When Gabe and I married, I understood I was committing to him and his children Sara, Amy, and Jack for the rest of my life. I had no idea what that actually meant. In hindsight, that’s probably a good thing. Knowing what I do now about parenting stepchildren, the complexities and nuances might have led me to put another mark in the “con” column of our marriage decision, rather than embark on this wild and wonderful stepmothering adventure.
Before you roll your eyes and think that I am sugar-coating this stepparenting thing, let me assure you, I have had my fair share of complexities and all-out disasters. My three stepchildren still struggle with acknowledging my role in their lives. After many years, they still sometimes call me Miss Kate, a formal relic from their early childhood. There have been school performances with mumbled dates and times in the hopes that I might not attend and expose our blended family dynamic. There have been slammed doors and raised voices and stony glances. This has not been an easy road, and it will get bumpy again, I am sure.
Still, the good has far outweighed the bad on our journey together. The “Miss Kate”s are often uttered while snuggled next to me on the couch. I’ve been interviewed for a fifth-grade project as a VIP in Amy’s life. Sara’s Instagram feed is filled with pictures of our home and activities I’ve planned. Jack once famously said that he wants a shirt that reads, “I Have an Epic Stepmother.” Some of my favorite evenings as a family have been spent with my stepchildren, and I am grateful.
I often see stepparents, stepmoms in particular, encouraged to love their stepchildren “as their own.” But as the mom to Simon, Caden, and Lottie, the stipulation that I love Sara, Amy, and Jack in the same way makes me anxious. I don’t believe it is possible to love children from a first family and stepchildren in the same way.
I didn’t raise my stepchildren. I didn’t bathe their chubby baby bodies in the kitchen sink. I didn’t track their growth charts and worry about how many words they knew at their pediatrician appointments. I didn’t carefully lay out their clothes for the first day of school. Gabe and I didn’t plan for them, reading baby books over my growing belly and eagerly anticipating each milestone from crawling to college.
Someone was present for those milestones. Someone drove carpool and planned parties and stood on Saturday morning sidelines. Sara, Amy, and Jack have a mother. She is involved in their lives, and they love her deeply. That’s important, and I deeply respect their relationship with their mother.
In some ways, the decree that stepparents should love their stepchildren as their own adds to the worldwide sense of competition between mothers and stepmothers, dads and stepdads, everywhere. My stepchildren are not my own — they belong to Gabe and their mother. Perhaps better said, my stepchildren also belong to Gabe and their mother. Just like my children also belong to Gabe and Billy and his wife. And so, the challenge I face — all stepparents face, I imagine — is how to love stepchildren equally to children from the first family, but in demonstrably different ways. Different because trying to love in the same way adds to the child’s sense of in-between-ness and the parent-stepparent tension.
In the time I have spent loving these three small people, I’ve learned several ways to love them fiercely, wholeheartedly, unconditionally, and yet differently enough so that they can accept that love without strings.
First, I am a vocal, passionate ally to each of my stepchildren.
I cheer them on at sporting events and off the field. I remind Sara that she is fearfully and wonderfully made, even when she thinks otherwise. I talk to Amy about the sticky web of girl drama in middle school, both assuring her that what she’s facing is normal and helping her navigate her way through. I am wildy and unabashedly on their team — as long as their team isn’t currently facing up against Gabe.
I advocate for them.
When Sara was moving through the thick of TYOGS (Thirteen-Year-Old Girl Syndrome), I helped Gabe understand that her body hadn’t been taken over by aliens. When it lasted longer and showed up in different, more difficult ways, I worried (correctly, as it turns out) that she was struggling with something bigger and talked to Gabe about counseling. When Jack wasn’t reading at his grade-level, I bought him books my boys had loved, and we read aloud to him. I don’t side with the children in front of them if they disagree with Gabe, but I am often a quiet voice for their interests after they’ve gone to bed. I work to get my stepchildren what they need.
I meet them where they are.
Sara is at the age where physical touch makes her uncomfortable, so I don’t force her to hug me. I help her with her hair and let her stay up late talking to me perched on the side of my bed, but I don’t make her awkwardly embrace me. Amy feels the mom/stepmom competition keenly, so I don’t add to it. I don’t wait for her response when I tell her I love her. I stopped telling her she could just call me Kate, instead of Miss Kate. I tell her I’m glad she and Mom are in a mother-daughter book club because I honestly am. Jack is a different animal than his sisters — he craves cuddles and I-love-yous and all the trimmings. So he gets them, early and often. When he slips and calls me “Mom,” I don’t correct him.
At the surface, this is how I love my own children. The difference in loving my stepchildren is in how I do those things. I don’t step into roles that, in their minds, others fill. Discipline belongs to Mom and Dad, for example. I am careful that my love doesn’t exclude other relationships that are important to them. I talk about how excited I am for them to go to the beach with Mom or visit Gramma and Grampa at Christmas. I don’t weigh our relationship down with my own need for acceptance or love (as I sometimes do to my own children, however mistakenly). I love Sara, Amy, and Jack with every fiber of my being. I just show that love differently because it makes it easier for them to accept it.