Growing up I never thought about the word “stepfamily.” I spent most of my childhood in a two-parent household. But life takes turns we don’t see coming and the word “stepfamily” ended up having a big impact on my life, as I experienced it from two different viewpoints.
My first experience with a stepfamily came with me on the children’s side of things, when I gained a stepmom. Now, I have a biological mother who is very much a part of my life and whom I consider a confidant. But that didn’t mean my stepmom’s role in my life was that of an outsider or that I didn’t need another mother figure. My relationship with my stepmom was special and meaningful also, something that I think some people don’t expect or really understand.
When I first met my future stepmom, Julie, I was in my early 20s so the stereotypical anger or resentment didn’t really apply. I was long past wanting my parents to get back together and it was not as though she would be disciplining me or living with me. It was strange for my dad to have a girlfriend, but I was happy for them. So, when my dad proposed a few years later, I was accepting and pleased. I didn’t anticipate how my stepmom would burrow her way into my heart, despite my age when our relationship began.
In my mid-20s, I decided to accept a job in Denver. By this time, Julie had been diagnosed with cancer and it was spreading. It was stage 4. She and my dad lived in Evergreen so I knew this move would allow me to spend time with her and help whenever I could. I lived with them in Evergreen for a while as I looked for an apartment. Julie didn’t really believe in “step” labels. She treated me the same as her three biological children. When she introduced me, she would say “this is our daughter, Sarah.” She told me she loved me every time I saw or talked to her, and she took care of me the way a mother would. When Julie saw the hem of my skirt was coming unraveled, she sewed it. When my alarm for work went off at 2:00 a.m., I awoke to the sound of the coffee maker timer clicking on to make freshly brewed coffee. I came home in the afternoon to a warm lunch already on the table. I never asked for any of these things, I was fully able to care for myself. She did it because she loved me.
I was able to spend several years of holidays, dinners, visits, and special occasions with Julie before her cancer just got too bad. One summer day, I sat in a hospice room with members of her family as we watched her slip away. When most of her family left for lunch, I held her hand as she struggled and told her I loved her as she took her last breath. I would never be the same after I lost her, and I would never forget how she touched my life. She loved me in a way she never had to, was never expected to. And in some ways, that meant more than the love a biological parent gives.
Just one year later, I went on a first date with a man who would eventually become my husband. I found out, over burgers and beer, that he was divorced and the father of two little boys. My first inclination was to question if I could handle that. Then I remembered how wonderful the concept of a stepmom and a stepfamily could be. I thought about Julie and how she accepted me into her family, her life, and her heart. I knew I liked this man, even though I’d known him but a few hours, and I knew he was worth navigating this. When I met his sons, they too burrowed their way into my heart in a way I didn’t expect.
This other side of the stepfamily dynamic was a little trickier. For one, these children were much younger than I was when I became a stepchild. But it was also difficult living with them and knowing how to behave. Not to mention, the COVID-19 pandemic came soon after I moved in, so I was working at home and they were going to school at home, and none of us were going anywhere else…ever. In the beginning, I didn’t want to overstep, but I didn’t want to be walked all over. I didn’t want to get involved with things that weren’t my business, but I also didn’t want to seem like I didn’t care. I wanted to prioritize them and our relationship. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t growing pains. It took a while for me to find my place, my role, and my comfort level. But now I’m glad to say that my stepsons and I love and care about each other deeply. I think they also respect me.
Historically, the storybooks haven’t been kind to the stepmom; you need to look no further than Disney. Just the other day I watched an “American Horror Stories” episode titled “Facelift” in which a stepmom, who was close to her stepdaughter, began turning “evil” and making claims like “she’s not my real daughter!” The story ended with the daughter finding out her “real mother” cared for her more than her stepmother ever did. I shake my head when I see these things because I don’t believe the world always understands how much a stepfamily can mean. When I brought my own stepmom up in conversation, I was frequently met with comments of “do you hate her?” or “is she the same age as you?” I remember one year I mentioned to a former coworker that Mother’s Day is a big holiday for me because I celebrate three women – my grandma, my mom, and my stepmom. The response was “why would you buy your stepmom a gift?” When Julie passed away, I told my former job I would need to take time off and was disheartened when the reply from HR was, “Oh, she’s only your stepmom? Then you just get 2 days.” I see it at times now, with my stepkids, as some people don’t quite understand my desire to treat them as I would my own family or comprehend my love and commitment to them. What that “step” title doesn’t convey is the deep, meaningful connection you can have with a parent figure or a child in your life, that isn’t biological. We understand it in adoptive families, but somehow not always in stepfamilies.
As we celebrate National Stepfamily Day, I’d like to say that my roles in stepfamilies have changed me in many positive ways, they have allowed me to see how boundless love can be and how much you can cherish a person who maybe wasn’t there from the beginning but is standing beside you just the same. All I ever want is to be as good of a stepmom as Julie. I feel I’ll never be able to live up to her, but I try every single day to make my stepsons feel the type of meaningful love I felt from her. I want them to understand that I chose them, and I will continue to choose them as my family for the rest of my life. I am involved in their daily lives. I, along with their biological parents, make their school lunches, drop them off in the mornings, give them hugs and kisses, and love them deeply. They know they can come to me for help with their scraped knees, when they need comfort, and when they want someone to see something awesome they have accomplished. I want them to know how much they mean to me and that the way they’ve opened their hearts to me is something I can never take for granted. When they run up to me to tell me they love me or ask me to tuck them in at night, I can’t help but think how lucky in life I am to have them as my stepkids. I’m here to let everyone who has no experience with a stepfamily know, that they are real families too and the love in them is just as powerful. And I hope as time goes on, our society can get a little bit better at building them up, instead of downplaying them, and encouraging their growth and the extra “bonus” love they bring us.