“Loving the Other Woman”
By Donna Munoz
She was a honeyed 5-year-old the day I met her. A tiny girl with dazzling, curly black hair, she sized me up with those little dark eyes, and things were, well, weird!
I had met my prince charming, but instead of a beautiful stunning horse, he came with a package, and her name was Alexa. Note: Actually, my husband also has a son, Benny. But Benny was always beautiful. The only words I have to write about him are those of gratitude in my heart. He was never cruel, always accepting. So please forgive me, but experience gives so much more to write about, and this is my story.
Eddie and I began dating, and I guess I began “dating” his daughter, too, because time with him very often meant time spent with her.
Things were great at first. I was slightly agitated to spend my free time at pop warner football games and cheerleading practices at the park. That’s what parents are for, I thought. Then I remembered… I’m dating a parent. The adjustment was like jumping into a cold swimming pool, and the jolt of it climbed up your body like lightening. Basically, it was sort of painful.
I’ll never forget when things turned. Alexa finally realized that I was sticking around, and I was pursuing her daddy. After all, this was my man. I didn’t take into account that Eddie was her man, too. In fact, like every other little girl with a daddy they adore, Eddie was Alexa’s prince charming, too.
One day, she asked if she could try on the diamond ring I was wearing. My grandmother had given it to me. When I hesitantly put it on her finger, she looked at me and said “Ugly girl, I don’t love you. I’m going to marry my daddy.”
Those were the remarks that commenced a long, long, uphill relationship. When Eddie and I got engaged, we planned a fun night of dinner and a movie. Well, we didn’t make it to the movie. We sat at a booth in Chili’s. Perhaps it was wrong for Eddie and me to sit together with Alexa across from us. Maybe that’s what set her off. But either way, when we told her that we were getting married, she crawled under the booth, and we tried everything to get her out.
I spent a few years trying to buy her love. She was a smart one. Alexa took the gifts freely, but fiercely guarded her heart.
Eddie and I married in 2004. The angry little girl swallowed her pride out of vanity. She was going to be a flower girl, every little girl’s dream. I put on my character. As I watched this miniature bride walk down the aisle, I pasted a smile on my face and did all the appropriate hugging and smiles for the cameras. If only I knew then, what I know now. I will never forgive myself for not truly appreciating that day and what it meant.
Alexa’s mother gave us an incredible wedding gift. Instead of the usual summer month visitation, my husband was freely given the entire summer with his kids. I was married and honeymooned for all of three weeks, when suddenly I was in charge of two children. I hadn’t so much as raised or cared for a pet, and now I was the person in charge of two kids. I had a husband who worked 60 hours a week, and a biological mother (who I absolutely adore these days, by the way) to answer to. The kids were sent over basically with an inventory list of the clothes they brought to our home, so aside from feeding and caring for two living human beings, I was traumatized by all I had to do to make sure the list was not lost, and that everything on that list was accounted for.
The following summer, we took a trip to Disneyland. It was supposed to be the happiest place on earth. That’s where Eddie and I shared the news that we were hoping to start a family. Well, as you can imagine, Alexa felt like she had lost her dad already, and now he was publicizing his plans about starting a whole new family. She felt like she was a part of his past, and he was blazing on ahead without her. She said that if we had a baby, she was going to leave our family. We of course, told her that she was a part of our family and we loved her, and if she left, then that was her choice and she would be missing out on her family.
That October we learned we were expecting! The day we told Alexa she cried. There was no table to crawl under, but I’m sure if there would have been a table, she would have crawled under it.
I watched her take note of my growing belly each visit. I knew she was curious, but she didn’t know how to approach me with her questions. We were getting along “okay,” but it wasn’t anything close to even friendship, just a mutual understanding that we both loved her dad and we were pretty much mashed together.
That February, at four months pregnant, something happened. Alexa chose to come and live with her dad and me. I was stunned. I had been planning and making a home for a baby, never even imagining that another baby was coming our way. I wasn’t even a mother yet, but suddenly, I was going to be in charge of a child. But not just for the summer. This was the big time.
I first learned what a failure I supposedly was as a mother the first time Alexa got sick. My husband asked if she had a fever, and I raced around the house looking for a thermometer. I didn’t have one. Alexa, perhaps regretting her decision to leave her mother, was hiding on the floor between her bed and her wall. Although hidden, her words rang out loud and clear: “All good moms have thermometers!” And there it was. I was a horrible mom. I apologized to her and to the baby growing in my tummy, and there went my husband to the store in hunt of the perfect thermometer.
That would be the first of many incidents that would forever mark my life. I had become a stranger in my own home. I would get out of work, pick up Alexa, feed her, help with homework, and then retreat to my sanctuary, the only room in the house where I felt safe… my bedroom. Alexa was mean. Maybe it was just the hormones raging through my body that made me overly sensitive, or maybe she just really was mean. But instead of basking in pregnancy, I was tormented each and every day, sharing a home with “the other woman,” one who hated me, and who would fiercely defended herself to me for anything I said or did. My husband, as I said, worked hours on end. It was just Alexa and me, and the quiet little stranger moving around in my always tense body.
I finally had my suspicions confirmed one day as to how Alexa felt about my baby. It was one of those days where every word was offensive, every action intentional, and Alexa was just having a horrible time with everything. She was expressing jealousy over the new baby. The following is an excerpt for an article I wrote for Stepmom Magazine on blending your family when an “ours” baby is coming:
My stepdaughter had just come to live with my husband and me, and seemed to be struggling with feelings of jealousy, alienation, and emotional stress. Most of those feelings were aimed at me, and at that point, she and I were hardly speaking. It was a painful and awkward time.
One day that specifically stays with me is when she was upset and my husband went into her room to talk with her. He asked me to join him because he said we needed to present a united front of love, patience, and acceptance. My heart raced, and my big pregnant belly and I reluctantly followed him into her room. The tension dug in on my shoulders as I entered meekly behind my husband.
A few words were exchanged between daddy and daughter, and they went a little something like this:
“We all love you, and nothing will change when your brother is born.”
“He’s not my brother.”
“Yes, he is your brother, and he is going to love you because you will be very special to him, you are his big sister, and he is your brother.” My husband, repeating himself, stated those last few words sharply.
“Half brother!” She sneered.
What a conversation! I remember losing all hope that day.
While we tried to tread the waters in that ocean of insecurities, there were a few fond memories. One of them was the day I got to sort of extend a motherly touch to Alexa. We got a phone call from her school that she had put a staple through her finger. Of course I’m in full panic, but my husband was very calm. I wanted to take her to the emergency room, but my husband put his full trust in Alexa’s pediatrician. The doctor took Alexa right in and as he prepared to pull out that staple, all I could think of doing was putting both my hands on that scared little girl’s knees. And whether it was because she had more important things on her mind, or because she was actually welcoming it, she didn’t budge.
It wasn’t long before our anxiously awaited baby graced us with his arrival. There is not a single word in the entire world, in any language, that can express what it feels like to know you are a mother. And while I was looking into this baby’s eyes and falling in love with him, I had no idea that the other child in my home would soon steal my heart.
Let me tell you about the day I fell in love with Alexa. We had just brought Baby Eddie home from the hospital. We, especially me, were all nervous about having this new baby in our home and solely in our care. After all, from what I was told by Alexa, I was going to make a horrible mother! But it was almost like the new baby ushered in an era of magic into our warped home.
I woke up for a night feeding, and that’s when I saw it. Alexa had come in sometime during the night, and camped out on our floor. She had sheets, blankets, pillows, and her dog all set up near my son’s bassinet at the foot of our bed. That’s when it hit me. We were a family.
That was the moment I chose to love Alexa. It wasn’t second nature to me. I could have gone on forever just doing what I needed to do for her as a stepmother should, and never surrendering my heart to this child. But seeing her wanting to be near my baby, her blood, her brother, I knew that I needed to make a change.
Harmony descended on our home, all the children in our home were loved, and things could not get any better. Soon after, our twins would arrive. This time, yes, Alexa cried, but nothing can replace the look on her face when she met them for the first time.
Recently, my sister and I sat at a pizza and play place while our kids played. Suddenly, one of my 2-year-old twins, who had climbed into a tunnel, cried out for help. This momma bear jumped to her feet to run to the rescue, but someone else beat me to it. It was Alexa. I sat down and my sister and I couldn’t help but giggle as we watched what looked like a scene out of Alice and Wonderland. There went my stepdaughter, making her way up under-sized obstacles and into a tiny see-through tunnel where a little boy knew he was now safe and reached out for her.
“You are so lucky to have her,” my sister said admiringly.
“I know,” I said, truly reflecting on the moment. “She is always getting these boys out of some kind of misadventure!” I kidded as I threw in the last part: “It’s actually calculated revenge for everything she put me through when she was little.”
My sister and I burst out laughing. The times I would call my sister crying and tattling about an unruly stepdaughter who at the time was age 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and on and on, all seemed almost unreal, like it never really happened.
While Alexa and I are no strangers to the ups and downs inherited by our specific relationship, we are also not strangers to what it means to have love and friendship. I am not her mother, she has one. What I am is a woman who God chose to bless abundantly by allowing me to be even a piece of this child’s life, by allowing my three sons to have an amazing big sister. I walked into the dining room one day and found a 16 year old girl dancing her heart away with three little boys trying to copy her, their eager eyes doting on their big sister. I would have paid a million dollars to have the honor of having a moment like that, but I didn’t have to. Alexa gave it to me for free.
I was baking a cake the other day, and had to run to the restroom to hide my cries. My little girl always begs to have the leftover batter that stays behind on the bowl. This would be one of the last cakes I bake for Alexa before she moves away. In two weeks she’ll move to Arizona with her mother, who is going to attend school there. While Alexa has built a life with us, it’s too hard for her to let her momma go. She’s also hoping to build residency so she can pay in-state tuition at her dream college, Arizona State University.
I can’t thank Alexa (or Teta, as her baby brothers call her) enough for all she’s taught me. I can’t thank her enough for the memories she has instilled in my heart. I can’t thank her enough for giving me a chance and teaching me how to love in such a different way that I’d never have imagined. When I dwell too long on our time together, I start to choke up. My little girl is off to live life and do amazing things, and my broken heart is beaming.
Tonight we said good-bye. People are telling the truth when they say they blinked and their kids grew up. I was looking into the face of this young woman, but it was the little 5-year-old girl looking back at me. Only this time, she was telling me how much she loved me.
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