I’ve always thought that my husband’s stepmother was a little strange. For the past seven years, I’ve complained about some social fau paux that she had committed during one of our visits, from little annoyances that would make me secretly roll my eyes, to big ones that caused me to just about commit a horrible crime. For instance, when my husband and I had our first child, Parker, we would bring her over to their house in the hopes of forging a strong bond between her and her loving grandparents. It was wonderful the way they would gush over her and buy her more clothes than would fit in her closet at home. The strange part was that, even though my husband’s father would greet us with his usual Southern charm (he is originally from Alabama), his wife would barely say hello before focusing all of her attention on our daughter, and many times in another room of the house. We wrote it off to her having been an elementary school teacher and not having any children of her own. But it went on and on…
Another fond memory was the night we were staying at their place for the weekend and I was in the bathroom getting ready to go out with my husband and his brother that evening while Nancy (I’ve changed her name to be somewhat discrete) was in the next room playing with four-year-old Parker. As I applied my mascara, I overheard Nancy tell her that it would be alright if Parker called her “mommy, when mommy wasn’t around.” I agonized over saying something or keeping the peace on that one but decided in the end, that keeping the peace would be best…unless she ever said anything remotely like that again. I explained to Parker that she only had one mommy.
The visits to their place and to ours became progressively more estranged between Nancy and my husband and I. As usual, my husband’s father would be cordial and jovial, Parker would receive the warmest greetings, while Nancy’s tone of voice would actually change to a business-like timbre when speaking to me. Since I had always questioned her behaviors anyway, I never found enough reason to breech the subject, especially since my husband and his brother always showed her the utmost respect. In addition, they lived four hours away from us in a rural part of Illinois and, even if our relationship never got off the ground, we didn’t see them every day—only about eight or nine times a year for overnight stays (ugh). My husband and I joked occasionally about checking for packed bags and passports in case they were planning to take off to Mexico with Parker while we were gone. Heh, heh. So, this is how our relationship went on, until several weeks ago.
Nancy had called me last year, out of the blue (she never calls me), to request opportunities to “make memories” with Parker after a health scare she had. Although I felt that we had already provided many opportunities to make family bonds gratefully, I thought she was probably affected by facing her own mortality (albeit not seriously) so I told her that I was all for it and that I would do my best to make it happen. After they decided to leave town for a vacation that Christmas, when we normally saw them to celebrate the holiday (interesting decision on their part), I suggested that they come to babysit for Parker that spring while my husband and I took a weekend trip for my birthday and shortly after, have Parker come to stay at their place for almost her entire spring break from kindergarten, without us, as Nancy had requested. Parker is now six-years-old, but since she is our only child, this was a pretty big sacrifice and leap of faith for us, although I felt she was a bold enough kid to speak her mind and let us know how she felt about the whole thing. My husband and I encouraged her and “talked up” the trip for the entire week before, telling her how much fun she would have in their huge backyard, going to see a movie (maybe), making new friends there, and whatever else they had planned for her. We were ready.
On the second night she was staying there of the five, I called for the first time in the evening to talk to my daughter. Parker told me about the good time she was having with her grandfather and, as always, I was encouraging and told her that we missed her too and that we would see her that Friday. After we hung up, Nancy called back to tell me, in a voice that reeked of contempt, that Parker told her that I hung up on her. I explained that we had both said goodbye before I hung up and that Parker was still learning phone etiquette, and I talked to Parker again. She was weepy and said she missed us. Again, I encouraged her to enjoy herself, told her I loved her, and that we’d see her in no time.
The fourth night of Parker’s stay, I called to talk to Nancy or my father-in-law to see how it was going for them. Nancy answered and when I asked if they were making memories, she described to me in what seemed like a prepared speech (in her business-like tone) that Parker was just fine and that she was having a good time being there and there were no problems. I joked that it was a great thing because now we wouldn’t have to beat her when she got home…not even a giggle. Nancy proceeded to explain to me that Parker had been very upset when she got off the phone with me that second night and that I needed to be more positive with her about spending time with her grandparents. That started the phone-conversation-heard-round-the-world.
When I told Nancy that I had been encouraging and that our daughter just missed us (big surprise), she told me that she was “ready to communicate” and began a tirade about how my husband and I “hover” over our daughter, we haven’t let them play a part in her life (never mind all the visits every year and the fact that she was now at their house for a week without us AT THAT VERY MOMENT), and that I had been cold and distant to her since I came into the family. She said I had insulted her in my e-mails (never happened), told her what to do (she couldn’t give me a reasonable example of such a thing), and that we had been inhospitable when they came to stay (must’ve been the meals I’d cooked or the heavy-duty cleaning I did before they’d arrived each time or the warm welcomes or asking them what they wanted to do while staying with us or…).
I felt shocked, betrayed, and incredibly vulnerable since my daughter was so far away from me and was under the care of this woman who had essentially just turned on me with a complete lack of respect for me as Parker’s mother. When I started crying, she ridiculed me, saying, “Oh, don’t start with the tears, that won’t work on me missy.” Missy? Was she kidding? I became angry then and started shouting about how it was my idea to have Parker stay with them and that I-couldn’t-understand-where-this-could-possibly-be-coming-from-and-what-part-does-my-husband-play-in-all-of-this-or-are-all-of-your-issues-simply-my-fault? She then reprimanded me like a small child saying, “Oh, don’t you take that tone with me.” That was it. I told her to have Parker ready and that I would be there that night to pick her up. She told me that I was irrational and that she wouldn’t let us pick her up. I told her to call the cops and try to stop me.
When he got home from work, my husband talked to Nancy and found her to be just as rude and belligerent to him. Whenever he tried to explain something from our point of view (my husband is extremely calm and reasonable when in a debate), she would start shouting things like, “oh, so I’m the one who’s a huge jerk,” making it seem as though that’s what was said, although it hadn’t been. We went to pick Parker up the next morning so as not to cause her alarm. She was ready to go and happy to see us. She had had enough vacation and told me that, “Nancy was acting weird this morning.” Another red flag for me—we kept Parker out of the whole thing by saying that we just missed her too much and came to get her early.
It’s been several weeks since we picked Parker up and Nancy has not called to arrange a discussion or to apologize to either of us, despite my husband’s speaking to his father about our defense against her accusations. So now I wait, in limbo, to discover whether or not this part of our family has completely resigned. Frankly, at this juncture, I’m not sure I can excuse their behavior at all. Although my husband and I feel terrible about the whole thing, it could’ve turned out worse. It’s hard to imagine the possibilities when someone becomes so obsessed with a child that she is willing to alienate family members and completely overlook kindness and effort in any form, not to mention the relationship she had built with her step son before his marriage to me. It’s hard for me to understand the reasoning behind disrespecting a child’s parents, especially when they are good ones. My husband said that night, “you’d think they would be proud of us for being conscientious parents and raising a happy, healthy grandchild.” Yeah, you would think.