I recently joined the nefarious ranks of evil Disney archetypes: I became a stepmom. The loaded connotations it comes with is partly why I prefer to call myself a plusmoeder (plus mom), a progressive Dutch term that does more justice to the position. But that Dutch honorific came with its own prickly challenge: I couldn’t speak the same language as my new stepsons.
You never know where love will take you. When I first moved to Belgium from Canada six years ago, I had come to the country to be with my then-boyfriend, who was a French-speaking Belgian. After we broke up, I was planning my return to Canada when I met Ieds, who is from the Flemish part of the country, and therefore Dutch-speaking. Maurice, who is almost seven, and his 3½-year-old brother, Jules, speak only Dutch, and I speak English and French. When I was first introduced, nine months after meeting their father, Ieds, I could only muster “Hello,” “See you later,” “Please” and “Thank you” (unfortunately, my repertoire of Dutch swear words were not age-appropriate). A foreign language only intensified my feelings of estrangement.
My big first meeting with the boys was a three-day rock climbing trip in France. The plan was to drive from Antwerp to Fontainebleau, a legendary bouldering spot south of Paris, and sleep in a four-man tent. We figured that it’d be a good place for an introduction because we’d be on neutral ground—neither his place nor mine—and doing something that was out of their ordinary routines.
The boys asked their dad several pertinent questions in the days before the trip: “Does Jeanie have a sleeping bag? What colour is Jeanie’s sleeping bag? Does she have a bathing suit?” My questions were more along the lines of “Are your kids going to like me? What if speaking Dutch doesn’t come naturally to me?” I was a bag of nerves, scared I wouldn’t be able to connect with them. (Somehow, in the bliss of new love, I’d forgotten I was going to have to learn Dutch.)
When they picked me up at my apartment, I opened the door and greeted two impossibly adorable little boys—extensions of the man I love—and instantly knew I was going to love them as my own. In the car, I learned the names of roadside animals (cow, sheep, horse) and their bath-toy animals, which somehow made it along for the trip. My favourite word was seal (zeehond, which is, literally, “sea dog”), and I used it a lot. To be funny, I started adding zeehond to the end of everything I said: “My name is Jeanie Zeehond! I like ice cream, zeehond!” To my great relief, they giggled like crazy, wanting me to say it again and again. This led to a new nonsense language out of a mix of English and Dutch and silly made-up songs. We roughhoused, mimed and used exaggerated gestures to communicate.
Our language difficulties actually helped break the ice. It created a natural buffer: They could check me out at arm’s length and talk with each other and their dad without me understanding. This distance also allowed me to take a breather when parenting became overwhelming.
The first night we spent at the campground, Jules woke up several times crying for his mom. Ieds wasn’t in the tent for some reason and it fell on me to cradle him while he sobbed, but I feared that my incomprehensible murmuring was only making the situation worse. To my amazement, he fell asleep in my arms—I felt like I had passed an unofficial test.
Back home, we tried to settle into a routine. In the five days of every 14 that we had the kids, we slowly became a family, though the learning curve grew steeper as I took on more parenting responsibilities. Maurice sometimes treated me like I was stupid. I felt guilty that Ieds had to translate all the time, so I stopped asking him to. Both boys started acting out whenever their father and I spoke in English—they felt excluded, and rightly so. Things got really tough when Jules confessed that he didn’t feel comfortable with me because of my lack of language skills. We were at a relationship standstill on multiple fronts.
Then began the intensive Dutch classes: four hours a day, five days a week, in addition to full-time work. I would study so hard that I’d began to make mistakes in English. I would fall asleep with Dutch books in bed, and I’d wake up in the middle of the night with burning grammar questions. After six weeks, I was able to speak in enough broken sentences to make jokes, play cards and read the kids a bedtime story. Little by little, I could actually begin parenting. But doing so felt very authoritarian: I only knew enough to use the imperative (put your shoes on, brush your teeth)—not exactly the right tactic for new plus moms, but there was no way around it.
On our fourth weekend with the kids, I went for a long run just to get away. I was frustrated and incapacitated by my rudimentary Dutch and burnt out from late nights of studying and early mornings spent making school lunches. I came back crying and told Ieds this wasn’t going to work. He reassured me that I just needed to give it time and joked that at least the reason they didn’t listen to me was that I didn’t speak Dutch, whereas for him, they simply didn’t want to listen.
The big breakthrough moment came when I least expected it. On a particularly challenging morning, I was taking a shower and saw a bath toy by the drain. It was a seal—a small, plastic zeehond. I asked Ieds about it and he said that Maurice had placed it there for me. It felt like finding a message in a bottle: It was his way of saying “You might not be my mother and you might not speak my language, but I accept you.”
And then, things kind of fell into place. The following weekend, Jules asked to sit on my lap during storytime. Maurice confessed that he missed me just as much as he missed his dad and included my name in a school project about his family. Then Ieds’ ex-wife called to say how much Maurice enjoyed spending the weekend with us.
Learning Dutch to communicate with two people felt impossibly hard, yet I can think of no better reason. I’ve come to love this part-time job and full-time feeling: coaxing last bites of food into mouths, helping with emergency roadside bathroom breaks, lifting sleeping bodies out of car seats and up to bed. I now understand what mothers are talking about when they say that having kids brings with it a love they never knew before. I’m still not the first person the boys want to cuddle in bed in the morning or the one they run to when they cry. But should this happen, I want to be able to speak from my heart in their mother tongue.
Learning a language is like building a relationship: Each new word and each new conversation brings you closer to the other. For now, I’ll have to trust the universal language of love and climb the stairs of stepmotherhood until the day that “ik hou van jou” sounds as natural rolling off my tongue as “I love you.” That will be a plus.