“Can I call you mom now?” my daughter asked as I sat in bed attempting to wind down from a rather turbulent day.
Her words caught me off guard; in fact, I would prefer to think that they would catch most people off guard.
The truth is, I never saw it coming because I have never considered myself in competition for the position. I have always looked at my role of being a stepparent as being more supplemental. I was there to support her dad and, by extension, her mother as they navigated the twisting roads of raising a teenager in two separate homes with two separate families.
So as I lay there, processing those incredibly surreal words, I looked up at her face and saw that any feeling I was experiencing at that moment paled in comparison to how she was feeling.
Her words went far beyond that simple sentence, as their symbolism represented grief, sadness, and the need for having a replacement in the first place.
I, of course, said yes and hugged her until both of us felt it was right to let go. I thanked her for trusting me with such a tender and important role. She looked satisfied and said goodnight, leaving me to stare at my ceiling for the rest of the night.
Aside from counting all the tiny bumps of spackle on my ceiling, I retreated to my childhood subconsciously and imagined that it was me saying those words to another woman. I experienced artificial guilt, feelings of sadness, betrayal, and ultimately grief at the idea that I felt the need for reassigning a parental role.
When I became a stepmother almost 11 years ago, I entered the world with many walls, filters, and caution signs floating around me. I experienced a rapid conversion from being a single 20-something female to an automatic parent role with children who didn’t know me from a stranger on the street.
A general rule of thumb for being a stepparent is to be non-obstructive and respectful toward the processes that are already in place by the birth parents. You cannot walk in like Mary Poppins and fix problems that have been around for the child’s entire life.
What non-stepparents don’t understand is how much work goes into being a stepparent and how much time is spent wondering, doubting, and trying to ensure that you aren’t offending, bothering, or disrupting the feelings of multiple people all at the same time–not to mention, giving your relationship with the birth parent the appropriate amount of attention as well.
It is a lot. Some of us do it well, and some of us are terrible at it.
I did not put much stock in either of those two sides as I was desperately trying to play multiple roles and the peacekeeper. I confidently knew two things.
The first was that I was only there because of my initial relationship, and if I was going to be a role model in the future for my stepchildren, I needed to make sure that I was modeling the type of relationship they needed to see.
The second was that I was never going to call myself a mom. I firmed that expectation with the kids and my husband. I told them openly that I was not there to replace, challenge, or disrupt the parental roles already in place. I had friends growing up who hated their stepparents, and I was desperate not to be one of those people.
Flash-forward 11 years later and listening to a request that I had spent my entire relationship trying to avoid for the sake of not rocking the boat.
I love my daughter as if I gave birth to her, and I have never known her to be anyone but my own daughter. I respectfully acknowledge that I did not birth her or raise her from that stage of life, but I have had the honour, challenge, and role of being here for her through her peaks and valleys, and I can say that she feels like my own child.
In the beginning, I would not have thought this was possible, but maybe there is a lesson here about more than simply being patient. Maybe the lesson runs deeper than whose toes not to tread on or who to keep quiet around.
Maybe the most important lesson is to make sure that no matter what happens in their already tough life, you will be there cheering them on—as a backup—regardless of whether you stay a backup or get lovingly promoted to a status that has the power to shake your soul and remind you that your value was never undermined or missed—it was right where it needed to be.
Being a parent is hard, and so is being a stepparent, but despite all of the drama and hardships, there is truly nothing more heartwarming and beautiful than hearing your kid call you mom instead of your first name.