Long before I became a mother myself, I had a preview of just about every terrifying stage I would one day encounter. As a stepmom to four kids, I’d survived potty training, vomit marathons, shower strikes, schoolyard bullying, calls from the principal’s office, door-slamming blowouts, first love (followed inevitably by first heartbreak), and parties that left our house in ruins and our liquor cabinet dry.
And I admit it: I didn’t always handle these situations with grace. In fact, in the early days especially, I was a disaster as a stepmother. I met my husband on my 25th birthday, at a dingy Toronto comedy club. He was a comic (12 years my senior) whose set that night made single fatherhood sound hilarious. Suddenly, I was spending much of my spare time with four noisy children, then aged 14, 12, nine and two — and as it turned out, it wasn’t all that funny. I wanted to fly to New York for the weekend, eat at cool restaurants and spend Sundays lounging around reading books and sipping cocktails. As a single dad — the three older kids lived with him full-time — Tim could do none of those things. And though I knew it wasn’t their fault, I resented the kids. I threw hissy fits when our weekend plans got derailed by recitals or lice outbreaks (my head still itches when I think of it).
A couple of years after we started dating, we all moved in together, and I wavered between feeling like a crabby big sister (the eldest, after all, was barely 11 years my junior) and an outsider in my own home. This was one tight- knit crew, with years’ worth of inside jokes and traditions that I just didn’t get. And having to share my guy with a quartet of kids (all of them, it seemed to me, exceedingly needy) often sent me off to sulk city.
Then, four years ago, I had a child of my own, and everything changed. So this, I remember thinking the first time I held Charles, is what unconditional love feels like. Just like that, I understood my husband on a much deeper level. His paralyzing panic the time his youngest, then three, slashed his head open at the cottage, far from the nearest hospital. His rage when his 10-year-old daughter came home crying because she was being picked on at school, and his despair when she went to live with her mother for the first time since babyhood.
Charles also helped me to feel more connected to my stepkids — because they fell in love with my bossy little man, too. Though they’re mostly grown-ups now (only his youngest still lives with us, part-time) busy with school and work and friends, they have spent endless hours building elaborate block towers for him to smash and playing superheroes in the park. They have sacrificed Saturday nights so that Tim and I could sneak out for dinner. They’ve taken him to bat caves and on camel rides and to his first big-screen movie.
And oh, how that boy idolizes his big brothers and sisters. He will stand for hours at the win- dow, waiting for them to converge on our house for Sunday brunch, his whole body wiggling with anticipation. And as I watch him, I finally realize how lucky I am to belong to this huge, crazy family — even huger and crazier since we added a baby girl to the crew two years ago. So now we are eight, and that’s definitely enough for us.
A version of this article appeared in our August 2013 issue with the headline “Eight is enough,” p. 42.
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