More than eleven years ago, I married a man fifteen years my senior with two grown kids. It was my second marriage and his third, and despite all the possibilities that existed for how our blended union could have crashed and burned, we’ve thrived.
Much of the potential for disaster rested in the immediate walls of resistance I put up against considering myself a bona fide member of this family. After experiencing one broken family after another from the time I was twelve years old until I was thirty-three, I’d decided I simply wasn’t meant to be part of a one. Walking down the aisle toward my second husband – and his two grown kids – I knew the love between us was real, but I was still holding tight to what I believed would be a life raft should our tiny circle sink. I am not really part of this family was my secret mantra, and it felt completely reasonable to hold on to it.
The story I proceeded to write with this family was of a slow, mindful release of this belief. Slow because it took years; mindful because it required devoted, open-hearted attention day in and day out. My approach to mindfulness has always been less about specific daily rituals such as seated meditations or journaling and more about a commitment to paying close attention to – and immediately questioning – anything that sparks a strong reaction or emotional trigger. Over time, I stopped trying to prove my original mantra – I am not really a part of this family – and, in its place, a more potent and life-affirming one emerged: This is my soul’s journey. While those five words didn’t necessarily make things immediately easier, they provided a bridge between whatever wound was expressing itself and an antidote to the pain. With every act of absolution, surrender, and acceptance, seismic shifts in the dynamics of our circle took place, only instead of splitting the ground beneath us apart, our individual plots of land were brought closer together, every single time.
“At any moment you have a choice that either leads you closer to your spirit or further away from it.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh
During my gradual crawl to familyhood, we’ve approach our official titles – stepmom, stepson, stepdaughter-in-law – with amusement, not trying to squirm ourselves around them, but giddily claiming them in moments when we know it will elicit a laugh. For example, when I introduce my husband’s son – who is only four years younger than me – as my stepson, we both love watching everyone do a double take. These days, we see the “steps” in our titles as meaningless, but still haven’t found a way to explain our relations to each other without it coming across as distant and antiseptic. Phrases like “my dad’s wife” and “my husband’s daughter” make it sound like we wouldn’t likely be connected to each other if it wasn’t for the one we all happen to be related to – my husband.
None of this negates the fact that I am, according to the rest of the world, the stepmother, which is a strange title to bear regardless of how silly any of us thinks it is. I am one in a long line of women who have found themselves in the sometimes unsettling space between the man they love and the kids he created with another woman. As a stepmother, I’m also keeping company with an array of other infamous stepmothers. I share the stage with Cinderella’s Evil Stepmother, with clean-cut, ever-chipper Carol Brady, and with the playful, compassionate Maria from The Sound of Music. With such a disparate selection of role models to turn to, and a library of blended family self-help books that tend to put stepmothers squarely on the defensive (Stepmotherhood: How to Survive Without Feeling Frustrated, Left Out, or Wicked), it can feel like the wild west, with no map or guidebook.
Even if the situation is relatively benign or, as is my case, positively miraculous, it can be hard to know what, exactly, the role of stepmother should be. Even with a daughter and son that are 38 and 44 respectively, and who don’t just love me, but sincerely like me, I have moments of not knowing how to situate myself in different circumstances. I am more than just “the dad’s wife” and the title stepmom just makes us laugh, so who am I? I have claimed my space in this family, but what is that space, exactly?
Is it a totally outrageous and daring idea to believe I am, in my own unique way, a mother? In this family and in the world?
I have never been pregnant and never birthed a child, but I have been a nurturing caretaker to just about everyone in our family, from my husband’s nephew and his three kids to my sister and my stepkids and even to our chocolate lab Tilda. I keep our house humming along smoothly when all the guest bedrooms are full in ways that escape most everyone’s attention. I clear dishes after breakfast, wash towels after a day at the beach, and turn on the twinkle lights in the evening for my granddaughter.
My family counts on me for enthusiastic encouragement and knows I’m willing to show up and be of service however I can. I helped demolish walls on the house my stepson renovated. I designed and built my stepdaughter’s website. I am also known in our family as a creator of calm and an enabler of flow – meaning, I do a pretty decent job of letting everyone be exactly who they are and express whatever they are feeling without trying to immediately “fix” things. I’m not always as serene on the inside as I appear on the outside, but that is because I’m acutely aware of how much trouble my own emotions and triggers could cause in situations that are already delicate or volatile. I’ve developed a practice of silence and stillness in order to keep situations free of my own emotional noise.
I also love everyone in my family fiercely and selflessly. I give of myself to them in ways I wouldn’t for anyone else. I let frustrations melt away more easily, I forgive more immediately, and I have learned to trust that no matter what kind of squabbles or disappointments we have with each other, we will always come back to the table together to share a meal. My love for my family is like no other love. Loving them provides me with endless opportunities to see and love them as God sees and loves them – wholeheartedly, unabashedly, joyfully.
No doubt there are plenty of mothers out there – real mothers, the ones who have literally created another human being and brought it into the world – who would say I will never know what a mother’s love and devotion really is. Fair enough. Claiming the title mother is not, for me, something I necessarily need to proclaim to anyone other than myself. In embracing my role as a mother, I am not going to suddenly expect flowers on Mother’s Day. I have no interest in trying to assert myself in the space my stepkids share with their mom. When someone asks how I am related to my stepson, I’ll still say I’m his stepmom (and it will still make me laugh.)
Quietly declaring my role as a mother is my own personal honoring of the love I give to my family and the world. It is a silent recognition of all the ways I play this role. I am not the procreator, but I am the caretaker. I am not the child-bearer, but I am a steady, maternal force in a family full of strong personalities and individuals determined to make their own mark on the world. I am affectionate and protective, sympathetic and patient. I create and hold space. I am a good listener.
There are fifty-nine slogans in the Buddhist tradition of lojong, and I bring the last one – Don’t expect applause – to mind just about every day for one reason or another. It is a reminder to give because I have the desire to give instead of because I am hoping for some kind of recognition. It is a reminder to keep expectations in check, to make sure my motivations for whatever it is I am offering are free and clear of any clutter that might be caused by my wanting some kind of spotlight aimed squarely at my ego.
It is most especially helpful when it comes to considering myself as a mother. I honor this within myself so that I can hold myself to the highest level of integrity as possible. Claiming the title of mother is about embracing all the opportunities that this role provides for me to be of service.
Stepmotherhood is a strange no-man’s land that has a really bad rap and that no one, as of yet, has found a way to reframe and honor. I am not on a quest to solve this particular dilemma for the entire world, but I can soften the contours of its landscape just a wee bit by reframing – or, in my case, kind of tossing aside – the stepmother title for myself. In doing this quietly, without need of any outside acknowledgment, I can accept my space in this family gracefully. I empty my mind of all the ideas about stepmotherhood that have been fed to me since I was a little girl, and then I empty my mind of any ideas about motherhood as well. I let it all go, and in the space left behind I simply do what I am called do – I love my family, and take care of them as best as I can, every single day.
Christine Mason Miller is an author and artist who has been encouraging others to create a meaningful life since 1995. She recently finished Moving Water, a memoir about the spiritual journey she has taken with her family. You can learn more about her at www.christinemasonmiller.com.