Sure, stepmothers can be wicked, but stepchildren can be trying. Here, one woman’s life with a cranky preteen, her doting dad and a big, furry love machine 

by Anne-Christine Strugnell
roxy dog illustration
Photograph: Illustrated by Chris Buzelli

Relationship math has different rules than algebra. The less work you show, the more points you get. So when my second husband, Dan*, said his 11-year-old daughter, Cassie, wanted to move out of her mom’s house and come live with us, I aimed for maximum credit with an enthusiastic “Yes, let’s do it!”

I knew “it” wouldn’t be that simple. A blended family is a tangle of this-for-that calculations, but I’ve never dared name them all to Dan. Only with my girlfriends do I strip down to my emotional cellulite, the vulnerability of loving him so much that I’d do almost anything to make this marriage work.

Almost anything, including stepping up to being the go-to adult for Cassie—and Roxy, her dog. Because I work from home, I’d be spending more time with Cassie than either of her parents would—more than with my own kids, ages seven and nine, who live half time with their dad.

Still, with Dan meeting his obligations as part-time stepfather, I figured I had to take on the challenge as cheerfully as he did, even though our contributions wouldn’t be exactly equal. To prepare, I even spoke with a counselor about how to help Cassie transition from being the center of an only-child universe to one of three children.

“It’s age appropriate for Cassie to reject her mother. Or mother figure,” explained the counselor, Magda, clinking her chunky carnelian bracelets. “The thing is, the girl is trying to break the bond, but she and the mom feel secure because of the loving years they’ve had together.” She smiled, soothing me. “She’ll gain some freedom and then come to a new appreciation of her mom.”

“What about the mother figure—that would be me—dealing with the bond-breaking attitude but without the benefit of those loving years?” I asked.

Magda stopped smiling. “Good luck with that.”

It didn’t matterwhat she said. I would simply make it work. Yet a feeling of dread simmered below the surface. I couldn’t name it, to myself or anyone else, because I was afraid any hesitation to take on responsibility for Cassie would sound like selfishness. Instead, I told Dan I was reluctant to have Cassie’s dog, Roxy, come live with us. I could admit that much.

“Of course Roxy comes with her,” Dan said, surprised I’d even question it.

“How long do Tibetan terriers tend to live?” I asked.

“About 10 years,” said Dan. “Roxy’s two now,” he added, knowing where I was headed.

“You do know I have terrible cat allergies,” I reminded him.

“Roxy’s a hair dog,” explained Dan. “Even people with dog allergies typically have no problems with hair dogs.”

Sure enough, I couldn’t even work up a wet-sounding sniffle. So as I began revving up to be the best-ever stepmom, I thought about what both Cassie and Roxy would need and how I could provide it. There were books that gave me some guidance about Cassie. They didn’t cover stepdogs.

I didn’t know much about dogs, but I believed that an 11-year-old girl who claims a dog as her own needs to be responsible for feeding it.I’d never seen Cassie do that when she and Roxy came for their weekend visits. I also believed that a dog needs to be walked, whenever possible by her owner. I’d never seen Cas-sie do that either.

Dan and Cassie agreed to these principles. But after she’d unpackedher suitcases and boxes of stuffed toys, implementation proved to be another matter, one that turned into a fight most nights.

“Have you fed Roxy yet, Cassie?”

“No, I’ll feed her later.”

Half an hour, an hour or even two hours would pass. Dan would wait as long as he could before saying, apologetically, “Cassie, Roxy must be hungry by now. You really need to feed her.”

“I’ll do it! Just stop reminding me!”

That was only the warm-up to the nightly argument. Cassie didn’t like opening the can of dog food, glopping it into Roxy’s bowl and adding dry food. It took too long. It smelled bad.

“Why do I have to give her wet food, too? Can’t she just have the dry food?”

Dan would go into his explanation again. And again. And again. After several months, I could stand no more.

“Do you know you two have this discussion every night?” I said. “Could the two of you listen to each other, just this once?” I couldn’t control the shaking in my voice, so I stalked out. I heard Cassie say to Dan in a small voice, “What’s the reason for the wet food again?”

That was the end of that particular argument, but anything could trigger the daily power struggle.

As for dog walking,Cassie was always too busy. In fact, as she informed me, she was the busiest person in the household. I had obviously forgotten how demanding fifth grade was.

Choosing my battles, I backed off and let Roxy go unwalked. I didn’t have to take on that responsibility, but I couldn’t refuse other dropped obligations. Cassie’s mom, Susan, wassupposed to take her for the summer, but when Susan said she had too many evening appointments and would have to leave Cassie with a sitter most nights, Dan asked if Cassie could spend the summer with us—with me. I said yes, choosing to ignore the tightening in the pit of my stomach, because I didn’t want to know what might happen if I said no. Every weekend that summer, I would explain to the kids the plan for the day, and Cassie would say, “No, we’re not doing that.” I longed for school to put an end to the argument, but autumn brought little relief: Susan informed us that she was going to Mexico for several months.

Cassie, unstrung by fears of abandonment, demanded even more attention. I joined in the chorus of concern, but I was beginning to worry about myself.

Panic attacks had started washing over me, leaving my heart racing and palms sweating. When I attended client meetings, I tensed, dreading the moment when the office door would shut, closing me in. Whenever Dan and Cassie were home and my children were away, I made excuses to flee the house. I began running more miles, more often. I could never run far enough: Every night when I closed my eyes, I saw a control panel, with red lights flashing an urgent message I chose not to decipher.

Because I could not set limits on my responsibility for Cassie, I clung to my right to say no to Roxy. I told myself I had done more than enough, and I was perfectly justified in taking a walk and leaving Roxy watching out the window.

But it felt wrong to go off on my own, playing a self-righteous story in my head while Roxy whined inside, her paws up on the sill. I loved to get out of the house, to check out the neighbors’ gardens, to feel the temperature and moisture of the day and to plunge into the pools of damp, cooler air at the foot of each hill. I could understand that Roxy might feel the same way. I began taking her with me. While she spent more time sniffing telephone poles and less time admiring plant combinations than I did, we seemed in complete agreement about the pleasure of a walk.

“Who’s a lucky doggy?” I would croon as I approached the garage, where her leash hung. Soon those words alone would send her skittering across the kitchen to pant excitedly by the door.

Roxy and Idid have our moments of conflict. I shouted at her when she ruined two of my rugs with poop, though when I saw her cower at my anger, I softened my tone to a grumble and even offered a pat. I told her to be quiet when she whined outside my home--office door, and stuck out my knee when she tried to jump up on me.

But any tension between us blew over quickly. I could complain freely about her misbehavior, and sooner or later I would sit down, call her to me and say goofy dog things to her as I scratched her curly chin and shoulders until she quivered with happiness.

Conflict with Cassie was different. Several afternoons a week, she would shut herself in her room to phone Dan and report my shortcomings as a mother and a person. I imagined her watching, judging and savaging me behind my back, and the thought tightened the knot forming in my stomach. Some days the entire front of my body, from rib cage to hip, burned as though I’d done too many sit-ups.

“Could you and Cassie agree to talk about me only when I’m there?” I asked, struggling to keep my words from weeping at the edges. I knew they spent hours discussing me. I didn’t know what Cassie was saying. I was afraid Dan was agreeing with her.

“No. She wouldn’t feel comfortable. She needs me to listen,” he explained, “to validate her feelings.”

I did not flinch, though I’d just smacked up against the hard truth of stepfamily algebra: While a daughter is irreplaceable, an absolute value in any calculation, a wife is a variable. A first wife can be replaced by a second wife, and a second wife by a third.

So I leaned on my girlfriends for my own “validation” while trying to prove to Dan that I was a low--maintenance good sport. Every morning I recommitted myself to remaining cheerful with Cassie, to making something she might like for dinner, to asking questions about her day. When my children were with their dad, I often repressed my urge to flee and made time for Cassie: for example, steering her from multiple disasters to the successful completion of an angel food cake for Father’s Day.

“I did it all myself,” she announced proudly to Dan, and he couldn’t say enough about how beautiful the cake was, how wonderful it tasted and how much he loved her.

Wednesdays, when Susan visited with Cassie, I busied myself in the garden, telling them to feel free in my kitchen. Even when the outside air turned my nose and cheeks bright pink with cold, I preferred to be out under the sky rather than in the house with them. Still, I wasn’t allowed to escape. On one visit, Cassie even made a special trip out to the backyard where I was putting in bedding plants to announce, “I love baking projects with my mom!”

After a secondsummer of living with us, Cassie decided to move back with Susan. Dan loaded up the minivan, and Cassie and I gave each other an awkward hug.

As the minivan doors clicked shut, I was so relieved that the judging had come to a stop that I no longer cared about the final damning verdict. Yes, I’d failed. I was just glad that she had chosen to move out first. I had begun to be afraid of what I might do or say.

But when I walked back into the kitchen and saw Dan unhook Roxy’s leash from its place on the garage wall, I realized I would miss that dog.

She had accepted every walk, scratching session and gentle word as an act of kindness and had shown her appreciation in grunts, nudges with her damp nose and tail-wagging welcomes. She didn’t understand relationship math, never seemed to run the calculations and, as far as I could tell, compared me with no one. All that mattered to her was that I looked after her and treated her in a loving way.

I squattedandscratched Roxy’s chin one more time, and she lifted her head up and trembled as her front paws slid forward, collapsing into the rapture of a perfect scratch. Dan was waiting in the doorway, so I moved from scratch to allover rub until she shook her curly hair into place and trotted out the door after Dan in a casual and friendly farewell. We didn’t even check the math to see whether we’d given as much as we’d received. We were both content with what we’d had.


ANNE-CHRISTINE STRUGNELL has mostly recovered from the experience and now wants to take some credit for how “Cassie,” 18, has turned out.


Click here to read a piece on adult children moving back home with mom and dad.

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First Published Mon, 2012-04-02 11:20

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