I became a parent by straightening a bathroom towel

Guest post by Robyn Ryle
hanging out

For non-biological parents like myself, it’s sometimes hard to identify the first moment when you truly become a parent. There probably won’t be balloons or greeting cards or cigars. You might not even notice it yourself until days or weeks or even years afterwards. For me, perhaps it was the first time I straightened my stepdaughter’s bathroom towel.

In my mid-thirties I fell in love with the recently divorced father of a then five-year-old daughter. It was not what I grew up thinking of as the “normal” way to enter into marriage and parenthood, but perhaps any other way would have been too terrifying for me. I’ve never been much for following the “normal” paths carved out by society, so maybe backing into parenthood was the only way for me.

“What do you want your role to be?” my future life partner asked me as we were laying the groundwork for what we referred to as the “merger” — moving in together and then getting married. “Oh, I want to be her parent, you know,” I casually replied. “And everything that means.”

I imagine this as the moment when we were poised at the top of the first hill on a roller coaster, only we have no idea that we are, in fact, about to plunge down the other side. I had some intuitive sense that this was not going to be easy. What I didn’t know was that this would be the hardest thing I had ever done.

My friends who are biological moms tell me that even when their child is doing the most annoying thing possible — fill in the blank here for yourself — they can still picture them when they were at their cutest and most helpless. They have that powerful bank of memories in their head to draw on — their child as a newborn with the big eyes and large head that are supposed to instinctively draw on all our deepest needs to nurture and protect. What do you have when you’re not a biological parent and you’re entering the picture at a considerably later phase in the game? How do you come to love a child in the way that parents love their children when you missed much of that complete helplessness and dependency — when you’re late to the party, so to speak?

Being plunged into both parenting and partner-hood in one fell swoop, there was a lot of general irritation at all the control over my space which I had suddenly lost.

Being plunged into both parenting and partner-hood in one fell swoop, there was a lot of general irritation at all the control over my space which I had suddenly lost. And much consternation at all the things a small child is incapable of doing for herself. I don’t remember the first time I walked into the bathroom and saw her towel, which was bunched over the towel rack in a contorted heap that would never successfully dry. “Should I call her back in and give a much resented lesson in how to properly hang a towel over the rack?” I thought to myself. “Or should I just straighten out the towel myself?” I opted for the latter, and who can say now why? Exhaustion? Resignation? Compassion? Love?

In the early days of learning to parent, I remember asking my own mother, “When do they say thank you?” I knew the answer, having just thanked her for the first time ever for not killing me before I reached puberty. “You don’t do it because you want to be thanked,” she had said, which seemed in the moment like a deeply unsatisfactory answer. Now, it just seems like the truth of the matter.

Does my stepdaughter ever even notice that the towel gets magically straightened? I have no idea, but the chances of her thanking me for it are slim, and my mother was right. It’s not the point. Is it important that the towel be straightened? Well, it certainly increases the chances that she actually gets a dry towel next time, but who knows if she even notices whether or not her towel is dry? It makes me feel better about the state of the bathroom and in the grand scheme of parenting, that is not something to be taken lightly.

Here’s what’s really important about the straightening of the towel. It’s a small thing that I do for my stepdaughter without being asked and without being acknowledged, and so it is a small act of love. And this, for me, is how you become a parent. Parenting is a constant flow of acts, some of them large and some of them small, but which all add up to the care of another human being.

You become a parent by getting up at 6:30 in the morning to get your child to school, by making sure she wears her hat when it’s cold, by carrying mints in your purse for when she gets carsick, by listening to a rather long recitation of the plot of an episode of iCarly, and often by simply being there in a thousand other, fairly mundane, ways. Loving a child is an everyday thing, regardless of whether they happen to be cute and cuddly while you are doing it and regardless of whether they are biologically related to you or not.

Caring for a child in all these ways is loving a child, and this, for me, is how you become a parent. You become a parent by straightening the bathroom towel, and remembering that sometimes actually makes it a pleasurable thing to do.

Comments on I became a parent by straightening a bathroom towel

  1. Beautiful, thank you! My husband just entered into a similar situation. He moved in with me and my then 4-year-old daughter almost 2 years ago. He is now the stay-at-home parent to her and our on the way daughter to be born in a week or two.

    Every day he calls frustrated or excited about something she’s done. Sometimes I have to remind him she’s 6 and not capable of these things he wants from her, sometimes I have to realize he doesn’t have that “powerful bank of memories in their head to draw on” as you said.

    I never really thought about it that way, thank you for the lesson. As the biological parent it can be hard to watch the step-parent struggle with that relationship, but it’s oh-so-rewarding when she holds his hand, or he sighs and says “Man I love that kid!”

    • So glad it helped, Jernni. I think all parents are often coming from different places due to their own backgrounds, personalities, etc. But it’s especially true with step-parents, as you often haven’t shared all the years of parenting that came before. It’s good to remember that from time to time and focus on all the parenting memories you’re building together.

  2. as an adult who doesn’t hang a towel straight and just stuffs it on the towel rack i can say, it really means nothing to the person who uses the towel if they don’t do it themselves.

    so i find it interesting that someone would relate it to showing love for someone.

    but i do agree being a not biological relative of any kind is very different, and how we show or declare our love for those kids is both the same and different than their biological ones. in big acts or small ones.

    • Thanks, metal-otaku. I think many of the things we do for the people we love might not mean much to them, but doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t mean something to the person who’s doing them.

  3. This can be especially true for adoptive parents, starting out not with a newborn but a neglected and angry school aged child. Even when you don’t have those first few years as a memory, the memories you build by simply sharing the same space and needing each other allows for the same bond. It starts out with crumply towels and pockets full of hair bands and ends up with a feeling of belonging and responsibility

    • So true, Miss Miaw. Older children don’t have that absolute dependency that newborns do, and sometimes they’d rather do anything than admit that they need you as a parent. But they still do, even when they are angry and especially when they’re neglected. Thanks for commenting!

  4. What a beautiful post.
    I always felt that it’s all of the small things that show our love (sort of like how the small things can sometimes break a person or a relationship too). It’s not buying a bunch of presents for birthdays or holidays or the vacations or the other extraordinary days or moments.
    When I flick the hair out of my son’s eyes or when I make BBQ wings for my daughter (I don’t like BBQ 🙂 ) or when I place my husband’s dirty socks in a space I know he wants them (instead of hurling them in a corner or leaving them on his chair 🙂 ) I am doing little things that I do for them just because I love them. Thanks are nice and sometimes I feel like I am just aching for a moment of recognition or appreciation but the hair gets flicked, the wings get cooked and the socks get placed because I love those guys.
    And while I feel with every fiber of my being that in the event of something extreme I would protect them, fight for them, stick by their side forever and always I know I don’t have to wait for those major events to show them I care. It’s just going about day to day life and doing things for them without requiring something in return that is the manifestation of my love for them.
    I also would be remiss if I didn’t say that my husband came into the same situation as you but my daughter was older (10 at the time she is now 21). And even though he is not her biological father he is an amazing parent. Sometimes it is the family we construct that is everything. I won’t lie and say that it has been easy (I wish you well through the teenage years) but it is those little things that lay the foundation for a loving relationship.
    I wish your family the best.

    • Thanks so much, Carmen, for the well-wishes and sharing your own happy step-parenting story. When I was jumping into this whole step-parenting thing, I read somewhere that if you can survive the first 5 years, blended marriages have a higher survival rate than non-blended marriages. So here’s to making it to 5 years, though it gets a little easier every day.

      P.S. Egads, the socks! Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one in the family who doesn’t trail socks all over the house!

  5. I had the realization the other day that I may never have that loving bio-child relationship with my 9 year old stepson that I have with my other 2 kids. But the one thing I make sure of is to never show favoritism between my bio kids and stepson. When asked (unless it’s medically necessary to point it out), I have 3 boys. He knows he can always come to me for anything, and he frequently does. He knows I’m going to be more open and honest with him than his bio parents might actually be, and I think he appreciates that.

    I equate it to being that cool aunt dynamic where I’ll tell you things your parents may not tell you and show you cool things, but I know I will never take the place of his actual parents.

    • Thanks for commenting, Tina. I think every step-parent has to figure out for her/himself what their relationship to their step-child will be, and a lot of that depends on what your step-child is comfortable with. I personally think that kids in today’s world can use all the caring adults in their life they can possibly pack in, regardless of whether they’re cool aunts, moms or dads. I know from talking to other friends who have their own biological children AND step-children that often that’s a different dynamic.

  6. “You don’t do it because you want to be thanked.” I have become so wary of outcome-dependent parenting, and that’s coming from someone who obsessed over child development classes because I wanted to get it ‘right.’ I’d add that we don’t do the little tasks of parenting “because it will make them better people” (not always true) or “because they will learn something from it” (again, sometimes), etc. You do it because it feels like the right thing to do, a feeling based on your experience with and connection to your child.

    • I think you’re right, rodrigues. It’s hard for me to imagine any hard and fast rules when it comes to parenting. I think in today’s society, we are maybe a bit too obsessed with outcomes. A friend of mine said that the most basic definition of good parenting is this: If the house was on fire, does your child feel certain that you would get them out? I choose to interpret this as a basic sense that if things are crazy and bad, is there someone who’s there for me. All the rest is window dressing.

  7. I love the step-parenting posts on this site. It’s so hard to find an honest discussion on this topic anywhere.

    For me, the moment happened the first time I was in the carpool line to pick up my (almost official) step-daughter from camp. I had picked up kids I was babysitting before, but this was totally different. It whooshed (for lack of a better word) over me like a wave. 🙂

    • I was surprised, Babra, the first time we dropped my step-daughter off at a week-long, overnight camp. When we picked her up, I felt that kind of “whoosh,” like, wow, I’m kind of teary and I’m not sure why. It must be because I missed her.

      It is so good to find a community of people who are willing to be honest about parenting in general. It helps me a great deal to be able to talk to biological and non-biological parents about how hard this is sometimes.

  8. Lovely article, I’ll definitely be back. I’m a stepmother myself and have written about my own experiences on my site, but they are probably very different to yours. I don’t have my stepdaughter full time. While our experiences seem to be very different the part of this post that really resonated with me was the bank of memories. You’re right, we don’t have that. We weren’t there. And that can leave us viewing things in a very different way.

    Great article.

    • Thanks so much, Tamsin. Certainly every step-parent has their own unique experience, just as, I think, every parent has their own unique experience. We actually don’t have our daughter full time. After several tinkerings with the custody schedule, she’s with us 5 days one week (Monday, Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday) and 2 days the next week (Wednesday, Thursday). I know for a some people, this wouldn’t constitute actual “parenting” as you’re not with your child all the time. But neither are either of my step-daughter’s biological parents. For me, I feel like I have to just accept that this is our particular situation and give up on constantly comparing myself to other families. This is part of what I love about Offbeat Families. Really, what is the “normal” family?

  9. Thanks for your post! I am stepmum to a 7 year old boy (he was 4 when we first met) and I totally agree about not having that bank of memories to drawn upon, although we are slowly building up our own memories together. The first time I felt like his “other mum” was during a holiday period when he had been away from his bio mum for about 10 days and was upset after speaking to her on the phone. He chose my lap to curl up and cry in for comfort & cuddles!! Lately I’ve really started to miss him when he isn’t around – we only have him for 2 days each fortnight plus extra in the school holidays. As for saying thank you – when he does it without prompting it feels so genuine and makes me grin from ear to ear!

    • I remember the first time my step-daughter asked to talk to me on the phone instead of her dad. Her pet hamster had died and she had clearly decided that, being the animal lover I am, I was the right one to go to for comfort and sympathy. It still warms my heart to think about it. It is hard missing them when they’re not with you. Thanks for commenting!

    • Thanks so much, Finnick. I grew up across the river in Kentucky, and we haven’t always had the best view of Hoosiers. There’s some fierce college basketball competition there. It’s a good place to live, but I still won’t be cheering for IU!

  10. I suspect the number of rows I’ve had with the kids making them wear their coats when it’s -2 out is also love. I don’t care if they like me, as long as they are ok and don’t catch cold.

    I think it is tricky when you are presented with two kids that aren’t yours – at the beginning you really want to love them, and try really hard, and at some point that switches over into it actually being true (if you’re lucky!). It is hard though beause if you were presented with another adult and told to love them, if you didn’t, you couldn’t, so I’m very grateful I have grown to love my two as if they were my own. It’s not a foregone conclusion, just because they look cute to start with!

    I felt like an Au Pair for a very long time – responsible for all the day to day stuff but not trusted with decisions (even now, that’s kind of true!), but I think for me I transitioned through a very grey space for a long time over where I fitted (the kids split time evenly between us and their actual mum). I think though these days I hold full parenting cards: I have done hospitals, dentists, first periods, 2am pickups and all the day to day wrangling (including “I don’t care, put your bloody coat on!” which eventually garners a “yes, it is a bit cold today” in the end:) ) – but I have no idea how I got here.

    I’m just very, very glad I did.

    • Helen, you’re so right that it’s not a foregone conclusion, though many people outside the step-parenting bubble seem to assume it is. But in the beginning, how can you love people you barely know? I like your description of a gray period. I think of it as a gradual progress with some periodic setbacks. Maybe that’s what all parenting is like. Maybe that’s what life is like!

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