Last night, after a week of travel, I teasingly asked my husband, "What are you getting me for Mother's Day?" Then, I quickly recanted. "Just kidding. Please, don't get me anything, and I mean it."
I did mean it. I didn't want a gift. We had just gotten back from Nashville and were going to Vegas the following week. I'd eaten well and shopped and been pampered. I had no desire for anything else.
But my husband, tired from seven hours of flying, answered me quite uncharacteristically. "You're not my mother."
The words shocked me. It was true of course, but I knew my husband well enough to know the tone and edge of his voice. He also meant I wasn't his daughter's actual mother.
As soon as he spoke it, his mouth clamped shut. He turned his head away and mumbled, "I mean, I didn't know Mother's Day was for people who weren't your mom."
He quieted again. Last year he had given me a card for Mother's Day he forgot to sign.
"You mean you didn't know you were supposed to acknowledge the woman who helps take care of your daughter?" I asked.
"I was just teasing," he tried again, trying to smile. "I'll take you shopping and get you anything you want."
"Maybe you can just sign the card from last year," I answered.
"I'm taking you out to a nice dinner," he hurriedly added. "I had it planned all along."
We both knew this was untrue. But at least it was a nice try. I should have let him go with it and saw how his plan floundered when he couldn't get a last minute reservation anywhere. Instead, I politely explained that I was tired and went to bed.
Why was I so upset, I wondered. What my husband said was the truth. I wasn't Maddie's mom. I hadn't given birth to her. Our relationship wasn't forged by nature, but slowly built, through gifts and giggles, secrets and songs. I assisted her with homework, listened to her school stories, helped her change clothes in the dressing rooms when we shopped. We watched her Disney Channel TV shows together, and talked about her dreams. It was a long haul, built brick by brick like a Lego Friend house.
Maddie and I didn't have those same ties that biological parents share. She was still young and didn't know I loved her unconditionally. A harsh look or tone from me carried more weight and could cause more damage than if it came from her 'real' parents. I had to be more careful. Trust was slowly built, and easily taken away.
In essence, I was more than her friend, less than her parent, stuck somewhere in between, and my husband's words were a reminder of that.
He apologized that night, and again the next morning. And of all the apologies he's ever given me (and there have been a few!) there was none more sincere. I saw it in his eyes and heard it in his voice. And though I accepted it, the sting remains.
I hadn't wanted a gift from him. Nor a fancy dinner out. I didn't even want him to sign that damned card from the previous year. But what upset me, I realized, was his lack of acknowledgement. Some recognition of the place I had in his daughter's life.
Maybe stepparents should have their own day, I thought. Or half a one.
Or maybe we should just realize that at the end of the day it isn't about flowers or candy or even acknowledgement. Its about the bond we've created with kids who are not
our biological children, but who we love like them, nonetheless.