I never really had that. They were either dead, lived far away, or we didn’t really speak to them. And my stepdaughter, well she was just a child.
She had a mom. I didn’t need to be that. She had a dad. I didn’t need to be that either. So, I decided I would be her friend, but not her peer, more like a mentor or advisor maybe, big sister if you will. At least that was what I was striving for. I was only 28. I didn’t know anything about parenting. We learned together, she and I. She learned how to have a stepmom, and I learned how to be a stepmom. She definitely tested me. But I always called her on it. And, she called me on my stuff too. I was glad she did. I needed it.
The first time I met her, she flew as an unaccompanied minor to NYC. I was booked on a modeling job in Seattle, and decided to extend my stay so she could have a few days with her dad in NYC, without his “girlfriend.” I know I would have wanted the same if I were her. My parents got divorced when I was 14. I never wanted to meet their boyfriends or girlfriends, ever. I decided to bring home a kitten, remove the focus from me. We didn’t have any pets, and I thought a kitten might break the ice. I arrived with Luna, a 9-week-old rescued tortoise-shell Persian. Luna helped. We had a great first summer, all of us, in my tiny 350 sq. foot apartment on 2nd Avenue and 76th. Five weeks of wandering NYC, roller blading, walking (she complained about the walking), going to a show (Blue Man Group), and restaurants. Her dad took her to see Lion King. She loved it. She also wandered around with me on model castings. Many people thought she was my daughter. She could have been. I was old enough. I remember being worried about what clients thought. I remember that I didn’t want them to think I was older than I was. I remember sitting in Soho with her eating lunch. She loved sushi. She could eat a ton of sushi. She didn’t speak a lot of English then. She was fluent in German and Swedish. I tried to learn German from an NYU professor but never got that far. I think she had a fun summer. She was definitely happy to see her dad. I wasn’t sure if she liked me. I know she wished her dad and mom were together. I know she missed her mom. I did my best to show her that I wasn’t so bad
When she was ten years old, she came back to NYC for Christmas for two weeks. She had skipped summer that year. I thought how hard that must have been for her mom to send her daughter away to another country for Christmas. To not spend the holidays with her child. Split families are not easy. I bought her a ton of presents. A lot of clothing from the Gap, lip gloss, girly stuff. Everything I could think of that I would have wanted at ten years old. I went crazy. Overcompensated maybe, but I never regretted it. I even bought us matching pants and jackets at the Gap! We ice skated in Central Park (I can’t ice skate, her dad tried to hold me up). We went to Rockefeller Center to see the Tree lighting. We went to Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor to see the Christmas Windows. We shopped at Macy’s in Herald Square.
I took her everywhere I would have wanted to go at ten years old in NYC. She loved our new brownstone apartment, twice the size of the last apartment—a whopping 750 sq. feet. She had her own loft reachable from a “bookcase” ladder. It reminded me of the loft Heidi slept in. My mom read that book to me as a child. I wondered if she had read it. I think it was a German fairy tale.
When she was 11, she arrived for the summer again, another five-week break. We didn’t know it then, but that summer was the last time she would visit us in NYC. That fall we would relocate to California, my home. Her dad’s brother and his wife visited from Germany that summer too. We saw Stomp. We went to the East Village to look for cool jewelry. We went to bead shops. We went to Abercrombie (her new favorite store—her friends didn’t have that stuff back in Germany, so it was cool). We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We drove to the Hamptons, to the beach. We spent a lot of time in Central Park, rollerblading, walking, playing. We had fun. She was slowly becoming a teenager.
The summer she turned 12 she was excited to come to California, another five weeks. It was a much longer flight from Hamburg to San Francisco. Her luggage was lost in the missed Atlanta connection. She was exhausted and dehydrated. She fainted on the flight. Her English improved dramatically that summer because her dad (my husband) now worked all day. It was just her and me most days. We had long conversations. Her English improved dramatically, and it had to; otherwise we wouldn’t have spoken. We hung out by the pool. We shopped a lot. I think shopping was in the top three things she loved to do after seeing her dad. We watched silly American TV and movies. We cooked. And we talked a lot. About boys, about girls, about relationships. I did yoga a lot then. I had been doing yoga for years to stay in shape for modeling. That was my thing. She started paying more attention to yoga. That summer I had to fly to Germany for a modeling job for four days. We put her in daycare. She hated it, but she was safe. She was old enough to stay home alone but her dad worked long days, and I didn’t think it would be safe to leave her alone all day, in a foreign country.
When she was 13, she arrived back in the Summer, post 9/11. I remember being worried about her flying. I was eight months pregnant. She was a full-fledged teenager. Enter Attitude. She didn’t want to talk. She was annoyed by everything. I was hormonal. It was a great combination. I took her shopping. I thought that would help her mood and mine. It didn’t.
Then my husband took her shopping to Abercrombie. I arrived home, to find her lying on the floor with shorts that were one size to small, in my opinion. I told my husband that she couldn’t wear shorts like that. I asked him if he’d seen them. He said no. He said he just bought what she wanted. She was REALLY MAD at me when he told her she had to return them. REALLY MAD. I remember finding g-string underwear in her drawer. They had satin ribbons attached to them that were meant to hang out of her pants. Was that the new mating ritual for teens I thought? Pull on the string to lead her where he wanted her to go? I was horrified. I found padded, lacy bras. She was only 13! Was this the new normal? Was I old-fashioned at 32? I knew she was growing up, but I remember thinking did it really happen that fast? I didn’t know what it was like to grow up in Hamburg, but it seemed crazy that she went from being a little girl to being a woman in a year. Then my oldest son was born. She was at the hospital. She held him. She was included. She was part of our family. She was his older sister. She loved him. I loved him. I loved her. When we returned home, she helped me. She went above and beyond. She had two weeks left in California, and she spent them hanging out with me in the bedroom, asking if I needed anything. She brought me tea, food, helped me dress him, bathe him, entertain him. She loved him. And I was so happy that she was there for the birth of her baby brother. I didn’t want her to leave.
When her brother was nine months old, she came for Spring Break, still 13. We went to Maui—our first vacation together. We had do-it-yourself hot fudge sundaes in our room, a highlight. We slid down water slides, went to a Luau, talked to parrots, and swam through caves. I think she wished she had a friend to wander around the resort with. I was somewhat busy with a baby, or in baby mode anyway, but we still had fun. That was the only time we saw her that year.
When she was 14, we went to Germany for a couple of weeks at Christmas. She met us in Stuttgart, where her grandparents live. I had never been in Germany with her. Her brother was now 18 months old. I was still breastfeeding. We went to the zoo, shopping (always lots of shopping), and to the Christmas Market, one of the most magical outdoor holiday markets. An idyllic Christmas location. There were a lot of tears when we left. She was more upset than usual. For some reason, when we left Germany it was harder on her. To see us leave was more difficult than when she had to leave us in the states. We always cried at the airport.
She came back again the summer she turned 16, only three weeks this time instead of five. She asked to bring a girlfriend. We had relocated to Los Angeles right after leaving Germany. Los Angeles was a cool place to visit for her and her friend. I watched them smoking on the curb in the front yard. In Germany, it was legal to smoke at 16. They were legal, at least where they were from. You could also drink wine and beer at 16. They didn’t do that here.
That summer we went swimming. We went to Malibu. We went to Venice. We went to Paramount Studios. They shopped and took walks. We didn’t talk so much that summer, her and I. I missed her, but she was growing up, something children do. We celebrated her brother’s third birthday that summer at the Santa Monica Pier. I was five weeks pregnant. I didn’t know it was twins yet. She and her dad found out at the same time, when I showed them the ultrasound photos marked baby A and baby B outside the gates of Paramount.
She came back for Spring break. Still 16. Hard to resist two newborn babies. Her brother, almost four, and her were both now second fiddle to the twins, a mere three weeks old. She hung out with me in the bedroom that I never really left. It was the first time she and her brother fought like siblings. Her telling him what to do, him fighting back, claiming his independence over her. They were adorable. Thirteen years apart, adorable. I was exhausted, but we managed to take a couple of walks with the twins. I was stressed out. It was probably not much fun for her, although she loved her new brother and sister.
She took a break after that. Almost two years. She decided it was best for her. She always missed summer and spring break with her family and friends in Europe. We never spoke a lot when she was in Europe. I missed her. I wondered how she was doing? How her life was going? Who she was dating? I was never one to push myself on her. She needed time alone. She needed time with her friends. She needed time. I respected her decision, but I didn’t have to like it. I understood, but I still missed her.
Then everything changed when she was 17. She wanted to move to the states, to move in with us. That meant going from a summertime stepmom to a full-time stepmom! I couldn’t help but think about how much I’d learned while being her stepmom. First, I had been fun, her buddy, her older sister, her confidant, then, I became the annoying stepmom. I’ll never forget her storming up the stairs yelling “Papa, why do you always have to pick such difficult women.” Besides her mom, I was the only “woman” in her life cramping her style.
I thought about cramping her style and wondered how much of that I would do when she really lived with us. More than she wanted, I knew that. I wasn’t the type of mom who was going to let her do whatever she wanted. That’s not my thing. I cared what happened to her. I cared where she was, what she was doing, who she did it with. That annoyed her at 18 years old. She wanted total freedom. I wanted her to go to college. Get a degree. Be responsible. Be helpful. And she was helpful. And most of the time she was responsible. She made mistakes. But I knew she had to have the room to make mistakes, to royally screw up, to pick herself up. I knew she had to decide her own life, to live in her own apartment, to support herself.
She has always been a smart girl. She speaks three languages fluently. I told her she was ahead of the game. I helped her make a resume, and she was hired at her first interview. I wasn’t surprised. I never doubted her. She had worked in her stepdad’s doctor’s office for years. She had worked for a business coach. She had worked in retail. She had experience in the workplace since she was 15 years old. She had strong interpersonal skills. She had a beautiful smile and spirit. I looked at her and thought, yep that was the little girl I met at nine years old. She knew what she wanted. She was true to herself, and she had grown into a confident, beautiful woman. None of which I took credit for. She did that all on her own.
She moved out at 20. I was a little upset that she didn’t need us anymore. It was hard to let her go. Her siblings were sad to see her go. Her baby sister had grown very attached to her. She came for dinners, for laundry, for movies. I loved it when she stayed the night. When I could force to watch whatever movie I wanted her to see. It was great to have her there in the morning. She never stayed long. I told her she was always welcome. She never moved back.
She will turn 27 in a little over a month. A summer baby. This summer we will see her on Father’s Day. I can’t wait to lie by the pool and talk. She’s getting married next summer to the most wonderful man. I couldn’t have created someone better for her. I will cry when she walks down the aisle. I will wear waterproof mascara. I will try not to bug her too soon for a grandchild, but I can’t wait to tell that little baby all about how beautiful her mom is, inside and out.