I became a stepmom way before I became a mom. Being a stepmom is an extraordinary blessing, but it is also extremely hard. It is by far the most challenging relationship of my life, the one that teaches me a significant amount of life lessons each day, and the one that causes me the most stress and frustration.
From the very beginning, dating my future husband was a package deal: He came with a child. I accepted her as part of our relationship and, over time, fell in love with her. Through this experience I realized the meaning of unconditional love. I was forced to throw away my longtime, incorrect notion that the love between a parent and a child is biological — it is not. Let me repeat that: A parent-child love is not biological.
Step-parenting teaches you to love a child who has no genetic input from you, doesn’t act like you do, and doesn’t necessarily have your value system. Step-parenting is loving this child as your own while being constantly reminded that she is not. It is wanting so much to be able to influence her choices, all while understanding that you have a very limited time to do so. It is accepting the decisions her biological mom makes for her, even though you completely disagree with them. It is trying to establish some kind of normalcy while only seeing the child every other weekend. It is also coming to terms with the stark reality that anything you promote during your weekend can and will be wiped away in the two weeks you don’t see her.
It’s trying to build memories during the few visits you have, and facing disappointment for not being able to establish traditions due to the inconsistent nature of her visitation schedule. It’s being excited for a vacation with her that doesn’t happen because of something silly, like she came down with the sniffles. It is the sadness you feel when she misses a special occasion for which she should be present. But it’s also the opportunity to make special plans for the weekends you do have her and giving her the undivided attention that you missed in the two weeks prior.
It is keeping your mouth shut when she wants to vent about her mom, because it’s not your place to tell her how you really feel. It is also trying to gently correct any misinformation she has been told about her dad, and do it in a way that doesn’t make her feel uncomfortable or pressured to pick sides. And it’s an opportunity to focus on the positives and not get caught up in a negative trap.
It is coming to terms with the fact that the law is not on your side, and that your rights cannot be enforced. It’s accepting the fact that unfair cards were dealt to your husband in his divorce, by losing the child he never wanted to lose, and not being able to parent her the way he should. It is also feeling incredibly blessed that you have biological children that give him an opportunity to be the dad he always wanted to be, and finding special joy in the laughter you hear when they wrestle each other on the floor.
It’s understanding that you cannot afford to make mistakes with her the way you would with your biological children. Your mistakes will be scrutinized, held to unreasonable standards, and have very harsh consequences. It is also an opportunity to be the best parent you can be for those 48 hours you do see her.
It’s feeling true heartbreak during the two years we didn’t get to see her, a pain that couldn’t have been any greater had I lost my biological child. It is standing by your husband as he is trying to rebuild a relationship he lost, and supporting his decisions whether you agree with them or not. It is watching him struggle with investing in this relationship time and again, only to be heartbroken and exhausted. It’s watching him give up, then pick himself up again and put on a happy face. It is also treasuring the small moments when she lets her guard down and laughs with him.
It’s explaining to your biological children why they can’t see their sister as often as they’d like. It’s covering up for her when her visitation gets cut short. But it’s also watching the excitement on their faces as she walks through the door for her visit. It’s chuckling as you watch all of them talk over each other, telling her the most exciting thing that’s recently happened to them.
It is choosing to love her, despite all the obstacles that this circumstance has put in your way. It is choosing to see her as a part of your family even though she is mostly never there. It is hoping that the little time you see her will leave a lasting impression, and some day she will appreciate the value you had in her life, but not necessarily expecting that to happen. It is choosing to love her with all your heart, no matter what.