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

“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 in the May 2012 issue

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