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Role as a Stepmother: Finding my Way as a Stepmom

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brunette woman sitting on the couch with toddler girl in pink dress with text overlay about the role of a stepmother

by Desiree O’Crosslin

I am dating my father. 

When I was growing up, my sisters and I hated when it was Dad’s turn to brush our hair. My dad is the gentlest, kindest person I know and he can’t handle hurting a fly, let alone one of his three daughters. Every knot when I was a kid took him FOR-EVER to get out. When Mom brushed your hair, it hurt like hell, but it only took three minutes. When Dad did it, you were stuck there for half the evening. You needed television, snacks, probably a potty break first. But hey, you didn’t feel a thing. 

When I was twenty-nine, I broke two rules I had made for myself: Never date a smoker and never date a dad.

My dad used to be a smoker and I love that man, but it was hard to watch his physical health decline. That no-no is pretty regular. And with the kid thing, it’s not like I don’t like kids–just the opposite. The most traumatizing part of getting a divorce in my early twenties wasn’t losing the high school sweetheart I had married, but losing his brother’s two-year-old son, my beautiful nephew Jonathan. 

I had rocked this baby to sleep every night during the run of our community theater’s production of The King and I. Both his parents had to be on stage around his bedtime and I had only done the costumes for the show, so Aunt Desi gathered up this fussy, sleepy little boy and snuggled and rocked and sang with him in the green room, then passed him off, fast asleep, to his parents when they finished their scenes. His family isn’t the type to “remain friends” after a divorce (Catholics, damn it), so that little boy is out of my life.

He’d be about seven now. If we met on the street, I would be a stranger to him, someone from whom he’d been taught to run away from. A person to fear. 

So I agree to meet up for a drink with this guy because he was handsome and educated. He seemed very nice and was dying to take me out. I had had a killer week at work and remember literally thinking, “Fuck it, I need a beer anyway. Might as well let James From Tinder buy it for me.”

Almost a year later, I get a call as I’m leaving work. 

“Hey Baby,” my boyfriend says, sounding stressed. “Jade has a splinter.”

Jim’s ten-year-old daughter, Jade, is in the third week of her six-week visit. She lives in Texas with her mom and had adored me from our first visit over her winter break. I distinctly remember the surprise on his face that first night, about half an hour into our visit, when he excused himself to smoke and asked us if we’ll be ok together. We both absentmindedly say, “Yeah,” from the couch where we huddle over her iPad, exploring a Minecraft world she created. 

Jim cautiously left the room while Jade explained to me, “This is my cat daycare. I added some bunnies, but they got eaten by the cats so now I have a separate bunny daycare. And this is my floating horse….”

Flash forward to the summer, I try to figure out why Jim is so nervous because I’m not sure why he called: “A splinter? Ok….?”

Jim says, “I can’t find the tweezers!” They should be in the purple jar with the dragonfly in the bathroom to the left of the sink, I tell him. “I looked there already!!!” 

I calmly tell him I’ll stop at the store and pick some up on my home. Relief flooding his voice, he sighs, “Oh thank you! Could you…do you think….get the splinter out when you get home too?” 

I open my mouth to ask why, think better of this, then say of course. 

When I get home that June day, less than a year after breaking my Don’t Date Dads Rule, my boyfriend’s daughter comes bounding out to my car. The ringlet-curly brown hair she got from her father is wafting behind her as she yells, “Desi! I have a splinter!” 

“Yeah, kid, your dad told me. Want me to get it out for you?”

“Yes!”

“Ok, go wash your hands and I’ll get the tweezers.”

As she bounces off to the bathroom, Jim walks up and embraces me in a bear hug, saying, “Thanks so much, Baby.”

Jade and I set up under a lamp near the living room window, my fingers gently picking at the splinter in her hand, loosening the wound slowly while I tell her about a local petting zoo.

“So a friend of mine took his kids there this weekend. They have llamas and bunnies. Hey, you don’t like bunnies, do you?!”

Her enthusiastic affirmation is interrupted as a large, foreboding shadow is descending over our hands. 

Jim is hovering. His eyes are the size of saucers, his breathing is measured and his shoulders are pulled up to his ears. He’s looking at the tweezers like I’m amputating Jade’s arm. 

I’m dating my dad, you guys, afraid to hurt his kid for her own good. 

“Honey? You’re kind of blocking my light?”

“Oh, sorry,” Jim says, slowly lowering himself to sit on the ottoman, never letting his eyes leave THE SPLINTER. “Jade Bear,” he says, in a tone solemn enough for a deathbed, “You can hold my hand. And, you know. If it hurts? You can squeeze my hand. You squeeze it as much as you need to, okay, Baby?”

Jade, bunnies, and llamas forgotten takes the hand without THE SPLINTER and grabs her dad’s proffered one. She suddenly looks nervous. I put on a light-hearted smile and say, “Ok, but you know, it shouldn’t hurt much at all! You know you can pet the bunnies at Debbie Do-Little’s Farm, did you know that?!”

I begin slowly working the tweezers again and Jim winces. Watching her dad, Jade starts crying. Fuck it I think, she’s crying anyway…

I dig the tweezers into her hand, swiftly scraping out THE SPLINTER. I hold it up and quietly ask, “Jade, do you see what I have?”

Her tears stop like a switch has been turned when she sees the tiny piece of wood on the end of the metal. 

“That wasn’t so bad at all!” she says. 

“I know right? Do you need a….UNICORN BANDAID?”

“YES!”

“Go wash your hands and I’ll get it for you.”

A few minutes later, I follow my lovely, gentle and kind boyfriend outside, where he is smoking and trying to process the trauma that was just inflicted on him. 

Let me preface: in preparation for the first summer visit of Jade’s since Jim and I started living together, I spent a lot of time doing research on “How to date a dad.”

All the articles say, “Don’t over-step, don’t give advice. His kids are his kids, they have a mother, they do not need you.” But I’m a psychologist and I work with people who have the minds of kids. My work life is tantrums and injuries and dirty diapers and I just CANNOT OPINE. So I ask my beautiful, educated, dad of a boyfriend if I can please offer unsolicited advice.

I’m met with a sigh and a reluctant, “Yes.”

“If you tell the kid it won’t hurt, it actually won’t hurt them much.”

“I know,” he says. “I was just so scared.”

Knowing the feeling I responded, “I know, honey. I know.”

The articles all say being a stepmom*** is overwhelmingly difficult. 

brunette woman sitting on a white couch with a toddler wearing pigtails jumping on the couch with a text overlay about the role of a stepmother

When you’re a step-mom, you’re expected to stay out of the way. Keep your opinions to yourself. Respect the boundaries. You are not the parent. YOU ARE NOT THE PARENT. 

But here’s the other thing about “step-moms.” “Step-moms” are supposed to do a lot of work. We’re supposed to pick up our partners’ kids from diabetes camp and clean them when they get carsick on the ride home. We wrap their Christmas gifts because our partners can’t make the pretty bow with the ribbon. We cover our houses in unicorns for their birthday parties, after cleaning and cooking for hours. And we do this genuinely happily and unselfishly because when you love someone you can’t not love their kid. 

Step-moms are expected to love these kids but for the Love Of All That Is Holy don’t say that phrase out OUT LOUD. Because that’s overstepping. 

Step-moms are expected to be supportive but detached. To care but not make anyone feel threatened. To communicate but never advise. Giving advice is not their THEIR PLACE. 

And we do all of this while interacting regularly with their partner’s ex-spouse. I mean she can be the nicest person in the world but interactions with exes are always awkward. 

Stepmothers are expected to mother without being allowed the title of mother. Dr. Brene Brown, a shame/parenting researcher, refers to what she describes as the Culture of Scarcity, where we all feel as if we’re not good enough, in her book, Daring Greatly. What do you think she says is the main reason women don’t feel good enough? They feel they aren’t good enough moms.

One big reason women with no children don’t feel good enough? They don’t have children. I feel like I’m never good enough because I’m not MOM. 

My own mother made it very clear that she did not understand my need to educate myself with a traditional college education. I had been married when I was in my early twenties, so why wasn’t I having babies? Wasn’t that the point of being married? My mother found great joy in having children, three biological and one adopted, and just wanted me to find that same joy. Well, I didn’t want kids, not at that age, and I had shit to do in school, so I rebelled and finished my bachelor’s. Then, just to piss her off, I went on to get my Master’s degree. 

Dr. Brown would say the cure for the culture of scarcity is gratitude. So when I feel shame storms about not living up to my mother’s expectations or the social norms of my gender, I should instead refocus my mind on what I do have: My education, my freedom, my great career. And a beautiful, brilliant step-daughter. 

I like to practice something I like to call Fuck It. 

Fuck the rules I am supposed to follow. 

There is no “correct” way to help parent another person’s kid. There is no limit to reach where you’re like, “Oh, this is the exact level I’m allowed to love this person, I feel it right here, let me stop now.” There is no “right” way to talk to my partner’s ex-wife. There is only what’s best for Jade. 

Rather than worrying about, “Is this the perfect way to handle this interaction?” I think, “Ok, am I trying to love and support Jade in the best way I can in this moment?” If the answer is, “Yes,” then fuck it. 

This kid in my life brings me joy. Is it right to send her mom a book I finished by her favorite author? Who KNOWS. But Jade wants her mom and me to be friendly so fuck it I’m sending the book. Is it right to hang up pictures of Jade in my office? I have NO CLUE. When she visits me at work she sees she is important to me so FUCK IT. When Jade is leaning back too far in a chair and all I can picture is her head coming off, is it my place to ask her to stop? PROBABLY NOT BUT FUCK IT THAT KID’S HEAD ISN’T ROLLING AROUND ON MY LAWN ON MY WATCH. 

I don’t need to feel any shame in not having given birth to her. Her father, her mother and I are all in this together, whether we like it or not. We’re in this awkward mess of worry and conversation and love for this tiny human. 

We picked up Jade for her summer visit this year in mid-June. As I drive my boyfriend and herself home from the airport, she’s dying to ask me a question. 

“She’s driving, Baby,” Jim says. “Give her a minute, ok?”

Jade squirms in the backseat with her luggage, and tries to spill the beans but keeps her words to a minimum as much an excited almost-ten-year-old possibly can as I switch lanes and avoid people who have never driven through Seattle before today. 

Once I am through the interweaving lanes at the Sea-Tac terminal and on the southbound freeway toward Tacoma, I ask, “Ok, what is it?”

Jade bursts, “CAN I CALL YOU DESI?”

I laugh. I always introduce myself as Desiree but friends and family call me Desi. 

“Jade, of course, you can call me Desi, kid.”

“Yay!” Jade squealed, “Now I have nicknames for all my parents.”

*Dad quit smoking and did not die in case you are worried about the use of the past tense. My little sister has a baby now and he focuses on that to help him abstain from smoking.
**Read Dr. Brown’s “Daring Greatly,” for more detail. I highly recommend.
***Most articles I’ve read do not differentiate for married/unmarried with step-mom/girlfriend-of-a-human-who-has-a-kid. Same for marriage and step-son/daughter. Once you’re serious, what really is the difference?

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