Step by Step

Published on September 4th, 2013 | by Julie Sparenberg


JULIE SPARENBERG on Being an Unintentional Stepmother

One week and two days ago, my husband’s hand gently pushed me. To lie with him, face down, on our driveway.

A 20-ish looking man wearing a baggy athletic clothes and a knitted cap pointed a semi-automatic pistol at my head as he took our wallets, phones, house keys, car keys. I remember looking at his handgun briefly. A squarish grey muzzle with a small dark void in the center stared back into my eye. I had never seen a gun before, perhaps which is why it didn’t look real to me, why I imagined it could be a toy. I turned my head away from the weapon, cheek on the concrete, and closed my eyes—a street version of peek-a-boo.

If I can’t see you, you won’t hurt me.

The slight relief we felt, closing in on 2am after our landlord had made the trip from Orinda to Oakland to let us back in our apartment, was the vacant second bedroom and the knowledge that no little girls were sleeping in there.  My husband has two daughters from his previous marriage, and for half the week, they live at their mom’s house. Mercifully, this was one of those nights.

I tried to avoid thinking of how this robbery would have played out in that alternate universe, had the girls been quietly asleep in their twin beds, while we had been motionless on the pavement immediately below their bedroom. Or even worse, if they had been with us when the robber had overtaken us from behind as we walked to our front door. A wave of thought-induced nausea passed through me. Children in Oakland have been shot in the past several months.



I had never, ever thought I would be a parent. I had never wanted kids, something I realized about myself in my early teens, probably around the same time I realized other truths that did not jive with my family’s unspoken rules. Such certainties I kept to myself. I had sleptwalked through a starter marriage in my mid-twenties, only to grapple for an escape hatch as I felt those maternal expectations closing in around me like collapsible walls. I used to make jokes about that mythical internal biological clock: if there was such a thing, surely my clock was broken, or it had never been installed or hooked up properly. My mother stopped hinting about and hoping for the grandchildren who would enter the world via my uterus when my divorce became final. By that time, my sister had married and I was thus excused from the master plan.

However, it is precisely those convictions I had stuck to for most of my adult life – I would never marry again, let alone have children to care for—that were overturned in less than a heartbeat when I met my future husband almost two decades later. Something so inexplicable happened that afternoon in May when Aaron and Nadia (age 9) and Mila (age 6) and I joined forces on the Children’s Playground in Golden Gate Park. In reality, it was just our second date. In some other realm, it was an alchemical transformation.

By the time the sun was setting and it was time to return to separate homes I leaned in to give Nadia a hug. This wispy being with hazel eyes and a wild mane of  honey-colored hair looked directly into my eyes. She said to me: “I knew as soon as I saw you that I loved you.”

A sparkler of electricity crawled up the back of my neck with her earnest statement. My eyes filled with tears (as they do today as I write this). “I feel the same way about you, too,” I told her. And it was true. Some immaterial thread had bound us together that day but Nadia’s child mind gave her the wisdom and the bravery to understand what it was it first.

Less than a month later, the four of us stood before a Justice of the Peace at the top of the wide staircase in San Francisco’s City Hall, and — pouf — we were married. It was probably Nadia that said it: we all got married. It was their wedding too.

Photo by Donald Kinny


I know now that a base fear drove my sincere and solemn declaration that I would never have children: that somehow I would screw it (motherhood) and them (hypothetical children) up. That I wouldn’t be wise enough, strong enough, have enough foresight and or dedication to support another person as they made their unsure way into an indifferent world. Once you are plunged headfirst into the intensity of a young girl’s awareness, you realize how everything is different, yet all is as exactly how you remembered it. You start to live a duality of past and present.

You hear your mother’s voice, your grandmother’s, the scant wisdom they accidentally imparted to you, snippets of good advice dusted like rainbow sprinkles atop the heavy frosting of their expectations, a dangerous cupcake. I am old enough now, past prime but with the advantage of distance, to be able to mute those voices that want to take over my own. The fact that I am as old as I am is what makes me think I can do this now. I am not 19, as my mother was, when she had me. I am 46. Those years give me confidence. I have already lived quite a bit.


Screen Shot 2013-09-03 at 2.26.02 PM

It’s been a little over a year now since we all got married. The girls live half the week with us, and half at their other house. I never tire of that first squeal when they rocket out of their mother’s front door and run to my arms for a hug. I feel sheepishly amazed that they do. Mila still wants to sit on my lap in the armchair and read a fairy tale to me. I relish that, knowing someday she’ll be too grownup for that closeness. Nadia wants to cuddle on the bed with me and take turns reading from the illustrated book about the periodic table. They argue over who will read to me first.

We want to draw and paint. We want to make popovers for breakfast. Can we go to the library? We want to dress up and do a fashion show for you and Daddy. Watch us do a show. Watch us dance. What they want most is our conscious presence, our engagement.

Today I sit in our small living room, surrounded by boxes as we prepare to move out of this Oakland apartment. A little over a week ago my husband and I were robbed at gunpoint in front of our home, a violation of personal safety that we know will only be rectified mentally and emotionally by physical distance from this place. We have found an old Victorian house, in a town farther away, where there is a tree for climbing and a yard for playing in. I think about the children who will remain here, who have parents that have been frightened and need to find a way to hide that newly acquired dread from young minds who are quite attuned to know that something is amiss. I think about the children who live in neighborhoods far worse than mine, where a stray bullet can enter a door and kill a child who is sleeping over at a friend’s house. Whose parents don’t have the resources to pick up and change direction.

I don’t speak for all cities. I just know about the one I’m leaving. I don’t think that I would have left so soon if I had not had children. I might have tried to make it work, tried to live with the fear until it faded. But for the girls, it was a decision made instantly upon the dark pavement.


Julie Nadia and Mila

In the early days, I think none of us knew quite what to call me. I appeared so suddenly in their lives, and vice versa. Julie was the obvious choice. Anything hinting at stepmotherhood brought too much baggage with it. Why is it, I asked them, that stepmothers get such a bad rap in fairy tales? They agreed: it was predictable, and silly. And motherhood, in my mind, was that club I had told myself I’d never be admitted to. They have a mom already.

Then Mila came up with Juju, and it stuck. I am fine with being Juju. But in her excitement, Nadia will let something else slip out. “Mom!… I mean Juju!” Sometimes she catches herself but sometimes she just keeps talking. I used to feel like being called Mom was something that didn’t apply to me, or was an honor I didn’t deserve. And now it feels like I must be doing something a little bit right.

And when I tuck them in and kiss those tiny, sleepy faces goodnight and wish them sweet dreams, I can’t imagine life being any other way than it is right now.

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About the Author


Julie Sparenberg is a freelance photographer and occasional writer, and now a newly minted stepmom. Her photography has been seen in San Francisco Magazine, 7×7, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, the SF Bay Guardian, the Huffington Post, and SHOTS Magazine. Her work has appeared in juried shows and galleries in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Minneapolis and Washington DC. Her website is

10 Responses to JULIE SPARENBERG on Being an Unintentional Stepmother

  1. Avatar mary rachael says:

    ‘dangerous cupcake’: i love this pair of words together. what a great story you made from this horrible encounter, julie.

  2. Avatar Michael Andrade says:


  3. Avatar silvi says:

    julie, you are my hero. i love you. <3

  4. Avatar Lynn Alexander says:

    What a scary ordeal! I can’t imagine the relief and gratitude, to be safe and to have the girls safe. Sometimes life just doesn’t resemble our expectations and I think in many ways we encounter changes we need but didn’t know we wanted. I came, by the way, through a link posted by my friend Zarina and have seen many of your photos. Best of luck with the new home.

  5. Avatar Tara Bradford says:

    Julie, this reminds me of what a good writer you are! So glad you weren’t hurt and that you found a delightful new abode. The girls are adorable!

  6. Dear Julie,

    You’ve created a remarkable document here. From the very visceral image of staring down the dark abyss of the gun barrel to the realization that you want nothing different forwards or reverse, I adore the human glue binding your story together. Thank you for sharing your experience with me. It’s stories like this that make me hug my own children tighter.


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