Thanks for the Mammaries

“Thanks for the mammaries.”

That was on the inside of a card I gave to my mother for Mother’s Day. On the outside was a drawing of a blissful mother nursing her baby.

My mother hadn’t breast fed me. I was born in 1949 when it was out of fashion, and she had taken some kind of drug that had dried up the breast milk. She had taken it for an infection, she said.

I am not upset that my mother didn’t breast feed me. It just sort of fit with who she was. Not cold and indifferent – just not sentimental about being a mother. Thus, she enjoyed the card I gave her.

I liked that about my mother.

Mother’s Day wasn’t terribly important to her, so it was always pretty low key. Since I did not have children, it wasn’t particularly on my radar.

And then I became a stepmother.

I think the word “blended” family is misleading. It is often more like a Cuisinart family, in which a wide variety of volatile emotions get churned by the sharp blade of confusion about who loves who, who can love who, and whose love counts. That the human heart is both fragile and muscular is evident in the delicate navigation through the whitewaters of relationships in a stepfamily. Children are hardwired to want their parents’ love. A stepparent has to earn it.

The hidden rocks and whirlpools in my journey through this experience comprised my not having children of my own – yet wanting them – and the very challenging dysfunction of my stepdaughters’ mother. I sometimes referred to her as my step wife.

I helped my stepdaughters make presents for their mother my first Mother’s Day as a stepmother. They left and a hole the size of the Grand Canyon opened up in my heart as I realized I would not be acknowledged for the love I was investing in this relationship.

So much for Mother’s Day not being particularly important. It was a bit of a humbling experience.

Because of their mother’s dysfunction, I became something of a covert mother for them, but always taking the back seat when it came to being recognized as the mother. It was a rollercoaster of pain, followed by acceptance, followed by pain when it happened again.

I never blamed by stepdaughters. It was just the way it was. Their need for their mother’s love was primal, and so loyalty went to her.

I remember the first Mother’s Day I received a card from one of my stepdaughters. She was in college. I don’t know how to describe what I felt. The only word that comes to mind is grace.

That I did not have children has always been a bit baffling to me. I always wanted them, thought I would have them. We tend to get along well, children and me.

There are two “reasons” that make “sense” to me.

First, there was a history of abuse in my family. I wanted to make sure I resolved that so I didn’t pass it on. My one conception was the result of an abusive relationship. After careful feeling, I decided to terminate the pregnancy – I just didn’t feel that I had it in me to overcome the abusive shadow that hung over it. I have no regrets about that decision.

Second, I wanted to avoid the wrath of the women in my family. They were chained to the belief that women had to make a choice between being a person, or being a wife and mother. If I chose both, it would have ripped open their wound caused by their perceived lack of choice. They were somewhat justified in believing they had no choice – it was the time they lived in. Their message of wrath was unspoken, but deafening in its delivery nevertheless.

Over the past year or so, my oldest stepdaughter and I have become particularly close. She was eighteen by the time I came into the picture, so I was never her covert mother. She was eight years older than my middle stepdaughter and had her own experience being her sisters’ covert mother. Our journey to connection was not an easy one. And yet we arrived.

She has seven-year old triplet sons who she has no problem with my referring to as my grandsons. They call me GrandKaren. I suggested that early on as there were two grandmothers in the picture, and it seems appropriate given that she and her sisters call me Karen.

Over the last couple of months, I stayed with them when she had to travel, then stepped in for daily duty when a bout of the flu put her down for the count for several days. My theory got proved: the day-to-day care of children opens your heart like nothing else can. What I didn’t know was that it opened theirs to me as well.

Because of the peculiar legacy of women as the “sacrificers” that the family I grew up in held, they did not seem to understand that my actions were out of love – they thought it was simply me performing my duty. If one cannot see the heart behind actions, one cannot cherish the heart that delivers them. I have written about this before in the Writing Shed. It ripped my heart out, but I finally had to let that family go. It was a source of constant pain.

This Mother’s Day, I picked up my grandsons early. They greeted me with cards (including one from my stepdaughter) and a dozen pink roses. We shopped for flowers and ingredients for the breakfast they wanted to make for their mother, and then collectively made the breakfast, set the table, and presented her the flowers they had picked out earlier that morning.

That afternoon, they all came to my house for a Mother’s Day bar-b-que.  With great enthusiasm they took part in every step of the meal preparation, including setting and adding a leaf to the table, and helping Tom start the bar-b-que and me make home-made tortilla chips.

As I scooped the last batch of chips out of the cast iron skillet I understood. This was what I had always longed for – a family that understood my heart.

I started the Writing Shed three years ago on the day before Mother’s Day. I started it so I could change my story. That story that I started from, the one that I had learned to live, was about not trusting the light that was in my heart.

My story has changed.

5 thoughts on “Thanks for the Mammaries

    • Thank you. Sorry to take so long to reply, I’ve been buried (a good thing) in a week-long class at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

      Yeah, whole having children/not having children thing is a conflicted heart thing. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Tell me more about yourself….


  1. Oh, Karen. That was beautiful. My husband has a stepmother I call Karen (really!) and the kids call Grandma Karen. They call his mom Grandma Mary and my mom Grandma Jan, so my kids have always grown up with three grandmas. But. Those relationships don’t come without some pain and lurking baggage. I love seeing your perspective on it, and it has helped me to understand what “our Karen” may be thinking. Thanks.


    • Hey, Julie (the Wife),
      Sorry it took so long to respond. I got buried (in a good way) in my monologue class last week — hardly visited cyberspace at all. My brain is just now making room for the outside world). Great to know there are other Grand(ma)Karens out there. The whole “blended” family is really a tricky route for the heart to travel.

      Did I mention how much I enjoyed meeting you and spending time with you in class? Well, I did — enjoy meeting and spending time. Look forward to following your adventurous days.



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