Becoming theirs: my journey through step-parenting

Merriam Webster defines a stepmother as follows: the wife of one’s parent when distinct from one’s natural or legal mother. I became a stepmother on June 2, 2007. To say my journey has been challenging is an understatement. That goes without saying. I would love to share with you my journey in becoming theirs.

Marrying into a family unit that was formed long before you is a daunting and an utterly terrifying act. Women carry their babies for 9 months before giving birth. I became a mother in the time it takes to say two words; “I do”. When you chose to love a man or woman with children those two words take on a whole new meaning. It is not just your partner that you are vowing to love and cherish. You are committing to loving and cherishing these souls that he brought into the world with another. It is serious. It is an honor. As stepmothers and stepfathers, we are called to sacrificial love with boundaries. We are called to love them purely and wholly. We chose them every day. So how do we do that?

I have been a bonus mama for almost 15 years. While I will never claim to be an expert on any one subject, I do feel confident in telling you that I have some authority on the subject of step-parenting. And I wish I could tell you that I stumbled upon this knowledge because I have been the quintessential portrait of a doting and loving bonus Mom. Unfortunately, we do not gain wisdom by things being easy.

I began this article by telling that you that I was going to share with you my personal journey in mothering another woman’s children. The truth is this story is not just mine. It’s theirs too. And it is to be honored and respected. I had various conversations with my kids about this article and what I was wanting to convey. I asked them two very important quesions, “How did you feel most loved and seen by me?” and “How could I have been better?” I encouraged honesty. Did it scare me a little? Of course it did! I don’t want to find out after almost 15 years my children felt like their life resembled Cinderella’s. Their answers were real and incredibly helpful to me. I think it’s really important that along with hearing from me, you hear from the ones who started this journey to begin with.

Step-parenting is not an ideal situation. Especially for the kids. In a perfect world, which children deserve and yearn for, they envision their Mom and Dad staying together forever. To be there, married, for all of their important days. You must honor and respect this. As much as my kids accepted me with love, it’s not fair that they had to. They did not ask for their parents to get divorced. And they most certainly didn’t chose to gain a new parent. Accept this fact and watch how your kids open their arms to you. Honor them. Communicate with them. Let them know that you understand how unfair it is. I would even go as far as allowing them to feel sad about your marriage to their mother or father. I understand that children thrive when both of their parents are happy and fulfilled. But that does not negate the fact that when their mom or dad move on there is a death of sorts. While you are ecstatic and so happy to begin a new life with this person there are little ones that are mourning. They are mourning the death of their parent’s marriage all over again. They believed in their parents love even when their mother and father couldn’t. They are innocent and their belief in love is astounding and something to be praised and honored. Hold space for them. Be patient. Love them unconditionally. In the space you hold they will heal. Things will shift and the love they learn to believe in is the love you share with their mother or father.

Holding space is something that is crucial in the journey in step-parenting. You must hold space for your children. What does that mean? For me it meant to be patient. Patient with their hearts. I knew they loved me and that they even accepted me. But I was new. I wasn’t their Mom. And truthfully, I never wanted to be. They had a mother who loved them and cared for them like only a mother could. I simply wanted to be a bonus heart in their life who loved them and accepted them for who they were. I wanted to fill in the gaps where their mother and father couldn’t. I wanted to be their safe space. I wanted them to know that they could come to me with anything. I wanted them to know that they would be held and not judged. I just wanted to love them. Holding space also meant honoring the love their mother and father shared. I think this was the hardest part for me personally. But it was the most important facet to this journey.

Loving a man with children is easy. Loving a man who loved another woman? For me, it felt impossible. It was hard. There were dynamics that we were created long before I entered the picture. Learning to understand and respect their journey was very difficult. Finding my place was really hard at first. I wanted to be her friend for the kids. And in the same breath I wanted to punch her. That may be harsh, but I have to be real. This back and forth battle in my mind and body was exhausting. It was causing strain on my own marriage. How stupid! I reminded myself that I chose this love and life. In recognizing my choice I realized I had another choice. So I chose love. I woke up one day and chose to see her for who she was. She was not my husband’s ex-wife. She was my children’s mother. This opened up a special tenderness in me. The love I chose was not for my husband, or even for her, but for my children. I came from a fractured home that was the direct result of a divorce. I did not want my kids to experience the hatred and the rage. I wanted to heal the fracture with this love and create something new. So I made a choice. I chose to honor the love these two souls shared. I saw the mess. I saw the beauty. I honored it all. This recognition and acceptance is the reason why I have the relationship I have with my children to this day. My willingness to accept the love their mother and father shared is the reason why they call me Mom.

I became a mother the day I got married. I continued on my journey of motherhood and gave birth to our daughter almost 13 years ago. I was so excited to bring our daughter into the world. Creating life with a man who already had children brought on a quiet anxiety. I was so excited about this new life growing inside me. I knew we had to tread lightly when we told the kids our news. Tenderness beckoned once again. It called out to me loudly. Their hearts. Their feelings were at the forefront of my mind. Would they feel like they were being replaced? Did they fear that their dad would love this baby more? Would they accept this soul as their sibling? Would I love them the same? Would my love for them change? These thoughts plagued my mind for months. Just as tenderness called out to me, love screamed louder. “Just be. Just allow.” Throughout my pregnancy I included them in whatever they felt comfortable with. They were there the day I gave birth to our daughter, their sister. I will never forget it as long as I live. I was met with the same tenderness that called to me months prior. They loved her. They accepted her. And then something happened that I could never anticipate. As I snuggled my newborn baby I looked at each of them; taking in each of their features, mannerisms, and facial expressions. My love for them did change. It changed drastically. The love I felt for them was visceral. It was primal. I loved them as if I gave birth to them. They weren’t my step-kids; they were my kids. If you find yourself faced with the honor of loving someone else’s children, love them as if they were you own. Fiercely and unapologetically. If you have your own children do NOT show favor. Do NOT make them feel like it’s your “biological” children against them. Meet them where they are at. Remember that just as they didn’t chose to gain a new parent they did not chose to gain another sibling. If you heed any of my advice it this right here. They are children. They are equals. Biological or not. Almost 15 years later I can tell that this thought process is gold. Love these souls as your own. Let them know their value. Tell them what you love most about them. I love each of them for who they are. Each one of them are so unique and vastly different. Their differences and unique nature are what make our family whole. Love them. Honor them. Remember always that they were there before you.

Another really important piece of advice is to enjoy your new family. Make memories with them. While making new memories with them make sure that you honor the memories from their childhood before you. Show an interest in their past. Keep pictures of their mother and father in your home. You won’t miss out on creating new memories with them by allowing them to reminisce on old ones. My kids are adults now and constantly remind me of all the fun times we have had together. It’s so special!

Lastly, and most importantly, be gentle on yourself. These souls do not come with a manual and you will screw up. Count on it. You will make mistakes. A lot of them. Like I stated earlier, wisdom does not come with ease. Own these blunders. Forgive yourself. You are doing the very best you can. Being a bonus Mom is not easy. It can be utterly heartbreaking. Apologize when you mess up. My kids and I have gotten into our fair share of fights over the years. I hate that part. But when they call me for advice or because they drink too many mountain dews and have a full blown bladder infection (I won’t name said child, but they know who they are) and need natural remedies I am reminded that all the energy, love and tears I have invested makes this all WORTH it. I can’t count how many times over the years they have called me to be the voice of reason between their Mom and Dad. They need me. My place in their life is valued. And so is yours.

I have loved these souls for almost 15 years. It feels like a lifetime. Merriam Webster got it all wrong. I may not be their natural mother, but loving them is innate. It’s easy. Even when it’s toilsome. I hope my journey has helped you if you too are a bonus parent. Every family is different. These are the truths I have learned along the way. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been worth it. These souls are mine and after all these years I know for certain that they love me unconditionally. The step-parenting journey is not the term I would use to describe who I am to my kids. I am their parent. I am their Mom. I am theirs. And becoming theirs has been one of the greatest joys of my life.

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