I got tears in my eyes the first time I stood back-to-back with my elder stepson and realized he had grown taller than me. Soon after came the specter of driving lessons for him, then freshman year for his two-years-younger brother, and I started having premature empty-nest syndrome. My stepsons, who came into my life (and I into theirs) when they were ten and eight, were growing up way too fast. I wanted their childhood to never end. Then I realized: it wasn’t just that. I wanted a child. I hadn’t planned on having children of my own, like, ever, so I didn’t know what to think about this development, much less how to approach the subject in the context of our blended family. (I did not come up with this term, “blended” which is so smoothie- ish. I just do what the linguists tell me.)
I did not have a wealth of books or blogs to consult about my dilemma. Despite the proliferation of blended (durrr!) families in this country (more than 3.6 million American households, i.e. ten percent of all households with minor children, per the Census Bureau), the true-life stories of stepparenting are hard to find. It could be that mix-and-match family situations call up so many ungainly primal feelings that honest discussion about blended families is too taboo a subject. So, unlike, say, baby’s first year, which is documented in umpty bazillion articles, books, and websites, a stepparent is often left to puzzle out challenges and changes using intuition and best-guesses. The paltry selection of media about stepparenting and family blending paints scenes that are either Brady Bunch or Gotterdamerung. Not so helpful.
If nothing else, blended families make obvious the fact that parenting can be extremely, explosively political. It’s tough, and I say this as someone who won the Blended Family Lottery – great kids, involved dad, and devoted, drama-averse baby mama. I found, quite quickly, that you can fiercely love stepchildren even if they aren’t, in the biological sense, yours. My stepsons are my family, my boys. Still, there’s a substantial psychic workload in being a second spouse and mommy-come-lately. Your success (meaning: ability to stay serene, sane and emotionally engaged) as a stepparent depends upon your ability to both stand up for yourself and to mind your own business, depending on what the situation calls for. You need an open heart, deep breathing and diplomatic polish. The light touch is your best friend.
I am still in the Just Thinking About It stage. No EPT box stashed in the bathroom drawer, no calls for a “family meeting” where we break big news. For now. I’ve certainly hashed out the idea with friends, and the reaction is mixed. “Don’t let guilt keep you from getting what you want,” says a now divorced friend who left her husband because he didn’t want to upset his daughter from a previous marriage by having another child. “You don’t have to have kids to please me, or anyone else,” my own mother has said. Married moms I know who wouldn’t have even dated a divorced guy, let alone married someone who already had kids, are befuddled by the whole dilemma. They just give me “more power to ya” looks. But the peanut gallery doesn’t hold much sway. It may take a village to raise a child, but it comes down to my husband and me to decide whether or not to have one in the first place. He and I dance around the possibilities, discuss the pros and cons, and for some reason, I’m not worried about whether or not it’s meant to be. Except when I think about the boys.
As much as I’m excited by the idea of a bringing a baby into our family, I’m afraid. I don’t want to find out that my heart is partisan – one chamber overflowing with love for my own offspring, the other, stingy half-measure leftovers for the steps. I read an essay by a stepmom who’d had a child with her husband, in which her stepkids were referred to as some roiling, homogenous adolescent rabble, while her toddler son was “her special little guy.” The favoritism was obvious, and in my stepmother eyes, baldly tacky. I got a pukey taste in my mouth. “Please,” I thought. “Don’t let me be a gross ‘me-my-mine’ mom.”
I would hate, too, for my boys to think that a half-sibling would fracture their father’s devotion. Talk to anyone who was shunted aside when one parent remarried then all but ignored the kids from the first marriage once they started Family 2.0, and you’ll see the pain of betrayal fairly radiate from their skin. I am loathe to have any part in such a bad feeling, to make a kid feel like a castaway. Awful.
Still, I have that desire to get to know and raise a child from Day One, to be someone’s unqualified, unblended m-o-t-h-e-r. As much as I love my boys, I readily accept that they will never love me as much as they love their own mom. If they did favor me, it would be a weird victory – Pyrrhic, pathetic. (Should any stepparent make dramatic insistence on the Number One Love spot in their stepkids’ hearts, I suggest counseling. Possibly euthanasia.) It’s confusing, pondering this swirl of loyalties and longing. If this is how it feels for me just pondering the notion, how will it feel for them if it moves from idea to reality? Is it worth the risk?
During a business trip to Baltimore, IThe birth of a child is miraculous, but the birth and growth of a happy blended family is a miracle all its own. stopped at a Starbucks. In the seating area was a fifty-something guy with two sons. One was about twenty, the other a grinning, tow-headed two, dissimilar enough in appearance for me to think, yep, different moms. The little boy was in that hilarious always-falling-over stage when every ottoman and table leg presents a safe port. His big brother was clearly delighted by his efforts, scooping up his baby brother after every tumble. In that little coffee shop scene opened a window of possibility. Somehow, someway, this family was doing it with a measure of success, so maybe ours could, too.
I guess the key to having both stepchildren and babies is to follow the golden rule of parenting: you give as much as you can, and then, just when you think you’re stretched to the very limit, you give a little more. The birth of a child is miraculous, but the birth and growth of a happy blended family is a miracle all its own. I feel blessed that while I’m not obligated to hold any fondness for my boys, I cherish them beyond measure. I’m doubly blessed that they don’t have to love, or even like, me, and yet they do. My desire to add more love, and more members, to our family was predicated by their awesomeness. If I do this right, every kid in my family will suffer no anguish greater than a three-way tie for first place.