Woman, Writer, Designer, Wife, Stepmother: The many labels of me

NOTE: “Woman, Writer, Designer, Wife, Stepmother” is about a remembered conversation with Hartley Waltman, who has read and approved its publication. Hartley has also kindly provided the illustrations that accompany it, for which I am truly grateful.

“You’ve said that twice in the last 15 minutes,” my friend Hartley noted, watching me wolf down a spicy fish taco at Bill’s Burger Bar just off Rockefeller Plaza.

“Said what twice?” I asked.

“That you have two lives. You said, ‘In my New York life,’ as though your New York life is some life other than the one you have with your husband wherever his works takes him,” he explained, like a therapist might to a patient in denial about something baldly obvious. A hint of a grin pulled up the corners of his mouth.

He watched me with the resolute bearing of someone convinced I couldn’t possibly come back with a logical response, waiting, I imagined, for me to wipe Sriracha Mayo from my lips and acknowledge that he was right.

“But I do have two lives. My husband has one, I have two. He has his work, his children and me, sort of like a TV show in which I’m a special guest. When I’m in New York, if you’re lucky, you might catch me on my own show, in which my friends accuse me of appearing so infrequently they’re surprised it hasn’t been cancelled. I live and work here and carry my costumes and props back and forth between my reality and his reality, where it’s sort of like hanging out in a green room waiting to film my cameo,” I said confidently, but more than a little miffed that the unconvinced look on his face meant I would have to further explain my meaning.

Fortifying myself, I dove into another fish taco.

Taking advantage of my silence Hartley insisted, “But you don’t. It’s all the same reality. There aren’t two realities. Nobody has two realities. This isn’t physics and there aren’t two TV shows. And this isn’t the entertainment business. It’s the same life. It’s all one big life. Your life, his life, even when his children–aren’t they all adults now?–are with you. So you travel back and forth, but it’s still just one life. Okay, spread out geographically a little bit, but still…”

He can be emphatic, my lawyer and cartoonist friend. Sure of himself. And calm. Very calm. Which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to argue with him when he does that self-satisfied and annoying I’m Right and You’re Wrong thing that lawyers do to justify having gone to law school so that they can argue with anyone and everyone about anything and everything for the rest of their lives, enjoying it immensely while they do.

I didn’t know this about Hartley when I met him 15 years ago at Christie’s auction house, at Rock Center a couple of blocks from Bill’s, where I was VP/Business Development Liaison, Correspondent and Speechwriter for the Chairman, and he was a new attorney in the general counsel’s office. One evening at the end of a typically long day, we found ourselves standing next to one another in the executive offices staring at a Blue Period Picasso slated for auction a few days hence.

“I heard there was a Blue Period in here. I’ve never seen one in person. Wow,” he said.

And so began our first chat, during which I discovered fairly quickly—I’m clever at pulling personal information out of strangers—that Hartley led a double life. He may have been a lawyer in the art world by day, but he was a dedicated cartoonist (and husband and dog lover) after hours, something that resonated loudly with me because while most of my colleagues knew me as a writer, every evening I could be found at a polishing wheel, the craft of fine jewelry designer holding a prominent spot on a longer than average list of professions, the others being music industry executive, actor and theatre director.

Given how Hartley and I spent our creative time when we weren’t at Christie’s, it wasn’t surprising that we sought financial security in a place where we could be inspired by great art. We seemed to understand that about one another, and we became office friends.

Happiness, by Hartley Waltman
Happiness, by Hartley Waltman

Contemplating a retort, I flashed on the framed illustration he had given my husband and me for our wedding, a clever black and white drawing of a three-tiered cake on top of which a newly married couple, the bride in a traditional white gown, the groom in a tux, top hat and tails, cower backward at the edge, the groom fending off with his cane the sharp point of a giant cake knife descending down upon them from the upper right corner, gripped tightly by a hand intent on, what exactly, sawing the cake?, the marriage?, the couple in half? Perhaps all three but, no matter, I had never really held it against him for gifting such an ominous expression of the adventure of marriage to me and my betrothed.

I hung Hartley’s entertaining marriage vignette on the wall in my kitchen, which I thought was a fitting place for the conversation I imagined would ensue with anyone who had the courage to ask about its acquisition, such as the conceivable, ‘Did you have this before you got married?’ or the possible, ‘Did you get this after you guys got married?’ or perhaps even the slightly accusatory, ‘Wherever did you buy this…or did someone give it to you?’

Snapping out of my reverie, I pressed on, undaunted.

Yes, I do. And sometimes I think I have multiple personalities. Like being in a modern remake of The Three Faces of Eve. Wherever my husband works, I have to figure out how to work from there. He uses one kitchen. I stock two. He sleeps in one bed, I sleep in two. He has one of everything, I have things in triplicate because I can never remember in which house, in which city, in which closet I left something I might need. Husbands are the only thing I don’t have in multiples,” I countered, hoping Hartley would soften, if not because he was beginning to see life through my eyes, then at least perhaps because even he would dread all the packing and unpacking, and the to-ing and fro-ing I was describing.

I was afraid that I was butting up against the limits of my own elasticity in life circumstances my husband and I hadn’t foreseen when we got married, and it was that stretchability quotient I was trying to describe to my friend, who I knew had been through his own unforeseen challenges, paramount among them his wife’s life-threatening illness, which she had overcome. The fact that Hartley and his wife had been pushed around by life’s harsh realities is what allowed me to speak so openly about the challenge of working in New York while being married to a man who lived in a different state, and who had children from a prior marriage.

I thought about what might have inspired Hartley’s wedding cartoon, and about what it takes to make a real cake delicious and beautiful. I thought about the size, the weight, the balance, how the whole thing might cave in if the layers aren’t well placed. I remembered one of the first things I learned to perfect when I first started to cook—blending a great vinaigrette—which is utterly impossible to do without something to bind together the vinegar and the oil, without which they separate, no matter how fine their quality, like two exhausted pugilists retreating, dejected, to the corners of a boxing ring.

My husband and I had wanted, and planned, a far simpler life than the one we encountered, in which life seemed like a maze, its intricately cobblestoned walkways and hypnotic green-hedged walls pulling us deeper and deeper within. Sometimes I felt like a Meercat standing on my tiptoes looking up at the gleaming sun and over the tops of the hedges, sniffing the wind trying to find the way out. I knew that I wasn’t alone in this sense of being knocked sideways by life’s little surprises. I knew that my traveling life and the challenges of divorce and remarriage weren’t easy for my husband either. And I knew that Hartley, if he had a do-over, would choose for his wife never to have had to cross her personal Rubicon in the way that she did. Yet knowing these things didn’t help me figure out how to avoid having to cross my own, with no clear view of river’s edge in sight.

Playing in the background of our conversation was the history of my professional life in New York, as well as my mother’s working life, which she shouldered as a widowed mother with three children. I grew up surrounded by mothers who were adept multitaskers (although mine was the only single mother), a culture of women incontrovertibly convinced that juggling a plurality of tasks was deep within their DNA, to which they were duty-bound, a culture that believed there was something wrong with women who couldn’t multitask, who didn’t want to multitask, or worse, who didn’t put being mothers and wives and household organizers at the top of their To-Do lists.

All these decades later, society continues to look askance at women who fall in love, get married and have children, but who don’t want to be primarily defined by their marriages or children. We are still suspicious when women leave their kids with nannies while they work. And there is no Geiger counter strong enough to take the measure of our distrust of women who don’t want to get married at all. What sort of woman wants private time for herself, to be an artist, to write or make fine jewelry, to paint or make films, to dance or perhaps become a cartoonist? And if she does get married but doesn’t want children? Well, what sort of woman would put her romantic relationship with her partner before a desire to have children? What sort of woman believes that her true life’s work may not be in raising a family?

Given these cultural beliefs, it isn’t surprising that expectations of a Class A Multitasker hyperextend, when there is a divorce and remarriage, to a biological child’s future stepmother, who it is presumed will live her life by the standards of the pre-existing biological family, rather than by the standards she might have had for her own quite possibly single and very full life before she married a divorced man.

When I married my husband my stepson remained with us while my stepdaughters were grown and on their own. Given the geographical distances that separated us, I didn’t have the advantage of getting to know them slowly over a long period of time. But my own mother had been a stepmother under similar circumstances, as had many women I had met in my professional life, so I took my cue, did my homework and prepared for my new adventure by interviewing divorce and remarrriage experts, working my way through a plethora of books, articles, personal essays and websites about the complex psychology of blended families, and eventually wrote a step parenting column on Examiner, to which I devoted myself for over two years.

Danger Ahead, Hartley Waltman
Danger Ahead, Hartley Waltman

It was the first intellectual endeavor I had ever undertaken that had not been borne organically within me, but which had sprung from friendly warnings about the centuries old Step Mother Mythology etched into the fabric of the modern American blended/stepfamily. Thou Shalt Be a Good Stepmother had taken root as a rite of passage through which all stepmothers, I among them, must go if they loved their husbands and cared about his children, if they wanted to belong and to succeed, if they wanted to be liked and possibly one day even loved by their stepchildren.

I knew that no matter how engaging my husband’s children were, no amount of reading and writing would take the place of years spent establishing solid relationships, as might happen when two strangers stand next to one another in front of a work of art and, on discovering common interests, decide to venture down the long road to friendship, of which there are a plethora of acceptable definitions, far more, it seemed to me, than there were definitions of what it means to be a stepmother.

Borne organically within me or not, I therefore went willingly, proudly and energetically down the Educate Thyself About Stepmothering road. Yet I quickly noticed that what I myself was most interested in—who my stepchildren were as human beings—was not at the forefront of the stepmothering conversation, which revolved very much around well-known conflicts.

The repeated suggestions I read about what a stepmother should do and shouldn’t do began to sound suspiciously like the suggestions women were given in the early days of the modern feminist movement on how to make it in the business world—how to put together an appropriately demure business look, how to choose the right attaché case, how to wear one’s hair so that it isn’t sexy, how to lower one’s voice so that it commands authority, how to control one’s emotions so one could never be accused of having emotions, how to subdue one’s opinions so as not to outshine or threaten one’s superiors, how to be competent and ambitious without letting anyone know that one is competent and ambitious. In short, there were myriad lessons about how, as Henry Higgins might say, a woman could be, well, more like a man in business, rather than a woman in business.

Warning bells went off. I had learned over decades of professional life that no matter how closely women heeded well-meaning lessons about how to succeed in business, it didn’t mean they would be propelled to the top of the work force and financially rewarded for hard work well done, or even acknowledged for it. And I was deeply suspicious that advice being given to stepmothers similarly smacked of the Be Careful, Downplay Yourself, Work Hard But Don’t Expect to Get Ahead varietal given to women at the beginning of the modern feminist movement—the late 50s/early 60s—when more and more women began to want to earn a salary.

But the modern feminist movement was no longer new, and women were beginning to throw off the shackles of trying to fit into the work force by being likable and ever politic ’round-the-clock. That freedom of expression, however, did not seem to apply to the stepmothering world, where taking a back seat rather than taking one’s place front and center in the key light, a polite acquiescence to the biological family, was still favored as the road to success.

How was it possible that being a stepmother meant backing off from one’s perspective and not expressing one’s opinion, meant blending in rather than standing out? Was that what ‘blended family’ really meant? Like a wine that is neither a Cabernet, nor a Pinot Noir, nor a Zinfandel, nor a Malbec, neither here nor there, nor this nor that, but…a blend? Once married into a pre-existing family I would forevermore only be known as part of a blend?

By the time Hartley and I were catching up at Bill’s Burger Bar, Sheryl Sandberg had written Lean In, in which she suggests that more women would be in positions of leadership in American organizations, institutions and politics if they promoted themselves with vigor and confidence, and learned to say what they wanted, simply and unequivocally, no hemming or hawing allowed. Yet in 35+ years of working professionally I had watched countless women of diverse personalities lean in to the table with vigor and confidence, only to have their requests for promotions and higher pay when they excel at their jobs denied time and again.

Sandberg’s suggestion was philosophically and psychologically sound, but it did not, in my opinion, reflect the reality of the working women I knew, which was often that no matter their commitment and accomplishments, no matter how much they promoted themselves and how confidently, they still might not be respected or acknowledged for their hard work. I was bothered that stepmothers were being sent the same message—that no matter how much or how far they leaned in, they might not ever win a permanent seat at the family table, and this was a lump they would simply have to learn to swallow.

It occurred to me that an appropriate title for a book for women married to men with children from a prior marriage might be StepMothers: Lean In, But Not Too Far.

In truth I felt my own life, work and creativity were overly encumbered by loyalty binds and statistics about blended families, whether it’s easier to bond with male or female stepchildren, whether or not I could weigh in on skirmishes within the biological family, whether I was expected to attend all family events, whether it was fair of me to expect annual private vacations with my husband, whether I was the one who would plan annual get-togethers, whether or not I had a right to put limits on financial expenditures, and whether or not it was okay for me to miss my former life.

I wanted to have the creative, intellectual and philosophical conversations with my husband’s children that I enjoyed with other people in my life. I wanted to talk to my eldest stepdaughter, an evolutionary psychologist, about the scientific studies she and her psychologist husband were reading and conducting. To my middle stepdaughter, an actor, theatre producer and stage fight choreographer, among other things, about the cultural, social and political things that interested both of us, like who we thought was going to be the next POTUS. And I wanted to talk to my stepson, an inhaler of books, history, music, theatre and movies (like his father) about, well, books, history, music, theatre and movies…and American foreign policy.

I wanted the relationships I had with my husband’s children to be defined on our terms, on the terms we as adults would decide, rather than by the words ‘stepmother’ or ‘stepchildren,’ which I rarely heard uttered with any positive cultural connotation. I longed to be free of all that those words had come to imply, and when that realization crystalized for me I stopped covering the topic of step parenting and made a decision to be myself unapologetically, no hemming or hawing, and to see what would transpire with my ‘step’ relationships as a result.

Enjoying his turkey burger and listening to me storyboard the movie of my bifurcated life, Hartley said, “Go on,” once again in therapy mode.

Happiness, Part 2, Hartley Waltman
Happiness, Part 2, Hartley Waltman

“My husband’s life is more Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, while mine is more Virginia Wolfe’s A Room of One’s Own. Figuring it all out makes me hungry.”

“Eat your taco. It’s getting cold. So are the fries,” he said, switching back to lawyer mode.

I exhaled, finished off my last fish taco, and added, “You know what they should give stepfamilies? Family visas. You cross the borders between your different lives so you know where the hell you are and they stamp the back of your hand like they used to do at Studio 54. If you go outside for fresh air, they know you already paid when you want to get back in.”

“So…this is really about being a stepmother,” Hartley said, adding, in case I was tempted to disagree with him again, “But…you’re still the same person. Just because you’re a stepmother you’re not a different person. You just think you are.”

I shot back, “That’s not what it feels like when you marry a man with children from another marriage, who suddenly define you in relationship to their lives. Any woman or man who is a stepparent, or step-spouse, or step-person, or step-entity, or step-whatever who says that it’s seamless, that it’s just one life, is blind. And any casual observer who says that it isn’t any different than any other kind of married life is basically cruel. My stepfamily does not know me in the same way that my longtime friends and colleagues do. You know me better than my stepchildren and I’m not related to you by marriage. It’s as simple as that. How’s your burger?”

He looked at me, then added, “I understand that.”

“You see? You’ve tortured me for half an hour making me feel like I’m crazy, when you knew what I meant all along. And Hemingway would agree with me, by the way,” I added, with a mixture of affection and triumph, eating the last of my sweet potato fries and licking the salt from my fingers, a little grin pulling up the corners of my mouth.

“Come on, would it kill you to fess up that you feel the same way…having to reconcile your life as a lawyer with your life as an artist? Doesn’t it bother you that some people at work don’t know you’re an artist? That because you make your living as a lawyer, they think “Oh, there’s Hartley the Lawyer. And I know you love your wife. You guys have been married forever. But even that doesn’t completely define you. You’re a lot of things—a son, a husband, a lawyer, an illustrator, a cartoonist, and a bunch of identities I don’t even know about.”

“Well, yes and no. I do have multiple identities, as you describe it, but maybe the difference is that there is a continuum for me, because I have been married for so long, that you don’t feel you have…yet. So maybe it’s time that makes it different. And you need more time,” Hartley offered.

“Time? Or choice? I choose you as my friend. I choose my husband as my partner. The word ‘wife’ describes a relationship that is directly associated to me. So does the word ‘friend.’ But the word ‘stepmother,’ which has no heart, no soul, describes an indirect and removed relationship. A step away from someone else. It’s a dumb word that my husband’s kids use when they have to introduce me and they don’t know what else to say. The word should be stricken from the Lexicon.”

“How should they introduce you?” Hartley asked.

“How about with my name? Or in reference to the things I love to do? They could say I’m married to their father, I wouldn’t mind that. It’s true. But after that people could figure out who I am, just like I figured out who you were when we first met. No preconceptions. No labels. Just person-to- person.”

“But you’ve already done the hard part. So what difference does it make?”

“The word ‘stepmother’ will always be attached to me. Whenever we disagree, or argue with one another, which happens just like it does in a biological family, the fact that I’m their stepmother makes things tenuous. Like an actress who takes over a part in a play after the original actress left the cast. Sometimes the second actress is better than the first, but the memory of the first hangs in the air and you have to read about her online. And you don’t quite realize this, don’t quite grasp it or understand it until you’re in the middle of it. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want their own ironclad identity. Like a lawyer wanting to be a partner in a law firm, instead of an associate. Isn’t that part of the reason you didn’t pursue a career in a big firm? You’re a much more complex person than how you fit into an organization. Organizations don’t particularly like individuality. Neither does the Stepmotherverse.”

“Isn’t there anyone in your husband’s family who sees you as the person you are?”

I ran down the list of names and faces of my husband’s younger brother and sister, their spouses and partners and children, and my stepchildren’s spouses and partners, and even my husband’s ex-wife and her husband, whom we see at family events.

“Yes. One perfect, divine, and blissfully blind person. Our new little grandson, who hasn’t been poisoned with the stepmother thing. And here’s the crazy multiple personality part of it. Before he was born I wanted to know what my relationship with him was going to be. I asked my husband if I’d be allowed to be a grandmother, without being a threat to his biological grandmother. Would his mother allow that? Without worrying about offending her mother? I wanted to know if I would be free to be a legitimate part of his life, or if I would be sitting on the bleachers watching everyone else play ball with him. Sadly, I too, have been infected with the Thou Shalt Be A Good Stepmother virus. It’s impossible not to be. Having a choice matters.”

“So…are you a part of his life?” Hartley asked.

“I’m called Nanna G,” I said.

“That’s sweet. You have a name,” Hartley said.

“I have a name,” I said. “And I Shall Be a Good Step Grandmother.”

“So…you’re okay with being a Step Grandmother?”

“That’s a question?”

We stared at one another, two grins pulling up the corners of our mouths.

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