We all know a step-mom. We may have had one, are one, or are friends with one. Growing up, I can honestly say I didn’t know many blended families and I didn’t know many step-parents. My best friend had a step-dad and my cousins came from a blended family with a step-dad, step-mom and step-siblings. My “exposure” to that role was extremely limited. My parents had a relationship that was #relationshipgoals before there was a hashtag trend, and all my aunts and uncles (but one) were happily married. I was married to my high school boyfriend in 2012 after being together for 10 years so, a blended family was so far removed from what I ever believed could be a possibility for my life. Fast forward to 2013 when I left my ex-husband, and realized meeting someone with children could be a real possibility for my life and I prepared for that, but let me tell you how unprepared I was despite my open-mindedness and belief that I was ready.
I met my now fiancé in 2015. He was just out of his long term-relationship of 16 years and as much as I tried to push away from that relationship it was a force beyond my ability to run away from. We had so much in common. Our dads had just passed away that year, we both married our spouses on our 10-year anniversaries, both had a destination wedding, both of our dads had been out of work for a large chunk of our childhoods and we both went to French Immersion until grade 8 when we both dropped out. The similarities in our paths were a little “freaky” to the both of us. It was as if we didn’t need to fill each other in about where we had been because we had traveled the same roads that ultimately led us to each other. The only thing that made us different was that I came into the relationship with no children and no connection to my ex-husband. However, he came with three children (ages 16, 9 and 4 at the time) and an ex-wife who would forever be in our lives until the kids turned 18. I was 27, free as a bird, eager to start my life over and met him; totally perfect in every way. What also made him perfect was how amazing he was as a father.
Our relationship was easy-going and carefree but, as we realized this was more than just a “fling” the idea of meeting the kids crept up into every thought I had. I was so young and knew no one my age that was a step-parent and I didn’t really know anyone in my family who I could reach out to. The only solution I came up with was to read as many step-parenting books that I could (which by the way is very limited). I learned that the way to a kid’s heart was to engage in what they liked to do. I read that you shouldn’t put pressure on kids by saying that you love them first, rather let them say it when they’re ready. What these stupid books didn’t prepare me for was that I would fall in love with each of the kids at different times. That no matter what I did, I felt I was replaceable and dispensable. That I felt I was under a microscope by my fiancé, the kids and the bio-mom. I couldn’t have been prepared for the fact that the bio-mom would tell people lies about me because the pain of her broken marriage was too much for her and she needed to displace the anger to preserve her ego. I could have never been prepared for the fact that I would give every bit of my money, heart, mind, time, energy and resources to people who would never love me the way that I loved them.
Parenting is the hardest job on the planet! I work with parents of children with special needs so the majority of my conversations have always been around how freaking hard this responsibility is. I have witnessed parents fall to their knees in desperation for their children to listen to them. However, the one thing that I was always able to do as a professional is reassure the parent of the attachment that they had with their children, the unconditional love that they had and the way that their child would look at them with the purest form of love and connection. While I was doing all the daily things that parents do every day, pouring every ounce of myself into these little people, I got very minimal back from them initially. The kids would start a conversation and say “Dad…..” which was hard because I always felt excluded. The kids would get in the car and say “Hi Dad” which made me feel like I didn’t exist. I felt unable to make rules in my house and relied on my fiancé to do that. I felt unable to express my feelings to the kids because a book told me not to. It was so hard for me to be myself because I was worried it would be judged, not enough, made fun of, or unaccepted by them.
The world every day reminded me of my insignificance in their lives. Pampers commercials had little sayings that reminded me that I would never bond with a baby; the purest form of love. Instagram and Facebook would remind me in an overabundance of quotes that a child would never love anything more than their mother and that a mother was the most important role in a child’s life. The kids were a constant reminder that my fiancé had already done the “family thing” with someone else, which was so hard for me when that’s all I ever dreamed of for my life. It was forced in my brain (probably through my insecurities) that I wouldn’t be important to these kids. I felt as though my fiancé and the bio-mom could make mistakes over and over again and the children would forgive their shortcomings and wrong-doings and the kids would love them anyways, but even the smallest infraction could completely destroy or set-back my relationship with each of them. The pressure was real, guys!!!!
At that point in my life, I had never experienced being in a relationship with someone where I wasn’t the most important thing to them and now, here I was, in a relationship where I was on the bottom of the totem pole. At the beginning of my relationship with my fiancé, we struggled big time. The kids were his entire life and I think he struggled to understand why I didn’t feel the same way he did, and I struggled to understand why I wasn’t the centre of his universe. It took a while for us to understand each other’s perspectives. It wasn’t until I started to fall in love with each of the kids that I started to see the love of a parent and the level of protection, unconditional love, effort and constant worry that other parents felt.
Patience! That is all I can really offer you – the step-mom looking for advice. This is a long marathon not a short sprint. It’s not an immediate thing. It is a daily effort in your actions and patience. If you are patient, I promise they will come around. You are a person with your own feelings and emotions. You are also trying to navigate the transitions and emotional changes in your life, you do not ALWAYS have to be available and “on point” every day. The pressure on yourself is totally normal because you want to do a good job, but kids see through you when you’re not being yourself!
I can now reflect back on my relationship with the kids and see where things evolved. I can now see what the differences are between bio-parents and step parents. Some bio-parents feel an immediate connection, an immediate unconditional love for their children. The love I found in each of the relationships I had with the kids formed at different times and for different reasons. I can actually pin-point when I felt that love with each of the kids (that’s not to say I didn’t show them love through kindness and spending time with them). Some bio-parents do the day-to-days out of necessity, because they have to, where I chose to. Bio-parents take care of their kid’s daily needs because their children rely on them for survival, I chose to. Parents spend time with their kids because children need them for development, I chose to. As I started to see this, I realized that the entire foundation of my relationship was out of choice. That I could choose to love the kids as my own, treat them the way I would my own, teach them life lessons that I learned from my parents to pass on traditions and lessons that I would have passed on to my biological children. I would love them unconditionally, nurture them, build them up when they felt low, help them when they needed support and develop relationships that were completely out of effort, genuine connection and care. What made my relationship really special that neither bio-parent can say is that our connection wasn’t by default. Our relationship was purely out of effort, care, time, love and connection that developed.
I’m sure there are many people who can relate to this or people who have wondered what goes on in the mind of a step-parent or maybe you have even wondered what goes on in the mind of their own step-parent. I met my fiancé and had a connection with the kids because of him and it evolved into something completely natural and authentic. The children are the greatest joys in my life and I can genuinely say that in my experience, there are more similarities in being a bio-mom and a step-mom than I would and could have identified 6 years ago. Be nice and compassionate to a step-mom, she too is wearing a messy bun full of dry-shampoo. She too is living on coffee. She too is trying to homeschool through this pandemic. She too loves her children and worries about their health and happiness. She too feels guilty about her actions and reactions that day with her kids. She too loses her patience and hates herself for it. The kids may have not grown in my body, but they have grown in every inch of my heart; please don’t undo that for me.
I am a 33 year old Step-Mom to three kids who would describe me as a dramatic, fun-loving hopeless romantic (insert eyeroll). Transplanted from Pickering, Ontario and currently living in Calgary, Alberta. My friends would describe me as an open-book, a safe space and an ever evolving shoulder to cry on (my friend told me to say that). I work with children with special needs; a career inspired by my involvement with Willowjak. I have been thrown some pretty big curve balls in my short time here on this planet but, have faced them with a good book in hand and a cup of tea on my night stand. My hope is that what I have experienced in my life can be of use to others. Some support to prove that we are not alone; though we may feel like we are, that we are seen; though we feel invisible and that we have a voice; though we may not know we have one yet.
You can hear more about Michelle’s story when she appeared as a guest on Willowjak’s ‘Choose Your Own After’, by listening HERE.