Eight years ago I became a stepmother to two kids. We share their care with their biological mother — they’re half with us, half with her. At the time, my step-son was eight and my step-daughter was four.
My husband and I got married in 2006, and one of the main reasons we both decided to get formally married was the kids. It meant a lot to both of us that they know we were committed to each other as a family. While we both firmly believe that being married isn’t the only way to show commitment, it’s what we wanted to do. I made vows to the children, to always respect them and love them, and I gave the kids a special necklace each as part of the ceremony. For our “honeymoon” we took the kids to Sydney (Australia) and went to the zoo. I gave birth to our daughter in 2008.
Step-parenting has by turns been the most awesome and the hardest shit I’ve done in my life — it is second only to having my “own” child. Here are a few of my positive (and negative) experiences:
Why step-parenting can be hard
- You are there for an awful lot of firsts, lasts, and emergencies, but aren’t high on anyone’s list to congratulate, feel for, or generally admire as awesome.
- Sometimes, people can be unkind.
- You’re in-between all the time. It is a liminal state, both being a “step” and not a “real” parent, and only having the kids half or most of the time. We are always waiting — waiting for the kids to arrive, to leave, to be told things, to get informed, to get on with it. And I will forever be waiting to transition from “just” being their stepmother.
- You don’t get as much say, or, as we call it round our place, “hand.” The real parents have the hand. You have maybe a couple of fingers. Maybe. This isn’t a power struggle thing, or a “real” parents are arseholes thing. It is what it is. The longer I’m with the family, the less this is an issue (my theory is that I am gradually growing more hand), but it hurt a few times in the early years. And your hand will never be as definitive as the real parent’s hand. Or recognised at all, legally speaking.
You will probably never be totally and completely comfortable calling your stepchildren “my kids” or “my daughter” or “my son.”
- No one, and no institution, will EVER ask you to something, have a “day” for you, send you shit in the mail, inform you of things, or, on occasion, be entirely sure you are allowed to pick up the kids from school. When your stepdaughter’s teachers are just wonderful, they will get her to make you a mother’s day card, which makes you cry.
- You will probably never be totally and completely comfortable calling your stepchildren “my kids” or “my daughter” or “my son.” No matter how okay they may be with that, or who you are talking to, you may always feel a twinge of dishonesty about it.
- The word “stepchildren” is insufficient. For example, I had a stepmother for a time, when my biological father married a third time, who I scarcely even knew! She could call me her “stepdaughter.” Referring to my husband’s daughter as my “stepdaughter” is several degrees of magnitude more my “daughter” than I even was to this woman. I know, this is the case with just regular old “mother” and “father” too, but that added step… some days it chaps my hide.
- You always and forever have to live with your partner’s history — and their ex. This is especially the case when your stepdaughter is high needs disabled and will never be independent. Just think on that for a moment. That is a shitload of time to be handling your partner’s ex. Their life “before.” In our case, it affects where we live (schools), what work we can take (no interstate or overseas — custody issues), our travel (see above), our money (don’t ask), our time, our plans. Everything. Forever.
…but here’s why step-parenting is awesome
- You get kids. For free!
- You generally miss a whole lotta hard years, though of course this isn’t the case for some. But generally, you get to miss the sleep deprived newborn and interesting toddler phases. Which of course does make me sad sometimes, but also… once has frankly been quite enough, thank you!
- Again: you get kids! You get a part in a whole person’s life, being there for them, being a part of who they become. Anytime you get an opportunity to do that for a person, it’s a privilege.
- You get love. Sometimes it’s teenaged monosyllabic love, but sometimes it’s squeal with delight on seeing you love.
- You get a family. There are no real words for that kind of awesome.
- Your kids get a family. The relationship my step-children and our daughter, Lolly, share has been a joy to me, and to her. It’s very, very special.
I have, as you can tell, a lot to say about this stuff. I know my “hard” list is longer than my “awesome” list. But the awesome stuff is just qualitatively more excellent, and outweighs the negatives — what it comes down to is this is your family. Full stop.