When I became a mother to my two boys, it was in the typical fashion: wanting babies, making babies, growing babies, birthing babies, loving babies. I bonded with my baby boys quickly and easily, as I nursed hem, changed their diapers, and cared for them.
When I became a step-mother to my two girls, it was in the typical fashion: dating their dad, loving their dad, marrying their dad, learning to love them. That’s right, I said learning to love them. One of the more important things I have discovered along my step-mothering journey is to allow myself time to love my girls. I don’t know that I ever experienced a crystallizing moment in my life when I knew I loved them, but I can honestly say that I have grown to love them. Yes, there are definitely days in these teen years, when they challenge my loving feelings, but I think that is pretty normal, even among fully biologically related adolescents and their parents. During these trying times I think to myself that it was a really good thing that I became a step-mother when the girls were little. It has allowed us time together when they when they were sweet and cute, before they became hormonal teens.
Juan and I started dating when the girls were 6 and 3. I can still remember the first time I saw Erica. She was in Juan’s car, perched up on her car seat holding an empty bottle. She had long since given up drinking from a bottle, but she still held onto an empty Playtex nurser as her comfort. When I asked her about it, she told me “I just like to hold it.” My heart melted a little. I’d like to say that at that moment I instantly fell in love with that little girl with a quick smile and fly away curls, but I would be perpetuating a myth that becoming a step-mother makes you love your partner’s children automatically. It doesn’t. In fact, becoming a step-mother probably has less to do with love and more to do with compassion and endurance. Step-mothering is a test of love. A test of the love you have for your partner, and the love you have for your family and the family you hope to become.
Juan and I have been married almost 9 years now. This year I will celebrate my 8th Mother’s Day as a step-mom to my girls. Every year, it’s a little awkward, and every year it get’s a little easier. On one of my earlier Mother’s Days as a step-mom, I woke to the sound of activity. Juan let me sleep in a little but I could hear the unmistakable sound of kids trying to stay quiet as they started their Sunday morning. The custodial agreement between Juan and his ex-wife stated that the girls would be with their mom on Mother’s Day. It was our weekend together but of course, they needed to be with their mom on this special day. They were excited to go and share with her the handmade gifts they created at school. When I got up I could see that Olivia had two beautifully wrapped packages waiting on the window seat in the living room. I commented on the packages and she said that the gifts were for her mom and aunt. Olivia left a few minutes later calling out to me, “Happy Mother’s Day,” taking both presents, and leaving me empty handed, and feeling hollow. Ouch.
It’s gotten better since then. I know Juan remembers the bitter sting I felt that morning when I realized that all my efforts caring for the girls went unrecognized. It was a painful lesson, that as much as I cooked their meals, washed their clothes, combed their hair and helped them with their school work, I was just the step-mom. But it was also a lesson in compassion for me, and it continues to remind me that as difficult as step-mothering can be for me, step-daughtering for them is just as difficult. Of course, they love their mother, and even through the teen conflicts we endure right now, I know they love their dad. Loving me, is a little trickier. Isn’t it a fantasy of nearly every child of divorce, no matter what age, that your parents will get back together? How do you love someone who is the obstacle from your parents ever getting remarried? How do you love someone who does the “motherly jobs” without betraying your loyalty to your “real” mother. It’s complicated and I am sure the girls felt conflicted, and still do feel conflicted at times.
That morning was a reminder to me that I needed compassion to fill in gaps as I learned to love my girls. Yes, it hurt, but they needed time to get to know me and what our relationship as step-mother/daughters would be. We needed time to grow to a place where they could love me without feeling they were disloyal to their mom. I needed time to know them, and not feel pressured to love them instantly. Different from bonding with my newborn sons, bonding with my girls is prolonged, and seems to be a more back and forth; a shared process between me and each daughter. This process is evolving still today. It is constant shift in what it means for us to be in relationship with each other, especially since now Olivia lives with us full-time and Erica spends the majority of her days with her mom. Through it all, I am loving their dad, loving my family, and I am loving them.
Happy Mother’s Day to mothers and step-mother’s everywhere.
Mothers Day morning update: Juan surprised me with this link to a video he made and posted to You Tube. Watching it made me realize that through all our years together we have really bonded as a family. Plus, it made me really cry!!