I am pretty vocal about the positive coparenting relationship I have with my children’s father. While we didn’t initially see eye to eye, and our divorce was painful, we are now comfortable partners. We text frequently, chat at exchanges, and are happy to sit next to each other at the 642 kid events happening every week.
My children’s father, Billy, married a woman with two children of her own. Stephanie was, and is, a coworker of his, and they dated for several years before marrying. She is kind to my children, and they have a positive relationship. But I haven’t written about my children’s stepmother up until now, because my feelings about her aren’t all sweetness and light.
I’m writing about how I really feel about my children’s stepmother today because I think there are lots of us out here managing complicated feelings, working through things that feel murky and uncomfortable, and showing up to try again when things get off track. As a stepmom myself, I would bet that Stephanie manages similarly complicated feelings about me. I know I’m not alone, and in sharing this honestly, perhaps other moms and stepmoms might feel less alone too.
I’m sometimes jealous.
When they first started dating, Billy told me Stephanie was so petite he could literally sweep her off her feet. She attended a prestigious university and has thick wavy hair that always seems to swoop and curl effortlessly. She’s lovely, and after an adjustment period, I’ve accepted that.
It’s the man she’s married to that gives me pause.
When Billy and I were married he was quick with a joke, and not terribly affectionate. I was the organizer in our relationship, grocery shopping, cooking and managing the car maintenance. I was the adventurer, coaxing and cajoling him to join me on a weekend away. He once turned down a surprise trip to Vegas I’d planned for us because it “felt like too much effort.”
The man Stephanie is married to just spent three weeks touring Europe with her. The children tell stories of him kissing her in the kitchen as he cooks dinner. He does the laundry and grocery shopping in that house.
This isn’t unusual. Like many of us who have ended a marriage, Billy learned important lessons from his divorce. Like many of us who have found the right partner, Billy is energized and inspired by Stephanie. She brings out the best in him. I am happy for him, truly, and deeply glad our children can witness their healthy relationship. It’s just that the Billy she knows is the Billy I once desperately wanted. As unflattering a picture that may paint of me, it’s the truth. I am sometimes jealous that she inspires him to be the man I couldn’t.
I sometimes treat her as an afterthought.
Sometimes my children’s stepmom doesn’t exist for me. Not in a purposeful, exclusive way, but rather an I’m-busy-doing-my-thing-and-forget way.
Early on, Billy and I agreed to keep the coparenting communication between the two of us for simplicity’s sake. Stephanie doesn’t often pick up or drop off the children, and is often busy with her own children’s activities as Billy and I share bleacher space at events for ours. I don’t even have her contact information in my phone.
I don’t see her often, so I sometimes forget about her. My history and interaction still sit with Billy.
But the truth is, while I may see Stephanie less often than I see Billy, the same is not true for my children. I’m aware that she is a huge part of their lives and the home they have with their father. She matters: to Billy, to my children, and thus, to me.
I realized early in their marriage that I was often unthinkingly referring to their home or car or time as “Dad’s” rather than “Dad and Stephanie’s.” It wasn’t purposeful, but as a stepmom myself, I knew it could have a broad negative impact.
I changed my behavior. I make an effort to include her when I speak about my children’s father. I encourage their relationship with her. My earlier omissions, even though entirely innocent, left my feelings open to speculation, and that is not okay with me. I want children free of painful loyalty binds, and so I make an effort to remember their stepmother’s critical role in their lives and speak up.
Sometimes, I’m sorry for her.
There’s the clichéd reason, of course. Whatever flaws of Billy’s I escaped in our divorce are now Stephanie’s to manage. There are full websites devoted to exes crowing about how happy they are that their once-true-love is now someone else’s problem and how sorry-not-sorry they are for the new partner.
That’s not what I’m talking about here.
Sometimes I see or hear of Stephanie genuinely and kindly trying to connect with my children only to have them reject her. My heart aches for her each and every time.
Early in their relationship she issued a gentle and appropriate correction to Simon and he shot back with “you’re not my mom.” Lottie reported that Caden refused to eat anything at the first Thanksgiving meal they shared as a family. He thought Stephanie’s family recipes were “too weird.” Lottie herself once refused an offer of a denim jacket that was exactly her style, shaking her head and saying she didn’t think it would fit her. I witnessed that one: it would have fit. I’m fairly sure if I’d been offering the jacket Lottie would’ve loved it.
Mostly, I am overwhelmingly grateful for her.
I am grateful to her for bringing out the best in their father. I couldn’t do that, and Stephanie does it beautifully. I see her influence smoothing his rough edges. He is happy and secure in her love. I am thankful my children see a man who loves and honors his wife and fully partners with her to run a household.
But that’s just the start of what I have to thank her for.
Caden is away at camp and having a hard time. Billy texted me last night that Stephanie was putting together a care package for him and it nearly brought me to tears. I’m so grateful that our boy will be surrounded by love from his whole family, and so grateful to Stephanie for going out of her way to show that love, even when it might not be received in the way she hopes.
I know my children. I know their quirks and their fears and their strange dietary preferences and I know they are not always easy. Sometimes, in fact, they are infuriatingly hard.
Stephanie doesn’t have to do this holy and important work with Billy and me. She couldn’t have known what she was signing up for. None of us do, really. And she keeps showing up. She shows up after being rejected and forgotten. She shows up when they have been surly and rude. She shows up when it would be so much easier not to.
She loves them: wholly and genuinely and with room for me and the other members of their tribe. And I am eternally grateful.
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