I wrote before that Step Is Not a Dirty Word. As a stepmom who grew up with the same Cinderella connotations as the rest of you, I remind myself of this often. I am one thousand percent confident of my position in my daughter’s life, as her parent. Differentiating me as a stepmom is, some days, nothing more than a necessary explanation of why my kid excitedly yells “Meggie!” and not “Mommy!” when I pick her up after school.
When my husband and I were engaged, I talked to my girl about the vocab involved in our situation. I asked her permission to refer to her as my daughter – because that is how I think of her. I told her I understood that she had a mom, and told her I was honored to be her stepmom. I’m not the mom. But I am a mom. Another parent to her.
At my house, then, we’re all good. We know who we are to each other and that is the important thing. My girl knows I will pick her up from school, plan her playdates, and wake up with her in the night if her legs hurt. As long as that remains true, you can pretty much say whatever to me and I’m going to feel ok about things. But there is one thing that really gets me, every time. I wish it didn’t, but when I hear you say that I’m not her “real” mom, it stings. Badly.
I know it’s not hateful, most of the time. If anything, it’s a placeholder because everyone wasn’t in on our vocab discussion, and maybe you don’t know the right words to use. You may mean no harm or disrespect at all to me or my relationship with my daughter. Regardless of the intent, it feels like in this distinction, I’m not a real mom. And that distinction hurts my feelings.
The world, Denver, my kid’s school for that matter – is full of moms who came to be moms in all different ways. Moms who adopted, fostered, married into, or gave birth to their kiddos. [I’m sure there are some I’m missing, too, but just to name a few.] You may not have gotten to this point the same way I did. Please know I respect your journey as different, separate than mine. You did different hard work to get to this place.
Whatever your story, if you are doing the brave, hard, vulnerable work of showing up for a child every day no matter what, you’re my hero.
When I see you taking care of your little one, doing all the things to make sure they are safe and happy and healthy, I give you a silent nod of solidarity. I don’t wonder how you came to be volunteering in her classroom or sitting with him at the pediatrician’s office. I assume you pay attention to emails from her teacher and were up with him all night, patiently helping him blow his nose.
And because those things are a part of my day-to-day as well, I feel kindred with you, out here on the battlefield, taking care of the little lives which have been entrusted to us.
Someday, I hope to know what it’s like to be a biological mom, as well as a stepmom. At that point, maybe I won’t feel quite so sensitive to all of this. But even then? I will have been a real mom this whole time, because the fact is this daughter of mine made me one. I am a real mom. Doing the real mom stuff. It’s worth it now – as it’ll be worth it then – to go to bat for any other unconventional mamas out there who might feel that their real mom work is viewed as anything less than.
So if you want to know what you can do for us, for all the moms doing the very real, hard work, but who may have come into motherhood somewhat differently than you did, here’s what you can do. Ask questions, if you have them. I’d love to talk to you about our story. But then? Listen to the answers. Listen to how a parent refers to their child, and vice versa – and respect that way, even if it doesn’t sound the way you assumed it would. Ask, listen, and then respect the answers. Think before you speak: am I clarifying, or quantifying? If it feels more like the latter, reconsider.
Look around you at all of us, in the trenches together; trying to fashion hair to look like Minnie Mouse ears for a school presentation on Walt Disney, trudging through the snow to school pick up, yawning because someone woke up with a nightmare at 3 AM, frazzled and scrambling because it’s been a really long week and we just now remembered we were supposed to bring snacks to soccer today. Show your solidarity. Allow yourself to feel kindred. You will feel validated and valued and real, because you are, and so are we.