When I flew out of the country for the first time to Toronto for a two-day work conference, I never imagined I’d meet my husband while I was away. My 23rd birthday had taken place the week before, and I was reveling in my spacious new apartment, my fun job, and the realization that my life was just beginning. But then my boss introduced me to a man in our industry at the hotel bar, and after a pseudo-date/business dinner, we were planning our next meet up in NYC. I booked and paid for my flight on the plane home from Toronto. I was falling for him fast, and finally understood what people meant when they gazed adoringly at their spouses and quipped, “When you know, you know.” I knew. And so did he.
Fast forward several international flights and visits later, I packed my bags, quit my job, and moved in with my brand-new fiancé. Caught up in the throes of new love and the excitement of living in a new country, I thought nothing could get me down. Not even the fact that I was on the path to becoming a stepmother to three children I didn’t give birth to. Or the fact that the week after I moved, I took a pregnancy test on a whim and got the shock of my life when it showed a positive. I was 23, pregnant for the first time, and I was going to be a stepmother.
You don't realize how lonely the road you're walking is.
Even though my family and friends were all 1,000 miles away, I felt I could conquer the world with my husband by my side. But when the reality hit that I was going to have to try to integrate myself into an already-established family as a complete outsider (to both the family and the country), I realized with an overwhelming sense of dread that there was literally no one I knew I could talk to about my situation. I was a stepmom to three kids and about to become a first-time mom. I felt completely and utterly alone. It's the one thing no one told me about being a stepmom: you don't realize how lonely the road you're walking is.
Of my three stepchildren, one, the oldest, lives with my husband and me. He’s 16 — eight years younger than me and the same age as my brother. Initially I found it hard to see him as a stepson. We’re so close in age, relatively speaking, and truth be told, I think he’s cool. We shop at the same stores, listen to some of the same music, and use the same social media platforms. Our personalities are very similar as well. We’re both introverted and quiet. I’ve met his mother and my impression of her is nothing but positive, so there’s thankfully been no drama involved in our dynamic. But it was difficult for me to take on a more authoritative role as his stepparent whenever my husband is away on business trips. I’m responsible for making sure he does his chores and homework, and I found that difficult to do at first since I saw him more as a cool young friend than my stepson.
The real problem in those early days was the background noise, if you will.
The two youngest stepchildren, who are 5 and 17 months old, live predominantly with their mother (and they don’t share the same mom as my eldest stepson). I don't have a relationship with their mother, but the kids stay with my husband and me every other weekend. I love the children themselves, and get along well, but I found it initially difficult to relate to them. They’re kids, both under the age of 6, and as a single girl in my 20s who suddenly — and surprisingly — found herself a stepmom to three kids and pregnant with her first child, I was incredibly overwhelmed. I didn’t have much experience with kids. It was hard for me to get on their level, to understand the needs of a child, to be what they needed when their own mom wasn't around. But hardest of all was learning how to navigate that relationship without a roadmap.
The real problem in those early days was the background noise, if you will: Someone I haven't been able to pin down started leaving nasty comments on a blog I’d created to document my pregnancy and my new life in a new country — a blog mainly for the benefit of my family and friends back home. The comments ranged from imploring me to “have a heart,” to “take this stupid blog down,” to the not-so-subtle insinuation that I’d "carried on an affair with their friend’s husband while he was still with the children’s mother." In their custody proceedings, my husband's ex denied writing any of the comments and also denied that her friends were involved. She did confirm the "take the 'stupid' blog down" comment was made by a friend. Her accusations, however, were false; my husband and his ex had separated before we’d ever met, but the comments still stung. Throughout my pregnancy and following the birth of my son, I continued to receive anonymous comments and emails that grew increasingly more hostile.
Even though I have deep friendships with many women in my life, we’re all on different chapters. I have friends graduating law school, finishing up their last year of pharmacy school, starting their own businesses, and traveling the world with no one to report back to or find a babysitter for.
This person called me a “disgrace to women,” “self-centered,” “beyond selfish,” and “naive,” and even expressed pity for my 1-month-old son who, according to the commenter, was “born to a selfish wh*re and deadbeat dad.” For the record, my husband pays child support every month, contributes to the children’s childcare and extracurricular activities, and ensures the kids have an abundance of toys to play with and activities to do when they come stay with us. Though comments from people outside of our home will never be in short supply, I wasn't prepared for how lonely I'd feel when people judged me without knowing me, or made assumptions about the type of woman I am and the kind of mother I'd be. Thankfully, no one ever made comments directly to me. After the comments on my blog, I heard nothing else — at least, not directly. I was spared, in a sense, because I didn't really know anyone outside of my husband in Canada after I'd moved there. Though my husband did tell me about rumors he'd heard from friends of friends, I didn't experience that.
Being a stepmom to three children who are not my own is not always an easy job, especially when I’m doing it alone. And even though I have deep friendships with many women in my life, we’re all on different chapters. I have friends graduating law school, finishing up their last year of pharmacy school, starting their own businesses, and traveling the world with no one to report back to or find a babysitter for. Though they don't belittle or make me feel inferior for choosing to fund a family instead of a business, it makes the divide in our lives wider: They don't know how to help me through, and I don't exactly know how to help them.
I’m grateful to have a partner who recognizes my excitement and worry and doesn’t try to teach me the “right way” to do things, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that having a first child is much different than having a fourth, and though he never says he’s been there and done that, it’s still something I often think about.
When I gave birth to my son, along with excitement (and exhaustion) of new motherhood, I was surprised to find that in some ways, that too brought on feelings of loneliness. For me, it was a time of firsts: My first birth, first time getting up in the middle of the night for feedings, first time making a baby registry, changing diapers, picking a formula, anxiously hovering and checking his breathing while he slept, first time setting up a nursery — for my husband, it was his fourth go around. I’m grateful to have a partner who recognizes my excitement and worry and doesn’t try to teach me the “right" way to do things, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that having a first child is much different than having a fourth, and though he never says he’s been there and done that, it’s still something I think about. The fact remains three children were born before my own, and he is the father to them all.
I often feel like I’m drowning: Yeah sure, they’re all cute, but the fact is children are a whole lot different to raise, regardless if they’re yours, mine, or ours.
I’m raising my son to view his half-brothers and his half-sister as more than “half” — and my wish is for them to share the bond of siblings regardless of their parentage. I grew up with half siblings too, and I’m thankful my parents never raised us to see one another as such. Instead, we all grew up with a close bond. I never want any of our kids to feel left out or alienated from their own siblings, but I’m starting to realize that trying to forge a bond between my son and my stepchildren won’t be easy. They only see one another every other weekend, for one; they're all years apart; and given the non-existent relationship I currently have with the mother of two of them, I feel it might not come naturally to my stepchildren to like my son. I can’t control what they hear (if anything) outside of our home, and I can’t make them like someone they don’t want to.
Ultimately, I realize whatever relationship they will or won’t have is up to the kids themselves. Yet on the other end of the spectrum, I often wonder how I'll feel if they do, in fact, grow up as best friends. Will I feel joyful? In many ways, yes. In others, no. The fact that my own son may be best friends with the children of a woman I don't know, one of whose "friends" seems to hate me, is kind of hard to handle.
For me, personally, I find the difficulty in not having an open ear to turn to aside from my husband. All of his family are, naturally, head over heels in love with all of the kids, and they’re able to see past any drama that surrounds our family dynamic. My own family is extremely supportive, but very far away. And I often feel like I’m drowning: Yeah sure, they’re all cute, but the fact is children are a whole lot different to raise than I imagined, regardless if they’re yours, mine, or ours. In our blended family, this difficulty comes from the fact that rules and schedules are different at every house and it can be hard for the children to adjust. If I disagree with my stepson eating too much candy before bed, I feel like I’m shaming him and his parents’ choices, and I don't ever want to do that. I want to respect the way his parents raise him, yet keep the rules consistent at my house. It’s a fine line to walk, and I often feel I’m walking it by myself.
Sometimes, I just need an outlet. It’s hard to try to be the peacemaker and -keeper. There are days I want to remove myself from the situation, and sometimes I don’t want my son involved in all of our shared madness. Sure, we may have signed up for it, but I signed up for this in the same way all women who have children sign up for the sleepless nights: it doesn’t mean I don’t love every minute of it, and it’s exhausting. Even though this isn't exactly the life I'd imagined for myself growing up, I love the life we've created together, kids included. It may be lonely at times, but I've realized we're all trying to figure out how to do this. And honestly? That makes it a lot less scary.