How I Learned To Become A Better Stepmother

by Janie Emaus
Originally Published: 
Two boys smiling under colorful umbrellas while it's raining

When my stepchildren arrived at my door with a suitcase of dirty clothes, their medical records and confused expressions on their young faces, it was obvious they weren’t just coming for dinner.

In the long – very long – seconds that followed, I had to make one of several choices:

1. Lock myself up in my room with every book I had ever wanted to read.

2. Leave the husband I had married for better or worse.

3. Put on a smile and buy a super sized box of Tide.

Needless to say, I chose option number three.

Unfortunately, the only models I had for step-mothering came from fairy tales. And those stepmothers were not what I wanted to be. In fact, I wasn’t that good yet at being a “real” mom. My daughter was only a toddler and I was still learning how to juggle her demands with my own need to remain sane.

What made it even more difficult was that although I had accepted responsibility for my step children, they had not yet accepted me. They kept watching, studying, and waiting for me to do all the things their “real” mother had done.

As day followed day, I could feel how much they missed their mother, feelings they were too young to deal with. Some days I didn’t want them around, feelings I was too ashamed to admit having. Then of course, there was my own daughter to consider. And it was through her that I finally learned to be a stepmom.

Overnight, she had brother and sister. Not a stepbrother or half-sister. Simply a brother and a sister. I had been her mother and now I was their mother. When people asked if she had any brothers or sisters, she would answer yes, without any qualifying explanation, without any hesitation.

She was too young to comprehend the situation in any other way. And was there really any other way to see it?

At first, yes. Because no matter how hard I tried, I kept running into versions of myself created by my stepchildren.

Even though I did all the mom things – bought their favorite bread for lunches, washed clothes every single night, read their favorite bedtime stories, patiently corrected homework – it was never enough.

Standing outside their room at night, I would hear them playing “orphanage” or “foster home.” I would catch a word here and there. “Escape. Mean. Hate.” Really? Was it that horrible here? What was I doing wrong when I was trying so hard to make everything right? When I was trying so fill that void in their small hearts. Often times, I cried myself to sleep.

And then something happened. The everyday motions of life took over.

We began to fill the photos albums and create memories. The days stacked one on top of the other, like well–worn measuring cups. We began to not only look like a family, but to feel like one, too.

And we definitely did look like a family. The dentist certainly didn’t know any different, not when he was filling a cavity and the child was holding my hand. The checker at the market only saw three rambunctious kids fighting over a package of cookies. Sometimes I wanted to yell out “They’re not really mine.” But what mother doesn’t?

When people began to ask how many children I had, I would answer three. A boy and two girls. I gave their names and left it at that.

A new stepmom friend of mine asked me one day: “How will I ever get them to like me?”

Although, it had taken me awhile to come to this realization, my answer came quickly. First, you have to like them, I said. And don’t think of a stepmother as someone removed, as being a step lower than the mother who gave birth.

Because when you get down to the nitty gritty, to the scabbed knees and sleepless nights, there really isn’t any difference between a stepmom and natural mom.

Only between a mother who cares and one who doesn’t.

Related post: The Top Five Things No Step-Parent Wants to Hear

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