“Goodnight, Lottie. I love you.”
“Love you, Mama.”
“Goodnight, Jack. I love you.”
“Goodnight, Kate. I mrrrmph you”
Two happy eight year-olds exhausted after a long, fun day at home together. Two sweeties tucked into bed with stories and snuggles. Two little ones who I know love me very much. Two different good nights.
We expect parents and children to love each other and voice that love often, but “I love you” can be loaded phrase for many newly-formed blended families.
On the adult side, new stepparents often secretly worry that because they don’t feel an immediate, overwhelming love for stepchildren, they are doing something wrong. Sometimes, stepmoms and stepdads overcompensate by saying “I love you” often and inauthentically. Sometimes the opposite is true, and the new stepparent doesn’t say the words at all. Sometimes the biological parent, eager for the new family to bond, forces the issue and creates waves.
When Gabe and I married, I was all wrapped up in the complexities of saying those three little words to my stepchildren. Should I tell them often? How often was too often? Did it sound authentic? Too routine? Different from how I told my children I loved them? The same? I had no idea what the right thing was, let alone how to do it.
The only thing I knew for sure was saying “I love you” was complicated.
Stepchildren exist in a permanent loyalty bind, even in the best coparenting situations. School-age and older children in particular find it difficult to accept a parent’s new spouse in a traditional parenting role. A simple “I love you” sets off the allegiance tug of war in the stepchild’s head and heart.
I can still see Lottie pause when Gabe tells her he loves her. Does replying with “I love you, too” take something away from Dad? Does not replying hurt my stepdad? Gabe has been an active member of her tribe for nearly half her life. She loves him deeply. Still, she pauses.
I know that Sara, Amy and Jack love me and we face the same issue. Overt declarations of love are rare.
Love, in its truest sense, should be easy to receive and build the person up, making them strong and whole. It shouldn’t make the receiver squirm. When I realized that saying “I love you” to my stepchildren sometimes made them uncomfortable, I started to look for other ways to show them my love.
I share praise. Not on the easy, obvious stuff, but the harder stuff – the stuff they must work at. Jack is a math whiz, operating nearly two years ahead of his grade. Everyone talks to him about math, and he knows he’s good at it. When I talk to Jack about what makes him special, I talk about how he’s becoming a better teammate on the soccer field, passing the ball this season when last year he would’ve taken the shot. I tell him how proud I am to hear him reading aloud fluently, and remind him that he struggled not so long ago. I show him I see him growing.
I show them I care. I send Amy pictures of dresses I think she’d like when I am out shopping. I lend Sara books that I’ve read that I think she’d emjoy. I make fresh banana bread and leave it out as an after school snack on their first day home with their dad and me. I know their friends and teachers and ask about what’s new. I do all this in moderation – I am not campaigning for their love or favor, nor am I prying. I am simply remembering the details of their lives because they are important in mine.
I expect them to be real. I’d prefer our time together be filled with positive interactions and wholesome fun, but that’s not possible all the time. I know shoes will be scattered across the family room floor and jackets strewn in the foyer. I know teens slam doors and roll eyes. They’re normal kids that live here, not guests in our home. I reinforce our house rules and support their dad as he disciplines, but don’t punish them emotionally or withdraw when things get bumpy. This home is a soft place to fall, the love here is unconditional.
I accept their love for me no matter how it’s packaged. My three stepchildren love me, I am sure of it. They snuggle up next to me on the couch, rush through the door to tell me about the nothing-but-net basket they shot at practice, and say my new haircut is pretty. I am the keeper of their teenage secrets and the mender of boo-boos. We share inside jokes and popcorn buckets and a host of family memories.
When I am invited to a school play, I remember that means “I love you.” When Amy wears the dress I bought her to a dance, I hear those three words again. When Jack calls out “I love you, goodnight!” as I pass his room, I reply and then pause to appreciate what just happened.
I still say “I love you,” because I believe the words are important, but I don’t focus on what’s said next. The words still occasionally make my sweethearts squirmy. I firmly believe it’s the day-to-day love we share that matters most.
If you asked my stepchildren how they know their stepmom loves them, I believe the answer would be “there is warm banana bread waiting on the counter when I came home from school.”
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