“Mother is a verb. It’s something you do. Not just who you are.” – Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Nature is my soundtrack this morning. The rain falls gently to the grass, replenishing the morning dew. The birds chip and sing their melodies from the branches of the centuries old trees that surround the property of the Poplar Inn, drenching it in mossy green.
Today is National Stepmother’s Day, a holiday that is not well-known or embraced by the greeting card companies. It is the holiday for those of us who play the role of “mother” without having the motherly rights or having brought the child into the world. We are, in a word, second fiddle. And for the custodial stepmoms (whose husbands have physical custody and assume full-time parenthood), the responsibility is even more daunting and the lines ever more blurring.
You perform the daily rituals of motherhood for your stepchild(ren): getting ready for the day, serving wholesome and healthy breakfast/lunch/dinner, teaching between right and wrong, kissing the boo-boos, walking to the playground, calming the tantrums, reading goodnight books, and smoothing the uneven hairs of life with a smile. And yet, you still are not and will never be, mom. It’s something you knew coming into this world, though you never knew you would become a full-time parent three weeks after your honeymoon (in my case). It’s not something you plan for, but thank goodness you are stable and prepared. What you weren’t prepared for was this feeling of being an outsider, and learning as you read through how-to-stepmother books from years of more experienced women that you should not have expected more. So, Stepmother’s Day.
I thought I would arrive at this day, mystified, daunted, and feeling as much alone as I have felt since I entered this strange world that arrives with no manual to greet you, no time alone as a couple to get to know eachother and build a life together, no nine months to prepare for the role of mother while you learn to love a child that grows inside of you – skip all that. The people who have known you for much of your life either treat you as they would any mom, or cast you aside because they believe you should still ascribe yourself to the same life you lived before and simply shrug off the man you married and his young child, both whom you love deeply. Unless you already know other stepmoms as sounding boards who can understand the awkward role of straddling two different worlds and managing to still find their joy in life, you can feel lost and confused. At least, that has been my experience.
Anyone who knows me, knows I am deeply loyal, a lifelong learner, dedicated, responsible, and caring to a fault. I don’t always know when to let go. I never want to be the bad guy, but I’ve learned that people may not always be as understanding as you’d like. Gaining a family overnight (as some call it, “insta-mom”) forces you to make hard choices fast, including where and how you spend your time. When you move in with a single dad, if you have a heart (and I have a big one), then you do everything you can to become a co-parent in the fast lane. Much to the chagrin of Hollywood who preserves the evil stepmom character, most stepmoms are incredibly loving. Somehow, our society sees stepdads who marry single moms as heroic and stepmoms who marry single dads as evil women plotting against the biological moms. To the contrary, most stepmoms actually wish they had a positive relationship with the “bio-mom,” and for the ones like me who are full time “moms,” we are the ones ensuring the little tykes that Mommy loves them and will see them soon when they are crying out for Mommy (who is not you).
Painful, excruciating, and unexpected…this journey of stepmotherhood. And yet, I have been there to hear some of a little boy’s first words; helped teach him to learn how to use the “potty” for the first time. I know how to make him laugh, and his favorite books and cartoons. I know which playground he always enjoys and his favorite people. I prepare his favorite foods and talk to him about his dreams each morning (horses, or puppies, or kittens!). I sing him songs that make him clap with delight. His smile and laugh light up my world and give me purpose to preserve his joy. I teach him how to assemble puzzles, and though he’s frustrated when I encourage him to try it by himself, eventually I watch him putting it together on his own, and I feel like any proud mother with a desire to help their child develop and have all the opportunities life can afford. I watch my husband play with him and my heart is full.
And so, as I sit on the veranda at this quiet, plush inn on my first “girls weekend” away since I entered stepmomhood, I find myself here not only to celebrate my girl friend’s 40th birthday, but to understand that I’ve turned the page to a different chapter of life. I have struggled watching some close friends slip away, and relished in deepening some of my oldest friendships while baring my worst fears. There are many different faces around me now; but they are loving, good people who see me as I want to be seen and accept me as a wife, mom/stepmom, successful professional – the full package. It doesn’t matter if
someone recognizes me on stepmother’s day or mother’s day, I simply want to be seen for the loving parent and wife that I am by the people in my life. With this group of women with whom I can laugh, cry, and sigh away the ups and downs of life, I am free to be myself, an independent, successful woman who is also a stepmom.
The rain falls harder now, but the grass is strong and resilient. It knows when to bend and yet it roots itself into the soil. It can withstand the rain, the snow, and the sleet, and still returns in bountiful beauty.