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.
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!