Embracing step-mothers and allowing yourself to love it.
This is a blog post about my step-mother, a major part of the Runway for Recovery story that often gives people pause, yet she has been a part of the story that I’ve always wanted to bring more attention to because I think it can help others. I write about this part of the story today because I recently had a conversation with a young woman who was about to watch her Dad get re-married, and she asked me about what it would be like to have a step-mom.
In order to truly give you the full picture of my step-mom, Alli Achtmeyer, I have to take you back to September 2007. Alli was eight months pregnant, on bedrest, and carrying my adorable half-brother, Will. I had an idea for an event, and she was (and still is) one of the most sought-after event planners in Boston (@stylealli). I knew so little about anything when it came to pulling off a big event, and I was twenty-five-years-old with a full-time teaching/coaching/dorm-parenting job at a prep-school. I knew that I wanted to have this new event, Runway for Recovery, but I really didn’t know a thing about the mechanics of pulling something like this off.
Moreover, when I went to ask Alli for help, I was also very much aware of the fact that I was asking her to help me plan something that was in honor of my mother—her husband’s first wife. Here is the part where I hope other step-daughters and step-mothers will pay attention— Alli very unselfishly separated out her personal agenda and instead, looked at the person in front of her—me, her step-daughter. Here I was a grieving young woman who had a vision, and there she sat—pregnant, uncomfortable, and confined to a bed—trying hard to be a new “person” for all of us.
Alli never came into the family with a goal to be a new mom, a big sister, or an aunt figure. Instead, she came in as simply Alli. And she was willing (and excited) to be a part of anything that made sense for everyone involved. She wanted to support us, to love us unconditionally, and to let our mother exist in the space that we carried her in. She knew it was not a memory or a person that needed to be competed against.
And so when I came to her that first year, she rolled up her sleeves, jumped on her computer, and she went to work. She did it all that year from her bed with that baby in her belly; and she went on to do it all in person for years afterwards. She would show up, pull me aside, look me in the eyes, and say, “how are we doing? You ok today? Take a breath, and let’s do this, Olivia.” And she often said, “Olivia, your mom would be really proud of you. I am really proud of you.” The courage it took to say those words, year in and year out, well, it created a whole lot of hope.
I can only speak and write as a step-daughter, but here is what I know: there is a moment, sometimes, when you feel guilt. Guilt for laughing with your step-mom during a moment that you know you and your mom would have loved. There is a moment where you look at your step-mother and are so thankful for her, so much that it hurts — like the day she stays with you in the hospital for 36 hours of labor for your first baby (thank you Alli, love you Stuart). And there are moments where you wonder if your Mom would be mad because you are embracing this new person unconditionally. You wonder if you’re allowed to that. I can only imagine, if I struggle with these thoughts, and I adore my step-mother, what it feels like if those feelings don’t exist for a step-mother. I can also only imagine what a step-mother must feel. In fact, I don’t pretend to understand what a step-mother feels because it must be impossible on so many levels. Especially when it is a role you take on after someone has passed away. In many ways it could have been an easier role for Alli to take on if we had been younger because she would have been forced to play a role of mother to kids that really needed day-to-day mothering. Instead, she came into our lives right as we were out in the world on our own, and so we brought her along our young adult journey, but never really needed the parenting. She found ways to fill other roles, and that is an exceptional feat.
Ultimately, I will say this, Runway would not exist without two women: the memory of my mother that inspired the idea, and the force of my step-mother who helped pulled off the event. From her bed that first year when she was on the phone with her team of event planners (Jen and Eric, Michael and Winstons Flowers—I see you); to the countless years she has been in the front row, cheering harder than anyone, to the year where she was on her feet dancing while I walked the stage with my babies, in front of a picture of my mom holding me as a toddler; to the hours she has spent looking over menus, listening to ideas, and then rolling up her sleeves; I am in awe by what this woman has given of herself. There must be moments of pain — it’s an impossible situation for all of us and step-mothers can’t be forgotten in all of this. Yet at the end, they bring the hope. Step-parents help create the “new norm.” They bring new traditions, and honestly, sometimes that what’s we all need — a new way to experience something so that life does move on.
Step-mothers can be the hope that allows us to build new chapters, to live in memory and honor of someone, but also to just simply keep living. I know that this is the hardest part to swallow daughters — but you have to keep living and creating new. You can play those songs again and again, you can decorate exactly the same, you can put things in place to be identical to “how it was,” and I am telling you, the person will not return. Your heart is where that person lives. And your heart can be a powerful tool because your heart can keep the person alive, and your “new norm” can start to feel equally as awesome. And when it does, don’t feel guilty. Embrace the feeling of being alive and hug the crap out of the person who is willing and eager to be a part of it all.
Thank you Alli, for being a part of it all from the beginning. For jumping in without a moment of hesitation. For cheering until your hands hurt. For “showing up.” For loving on us and creating new and beautiful moments for our very, modern family. That baby of yours is a thirteen-year-old gift for all of us “big kids,” and he has been an unforeseen major moment of hope for all of us.
Happy holidays everyone — love what is front of you and you will be surprised and wowed by the hope that is created.