What Learning to Be a Step-Mother Has Taught Me about Parenting and Love

bridesmaids and flower girl standing at wedding

The first thing we knew about our wedding planning was that we definitely had a flower girl.

She’s seven years old. She loves chapter books, ballet, and swimming. She’s bright, funny, and articulate, and she has her own sense of style, favoring brightly patterned tights and twirling skirts. She is my future stepdaughter, which means I’m a future stepmother. Which means… well, it means that my baby family is going to have to become a grown-up, fully-functional one in a hurry.

There was never much doubt in my mind that I wanted to be with my partner, B. I loved him from very early on. As our relationship marched forward, I became increasingly certain that I wanted to be with him for the long haul.

But a ready-made family had never figured into my vision of the future. I wasn’t afraid enough of the concept to run away right off the bat, but I worried. I stayed up at night worrying about whether I could handle being a stepparent and all that I imagined that it entailed—and if I knew that I couldn’t, whether I had any business being with the man I loved. I wailed, I gnashed my teeth, and I sobbed in my car in parking lots across town because I was just so terrified that I might be morally obligated to walk away from him if I knew that I couldn’t handle eventual stepparenthood. Even ages before we were talking marriage, I knew it was an issue I had to deal with.

The logistics of dating a single dad were doable. His daughter was two when I met her, after B. and I had dated a few months and said “I love you” to each other. There were bedtimes to observe, custody schedules to juggle (he has her every other day) and occasional toddler tantrums to wait out. As a then-27-year-old who had never changed a diaper or rocked a baby in her life, I was perfectly happy with the fact that he never asked me to be a parent to her. Just hanging out together now and then was fine by me.

Besides, she had a mom already, who was doing a fine job of being a mom.

The things that so often bother the partners of single parents—the tough scheduling, the feeling of somehow coming second to a child—those things didn’t bother me. I never saw myself as in competition with her, because…well, because she was a child and I was a partner and those things are very different. What wasn’t fine, for me, was that I was basically terrified of a small, blonde moppet of a human being. My natural reticence around children was amplified by the fact that I believed getting too close to her was emotionally dangerous for both of us. What if my relationship with B. didn’t work out? What if I turned out to be attached to her more than him? What if… well, what if I ended up loving her? Scary stuff. I know women are supposed to be all “Yay! Children!” but I’m just not. The scariest thing I could think of would be to develop a close relationship with my boyfriend’s daughter.

Things were also complicated by the fact that, still a bit shaken from the end of his first marriage, B. wasn’t sure when or if he wanted to jump back into matrimony again. As long as our future was indefinite, my future with his daughter was also indefinite.

So for ages I tried to be supportive, and friendly, and nice, but not too lovey-dovey. Aside from becoming “too attached” I didn’t know her mother or how she might react to “Dad’s girlfriend” being all parent-like to her kid. Or even all aunt-like. (It’s pertinent to point out here that I come from a family of lawyers, many of whom have built careers out of dealing with nasty custody disputes centering around the new partner of one parent or the other. Not knowing B.’s ex-spouse, I had no idea if she was the litigious type. As it turns out, she’s a perfectly sensible human being.) So, with no guidebook in front of me, I tried to be nice but chill. Admittedly, I was probably somewhat warmer with other kids with whom I came into contact than I was with her, because I didn’t feel like showing affection toward them was such a danger zone.

B. and I talked, our relationship moved forward, and it all came to a head when B. and I found ourselves in counseling shortly before getting engaged. (Doesn’t every little girl picture going to a relationship counselor as the lead-up to her engagement? No?) He said that he wished I could be more like a parent to his daughter. I was brought up short because… well, because she already had two parents. He had said that himself, many times. What could she need me for? Besides, I had read all the stepmom books, which emphasized that the more you tried to win a kid over, the more they would push you away.

After many long heart-to-hearts, he said that if we were going to get married, he wanted us to be a family. Although I didn’t necessarily go on our first date seeking an insta-family, I acknowledged that it would be impossible for us to have a healthy marriage unless that relationship was also part of a functional family. He also buttered me up, telling me that as a strong, intelligent, independent-minded woman with wide interests, I could be a good influence on her, and he suggested that I could induce her to like some of the things I like (DIY, history, non-fiction reading).

So, just as B. made a commitment to me by getting engaged to be married, I am making a commitment to him, and to his daughter, and to the concept of family. The steps have been slow and halting, as I try to bridge the gap from “Dad’s girlfriend” to “stepmom.” I have no stepparenting role models in my own family, so I’m figuring this out as I go. I’m working out what it means to be a sort of parent, but not a mother or a father. I’m still feeling my way blindly, to be perfectly honest.

I decided to start with cookies. We baked cookies together one night and had fun sneaking bits of cookie dough to nom. Another night we played Guess Who. When I come over for dinner now, we all eat at the table together. Last night I taught her how to finish the edges on a woven potholder. We went to the movies as a trio this weekend. One DIY project and board game at a time, we’re coming together.

She knows that we’re all moving in together, and she knows that her daddy and I will get married after that. When he told her that we would be getting married, her first concern was whether she would be the flower girl (of course she will be). Then she asked, “So will A. be my stepmom?”

Yes, I will be. And however we plan this wedding, I promise that she can be a flower girl. And I promise that I’ll keep trying day after day to be a good stepmom. Because this is a commitment to a marriage, but also to a family.

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