For me, being a parent was incredibly easy, whereas being a stepparent challenged me to grow in ways I didn’t anticipate. My stepchildren demanded that I ‘step’ up and become a better person.
The old adage about being a stepparent is, ”You have all the responsibility and none of the authority.” It was hard!
I could see why so many blended families failed. It was so easy to retreat to one’s respective battling camps – ‘Me and my kids’ versus ‘Him and his kids’!
When I disciplined my biological daughter, I had and ease and a confidence in my parenting skills. We had established a precedent of unconditional love and within that safety net, we had room to play. We understood each other and she trusted that I had her best interest at heart.
When I disciplined my stepkids, there was always someone standing over my shoulder, questioning my motives, judging me, criticizing me. Including myself. Nothing came naturally.
If they ignored me, answered me back, or defied me, it hurt in way that I had never experienced with my own kids. I took it personally.
It was so easy to fall into the stereotypic role of evil stepmother.
Casper’s children called me “Mom” from the get go. I had many conversations with my husband about whether or not this was a good idea. It even became a point of discussion in therapy. I had been in their lives for 12 years and we had sole custody for the past 9 years.
Casper would say, “How can you tell them NOT to call you MOM?” He was right. That sounded awful. I was the day-to-day mom in their lives. Casper reminded me that I was the mom who cooked for them and drove them to school and bought them clothes and put them to bed and made them clean up their rooms and made them pick up dog poop.
I always referred to them as my stepchildren. In my mind, they had a mother, and I never wanted to be accused of usurping her position. I was a mother and I was sensitive to how it would feel if another woman stepped in and tried to take my place. I knew that it had upset her in the past and I tried to respect her wishes.
I didn’t want to admit it, but if I were to be completely honest with myself, this was my excuse and my justification. It kept me safe – safe from making her angry- but also – safe from opening my heart. The truth was that this mindset provided me with an emotional distance. Calling myself a stepparent allowed me to keep them at an arm’s length, a ‘step’ away.
Recently, 2 friends of mine, Michal and Jonathan, called me on my behavior. They both cringed when I used the term “my stepchildren”. Jonathan said, “Don’t call them that. I was a stepchild and I always felt a separation. I always felt like a second-class citizen, an outsider. Stop differentiating.” I tried to defend myself, “I don’t differentiate inside. It’s just that I don’t want to tread on their mother’s toes.” But I knew they were right. It sounded so hollow. I was better than that.
From that moment on, I made a decision to step up. They would all be my children. That was that.
It was no longer relevant that I was differentiating whose children were whose, in order to honor their mother’s needs. I needed to honor their needs. She wasn’t in my life, she wasn’t even in their lives. They were in my life and they were my responsibility. Making them feel completely loved was my responsibility.
They needed a mother to claim them on a daily basis. I couldn’t stall another day, hoping that their biological mother would finally show up at our front door, with her arms wide open, ready to claim her children. They needed to know what it felt to be claimed right now, before it was too late. And, even if I were just a substitute, I would have to do.
So I posted a photograph of Grace and India on Facebook last week with the quotation, “My lovely girls.”
When I showed Grace the caption, I saw a smile spread across her lovely face. A smile that broadcast, “I belong!” And I knew that I had done the right thing.
This is what it means to be a mother. It means to respond to one children’s needs. My claiming them as my children does not mean that I am excluding their biological mother. It means that I am adding myself to a pool of mothers who are at their disposal.
I hope that one day, their birth mother will be able to look deep into her heart, and see that her children needed a mother who was there for her children on a daily basis, a mother who was willing to provide their daily basic needs.
In Cappy and Grace’s case, two mothers are better than one!
By always calling me “Mom”, Casper’s children opened their hearts to me and gave me an invitation to live by a philosophy of inclusion. They always knew what they needed from me and they patiently waited until I was ready to embrace them. My only regret is that it took me so many years to respond as lovingly.