At the center of everything that I'm grateful for in my daily life glows these three shining lights. I tucked the girls into bed for the first time ten Thanksgivings ago. They were all single digits and glitterbombs, all dolls and painted nails, all make believe and dances. They were so gangly and immediate in their emotions, when they looked to me for some guidance, I think I stepped into adulthood for the first time. They came into my life with a lot of love, but I'd be lying if I said I came in knowing anything about being a stepmom, or that being a parent of any kind, especially during early teen years, is simple. To our girls' credit, it's not easy having two houses and four parents all poking into their business, and they navigated it pretty well most of the time. They made it a little easier for us too: they'd switch around, and one of them always kept our house in laughter even when the other went to the dark side.
Somehow - we might have hit the jackpot on this one - they're both shining pretty bright right now, full of creative energy, navigating the middle and late-teens with drive, inspiration, love. Nowadays, with Em already out in the working world, it's generally some combo of us - rarely all 4 - in the same room at the same time. Our house is a whirlwind of the arts - Es always bent over her drawing pads, Em off at auditions or modeling shoots, Darby surrounded by his synths and drum loops, and me working out songs on the guitar.
Just in a wee little social media post I couldn't possibly say how much these three inspire me, but Thanksgiving always means a lot to me because of them, and I keep trying, in my songs and stories, to do them justice. I still tuck them in at night with lights-out talks and back massages. So deeply, deeply grateful to these three for bringing me into their family ten Thanksgivings ago.
As complicated as parent/child relationships can be, stepparenting has this additional challenge:
There is no guarantee of love. Not at the beginning of the relationship with the kids, not through the years, not from the kids toward the stepparent, nor the other way around, at any point.
Stepmothers, in particular, are difficult and complicated for children, because there are loyalties and alliances to the biological mother that the children must navigate. Most times, if the stepmother is there after a divorce in the first family, and there are two households that the children orbit around, the children must learn to adapt to different values, different rules, different cultures, different expectations, different dynamics.
Those differences in households are likely some of the factors that led to the divorce in the first family to begin with, and so the stepmother and biological mother frequently do not share values, leading to dynamics between the two mothers that the children must also navigate. The partner - biological dad, in this case - can get caught in the middle as he himself negotiates between his former and present partners. Children always come first, which means that stepmothers must many times bite their tongues, step aside, acquiesce.
When the stepmother has come to the family without her own biological children, as I did, she is simultaneously childless and a mother. She may, as I did, have deep desire to nurture the stepchildren as she would have nurtured her own. She may find that the children simultaneously accept some nurturing and reject others -- because, after all, they have a biological mother living not far away. The stepmom in this case must find a tenuous, untrod path to walk that is not depicted in any fairy tale, movie, book, or pop culture touchstone. If she doesn't want to be the "evil stepmother," and cannot be the "good mother," she must invent her own role, and move against every depiction she has ever seen of women's roles in the family.
This is what I want to say here:
I have found that the greatest gift of stepmothering is a gift that doesn't come easy. With no guarantee of love, many times a stepmother can close her heart, turn away, reject the child and the biological mother and, in some way, her spouse. In that case, no one wins. The other way is harder, but I have to thank Darby for supporting me in my efforts to always choose an open heart. To soften when I want to flare. To talk when I want to shut down. To go upstairs and give love to those girls when I have wanted to hide.
There is no guarantee of love for stepmothers, but ten Thanksgivings down, I don't doubt the love between me and my girls. When I say that they have been my greatest teachers, this is what I mean: They have taught me again and again, every day since ten Thanksgivings ago, what it means to choose love.