In her author’s note, Dani Alpert writes, “The story you are about to read was written over many years,” and that explains a lot. It’s unclear to the reader whether the “two little shits,” as Alpert’s dedication calls them, will end up mutually bonded with our protagonist—and whether she even wants them to—because these things were unclear to Alpert during the writing process. As a result, The Girlfriend Mom lacks a perspective to ballast the narrative. We just don’t know how to feel, who to like, and what to hope for. The result is a bumpy and fairly unflattering ride. In some ways, that’s a gift. A bravely transparent Alpert gives readers an all-access pass to the good, bad, and ugly bits of a woman who “had never aspired to be a mother,” who “yearned for fame,” instead becoming “the other mom.”
When she sees a photo of her boyfriend’s kids with their mother on the mantelpiece in his apartment, for example, Alpert writes:
It was my first time feeling like I was in the same room with Julian, Marie, and their kids. It wasn’t just me and Julian in our bubble. I was the outsider in a family already in progress, and a surge of sadness nearly brought me to tears…. Later I would ask Julian why he still had the picture of Marie. He said it was for the kids, which of course I understood—I’m not a monster. A week later it was gone. Everything Julian had told me about Marie had been pleasant enough, and yet I felt triumphant, like she was my opponent and I’d won this round. And no, it does not bring me any amount of satisfaction to admit this to you.
That’s how most of The Girlfriend Mom goes: I had these shitty, selfish thoughts, and I’m admitting it and making fun of myself, which means I can’t be a shitty and selfish person, right?
Alpert feels excluded when her boyfriend and his kids fall back on past experiences as clues during a game of charades, suffering from a sort of retroactive FOMO. Of her boyfriend’s son and his young buddy playing loudly, she writes: “They were positively feral. Why couldn’t they sit and quietly read to each other?” The statement is clearly made with tongue in cheek and yet, also not. This style of self-aware ruminating can be refreshing: “So many questions swirled in my head. Is this a lie? Am I showing up because it’s the right thing to do or because I don’t want to be left behind?”
And she touches on hot pokers known to jab new stepmothers everywhere. How do you come to terms with what you give up when dedicating hours to someone else’s kids? (“I didn’t want to be reprimanding little people. I could have been … looking for work and focusing on my career. Why was I picking up empty cans of beans?”) How do you share everything with your partner when some of it can come off as a criticism of their children? (“How was I supposed to tell him that I was turning myself inside out with all of the transitions, compromises, and adjustments, and now I was ready to blow?”) Is affection a zero-sum game? (“I concluded that Julian’s attention was finite, and when the three of us were together, there wasn’t enough to go around.”) Will things ever feel easy? (“[Advances with the kids] didn’t come with lifetime guarantees. I’d learned the hard way not to pat myself on the back with a Phew, glad I won’t have to go through that again. There was always another shoe to drop.”)
But the hills she chose to die on left me unsympathetic. Alpert concedes different families handle nudity differently and yet still makes a huge deal out of her boyfriend taking a shower with his daughter nearby. She says to the young woman: “It’s just that, well, some things make me edgy, and I’d like you and Tyler to respect that and me. That makes sense, right? I’m not being unreasonable, am I? … Being in the room with your father, while he’s … It’s just not something I’m comfortable with. I’m mean, you’re getting older, and I don’t know, I don’t think it’s ….” On a plane flight, the kids—gasp—politely decline the neck pillows Alpert purchased for them, and she won’t let it go. When she lies her way into a ticket to her boyfriend’s son’s graduation and her boyfriend wonders how the boy’s mom will feel about it, Alpert responds:
What? I thought. That’s what he decided to lead with—his ex-wife’s reaction? How about how great it was that his girlfriend would see his son graduate .… Nicole and Marie spotted us immediately and waved us over to the seats they’d saved next to them. My head started spinning. Is no one shocked to see me? Isn’t anyone going to acknowledge the ticket snafu or ask how I got my hands on one?
She concludes: “No matter how intimate the kids and I became, no matter how many graduations I invited myself to, it would never be the same for me. I’d always be on the outside.”
Me, me, me.
In one of the rejection slips Alpert includes as a forward to her book, an editor or agent wrote: “I didn’t think that Dani’s effort is quite … that book that people in these situations go to. It felt overly specific and even a bit self-centered. I didn’t fall in love here.”
Neither did I.