I've often felt that "step-parent" is a label we attach to men and women who marry into families where children already exist, for the simple reason that we need to call them something. It is most certainly an enormous "step", but one doesn't often feel as if the term "parent" truly applies. At least that's how I used to feel about being a step-mother to my husband's four children.
My husband and I had been together for six years, and with him I had watched as his young children became young teenagers. Although they lived primarily with their mother, they spent a lot of time with us as well. Over the years, we all learned to adjust, to become more comfortable with each other, and to adapt to our new family arrangement. We enjoyed vacations together, ate family meals, worked on homework, played baseball, rented videos. However, I continued to feel somewhat like an outsider, infringing upon foreign territory. There was a definite boundary line that could not be crossed, an inner family circle which excluded me. Since I had no children of my own, my experience of parenting was limited to my husband's four, and often I lamented that I would never know the special bond that exists between a parent and a child.
When the children moved to a town five hours away, my husband was understandably devastated. In order to maintain regular communication with the kids, we contacted Cyberspace and promptly set up an e-mail and chat-line service. This technology, combined with the telephone, would enable us to reach them on a daily basis by sending frequent notes and messages, and even chatting together when we were all on-line.
Ironically, these modern tools of communication can also be tools of alienation, making us feel so out of touch, so much more in need of real human contact. If a computer message came addressed to "Dad", I'd feel forgotten and neglected. If my name appeared along with his, it would brighten my day and make me feel like I was part of their family unit after all. Yet always there was some distance to be crossed, not just over the telephone wires.
Late one evening, as my husband snoozed in front of the television and I was catching up on my e-mail, an "instant message" appeared on the screen. It was Margo, my oldest step-daughter, also up late and sitting in front of her computer five hours away. As we had done in the past, we sent several messages back and forth, exchanging the latest news. When we would "chat" like that, she wouldn't necessarily know if it was me or her dad on the other end of the keyboard--that is unless she asked. That night she didn't ask and I didn't identify myself either. After hearing the latest volleyball scores, the details about an upcoming dance at her school, and a history project that was in the works, I commented that it was late and I should get to sleep. Her return message read, "Okay, talk to you later! Love you!"
As I read this message, a wave of sadness ran through me and I realized that she must have thought she was writing to her father the whole time. She and I would never have openly exchanged such words of affection. Feeling guilty for not clarifying, yet not wanting to embarrass her, I simply responded, "Love you too! Have a good sleep!"
I thought again of their family circle, that self-contained, private space where I was an intruder. I felt again the sharp ache of emptiness and otherness. Then, just as my fingers reached for the keys, just as I was about to return the screen to black, Margo's final message appeared. It read, "Tell Dad good night for me too." With tear-filled, blurry eyes, I turned the machine off.