“If you’re good, your mom might give you a popsicle,” said the cop to my four-and-a-half-year-old stepson on the very hot day that he came to take a police report for my stolen credit card.
Then came the inevitable answer:
“She’s not my Mom!”’
Though I blushed, I did not miss a beat.
“I can still give you a popsicle” I shot back.
The police officer, who neither knew nor had previously ascertained whether I actually had these alleged popsicles to offer my alleged son as an alleged reward for supposed good behavior, shifted his eyes and scooted out the door, grateful to leave a socially awkward moment behind. My stepson-the Buglet-and I have been examining our relationship since.
Like, what the hell is a stepparent, anyway, and how do you do it? I've been asked to write a stepparenting blog, so I figure I should know. I had done my own research on stepparenting when I first fell in love with Buglet’s dad.
It’s not like there’s much instruction out there on the role or the job, nor are the fairy tale archetypes particularly flattering. There’s a few good blogs and a book or two out there, but they are swimming in a sea of archaic information and dated ideas. The message boards, newsgroups, and social networking communities on blended and stepfamilies that I found were such a dismal collection of rants that they would have led me to either shoot myself or dump my significant other. And have you noticed there are a lot of bitter, jaded people out there who are either stepparents or adult stepchildren?
While I don’t discount anyone’s experience or anyone’s right to see a situation as hopelessly screwed, that wasn’t really going to help my situation.
Nor would it help all the people who come to me for counseling, expecting answers and a way to better deal with their blended family dynamics. Everyone’s story is different-but with all of us--the confusion, the need for flexibility, and the desire to do a better job and for everyone to get along--is the same.
A year ago, I was deeply and newly in love, desperately wanting my partner’s little three year old to like me.
Most of the advice I found on the forums sounded like “leave the boy alone and let his father deal with all the discipline, never show anger or he’ll turn on you, don’t be too nice or he’ll manipulate you, be sweet, be distant, don’t expect a family, and try not to love him.”
Yeah. Um. Thanks.
So I made a note of the things that I’d heard that seemed to work, stopped listening to everyone else, dropped off the message boards and forums, and started using a mixture of intuition and common sense.
The other day, Buglet kept crying out “mommy! mom!” during a bout of wrestle-ticklemania. I asked him why. He said, “I’m pretending you’re my mom.”
So I must be doing something right.
And other weeks, like the one three months ago where he he hit me on the head because he “likes Daddy better,” I feel like I’ve stepped in a steaming pile.
I realized I’m perfectly qualified to write a stepparenting blog. It’s a lot like stepparenting itself--no handbook, no guidance, and no guardrail, so make it up as you go along, follow good leads, communicate from the heart, and don’t forget to laugh at yourself.
I’m calling it “Stepping in It” because, yeah, sometimes it does feel like you’ve just planted your foot in something messy and sticky that isn’t yours. But you are also, in the best sense of the word stepping in to a variety of “its”--stepping in for a biological parent, stepping in to a new family, a new role, new responsibility, a new view of yourself.
My goal is to help all of us feel less like we’re stepping in crap and more like we’re stepping up.
The reason stepparenting often feels more like stepping in it is that the hurt and frustration takes us by surprise. We have no idea what we are getting into. Nothing has prepared us. The little indignities and ego wounds stink, and don’t seem to scrape off.
It can be wonderful, but it is hard.
Your partner doesn’t always get it. Explaining all of the relationships is often socially awkward. Rejection from a child unexpectedly stings. Encountering your own longing to belong and be liked can be overwhelming. Seeing yourself through the eyes of a child who isn’t impressed by you annihilates the ego. Becoming attached and invested while having no legal parental rights messes with the mind. There’s a fine line between discipline and self-defense. And, stressed-out kids that are not yours can be brats on a whole new level.
So gather round, stepmothers, stepfathers, stepchildren, and blended families, all you people who are going out of your mind but still want to do the right thing. Let’s share our tales of triumph and woe. I may not be an expert yet, but I’ve got love in my heart and a psychology degree on my wall, and I grew up in a family so blended it should come in an ornate glass with an umbrella.
I may not be mom, but I can still offer popsicles.
Don’t ever underestimate popsicles.