I’m a stepparent.
It’s still a freaky to hear that, and I’ve been with my now-husband and his daughter since she was around 18 months old. She’s 6 now, and I just dropped her off at her last day of kindergarten. Being a stepparent means a lot of things, such as laughs, good times, struggles and some snotty comments.
It’s not an easy job, and these stepparents are the unsung heroes of family dynamics. Stepfamilies can consist of many different formulas; it’s not just the wicked-stepmom trope. There’s the standard parent remarrying (think the stereotypical heteronormative boy meets girl, boy already had a kid, hey — now we’re a family of three) and having a new partner, but there’s also lesbian and gay couples who have children from prior relationships. Then there are all the parents who are dating and working through the pressures of dating – with additional human beings who are nowhere near in control of their thoughts and feelings yet.
According to the StepFamily Foundation, the United States is still seeing one in two marriages end in divorce. More than 50% of US families are remarried, or re-couple, with, according to a 2017 article by E.E. Weimers, almost 62% of all families under the age of 55 being blended. There are more than 1,300 stepfamilies that form every day, and 50% of the 60 million children in the US under the age of 13 are living with one biological parent and that parent’s current partner. Whew.
Often, a stepparent is the person on the sidelines, putting the family unit that formed before them in front of their own needs. They know that there is nothing that can break the bond of the parent-child relationship and that they, well, would be an asshole to get in the way. A good stepparent knows that they shouldn’t try to replace a child’s missing parent in the relationship because they can’t. They are not the parent. Good stepparents also know that they shouldn’t – for their sanity and to save their relationship – get in the way of the biological parents speaking. Breakups suck, and when a child is involved, it’s best to put your feelings to the side and support the child – not the demands of partners who may feel hurt.
Legally, stepparents have no rights over the child, unless adoption has been sought after and won. For example, my stepdaughter recently wanted to get her ears pierced. She wanted to me to go with her. While this was amazing (and made my pierced-up face super happy) her father had to be there to give permission because my name is not on her birth certificate. And that’s just something as simple as an ear piercing. Another fun fact? If you marry your partner and they have a child – your income can be counted in how much the child should receive from their birth parent for child support.
I’ve been lucky with my stepparenting, because my stepdaughter has known me so long that she really doesn’t know life without our unit. But, things are weird. People often ask me who I am at social gatherings, or ignore me at kids’ birthday parties since I’m not her real mom. (Which, to be fair, has gotten me out of a lot of terrible events…) My stepdaughter is still unsure about how to introduce me, especially when her friends ask, “Is that your mom?” Social awkwardness aside, there’s always the question of where I fit in. Do I come, guns blazing, and try to get her to clean her room? Nope. When she was younger, did I try to keep her from doing things that would have hurt her or caused her harm? Yep. What it comes down to is simple – I’m not her mom. I’m not there to change her life or tell her what to do. My role is to support. I support her dad on days that parenting is tough, I help pay for the outrageous cost of dance recital costumes and I’m there if she needs to talk. I’m the behind-the-scenes person, cheering her on and offering the small tidbits of advice that I can.
Let’s hear it for the stepparents, ladies and gents. It’s not easy taking in a child who’s not your own to mentor, support and be behind without being overbearing and without the mentality that just because the kiddo isn’t yours, they don’t deserve love, too.
And while I brace for the day that my stepdaughter screams out, “You can’t tell me what to do, you’re not my REAL MOM!” I know that I am going to say, “No, I’m not, but I still love you.” Because that’s what I’m here for – love and support. Then, I’ll pour myself a stiff drink.