When people ask me how many kids I have, I say six. Sometimes it feels like a lie. Because I didn’t give birth to my two stepsons and stepdaughter. (I hate saying- “step children” Remember the movie St. Elmo’s Fire? [Showing my age here] Demi Moore’s character called her step mom, “Step Monster.” I always draw reference to that movie when anyone prefaces the words ‘children,’ ‘mom,’ ‘dad’, or ‘parents’ with the word “step.”) We don’t use “step” in our family. They’re all just our kids.
When I married my husband, his kids were 11, 9, and 5. I know what being a mom is about because I have my own, so how difficult can it be to be a stepmom? It’s really just a difference in words, right? Wrong. Being a stepparent takes more thought, more planning, more watching of my words, more reflection, more patience, and more biding of my time than it does just being plain ole’ Mom to my own kids. I wasn’t prepared to feel more vulnerable as a stepmom. The kids that I gave birth to somehow love me easily and in spite of myself, but the kids that inherited me through marriage have to make a conscious choice each and every day to love me.
Sometimes being a stepparent feels like walking a tightrope…
Everyone knows that routines are the bedrock of good parenting. With shared custody of stepchildren, you can set up real routines in your own home, but it is impossible to know what happens in the other parental home. Even if you have a good or amicable relationship with the other parent, and share a general parenting philosophy, you will still end up doing things differently. You still only have half the time to set boundaries and reinforce them, and it’s possible that those same boundaries might not exist in the child’s other house. And, oh, if there isn’t a united parenting philosophy, then you practice the parental philosophy of sucking up what you can’t change in the other parental home.
You know when you meet new teachers or babysitters, and you have to describe your child, it feels weird and difficult, because how can you explain your little peeps in five days, let alone five minutes? It took you their whole life to get that knowledge! Stepparents have to try to pick up a kid’s entire history–from favorite foods, sports, and even birthdays to allergies, fears, and aversions- all at once and from whatever point they came into your life. You are in constant backtrack mode for all of the important things, and you always feel like there are vital pieces of the puzzle you have not been given. What is more, as your love for them grows, you feel a sense of loss for missing out on all the milestones and all the distinguishing things in their lives that have shaped who they were up the point when you met them. The older your stepkids are when you come into their life, the harder this is.
As moms, we all have those days when we want to throw our kids in the garbage. Ok….maybe not, but, parenting is really hard work, and it often goes unappreciated. When you have been thrown up on, peed on, screamed at, ignored, and endured a 53 minute tantrum because cinnamon ice cream isn’t on the menu for dinner, it’s natural to feel whiny about your kids, and it’s natural to vent to your partner. I’ll grumble about my kids all day long, but I am hesitant to complain about my stepkids because I don’t want anyone to construe it as mean-spirited or wicked-stepmothery.
There are approximately 542,886 other things that are difficult about being a Stepmom. The very last thing I have wanted to do is alienate my “steps” by trying to step into shoes that are already filled. I have committed to them to be another adult in their lives who loves and cares about them, whom they can trust, and who would be there for them. This feels like the right balance to me. Whatever I’m doing, however many mistakes I’m making along the way, I feel incredibly lucky to be a character in their stories. And maybe that’s how we stepparents need to look at it. They’re not characters in our stories, but we are characters in theirs. What do we want our impact to be?