A Stepmother, Losing Her Marbles

“What no one tells you when you become the new woman in an already intact family is that your needs and routines, sexual and otherwise, come last.”


imageThe game was simple. Two clay jars rested heavy atop our bedroom dresser, one loaded with marbles, one empty. “Every time we have sex,” I said, “I’ll move a marble to the empty jar.”

At 31, I had arrived childless into my marriage, but my new husband had sole custody of his children — a girl, 15, and a boy, 9 — and we had never spent an entire day, or even an evening, alone. “Once you’re married,” my friends warned, “you’ll stop having sex.” One friend confided she and her husband were sexless for seven years. This terrified me. I told them about the game and argued our case, insisting we would find ways to be alone, to be a couple first, to be newlyweds. We, I insisted, would have plenty of sex.

In the beginning, our marble game was a hoot. Seconds after sex I would jump out of bed to move a marble, plunk. But within weeks, even as I made light of our sex life, my stepmother status weighed. I stopped sleeping in the nude, as I had for years living alone, for fear one of the children might jump into bed with us. I tried, and continually failed, to oil the mystery-squeak in one corner of our bed. I never dared sleep in anything remotely revealing, which left me awake and tossing, tangled in my new husband’s too-large white T-shirts. I secretly felt less sexy, and less sexual. I remember the morning I made the rule to never, ever leave our bedroom sans bra after I was caught by my new son and his sleepover friends making coffee, my size D breasts dangling in the white T-shirt. “Don’t leave!” they called with their little boy voices when I tried to sneak back up the stairs. “Aren’t you going to make us pancakes like Kevin’s mom does?”

When my girlfriends, real mothers, complained about their lack of a sex life, I kept quiet. I felt I had no claim. I had, after all, never suffered a difficult pregnancy or delivery, nor the exhaustion of mothering an infant. I did not have twins or a tantrum-throwing toddler. I had never struggled to get three or four little ones fed, read to, bathed and into bed by 8. I was, it was often pointed out, just a stepmother, living with someone else’s children, children who were big and didn’t need me. So, my husband and I were free to have all the sex we wanted, right?

What no one tells you when you become the new woman in an already intact family is that your needs and routines, sexual and otherwise, come last. But what they also don’t tell you is that you will, sometimes grudgingly but mostly with an open and greedily loving heart, spend most of your newlywed efforts outside the bedroom, getting to know the children, the young strangers, who live in your house. The children who did not fall in love with and marry you. The children who did not choose you and may not even like you. No one tells you that you will break down and bawl and abandon your cart in the cereal aisle at Safeway because what woman, what mother, doesn’t know what her children want for breakfast.

I don’t remember when my husband and I lost interest in the marble game, but I still recall the morning I hauled the jars out of our bedroom. As I carried them down the stairs, I had long lost the fun of the game. I saw only how I had used the game like the smiling facade of a carnival barker, the mask I wore while I tried to figure out who I was. See the happy new wife, still having plenty of sex! Plunk. See the smiling stepmother, proving to all those who warned her off (Do you know what you’re getting into? Those children will ruin your marriage. Have you lost your senses, your marbles, your mind?) that she can love, and be loved by, someone else’s children.

Sure, I craved time alone with my husband. And I remained obsessed with the importance of wearing a bra. But coming down the stairs, I held the two clay jars of marbles in my arms, and I knew I did not need to count them. Our daughter had recently handed me a birthday card addressed to “Mama Teri.” Our son had begun introducing me, “This is my mom.” My husband and I were having enough sex. I knew about Fruity Pebbles and Frosted Cheerios.

It was good thing I didn’t need a number because, as I unloaded my arms and set the heavy jars down side by side, I realized I had forgotten which jar was which. What could a number, any number, seven years or otherwise, tell me? I no longer needed my marbles because I no longer had anything to prove, mostly to myself.

Teri Carter is a writer living in Kentucky and California. Follow her on Twitter: @terilynncarter.


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