I’ll never forget the day (nearly five years ago now) when The Oldest said, in a tone so like her mother’s snide dismissiveness, “If you didn’t want to be a stepmom, then you shouldn’t have decided to marry a man with kids.”
She was twelve years old, and her father and I had been dating for a couple of years and had only just gotten engaged. On this particular Saturday evening, we were all sitting around the table sharing a Blended Family dinner — me, my then-fiancé, and his four kids. My husband-to-be and I had been joking with each other about the ups and downs of parenting four lively, intelligent children while we tried our best to answer the kids’ questions about how our family would be changing and what marriage meant for a couple like us, already living together and not planning on having any more children.
I can’t even remember what prompted the remark, but suddenly there it was, in stark bold letters a mile high:
“If you didn’t want to be a stepmom, then you shouldn’t have decided to marry a man with kids.”
It hurt. I felt blind-sided. I had no good answer.
I could have said something like, “I wasn’t the one who used an unplanned pregnancy to turn my college boyfriend into an emotional hostage for ten years” or “I wasn’t the one who thought that having as many kids as possible was more important than nurturing my marriage” or “news flash, kiddo: I didn’t fall in love with your dad because he had children” or even just “listen you little snot, the world doesn’t revolve around you.”
I didn’t say any of those things, for obvious reasons. Instead, I sat for a second speechless and nonplussed, and then the conversation moved on.
The conversation always moves on — sometimes all too quickly — when you have four bright kids all leaping at the chance to have their say and their moment to shine. Half of what’s said gets lost in the noise, and half of what needs to be said never gets said at all.
What didn’t get said that night could fill whole libraries. I’ve had a lot of time to think about how I could have replied or should have replied. I still don’t have the right answer. None of my knee-jerk reactions would have really gotten it right. Mostly because none of them do a good job of challenging the fundamental assumption The Oldest made when she leveled her eyes at me and took her best shot. The assumption that my up-coming marriage was first and foremost about them, and not about him and me.
Here’s the thing. I didn’t want to be a stepmom. I don’t know if anybody ever wants to be a stepmom. I’ve never heard of a little girl dreaming about how she’ll grow up and help raise somebody else’s kids, playing second-fiddle to the Real Mom for the rest of her life. It’s not something that you choose, and like so much about step-parenting, you just have to come to terms with that. I didn’t know it then, but I’ve since learned — research into blended families shows that stepmothers have it the worst. Even worse than stepdads or weekend dads. Stepmoms get the most shit and the least amount of appreciation and support; they’re burdened with trying to fight off “wicked stepmother” stereotypes from day one no matter how nice or loving they are, or how perfect they try to be. If the Real Mom is holding onto lingering anger and resentment over the divorce (even if the divorce was her idea), you better believe the kids will side with mom and — consciously or unconsciously — project some of that resentment onto “dad’s new wife.” No matter how wonderful the kids are and how much you love them, when you step into stepmotherhood, you’re stepping into a situation where you have very little control and lots of conflicting expectations and desires. And that’s fucking hard. Who would choose that?
And why did I?
Because I love my husband. Deeply. Astoundingly. He is the most amazing man I’ve ever known. And you don’t walk away from something like that. You don’t turn your back on that kind of love just because it didn’t come with all the fancy matching luggage that you expected, but instead arrived sheepishly on your doorstep with a whole household full of baggage stuffed-to-bursting.
I became a stepmom because I wanted to be a wife, his wife. I wanted to be the loving, committed partner to the man who wanted to be a loving, committed partner to me. And I want to be a wonderful stepmom, because I’m married to a man who deserves a partner who can be a wonderful stepmom to his kids. And I love those damn kids, don’t get me wrong. I love them with a love I never expected and still can’t explain.
But let’s be real: my relationship with my husband is not about them. At the end of the day, the kids are not the center of our marriage.
And if that makes me an Evil Stepmother…. then so be it.