When I met and married my husband, the fact that he had two daughters from his first marriage was an asset. I like kids. Kids like me. My mother is also a stepmother, and I am both a stepdaughter and a stepsister. I’ve got a TON of experience at this.
In other words, I was blithely confident that being a stepmother would come naturally.
And I was wrong.
What I learned is that being a stepmother is not even a little bit natural. It can be one of the most complicated and confusing relationships, because there is no clear model to follow.
The most identifiable prototype is the wicked stepmother. From Cinderella to Snow White, it seems as though every fairy tale has this character: The cold, uncaring woman who married the man, and would rather the children didn’t exist. At best, the stereotype of a stepmother is one who doesn’t actively care all that much about the kids; at worst, she actively dislikes them and does her best to alienate them. There are some representations in popular culture that are a little bit more encouraging (Julia Roberts in Stepmom is a good example) but they are few and far between.
The truth is, there are as many different ways to be a stepmother as there are ways to be a mother. The very definition of a stepfamily is intentionally ambiguous, I think — it can describe everything from a family where a parent has partial custody, joint legal custody, or full-time custody. Some stepfamilies have additional biological children added into the mix, some only have the children from a previous relationship some of the time. Some stepmothers have their stepkids with them all the time and assume a much more primary caregiver role, while others only see their stepkids occasionally. Every family is different, and every stepfamily is even more unique because there are so many variables that come into play.
What I got when I married my husband was an instant family, at least some of the time. My stepdaughters were 2 and 4 years old. While my husband has joint legal custody with unlimited visitation, his ex-wife has primary physical custody. We lived in the same town, which was one of the best decisions we made. We got to see them as often as possible, weekend days were spent at the park or playing at our house.
I got pregnant almost immediately, gave birth to our first daughter. We’ve since added two more kids. Which brings me to the first and perhaps most persistent issue: How many children do I have? After almost 17 years together, I still stumble over that question. I’ve given birth to three, but there are clearly five children in my family — five children who are siblings.
But they’ve got an active, involved mother, and I don’t want to usurp her role. And yet, they’re my kids — even if I didn’t give birth to them. They are “my girls,” and I introduce them as such. At least some of the time. Because the reality is that they are also not my kids, in that they have a perfectly good mother already, and they live with her. I’m not their mother; I didn’t take them the doctor, or organize play dates, or make sure they had their mittens in the morning. But I am married to their dad, and the mom of their siblings. I was the parent in charge a lot of the time. I refereed disputes, braided hair, kissed boo boos and made them their favorite desserts. I am their parent, just not their mother. My family has five children, even though only three of them call me mom. See how it’s confusing? It’s complicated and layered and one of those situations where there is no easy answer that works all the time.
My overall philosophy is to treat my stepdaughters they way I’d want my own children to be treated. I try to be respectful of their primary relationship with their mother, while also working hard to reinforce their relationship with their dad. Many of the choices my husband and I made, as parents, were made because his first responsibility was to them. We joined the same synagogue, and sent our children to the same elementary school. We did everything we could to ensure that all of our five of our children know they are a family. There are no “half” siblings — they were, and are, a unit.
My kids, all of five of them, have the best childhood memories of being together: of making perfume out of leaves and flowers and water; coloring on the sidewalk with chalk; racing down our hill on tricycles they had clearly outgrown. They spent hours together at the local science museum, and walked to the park with us every weekend. We had our own table at the local Chinese restaurant. We always have Shabbat dinner together (or we did, before they got all grown up and independent, but that’s a story for another time). Family time at our house is loud and chaotic, and there are few meals where someone doesn’t get furious because everyone’s talking over everyone else.
I’m profoundly lucky, because while I’m sure I’d love them regardless, my stepdaughters are both incredible people. They’re beautiful and smart, and I can’t imagine our lives without them. They are fantastic big sisters, supporting and encouraging my oldest, and embracing the “Cohen girls” identity. They dote on their little brother and sister. One of them is studying writing at college, and I like to think she got that from me. One of them has the same curly hair that I do, and I also like to take credit for the fact that she loves her hair, the bigger, the better.
They’re such a huge part of our family, and I’m so lucky that I fell in love with a guy who had two amazing kids. Because while none of it came naturally to me, my two stepdaughters have added more then they’ll ever know to my life. They’ve coached me on Judaism and planned my daughter’s bat mitzvah party; they cried alongside us when my son was in the hospital, and provided endless hand-me-downs. Being a stepmother isn’t easy, and it doesn’t always feel comfortable, but in the end, I was totally right. My husband’s two daughters from his first marriage were, and are, an incredible asset.