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Am I Accidentally Ruining My Stepson’s Life?

Photograph by Twenty20

Some people dream in multiple languages. Some dream in black and white. Sometimes my imagination envisions my 8-year-old stepson as an adult, laying on a couch, talking to his future therapist about his childhood—and about me, his stepmom.

“My childhood was going great until…”

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When we first told my stepson I was expecting, we took him out for buttermilk pancakes at a local diner. After our plates were cleared, we told him that we had a surprise. I slid a photograph to his side of the table; it was a snapshot from my first prenatal ultrasound.

“What’s that?” he asked, looking at the amorphous white orbs on the glossy black sheet.

“That,” I said, pointing at the little mung bean in the photograph, “is your little brother or sister. We’re going to have a baby!”

My then 6-year-old stepson was so thrilled by this news that he ducked under the table, where he hid for five minutes.

When everyone had to scoot over, to make room for a new little dude in our lives, it was now complicated where it used to be convenient.

When I met my stepson, he had just blown out the candles on his fourth birthday cake. In those early days, I never really considered myself an integral part of his day-to-day childhood. Because I wasn’t. If my stepson were a bike, I saw his mom as the tires and his dad as the frame. The bike is fully functional. All operational parts intact and well-oiled. No third wheel needed. I was an accessory, like rainbow-colored streamers or a string of delightfully noisy cans dragging behind the tires. Sure, a bike doesn’t need those things, but it’s pretty rad for the bike right?

Where I went from being dad’s girlfriend to the stepmomster in his life, I’m not sure. But I think it began about a year and a half ago, when I gave birth to his brother. I’ll say this about childbirth: It chewed up who I thought I was and spit out a new version of myself. I was a mess. It felt like I was simultaneously juggling a full tilt identity crisis while falling deeper into a love I’d never known, but every shitty aspect of my persona had compounded. Charisma had up and left the building. And suddenly there was this extra kid in our lives. #nbd

There were growing pains, to say the least.

To be honest, one of the biggest challenges rippled out of his mother’s camp. There was a string of six months when my stepson would leave our home happy and return, five days later, confused. Following a weekend with me while dad worked, my stepson went to his mom’s. He returned and told me: “My mommy says that if I’m coming to dad’s house, it is to see Dad, and if I’m not going to see dad then I should just stay with Mom.”

He never used to say things like that. The dynamic between me and my stepson had always been so gentle and joyful. But suddenly it was strained. After the baby was born, some friends dropped off lasagnas and blessings. Instead, his ex-wife dropped f-bombs on my husband’s voicemail when I was 15 minutes late for dropping him off for swimming camp.

I guess the disappointment went both ways. I thought that my son would be celebrated as her son has always been. I realized that so much of our agreeable arrangement hinged on the shared convenience of orbiting around her son. But when everyone had to scoot over, to make room for a new little dude in our lives, it was now complicated where it used to be convenient. Though her eyes once glittered at my baby shower with congratulations, her distress following my son’s birth was palpable. So began the Facebook posts. Whenever my husband would post a photo of our son, she would unearth an old photo of their son at roughly the same age, tag him and post it on his wall. The subtext, I gather, is Don’t forget me. Don’t forget him. Don’t forget us.

You know the cliche: Man gets married, man has a kid, man divorces, remarries, has another kid, and the old kid is forgotten. I know this is the part of the step-parent trope where I’m supposed to bitch about the ex and treat my son like royalty and my stepson like he’s not. But they’re both royalty. I like my husband’s ex-wife and admire her as a mother. I admire her fierce protectiveness over her son. I admire how exhaustively she finds opportunities for him, like hip hop and yoga and Buddhist soccer (yes that’s a thing in #California). No doubt, it is hard for her to be away from her son half the time and to trust others to help raise her favorite guy. When I look at it that way, or try to see the world from her eyes, I can’t feel resentful or self-righteous. We’re just humans, trying to do our best.

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So if there is a day that my stepson ever starts seeing a therapist (hey—no shame. I am and it’s awesome) I hope that he sees all the parental figures in his life as humans who have helped equip him with what he needs to do this life thing right. Whether I’m the streamers, or the handlebars, or even the spokes, I’m just happy to be a part of it.

*Editorial note: the writer name is a pseudonym. The mom who wrote this post wishes to remain anonymous.

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