As I sit here, the sounds of my 11-year-old son and my husband wrestling the daylights out of each other (and probably injuring an arm and a kidney or two between them) are literally vibrating through the house, followed by squeals of delights and the yowls of defeat (mostly coming from my husband, it seems). My almost 16-year-old daughter is at church with her aunt and cousin, in one of her favorite spring dresses and my super-tall wedges that fit her almost perfectly. What makes today different than any other day, though, is that it’s Mother’s Day, so I am not at church with her and I’m instead sitting at home, writing.
That may seem weird, except I’m not really their mom – I’m their step-mom. My husband and his ex-wife share joint custody of their two children, so we have them (or one or the other, depending in the season) almost as much as she does. I call them mine, because their father and I, and their mother and their step-father, have been living like this for a decade. (Our youngest has no recollection of a time when he didn’t have four parents.) I love them just as much as I would if they were mine. Parents without step-children would probably disagree with me there, since I’ve repeatedly been told by several supposedly well-meaning busy-bodies that it’s different.
Is it? Can you prove it? Have you lived inside my heart and seen the height and depth and breadth of my love for them? Because unless you have (and I’m pretty sure you’re not God), you can’t say with 100% certainty that it is different. You can say that you think it would be different if I had my own children. You can say that you’re in a similar situation and you know it’s different, and you can even say that you’ve seen multiple situations like mine and you’ve observed the differences. But you can’t say that you know our situation.
But I can tell you that I come from a blended family, and I love my step-brothers and step-sister just as much and just as deeply as I do my biological brother, so it’s not a stretch for me to feel the same about these two children. And I can say I love them just as much as if they were my own because their mom and I have a pretty good relationship, and I react to their successes and failures the same way she does. We’ve talked about how it makes us feel, and we’ve found we feel the same. And I commend her for that, because I can’t say that if the situation were reversed I would handle it as well; that’s how much I do love them.
But back to the layout of today…
I take them to church every other Sunday, sometimes more often depending upon their mom’s work schedule and if we have them back-to-back weekends. So today is weird, because I didn’t take them, and I didn’t go by myself. Why? Because it’s Mother’s Day, and I’m not their mother, nor would I ever try to replace her or pretend I’m equal to her. Maybe in their eyes I am. In fact, I hope they love and respect all four of us – mom, dad, step-dad, and me – equally. That means we’re doing something right. But I can’t fault them if they don’t. Their biological mother and father get to be at the top of the pecking order, and that’s as it should be. We are all equally involved in their lives. We plan and coordinate and re-plan and adjust based on everyone’s needs, and that gets us to school, soccer practices, baseball practices, archery, family events, birthday parties, and everywhere else. And it takes all four of us (they have a younger half-brother who is part of all of the logistics, too). But they have a mother, and I’m not her, and they need to know I understand that.
So, since I’m not their mother, I didn’t go to church. I don’t want to stand up when they do the usual “Recognition of the Mothers” and get the strange looks and the judgments and the stilted applause. I don’t go to “Muffins with Mom” at school every year, and when asked, I tell people they’re my step-children. I don’t want to take any attention away from their real mother, who is very much in the picture and works just as hard to make sure they know and feel secure in how much they’re loved. It’s not my right, it’s not my place, and it’s not my desire to detract from that.
And you know what? It’s hard to know you’re number 2 (or number 4, depending on the day and the kid) forever. That number isn’t exactly equated with great things. (Think about it.) In fact, it really, really sucks some days – especially on the days when not even my husband recognizes the sacrifices I make because life is just that hectic and stressful and it’s hard to notice. I won’t even sit here and lie and say my feelings don’t get hurt, because they do, until I remember that oh yeah, it’s not really about me, is it? It’s still worth it, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I. Chose. This. And I would do it again.
So on Mother’s Day, the oldest gets to spend over half the day with the women in her mother’s family. Because she got the reminder two weeks ago, she already put thought into and bought flowers for her mother and gave them to her. The 11-year-old and I are working together and painting a sign for his mom so she knows he thinks she’s the best mom ever.
Because this day – no matter how commercialized and Hallmarked it may or may not be – is not about me. This day is and should always be about her. That is the life and truth of a step-parent. We know this; we chose it with eyes wide open and willingly.
And you know what? It’s kind of super awesome. Because if we do it right, we get to see these kids grow up into loving, considerate, wholly fulfilled human beings.
Note: It’s also really funny at birthday parties and parent-teacher conferences when we show up en masse and have to explain everyone’s relationship a dozen times before people get it. And it was extremely funny when the kids were little and would look at other kids with pity and say, “You mean you only have one mom and one dad?! Wow, that must be awful.” (To be fair, that only happened a couple times before we had to have the “every-family-is-different-and-you-can’t-judge-them-for-it-or-say-things-like-that” talk in order to avoid future embarrassment.)
So to all the ‘real’ moms and step-moms, and to all the single dads who are also moms, and to all the grandparents and aunts and godparents and brothers and sisters and anyone else who steps into that role, Happy Mother’s Day. May it be delightful and rewarding no matter your situation and how you live it.