Parenthood can be a thankless job — countless loads of laundry and dishes pass through my house on a daily basis, and they usually go unacknowledged. Every night, I monitor and answer homework questions. I drive to soccer practice, have lunch at school, volunteer in the classroom, go to the doctor and dentist and hairstylist — I nurture, love and, frankly, adore this 11-year-old girl.
But I’m not her mom, and she’s not my daughter.
My husband has custody, which by default makes me a custodial stepmom. I knew when we got married that there would be some complications. First, very few mothers are thrilled about their children being around another woman more often than they themselves are, and my stepdaughter’s mother was no exception.
Honestly, I don’t blame her. I wouldn’t be comfortable with that either. Second, I am many women’s worst nightmare. I represent the awful truth that your family can shatter and someone else can step in. My existence can feel threatening.
For that reason, I’ve always been very cautious. I always introduce my stepdaughter’s mom to large groups before I introduce myself. I always refer to myself as her stepmother, even when well-intentioned friends (and strangers) will say, “Oh, you’re her real mom,” with a knowing look on their face. I have never let my stepdaughter call me “Mom,” not even when she wanted to.
So why does it feel so bad every year when Mother’s Day rolls around and I know that no matter how much love and blood and sweat and tears I’ve poured in, the celebration is not for me?
I’m one of the lucky stepmoms. My husband, parents and in-laws always send cards and good wishes. They tell me that they really see my experience and that they’re proud that I have been able to step into a complicated situation. They tell me how much they love who my stepdaughter is growing into and how much they think she’s like me. “Down to her hair,” they’ll say, and I try not to take too much pleasure in it. It is good to see yourself in your child — isn’t that one of the benefits of motherhood?
Of course, if you’re keeping track. I’m not a mother.
Worse, if I’m honest, it’s incredibly important to me that my stepdaughter have a good relationship with her mother. I can’t imagine having grown up without my mother’s close input and guidance. I know that if my stepdaughter and her mother have a contentious relationship, it will be hard for her to come through the teenage years feeling whole. For that reason, it’s very important to me that she does celebrate her mother on Mother’s Day.
So this week, I’ve taken my stepdaughter to pick out a card and a gift for her mother. I’ve told her how proud I am of her for being so generous and thinking of such thoughtful gifts — kind remarks I’m recycling from the year before so I can distance myself a little. And I know that next weekend, she’ll have a homemade card and a sweet gift that she and her father picked out for me.
But it’s not about gifts — it never has been. It just feels counterintuitive that on a day when all the work a woman puts in for her children is recognized, I don’t have my child with me. It’s a strange ache that few women will ever know. Most women with stepchildren eventually go on to have their own children, or they don’t have custody.
If you know a stepmom — or a foster mom or someone who has recently lost their mom — try to keep them in mind on Mother’s Day, and reach out with good wishes. It could mean more than you know.
About the author: Kate Stone has written for several different outlets, including Yahoo!Beauty and Millihelen. She has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in fiction and teaches in the Midwest.
Originally published May 2016. Updated April 2017.