When I started getting serious with my boyfriend who has a 5-year-old son, I realized that I needed some help with figuring out what that meant for me. I combed through step-parenting and blended family websites and forums and read so many self-help books that my boyfriend was probably at least a little creeped out.
But I’ve discovered the forums aren’t always accurate. Here’s what I know to be true:
1. You will love each other and want to spend time with each other.
These resources told me to be prepared for not loving the child, especially at first. They told me I’d probably find myself annoyed with him most of the time. That even if he was just a normal kid, I’d find him badly behaved and unlovable. They told me to brace myself for his visits and to think of the 50-50 custody as a good thing, because he’d be gone half the time. They told me to lay boundaries from the beginning so I could get away from my boyfriend’s “spawn” whenever he was too much.
So I was surprised when my boyfriend’s son and I started saying “I love you” to each other within a couple of months of meeting. It was a total shock when Asher started saying that I was kind of like a mom to him, too. I also wasn’t prepared to want to spend time with him, yet I found myself counting the days between visits and getting mad at my partner for sending Asher to his mom’s instead of asking me to watch him. I thought something might be wrong because I hated spending any time apart. This was the kind of bond the forums and books told me doesn’t exist with step kids, only biological kids.
2. The lack of title is really difficult to navigate.
In my case, the custody arrangement states biological parents are the only people who can be called by any “parent-related” terms. I realized early on that the permanent lack of title would feel weird for me. (I come from the kind of unbroken family where you call adults their titles out of affection.) Even so, the arrangement made sense to me, and I didn’t have a problem with it at first. But when Asher tried to be affectionate one time, saying I was like a mom, having to correct him and reject affection like that is extremely painful.
3. No matter what you do, the “brokenness” of the original family hurts you too.
People talk a lot about a “blended” family in a step-family situation, which implies that people from different situations come together to form one family. While it’s true that we have bonded as a family, it seems like “visitor family” or “semi-absent family” would be a more accurate description. After all, one of the members of my family is absent half the time. Even if you try to make sure all of the family activities only happen when your stepchild is around, it’s not always possible. One member of your family will sometimes feel like they’re 50 percent an outsider. That’s a really hard reality to face when you care deeply for your stepchild.
4. You’ll worry about them a lot.
I wasn’t expecting to feel fiercely overprotective of this little boy who suddenly came into my life, but it turns out I worry about him all the time. It’s especially difficult whenever we send him to his mom’s house, because we know she sometimes suffers from pretty serious depression. I didn’t realize I’d spend my “free” days worrying if Asher was properly fed or if he was really being supervised and parented.
5. And then you worry some more.
Just when I thought I could handle worrying about Asher when he was gone, I was thrown off by the wave of anxiety I felt for the future, teenage Asher. I began trying to imagine what Asher’s childhood would be like, being a nomad between two very different houses. How having a mom who oscillates between being the most fun person in the room and lying in bed would affect him once he was old enough to realize how messed up it is. How his childhood has been cut short because he is emotionally caring for his mother. I try to cope with this by telling myself that a lot of kids have messed-up parents and they turn out okay. I just wish I could save him from having to go through that pain.
6. The little things are the most special.
There were a lot of little things the forums didn’t warn me about, too. Like how natural it felt to help Asher with his homework or to read to him at bedtime. How much I loved doing activities like putt-putt golf with him. How good it felt when he hurt himself and reached to me for comfort. How amazing it felt when he confided in me about a friend he had fought with. These are the moments that make me feel so incredibly special because I never thought I’d have them with Asher.
7. But the most important thing that the forums and books didn’t warn me about becoming a step-mom is that I’d become a mom, no qualifier needed.