“Do you like 80s music?” he asks. His high-pitched tone makes me think of a little girl.
I hesitate, “I like some.”
“I love it!” then he starts singing “Hungry Like a Wolf” at me.
I’m twenty-five, and in that moment, I suddenly realize what I’ve gotten myself into. And that scares me for the first time ever.
“He” was my partner’s youngest child – a boy of ten, and this was the first time I had ever spoken to him.
My partner asked both of his children to talk to me on Skype one afternoon after I had already made the decision to move across the world to be with him. They were both eager to talk to me. They knew who I was. I was Dad’s girlfriend. I was… The other woman.
“I built a website,” she says to me.
“Oh really? Is it wysiwyg? Or html?” I ask.
“HTML,” she answers.
“Do you use CSS, then?” I’m certain a twelve-year old couldn’t code HTML by herself.
“I use style sheets,” she answers. After a pause, “You’re cool.”
I start imagining I’m going to be her confidant. That when a boy wants to go “all the way” I’ll be the person she will come for advice. I realize I’m ill-suited to discuss those kinds of things, and I get scared all over again.
The oldest turned thirteen not long after I moved to be with my partner, and the youngest was eleven before the end of the year. Their childhoods were nearly over, yet here I was – an impromptu stepmother to two children.
The separation of their parents had been a long time coming, but it didn’t hurt them any less. The tragedy was that I came into the picture not long after that, and I worried resentment would hurt what relationship we would have.
I was lucky, though. The kids liked me immediately. They were so excited to meet me, and I was not prepared for that. I was ready to work for their love. I was ready to be hated. I was ready to be known as the wicked stepmother.
They respected their father, and they trusted his decisions. He had told them I was nice and pretty cool, so they had no cause to think I wasn’t going to be good for him. They were as supportive of me as I could ever want.
I walked into a relationship knowing full well that I would have to help take care of two children. My partner and I had discussions about custody, and both kids would be living with us half the time. The amicable separation of mother and father meant that they had agreed to joint custody. I was actually be there to raise two children.
What I wasn’t prepared to discover was that being a stepmother to children with a mother meant I was still kept at arm’s length. The decisions surrounding how they were raised went to mother and father, and I was only there to enforce them. I learned early on that I could not dole out punishment, that I should not come between mother and father’s decisions, that I was and never would be a mother.
I chose to love them as my own, nonetheless. They are the only kids I will ever have, and I knew that even then. I never say the words to them. It’s too difficult. Too easy to get hurt. Even I know it’s a hard pill to swallow when you love someone but never really know if they love you back.
I was an impatient and unforgiving parent, and many of the decisions I thought I made correctly (like making them eat the foods I cooked or go hungry) were initially overruled. I had to learn from my mistakes quickly, and I was forced to learn their parenting-style on-the-go. The ultimate on-the-job training, really.
The biggest lesson I had to learn, though, was that I would never be their confidant. If they had a problem, they went to mother or father first. I never had the difficult conversations. I never got to help with homework. I never got to hold them when they were down. I was separated from all of that. I was just needed to pick them up, cook their meals, and encourage them to make the right decisions. I was more nanny than parent.
A lot of stepparenting websites will tell you that what I did was right (at the time I never read a single one), and I can confirm that I have a good relationship with both of children. I can confirm that we found common interests and used them to build a strong relationship.
My stepson still lives with us, and he actively watches TV shows with me or plays video games and board games. My stepdaughter lives separate to us, but from time-to-time, I will get a text message or FB message from her about events or things she found that she likes and thinks I’ll like as well.
I am not their mother. Nor do I want to take her place, and that’s how I know I succeeded at this stepparenting thing. Because I never did.