Sunday, May 10, 2009

Thoughts on being a (step) mom

When I found the man of my dreams, I had to laugh at how things had turned out for me. He wasn't at all what I or my family or my friends expected (being older, divorced, and father of two young girls). I was just finishing college, standing on the edge of an expansive but undefined future. Falling in love with him was a no-brainer. Becoming a step-mom was a conscious decision; there was no man without the daughters. Even so, I had no clue what I was getting into.

Over the years I've stumbled through what it means to be a step-mom, what it means to be wife #2, what it means to not have "my own" children, and how to explain it all to a culture which frankly, doesn't get it. And it's a tough road, because I don't really get it, either. It's simultaneously the hardest role, the most thankless relationship, the biggest opportunity to put aside my ego, and the most humbling experience of my life. Hmmm. Perhaps not so different from "real" mothers.

I still don't have any clear answers, except that it helped me to just be honest about it all as I lived each experience. It's hard to be the fifth wheel with your new husband and his kids. They had a history together, one that didn't include me, at a time when I didn't have one with him to rest on. I felt forced to love, or at least pretend to love, people I didn't even know but who were extremely important to my new husband; however, they had no such compunction to love me. Our girls lived out of state, so they were only able to visit once a year; they were different each year, so every visit was like starting over.

Every time their mother called to say how much she missed them, I ground my teeth. I was forbidden to confront her, for fear we wouldn't get a visit next time, for fear I'd look like a meanie in front of the girls, for fear it would upset the delicate balance of the visit. I had to be the resident wet-blanket, as my husband tried to make up for a year's absence with non-stop fun; I was the one to make sure towels got hung up, no one left their lotion on the living room couch, people folded their own laundry, and didn't spend all their money on candy. I took on the extra household chores that children inevitably bring to a home. I comforted my despondent husband every time they left, and he faced again the guilt and pain of a broken first marriage.

I cried a lot. I raged a lot. But I also laughed a lot and had a lot of fun. There was a lot of guilt, fear, jealousy, pride, excitement, and frustration - and that was the first year. We've been married almost 12 years now.

There's a great book (you knew this was coming, right??) called The Courage to be a Stepmom, by Sue Patton Thoele. She succinctly states the three biggest challenges in being a step-mom: 1) that you will be facing stereotypes, i.e. "the wicked stepmother", 2) that it is a relationship born of loss (the loss of the original family unit), and 3) the reality that you will never be their "real" mother. She pretty much nailed it. If you are a step-mom, or you know a step-mom, this would be a great Mother's Day gift. It's a big help to know you aren't alone, and to have words to describe your experience.

My step-daughters are grown now, and married. I'm even a step-grandmother, although I hope the babies will just call me Jenni, because I don't much feel like a traditional Grandma.

I still don't really know what I'm doing, but I keep showing up. It's worth it.


Anonymous said...

As Woody Allen said: "Eighty percent of success is showing up."

Nicole said...

You have such a good heart, Jenni - that's why I like you so much.