- No Relation by Paula Carter
Traditional lore tells us that couples meet, marry, and have children. They then spend decades sacrificing for those children, giving and giving in the hopes that one day all of their scut work and missed opportunities will have been worth it. Parents are eventually rewarded with watching their kids grow into adults they can be proud of, much like tending soil to witness the blooming of flowers. Yet what happens when you tend the soil, but the flowers that emerge are not yours to enjoy? Or what if your only sense of propriety is over the soil itself and not its outgrowth?
Paula Carter deftly and honestly addresses these complicated and often painful questions in her new book of micro-essays, No Relation. Here, Carter tells of her love affair with James, a professor she meets while in graduate school; she begins to date him before she learns of his two young sons, Caleb and Alex, from his previous marriage. James tells Carter of the boys' existence early in the romance, but she's already smitten and welcomes his children into her life. In doing so, she takes on the role of their "almost mother," the title of the first chapter in her book. But when the author's relationship with James ends, she forever loses the children who were hers for a time, yet were never hers to begin with. This loss and its "aftermath" as Carter calls it, makes up the central exploration of this beautifully rendered and necessary collection.
What does it mean to enter a family without the opportunity to participate in laying the cement and forging the footing upon which all else will be built? What does it mean to be a surrogate step-mother to children who already have a mother? What can Carter's role possibly be under these circumstances? And yet without a role in the children's lives, how can she move forward with their father? Carter is often left to care for the boys, leaving her to wonder what she's allowed to do or which rules she can enforce. "I thought if I was the mother I would do things differently," she warns the reader, suggesting the constraints she internalizes. The result is a fraught relationship between the author and James, as he's never able to put her ahead of the children even when the children are with their mother. Carter lashes out at times as a result: "Once, I bullied him [James] into telling me he had never loved Lori, his ex-wife. Afterward I felt sick and satisfied." Her only way into James's life seems to be to elbow aside those who arrived before her.
This question of standing comes up again and again in the narrative as the author often reminds us that legal status and paperwork define parenthood more than love and caretaking do. When Lori's new husband Ian dies in an accident, his obituary indicates that he "leaves behind a wife and two sons." [End Page 25] This suggests that Ian's marriage to Lori grants him instant fatherhood status. But Carter has no legal connection to James or to his children, and therefore the world at large doesn't see her as a spouse or a parent. The children are not biologically hers, and she cannot adopt them. And while none of this impacts her ability to love the boys or to worry about them, when her relationship with James comes to an end she has no claim to his kids. She's left with a broken heart and questions about what really constitutes motherhood.
The connection to children who aren't biologically ours and the loss of them when a relationship with their parent ends is not something we talk much about. And yet we need to. For there are no expectations from society that the connection between the almost parent and her ex-partner's children will, or should, continue. But anyone who loves and feels responsible for children mourns them when they're gone. Carter's almost children are...