If you are a stepparent, especially a stepmother with a stepdaughter, then I probably don't need to describe blended family tension to you. If you haven't entered this chapter, well, for us it can be described as a simple request to tie one's shoes resulting in a rift in the family. A biological parent can suggest it's dangerous to walk on those rocks, and be met with momentary disdain followed by snuggles five minutes later. A stepparent can make the same comment and it will be piled on a list of other grievances and seemingly carried around by the stepchild for days. She was only eight, and so much is normal eight year old stuff. In fact, compared to eight year old me, I lucked out with this little girl. She's gentle, sweet, creative, and when she's naughty it's totally manageable. But adding normal little girl drama, typical mother/daughter drama, into a blended family situation is like sticking Mentos in a 2 liter.
It's important to note I did everything wrong. I read Step Monster too late, I joined stepmother support forums too late, and like so many women, I thought love was all that mattered and my second chance at happily ever after was going to end in Disney-like bliss. So the tension up to this point was palpable. Being married for just over a year, together as a group for two years, we were still finding our way.
It was a standoff outside the restroom that mellowed us all.
The restaurant was packed. It was a touristy town and we weren't the only ones who got the brilliant idea to make a road trip to the area that holiday weekend. The food was disappointing, but given that my kids aren't exactly chicken nugget snobs, I was perturbed they had barely touched their overpriced kid's meals, and would be begging for snacks on the hour drive home. The game I had invented at the table to distract them, where we describe characteristics of food and the first person who guesses gets a point, had resulted in hurt feelings all around. Way to go, Mom. Now my stepdaughter and I were headed to the restroom before getting back on the road.
It had been a relief for my husband to now have a woman who could take his daughter to the ladies room, and my five year old son was past the age where it was cute to bring him in with me. Thankfully we now could go in stepparent/stepchild pairs. I pushed back the curtain leading to the facilities and led my charge to the door marked "Ladies." I went to twist the worn handle and it did not budge. Foiled again by the one person toilet. So we wait. After some discussion on whether doors could be made of solid diamond, and wishing Minecraft was real life, I peek out the curtain at our table. Husband has settled the bill and is patiently waiting. We wait some more. Stepdaughter starts to do the pee pee dance, but a more subtle version than her younger brother would do. I grimace at the locked Ladies door. You're killing me, whoever you are. I decide to check the men's bathroom. It's empty, and appears clean and smells nice. There is no urinal, just a normal toilet and sink. Nothing that would suggest "only penises belong here." I turn to her and gesture toward the men's room saying, "Here...it's the same." She looks at me in horror. Total horror. It's a familiar look.
"What? It's exactly the same. It's a toilet that both men and women can use, just like our bathroom at home. I'll be right outside."
With all the hesitation her 49 pound frame could support she entered, our gaze never broke (mine saying "you can trust me" hers saying "I don't know you, I don't understand you") as she slowly closed the door and finally disappeared behind it. I checked Facebook, and waited. I am bewildered as to why the Ladies' is still occupied, and glad I made this executive decision. I was 10 friends deep in my news feed when the door cracked.
"I just can't go. I'm too nervous."
"Why are you nervous?"
"Because you know...it's for boys. It says boys."
"It's fine. It's the exact same. Everyone puts their pee in the same place in the end. This one is probably cleaner than the girls."
"I'll just hold it till we get home."
"Um no...that's an hour away."
"Well maybe my daddy can stop at a gas station for me."
"Gas stations sometimes have only one bathroom for everyone, and they are way grosser than this restaurant, and we are here now, we don't need to add extra stops."
It was going to be a standoff of epic proportions. If she was mine, biologically mine, the standoff would just be different. Somehow I would have more power, somehow I would have less to lose. If she were mine, I could snap at her and she'd forgive me later. If she were mine she'd trust me over her daddy's fictitious gas station bathroom. I can't lose another battle of wills. I lost the hair battle, and she will now forever go to her father to get out of having to do her hair. I lost the talent show battle, the peppermint candy battle, the purple shoe battle, and so many more. I'm just the babysitter, granted a babysitter that would throw her body in front of traffic to save you, and lies awake at night thinking of ways to make you smile, but you don't trust me nor feel it's in your best interest to listen to me.
She looked at me, then the sign. So I ripped it down.
Just like that, I peeled the sign that said "Gentlemen" right off the door. It felt important to win this. It felt like I had to show her what I had suggested was the right course of action. It probably wasn't, I was already regretting making a little girl uncomfortable about where to pee, and simultaneously wondering what the hell was happening to the woman in the ladies room??? But I had to stick with it now. I tore the sign off like a Band-Aid, but it actually took a considerable amount of force. I could not let on that this was a difficult task, I could not show weakness. The tendons in my hand burned as I peeled it off. Three pieces of Scotch tape surrounded it so I presumed it would fall right off, but some sort of ancient adhesive lurked behind it causing the paint beneath to come up as well, and I stood there 3 seconds later, holding a curved piece of metal that once indicated what gender should enter.
"There you go. Now it's just a toilet that belongs to no one."
Shocked, she closed the door again and I promptly heard her pee and flush. My heart was pounding. What did I just do? What kind of example is this? I decided I would reuse what was left of the tape and replace it as soon as she exited. But then a man appeared in line, I explained my daughter was in the men's and someone might need an ambulance in the women's. He remarked how his people were second class citizens, not even having a sign on their door. Awkward chuckle. Get me out of here.
Back at the table I convinced the boys the bathroom lines were too long. I rushed us out of there. The waiter tried to give me a to-go Coke. Must. Leave. Now. I was a criminal, a thief, someone who vandalizes property, and the worst role model ever. Someone needed to tie their shoe by the hostess stand. The bent sign was burning in my pocket. I rushed us in to the car and as we drove away, my bright red face betrayed me. I explained that stepdaughter had witnessed me commit a crime. She looked up, confused. I told the whole story, laughing, explaining what a terribly bad thing I did and that I was a very bad mommy who would probably go to jail, but laughing the entire time. Husband drove but glanced at me warily as the story progressed as if I had finally gone off the deep end. In between describing the heist I interjected how stealing is always wrong, destroying property was always very wrong. I explained I would mail back the sign, with some money for the damages, but it was still not OK what I did.
The remainder of the drive the children traded jokes about my inevitable imprisonment. Stepdaughter began recounting her version with enthusiasm. Her eyes sparkled. She had been a part of something big, and it was just our story to tell. We decided it would be our special stepmom/stepdaughter secret story (because there was no good way to explain words like stealing, messed up door, and men's bathroom to her biological mother without her wondering what a terrible influence I must be). When stepdaughter heard 'special secret for just us' she squealed with delight. The story was recounted again and again that evening. When we stopped to go sightseeing she said, for the first time ever, 'I want to walk with Heather!' I felt so close to her. I felt like a year of tension melted away. I felt like I could forgive myself for not being perfect at this. I felt like she saw me as a human, silly, flawed, and unpredictable but her human.
It has quickly become the worst kept secret in the family, as stepdaughter often asks in mixed company if she can share the "special step mom secret story about stealing the bathroom sign?" But each time she spills the beans, I feel more pride that she is eager to share our moment than I do embarrassment over how I come off. We talk about the sign incident often. I think about the restaurant workers who were no doubt baffled by the disappearance of the sign, and when they receive this explanation I hope one of them has been a stepparent too.