How Not to Behave: An E.S.M. Story
You’re dating someone with children- two sons. You want to be accepting of them and you want them to like you. To do this, you let a lot of things slide, like the fact that when they’re visiting the television is always on, wet towels end up on your leather furniture, and their suitcases erupt all over the floors of your tiny apartment. These things are irritating, but tolerable. You bring your journal and a bottle of red wine into your bedroom at night and write down your frustrations, take a few deep breaths, and then when you walk out of the room again, you’re smiling. One night, as you’re walking to the car, the sons call shot-gun on the front seat, as per usual. This time, your smile falters, you ask them to pause and then say, “Whenever I am getting in this car with you, I will be riding in the front.” Your boyfriend gives you a knowing smile as you open the door opposite his and slide across the leather seat. There’s a genuine smile on your face because it felt really good to stand up for yourself.
Eventually, your boyfriend becomes your fiancé. You have a party with both your families and are glad to see them all cross county and ocean to celebrate your wedding. Your husband’s sons are there, of course, and you’re touched by how considerate and sweet they are throughout the week. You know it can’t be easy for them to see their father re-marry, so when you’re irritated by things they do, you bite your tongue. You’re a newlywed and you’re too happy to be upset.
A couple months later, you move with your husband to his home country. He wants to be close to his sons and you are excited to start a new life. Things don’t go as planned, and you quickly realize your husband’s sons are drawing away from him. Instead of addressing the challenges head-on, you become silent, do not voice any opinions, and fall into depression. Your appetite disappears, your hands shake and you feel a great deal of guilt; you believe that it’s your presence that is pulling your husband’s family apart. He kindly reminds you that you’re his family now, too. You married a good man, you will get through this together.
Six months down the road, you find that you’re liking your new country, you make dreams for the future and have again found your voice. One of your husband’s sons is going through a tough time, he tells you he has to move in with you. He doesn’t ask, he just informs you that he’s coming. After months of biting your tongue, you free it. You tell him that he needs to ask to move in, that he needs to respect you, respect your home, and that the three of you need to learn to communicate better. You tell him there are numerous challenges to this potential solution of co-habitation, challenges that range from financial to emotional and spacial. That being said, you tell him that he is always welcome in your home and that you’ll work out a solution together, one that suits everyone. You apologize for being upset and forward, but explain that you’ve been biting your tongue for months and months and that you, also, are working on embracing a more forthright form of communication. You agree that you will talk about finances and all that other icky stuff the next day and then go to sleep, emotionally drained.
The next day things seem great. You ask about a gig he has, and he answers, pleasantly. You and your husband plan to talk with him at length that evening so you can work out a plan for the future together. You plan to apologize to him during this later conversation, for you believe you could have said things better the night before and you want with all your heart to make sure the three of you are strengthening, not weakening, your relationship. That afternoon, you take a fourteen mile walk with your husband. On this walk, you rehearse what you’re going to say in your head, you prepare yourself to be open and flexible.
The talk never happens. After his gig, he says he’s spending the night at his mother’s house. He wants to sleep on a real bed instead of your sofa bed. That’s what he says, anyway. He’s had a cold the last couple days, and you think a real bed and some orange juice (or whiskey) is exactly what he needs. You wish him well and you and your husband decide to postpone the conversation for later in the week.
An hour later, the phone rings. Your husband answers and as soon as the shrill voice comes through the receiver you know it’s his ex-wife. She is angry. She’s also loud. Your husband is on the defensive, saying things like, “Of course I love my sons,” and your eyes well up with angry tears on his behalf. Her voice gets louder and then he’s saying things like, “Don’t say that about my wife. You have no right to say that about my wife.” Every part of your body begins to quake and your skin is hot like a furnace. You can’t make out exactly what she’s saying, but when your husband says, “That is offensive, she is not a child,” you are ready to stand up for yourself. Afterall, you’ve long believed that you are the wedge that’s pulling your husband away from his children and away from having a working relationship with his ex-wife, so you do something insane and snatch the phone from his ear and announce yourself.
“Hi, this is Kate. I’m sorry we have to be talking under these circumstances…” You begin to explain yourself- you’re rushing, afraid to breathe, afraid to stop talking. You know you’re making a total fool of yourself, yet you continue. Is this how politicians feels all the time?, you ask yourself as the angry words tumble forth.
At the end of your verbal mess, you hear a long inhale and the ever confident and condescending question is asked:, “Kate, are you a mother?”
Instead of answering with the obvious, “No, I am not,” you say something insane, “No, and that is why this whole Evil Stepmother thing is so fucked up.”
Again, that slow breath of disapproval, “Well, you have just proved everything my sons have said about you to be true.” That is not a direct quote, by the way, but it’s pretty damn close and you suddenly feel like you’re going to vomit. The voice on the end of the phone tells you you’re immature, childlike, ridiculous. You are black-out angry, so you don’t completely remember, but you make a comment about her being condescending and then pass the phone back to your husband. You wanted to make things better, but instead you made them a thousand times worse and you feel so much shame. As soon as he hangs up the phone, you burst into tears. Then you scream into a pillow, three times; the pillow is hot and damp with your breath and your throat is aching from strain. Then you say many terrible things that you don’t mean because you are hurt and embarrased and feel as if you have no voice- and that the voice saying these ugly words is not truly yours. You cry and your husband hugs you, but you do not feel relief.
Later that evening, you talk to your brother who is very patient and isn’t afraid to tell you when you’re being crazy. He gives rational advice and listens to you vent about your frustrations. After your conversation, you feel calmer and compose a simple email. You don’t care what the response is, all you care about is telling the truth, explaining your objectives. You keep it short, you keep it optimistic (which is true to your nature), and you apologize for being a total fucking idiot, though not in those words. You say a prayer and hit send. Then you write your feelings on tear stained pages before finally retiring to bed. Sleep will not come easily, and when you do slip away your dreams are confused and angry.
You wake too early the next morning, exhausted. Try to remember: You cannot let these things get you down. Families fight. Families are tough; they break and then they mend. Promise yourself that you’ll look into getting a therapist as soon as the money comes in, and then curl yourself against the body of your still sleeping husband and close your eyes. Do not cry about this anymore. Pray about it, instead.