Dear biological parents,
I’ve been compiling all the things I’ve wanted to say to you since August of 2015. It was my first day of school — or rather, my first day at my stepkids’ school as their soon-to-be stepmom.
My now-husband and I had met on Tinder about five months prior when I was in my hometown of Atlanta visiting my mom. We met for coffee, and early on in our conversation — but after I was already smitten — Jason admitted to me that he was divorced. This revelation didn’t feel like breaking news since I was single at 36 and used to meeting men who had already been married. I laughed to put him at ease and said, “At least you don’t have kids.” His eyes met mine as he held up two fingers.
We all know raising children is the toughest job there is. But imagine, just for a minute, jumping in to raise a child you barely know. Imagine leaving behind your job and your life in New York City to move to Atlanta and be a stepmom. Imagine what it must feel like to sacrifice so much of your old self as you rapidly try to get up to speed on the years before you were in the picture. Imagine trying to piece together all these kids’ experiences — those that made them who they are today.
As we walked into the building on their first day of school, I held the kids’ hands and noted the grateful gaze of my soon-to-be husband. But within minutes, my confidence started to wane.
Oh, “real” parents of Atlanta. Instead of meeting me with welcoming smiles and that famous Southern hospitality, many of you averted your eyes. Some of you even looked at me as if I were some kind of home-wrecker. Jason and his ex-wife were very much divorced before we ever met, but even if that hadn’t been the case, I would not have deserved your disapproving glances and whispers behind my back. This was an elementary school, but I felt like I was walking into a high school scene out of Mean Girls.
On that day, more than anything else, I was shocked at your reaction to me. Stepparenthood is not contagious. You will not catch a nasty case of divorce by including me in a conversation. Inviting me to an event or casually chatting with me does not mean you’re choosing sides in what may or may not be a salacious battle between exes.
Dear “real” parents: I have friends, and I don’t seek your friendship for myself. But I need us to be connected for the sake of my stepchildren. I’m relying on you so that I can be as informed as possible about what our kids are going through at every stage in their development and to help make sure my kids are included on playdates. Don’t let the question of which house they’re at this week deter you. Let us worry about the logistics of getting them there. You just worry about remembering to include them.
“Real” parents, I need to be connected to you because, like it or not, biological parents and stepparents and many other forms of guardians and caretakers form the village it takes to raise children.
For those of you who are surprised a stepmom who’s done nothing but show up to support her stepkids on their first day of school would still be treated this way in 2018 (when, according to recent statistics, there are just as many blended families as there are nuclear ones) — well, I appreciate your positive outlook. But I also challenge you to ask a stepparent in your community whether they feel welcomed into the fold and celebrated for their unique role in their stepchild’s or children’s life. You’ll soon start to see how easily society dismisses that role — and excuses painful language such as calling us “just a stepparent.”
And now, three years, a new baby and hundreds of stepparent friends later, I’m ready to share this with you. Because it’s the hard truth of what many of us stepparents (or “bonus” parents) would like you to know about what I affectionately call our unplanned parenthood. Because as one stepmom said to me recently, no one really grows up saying, “I can’t wait until I’m a stepmom.”
“Real” parents and stepparents may have taken different paths to get to where we are today, but all of us are spending our days worrying, working and hoping we’re doing right by our children — and doing everything we can to help them turn into happy and successful members of society. We all hope the decisions we make for them today don’t cause them to complain about us to therapists in the future.
The truth is I’m not the evil stepmother from Cinderella, folks. And you don’t have to be Martha Stewart. So let’s get to know each other — without making assumptions. We can get through this parenting thing a hell of a lot easier together — with more humor and (if I have my way) more shared bottles of wine.
Your friendly neighborhood stepmom