How do you assure your stepdaughter that a new baby won’t steal your heart away?
“What was the best day of your life?” asked my stepdaughter, Sophia, for the hundredth time. She was 7 then, and she loved to ask me this, because 7-year-olds relish hearing the stories of their own life told again and again. She knew what my answer would be: “The night you arrived, just 4 1/2 years old, to live with your father and me,” I said as I tucked her in. “You were handed to me, still asleep from the car, and all 40 pounds of you slumped against me, dead weight. Your head was on my shoulder, your face was tucked into my neck.”
“Why do you love it so much?” she pressed.
“Because for the first time in my life, I felt like a mother.”
Soph also loved to hear about the days that I counted as next-best, like the first time she took my hand without a thought to cross the street, and I felt so lucky that this sparkling little girl thought I was worthy of the gesture. Or every violin recital, swim class, and school breakfast where I radiated pride, over her and our bond. Or the first time she said to me “I love you” and I could tell she really knew what it meant.
I met Sophia’s father, my husband, Yoshi, in my mid-30s—he and his parents had raised her from the time she was a year old, brilliantly. But Sophia, who never knew her mother, had always wanted a mom—one with “yellow hair and a pink dress” she’d told Yoshi as a toddler. I wear pink only occasionally and these highlights are anything but natural, but when Soph got me she thought she’d hit the jackpot, and so did I.
Then Yoshi raised the idea of a second kid. I was reluctant. I loved my busy, work-focused life as an editor, and our two-bedroom apartment. I also liked my athletic body and my relatively pain-free existence. “I think you’ll regret it if you never have a child of your own,” Yoshi said to me one night at our local beer garden, Sophia happily scrawling a family portrait to display in our Brooklyn kitchen. When I relayed his sentiment to my mother, her response stunned me: “You’ll be missing out on one of the best parts about being a woman,” she said. I shared this with my professional mentor, a rockstar editor with a young daughter, and she said, “She’s right.”
Unable to get pregnant right away, I began to spend mornings at the fertility specialist. Sophia knew something was up, so Yoshi and I started to talk casually about how we wanted her to have a little sister or brother so she’d never be alone in the world. And she started to, very un-casually, launch into heaving sobs every time we brought it up. When I finally was pregnant, I only needed to mention that I felt queasy, and she’d respond with a groan or by politely asking me to please stop bringing that up and could I never talk about it again.
Since I wasn’t getting anywhere by bringing up the baby, Yoshi and I tried not talking about it, to spare my formerly joyful, now-sullen 8-year-old stepdaughter. Guilt came in waves as dizzying as the morning sickness that accompanied me to work. As the months passed, Yoshi and I decided to just be open and honest and she’d come around. By my ninth month Sophia was almost able to talk about her future sister without crying.
When you’re of “advanced maternal age” and you worked hard to get pregnant, and you have to be careful not to bring your condition up around your angry, confused little girl, it will dampen your joy. One morning, I lost it. Soph wouldn’t put on her socks and had somehow tied her grumpiness to my growing bump. I let fly with a tirade: “I do everything for you! Every penny I earn goes to you and this family! Every free second toward playing with you and trying to make you happy. And you respond by hating your unborn sister?! What is wrong with you?” It was loud, and scary; she started to sob and so did I. Then she unloaded: Everything would change. Her little sister would be both mine and her dad’s. What if I loved the baby more than her? I rocked her and reassured her as best I could that I would never love anyone more than her.
After that, I redoubled my efforts to make Soph feel special. I baked hundreds of snickerdoodles. I planned a killer birthday party at the rock-climbing gym and waddled through it with a smile on my puffy face. I took her to the water park on a Sunday in July, hours before going to the hospital to be induced.
The next day I gave birth to a baby girl who needed me desperately, and with whom, thanks to my scrambled hormones, I became infatuated from the first deliriously happy sleepless night in the hospital. For those first few months of Hope’s life, when she was tiny and fragile and I was equal parts sweat and breast milk, scouring baby bibles for clues to keeping her alive, I was convinced that I did love Hope more than Sophia. She noticed, but I told her that Hope got my attention because she would die without me, and it was only temporary. I thought this was a lie, one that I’d have to keep telling Sophia for the rest of my life.
Then Hope got bigger. She didn’t need me as much. I stopped breastfeeding and started sleeping, and the delirium gave way to a lucid love…for both of them. Hope is now 1 year old, Sophia is 9, and I can honestly say that I love them equally. In fact, Hope made me love Sophia even more. I can now picture what my strong, smart kid must’ve been like as a vulnerable, tiny thing. What her first giggle would’ve sounded like, how she must have suffered through her first fever. My amped-up maternalism has made Sophia happier and more secure, and she’s embraced her little sister now in the same way she did me.
Sophia recently asked me again what was the best day of my life so far. This time, it was a test. I’d given birth to her baby sister. She wanted to hear me admit I had a new answer. “A tie,” I said. “The night I first carried you, sleeping, into our apartment, and the day I gave birth to Hope-y.” She smiled and said, “Really? You’re sure?”
“Yes,” I said. And I meant it.