This post was written by Stepmom Kit Rich and originally titled Just Ours.
The first time I met my boyfriend’s two-year-old daughter, Iris, was on Facetime.
“This is my friend, Kit,” Manuel said. Suddenly her blonde curls popped up from the bottom of the screen. Then a flash of an eyeball, a single blink, and poof. She was off to play.
For five months, Manuel and I had been living segmented lives. Having 50 percent custody, I only saw him on days that he didn’t have Iris. Even that was broken into pieces since Manuel often went to visit her on his off days. It was a specific schedule and one that I got used to and enjoyed since it gave me the personal space I had grown accustomed to over the years.
Manuel had talked so much about Iris when we first met, I felt I already knew her. I knew that her first word was bola, which means ball in Spanish. I knew that she loves to eat lime popsicles in the heat of summer and that she is allergic to sweet potatoes. I knew that she sleeps with a stuffed animal named Gatito and a blue fuzzy blanket. When I slept over, I could feel Iris’ presence, like the smell of perfume long after someone’s left the room.
I was the first girlfriend Manuel had ever wanted to introduce to Iris, and he wanted me to be the last. This relationship felt like the right thing, the real thing, but my inexperience felt disabling. In my mid thirties, I had never lived with a man. Never changed a diaper. The lettuce in my fridge was rotten. My fear of meeting and potentially not getting along with the one person he cared about the most was daunting. How could I handle all the intricacies of a modern family dynamic when I couldn’t even keep my succulents alive.
On the first day Iris and I were to meet, I stayed in my car watching them play at the park. Actually, I hid in my car. Behind the windshield, it felt safe and familiar. Like watching videos of her on a screen. But then Manuel looked over to the parking lot and saw me there and began excitedly waving for me to come over. Caught, I quickly opened the door to get out of the car but was thrown back into the seat, choked by the seat belt that I had forgotten to unbuckle.
Iris and I stared at each other for a few moments. Her hand gripped the bottom of her dad’s shorts as I gave her a big awkward smile and kneeled down to hand her the gift I had bought her from the Disney store. A gift I quickly realized was a way-too-big t-shirt. It felt a bit like meeting your new best friend’s oldest best friend for the first time. Connected by the love you share for your friend, but scrambling to find common ground. Hoping for it to feel organic and mutually shared.
Manuel threw Iris over his shoulder and tickled her. Iris’ laugh was large and infectious. “Again, Papa! Again!” she squealed. I watched them wrestle, staying far enough away so as not to disturb what had been in place long before me, but close enough to have my presence known.
That evening when we got back to his apartment, the space took on new life as Iris showed me her toys in her room, pointing out her Stars Wars figurines, and then leading me over to her little table and offering me Playdoh.
When it was time for her bath, Manuel asked me to help him. I panicked. How warm should the water be? How deep? Can she swim? Will she need to swim? Is it okay for me to touch her body? What were the rules?
Sitting on a little stool next to the tub, Manuel gently put shampoo in my hands and carefully placed them on her soft golden curls. It was an initiation of sorts. An introduction to a potential connection and what could become a ritual between us.
Afraid to get shampoo in her eyes, as I carefully worked my fingers through her hair, I thought about Iris’ mother. Manuel had me meet her before I met Iris as a courtesy. I liked her. She was caring and kind. I wondered how she was doing. I wondered if she struggled when she missed these moments. I thought about how difficult life after divorce must be. That the right thing can also be a hard thing. I wondered if she questioned her choices just as I question mine. I know Manuel missed moments too. He had shared with me how he was scared about us not working out. I felt a pang of guilt for stealing this evening for myself. I wondered if there was really a place for me here.
“Kit, I love you,” a little voice said.
My hands lifted off her head, suspended over her. She was staring right at me.
“I love you too, Iris,” I replied, albeit a little less convincingly and a little forced.
Manuel rubbed his hand on my back and left the bathroom allowing the two of us to play together on our own. I tried to bathe her as she thrashed around the tub. Her I love you still swirled about in my mind. How easily she doled out love, like throwing bread crumbs to the birds.
I poured water over the suds that cascaded down her body. Choosing Manuel also meant getting into an entirely separate relationship with his daughter. I had no idea how to make both work. I once asked my girlfriends who came from divorced households how they felt about their stepmoms. The overwhelming consensus was that their stepmoms never loved them the way she loved their dads. Consequently, into adulthood they always felt less deserving of love. I was stunned by the thought, but now, here, I questioned if that was to be my fate too. It was possible my job might be tougher than I thought.
I wanted to love her there and then. I did. I wanted to be able to say I loved her with conviction. She was adorable and lovable in the way that children are. I was hoping to have something like that overwhelming feeling of love that women describe when meeting their newborns. I wanted to be immediately drawn to her because I was so drawn to Manuel. But I couldn’t love her because I didn’t know her.
Wrapping Iris in a towel, as her deep giggle filled the room, I knew my love for her was not to be automatic or even guaranteed. I had to surrender to the possibility that I was the confounding variable in this equation.
What I didn’t know was that the love would start to reveal itself in subtle ways. As it did when we were reading a bedtime story, and she draped her leg over mine. Like when you begin to notice hints of apple as you swirl wine in your mouth. I knew it would be on Iris’ timeline and that my job would be to figure out how to make my head shake hands with my heart. I had to get to know her and pay attention and figure out what to attach to. A bit like the process of starting a new language where the reward is that the words roll off your tongue.
It would take years for me to feel comfortable showing up at her soccer games or her school performances and feel like I deserved to be there. But I kept showing up. She didn’t always want me there. I had to be patient. It took years for her to let me hold her hand. Years for both of us to let our hugs last a little longer. It would take almost 5 years for her to fit into the t-shirt that I bought her on that first day.
Like Iris and the shirt, though, I am slowly growing into this. It has taken time, even though we live together. Even though I married her dad. I am still cultivating my love for her. I am trying to forge a relationship with no middle man needed. The fear I had in the beginning has now morphed into the run of the mill fears any parent has when raising a child. You know the ones, like making sure she goes to a good school and also doesn’t die.
There is satisfaction in knowing that, as seasons pass, eventually love can sprout through the dirt. A love that is earned by showing up. A love that moves in a lane of its own. A love that I hope, one day, we will be able to call just ours.
Connect with Kit at www.kitrich.com