by Natalie Christensen
Billions of words are written each day about motherhood, yet it seems not a peep is uttered about step-motherhood. Perhaps the subject is too loaded. Perhaps too many delicate toes will be squished if anyone is truly honest. Perhaps the Disney tales of wickedness keep us hiding in the shadows, too afraid of being associated with horror stories, to share our own.
My stepchildren made me a mother.
I came into their lives when they were babies—two tiny, smiling, delightful, more precious than I could handle, girls. I entered their world gradually, little by little spending time with them as a family, little by little earning their trust and friendship. But my heart didn’t walk slowly. There was no “little by little” for my emotions, these fell off a cliff of devotion in one rapid plunge.
I adored those girls, immediately.
As I gradually got the green light, both from the girls and (more slowly) my partner—permission to enter and belong to their inner sanctum—my role blossomed. I was generously invited to the private parties of naptimes, diaper changes, bedtimes, meals, and baths. Eventually we all lived together, making teeny bowls of macaroni and cheese in an even teenier kitchen, reading stacks of library books under glow-in-the-dark stars.
I was a parent and I was so happy.
If only this world, the realm of joining families, were as straightforward as that—loving children and making macaroni, but of course it isn’t. For starters, each of these girls already had a mother. As deep as I dove into their lives, I wasn’t their mom. Sometimes I fought desperately with myself against this truth. How could I love this much, with my heart cracked this far open, without being their mother? Other times, a couple years in, when the girls were old enough, they’d be sure to help clarify. If anyone referred to me as their “mom”—a lady at the checkout stand, the winter boots salesman, the other parents at the park—my little charge would bluntly declare: SHE’S NOT MY MOM. And only occasionally add the epithet: She’s my Nallie. Sometimes they’d even remind me of the distinction. Snuggled in my arms, wrapped up in a big towel after a cozy bath, one would gently caress my cheek and sweetly say: But you’re not my REAL mom.
As if I’d forgotten.
I do remember sometimes that my very presence in their lives could be seen as indicative of a loss—the union of their parents. These girls could love me to the moon, (they do love me to the moon), and still wish for their mom and their dad to be together. In the early years they’d describe their desire to all live under the same roof. All the parents, step and otherwise, cohabitating as one. Over ten years later, with a firmer understanding of the situation, I’m not sure what they wish for, but I know it’s not in the least bit straightforward, certainly more complex than mac and cheese and glow-in-the-dark stars.
To say it’s tricky is an understatement.
My job as I understand it, is to love them fully and completely, fiercely with sincere devotion, as though I am their actual mother, while simultaneously remembering, not forgetting for even a second, that I am indeed NOT their actual mother. To walk this line without wavering, to hold this strenuously open pose, muscles aching, every day, every year, every decade, is the way to love them best, and to deserve their sacred trust.
But to love as though I am their actual mother is to be in it every day, in the hair brushing struggles, in the sibling squabbles, in the emotional fallout, in all the sticky mess that parenthood brings, and that mess is not without it’s triggers. I remember in the early days, helping the three year old in a public bathroom stall. I was newly pregnant, easily nauseous, flaring with heat flashes. The three year old needed the toilet paper folded just so, a lengthy interlude in order to complete her business, and a seemingly inordinate amount of help to get her undies and tights all in order, (of course chastising me about doing it wrong every step of the way), and all while the establishment’s security alarm was blaring at full tilt.
I wanted to die.
I wanted to storm out to my partner and complain about this situation, to point fingers and freak out. I know I cried. I know I shared my experience. I know he offered empathy but I also know that I never forgot that I chose this role—I asked to join his family. I never forgot that my relationship with my lover was entirely contingent on the healthy relationship I formed with his children. One did not come without the other.
No parent welcomes even slight criticism of their child by an outsider, no matter how unreasonable said child may present themselves with regard to twisted tights, and no matter how incorporated or loving or devoted said outsider may be. Years later my partner and I discuss the kids like any set of parents do, analyzing the ins and outs of each psyche—they are simply “the kids”—but he will always be protective of “his” girls. He should always be protective. His girls should always come before me. I wouldn’t hold him in esteem if they didn’t. I wouldn’t want him as a partner or as the father of our daughter if they didn’t.
At times good step-mothering can feel like a rather tight box.
- Dive headlong, love completely, intensely, wildly, but never overstep.
- Struggle in the trenches of parenthood, but never point fingers.
- Perhaps give birth to your own children, but love all equally.
Staying within the box of a good stepmother requires incredible strength, stamina, emotional health, and flexibility. Yet, difficult as it may be, I wholeheartedly support the confines of the box. I approve of each pillar in its construction.
Never overstep. I am not the mother. This is true and I don’t want to take motherhood away from anyone. Nor do I want to strip any child of their mother. I don’t deserve that capability no matter how well I love and care for these girls.
Never point fingers. If the tables were turned and each week I had to send my daughter off to a house across town with a woman I didn’t know at the helm, you better believe I wouldn’t want her pointing fingers at my girl. Children are feisty, complicated little beings, but whatever they may be struggling with, it is a matter of circumstance, not personal constitution.
Love all equally. Those special motherly touches—the sweet smile, the tender kiss on the forehead—that come so easily when biology and hormones are on your side, are precisely the little touches that my stepchildren need, that they are missing when in my sole presence, without their mom or dad. To maintain their beloved trust, to help them feel secure and important in this world, I owe them my most motherly self.
It isn’t easy. No form of parenthood is. But I remind myself that I picked them and they picked me. They are reading the Hunger Games and the Twilight series now—we’ve traveled a long way from The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Go, Dog, Go!. We seldom eat mac and cheese, and only our youngest, their little sister, enjoys a full set of glow–in-the-dark stars. But they still need me. They need me to love them fully and unconditionally, while still staying within my boundaries.
They are my people and I love them so.
Writer & parenting mentor
Natalie Christensen is a writer, illustrator, and mother living in Missoula, Montana. She is co-creator of Feeleez, a line of tools that support the emotional development of children. She offers life + parenting coaching and on most days can be found on the banks of the Clark Fork river with her family and her yellow dog.
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