What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word stepmother? More than likely, it’s wicked. As a new stepmom, you can imagine I am less than thrilled about this.
Becoming a stepmom was not my first foray into the world of wicked steps – far from it. From a young age, my life was full of family members who weren’t related to me by blood. I had divorced and remarried parents; married to, you guessed it, my stepparents. I grew up with stepsiblings. I have step-aunts and uncles and cousins, even. And actually, I had a step-grandfather long before any of these jokers came on the scene. It’s always funny to think of him as such, because though it was never a secret, it was never a fact of any consequence to me. I referred to my grandparents as my Nana and my Jim. It didn’t matter what name I called him. He was the one making silly faces at me across the dinner table, and the one crouching on the black-and-white tiled floor to feign delight as I played with the Fisher Price Castle for the one-trillionth hour straight. He was mine. And that was that.
As I grew up, though, I began to really hate the word step. Maybe it was one too many sitcoms where an angst-ridden teen yelled YOU’RE NOT MY REAL DAD before slamming her door that gave me a complex. That’s how I worried the world viewed my family: not real. The word step didn’t feel like a descriptor to me so much as it did a qualifier – evidence to the masses that my family wasn’t, quite. But that was just the thing. My step-people were as real as any others. My stepfamily loved me… like family. My stepparents took care of me… like parents. My stepsiblings fought with me… like siblings. At some point along the line, I stopped using the term altogether. I got tired of being on the defensive. I stopped saying step-anything because it felt like a dirty word, an insult, a qualifier to people who did not deserve any qualification. So I quit. I used it when I had to, to explain things, or when asked. I didn’t lie – because I didn’t have to. They were and still are just my family.
I wonder, how did we get here – to this vilification of the steps? Cinderella, sure. Probably a good amount of historical steps who were kind of wicked, too. As with anything, I know some of you will read this having had an entirely different experience than I had. Hear me say that not all step-people are the best people; but not all regular people are either, for that matter. There is something genuinely exquisite about someone choosing to love you regardless of your biological origins. It is, my friends, as real as it comes. Regardless of the circumstances that bring you to your steps, if you’re like me you’ll look back, grateful, and know that your life would have never been the same without them.
So imagine my surprise when I meet my handsome now-husband and his angel-faced daughter, and just like that (a couple years and a lot of fun later), I am a full-time, bonafide stepmom. Not only working it out for myself, this time, but with a tiny person looking to me to show her what’s up. I listened to her, all of 6 and sweet as can be, as I heard her say stepmom for the first time. To describe me. She said it tentatively at first, looking to me for approval. Inside, I cringed – horrified – insulted, even – before realizing, quickly and quietly, how completely insane that is. This is not something hurtful coming out of her tiny face. It comes with no qualification. She is just like me, on that black and white tiled floor, loving someone who loves her and giving not one thought to their title. I am hers, and she knows it. If I do my job right, she always will.
Many years post-adolescence (can I get a hallelujah?!), my defenses are down, and I like that I’m an adult who is confident that my people are mine. I don’t always have to spell it out for everyone. My parents, siblings, cousins, are just what they are. And this little sidekick I’ve happily married into is, and always will be, my daughter. I love those things and they are true, with or without the word step. I want my daughter to grow up knowing that being her any kind of mom is the greatest gift of my life thus far – that calling me her stepmom is the greatest honor she could possibly bestow upon me. I will bear the term proudly, and let my relationship with my daughter speak for itself.
And then, maybe someday, there will be no assumption of wickedness – step won’t be a dirty word. Clarifying a person as your step-someone won’t be construed as an insult, or a qualifier.
It will tell only the lovely story of how they came to be yours.