Stepmotherhood in Meerkat Manor

Welcome back to Life Crisis Week here on Middle Name Brain. It’s me again, Sarah, your muddled, sometimes confused, host. As I mentioned yesterday, my lens color is tinted stepmother, and you can further deduce from yesterday’s middle-riddled theme that I do not have biological children. There is a moniker for my breed, the ever elusive “childless stepmother”. This time of year is a little touch and go, and perhaps a large contributor to the general feeling of lethargy that seems to be plaguing me lately. My least favorite day of the year is arguably Mother’s Day, and then of course we barrel right into Father’s Day. If you are neither a mother nor a father, it’s possible that you will want to fast forward through these pronatalistic festivities, opting instead to sit in a dark room, hugging yourself, and rocking back and forth. Too dramatic? Okay, maybe you’ll want to avoid all media (social and otherwise), go for a hike instead, then lay in the grass, imagining you are a meerkat and that your situation is a simply a result of cooperative breeding.

What’s that, you didn’t binge watch Meerkat Manor? To recap, in any given gang of meerkats there is a dominant female that takes on the role of reproduction for the entire group. Dominance is established by scratching and fighting – yes, an unfortunate cliche in the animal kingdom. Anyway, the dominant female is the only female allowed to breed exclusively with the alpha male, and she will reinforce her status as sole breeder by either evicting transgressors and their offspring, or by offing this illegitimate offspring. Cooperative breeding, however, is as it sounds, a cooperative system of rearing pups. Translation: everyone pitches in, and no one would dare waggle a tail to say “Shit, not my pup, not my problem.” (Or at least not yet. The first wave of women’s liberation still hasn’t found its way to meerkat society.)

My response to this step-life is loaded with so many complicated nuances, emotions, and histories (mine included). Detailing them all here would be impossible, not to mention a little scandalous in that airing other people’s dirty laundry on the internet kind of a way. My public dirty laundry looks like this: I didn’t procreate, and sometimes trying to operate in a framework that requires me to respond as if I did, or devaluing me because I didn’t, is problematic. We tend to have sweeping quixotic notions about how these types of things should play out, and then we feel like we failed when they don’t, much like we feel like other relationships fail when they don’t match some romantic idea we’ve been fed over and over.

I have written, edited, and ultimately deleted a lot in the time I have been sitting here trying to figure out what to say, how to encapsulate my feelings. Perhaps sometimes even in this written, reflective space, less is more. Life is complicated. Sometimes even if we feel enriched by our life choices we can also be caught off guard by a sense of loss and need to seek out things that bolster our sense of ourselves and our own value in a way that is not so limited by generative idealization. I frequently feel buck naked, exposed, vulnerable, and perhaps this isn’t dissimilar to how bona fide parents feel about themselves even in the imagined fulfillment of “having” a child. I will never know for sure, even if Mr. Brain claims traditional parenthood is riddled with endless fear and anxiety; we feel different fears. I don’t feel it all the time, and for as much difficulty as I’ve found in it I have found equal measures of life-affirming freedom to explore myself alongside the many other women who have tried on a different hat.

*Photo credit: Chris & Kylie. (I added the text.)




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