People often ask me what it’s like to be a stepmom. I had this very conversation with some Airbnb guests this past weekend as we sat chatting in the shade of my back yard. As I looked out over my garden, it came to me that step-parenting is a lot like tending someone else’s garden. Someone else planned and planted that garden. They set it in motion and continue to work it, but as a stepmom, you become a partner in the project - a very gentle partner. You don’t make the big decisions and you certainly tread carefully, but as the years go by, you do gently prune when the situation calls for it and weed when necessary. You feed and water the plants, nurturing them at every opportunity. You do a lot of work, in the sunshine and the rain, pouring yourself into a garden that isn’t really yours, for very little credit, and yet it is totally worth it to see your efforts pay off. Those efforts are never in vain. And every so often there’s a little spot in the garden that has perhaps been left untended, and you take some time to plant a few seedlings there and nurture something in an area that may have been overlooked. When those little corners blossom and something new emerges, it can be so very rewarding! But most of the time you just do your part to nurture the garden and its beauty is reward enough. Some days, to be honest, you are just glad it's still alive and didn't wither away on your watch.
A social worker friend of mine said that step-parenting is not parenting; it’s being a caring witness to the life of a child. While I agree with her, and love the idea of carrying the memories as we do life together, I think there’s a whole lot more work to being a stepmom than just being a witness!!! There is the physical work of feeding and cleaning and doing homework. There is the mental work of running a household and trying to have some semblance of a reasonable schedule even though much of it is dependent on the other household’s plans. There is the social work of ensuring that the kids are okay, in every sense. And there is the emotional work of choosing to love on someone else’s kids. Now, I am teacher, so many of the challenges that come with being a stepmom are actually things I am well-equipped to handle. I am pretty good at loving on and investing in other people’s children. I’ve been disciplining and nurturing other people’s children for years. But, I will be honest and say that it’s harder than teaching. As a step-parent, you have tons of responsibility and zero power. If you can’t accept that from the get-go, you will make yourself crazy. So, you let go of power and any concept of justice you might have had, and you just choose love.
That’s the thing about being a stepmom; you have to choose to love those kids. Every day, it is a conscious decision to love them; there is no biological drive to do so. You didn’t conceive them in love, anticipate them for nine months, give birth to them and become so filled with love that you couldn’t imagine ever going back to life before them. You aren’t blinded by biology and hormones, easily able to overlook the not-so-great stuff. You don’t have the primal mama bear instinct that drives you to act in selfless ways to protect and nurture your children above all else. Instead, you fell in love with their dad and became an instant family. And so you must make the conscious and deliberate choice to love those children, each and every day. But eventually, you realize that you no longer have a choice. You have nurtured them, invested in them, become a part of their story and you love them fiercely. You are proud of them and protective of them. You can’t help but love them, at their worst and at their best. You can’t imagine life without them. They are your people, your family. At least this has been my experience. It is difficult and it is wonderful.
When I head to bed early on a Friday evening to indulge in some Netflix and solitude, and Isobel crawls in beside me, I relish the opportunity to snuggle in and watch youtube videos of unlikely animal friendships with this kid who has now spent more than half of her life with me. Those are welcome interruptions. She is lovely and amazing and will most likely start to push us away a bit over the years to come as she navigates adolescence and asserts her independence. I am bracing myself for this change, so I, like any other parent of a 13-year-old, savour those few special times together. And when Rachel comes over, just full of love for her wee brother, my heart smiles as I watch them together. She sits at my kitchen counter, hunched over a bowl of her dad’s guacamole, and tells me all about her plans, short-term and long-term, for school and for life, and I wish we could talk forever. She is so full of interesting ideas and articulate opinions - all the idealism and convictions that come with being eighteen and ready to head out into the world. And when she, the daughter of an English professor and a Biochemistry professor, said she had decided to take Political Science and Global Studies in university, I felt a wicked sense of triumph. I won!!! I won!!! (I like to think that maybe a few of the seeds I planted over the years had some influence on that decision and I hope she will let me keep that illusion.) Most importantly, when they come to me and tell me about something good they have done – something done with love and wisdom and respect, something that is the very best of themselves – and they admit that they couldn’t wait to tell me because they knew I would be so proud of them…. well, then, in those moments, my heart almost bursts with love and joy and pride. I am so very honoured to have shared in the tending of two such uniquely beautiful gardens. They tell me that they lucked out in the stepmom department, but I am the lucky one.
More people need to tell these stories of step-parenthood. I know there are nightmarish scenarios out there. Those are the stories we hear all too often. But there are a whole lot of families out there, like us, who have taken a risk, chosen to love and have gained more than they ever imagined. And those who are struggling need to know both truths: that it is definitely hard and that it is definitely worth it.
I never would have chosen Iceland as a destination. It’s the ‘ice’ part that deterred me. I am definitely a tropical girl and even the Gulf Stream and molten lava that lend extra warmth to Iceland weren’t enough of an incentive for me. My husband, with his Viking ancestry, talked about Iceland as his dream vacation, every time he was hiding out in the air-conditioned restaurant of whatever Caribbean resort I had dragged him to. Iceland, to him, seemed like a dream come true for a guy who hates the heat and loves geology. When his family members from far and wide decided to converge on Iceland for a family reunion / group trip, I gave in. It was his turn, I reminded myself, as I booked tickets to Iceland just as the snow was melting and spring was coming to our home in Paris, Ontario.
People thought it was cool and a little bit crazy that we were headed to Iceland for a family reunion, particularly since none of the family members were actually from Iceland. Then there was the toddler factor. Folks thought we were nuts to be taking our toddler on a tour of Iceland. A quick search on the web brought up a few articles by people who had taken their tinies there and had enjoyed it, even though they found it to be an enormous logistical challenge. Every day is a logistical challenge with Henry, so I figured it couldn’t possibly be too tricky if we took our toddler to Iceland, could it?
With some solid planning in place, it turned out to be the best vacation ever! Iceland has a reputation for being expensive, and it’s a well-deserved reputation. But if you plan correctly, it is doable. In an attempt to lure tourists to Iceland, they have made it very inexpensive to fly there. Iceland Air even offers stopovers to allow people to have brief vacations there while en route to Europe, without an extra surcharge for doing so. The Iceland stopover has, apparently, become quite a thing. In order to save wherever possible, I watched for a seat sale and nabbed cheap tickets on the red eye which allowed our busy boy to sleep instead of screaming “I’m stuck!” over and over again like the last time we flew. So it took less time, and less money, to fly to Iceland than it does for us to fly to Vancouver.
Instead of expensive hotels, which are both too costly and too tiny for a family, I found amazing accommodations for us on AirBnB. We had a fantastic flat, centrally located and fully appointed, for less than half the cost of a hotel room. Our host told us that the government would like to crack down on all the AirBnB listings that have popped up, but recognizes that the country would not be able to accommodate all its tourists without them. So they have become a crucial part of the country’s tourist industry. When we went south, to the coast, we booked a beautiful little cottage with a view to die for. Again, it was less expensive and afforded us more room and amenities to suit our needs. We loved our little cottage by the sea! And since we had access to kitchens, I was able to pack a suitcase of food from home, so that I could cook whenever possible. Russ is allergic to wheat and Henry is a picky eater. It was so much easier to just cook breakfast or pack some snacks, than to assume that we could find suitable food on the road. Then we were free to go out some nights for amazing dinners with the family, knowing we had saved elsewhere during the day. Going out and about was also an opportunity for us to connect with Icelanders, and everyone we met was very friendly and helpful.
Iceland itself is a natural wonder. It is stunningly beautiful in every direction, but in an other-worldly way. Unlike anywhere else we had ever been, it consistently surprised us. We hadn’t done a lot of research ahead of time and relied on the diligent and thorough planning of our group members. Even if you are just there for a few days, you can see most of the highlights of Iceland and promise yourself that you will return again someday to see the rest. It is a destination for people who like to be active. I realized this when I observed that everyone waiting to board the flight for Reykjavik was wearing hiking boots. Everyone except us!
What I really wanted to say here in this piece is that you should take your kids to Iceland. Seriously. It provides an opportunity for them to run wild and free. I could not have taken Henry to London or Paris without him wreaking havoc. I would have had to tie him down anywhere else, just to minimize the damage and keep him safe. In Iceland, Henry was able to be a kid - the kind of kid he was meant to be. He ran and climbed and jumped and explored. He was intrigued by everything he saw from the car window as we wandered about the countryside, along fjords, over lava fields and around volcanoes. “Water volcanoes” (geysers) and the black beach were his favourite features. In Iceland, it didn’t matter if he was dirty or noisy or distracted by pretty rocks or pretty horses. Every day was an adventure for him, where he was able to explore nature and learn about the world. He climbed volcanoes and glaciers. He soaked in hot pools and played on volcanic beaches. He watched goats being born and brand new little lambs learning to walk. He clambered along waterfalls and slid down sandy hills. He tossed stones into the ocean and threw sticks into mountain streams. And he played with other kids, wherever he found them, regardless of the language barrier. And even though Iceland is rugged and untamed and definitely has too few guard rails for my liking, it was safe. I have traveled all over the world and I don’t ever remember being somewhere that felt so safe. Personal safety and security didn’t really cross my mind. We weren’t going to be robbed or high-jacked. Henry wasn’t going to be kidnapped. We were just safe to explore and it felt wonderful.
Take your kids to Iceland for a family vacation. You will see things you had only ever imagined. You will experience nature in a whole new way. And you will make memories, together, that are out of this world. If you've been there, and have some tips for travelers that you'd be willing to share, I'd love to hear from you!
We did it!!! All but five of our twenty-two new nucs are safely deposited in their colourful new hive boxes in three different locations. That was some awful weather on Saturday, given the task we had set for the day. Ideally, you want a warm, sunny, dry, calm day for transferring hives. What we got was a bitterly cold, overcast, wet and windy day. Yikes. But in the end, the wind was useful. I have never seen bees dive right down into their hives like that! There were very few bees flying angrily around. I didn’t need to worry about them becoming confused about which hive was theirs. We just transferred the frames and dumped the remaining bees from the cardboard boxes into the hives and we were done.
The morning began with a drive to Port Rowan where we picked up our nucs from the Hunt brothers at Hunt’s Honey. They informed us that five of the nucs had lost their queens so they would need another week to build up those nucs for us. So, we carefully loaded seventeen boxes of bees into the back of Dad’s truck. We had to open the windows to allow for ventilation on what seemed to me to be a crazy cold day. But bees throw a ridiculous amount of heat. You could feel it radiating off the boxes. So we took extra care to ensure that they didn’t overheat on the journey. Dad’s truck was loaded with boxes of bees and mine was filled with boxes of hive frames for all the new hives, since we had purchased those from Hunt’s Honey too.
Our first stop was the Book homestead, where ten of our hives are now nestled in the grass. We figured it was best to hit St George first because it meant reducing the stress of ten nucs’ worth of bees right off the bat. Ron and Nancy were excited to watch from the sidelines. It’s so fun to be to doing this with other members of the community this year. This is also the first year that Russ is participating in the actual beekeeping activities. He was all geared up in his Christmas gift beekeeping gear and ready to help out. He also reported his first bee sting, EVER. He didn’t yell or cry, so I am pleased to know that he doesn’t have a huge immune response to stings. It was a bit swollen later, but nothing like the ‘someone just hit me with a baseball bat’ response that I get when stung. Either that, or he is way tougher than I am. Ha!
Then we headed to Princeton where we met up with Milt who was eager to see how we did things because he was preparing to set up his very first, very own beehive the next day. After doing ten at the Book place, we were pros at setting up the three hives that we have in Princeton. We were done tickety boo, but wow, were we ever windblown! Those hives are going to need some special care next fall as we prepare them to overwinter on that cold hill. For now, though, those bees are surrounded by apple trees in full blossom. What a wonderful housewarming gift for them!
Finally, we landed at Devon Acres Organic Farm. There was no one to be seen at the farm so we just went about our business. The ducks and chickens supervised us, noisily, and eventually a cow came up just to see what was going on. She was very curious! We set up just four hives here, since the remaining nucs will have to go in later when Hunt’s Honey lets us know that they are ready. Again, it was quick and easy because the bees had no desire to be out and about. Since then, I’ve heard from Robin at Devon Acres. He says he saw no sign of the bees until this afternoon, because it is now just finally warming up again after our freakishly cold, record-setting weekend weather that even included snow and sleet and frost. Robin reports that the bees are busy in the spring sunshine this afternoon, except for the last three hives. He didn’t think those last three could have absconded quite so quickly, and rightly assumed that I hadn’t put bees in them yet. We will be back to load some bees in those final boxes next weekend.
And that’s it. By this time next week, I hope to report that all our hives are up and running. There are beautiful blossoms at each of our bee yards, so our bees won’t have far to travel to get some nectar as they settle in to their new homes. I can’t wait to pop in and check on the hives in the coming weeks to see how they are doing. I will keep you posted!!! Thanks for joining us on our sweet journey!
We are back from vacationing on a most untropical island – one that still managed to leave us covered in dirt. It was that kind of holiday, where everyone was able to run and climb and explore and yes, get filthy, just like when we were kids. I’ll share more about that later this week, but today we are on the fifth of seven loads of laundry and today we are celebrating Henry’s 3rd birthday. Today I also received the proofs for a book about prematurity in Canada, since it is going to feature the piece I wrote a couple of years ago about Henry’s birth and the laundry. So it just seemed fitting that I take a few minutes to write this quick post and share that laundry piece again – in the spirit of Mother’s Day and Henry’s birthday, and in the spirit of finding meaning in the most mundane of tasks, the laundry.
You can read that story here: 'A preemie's mom gets serious about laundry', The Globe and Mail
We have been so grateful for all those who have poured into Henry’s little life. Henry has a whole virtual village of people who have prayed for him and followed him and loved on him since that very first day when my water broke at 25 weeks and Henry’s safe little world became a very dangerous one. A couple of weeks ago, I did a presentation about prematurity for a parenting class and I could not believe how tiny Henry was in those pictures. I lived it, and I still don’t believe it. I can’t believe that this enormous, energetic and enthusiastic boy is that same little creature in the box. As trite as it is to say, he is a miracle. His birthday will always be a little bit traumatic and a whole lot triumphant for me. He’s a shining example of what can happen when we pour a whole lot of love and prayers and expertise and tax dollars into saving the tiniest of tinies, the least of these.
I get to celebrate Henry’s birthday at the same time as Mother’s Day each year. And the first weeks of May are already so full of new life and promise, that it’s always a great reminder of the beauty of joyful expectation. My garden looks just like it did, suddenly all wild and bursting with colour, when I came home after my few days in the hospital. The sun is shining, spring has sprung and today is a good day, despite all the laundry. Henry’s extraordinary neonatologist called this morning, right on schedule, to wish him a happy birthday and to reminisce about our almost five months together three years ago. Then Henry's godmother, Auntie Wonton, with whom Henry gets to share this birthday, called to sing to him. Nana came over to join us for birthday pancakes at McDonalds (our classy new birthday tradition). And this big boy has been walking around singing his favourite song, Happy Birthday, to himself. So many feelings.
So, today we are celebrating him in small ways while we recover from traveling and while we dig ourselves out from under the mounds of laundry. And later this weekend and next week we will celebrate in bigger ways, with family and friends. Thank you for continuing to celebrate our miracle with us. He is such a lovely reason to celebrate.
Kari Raymer Bishop
Lover of Jesus, cheeses and tropical breezes... seeking balance in life, even as I embrace new challenges and chase new dreams. I am wife, mother, daughter and friend, as well as teacher, entrepreneur, activist, writer, beekeeper and hostess. Come along on the journey through my long-awaited midlife crisis!