Hollywood has produced an evolution of images of the “reconstituted family” (that is a direct translation from French) over the decades. But, no existing movie or television series depicts the challenges that I faced in becoming a stepmother in France. My experience was a clash of clichés that has never appeared on screen, large or small.
Imagine this: two boys, 4 and 5 years old, whose mother is French and father is German. They speak French and understand, but do not speak in, German. I bumble into the picture capable of communicating in English and German but not in French, especially not French for BDs (comic books), toilet needs, and little boy body parts. So right off the bat, we cannot converse. I say things in German but they reply in French, so I have no idea what part of whose body they are referring to.
The language issue was trivial compared to the culture clashes. My mother, who was ahead of her time on the natural childbirth and feeding fronts, breastfed me and then introduced me to a cup around the age of 7 months, and I was raised to believe that this was normal or at least strongly desirable. In contrast, my independently locomoting and fully verbal (at least in French) stepsons required baby bottles of warm chocolate milk every morning, which they drank lying on their backs on the couch. Instead of being a cumbersome vehicle of pre-solids nutrition, which you were trying to replace as soon as possible, in my French context the biberon was a comfy and accepted transitional object that I was supposed to prepare and deliver with love and high-pitched platitudes. I didn’t want to call Théo and Alex my puces (“fleas”) or my ptits bout de choux (“little chunks of cabbage”). The images did not work for me.
I existed in a permanent state of distress. I cooked three or four course meals that were often rejected. My soups were not puréed. I cried.
Since we had the kids in garde alternée, or 50% of the time, the boys’ mother Florence came by the house regularly. The cliché I was operating on was that this was all fine in France. French women were supposed to be cool with this, so I tried to be cool too. Then I recounted my weekly existence to a colleague at work who was her husband’s second wife. “Oh là là là là, are you kidding? I would never allow the ex into my house! And you say you are living where they used to live together? I would never permit that either; we would have to move out and get rid of all the furniture. Even the cutlery. Your husband is lucky.”
She left me feeling as spineless as a Gumby, but I continued to prepare the morning bottles and to accept the ex-wife into the house. I tried to purée all of my soups. Around the time that I had my first baby, Mémé and Pépé, the grandparents of my stepsons and ex-parents-in-law of my husband, came on the scene and things got easier if not comical.
Mémé and Pépé love babies, and my Sebastian was a baby to love. With his blonding bald head and blue eyes, he looked exotic to good Mediterranean stock. On arrival and departure to our house (I can’t remember anymore why they were often there) Mémé and Pépé would stop below our balcony where I stood holding Sebastian in my arms, and wave and blow him kisses. Hmmm, I started to think, this isn’t all bad.
When Théo and Alex were 11 and 12 years-old we took them for a sabbatical year to the United States, and Mémé and Pépé followed almost immediately for a visit. As she alighted from the taxi to our house, Mémé waved a her hand lightly against the heat and said to me, smiling, “Ah, que je vais bien. Très bien.” She loves being in the United States.
On that visit or another one we took Mémé and Pépé along to watch one of Sebastian’s little soccer games. Pépé ran along the sidelines filming Sebastian’s ball handling. “Who’s that, your parents?” asked an acquaintance, the mother of another player. “Nope, the parents of my husband’s ex-wife,” I explained. By this time I was unable to appreciate just how bizarre I sounded.
A couple of months ago Florence and Mémé stayed with Théo in my new house in the United States while I was back in France with my husband and our two younger boys. I came back to gifts and messages telling me how much they liked the renovation of the house. Mémé knitted me two scarves. Alex is now 17 and trying to decide where to go to university.
So, those gifts from Mémé and Flo? They meant, “we did it!"