As a stepparent you are faced with many choices. Your first choice was made when you journeyed into a relationship with somebody who has children. The next was how you
chose to fit into that already-established dynamic. Then, every single day, you’ll make the three most important choices of your blended family life:
How much are you willing to give?
How much are you willing to love?
How much are you willing to try?
I read a post the other day that said, “much of how you approach life now, as a stepmom, is shaped by your early life and ideas of what makes a family.”
While I agree, my approach also includes 'what doesn’t make a family.'
My parents divorced when I was eight. Because I was so young when they separated, I don’t really have many memories of them together. Two households was normal for me, and it didn’t really affect me. There weremoments when I wished they had stayed together, but that idea mostly hinged on the fact that I loved both my mom and my dad, and I didn’t want to ‘say goodbye’ to either of them, even if just for a week at a time.
Though my mother remained single for a while focusing on her career, my father remarried rather quickly.
Initially, I had the resentment of ‘I don’t need another mom, I already have one,’ but after the warming up period, I actually wanted to get to know my new stepmother. However, I’m not sure she ever reciprocated that feeling. Truth be told, I always felt more like a burden to Shell- an unfortunate obligatory accessory as punishment for marrying my father.
My dad worked a lot, like, A LOT. He’d wake up before dawn and get home after dark, six, sometimes seven, days a week. Looking back now I can see how that probably wore on Shell. She was in her thirties, prime of her life, stuck at the house raising two kids who weren’t her own. She was in housewife prison, my brother and I merely the inmates who required a nightly feeding.
It would especially hurt when Shell made it a point to correct anyone who referred to me as hers, “She’s my STEP daughter!," she'd bark.
That aside, I longed for a relationship with her. As a single-income family of four, we didn’t have the finances to do much, but that really didn’t matter to me. All I wanted was her attention.
We did occasionally have Rummikub nights, usually over frozen perogies and baked ziti leftovers, and despite their simplicity, I really enjoyed those nights. Other than that though, there wasn’t much of an initiative or too much energy exerted, on her part, into spending time with us.
Shell took me on a road trip to South Florida, once. I was so excited to finally have some bonding time with her. Our first stop was to the home of her elderly friend, Shultzie, a former ballerina and World War 2 survivor.
Shultzie opened the front door with a girlish squeal to give Shell a big, warm welcome. Then, she turned to me, and hugged me hello, her crepe skinned, arthritic bent hands holding me tight to her bony chest. She pulled away for me to face her, took a good look at me, and in her thick, European accent, she said, “So this is ‘The Brat’.”
The stepmom whom I so desperately wanted to like me had nicknamed me ‘The Brat.’ I was completely and utterly deflated. My spirit, crushed. To Shell, I was nothing more than 'The Brat.'
I was ten years old.
It’s not that I think my stepmom didn’t care for us, I just think her barometer, for loving children that weren’t her own, had a very small range. Perhaps she, too, was a product of her upbringing and early life ideas.
One day, Shell gifted me a hand me down jacket from the 80’s, a vintage Barbie and her stuffed bear from childhood, Peetu. Those small gestures meant the absolute world to me; I treasured them. Along with my cherished Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, I slept with Peetu every night.
Maybe I was starting to grow on her. Maybe she was starting to like me.
However, I quickly realized that was the extent of it.
When my half-sister, Jolene, was born, I was told to return Barbie and Peetu. They belonged with their rightful owner, her ‘real’ daughter. In that moment, I learned that the love and affection she had for her own children far surpassed any she could have ever offered to me or my brother. I got to keep the jacket.
I was 12 when Shell and I had our first and last major blowout. As pre-teens do, I screamed my ‘I hate yous’ while storming off to my bedroom for sanctuary. My toddler sister, Jolene, followed, waddling down the hallway. Startled by the loud thump of the door slamming shut behind me, she plopped her diaper clothed bottom to the ground, wailing.
Within seconds, my bedroom door flung open. Shell grabbed me by the shirt collar, held me up against the wall and slapped me hard across the face. “You will NEVER touch my daughter again!”
I moved in with my mom, permanently, that same week.
My feelings on steps were drastically tainted after that, and when my mother finally met someone (a woman) I was NOT happy about it. I wasn’t a fan of the first stepmom, and if she was any indicator, I wasn’t keen on the idea of having another.
This time around, however, was different; this stepmom was different.
Char would ask how my day was. She helped me with homework. She’d let me dress her up in silly costumes, and make funny videos with me. She was front and center at every extracurricular activity and performance. She became my confidant and biggest cheerleader. She proudly proclaimed me her daughter, and she put in the effort, even when I made it difficult. I certainly didn’t make it easy, but, she tried. She tried really hard. No matter how much I resisted, Char never gave up on me. (And she, sure as hell, NEVER raised a hand to me.)
Yes, this stepmom was very different. This stepmom showed me what it meant to feel wanted… what it meant to be loved.
I am a product of two step-families. The first taught me what it’s like to be a child who yearns for love and attention. The second taught me what it’s like to receive it. Shell’s indifference carved a hole in my heart. Char’s relentlessness is what filled it. Ironically, I’m thankful for both experiences because they taught me the type of stepmom I want (and don’t want) to be.
When my [step]daughters come home from school I take an hour out of my day to help them with math, even if it does require me to relearn dreadful basic equations (thank you, Google). I pump them up before a big game or competition and loudly hoot and hollar in the stands. I emcee thrift-store-ballgown fashion shows and play 'mermaid' in the pool. I talk to them, listen to their feelings, and forgive their bad-day attitudes when Harry Styles’ has a new love interest.
I gave them endearing nicknames.
I do my best to interact and engage with them as much as possible, because, at the end of the day, all our stepchildren really want is someone to love them.
Even when they don’t make it easy, all we really have to do is try.
*Of Note: Raggedy Ann and Andy have found their permanent, rightful owners, not under circumstance of takesies-backsies, in the arms of my two beloved stepdaughters, Keeks and Kyz.
~names have been changed to protect the innocent~