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This morning I wrote a text that read, “You were right!” No introduction, no explanation, no backstory. The response I received back was a smiley face emoticon and then, “Proud of him.” “Him” is my stepson, and the text I sent was to his mother. This simple exchange demonstrates how far she and I have come despite a rocky start.
My husband and I have been together over 5 years. We each came into the marriage with two children and we have a child together. When we first started dating, I was ecstatic and a bit idealistic. I was with the man who I had loved as my friend for over 20 years! I naively thought that because his ex-wife had initiated the divorce, that she would not have feelings about him re-marrying and having another child. I thought that because I had children of my own, that she would never feel like I was trying to be her sons’ “mother.” I was sure that she would agree that “it takes a village” and that she would be happy that another person would love her children and help take care of them. I learned quickly that was not necessarily true. In fact, what started out as not so perfect quickly became worse before it got better.
In the first couple years of my marriage, I was determined to make sure my stepsons felt loved. I never used the word ”step” and told others and myself that my love for them was the same as for the children I had given birth to. I compared it to if we had adopted them. I tried so hard that sometimes my own son would say, “You love them more!” This felt like a dagger to my heart … of course I did not love them more; I tried to explain to them that there was enough love to go around. In the meantime, I was not feeling very loved. I found myself getting resentful that I was doing all the things for the boys that a mother does for her children: doing their laundry, cooking their meals, preparing their lunches for school, driving them to all their sports and extracurricular activities, and yet, their “real” mother would get all the praise when they excelled at anything in and out of school. I often took a back seat when it came to parent/teacher conferences or graduation activities or parent meetings for their respective sports teams. This is when my competitive streak started to flare. I wanted to be acknowledged for my contributions. I wanted to scream from the mountaintops that I was the one who taught them how to use a Q-tip correctly, that I was the one who introduced them to different ethnic cuisines and encouraged them to taste new foods. I wanted it to be known that I taught them how to fold their clothes and keep their drawers organized.
As each year passed, the tensions between the boys’ mother and me escalated. It even reached a point where we did not speak for a year! I was frustrated with myself for not being better able to navigate what life had presented me with; after all, I am a psychotherapist and helped people with these difficult situations all the time. I felt ashamed that I could not handle things better in my personal life. I found myself feeling unappreciated and frustrated with my husband, who did not understand why I felt the way I did. I expected my husband to take the lead and set strict boundaries between himself and his ex-wife. For a minute, I even convinced myself that she was still in love with him and wanted him back! This, of course, caused tension in our marriage and in our household, in general. Then, during one of the heated discussions I had with my husband, he said what he had probably said several times before, but this time I heard each word loud and clear. He was explaining that my fears of any residual feelings were unfounded and that it was easy for him to co-parent with her because her role was simple to him: she was the boys’ mother. That day everything changed. She was no longer my husband’s ex-wife; she was my stepsons’ mother.
This shift in perspective helped me to reach out to get to know the boys’ mother better. I started to ask questions with an open heart and an open mind and I began to share things with her about myself that would help her to understand who I am as a woman and as a mother. We started to talk frequently on the phone and met a few times for lunch or coffee to discuss the children and ourselves. Through our discussions, I realized that although we are very different women with different temperaments, different cultural and racial backgrounds and different parenting styles, there are many things we see the same way and there are times we agree with each other. The most valuable thing is that we provide each other with a different perspective. I believe that our roles in this extended and blended family has contributed to our personal growth. Our children have benefited from this shift. Today, she is a woman I respect as a mother and I sense the same respect from her. Even up to a year ago, an innocent text would have been met with suspicion and defensiveness from either one of us. Today, I can send a text like I did this morning, feeling proud of my stepson for making a good choice and give credit to his mom for “being right,” as she predicted the outcome before he even made the choice. In turn, she can accept the compliment and know it is sincere. Today, I do not feel less than a mother; I have started to use the word “step” without any negative charge. Today, I proudly declare that I am the boys’ mother…their stepmother.
Today, what I know is that it does take a village, and in a village everyone has different roles…all equally important and each with their own unique gifts.