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The Stepparadox

The Stepparadox

Halley Dean
The Stepparadox, Raise Magazine

The fact that my son calls both my ex and my husband, “Dad,” fills everyone with warm fuzzies at our progressive parenting and ability to come together to love and support a child. It’s so interesting how the reaction changes when we’re talking about the dreaded step mother.

When I was dating my husband and told him that I wanted to be exclusive, he actually turned me down. I was somewhat stunned by this turn of events, since we’d been existing in a love bubble filled with sparkles and rainbows. Later, he told me it was because he needed to make sure he was ready to commit to Lucas, my son, who was then six-years old, before he would commit to me. Once he decided he was, he was all in and we were married three and a half months later.

Our family quickly expanded and today, we are the parents of three. Lucas is 15, Asher is eight, and our daughter Halo is four. In our family, we don’t believe in words like “half” or “step.” We believe that our children have brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and that there are no asterisks next to anyone’s name.

There isn’t any difference between the way my husband treats Lucas and the way he treats our other two. Joe has three children and it doesn’t matter at all that one of them doesn’t share his DNA. When Lucas was little, Joe was at all the Boy Scout meetings and school plays, and he’s always been front and center for the orchestra concerts and football games. It was Joe who taught Lucas how to shave and who got him ready for his first date, and it was him who introduced Lucas to what became his all- time favorite movie, Coming To America, which they quote back and forth to each other almost daily. My son is a fascinating study in nature v. nurture because I swear sometimes he is more like Joe than either of the parents that he shares DNA with. Their relationship with each other is unique and special and a complete blessing to both of them.

If I ended this essay here, an homage to an incredible man who came along side and me and loved my kid the same way I do, everyone would be totally fine. The fact that Lucas calls both my ex and my husband, “Dad,” fills everyone with warm fuzzies at our progressive parenting and ability to come together to love and support a child. Let’s face it, any time my husband goes out in public with any number of our kids, he’s celebrated. All fathers are. As a culture, we still get really excited when men do any kind of discernable parenting, because for so long, it was not expected of them. Nobody tells me how wonderful I am for taking my kids with me to the grocery store, but if you swap Joe out for me, it becomes a praise worthy event. And if anyone finds out that one of the children he’s buying food for is not his biological child, but rather a child that he elected to love and raise as his own, there is a ticker tape parade right down the cereal aisle.

It’s so interesting to me how the reaction changes when we are talking about the dreaded step mother.

My ex-husband met his second wife, Tammy, when Lucas was three, and so from the time Lucas was very young, he’s had four parents. But for all the things that Joe is celebrated for, Tammy is vilified for, or at least judged with a skeptic eye. What’s her angle? Is she trying to replace me? Doesn’t she know her place? She’s not his mother, why would she say she is?  Nobody questions Joe for identifying himself as Lucas’ father, so why would anyone question Tammy for calling herself Lucas’ mother? She made the exact same choice that Joe did. She knew that marrying someone with a child meant she would be responsible for that child, and she elected to take that on. It was Tammy who picked out all of the birthday and Christmas presents, who remembered important events on the calendar, and who put band aids on Lucas’ booboos and kissed them better when he was small. She did it out of love, both for Lucas and his dad, and friends; I’m here to tell you, that’s a beautiful thing.

When it comes to stepmothers, we seem to forget what the goal of co-parenting really is. The goal isn’t our personal happiness and comfort, it is the mental and emotional health of the children involved. Yet we roll our eyes and make snarky comments and tell our children that this person isn’t really their mother, and that they aren’t as loved by her. When do things like this, who really loses?

My own parents divorced when I was 12, and a few years later, my dad started dating the woman who would become my step mother. Lydia (name changed to protect the guilty) didn’t see things the same way that I did.  She was interested in her own children, but not so interested in me, or my younger sister and brother. During the holidays, we weren’t invited to exchange gifts or join the family for dinner. Instead, we were told we could come for desert, or better yet, the next day, to have our own little Christmas, just the three of us and our dad. After seven years of marriage, they announced their divorce and my siblings and I weren’t sad to see her go.  Luckily for us, she hadn’t come along until we were older, and even luckier, she didn’t stay terribly long, but I think often about how miserable it would have been to grow up in a house like that, with a grownup who made sure you realized that you were not as wanted, or loved, as the other kids in the house.

I thank my lucky stars for Tammy. With every fiber of my soul I’m grateful that my son has no idea what it means to be treated like that. Just like I would never tell a child that they aren’t mine, I would never tell my child that one of his parents isn’t his. I would never tell Lucas that Tammy isn’t his mother too or make him feel awkward for loving her.

When it comes to stepmothers, we seem to forget what the goal of co-parenting really is. The goal isn’t our personal happiness and comfort, it is the mental and emotional health of the children involved. Yet we roll our eyes and make snarky comments and tell our children that this person isn’t really their mother, and that they aren’t as loved by her. When do things like this, who really loses?

Parenting is a team sport. What extraordinary good fortune that when my son was a little boy he had another mama to love him and read him stories and kiss him goodnight and cheer him on when I wasn’t around, and even sometimes when I was. I would challenge anyone who takes umbrage with step mothers dropping the “step” to ask themselves why. I would guess that the answer has more to do with our own insecurities as adults than what is best for our kids. I honestly don’t care if someone thinks Tammy is Lucas’ mom instead of me, not because I don’t love Lucas, but because I do love him, with everything in me, since the moment he was born. His heart is everything to me, and so if that means sharing the spotlight on senior night, or each of us walking down the aisle on his arm when he gets married, I celebrate that. I celebrate her.

There is no harder job in this world than being a bonus-mama. I challenge you to reach out to the ones in your own life and tell them how great they are doing. And if you are lucky enough to have one in your own life, who loves your child the best she knows how, even if she isn’t someone you get along with, I challenge you to reach out and thank her too. It’s a mighty love that allows you to claim a child as your own, and we should all be celebrating the women who come alongside us to help bring up our kids.  If anyone deserves a parade down the cereal aisle, it’s them.

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