Once upon a time there was a little girl named Karen. She enjoyed drawing faces in the peanut butter on her morning toast and merrily skipped to school on time. Karen loved school. She loved learning. She loved listening to stories told to the class by her teacher.
One week in school, they studied families and family constellations. Some children had a man and a woman as parents. Some kids had two women as parents, or two men. Some had one parent. Some had four parents, because the mother and father had divorced and remarried and there were two homes and two sets of parents, and four sets of grandparents, or more. The parents in the four parent sets were sometimes combinations of a man and a woman, two women, two men, and so on. Some parents adopted children and lived in one of these kinds of families.
Karen lived with two daddies and she loved them with all her heart. She listened with fascination as the teacher described all the types of families and read stories that described the lives and the ways the parents made sure the children were growing and learning and feeling safe and eating well and sleeping enough. It was clearly a big job being a parent, with the making sure a family was cared for and cared about.
On the day they learned about the four parent families, Karen skipped home from school making up a song under her breath. She had almost worked out the words by the time she reached her front door and rang the bell.
The door swung opened and Daddy smiled, “Karen, I’m so happy to see you. Oh, Scruffy, calm down now.”
Daddy reached down and soothed the excited dog, while Scruffy jumped in circles.
Karen laughed and petted Scruffy and smiled her Karen smile. She was the happiest child on her street and well-known for loving people and pets and plants and other animals. Horses too, lots of horses.
“I’ve made you a special after-school snack today. Do you remember we have that special program at school this evening, the international night?” Daddy looked over his shoulder as he went to the kitchen to get the snack and bring it to the dining room.
“So, we’ll have a good snack now and then eat at the international celebration. What did you study in school with Mrs. Chapman today?
“Today, we learned all about three and four-parent families. You remember last week we learned about two-mommy families and two-daddy families, like ours? Well, this week we learned about father-stepmother and mother-stepfather families. Only sometimes both the parents aren’t remarried so it’s a father-stepmother and mother family, or a father and mother-stepfather family.”
“I wonder why they call them that?” Daddy wondered aloud.
“What do you mean, isn’t that what they are always called? Karen was puzzled.
Daddy laughed, “Ohhhh no. Not that long ago there were battles over who was parenting the children. There were nasty battles that cost hundreds of thousands and millions in courts and took up time for people who weren’t even involved in the marriage. It was completely inappropriate. So, after a mini-revolution, things changed. Do you know anyone in school from a four-parent family?
“Hmm, I’m not sure.” Karen thought about it. “I think Tommy is from one. And, Christa.”
“Sounds like you know someone from every type of family.”
“My favorite person in all the families is the stepmother. I want to be one when I grow up.” Karen whispered, conspiratorially.
“You do? What do you like about stepmothers?” Daddy asked, keeping his astonishment to himself.
They talked on in this way and Karen told Daddy all about the stepmother in the story the teacher read. Even though she already had children of her own, she had so much love in her heart she was willing to take on someone else’s children. Not to replace the mommy, they had a mommy, but to help the daddy so he wasn’t lonely. Even though not all parents were man-woman couples, everyone agreed having two parents in a house to raise children was easier than one.
Karen kept talking and Daddy kept asking and they were still talking when Papa came home. Papa pulled the car into the driveway and Daddy let Scruffy out to go greet him, a daily ritual. Once the car was parked and turned off, Daddy opened the door and motioned Scruffy out. Scruffy raced around and around the car, barking with happiness, and racing around again. Finally, after three times around the car, always three times, he stopped by the driver door and sat on his haunches with his front legs up in the air. He begged for Papa to open the door. Papa did and Scruffy wagged and wagged and walked inside the house heeling alongside his second favorite human.
Papa lifted Karen and swung her up in the air. He hugged her close and she hugged him so tight. Together, they all went to the International Celebration at the school and there were lots and lots of parents and children there, all kinds of families.
Not much more was said about wanting to be a stepmother until one day a few weeks later, Karen came home from school, crying. She never cried after school. She was always so happy to be home, nothing bothered her.
Daddy opened the door when Karen rang the bell and opened his arms when he saw her crying. She ran into them and he hugged her, not asking any questions. Daddy remained quiet, just hugging and waiting. Finally, Karen’s sobs slowed down and spaces grew longer between them. Then she looked up.
“Sally told me I can’t be a stepmother.” She looked like she might start crying again. “She said you can’t be a stepmother first, you have to have children first. Or be married and then divorced first.”
“Oh she did, huh?” Daddy asked, knitting his brows together. He waited.
“Yeah, she told me it was a stupid idea and her parents had said people who got married more than once were losers.”
Daddy listened for a long time. His heart felt heavy every time he heard of the things some parents told their kids. This was one of those times.
“Well, I tell you what, I’ll walk to school with you tomorrow and we can see if the teacher knows anything or thinks we should do anything.”
“Daddy, why would we do that?”
“Oh, first, it’s not true that you can’t be a stepmother without being married before or having children. There are lots of women who marry a man or woman who already has children, even if they don’t have children of their own.”
“Really?” Karen looked hopeful.
“Yes, in fact, that’s why I don’t understand why Sally was making such a big deal about being a stepmother.” Daddy shook his head.
They had a nice evening and then went to bed early, they were all so tired. The next morning, Daddy and Karen walked to school together and talked to the teacher about Karen’s conversation with Sally.
Daddy started, “Mrs. Chapman, I hear you’re studying types of parents in families. It’s so exciting to see you including the various combinations of families, not just the stereotypical man and woman. I know for us, it’s not that, with two men.” He smiled and paused.
“It’s so great to see all the good support you give Karen with her homework, even though we don’t have much yet in third grade.” Mrs. Chapman stopped what she was doing and came around her desk.
“Thank you, we do support everything Karen does. She’s so bright and a very eager learner.” Daddy never bored of hearing appreciation for the home studying.
“How can I help you today, Mr. Elliot.”
“Well, maybe Karen told you, well, wait, I should ask. Karen, are you okay if I describe your dream when you grow up?” Daddy looked at Karen. “And, it’s not a problem if you don’t want me to say.”
“Yes, I want to hear what Mrs. Chapman thinks.”
“So, Karen wants to be a stepmother when she grows up. She’s been fascinated by the unit you are studying on family and the parent-combinations. She comes home and tells me every day what the story was.”
“Anyway, it seems Sally told Karen she can’t be a stepmother unless she’s been divorced or has children of her own already. Do you know why she might have said that?” Daddy waited to see what Mrs. Chapman might think.
“Hmmm, that’s interesting. Part of the unit is about stepmothers and I make a point to tell the children not every stepmother has her own children. More and more women are marrying men and they don’t have children from before.” Mrs. Chapman pondered the question and thought about what she knew about Sally.
“You know, maybe I’ll just ask her at the morning break today. I really appreciate you bringing this to my attention.” And then, Mrs. Chapman turned to Karen. “You can be anything you want to be, Karen. Don’t let anyone else’s thinking determine what you will do. It is your life and you get to make your own decisions.”
Daddy and Karen walked slowly out of the classroom and Daddy bent down for a hug and a kiss goodbye.
“Are you okay, Kare?” He looked into her eyes and asked with his.
“Yeah, I feel better, Daddy. Thank you so much. You are such a good talker. I feel so much better.” Karen turned to go back to class.
“And, Daddy, I still want to be a stepmother some day.”