I was two years old when my stepmother Gini burst into my life like a glamorous, marauding Valkyrie set on bending me to her will.
She had platinum blond hair worn in an Aqua-Net bouffant, thick black eyeliner and a figure Jayne Mansfield would’ve killed for.
At night she peeled her false eyelashes off like she was undressing her face.
When I arrived for weekend visits with my dad, I balked at Gini’s house rules; a bath every night, no elbows on the table, no cursing and no shooting of weapons real or imagined.
In my mom’s world, I went barefoot, sporting black feet and dirt rings around my neck, and once accidentally shot my stepdad, Nick, in the foot with his live pellet gun, which I mistook for one of the fake guns my stepbrothers and I used playing War.
It would’ve been a perfect life for this tomboy if not for the escalating fights between my mom and Nick about his “late nights.”
After I went to bed, on any given night, there could be screaming, broken plates, broken glass.
My gut twisted and churned as I lay there and worried that Nick might hurt my mom, maybe even kill her with one of his guns.
He never got the chance because early one morning in 1975 she shook me awake, tears streaking her face.
“Pack a suitcase, sweetheart. I’m divorcing Nick. You’re staying with your dad, just for a while.”
The closer our car came to my dad’s house; the more panic grabbed me by the throat. Mom was leaving me long-term with a Force Of Nature Beyond My Control.
The first morning I awoke in my now semi-permanent bed, a pair of eyelashes gazed down upon me implacably.
“Shannon,” Gini said, “it’s time for church.”
Church?! I initially resented going to church when my own father, an atheist, didn’t have to go.
To make matters worse Gini had the nerve to introduce me to the bishop as her “daughter, Shannon.”
“Actually, you’re my stepmom,” I corrected. “My real mom’s looking for a job then she’ll come get me.”
Gini’s stricken look caused me a jolt of remorse, but also exasperation. Why couldn’t she just leave me alone to do my time?
For the next few weeks, I disappeared into PG-rated bodice rippers, until the day my wicked stepmother discovered me binge-reading Devil’s Desire, confiscated the book and told me it was time to “rejoin the family,” which sent me straight to my journal to curse her cruel infamy.
“Rejoining the family,” meant chores like vacuuming, scrubbing toilets, dishwashing, pulling weeds.
I mentally burnished the iconography of Cinderella to a fine patina, even though my stepsister, Gina, toiled right next to me.
I daydreamed about my own funeral (I’d died from step-mummification).
Gini would fling herself on my casket wailing, “Why did I try to parent Shannon when she already had a real mom?”
The only problem was that my real mom was struggling to pull herself up by the bootstraps (which she eventually, heroically did) and she hadn’t come back to get me yet.
Before I knew it I was a seventh grader with braces and clotted sebaceous pores still living with Gini.
One night, as I slaved over dinner dishes, I felt a lurking presence.
“Shannon, what’s going on? I can tell something’s bugging you.”
I turned to find Gini leveling an unflinching Lieutenant-General look at me. You could never put her off when she looked like that.
“Robert Lyle asked me to go steady,” I blurted. “He’s this really popular eighth grader? Everyone thinks I should go with him, but I really don’t want to.”
“You just tell him your mom says you’re too young to go steady,” Gini replied.
Relief flooded my body.
It still annoyed me when Gini referred to herself as my “mom.” Even though she was the one who taught me how to:
- shave my legs
- hook my training bra
- affix a menstrual pad to my underwear
But I supposed I could refer to her as my “mom” to a third party if it got me out of a sticky situation.
As long as she didn’t expect me to call her “Mom” to her face.
By the time I was a high school sophomore and still under Gini’s jurisdiction, my “situations” became stickier.
“Where were you yesterday afternoon, Shannon?”
She loomed in my bedroom doorway, eyes narrowed with suspicion.
“I was hitting tennis balls at the junior high school.”
“By yourself? You weren’t meeting a boy?”
How did she know? Was she Agatha Christie? Hercule Poirot? Bosley?
I’d had a secret tryst with a boy named Chuck who I’d met over spring break with my mom. He was nineteen, smelled like sun, tasted like Corona beer and rode a motorcycle.
“Did Gina tell you I met a boy?” (Evil step-sisters are congenital snitches.)
“Gina didn’t tell me anything.”
“Then how did you know?”
We stared each other down, neither of us willing to break.
“I’m not proud of this,” she said. “And I might be wrong to have done it, but I … I read your journal.”
“I hate you!” I shouted. “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you!”
Okay, I shouted it in my mind. But my eyes seared her very soul.
I was grounded for a month, no phone and no extra-curricular activities. I managed to sneak off with Chuck once after that, but he no longer seemed attractive.
With his long, lank, dishwater blonde hair and sun-browned, shirtless chest, he seemed dirty, druggy and kind of creepy.
Once I escaped to college, I kept being drawn to bad boys, whom Freud might say were modeled on my former stepdad, Nick.
Until everything came to a head the night I turned thirty and discovered my then-boyfriend romancing another woman in his apartment at 2 a.m.
One hour later, I was huddled in my childhood bed, sobbing into Gini’s favorite purple robe as she took my left arm and massaged it from wrist to shoulder, then took my right arm and did the same.
“From the very first moment I saw you, Shannon,” she said quietly, “I wanted you to be mine. I’m so glad I got to have you. I sure do love you, honey.”
Normally, I would’ve been annoyed to hear her talk that way, but in that moment I needed to be claimed.
It took five more years to give bad boys up for good, and no one beamed brighter than Gini when I walked down the aisle to marry a faithful, loving man.
But after the birth of my daughter I realized something had to change between us.
Sitting next to her at a family gathering, cradling my baby, I girded myself.
“Do you … do you want me to start calling you ‘Mom’?”
The words hung between us; forced and unnatural, then something unexpected happened. Or, I should say, didn’t happen.
Gini didn’t gloat. She simply said, “Whatever you’re comfortable with, honey.”
At sixty-seven my stepmom no longer wore thick black eyeliner or false eyelashes.
Her hair was still the same shade of platinum blond, but worn short, cropped close to her head.
She could still intimidate, but was somehow more vulnerable.
As she watched me with my daughter she said:
“From the very first moment I met you, Shannon, I wanted you to be mine. I’m so glad I got to have you. I sure do love you, honey.”
Unexpected tears stung my eyes. My throat thickened.
“I love you too … Mom.”
Uttering that one small word softened my heart, and I forgave her, just a little, for being the one to raise me from nine to nineteen.
And I realized that her love, no matter how I tried to push it away, saved me.
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29 thoughts on “Banishing the “Wicked” in Stepmother”
As a stepmother, I can relate to this story. I’m so happy for both of you.
Hey Janie — glad to see you and your watermelon here!
You told you story beautifully, it has brought tears to my eyes. It’s amazing how our feeling change once we have children. Thank you for sharing.
Hi Mary — becoming a mom was truly humbling. It really made me appreciate how hard both my moms worked in raising me.
How lucky for you to have such a wonderful woman in your life! This is a great and inspirational story. Loved it!
Wendy thanks so much!
Shannon, your family stories are always my favorites. I think the one about seeing your mom as she played with your own kids at the playground and now the one about your stepmom also being your mom are just beautiful.
Hey Ky thanks so much. It takes time to appreciate all that our parents did for us. But you’ve always appreciated them right from the start. xo s
I have a huge admiration for all Steps – mothers and fathers – who believe step-children are a gift not a burden.
Vanessa — I was truly lucky my stepmom wanted me and treated me exactly the same as she treated her biological kids. And there were times I’d wished she didn’t, but am grateful now.
A beautiful story of unconditional love from your “Mom” and you were/are blessed to have her. From her point of view it must have been very difficult to step into those shoes. How wonderful that everything worked out.
Hi Cathy — thanks for the sweet words. My mom was intrepid and still is. I call her the female MacGuyver because she loves a problem and loves to solve them. Both in the physical world and the emotional one.
Your piece caused tears and laughs. I recently lost my stepmom and my siblings and I have been rehashing our childhood to the point where we have discovered many blurred lines. It was wonderful to read this…
p.s. I’m the bloody mary drinking girl on the plane coming home from my stepmom’s funeral. I had a great time chatting it up with you.
What a timely read for me! I recently lost my stepmom and my siblings and I have been rehashing our childhood memories to the point of blurred lines. Your piece brought me tears and laughs. Thank you!
p.s. I’m the blood mary drinking lady from the plane ride home from my step mom’s funeral. Thanks for a great talk!
Amber — of course I remember you!! So glad you found me here. It’s amazing how many parents we accumulate in our lives and how much we need them all. xo
Beautifully written Shannon. Brave. Hugs to you, lovely soul!
CeeCee thanks so much for your kind words xox
Your biological mom must have missed you horribly. As for having two moms, children (of any age) can never have too many loving adults around them. If you like I can adopt Gini for myself. Just generous that way.
Hey Kymberly I know that time was incredibly hard for my mom too, but I think she was very brave in making sure I was in a stable environment at that time. She came from difficult circumstances herself and has become one of my heroes today.
What a beautiful tribute to Gina. Perspective is everything, isn’t it? Thank you for sharing this.
Hey Reticulawesome — off to see what you’re up to on your site today. xo
Ugh. So sorry! I got the names mixed up. Gini. A beautiful tribute to Gini.
I feel closer to my stepmother than my own mother at 50 years old. I guess I should tell her – it would make her feel good.
Hi Jodi — I do think stepmoms and unsung heroes. Well, the good ones.
Tears. I’m Gini. My SD is 17, I’ve had her since sh was 8 and I’ve always felt the “you’re not my mom” vibe from her even though she’s never said it.
Hi Jeannine — it’s so great to see you here! You are right at the most difficult point. 17 was not the best for Gini. But once I had my own kids, and especially when they got to be the same age I was when I moved in with Gini, that’s when I realized how much she’s been there for me.
Thanks for writing this. I’m currently stepmom to a 14 year old boy and man does he push me away. His mom lives in town even and will maybe ask to see him once every 2-3 months. It gives me hope that one day, even if 50 years from now, he’ll stop pushing and know that I love him with all my heart and am so glad he’s in my life.
Katie he’s so lucky to have you. I can’t imagine what it’s doing to his self-esteem to have a mother that rarely wants to see him. Sadly the people who are there are the only ones they can get mad at. Hang in there, lady. Whether he knows it or not you are making a huge difference in his life.
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