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

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.

First published in the May 2012 issue

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