The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #117: Paula Carter

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Rarely does contemporary literature or film represent stepparents or “almost parents” in non-nightmarish hues. Even the United States Census Bureau does not yet have the means or language to accurately gauge or record the number of individuals who take on parent-like roles of children who are not biologically their own or adopted.

That is what makes Paula Carter’s collection of essays, No Relation, so refreshing and, in fact, essential. She offers a point of view rarely given voice—that of the step-parent or, in Carter’s case, the “almost parent.”

In her essays, Carter tells her story of being an “almost mother” using gorgeous bursts of poetic prose to explore feeling outside of a family she was, in fact, part of; taking second or third place to her boyfriend James’ sons, Caleb and Alex and James’ ex-wife, Lori; unfair and unrealistic expectations; desperately wanting something of one’s own; the relief
and euphoria of untethering; and the general lack of language to help define and navigate these experiences.

I recently talked with Paula about her new book on an appropriately transitional autumn afternoon.

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Rumpus: So many of us grew up thinking about stepmothers as “wicked”—mostly thanks to Disney and fairytales. Did those representations consciously or subconsciously affect you while in the role of an “almost mother”?

Carter: They certainly did. At first, when I met James and the boys, I resisted seeing myself as anything close to a stepmother. It was not a role that I could place myself in—it seemed foreign, and my idea of what a stepmother was, either from fairytales or memories of friends’ stepmothers, was nothing that I could relate to.

As we all got to know each other better, I felt a tremendous tension between some of my feelings and this constant sense that simply by being in the role of a non-biological caretaker, the expectation was that I would be less caring or somehow undermine the boys’ relationship with their father. I say tension, because there were many times when my feelings did bare that out. I would get frustrated with the boys or want more of James’s attention. I felt so guilty for having those feelings because it seemed that I was just that: the wicked stepmother.

But at the same time, without voicing some of those needs or concerns, I felt like I was invisible in the family dynamic. It was only after leaving the situation that I began to see just how much the stepmother, or stepfather, role can be set up for frustration. Regardless of how much I cared for the boys, if I felt any negative feelings towards them or had any personal desires outside of their well-being, I felt like I was being a bad person.

Rumpus: With all of the stories living inside of you, how did this story find its way to the page?

Carter: The experience of being so closely involved in the lives of these two boys had such a large impact on my life, and me as a person, so I knew it would be something I would write about. Partly, that is because, as I was going through the experience and afterward trying to make sense of it all, I realized there were very few places where I was seeing, reading, hearing about this from the “step” person’s point of view. There are self-help books on blended families or being a stepparent, but the emotional truth of the experience is hard to find represented in a complex or nuanced way. And yet, it is something so many people have or will go through.

And for me, perhaps even more important than the “step” experience is the experience of then leaving children who are not yours and trying to make sense of that role. That is something almost no one is talking about. And again, it is something so many people have or will go through. When I started writing the book, and people started asking me what it was about, I started hearing so many versions of that story, either from someone’s own experience or their sister’s or their uncle who was married to someone with kids and then divorced.

Rumpus: What prompted you to use flash nonfiction as the vehicle to tell your story?

Carter: I had this story living inside me, as you said, and I knew I wanted to write about it, but was struggling with how because it felt almost like too much for me to approach. Then I read Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas, which is a memoir told in flash pieces. I found the book to be unbelievably beautiful and thought-provoking. Thomas is able to convey difficult things but leave a lot of space for the reader to take them in and ponder them, without over explaining or ruminating. I knew immediately that is what I wanted to do. And it was a model for No Relation throughout the whole process.

Rumpus: When we write, we are excavating. No doubt, there were innumerable things you unearthed in the course of remembering, researching, and writing this book. What were a couple of particularly revelatory moments?

Carter: As I started to look around to see who else may have had similar experiences or could help me think about different aspects of caring for non-biological kids, I began to realize how many people in my life had had some version of this experience. Suddenly, people I had known my whole life I was seeing in a different way. For example, my great grandfather was actually my step-great grandfather, and I began thinking differently about his relationship to my grandmother, his stepdaughter. I realized it was something that was never really talked about much in my family.

Similarly, while doing research for the book, I read Marriage, A History by Stephanie Coontz; it talks about how our modern conception of marriage and family is really fairly new. And by that I don’t mean the “modern blended family”; I mean quite the opposite—the nuclear family centered on two people who fall in love and have children. The subtitle to Coontz’s book is “How love conquered marriage.” With the rise of divorce in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a narrative about the demise of the family started popping up everywhere. But it seems the narrative about the Leave It to Beaver-nuclear family is actually more of an anomaly throughout history, or at least not as monolithic as we are lead to believe. That was revelatory, and also provided some kind of relief.

Rumpus: What was most satisfying to you about writing No Relation?

Carter: The most satisfying thing was to be able to tell my story in the way I wanted to tell it. I felt so many different pressures and expectations, both internally and from different people when I was going through the experience; I kept feeling like I was trying to understand what was happening through someone else’s eyes—my friends, James, the boys, my mother, cultural norms of what it is to be young and in love. Here I am able to say, This is what happened and this is what it felt like, without trying to make it anything more or different.

Rumpus: In sharing personal details about not just your life, but also those of your ex, his ex, and others, with what ethical or logistical considerations were you confronted?

Carter: I thought a lot about this as I wrote the book. I understand that this is my perspective on what happened and the relationships involved, and that gives me a lot of privilege, because I am the one who gets to tell the story here. James and Caleb and Alex all have their own feelings and thoughts about it all that certainly differ from mine. Because I was so aware of that, I wanted to make it explicit. So one of the themes in No Relation is questioning the accuracy of memory and unearthing the fallibility of ever claiming something as “true.”

And the fact I was writing about kids, not even my own kids, was even more challenging for me. I felt this was an important story to tell, but I was concerned that it not be exploitative. I had a few people read through it with that in mind and give me thoughts and suggestions. But how can it not be [exploitative], when we take it upon ourselves to tell stories that involve other people? And yet, most of our stories do involve others. One of my core beliefs is that, by sharing our stories, we come to understand each other more and build empathy. My sincere hope is that at some point, the boys read the book and feel something real about our shared experience reflected there.

James and his ex-wife both knew that I was writing this and are well aware of its publication. Names have been changed and they each signed a release. I didn’t want there to be any surprises.

Rumpus: No Relation is a very tightly written work. Unquestionably, there were essays that did not make the final cut. Were there questions you asked of each piece to determine if they stay or go?

Carter: When I first started writing this, I didn’t necessarily want to just focus on my experience. I wanted to open it up more to other people’s stories, as well as some history of the ways families have been formed. Some of those aspects are still in the book. However, as I was writing, I had people read the book and they kept pushing me to write more about my relationship with James and Caleb and Alex. They kept saying that is what they really wanted to know more about, and it was the most compelling aspect of the book. At first I resisted that, not wanting it to be just another tale of a love story gone wrong. But in the end, I realized my resistance was more about my own unwillingness to go to what Robert Olen Butler has called “the white hot center.”

After I had written a number of the short pieces in the book, I decided to structure the book into Act I and Act II, with Act I being about getting to know James and the boys and Act II being after I left. That helped me understand which pieces needed to stay and which needed to go. It also gave me space to explore more thoughtfully the experience after I left—the time when I was grieving the loss of these relationships that culturally I felt I didn’t have a right to grieve.

Rumpus: What’s next for you?

Carter: For a long time, I’ve wanted to tell the story of my great-great-great aunts and I think now is the time. Their stories have been told and retold in my family’s folklore. My grandmother was a wonderful storyteller, so I have a very vivid picture of who these women were. They were three women who defied the norms of rural Iowa when, in the late 1800s, they went away to college, studied mathematics and physics, and then never married, or married very late in life. I’m interested in what their stories might have to tell us now, as we see a rise in the number of unmarried women in the US and both women and men are getting married later in life. It is the project that seems to be calling me now.


Amy Danzer manages several master’s programs at Northwestern University, including the MA/MFA in creative writing program. She directs NU’s Summer Writers’ Conference. On the side, she writes book reviews and interviews authors for Newcity. More from this author →