“How do I get on the fridge?”
All eight of the members of our blended family were crammed in the kitchen, prepping for dinner. Our two 8-year-olds precariously poured the milk, delighted to have scored set-up duty. Our tweens hummed Hamilton (a staple around here lately), and the two eldest hung around picking at platters and getting their hands smacked.
“What?” I stopped what I was doing and looked at my teenage stepdaughter Sara.
“How do I get on the fridge?” she repeated.
I wasn’t sure what she meant. Surely she didn’t want to climb on top of the fridge. Right? My mind flashed to when three of them climbed on top of our playhouse last summer and I wasn’t so sure.
“Why do you want to be on the fridge?” I asked, in my most open, non-judgemental, I-am-your-stepmother-and-support-your-ideas-even-if-they-seem-crazycakes voice.
“Caden and Lottie are on the fridge, and I’d like to be too. How do I get on it?” she clarified. I thought I detected a bit of a my-stepmother-is-a-dense-weirdo tone, but I graciously let it go.
Caden and Lottie, my son and daughter, were most definitely not on the fridge. Lottie was sloshing the milks into place on the table in the dining room and Caden was still breaking down his best Hamilton beat with Amy, Sara’s sister.
I looked more closely at the fridge in question. What was on the fridge were mountains of school papers. Caden’s latest honor roll certificate, a reminder about his upcoming testing, and his perfect attendance ribbon. Lottie’s latest artwork hung askew on the freezer overlapping her talent show audition flyer.
“Do you mean Caden and Lottie have papers on the fridge?”
“And you want to have papers on the fridge too?”
“Yes.” Again, may have been tinged with a bit of how-stupid-is-this-woman tone, but hard to say.
I stared at my teenage stepdaughter. I looked at the fridge.
The appliance in question is littered with pictures of all six of our children. I carefully count to make sure each child is represented the same number of times before giving any photo a place of honor on the refrigerator.
In that way, I recognize the fridge, opened no fewer than 392 times a day, is a powerful visual reminder of our family. It is important to me that each of the children in our home knows they are loved beyond measure.
The trouble is, while I manage the pictures, I don’t have any hand in the papers. My children have always hung their own papers. They have been the curators of their fridge exhibits since preschool. Aside from clearing through the clutter once or twice a school year, I am a refrigerator paper bystander.
I squinted, and saw the fridge for the first time as Sara must have: a testament to everything my younger birth children were doing, absent of even a whisper about her activities. Judging solely by the papers on the fridge, she was an outsider.
I quickly tried to articulate the unspoken rules of the fridge, as I knew them, to my sweet stepdaughter.
“Sara, if you want something on the fridge, you hang it there yourself. Anything goes. You can have as much up there as you want. Try not to cover other people’s papers. If the date on it has passed, take it down, or I might recycle it in a mass clean-up.”
Sara’s eyes lit up. “Really?”
“Really. Anything you want. Anytime.”
She ran to her room, digging out her invitation to apply to a select academic group and a drawing she’d done. Both were stuck prominently on the stainless family monument in our kitchen, and we sat down to dinner.
Today, Sara adds to the fridge museum regularly. I shared the rules with her brother and sister, who, judging by the looks they shot each other mid-conversation, had never even thought about this topic. Outside of that, we haven’t spoken of it again. Case closed.
The trouble is, I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t stop wondering what other unspoken and unseen rituals each of us has that may be misinterpreted by the sweeties living in this house. I’m on high alert for exclusion.
I’m explaining how we choose seats at the table, tallying the minutes I spend with each child, and painstakingly articulating every norm in our house. It is awkward and exhausting, and I’ll keep at it, because it is critically important that each of the six children feels included.
Kate Chapman is a mom and stepmom to six children, ages 8-15. She writes about her modern-day Brady Bunch adventures at This Life in Progress. Drawing on her extensive experience as a coach and a background in psychology and sociology, Kate addresses the tricky topics of divorce, coparenting and blended families. Her writing can be found on HuffPo, ScaryMommy, Today Parenting Team, and Stepparent Magazine.