Last year, I did something very terrifying: I began dating a man with a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter.
Naturally, one doesn’t spend a lot of thought on “the other woman” on the very first date with a single parent. But as our conversations deepened and our relationship evolved in that first month, I found that I was thinking about my boyfriend’s daughter an awful lot. I thought about what our first meeting would be like, when it should take place, where it should take place — what kind of entertainment should I bring, how should I do my hair. Should I dress pretty and expect to play princess, or dress in outdoor clothes and expect to get muddy?
I found, to my horror, I was putting more effort into my first “date” with her than I had with her father.
My boyfriend shrugged his shoulders at my anxiety, saying that, to his daughter, I would “just be another friend.” He didn’t understand that I didn’t want to be “just another friend,” and he took it as a rejection when I suggested that maybe we postpone my meeting with the child until she was a little older and I had more time to decide on that perfect first-date outfit. So, for his sake — and because I was dying with anticipation — I took the plunge and met her.
She was funny, she was smart, and a great conversationalist. She also wasn’t potty-trained yet, had tantrums and was a picky eater. She also had an obsession with being the princess, the baby, and the one whose birthday it was every single time she saw so much as a cupcake. She was a toddler… and I was in love.
Now I had to start thinking about being a step-mom. What kind of step-mom would I be? Would she call me by my first name? Would I have her in my wedding? When could I meet her mother and how much of the stuff that I’ve been saving to give to my future children should I set aside for her?
I was shocked to find that I wanted to be a step-mom almost more than I wanted to be a biological mom. I realize that step-moms get a bum rap as antagonists in all the best fairy tales. I also realize that blended families in modern America actually try to avoid the word entirely because of its negative associations (inventing friendlier names for step-moms like like “Bonus Mom” or “Mommy [First Name]”). I realize that I will never actually be her mother, even if it’s a role I sometimes play when she needs me to. I realize that as excited as I am to be her step-mom, my boyfriend’s daughter has a lot of people in her life that might be less than excited about the prospect. I realize that parenting — step, or otherwise — is a constant challenge with as much joy as there is sorrow and that you can’t just walk away from that kind of commitment once it’s made.
But to me, step-mom-hood was the chance to bring all my offbeat awesome to the table to share with someone who didn’t have to love me because of some biological tie. If she loved me, it’s because I was me, not because I was her mom. I earned her affection and I earned her respect through months of “dating” where I shared myself with her — from museum trips to visit couture dresses to dramatic re-tellings of DC Comics classics — and let her share her developing self with me. I also did the ugly “parent” things like time-outs, dealing with all-night tantrums, and holding her hair out of her face while she puked. And the first time she told me she loved me — six months after she and I started dating and eight months after her father and I started dating — I felt like someone had asked me to marry them.
I wish this story had a happy ending where her dad did ask me to marry him and I got to meet him and my stepdaughter at the altar. I wish I could tell you that she and I won over all the skeptics in her family with our bond. But our story is still being written — and as it happens, it has a few cliffhanger chapters in it. I now know for a fact, though, that the “stepmom” label suits me no matter what cultural stigmas are attached to it. I know that being an “offbeat stepmom” is as natural to me as breathing — and that there are step-children-to-be out there who will accept me as I am.