We need another Hallmark holiday like we need another reality show centered on an over-the-top subculture. (We have Hoarders and Shahs of Sunset; how about Stepmoms of Suburbia ? Bravo execs, tweet me!)
I've never taken much stock in these types of "holidays." That said, I wouldn't dare let a Mother's Day pass without sending my mom flowers. My husband knows I think Valentine's Day is bogus. He also knows that if he overlooks it he is going to feel very lonely for the next 24 hours. (Okay, maybe 48.)
Why is this? Why do we care so much about consumer holidays when we should be showering appreciation on our loved ones on ordinary days because we want to -- not because we're guilted into it by a synthetic rose bouquet at CVS? Perhaps it's the overwhelmingly public nature of these occasions. If we dismiss Father's Day, it feels like a slap in the face to dear old Dad, the one man on the block who didn't receive a golf or grill-themed card.
Ironically, though, it's stepparents -- the very people who don't actually have an official day -- who could, well, kind of use one. I'm not talking banners and balloons, but I sure would love a genuine "thank you" for the 7:00 a.m. tennis games (on a Saturday!), the schlepping to and from Karate and basketball, the weeknight dinners cooked with everyone's preferences and dislikes in mind, all in suburban New Jersey. A far cry from downtown Manhattan, where my single self was living before I fell in love and inherited a stepfamily.
We stepparents are the ones in dire need of appreciation. Yet all we usually get is, "Oh, hey." That is the single hardest part about being a stepparent... I think. I pour my heart and soul out to these children, I devote my mental and physical energy to making sure they are happy, healthy, and better adjusted than the psych books say kids of divorced parents can be, but I so rarely get the snuggles and hugs and sheer adoration my husband or his ex-wife do.
Instead, I get reminded countless times -- from the kids' teachers, other parents, the children themselves, that I am not their "real" mother. My stepsons were five and eight when I first met them and were already being brought up in ways I would have never chosen to raise my own kids -- saturated with video games, relegated to a kosher diet at home, living in the 'burbs. But as I was the one joining the family, I had to be the one to adapt and go with the flow, and throw away all my preconceived notions about what a family should be like.
Anyone who chooses to marry a man who comes along with two boys who find nothing funnier than the word "poop" is throwing away their preconceived notions about family in the first place. No little girl playing dress up says dreamily, "one day I'm going to be a stepmom." Quite the contrary. The fairy tales we're fed tell us stepmothers are evil. Mean. They usually have warts, too.
But I was 37 and widowed when I became a stepmom. My first husband Blake died when I was 27. I threw away my preconceived notions about family long ago... and learned that nothing goes as planned. I figured if I could survive Blake's death, I could handle some toilet humor.
Still, I did not enter into stepmotherhood lightly. Or quickly. When my husband divulged the details of his complicated family on our first date, I practically ran out the door before he finished his martini. I'd been on my own for almost a decade and had grown to appreciate my solitude and freedom and last-minute trips to Bangkok and Buenos Aires.
Plus, I'd always imagined that if I were ever lucky enough to meet someone again, we would embark on parenthood together, from the same starting point. What was I going to do with two boys and a colonial in Jersey?
Tried as I did, I could not ignore that click my heart made when Mike smiled, nor could I stop replaying the sound of his voice in my head. I'd been on many dates prior to meeting Mike, and it was impossible for me to walk away from what felt like a very real connection.
So, it all happened. We dated. We fell madly in love. But this all transpired in our own private Pokemon-free world, without me ever setting foot in New Jersey or meeting his children. So, on a soggy June day, Mike and his younger son (age 5) drove into the city, and I joined them for a late lunch.
Theo* was talkative and bright-eyed. And fidgety. He couldn't pronounce his "r"s, so when he said my name it sounded like "Waina." He splashed in the rain puddles and was ecstatic about his French fries. A real live child. I've always enjoyed children, but I'd never spent all that much time with them. I never babysat. I never changed a diaper. I was an utter and complete novice.
I must have managed okay, because then Mike suggested they come over to my apartment, and Theo was eager to see it. I was a bit stunned. Mike had never mentioned a visit to my home as being part of the day's program! I like to be prepared. I was decidedly not prepared. My apartment was very minimalist and very white and full of breakable objects. Not exactly a romper room.
But my cat Malcolm entertained Theo. I pulled out the one game I had, Backgammon, and Theo was content to play. My kitchen was not stocked, to say the least, (unless you count vodka and smoked trout spread) but I offered Theo a snack of cranberries and a glass of Gatorade (which was probably left by an ex-boyfriend). Perhaps Mike had been right to forgo the heads up --had I known they were stopping by I would've been nervous. This was just... fun.
For some reason, I owned the Shrek DVD and we put that on, Theo snuggling in next to his father on my couch. At some point, he fell asleep. He was indescribably cute when he slept. Mike went to buy a bottle of wine. At which point, I called my friend and whispered, "There's a 5-year-old sleeping in my apartment! What do I do if he wakes up?"
Soon I met Sam*, Mike's older son, and was equally as enchanted and bewildered. These kids radiated "boy." Their lives were Legos and Star Wars and Nintendo and ice cream. I could relate to the ice cream part, but that was about it.
"They are delicious," I told Mike. "But it's a lot. I'll never be their mother."
"That's true," Mike agreed. "But you're a person. They are people. You can absolutely develop your own relationship with them."
We took it slow. I was committed to Mike and loved him, but I wasn't going to force a faux closeness with his children, for all of our sakes. A dear friend who has a son close to Sam's age gave me some very good advice early on. "Let it be organic," she said. "Don't get on the floor and play Legos with them if that's not something you're always going to do. It's unrealistic. Just be yourself."
Her words took the pressure off. I praised them on their Lego-building, but left them to it on their own and tried to find other activities we could all enjoy. I cooked with the boys, and helped them write stories, and Mike and I started playing tennis with them. I was thrilled to find that both boys, Sam especially, are foodies. No mac and cheese or lasagna for him, but give the kid some mussels or blue cheese and he'll be your friend forever. We started driving into the city for special dinners in Chinatown and the Village and the boys were over the moon. I brought furniture to the house, which it was in great need of, and napkins, too. The kids complained about the napkins at first but their clothes are quite thankful for them.
Mike and I were together for two years before we married and when we did, it was largely so I could become a stepmother. We knew we loved one another and were committed -- we didn't care so much about the legal formality. But the kids needed to have a name for me, to know I was part of the family and was there to stay. So I willingly took on that cursed label. At school conferences and birthday parties, I got tired of saying I was the kids' father's girlfriend, making me sound like a bimbo or a teenager. And perhaps because I'd lived with "widow" for a decade, stepmother wasn't so scary.
Despite what you may have heard -- or read from the pens of the Brothers Grimm -- becoming a stepmother has only improved my relationship with the kids. This is due to a combination of luck (I'm told the fact that they're both boys likely made my introduction easier, and I came into their lives at good ages, and Mike and I both have incredible extended families who help a great deal), and much forethought and planning and patience (Mike never puts me in the position of disciplining, I make a point of devoting time to each of the kids, and I know my boundaries, and when I need a break).
We have yet to decide whether we are going to have a child of our own, but what I've learned about parenting is infinite. I've learned that putting off work to spend a special day with my stepsons when they're off from school yields smiles much larger than any material gift I could ever give them would yield. And that a calm yet firm tone of voice goes a much longer way than yelling. And that a mini flashlight or a blank piece of paper can be entertaining, as long as I'm creative. And that if I'm not feeling creative, or calm, or generous, I'm likely in need of some time to myself. Or at the very least, some whiskey.
Still, step parenting is hard. As is biological parenting. But with both come rewards. Those precious nuggets that just pop up unexpectedly in everyday life. Like this one:
A few months ago, Mike was putting Theo to bed when he said, "Dad, it's a good thing we met Raina at that restaurant that day."
Mike smiled, immediately knowing which restaurant he was referring to. "Well, yes, I agree, but you know Raina and I knew each other before that day you first met her, right?"
"Yeah, but you guys became really good friends after the day we all went there, right? You started to spend a lot of time together after that?"
"Yes," Mike said. "That's true."
Theo smiled proudly. He lay back on his pillow and closed his eyes. "I love that restaurant," he said.
Me too, dear stepson. Me too.
(Now, you want to just write that in a card?)
*Names have been changed to protect the young