Being a stepmother

Sometimes being a good stepmother means getting your hands dirty.

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“You look just like your Mummy, don’t you?” the woman at the checkout counter says, bending down to ruffle Jack’s head of pale curls. My four-year-old stepson clutches my skirt and looks up at me — eyes wary. He doesn’t like being touched by strangers, and besides, what’s this woman talking about?

Not your mother

“Oh, he’s not mine; he’s my boyfriend’s,” I say, a statement that elicits a stream of awkward apologies from the woman, who is now glancing confusedly from my blonde hair to my eight-months-pregnant belly, assessing the intricacies of my situation, making silent judgments — or so it feels. I grab Jack and rush out of the shop as fast as I can. On the sidewalk, I berate myself: Why do I feel like such a fraud? I look down at Jack, who is on his knees rooting through the grocery bag for a hard-won cherry ice pop, perfectly oblivious to my distress, and it’s only then I realize my mistake. It’s not that I care what the grocery store clerk thinks, it’s that I care what Jack thinks.

I’m sorry I said you aren’t mine — what I meant was that I’m not your mother and I’d never pretend to be.

I want to say this to him and I almost do, but then I look down at his sticky, sweet face and decide to let the poor kid enjoy his sugar high in peace.

If proximity counts for anything, being a step-parent should come naturally to me. My stepmother, Mary Jane, has been in my life for 23 years now. She and my father have been married twice as long as my own parents were, and have twice as few biological children to show for it. They are calmly devoted to each other in the way that contented, childless couples tend to be. But this isn’t to say my sister and I think of our stepmother as anything short of a family member. We call her on Mother’s Day and roll our eyes when she shoves water bottles in our bags “for hydration.” If anything, we often joke that Mary Jane is more like a conventional mother than our actual (wonderfully bookish, borderline eccentric) mother, in that she invariably cries at weddings, frets if we leave the house without a sweater and packs away our childhood toys “just in case.”

Stepmother’s instinct

Mary Jane did not insinuate herself into our lives so much as renovate it from top to bottom. Within months of her marrying and moving in with our father, the house was filled with decorative cushions, ruffled curtains, the hum of central vac and mealtimes suddenly involving fresh vegetables instead of cans of Puritan Irish beef stew. She somehow managed to vastly improve our day-to-day life without spoiling us or “laying down the law” — a trickier balance than you might think. Without the benefit of early experience (to this day I don’t think she’s ever changed a diaper), Mary Jane somehow intuitively knew how to set a tone that brought us together as a family without ever being threatening to my sister or me. I never felt she was trying to take our mother’s place or steal away our father — she was simply MJ, a member of the pack. How she did this I’m not entirely sure, but I like to think of it as “stepmother’s instinct.”

I’m not sure if Jack has been quite so lucky with me, but he does have a big fan and committed protector. Even on the cusp of motherhood myself, I spend more time thinking about what MJ would do in family situations, if only because the role of stepmother is a much trickier one to pull off. Dating a recently divorced man with joint custody of a toddler wasn’t quite the carefree courtship I’d come to expect in my footloose twenties and early-thirties. Paying the pizza deliveryman while your new boyfriend reads “one last story!” for the fifth or sixth time is a far cry from three courses at a slick new restaurant. And the “naugh ty chair,” I soon learned, is definitely not a sex thing.

But there is something undeniably heart-melting about watching the man you’re falling for care patiently for his child. When Rob and I found out we’d be having a baby of our own, I had not one smidge of doubt as to whether he’d make a loving and devoted father — he already was one. I did have doubts about myself, not just as a future mother but also as a stepmother, a role I hadn’t yet fully adjusted to. Once I’d moved in and Jack accepted my presence (“Is Leah staying over again?” he’d ask in the first few weeks, exasperated by his father’s insistence he sleep through the night in his own bed), I soon learned that the hard work of caring for a child is inextricably bound up in the attachment you feel for them.

Getting your hands dirty

The more I pitched in and made an effort with Jack — teaching him how to make pancakes, playing with action figures or making shampoo hats in the bath — the more I felt myself getting attached. While at first I was hesitant to get involved in any aspect of Jack’s upbringing, saying nothing if he misbehaved and looking to Rob to enforce “the rules,” as time went on, I realized that a policy of disengagement doesn’t really work when it comes to kids. With Jack I was either in, or I was out. Either I was someone he could depend on to reinforce the boundaries of his little world, or I wasn’t. And it was only by getting my hands dirty and making an effort that he would begin to trust me and, even more crucially, I would begin to trust myself.

As I write this, I’m days away from giving birth to my first child, a little brother Jack has christened “Softy” in utero, a fter his favourite ice cream truck. I feel grateful to have a stepson who’s taught me so much about parenthood before I’ve even officially begun, and a stepmother who’s set an example to live by. MJ and Jack might not be “mine” biologically, but I am theirs in every other sense of the word.

A version of this article appeared in our October 2012 issue with the headline “Mommy nearest,” pp. 66-8.

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