Like any child, I grew up watching classic Disney films like Cinderella and Snow White. It was in these movies that I first became familiar with what a “stepmother” was, and it was terrifying. In Cinderella the Wicked Stepmother forces Cinderella into slave labor and in Snow White the stepmother sends her henchmen out to murder her stepdaughter. Thank goodness I didn’t have a stepmother in my life! Fast forward to my college years of the late 90’s, and lazy afternoons spent watching movies on VHS tapes in dorm rooms. One movie on constant rotation was St. Elmo’s Fire and in it, Demi Moore’s character refers to her father’s wife as her “stepmonster”. This term was echoed often by a girl on my floor who felt the same way about the woman in her father’s life. Again, I gave a sigh of relief that I didn’t have a “stepmonster” raising hell in my family.
And then it happened. I met a guy who I was attracted to on multiple levels, in a way that I hadn’t been with anyone else. But he was recently divorced with twin children who were only four years old. No way, not an option, I first told myself. Then we became friends which led to a first date about six months later. Have fun with it, don’t think too much about the future. But I knew those thoughts were in vain as 1) I was 30 years old and did want to get married and have a family; and 2) once we began dating we started seeing a lot of one another and things progressed fairly quickly. My now husband didn’t press the kids thing on me too much at first, which I appreciated. We hung out when his kids were at their mom’s house, and when they were with him I did my own thing which I liked since I was so used to living alone and having my personal space.
I didn’t meet the twins until about two months in to our relationship. I went over to their apartment for dinner, knocked on the door, and heard two little voices saying “Daddy! She’s here!” followed by the sound of feet running toward where I stood. I was so nervous. I hadn’t been around small children since I was one myself and had no idea how to interact. I didn’t have much interest in other people’s kids nor did I enjoy dedicating social time to entertaining them. But these were the kids of the man I was falling in love with, so I was going to give it my best shot. We played trains, did some rounds of “wax museum” (their version of “red light, green light”) and had dinner together. They were adorable and charming and my husband’s eyes and smile glowed with the love he had for them. Seeing him in the role of “Daddy” only made stronger the feelings I already had for him. This was the first of many nights we would spend together – in that apartment, in our first shared home, then our second.
When my husband and I got married five years ago, the title of “stepmother” became official. When I first started using the term, it definitely felt like a four letter word. People I didn’t know well would assume I was the mom and when I would correct them, I would get a different look. Oh, ok. Cue wart growing from my nose and evil cackle emitting from my body. These days, when we are out as a family, or when my husband and I meet new people, I always struggle with whether I should say “we have three kids” versus “these are my stepchildren and this is my daughter”. I usually go with the latter, mostly because I don’t ever want my stepchildren to think that I am trying to “be” their mom. At the same time it can feel divisive to label our family in this way.
Defining what it means to be a stepmother is tricky and I am not sure I have it figured out yet, or that I ever will. It has its highs and lows and for me, always comes with the possibility and worry of completely alienating my stepchildren for life. With biological parents, unconditional love is an anchor that keeps one tethered to the other, through good times and bad. As a stepparent, you go on this wild parenting ride with someone else’s kids and often don’t reap the same benefits. You are the one standing back so mom and dad can congratulate them first after a karate tournament or band performance, maybe getting in there for a quick hug or high five depending on how fast they get distracted by their friends. You are usually the afterthought and you have to learn to not take it personally.
My stepmother title no longer feels like one I have to defend or be embarrassed by. It isn’t an easy or always comfortable role, but I am giving it my best. If my stepchildren can look back someday and find value in my being in their lives (and not refer to me as their “stepmonster”), I will consider it a job well done.