My stepson is 7.
At times, he is the most challenging relationship in my life and he is certainly one of the more complicated dynamics of my marriage. He determines where I’ve chosen to live my life and how much I have to do with my husband’s (admittedly, pretty cool about it all) ex-wife.
I’m at an age where it’s not as unusual to be a step-parent. Idealism and life plans of our 20s are replaced by 30s’ acceptance and knowing yourself. A more honest decade, really. And a far more settled one.
When I first embarked on a relationship with a man who had been (shock, horror) married and had a kid, there were mixed responses from friends and family. It was, after-all, a big call. A bigger call than I realised I was making at the time.
Aren’t they all?
Ours was not a Brady-Bunch blending of families. My stepson was 3 1/2 when I became involved with him. Anyone who knows kids knows this can be an ugly age – especially when a small person is forced to share his favourite man in the world with a strange woman who just won’t go away.
It was complicated and often still is. Though not a more complicated twist than, say, my friend who clashes with her mother in-law or being in a relationship with someone who has a less-than-stable schizophrenic brother. Challenges of real life, not deal breakers.
“Where’s Dad?” is the usual response when I pick up my stepson on Thursdays. Hard to respond to and hard not to take personally which I guess is how he feels about the situation, too. After four years, I offer little in the way of that base parental comfort. I chalk it up to not smelling quite right, not having the right accent and generally being of different genetic make-up.
Since having my own daughter I know that being a stepmother and being a mother are two very separate, very different jobs. And I’m glad I’m both. Being someone’s mother and their go-to basic parental comfort for everything from scrapped knees to being told “no” is exhausting. Wonderful and fulfilling, yes, but exhausting. (And I don’t know about you but my daughter has the capacity to be the worst version of herself with me and only me because of it all. I seem to create her comfort but, at times, also the emotional vulnerability that requires the comfort).
The cool thing about me and my stepson is that I’m not tied up in those most complicated emotional inner workings. If Mum and Daddy are platinum, I’m a gold member. I’m safe and I’m supportive but I don’t offer enough to trump whatever opportunities the world has to offer. As a shy kid, he’ll try things with me he can’t with his biological parents. I was the perfect candidate for school visits, handing over the coins himself at sausage sizzle for the first time and taking him roller skating.
My stepson is my daughter’s first questions every morning: “Where is my brother?” He is her biggest role model and sometimes her great sympathizer. Often if she cries, he cries. Even if he causes it. (Though for the record, she’s made him cry out of maliciousness more often than he has her.)
Who knows how any of it will play out in the long run? It might be great not to be a mother to one of the teenagers living in my house in 10 years! And on the days when he has been my biggest challenges, I remind myself that he might, one day, be my greatest ally.
And if not mine, then certainly my daughter’s.