Stepdog

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?”

First published in the May 2012 issue

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