How I Survived Step-Motherhood

Becoming a stepmother was not part of my fairy tale. At 21 years old, I was a recent college graduate, completely self-absorbed, and utterly uninterested in small children. I lived by a strict set of rules that required my dates to be, among other things, child-free.

When I crossed paths with Derek, an old crush, I knew he was a father. I knew his situation broke my rules. But it wasn’t in my will to turn away from such a dynamic, creative, interesting man. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it. And so began the process of accepting step-motherhood.

For me, it was no easy task to surrender my fairy tale and design a new one. I hold onto things. I can be unyielding in my desires and rigid in my beliefs. I felt that I was giving something up in order to gain something else. I felt that being with Derek meant agreeing to a life that I was ill-equipped to live—and yet I knew that I wanted a future with him.

So I did the best I could. I began slowly. I met Sam when she was 20 months old. My limited experience with children made me nervous. I didn’t know what to do with a baby, and I didn’t want to know what to do with a baby. I was resistant, reluctant, and uncomfortable. Still, we began taking her places together. We had lunch. We played in the yard. I was trying. He was trying. It was working. And then we moved in together.

After dating for a year, I decided that I could do the stepmom thing for the long haul, and we found a place in the country with an extra bedroom for Sam. Everything seemed to be moving along as well as could be expected. I was coping with my altered fairy tale. I was in love. I knew how to change a diaper and make a grilled cheese sandwich.

But then came the next inevitable step in the process. Enter Sam’s mom, Shelby (also known as The Ex). It wasn’t that Shelby was unpleasant or demanding or spiteful. She was none of those things. She did, after all, have a job to do and I knew she was a necessary part of the equation. I just didn’t want her to be. I wanted to carry on with my fairy tale (tarnished as it was) and pretend like Sam was the result of some immaculate conception.

Again, I felt out-of-my-element, insecure, threatened, resentful, and well ... envious. This woman had something that I didn’t have with Derek, and it was something huge. In my mind, she had stolen one of the most precious “firsts” that he and I would have otherwise had together. So – to make a long story shorter, I'll fast-forward a bit.

We settled into a routine where Sam came to visit us on weekends. It was an awkward transition, having to make small talk with The Ex during the exchanges on Friday and Sunday evenings. I did my best to appear as the ever-confident and well-adjusted person that I felt I should be.

It was a terrible farce. I must have been pulling it off though, because Shelby warmed up to me very quickly, extending her conversations with me on the phone to chat about personal things and lingering over stories about Sam when I went to pick her up.

Over time, I found myself naturally laughing with Shelby about shared challenges with my in-laws, over common issues we had with work, or relationships, or Sam. We fell into a rhythm where the days rolled into weeks, which rolled into months and then years. I married Derek and had my own children. She got married as well and had more children. We bought each other Christmas gifts. We watched Sam grow up. We drank wine. We became friends. We had everything in common, after all.

It all happened much like the seasons happen, with small, almost imperceptible changes. A connection occurred where I didn’t expect it to. I didn’t will it to happen. I didn’t control it.

I know now that the peaceful give and take we both enjoyed over a period of almost 20 years was more the result of a kind of letting go. I let go of the fairy tale. I let go of trying to compete. I let go of trying to build the perfect life. I let go of my pre-conceived notions. I let go.

And in that letting go is where I gained something very valuable. I got to know Shelby, not as my adversary, but as a human being who was on her own journey—a journey which just happened to cross paths with mine.

Sam has grown up to be a beautiful young lady. I survived step-motherhood. In fact, I did more than survive it – I grew as a result of it. My life is richer and my heart is open, and I know today that this is indeed my fairy tale.

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