M: The children’s biological mother.
E: My 16-year old stepdaughter.
E: “Hi Mommy!
M: “Did you have fun at the movies?”
M: “I’m here.”
E: “How are you?”
That is how E’s phone call with her mother went. M’s tone was was curt and monotone. The exchange was punctuated with long pauses. She wasn’t happy. In fact, she was angry. You could feel her sense of betrayal seeping from the phone. When M is like this, I surreptitiously study E, watch her face sink and harden into a frown, her eyes blinking hard. She in turn becomes curt and monotone with her mother.
For the time being, by court order, the children’s biological mother’s contact with her children must be supervised. This includes phone calls. That is how I get the great joy of hearing such conversations. Dearest Beloved was away for the weekend. Never sure how M will conduct herself on these calls, I’m on alert. It feels as if a serpent has crawled through our phone line and entered our house, slithering its way around our feet, ready to strike at the slightest provocation. No one is at ease. This was one of those times.
E had spent her weekend at home, studying. Most of that time was in her room, behind a closed door. She does have a lot of homework these days. Nevertheless, although she comes out for meals, I worry that she isolates herself too much. Feeling the need to get her out for a change, I invited her to a movie in the afternoon, and an artsy movie at that: Samsara. If her mind is in a relentless loop of sleep, rumination, school, rumination, study, rumination, and more sleep, maybe something new and unexpected could make her skip a track in the routine and give her a mental-health break.
Our time together was tentative. It has been that way since she moved in with us four years ago. Not much discussion between us, try though I do. The specter of her mother hovers above us always. When I’m driving and she’s with me, I ask questions to draw out a conversation. She replies with one- or two-word answers, cordially enough, while she faces her window. Even her body is half-turned away from me. If I don’t say anything, we drive in silence. It is frustrating, but I don’t push it. So it was on this day as well.
E has cut back on her social life lately, so she surprised me by asking if she could spend the night at a friend’s that evening, after the movie. The timing meant she would miss her weekly scheduled call with her mother. I offered to email M to see if we could schedule an earlier call. I mentioned the movie in the email.
I suspected that would be a problem. However, I don’t want to hide our activities, either. E and I haven’t done anything wrong. She lives with us. She has a right to enjoy her life in our home, just as she has a right to enjoy time with her mother. You and I know, though, that what should be and what is are two different things.
Sure enough, M’s conduct on the phone made it clear to E – and me – that she was displeased about our time together at an afternoon movie. The call was short. E said goodbye with an “I love you.” M didn’t respond in kind. “Bye,” she said, and abruptly hung up.
“She thinks I’m in your camp now.” E turned away and plodded upstairs to her room. She shut her door hard.
In the following days, she barely greets me. When she does say something, she tends to turn away from me, and mumbles her responses. I have a hard time understanding what she says. Is she thinking in terms of camps? I wish it weren’t so.
Moms tell me that teenage daughters are tough. They can be sweet and charming one day, sullen and unrecognizable the next. Maybe that is all there is to it…typical teenage-girl behavior. But it is hard for me to ignore that our circumstances have an added complication: a biological mother who resents a warm relationship between her children and me, and we all lose out as a result.