Cinderella Was Wrong About Stepmoms

She was nervous, sensitive, and a perfectionist, and she was a sudden mother to three. Nothing prepares you for that.

Stepmothers don’t exactly have the best reputations. From Lady Tremaine in Cinderella to Mary Gothel in Tangled, having a stepmom in movies means being locked in the attic or hours of scrubbing the floor.
So when my dad’s girlfriend moved in, I wasn’t sure what to expect. She was a journalist and photographer named Annie with long wavy black hair and round glasses. She moved in with us a few weeks after our mother left and brought with her boxes of newspapers, a Nikon Camera, and a fondness for carrot and raisin sandwiches.
I imagine she wasn’t sure what to expect either. Perhaps she had visions of baking cookies and evenings snuggled on the couch. Instead, she became the evil stepmother to three unhappy children recovering from their parent’s divorce who missed their mother.
When Annie came into our lives, I wet the bed, could barely read, and wasn’t doing well in school. She managed to change all that. In less than a year, I had read the most books in my class, got straight As, and moved to the higher class at school. I remember writing “I love Annie” on a sticker and putting it on my bed headboard.
Yet, living with Annie wasn’t easy. Unable to have children of her own, she tried to be more than a caregiver in our lives – she wanted to be our mother. But when you already have one absent but real mother, you punish the person who’s present.
And punish we did. Nothing she did was good enough, and we complained a lot. One time she threw me a sleepover birthday party, and I told her I hated her. There was the time I got off the bus at my best friend’s house, 30 minutes away, and didn’t call. And the many times I sounded so excited to talk to my real mother on the phone, just to see the reaction on Annie’s face.
Not that Annie didn’t have her faults. She was nervous, sensitive, and a perfectionist, and she was a sudden mother to three. Nothing prepares you for that.
My sister and I like to say that Annie left over an Oreo cookie. We laugh about it as if it doesn’t have that much importance. But it does. My sister was having a class party and Annie bought her a pack of Oreo cookies to take the next day. As the evening progressed we pilfered one cookie after the other until by the morning there was none left, just an empty box. The next morning, Annie discovered the empty box and became upset. I remember lots of fighting with my dad behind closed doors. A few days later, Annie left, taking all her newspapers and knitted socks.
Instead of pizzas made of English muffins we came home to beans on the wood stove and short note from our dad telling us to not watch television.
That wasn’t the last we heard from Annie. She moved close by for a time and worked for the school, so we saw her regularly. My memories of that time are of festivals getting my face painted and making cheesecake. Although she would be the first one to remind me that we probably only did those things once.
About a year later, she moved to Montana to care for her aging father. I wonder if it ever occurred to her that she left like our mother did?
Still, she kept in touch. She never forgot a birthday or a Christmas. When I needed help with my applications for college, she gave me notes and edits. In my 20s, she pushed my dad to send me to Italy to study because he had promised years before. Later, when I found out I was pregnant with my son, she was the first to send me a gift. In fact, she flew two states to watch him for a weekend, so we could get some rest. No one else had even offered.
When I look around my home, her photographs line the walls and refrigerator. Family albums are filled with her shots of me growing up. She always managed to capture that perfect moment where a person’s true essence comes forward. I asked her once how she could snap so many great shots so quickly. She shrugged and said “I’ve been doing it for so long.”
I’m not the only one she helps. She fights for people with disabilities by going to city council meetings to demand more handicapped parking. She takes pictures at people’s weddings for free and then sends them all the pictures in a photo album. When she sees an injustice she’s determined to correct it. She does this with her words and camera.
I read once that a child only really needs one person to care about them. This person doesn’t have to be a parent. I’ve been lucky enough to have Annie. She’s the one who sends me saved newspaper clippings of the time I was in a school play or the pumpkin poem I wrote in 3rd grade.
Now that I’m a mom, I realize how hard it must have been for her to raise three kids not her own. I realize how much love and determination it took to stay for the four years that she did. I understand the sacrifice. I understand the love.
I have a lot to be thankful for when it comes to my stepmom. She gave me my love of reading and writing, and still, after all these years, she’s determined to never stop loving me. For that, I’ll forever be thankful.

What It Really Means To Love Like A Mother

Mothering is so much bigger than grocery lists and school projects. Mothering happens when the child in front of you needs deep and unconditional love.

She stands in the kitchen looking at me. Her hair is stringy and needs to be brushed. She’s shifting from side to side uncomfortably, unsure of what I’m doing there or what to say.
Her brother overdosed last night. Her mother is my good friend, and the swirling vortex of grief and community sucked me into her kitchen, stocking the refrigerator and tidying the counters because that feels like something when there’s nothing.
“I don’t know how to make lasagna,” she says, glancing at the pan I’m sliding into the freezer.
“That’s okay, sweetheart. I can show you.” I begin to walk her through how to preheat the oven.
She interrupts me. “I don’t know what to do next.”
I pause, and look at the shattered girl standing next to me. “No one does, love. Sometimes, when really terrible things happen, nothing comes next. Sometimes we just sit together in the awfulness.”
I haven’t seen this lanky 22-year-old in years. I knew her when she was in grade school. As the years passed, she breezed in and out of my girls’ nights with her mom, and was off to college faster than any of us expected. She’s a woman I don’t know.
But I know her today. Today she’s a girl standing in the kitchen in search of a mother, and she found me.
I stroke her hair and hold her hand and we stand together unmoving as the oven beeps.

I started loving like a mother sixteen years ago

Simon was born after a day-long labor, angry, red and screaming. The doctor held him up and, for a split second, I thought he’d pulled the baby out from under the table, like a medical magician. I expected to feel overwhelmed by love and gratitude and motherhood, but I felt none of those things. I just felt tired.
That disconnected feeling lasted through the next day. The nurses would bring him to me and we’d say all the right things and go through the motions of nursing and burping and changing, but it felt like an elaborate game of make-believe. This wasn’t my baby. This wasn’t real.
In the pre-dawn hours of our last day, I was walking the halls with my IV pole, following my doctor’s orders to move my body. I was alone in the corridor and heard a baby in the nursery start to cry.
“That’s Simon,” I thought, and then instantly laughed at myself. How would I know Simon’s cry? I’d only just met him, after all. I kept walking.
On my next lap, I met a nurse pushing a bassinet out of the nursery.
“Mrs. Chapman! You’re up! I was just bringing your little boy to you. Simon was crying and I didn’t want him to wake the others. He needs his mommy.”
So the mother in me was born.
Many years and many children later, I often fool myself into thinking that the business of mothering is carpooling and filling out forms and sitting in the bleachers. I confuse mothering with picking up shoes, clearing the table, and shouting up the stairs that it’s time to go for real. I diminish mothering with prefixes and qualifiers: single, divorced, foster, and step.
I’m wrong. That’s just the daily noise of it.

Mothering is so much bigger than grocery lists and school projects

Mothering happens when the child in front of you needs deep and unconditional love. It happens when she needs a safe place to land. It happens when he needs a champion.
I’ve mothered a 13-year-old boy who’d just come out to his deeply religious parents. It hadn’t gone well. He was worried he’d broken his family and hurt his mother and might never fit in. Simon dragged him off the bus and brought him home for mothering. I fed him meatloaf and mashed potatoes and reminded him his mother and father loved him beyond reason.
Sometimes parents get a little lost in the details, but that doesn’t make the love any less real.
I’ve mothered a four-year-old girl who was so banged up and broken from the three foster homes she’d been through already. She was awful. She locked my baby Caden in a box and shoved him under the bed. She set fires. It was everything I could do to advocate for her, pushing for therapy and medication. Truthfully, it was hard to like her, but for that chapter in our lives, she was mine to mother, and I loved her fiercely.

Loving like a mother isn’t unique to me

My children’s group leaders, teachers, stepmother, grandmothers, and aunts have loved them like mothers. Their friends’ mothers have set places at their dinner tables and offered a shoulder when they needed one. I’m quite sure I don’t know the half of how my children have benefitted from the rich love of other mothers. It’s a strange feeling to walk around grateful for something you know is happening but haven’t witnessed directly.
Loving like a mother isn’t bound by blood, paperwork, or gender. It isn’t qualified by the word that comes before the title. It isn’t found in limited quantities. Its presence doesn’t diminish the love of other mothers.
Loving like a mother is simply defined by the object of that love. When you love someone unconditionally, in the way they need to be loved in that moment, you love like a mother. And the world is richer for it.
This piece was originally published on the author’s blog, This Life in Progress.

If You Do Divorce Right, Your Kids Will Thank You in 30 Years

I knew deep down that my parents really did care for our best interests because of the way they treated each other in front of us.

My parents divorced when I was 10 years old. They sat my big brother and me down on the couch and told us together. They told us that they’d always do what was best for us, even if it was hard. I wasn’t completely shocked but, of course, I was sad. Life changed after that, we all moved around to different homes and apartments, and visitation schedules were put in place without our input. I remember feeling fairly calm throughout it all. My ten-year-old self perceived my parents to be in control and organized. I know now that probably wasn’t really the case, but they put their brave faces on and I bought it.

From the very beginning, special days were spent together. My dad would come over to Mom’s house for our birthday dinners. He was always with us on Christmas morning when Mom would make a big brunch and we’d open presents together. We walked out together, one parent on each arm, at halftime in the Homecoming football game when I was a member of the court. Everyone was present and sitting together at my graduations.

This isn’t to say there was never tension, or that everything was perfect. Even so, I knew deep down that my parents really did care for our best interests and were trying hard for us kids. I knew because of the way they treated each other in front of us.

My dad remarried in the spring of my senior year of college. I was married just a few months later. All three of my parents, Mom, Dad, and my new stepmom, were a part of my wedding. We have a family picture with all of us together. The thought of any drama between them never even crossed my mind. I knew they’d be civil to each other.

After my wedding, I was technically a grown woman. At that point, my parents lived in different cities. During the holidays I often wished it were easier to visit everyone at the same time, or wished I could call just one house, instead of two, to check in and chat. It could be hard to schedule get-togethers and divide time equally between everyone. We made it work as best as we all could.

When my husband and I had babies, all three grandparents were there to help. All three are active in my daughters’ lives. I can send a group text to Mom, Dad, and my stepmom of the girls’ first days of school, or of the girls in their Halloween costumes. I can send group emails and not worry about any awkwardness between the recipients. I hadn’t really given much thought to the beautiful divorce my parents continue to have until just a few months ago when my mom’s father died.

There I was, 38 years old, sitting in the church for Grandpa’s funeral. In walked my dad, stepmom, stepbrother, my dad’s mother, and two of dad’s sisters. I was so touched to see them all there, supporting my brother and me, but also showing us that divorce didn’t sever the relationships within our extended families. I listened as my mom told them all to “sit up front with the family.”

My parents have been divorced for almost 30 years and yet they still strive to do their divorce right. I can look back and sincerely thank them for sticking to their word and doing what is best for their kids and now their grandkids. I know it couldn’t have always been easy. I feel so abundantly loved through all that they do to maintain a relationship for our sake. Doing divorce right, working hard to create a beautiful divorce despite the mess and hurt, is something children like me will thank their parents for. Especially in 30 years.

A Family Without Neat and Tidy Edges is Still a Family

When I’d envisioned my life and future family it lacked any mess or complications. What I, in fact, produced, has been quite the opposite.

We sat around our well-worn kitchen table bearing deep scars from long forgotten but most certainly forbidden, hours of playtime fun, fingernail polish covering almost an entire end, leisurely discussing our day, when some unidentifiable provocation caused my five-year-old daughter to interject:
“I just have one question. Who even is your Dad?”
I shot a pleading glance across the table at my husband. What was the five-year-old appropriate answer to this question? My husband offered no backup. Instead he shrugged compliantly, as if to say, “There’s only the truth.”
My daughter plunged onward. “I mean, I know Nana is your mom, but I’ve never heard you talk about your dad, so I’m just wondering, like, do you even have a dad?”
 
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All eyes at the table stared at me expectantly. “Eh-hem. I want to preface this by saying your Daddy will never, ever not want to be your Daddy anymore. He loves you very much. That will never change, okay?”
My daughter shook her head knowingly and said, “So your dad decided he didn’t want to be your dad, and so then you just kind of got a new dad?”
I pondered. “Actually, yes. That’s exactly what happened.”
“But you don’t see the new dad very often. That’s why I don’t know him?”
“Right.”
“Okay. That’s what I thought. I just wanted to make sure.”
Before I knew it, she was back to discussing which toy she’d most prefer on her next birthday or at Christmas, and I was reeling over how complex this life we lived was, and over what a freaking genius I was raising. How could such complex, layered issues be laid out so simply for her?
My husband and I are blessed with three children to love: his daughter from his first marriage, my son from my first marriage, and our wildly inquisitive daughter together.
When I’d envisioned my life and future family – as one does, perhaps, in the eighth grade, while Mrs. Robertson drones on about an algebraic equation that might as well be Egyptian hieroglyphics – it contained neat and tidy edges, lacking any mess or complications. What I, in fact, produced, has been quite the opposite.
It seems I may be quite prone to “Who’s your Daddy” sort of complications.
In the early days of the blending of our family, I often wondered what in the world we’d done. I watched our older children pack little bags like tiny vagrants and wander back and forth from home to home. I cried myself to sleep thinking surely we’d ruined their lives forever.
It wasn’t that this shuffle wasn’t already occurring, from Mom’s house, now to Dad’s or vice versa. It was all the new players in the game. It was the new normal we’d given them to adjust to right when they had adjusted to the old one. It was the two new homes and families forming with different sets of rules and cultures. I couldn’t fathom how disorienting it all must be.
I knew my husband and I had chosen this. But our children had simply been plunged into yet another new landscape without a map to guide them. It seemed so cruel. How would we ever create a tiny universe within our home where everyone felt safe, valued, loved, seen, and yet still free to love the people within their other home with the fullness of their hearts? How would we ever help facilitate and support those relationships while also nurturing the ones within our own home?
When I got pregnant with my daughter, I kept myself up at night wondering how I would one day explain to her that her brother and sister had different parents than she did. How would I explain why her brother and sister sometimes went to live at other homes while she stayed behind? What would this teach her about the permanence and stability of homes, parents, and family units?
Within 48 hours of delivering my daughter, my son’s father came to pick him up for the week. At that moment, I realized how much of their lives my son and daughter would spend apart. I cried until my tears intermingled with the honey mustard dressing on my salad and the two became indistinguishable.
Along the way, the questions have come.
“Who is my sister’s Mom?”
“Why do I not have another Dad?”
“Why did you decide to marry Daddy?”
Oddly, the answers that came to me in these moments surprised me: “Because, baby, there is life after divorce.”
These words were spoken to me when life was still little more than rubble and ash in the freshly new ruin of divorce. I clung to them, believing they would hold true for me. There would be life for me again.
Divorce was never the ending I envisioned for myself. Nor, was trading out my own dad as a grown woman. Life is complex and imperfect. We don’t always find ourselves at the ending we’d anticipated or hoped for.
And yet, there is life after the first act.
I’ve come to realize there is goodness in my daughter learning this now. While it sometimes makes for tricky dinnertime conversation (and I confess to cringing when she explains the intricate details of our “Who’s your Daddy” set-up to random cashiers), I can assure you there is life, and life abundant, albeit a bit complex.
Who is your Daddy? Not sure? Is the answer tricky to pin down? Who is your baby-Daddy? Is that complicated, as well?
Good news: Life is complex regardless. Perhaps, yes, your five-year-old will spill all of your business at the grocery store. But if this is the worst that happens to any of us, I’d say we’re doing pretty well after all.

Let Go of the Guilt, Love Is Enough

Guilt. From the moment our children are born or even when we first feel those little flutters and kicks, it consumes us.

Moms experience almost constant worry and guilt. From the moment our children are born or even when we first feel those little flutters and kicks, it consumes us. We worry about our children every second of every day and for many sleepless hours in the night when things are dark and quiet and our minds can really take control. This worry and guilt, it’s forever. 

With one child now in high school, I am grappling with the very real fact that in three short years, she could be living somewhere other than under my roof. I can only imagine what my nighttime thoughts will be then…

Moms worry about every single step of parenthood: Did I stop breastfeeding too soon? Did I breastfeed too long? Should I have tried harder to breastfeed? Was it wrong to let them cry it out? Was it wrong to pick them up right away? Did I start solids too early and cause allergies? Did I wait too long to start solids and cause allergies? Do they eat enough vegetables? Do they eat enough of anything? Should I be more firm? Why do I yell all the time? Why aren’t they speaking? Why aren’t they walking? Why won’t they use the toilet? Am I pushing them hard enough in school? Should I push them harder in school? Should I know their friends better? Should I respect their privacy? Should I have let them quit the team? Should I have pushed them to try out for the team? On and on and on and on and on, and the emotions are always the same: worry and guilt. No matter which direction we took or which decision we made, moms always feel guilty about the outcome and question if we’re somehow letting our children down. It’s exhausting.

I have a message for all of you amazing moms out there: it’s going to be okay.

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When I was a little girl, my parents rented a farm for the first truly memorable years of my life. My father was an alcoholic and a pathological liar, so obviously things were not easy for my mom. We were extremely poor. My father spent every penny that he could get his hands on to buy alcohol or eat out at a local pub while his children and wife were at home with nothing to eat. 

My mom doesn’t talk about those years very often and I’m always surprised when she does. There’s such sadness and regret in her voice when those memories surface. She talks about the fear, the sadness, and the poverty; about feeding my brother and me oatmeal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner because it was filling and there was no money for groceries. She talks about buying large men’s jeans at the Salvation Army and using them to cut and sew overalls for my brother and me. She talks about surviving thanks to our large garden and our animals. I can hear the guilt in her voice. I can hear how desperately she must have wanted a different life for us. 

Here’s the thing, I don’t remember this time period in the same way she does at all. I remember a magical place filled with rolling fields and animal friends. She remembers a crappy plastic swimming pool and a rusty swing set. I remember a place where I pretended I was in the ocean on hot summer days and swings where I used to imagine I was flying to far-off lands. I had no idea that our garden was the only reason we would have food into the winter. I remember that a carrot pulled from the ground with a bit of dirt still clinging to it was delicious. I remember watching her can and preserve, the jars filled with color, and the time spent with her in the kitchen. I remember her showing me how to knead bread and the laughter we shared while doing it. I had no idea that our chickens were the only reason we ate some days, I just remember how proud I was when she showed me how to collect the eggs and then gave it to me as my own special job. I didn’t know that we were “missing out” on store-bought yogurt, I only knew that I desperately loved the goats that provided our yogurt, and that I got to help my favorite goat bring her triplets into this world when I was a very little girl. I remember adventures in fields where the wind blew grass that was taller than me; finding fiddleheads hidden in the dark, cool woods; where the chokecherry bushes were, and helping my mom pick them and watching in our kitchen as she made jam. 

No matter how much pain, frustration, desperation, and, yes, guilt she may have been feeling, I don’t remember. I had no idea. I know she worried constantly about not being enough and not having enough, and she didn’t need to. I remember a woman who was always laughing with us, a woman who always had hugs and cuddles and read us extra stories no matter how exhausted she must’ve been. I remember a woman who knew how to grow anything, cook anything, bake anything, and who taught me to respect animals and the earth, probably without having any idea she was doing it. I remember thinking my mom was the strongest person in the world. That has never changed.

Fast forward to my twenties. Even though my mom went on to leave my dad and eventually meet and marry my step-dad, changing our lives dramatically for the better, I still managed to meet and marry a man almost exactly like my father. I had my first two children with him. He was also an alcoholic with assorted other addictions and emotional issues. Life wasn’t easy. After our children were born I spent almost every day worrying about what I had brought them into. I was consumed with guilt that this was their lives and powerlessness to change it for them. 

If the funds were not available for their father to spend on his assorted habits or whatever material possessions he felt would make him happier, he would turn into an angry, emotionally abusive person who would fill me with such fear and dread that I would simply give in, letting him have what he wanted to keep the peace. Then the money ran out and, while he got what he wanted, I couldn’t pay our bills and struggled to buy groceries. There were countless dinners of hot dogs and macaroni because I knew the kids would eat it and it was all I could afford on our insanely tight budget. So many hot dogs. I worried and worried about not feeding the kids properly.

I felt like a robot. I was getting up every day and doing what needed to be done to get through the day at work and then the very long nights. I remember the guilt of feeling that I wasn’t emotionally available for my children. There were no vacations or special activities because I couldn’t afford them. However, there were walks in the swamp and the woods, frog catching, and turtle finding. Yet I always felt like I wasn’t doing enough when we watched other families go away on amazing trips or head off to weekends at water parks. 

Then the money became even tighter (if that was possible) and I couldn’t find the funds to indulge their father’s whims. He became even angrier. The yelling and insults increased tenfold.  So we stayed in the tub far longer than we needed to or should have, every single night, waiting for their father to pass out and for the coast to be clear. We sang and sang and made up games and stories in that bathroom, and we survived. 

Yet the guilt continued to consume me. How could I let them live this way? Finally, one day, we ran and didn’t go back. Life became so much better and so much easier, and I married an amazing man who is an incredible father to all four of our children (we had two more). Even though we left that life behind, the guilt followed. The worry followed. I still questioned, every single day, what damage I had allowed to be done to my children by staying for so long. 

Then, one day, my older two children and I were watching television together and the people on the cooking show were asking what memories people had of their childhood kitchens. What did they smell and feel like? My oldest son turned to me and said, “Mom, do you know what I remember from being really little?”

I cringed inwardly. Here it was, the moment I’d been dreading. 

He said, “I remember hot dogs and love.” 

Hot dogs and love? Really? I was as shocked as I was relieved, and then of course amused. The three of us started to chat a bit. The kids talked about all the songs I sang at bath time that they loved so much, and the extra stories at bedtime. They talked about how funny it was to watch Mommy climb into the muddy swamp barefoot to try and catch frogs, and the countless walks and animals we spotted and the trips to our free local zoo. Whether or not they remember how truly awful things were at the time, what they have focused on is the love. They remember the time I spent with them and the love I showed them.

Here’s the thing: this Mother’s Day let’s take a break from the worry and the guilt, shall we? Life is challenging and heartbreakingly difficult at times. At the end of the day, what our children remember most are the stories we read, the snuggles we gave, and the time that we shared with them. They recall when we showed them how important they are, what they mean to us, and when we made them feel safe. Those are the memories and moments that will sustain them through the hard times in their lives. We can worry ourselves sick and let the mommy guilt eat us up inside, but all that truly matters to our children is that we love them and that we show them that every day. Love: that’s what they will remember the most.

A Guide to Embracing Your Role as a Stepdad

You may never have expected to find yourself in a dad-like role. But here are a few things to remember when you’re just getting started being a stepfather.

I met my stepson the day after Christmas, barely over a year ago. For the most part, I’ve become a pretty tough man, emotionally distant and guarded. Despite this, I was still nervous to meet the boy who would become a part of my family.
When I met him, he was just two months shy of three years old. I’ve always loved and wanted kids, but the past year or two led me to push any hopes and dreams of parenthood aside. I’d gone through a divorce that left me thinking I should be single and without kids the rest of my life. Obviously, all that has changed.
I’m used to kids pretty much warming up to me in a heartbeat. This was different. I’m not sure if he was shy or if he saw me as a threat. After all, he wasn’t used to a man being around his mother. Either way, he didn’t pay me much mind. Perhaps he was just as shy to talk to me as I was to talk to him.
It’s cliché to say, but reality hit me that night. He was loved, taken care of, and given undivided attention by his mother. This love was something I wouldn’t ever know again, nor could I remember. To love as a mother does was a feeling I would never grasp. This scared the crap out of me. That little boy playing teatime and getting the choice between strawberry and chocolate milk was her world and she was his. How could I compare?
I’m happy to say, that much of that has changed and his mother and I have a successful co-parenting relationship and he sees me as a parent as well.
In the past year I’ve learned a lot, so here are a few things to remember when you’re just getting started on being a stepfather. All of these tips apply to any gender, but speaking from my own experience they will be put in mostly heteronormative terms.

1 | Don’t expect them to understand partnership right away

I remember hearing his mother’s voice on the other side of the door, saying that she was having a “friend” over. It didn’t hurt, but it reminded me that a child simply can’t grasp the concept of partnership. After all, he was used to his dad living in one place and his mother in another. Eventually, the child will be excited to know that you love their parent. I remember my spouse explaining to my stepson what “engaged” means.
“He gave me this ring to show that he loves me,” she said.
“I want a ring!” was his answer.

2 | Accept the fact that you are not the biological parent

For months I was insecure about the fact that he just saw me as some guy who came over and spent time with him and his mom. Eventually, it hit me that, at three years old, it’s hard to understand much more than that. Don’t worry, sooner or later they connect the dots.
Part of being a stepfather is recognizing that you haven’t been with that kid all their life like their biological parents have. It takes time to develop trust with an adult and probably just as much, if not more to develop it with a child.
Remember, blood is not always family. I’ve known a lot of deadbeat dads in my time, be they stepfathers or not, which has told me that love and attention are more important than titles like mother and father. As Keanu Reaves says in“Parenthood” – “You need a license to buy a dog or drive a car. Hell, you need a license to catch a fish! But they’ll let any (explicit) be a father.”
If they’re older, they might have those “You’re not my real dad,” emotions, but in my experience when they’re young, this kind of thing is probably all in your head, so be proud to call yourself a stepparent.

3 | Patience, patience, and more patience

I cannot stress this enough, but patience is always key. My connection to my stepson was not an instant bond. In truth, I thought he hated me.
At first, I was intimidated by the fact that, like me, he loved his mother more than anything. I came to realize that this was our common bond. Kids sense love and by seeing that I loved her and treated her well, he came to know that I was someone to look up to and trust. They say we learn to treat our spouses from the way our parents treat each other. I can only hope that I set the best example I can, the same way my father did.
So what did I do? I took my time. We made a tradition of having me over for dinner each Sunday night. I played with him every now and then, though it took time for him to even remember my name. I didn’t take part in any kind of discipline. Instead, I remained behind the scenes, giving her advice where I could and helping out with simple chores like making dinner, cleaning up his clothes, and putting away laundry. I made a habit of keeping up with tasks he trusted me to do, like buckling him into his car seat or handing him his dinner.
Next thing I knew I was singing along to “Twinkle, Twinkle” on the way home from his father’s and helping with potty training by bonding on the fact we could both pee standing up. We would take him to the playground to wear him out before dinner and one day, after he fell asleep in the car, I offered to carry him up to the apartment for his mom. “Hold me,” he said as he woke up, and for the first time, my partner got to see me carry him as though he were mine.
A biological parent has the advantage of having always been there. They have always been a figure of authority and a figure of nourishment. With enough time and effort, you can be too.

4 | Understand that the child will always be your partner’s first priority

Unless you have kids of your own, this one is hard to understand.
The biological parent has created life and that life will come before anything else. They will feed their children before they feed themselves. They will work any job to pay bills and keep a roof over their heads. This means that you may have to spend less time with your partner because they’re busy taking care of their child. If you want to maintain a healthy relationship, you need to be supportive. Stand behind your partner when times are rough. Until you are truly declared a stepparent, they are a single parent and that’s no easy task.

5 | Don’t discipline right away

She may appreciate your advice as long as it’s not anything aggressive. Men, especially, are often under the impression that only other men can give proper discipline, that mothers are just sort of weak when it comes to keeping their kids in line, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
A study done by the National Institutes of Health says that to be effective, discipline needs to be “given by an adult with an effective bond to the child.” Unless you’ve developed this bond, it’s too early to start disciplining a child.
I used to think that by raising my deep voice, I could back my partner up when she told her child to do something, but all he did was smile at me. Remember, humans learn by example and the example you set will always be more important than any kind of discipline. I would venture to say that yelling, demanding, and using intimidation are just ways to make your child even more defiant.
It might drive you crazy to just sit and watch as he bites your partner, spits, and does all manner of bratty and mean things. Hang in there. If you’re in this for the long run, (which you’d better be,) sooner or later you’ll get to help. That won’t be easy either, but a single parent will be very grateful for any contribution. You’ll find that contributing and supporting them might be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.

6 | When helping out your partner, remember this phrase: Praise, Correct, Praise

This is a mantra I learned during my time teaching martial arts as a teenager. It applies both to helping your partner and parenting.
First, praise them, “Hey, you do a really good job of putting him to bed each night.” Correct them, “I think you could stand to be a bit more patient when dropping him off at school.” Praise again, “However, I really liked how you offered a reward for good behavior.”
This could also be called positive, critical, positive. If you start off with a critical statement, it negates any kind words. If you begin and end with a positive statement, it can help give your partner confidence while still getting the feedback they need to improve.

7 | Remember that sometimes just having you around is all your partner needs

If your partner has been a single parent for many years, or in many cases, since the child’s birth, chances are they are excited to have someone else around their kid. They are also putting an incredible amount of trust in you, and once that trust is broken it may not be regained. You may feel useless, but I assure you, you are not. It is my sincere belief that the majority of single parents find joy in any kind of help or support that you offer, even if it just means being there for them when the going gets tough.
It’s the little things that count. Baby steps.

Some questions to ask yourself:
  • What does being a parent mean to you?
  • Do you envision yourself having more children with your partner in the future?
  • Does your frustration or happiness show around your partner and stepchild?
Plans for the future:
  • Take the time to sit back, watch your partner and learn. Participate when asked to, but first and foremost, observe. Be seen and not heard until called upon.
  • Talk to your partner about any insecurities you might have.
  • Support your partner’s methods; don’t just do things your way. This creates negative tension. If you oppose their method, say it away from the child.

How I Teach My Daughter About True Love

The best we can do to teach our daughters about loving a good man is to lead by example.

I know it’s so important to raise your children to be hard-working and have strong morals. We give them the best education we can so they can build a bright future for themselves and be independent. Which I do, don’t get me wrong. But, I hope for so much more for my daughter.

My greatest hope for my daughter, once she is grown, is to know the love of a good man.

I want my daughter to understand how a man treats a woman.

I’m not talking about gender-specific roles from the olden days. My husband cooks dinner for our family, and I mow the yard. I take out the trash, and he starts the laundry. There’s no bread-winner in our home or homemaker. We both work and we both make our home run smoothly. We are a team.

I’m talking about good old-fashioned chivalry.

My husband always gets out in the cold to fill the car up with gas, even if I’m driving. He always rushes ahead to hold open the door wherever we go. When we cross the street or take the stairs, he holds out his arm to make sure I don’t fall and always walks closest to the street. When we go to a restaurant, he always pulls out his wallet to pay, even though all of our money is coming from the same account.

I know it sounds silly, but my daughter is watching. 

They say children are a product of their environment, a product of their parents. Well, in our family, it sure feels like that must be true. My parents are divorced. So are my husband’s. And so are my daughter’s.

Yes, my husband is her step-father. She has, unfortunately, seen every dynamic of a broken home that she can. She has step-cousins, step-aunts, and step-uncles. She has more grandparents and step-grandparents than any child I’ve ever known.

But, what may be hardest of all: she has a half-sister born to two married parents who love each other and have loved each other all her little life.

I know that for my youngest daughter, finding a wonderful man will be easy. She will look for someone just like her dad. She gets to grow up with someone who is kind and generous. She gets to grow up with someone who loves her with all his heart, someone she can depend on, no matter what.

Most importantly, she gets to grow up with someone who loves her Mom.

I’m trying to teach my oldest daughter that this is possible. That in a world where over half of couples divorce (and well more than half her family does), love still exists.

What’s the easiest way to teach her this? To date my husband.

We still have nights out on our own where we get dressed up for each other. We still find things to talk about that don’t involve the kids. We still hold hands in public and sneak kisses.

In today’s crazy hectic world, it’s very easy to get too busy to be a couple. Kids have homework, games, practice, and lessons. You have work, errands, housework, and carpool. A date night seems impossible. Of everything going on, it’s the first thing to get cut from the list.

But, it can’t.

Your kids may be your world now, but they won’t be forever. Your kids will grow up (or just turn into moody teenagers and have no time for their parents). They will move out and make a family of their own. They may even move far away and have a hard time visiting. They will find their own days filled with work, games, practice, lessons, and carpool.

And what will you have?

Your husband.

In a world where half of couples divorce, I can’t wait until the day my daughter finds herself part of a couple that won’t. I can’t wait to see this vicious cycle come to an end. And I will tell my daughter about the importance of dating her husband.

As a woman, my daughter will have always known love, because she’s grown up watching me love my husband.