A Case of Mistaken Identity
At first, I was reluctant to show Michael my engagement ring. This eleven-year-old kid with a snarl on his face where a smile should have been, my future husband’s son, didn’t care for me particularly. Ed had called Michael after dinner on Valentine’s Day, right after he asked me to marry him, and Michael had responded to our news with uncharacteristic calm: “Congratulations. That’s fine.”
Then he added, “Just don’t expect me to come to the wedding.”
Ed replied that he really wanted Michael with us on such an important day and would be very sad without him, but the boy had to make his own choices. Soon, the polite tones gave way to pleading and tirades and yelling and name-calling and after about two hours, father and son hung up, hoarse and exhausted. Then Ed cried, I cried, and, as I found out later, Michael cried.
Not a particularly auspicious beginning to this new chapter of my life, especially when I had some doubts of my own. I was forty-four years old, divorced after twenty-six years of marriage and with a burgeoning international ministry to run. I was uncertain about taking on a new role as a stepmother, having almost finished raising four children of my own. My youngest was sixteen. Ed had a second son, Matthew, who was, thankfully, easy to please, but he was only six years old. God, I asked, do you really intend to send me backward ten years? My identity, or so I believed, was as a minister and the mother of grown children, not as a car-pool captain worried about the high cost of orthodontics. Besides, I’d been so sweet to this difficult child, even holding my tongue when he swore at the dinner table, something I’d never have tolerated from my own children. I smiled all the time. I smiled so much my face hurt.
My face hurt because a phony smile contorts our identity, and being untrue to ourselves causes pain. Often we lose our identity trying to please or placate others. We lose sight of who we are while trying to mesh our lives with those around us. We compromise our values and beliefs to make others happy or simply to avoid conflict. But when we dance around others or put on masks and costumes, we cannot achieve the clear and honest relationships that open the way to love.
Once, Ed dropped Michael off with me for the weekend so that his son could get to know my youngest son and me better. Michael stood in the front doorway, shoulders hunched, eyes downcast, as if weighted down by his backpack. He had his hands stuffed in the pockets of his jeans, and I had my left hand clasped in my right, as if in silent prayer. (The truth is I was covering my diamond for fear that it would catch the late-afternoon light and shine in Michael’s eyes like a beacon of bad news.)
I’d have done just about anything to avoid making that kid angry at me.
He finally pulled his hands out of his pockets to wave good-bye to his dad. Then Michael turned toward his future stepmother.
“Let’s see it,” he said, looking me in the eye for once.
I slowly unclasped my hands, holding out my left, as if for inspection. The single carat that had only hours earlier seemed subtly charming in its simplicity now looked showy and gaudy. Michael grasped my wrist with his left hand and began tugging at the ring with his right. Instinctively, I curled my finger.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Trying to pull it off,” he responded, still tugging.
“And what would you do if you could?” I asked, momentarily grateful that Ed had bought a ring one size too small.
“Toss it down the disposal,” he answered. Then he dropped my hand and without another word crossed over to the family room, where he plunked himself and his backpack down on the sofa in front of the Big Screen and reached for the remote. I started in on my speech about how I knew he already had a wonderful mother and how I didn’t want to take her place, but I quit mid-sentence when he hit the volume button and Star Wars drowned me out.
The disposal. So that was where he thought his new family-to-be belonged. I’d been kind — excruciatingly nice, actually. Devastated by his parents’ divorce, Michael was still a bit lost. He didn’t fit in at school and rarely brought friends home. Under the circumstances, I could overlook his manners and behavior, I told myself; the poor guy had been through enough. Besides, I wanted him to like me. So without a word, I headed into the kitchen to start the potatoes for dinner — Michael’s favorite, mashed russets — and took care not to peel directly over the disposal.
I managed to keep a smile plastered on my face not only that evening, but over the next few months, whenever Michael spent time with us. He would refuse to shower, brush his teeth or comb his hair, and I let it go. Inside, I’d be seething. I wanted him to shape up. But maybe if I let him get away with a few unhygienic habits, I thought, he’d warm up to me.
It didn’t work.
How easily we are lured into a false identity. You know those times you tell people, “I’m just not myself today”? With Michael, I felt “not myself” all the time. I didn’t know how to be a stepparent — or even if I should be one — so instead, I turned myself into what I thought Michael needed: Mother Nice. In return, Michael, uncertain of his own role and untrusting of this sweet-tempered fianc?e of his father’s, worked hard to make himself into someone he believed to be unlovable. When I asked him to clear his plate at dinner, he snarled, “You’re not my mother,” and went and plopped himself down in front of the TV with a bowl of Cheetos. He refused to do his homework. When Ed or I tried to encourage him to do his assignments, he’d respond that his teachers all thought he was stupid, so what was the point?
It was ten o’clock on a Saturday night a few months before Ed and I were to be married. I was just getting ready for bed when the phone rang. Sunday mornings, I’m up at four o’clock in order to put the finishing touches on my sermon and prepare for the busiest day of the week at church. Michael, now twelve, had been scheduled to spend the weekend with his father, but Ed had gone out of town on business unexpectedly, and I was called in to baby-sit. Naturally, Michael had sought escape as soon as possible and had been spending the evening at a video arcade with friends. He was expected home shortly, so I was surprised to hear his voice on the phone.
“Mary,” he said, “I need you to come get me.”
Had something happened? A friend’s older brother was supervising. He had promised to drive the kids home by ten o’clock.
“I missed my ride,” he explained.
“How did that happen?”
In a matter-of-fact voice, with no apology, he explained that his friend’s brother had been ready to leave, but he had wanted to stay and finish his video game. “I told them to go because you’d come and get me,” he finished.
The arcade was forty-five minutes away. My bathrobe was soft and warm. The comforter beckoned. After dressing and driving to and from the arcade, I wouldn’t be back in my flannels until midnight at the earliest, giving me only a few much-needed hours of sleep. Michael knew this. He knew very well I got up at 4 a.m. on Sundays, but the Mary he knew, patience-of-a-saint Mary, who never got mad, who always ignored his insults and sullen attitude, would rush to his side without complaint. Not this time.
“How could you?” I demanded. “You know what time I have to get up in the morning. You were only thinking about yourself, weren’t you? You...” and so forth. I was tired and grouchy and let it show.
I stopped, out of breath, and for a time the only noise on the end of the line was the distant hum of the Mario Brothers electronic jingle and an occasional explosion from Power Pete. Finally, Michael spoke up.
“Who are you and what have you done with Mary?” he asked. The Mary he knew would never have lost her temper. He considered the Mary he knew too good to be true — and in fact, he was right. This twelve-year-old, in his own way, had seen through my disguise. I wasn’t the wicked stepmother of his imagination, but I wasn’t Carol Brady, either. Being grouchy had actually felt quite good.
Clearly, God had just offered me a gift: forty-five minutes on the freeway to figure out the person I intended to be with Michael. What I truly wanted was a great relationship with my future stepson, but I wasn’t going to forge that kind of bond by being someone other than my authentic self. In real life, I’m a person who discourages foul language and lackadaisical hygiene in my children. Yet until this moment, I had pretended to accept what had set me seething.
You cannot fake a relationship and feel right with yourself or anyone else. Changing yourself to fit what you think other people want doesn’t work. Pretending to be someone other than yourself only broadens the distance between the person you are and the one with whom you’re trying to establish closeness.
Ask yourself, “Who am I?” Deep down, I know that I am a child of God who has inherited divine capacities; some of them I strive to develop, others are left languishing. I also have a human side. I lose my temper, lose patience and sometimes judge others and myself. My human side wants everybody to like me and on occasion has contorted my personality to feel more accepted. Those contortions get mighty uncomfortable, until I remember my true divine identity and return to myself.
We are all created in the image of our Creator — Love itself. There’s no need to fake a relationship with God, because nothing I do can make my essential self more or less lovable. Why fake my way to closeness with a twelve-year-old boy? We have to be fully ourselves in order to have a fulfilling relationship with anyone else. Getting grouchy or losing patience or calling someone on inappropriate behavior are all part of our human experience. I deeply wanted to love Michael and wanted him to love me, but he sometimes behaved in ways I didn’t like. If I couldn’t even share that truth with him, what chance did we have?From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from No Less Than Greatness by Mary Manin Morrissey. Copyright © 2001 by Mary Manin Morrissey. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.