It happened 2 weeks ago over a game of Monopoly Ultimate Banking, which for those of you who are not savvy to the never ending world of Monopoly versions, includes “debit cards” that you swipe, which automatically keep track of your funds. Consumerism at it’s finest. Also included are game cards that you draw, which either enhance your current position, or give you the power to somehow worsen the other player’s position in the game.
My 10-year-old step-daughter drew a card which allowed her to choose another player to both receive $200 from the bank. Since there was only three players at the table, myself, her and her father, the suspense of who she’d choose was immense.
“I choose…..Daddy! because, you know, he’s like closer family”
Now while I assure you, this little human is actually not a complete asshole, throwing daggers into hearts for game, her comment was rebutted by a swift and sharp correction from her father, informing her that her choice justification was not kind or necessary. He has always been so good and so in tune with my need to feel accepted and apart of them. I don’t think I’ve ever verbalized that to him, but I’ve always truly appreciated and admired that from him. Quickly reflecting jabs from a little person has become an acquired skill over the years, so being the totally mature adult that I am, I retaliated by swooping her little game piece to jail with the power of my card that I had drawn, paired with a boastful “HA!”
The innocent comment, while actually technically true, twinged a little inside. I’m not sure why, but I felt embarrassed to be faced with the fact that I don’t share blood with her, or anyone I know quite frankly. I was adopted, my sister was adopted, and so, in my world, the lines of “family” have never been defined by strands of DNA.
I was 19 and she was 3 when we met. It was at a park and we were both wearing obnoxiously bright pink fingernail polish. I was glad she was young, and hopefully naive to my serious uncertainty of the whole “dating someone with a kid” scenario that I had found myself in. As much as she was a baby, so was I. In college, with not much else on my priority list other than trying to be less than 5 minutes late to my 8am classes. 10 years of life separated her father and I, and I had never been so schooled in my life, than within that first year together. Visitation schedules, doctor’s appointments, court orders, figuring out how the hell children’s shoe sizes are determined (still don’t understand how we go from bigger numbers to smaller numbers as they get older) needless to say, a car seat in the back of my Wrangler was an interesting accessory.
But here we are, still standing 7 years later. After some serious debates on whether or not I’d be burned at the stake for hitting publish, I’m putting you in my correctly sized, and brutally honest shoes, sharing some of my most important lessons and experiences I’ve encountered being a stepmom.
Jerry Springer Style
I’ve written almost 600 words at this point and have yet to actually discuss the topic which I’m sure is most interesting to you readers. MOM. Guys, I’ll be the first to shout it from the rooftops, the mom and step-mom dynamic is by no means a fun and easy path, for either parties. You both enter into the situation with an attached stigma, which you are eager and anxious to overcome by means of acceptance. This is probably not what you want to hear, but there is absolutely nothing you can do to change that. No matter how kind, intelligent, accepting, warm & fuzzy mom might be as a person, you are not an automatically accepted member into her world from the get-go. Don’t take it personally, bitch about it endlessly to your girlfriends, because I know you will, but keep your shit together. I laugh when I type this, because I have definitely not taken my own advice in the past, thinking back to the heated text messages and slammed doors that have once stood between mom and I. But take my word for it, that at the very last little tiny-bit end of the day, you must keep that door open just a tiny sliver of a crack for your kid’s sake. The most important and hardest lesson I’ve learned is that your respect for the child’s needs and feelings, must ALWAYS trump your personal feelings towards the other parent. You MUST hold your tongue in front of your kid, and you MUST put on a happy face. Send them inside to play and brawl it out in the yard, jerry springer style if you have to, but don’t ever let them see/hear it. I realize that this is definitely not something you’d read in a sophisticated published “how to step-parent” book, but folks, it’s the truth and we all know it. Things with mom are not perfect, and I’m not writing this to blow smoke up your ass in hopes that we can all sit in a friendship circle singing Kum-ba-ya. Shit will probably get messy with mom, in the yard, over the phone or maybe a court room. Call it being fake, call it whatever the hell you want to, but the fact is that your child is young, and they love and deserve the best from both of their parents. They don’t have the capability or capacity to even remotely understand what might be going on among the adults. There is a time and place for your personal feelings, but I can assure you, that it is never in front of your kid.
The 3 Big A’s
There have been times, while watching Fixer Upper as Jo and her “sweet kiddos” make garden fairy houses out of toothpicks, butterfly kisses and modge-podge and I find my eyes rolling in a clockwise revolution, attempting to negate the questioning of my own parental commitment. Am I doing enough? Am I loving and caring enough? Am I a bad mom? As I’m sure ANY and ALL kinds of moms have questioned their “mommy-worthiness” at some point or another, there is a special kind of doubt that is strictly reserved for stepmoms. I think it’s some real bullshit that Disney has set us up from the get-go that we are these evil step-monsters with horns practically growing out of our heads. So many stigmas and assumptions, and while I know that are plenty of unfortunate and not so great step-mom situations out there, there are also PLENTY of great and awesome ones out there too. I’m not afraid to admit that there is a lot of pressure to be great and awesome all of the time, in hopes that we can break the mold that Disney has so graciously set in stone for us, over and over again. But I’ll tell you what we really want. It’s are what I like to call, the 3 Big A’s: acceptance, acknowledgement and appreciation. We
want need it from our stepchildren, significant other, AND the child’s mother. As bad as it may taste coming out of your mouth, it’s totally normal to want the 3 Big A’s from BOTH of your stepkid’s biological parents. For f*ck’s sake, we are ALL doing our damn well best to aid in keeping these kids alive.
I know that I am lucky and very blessed to be able to say that mom and I actually have a fairly good relationship. It most definitely hasn’t always been this way, we’ve had our go-arounds, but by the grace of God, we got our shit together and it’s actually pretty nice. I remember thinking, at the beginning of my relationship with my boyfriend, that it was so weird and kind of annoying that we’d have to deal with mom forever. All I had ever had to worry about was strategically avoiding my ex’s in the aisles at Walmart, and now this?? This shit sucks! WTF. It took a while for me to wrap my head around, I will tell you, that this is not an optional thing. Mom will always be in the picture somehow, as she should be, so take this as a heads up that you’re going to need to get used to it if you want your relationship with him to last. This is an EASY way to put a wedge in your relationship, fostering frustration and resentment. Understand that this will be a hurdle you will face, in some way at some point. Talk it out and work through it. Don’t let that shit fester. Girl, I get it, you want to be the only significant woman in his life, second to his mother. I can tell you, this is probably not his most favorite situation to be in either. The relationship with mom is unlike any other relationship you’ll have. You might not technically be friends with mom, or you might not actually like mom as a person, but that doesn’t mean shit. You still have to sustain and show some level of respect and acceptance, so it’s not one big miserable and uncomfortable mess at school functions, drop-off/pick-ups or sports games. It most certainly takes time, but I will tell you from almost 7 years of experience, it does get easier and it’s not always so bad.
“Pic Or It Didn’t Happen”
I’ll be the first to admit, there are way more photos of my dogs found on social media, then there are of my step daughter. It’s kind of ironic, the fact that I make a living photographing families and sharing their special moments. But to be honest, I don’t like sharing my personal life, photos and stories with the online world. Of course, I do occasionally share photos, but I’m sure there are those who have questioned if my boyfriend and I are still together because of the lack of images of the 3 of us I share. It’s no secret that there is some serious mom-shaming/judging/comparison that occurs on social media. It’s sad and I do my very best not to fall victim to it…but it’s hard sometimes. I worry that people will think that I’m not invested or interested in all of my kid’s accomplishments and special moments, because I’m not posting pictures of her every other day. Don’t get me wrong, I am totally one of those moms who is constantly taking pictures of my kid doing the most insignificant shit. I firmly believe that life should be well documented and photographed, but I wish some people would understand that there’s a difference between documenting and posting. “Pic or it didn’t happen” is actually not fact. How sad is it, that some people, myself included, worry that the amount of photos we share online, directly indicates and measures our level of interest, commitment and love.
Shit You Say
I really wish that stepmoms would stop saying that they love their step-children like their own. I really do. Not because I doubt the amount of love they feel, but because I think that this has become a buzz phrase, and something we’re expected to say. Like, once we meet this threshold, we’ve crossed the finish line. “I’ve arrived! I’m now worthy!!” I tell my stepdaughter that I love her every single time I’m with her, and I say it, because I truly do. I love her in a way that I love no other being on this earth. It’s a different love than I feel for my boyfriend, mother, father, sisters and friends, so I guess by default, that means I love her like my “own” kid. I do not have any “blood-related children of my own” so technically, I have absolutely nothing to compare or contrast to, AND THAT’S PERFECTLY OKAY. It doesn’t mean I don’t love my daughter enough, and it doesn’t mean you don’t love your stepchildren enough, either. A mother is not strictly blood, and love is not defined by DNA. HEY! I’m giving you permission to accept the fact that the love you feel, or will feel for your stepchild might not instantaneously occur. Just like friendships and relationships take time to develop, we need to give ourselves the grace to allow a genuine connection and relationship to develop, and to NOT feel guilt or shame for that.
Elementary Mean Girls
I realize that there are SO many different family dynamics out there, and I’m so thankful that the idea of “blended” families has become more and more accepted and acknowledged within the school system. I remember the first time my daughter’s teacher sent home two copies of all of the school announcements in her take-home folder, two packets labeled “for mom” and “for dad”. I cried. I was SO incredibly thankful to be included and thought of (thank you Mrs. Walker!! We love you!) I had become fairly involved in all of my daughter’s school stuff fairly early on. I was 20, wearing Uggs and had very blonde hair. I’m sure many of the moms thought I was a contestant for Mtv’s Teen Mom, and none of them ever spoke to me. At school functions, sports games, family days, nothing. Not a word. It felt like high school cattiness all over again….except in the elementary halls. That hurt me. It was clear I was not her “real” mom and I was treated as such. Since then, I’ve put some lowlights in, still wear Uggs and give a whole lot less of a shit, if we’re being honest.
Pick Your Battles
**spoiler alert** you’re most definitely not going to agree with everything that occurs at mom’s house. Rules, morals, bedtimes, clothing, food, anything and everything. From a seasoned veteran, who used to dwell and stress over every inconsistency that I saw/felt from mom’s place, that shit is not worth it. You don’t want a battle at every pick-up. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t worry about your kid, and it’s only natural to want the best for them and their wellbeing, but a different brand of laundry soap, or an alternate bedtime isn’t going to kill ’em. While I certainly believe that there are times and scenarios that should absolutely be addressed, most likely they are few and far in between. If you are concerned for the child’s safety, health or mental wellbeing, it should definitely be addressed. If not, just go on your merry way, and bitch about it in private to your mom or girlfriends. Keep your sanity and keep the peace. Chances are, the kid probably doesn’t even know the difference, and probably wouldn’t give a shit anyways.
Mom and I make the effort to occasionally to do things together with our daughter, which is usually a big shopping trip to BJ’s, which is a wholesale grocery store like Sam’s Club. I’m sure it’s no secret that we wouldn’t have been each other’s first pick as a shopping buddy, but we do it FOR and BECAUSE of our daughter. She was happier than a pig in shit because she got to hang out with BOTH of her moms at once, and do you really think she cared which mom was putting organic veggie chips in her cart, while the other put Cheetos in hers? NOPE. These shopping trips always put things into perspective for me. All of the little and insignificant hiccups that I may face on this stepmom journey really don’t mean a damn thing, compared to seeing how happy my daughter was running up and down the aisles, throwing shit in both carts, trying all of the food samples BJ’s had to offer.
Baby No-So Fever
I will be the first to tell you that I am not exactly a “kid person.” I don’t want to hold your baby, and being a mommy when I grew up was never my aspiration on career day. I’ll be honest, from a very young age, I always been unsure if I wanted kids, and to be totally honest, I am still a little uncertain if I would want a baby. But I couldn’t imagine my life without my stepdaughter, and I wouldn’t want to either. There is most certainly a love and a void that is filled by having a child in your life, no doubt. But can I not be burned at the stake for saying that I also enjoy the “no-kid” days?! Let’s be honest, “real” moms talk all the time about how they need a break, or some “mommy-time” (rightfully, so) but when’s the last time you saw a stepmom posting about how she can’t wait for drop off time, so she can sit her ass in some peace and quiet and binge-watch the Kardashians while eating brownies ALL BY HER DAMN SELF?! Why has it become so wrong for us to admit or succumb to the fact that sometimes we enjoy our time away from not just our stepchildren, but kids IN GENERAL? If the pack needs a leader, here I am, giving out baby fever immunizations and admitting that yes! God forbid! There are times when I’m watching that damn clock, ready to be kid-free for a little while! Admitting the fact that even by having a stepdaughter in my life for almost 7 years hasn’t tipped the scale one way or another on my decision to bring life into this world, does NOT mean that I don’t love and enjoy my time with my daughter. In my situation, we are blessed to be able to have my stepdaughter with us half of the week, every week, so her time is dived up pretty well between mom’s house and dad’s house, which I know is awesome for all of us. But no matter the situation, there is NOTHING wrong with still enjoying the time when you’re not with your children, biological or not, and there is certainly nothing wrong with you if you’re unsure if you even want to have kids!! (PREACH!)
How I Got My Name
One of the things I love most about my boyfriend is what an amazing dad he is. To say that he has set the bar high on the dad scale would be an understatement. I have always been very close to my dad, so this ranks pretty high on my list. He has always been incredibly involved in every aspect, no matter how difficult the situation was. From the very beginning, he was always a dad first. Which, I’ll admit, was kind of an annoyance when he didn’t have the freedom to hang out or do just things whenever. We don’t always see eye-to-eye when parenting my stepdaughter. We disagree and sometimes alternate “good cop, bad cop”. I have always been so thankful that he has never pushed me to be “mommy”, but has always made me feel loved and accepted as a family of 3. I remember when my stepdaughter first referred to me as her stepmom. From the beginning, I have ALWAYS just been Cristina. Absolutely no labels, no “right” names or corrections. Quite frankly, I don’t believe in coaching your stepchildren to call you a certain name or title, no matter the age. Her father and I actually aren’t married, so technically, I’m not her stepmom, just for reference. She was introducing me to her friends at school and casually said “this is my stepmom Cristina. She likes owls, that’s why she bought me this shirt” (her shirt had an owl on it, obviously) I beamed inside and fought back tears. I had never referred to myself as her stepmom. I thought that it should be something she should do if/when she was ready or felt the need to. I had also never referred to her as my stepdaughter in front of her, before this day, because I didn’t want her to feel obligated or inclined to call me by a certain title. It wasn’t the title she put in front of my name that got me, but it was the fact that she felt that I was her stepmom. “Stepmom” isn’t a title or preface, it’s a feeling and it’s a relationship. Even 7 years later, I cry every single mother’s day when she brings me a card or craft she made at school. I love that she feels and cares for me as a mother figure, and takes time to let me know she’s thinking of me. I’ll take that over any shitty Monopoly game card any day.
The End (finally)
If you’ve reached the end of this (very) long post, thank you. Thank you for being the ears and eyes to everything that I’ve been itching to share. This is certainly not my most polished post, but I hope that somewhere in there, it made any and all kinds of moms smile. I ask that you are kind, and to remember this post next time you’re scrolling someone’s Facebook newsfeed or Instagram roll. I am sharing some of my deepest thoughts, stories and feelings that I never thought I’d share publicly, in hopes that it reaches someone who needs it. Being a step-parent is not always an easy task, but from one Cheeto stepmom to another, know that you ARE doing a good job, and you ARE a GREAT mom.