Fifteen years ago, I became a single mom with three kids. It was a chaotic, painful, stressful time in my life, but I thought then, and I still believe today, that I made the right choice for me and the kids. I don't talk about this time of my life much as I simply don't want to dredge up memories that sadden me. This past weekend, though, I had to face some of those memories, one of which still bothers me all these years later.
When the kids' dad and I decided to part ways, one other person in the mix got left behind. A little girl. The kids' half sister. My step-daughter. I agonized over leaving her, often trying to figure out a way to bring her with us, but I simply couldn't since she wasn't mine in a biological sense or a legal sense. Not long after we left, Spunky Step-Daughter found herself without a home. Her own mother left and made it clear she didn't want to be found, and her dad, my ex, stepped away as well, turning the care of his daughter over to his sister. While I wanted to go get Spunky Step-Daughter, I knew she was in good hands and would be okay with her aunt.
For the most part, she was okay, but there were times during the next ten years that Spunky Step-Daughter faced difficulties, mostly due to her parents. Her mother stayed in hiding for several years, not letting anyone know where she was and how she was. And her dad sank further into his own issues, sometimes letting those issues spiral out of control and letting them affect his behavior around her in a negative way. I would receive notes every now and then during these times, telling me what was happening. My heart would ache for Spunky Step-Daugher, and I would think I had failed her by not bringing her with us.
This weekend, we went back to where it all began to celebrate the high school graduation of my nephew. My sister-in-law and I have stayed close all these years, making sure we keep in touch and celebrate milestones along the way. When we arrived at the restaurant I saw Spunky Step-Daughter sitting at a table with her boyfriend (she says fiance though he won't make a firm commitment and set a wedding date) and her one-year-old daughter. Nearly 25 years old now, Spunky Step-Daughter is a mom to a four-year-old and a one-year-old, and step-mom to a six-year-old. When she opened her mouth and spoke, what I heard was not the same spunky, funny, sassy Step-Daughter I remember. Instead, what I heard was a softness, so soft I could barely hear what she was saying, and a timidity I'd never seen before. All the feelings of having failed her bubbled to the surface.
Later that evening, as we sat in the bleachers and watched the graduation ceremony, Spunky Step-Daughter looked at me and said, "Being a step-mom now shows me what it was like for you. It's so hard. Now I understand what you were going through." Surprised by her words, I didn't know what to say. It was hard for me, but not because of Spunky Step-Daughter. Others made my trying to be a positive, loving, helpful role model to her nearly impossible. Her mom. Her dad. Her grandmother. These people constantly and conciously negated my position in her life. Each step I took to make Spunky Step-Daughter a part of our family, show her she is a part of our family, they took extra steps to make this not happen.
Now, this young woman who is only 25 seems so defeated, and I keep thinking what if? What if I had taken her? What if she had grown up with her siblings here, away from the conflict brought about by her mom and dad? I know thinking about all the what if's isn't going to change anything for her, but I still wonder.