Becoming an Ordinary Stepmother

Becoming an Ordinary Stepmother


“What, five kids, really?”

I still can get the usual disbelieving look with questions when it comes to light that I’ve raised five children, and the askers seem even more surprised than forty years ago. We look at family matters and population numbers from a different perspective today, though even then it drew attention. Still, it’s only five children, not ten, not fifteen. The question was always felt as a small jolt.

“Five–so close in age! You’re too skinny to have had so many. How do you deal with so many?”

As if weight had anything to do with birthing infants but back then I was 105 pounds sans the unborn, fully dressed. Being pregnant made me look and feel like a full-sized adult and truly robust.

It was the sort of question that was asked by anyone: a younger stranger slumping against her shopping cart as two little boys batted her legs with hands full of chewing gum and cupcakes; an older couple observing us from a table beside ours in a restaurant; a casual friend at a preschool babysitting cooperative with an infant whose upper register screeching was enough to make her cover both ears. And then there were those whose inquiring looks said enough: I could be–ought to be–working at a real job, not popping out babies, being a housewife. It was, after all, the 1980s. Sometimes I may have felt inclined to agree, but still.

It always caught me off guard. Was there fear in their voices, that I had something contagious they might catch? Or was there a smidgen of admiration based upon the scenario of the moment–all five children kindly behaving like civilized beings? Or was this some seepage of disdain since anyone knew by then that people might actually prevent such things as big families?  Or, wait, was I Catholic? (“No” would be my answer to that.)

What was the appropriate response?

“Yes, we have these four daughters and a son. Ages? Well…four are about six months apart and the little one is six years younger than the next-to-last.”

That silenced most. Often I’d heard all four daughters looked a lot like me. And the one son, too, in fact. But how was this possible? They would scrutinize my husband and me. Said spouse had a certain look–was he Hispanic or Italian or part something else–with very curly hair some kids shared–and I had another altogether, WASP-y. Smile, nod and they moved on. A pleasant smile covers certain faux pas or a revelation of curious thoughts and feelings. We would smile back, shepherd the kids along.

I knew what they were thinking: those cannot all be their real kids. Adopted? No, I wanted to call after them, not that either, nice try. Just not all biologically my/his own, that’s all I’d say if someone pressed the point. I was certain this could not be so odd a reality. Divorce, remarriage and subsequent stepfamilies were–cue an exaggerated cultural “gulp”–happening more and more by the seventies and eighties. Like it or not.

So I explained to those who truly cared: “I have two daughters who are my non-biological kids. My husband was raising them primarily for a bit–I know, not usual. So that means he has two kids who also aren’t biologically his own as I had two when we got together. Then we had one of our own.”

That didn’t tell the whole story. Not that they should be privy to it–who even asks personal things about one’s family on the street, in a store, across the neighborly fence?

I had been informed before marrying the first time that it would be almost impossible for me to have children. I didn’t think too much about it, really. I had not been a great babysitter. I had passionate dreams, percolating ideas and wanted to be a writer, at the least. I had started college with plenty to do. But then it happened, even though it turned out I also had the medical condition of placenta previa. Pregnancies would be high risk. Every child was born prematurely (my first daughter, N., arrived two and a half months early when little was known about preemies), but they flourished nonetheless as I recovered. I found motherhood surprisingly enthralling, meaningful, life affirming. But I wasn’t looking for more children.

Then, at age 30, I ended up with a suspect title created in part by arbiters of social mores and conventional language. It had long been reviled in fairy tales: stepmother. It sounded utterly foreign. It seemed a glib moniker, not a real thing. A nom de plume. All the while I–primarily, respectfully, deeply–felt like a regular mother with just a couple more kids.

I had in fact known the girls, C. and A., even before their arrivals, because I knew their birth mother. We met in college, knew one another via classes, husbands and shared interests in fine arts and politics. She and I both wrote and participated in poetry readings. We attended events and groups for women only, were creative, hippie-feminists at heart. I was married to Ned, a talented sculptor intent on obtaining his Masters’ degree, and she to Marc, a fine singer-songwriter/music student who was just about to go to work full-time. She and I each had one daughter close to the same time. And then each had a second child on the way. We also lived four houses from one other. Our men were friendly enough but busy. So were we, though I took fewer classes when my son, J., came into the world. His father wrapped up his degree program. My friend continued her education while her spouse started what became an upward bound career in manufacturing.

Our children saw each other fairly often, played together. I babysat her daughters; she, my daughter and son. We bonded over nursing woes and success. Sought each other when fraught with frustration or worries. We lugged them all to the park, to our women’s meetings, made up stories for them, sang lullabies and folk songs to them when we gathered with friends. There were moments that shone like magic, young mothers and fathers, moonlight and bonfires, skinny dipping in the lake, sleepless times battling illness with our babies. Tears mixed with laughter and hugs. And we kept writing, encouraging each other. We  adored creativity, women’s fight for more rights; valued adventures and milestones within our families. But I could see she got distracted, was perhaps not so suited for the business of housekeeping, the strain of child rearing. Some women, I knew, adapted better than others. Marc took over more responsibility as time went by. To some, that seemed odd, though by then more fathers were readily available, even very engaged with parenting. We certainly believed we were at the progressive edge.

In a couple of years we moved apart, onward with our lives. We lost touch though there were occasional meet-ups as our paths crossed again. And then, nine years later, we became two couples with children who were getting divorced. It happens.  For me it was a cataclysmic heartbreak, a failure of a love that I had thought would last forever.

By the time I ran into Marc back in the old college town I was there to try to finish my B.A. It turned out he had rented a house one street across from my new apartment in an old carriage house. He was supervisor at the same plant he had begun working at and felt he’d advance more. I hadn’t worked away from home; I had followed my ex-husband from place to place as he worked construction and made art. I was trying to write, was raising two children, dealing with a few issues I hadn’t anticipated. It could be hard, but I was not bored. My daughter and son were illuminations in my daily life.

“It’s great to see you, we should catch up more,” he said. “But do you think you might be able to babysit occasionally? I don’t like the one we have.”

“What about their mother?” I asked.

He looked away. “She’s not around as much; C. and A. live with me most of the time.”

And that’s how it all started again. I began to care for C. and A. almost daily, between studies and caring for N. and J., my own. Before all divorces were finalized, the mother of the girls came to see me. She had suggested Marc have actual custody though it might be joint custody on paper. I knew by then there was sense to this though it was sad to me. She then shared that if there was anyone she’d want to take care of her children, it would be me. She knew I loved them already. I never forgot that difficult talk. It heralded a sea change in everyone’s lives.

So Marc and I ended up together, to our surprise. I gave birth to my third child, our last daughter. She was added to four others as another cherished inhabitant within an expanding realm. As far as I was concerned, we were just a family. “Blended”, “mixed (a multiracial family)” or “step”: it all fit us. But I was just a mother according to what I experienced and Marc a father, and we had our hands full. Our children were 6 and 6 and 1/2; 7 and 7 and 1/2 when we married. And then came the new baby.

What has it really been like to live as a “non-blood” or “stepmother” of two and “blood mother” of three? Even those quotation marks look ridiculous. I ask you: what is it like to care for any children? There are only a few variances from any other American family. Most I have forgotten as they are adults now, even nearing middle age. I get good birthday cards and Mother’s Day greetings and we text or talk several times a week, even daily. We get together whenever we can. We have weathered it all, it seems, and the good stuff stays with us.

There have certainly been arduous but surmountable issues. A good-sized household of children close in age creates obstacles and rewards peculiar to this–like how does everyone use the one bathroom we had in a couple of houses to get ready for school and work in time? Very careful scheduling with humane flexibility–plus any of the four girls can share a bathroom as needed. And if the one boy absoultely must, he just must come in. Parents may wait longer but they have certain rights, too.

How does all that laundry get done? The heaps and mounds of it, espcially as they hit adolescence? I spent a lot of nights up past one a.m. There was even ironing back then. But they eventually were old enough to help. If they refused, dirty clothes were scooped up, put in a garbage bag in the laundry area until they did a couple of their own loads. And mealtime required everyone’s assistance with setting a table, clearing it, washing up dishes. Hopefully, I could find the kids that had each chore but if not, anyone would do. Chore lists were mandatory, though.

But I am called “Cynthia”, still, by C. and A. because I am not their birth mother. It did not and does not hurt my feelings to hear my first name rather than “Mom.” I never asked that they pretend I am their own mom. When they have seen her they’ve had their experience with her as her children. But they know I count them as mine, as well. I know they love me because I hear it often, can tell by their actions. Just as my three birth children. Each one is so different as a person and my child. I’m not convinced the “non-bio v. bio” constitutes that difference.

But neither did I ask of C. and A. what I would not ask of the others and vice versa. There were tasks to be distributed according to efficacy or schedules. Everyone got the same amount of juice in their glasses and there was enough chicken or pie–or none. Each got a chance to explore what they loved according to resources available. Not everyone had every extracurricular activity desired but they got to try new things. All the girls took dancing as  they wanted to and were in recitals. Since I love to dance, we danced at home to all sorts of music in any room. A couple of daughters preferred to make art. Some kids enjoyed music and played instruments. They all put on entertainment shows in the living room. Others liked sports in school or outside of it and the family played baseball, basketball, kickball, badminton and more. We ice skated, roller skated and took hikes and bike rides. A daughter was in track. My son loved BMX biking; he skateboarded before it was popular. We held the expectation for each that they would study each day and do well academically; they were able to do so it was non-negotiable. I helped them with homework each night; if Marc was there (he even then traveled for work), he also did.

Regarding my husband’s work and travel: I used to think it was harder to be a parent who was often alone. I would get pretty tired and sometimes I sulked. But I was born with a long-lasting, high level of energy, a plus. I could be alone among a flurry of children and be alright. It got easier. I missed having that balancing input from a partner. I wished there were more hands and feet to get things done faster. At night when I flopped into bed and sudden creaks arose from the basement or back of the house, I missed his presence even as I got up with heavy duty flashlight in hand, eyes wide open. I missed him, let’s be honest, when there were five against one, the one being me. And when the two non-biological daughters didn’t like my viewpoint and dictates, they certainly cried out for his listening ear. Well, they all did at times. Though our parenting tended to be a matter of staying in accord about most things. When we were not, we had some arguments but things got settled. One compromises to preserve the state of the union and keep a steady rudder for the kids.

I can hear you thinking: this was about being a stepmother, right? Where’s all that material?

Well, you’re getting it, bit by bit. I am sharing the situation I knew and lived. If this essay were to be more dramatic tonight, it’d be a short story. I can’t share all the adventures. Maybe more another time. This was not an all roses and moonlight life. But it was not a horror show.

Each day when they arrived after school, I wanted to hear what had happened, how they were doing. I wasn’t working in a paid human services job in earlier years so was waiting. I anticipated that time of the day, for they would tell me stories, small and big accomplishments, their disappointments and hopes. The dining room table was a kind of scared space, meant for dining but also meant for everything else that mattered, prayers, discussions, even board games, which we enjoyed often. We held family meetings there. Those did help calm fussiness, resolve conflicts, encourage more effective communication. They broke up the times of spontaneous tussles, the yelling and demands announced and occasional blood-letting when nothing else helped for long.

I have to mention one thing that helped us know one another better: no one watched much television. and Marc and I controlled what they saw. No overt violence, nothing that could sour their young view of life or be haunted by out sized fears. That was unnecessary. The world proffered enough harshness and danger. If we could give them more than love, it would be chances to use and develop their bodies and minds to their advantage. That meant taking them to science and art museums, to as many concerts as we could afford, to parks and libraries, camping and travelling, visiting family and friends. Encouraging them to be open to experiences not so familiar, like summer day camp in the grandparents’ city.

When I returned to significant (for me) work at age 35 (32 hours/wk.) and they were in elementary and middle school, then high school–and it got more complicated. But it was everyone’s schedule that was the challenge, not so much the parenting. I was lucky and got a job across the street at the then-largest Detroit area senior services center, working with disabled and elderly clients. First I worked with severely impaired adults in Adult Day Care, then became Home Care Manager for 350 homebound clients. I oversaw around 150 employees and developed programs. I was home aorund the time they were home. How I loved that work. I often wished I had three times the energy and more time at home as well as at work.

You are perhaps still wondering: what does all this ordinary domestic stuff have to do with step parenting? That is, in fact, my point. There wasn’t much of a difference to me, no more than having two children versus five children. And having five might have felt normal since I’d grown up with four siblings, myself. It was what I knew. It was just my world and theirs from early on. I embraced it from the start because it was right and good to do so; I wanted to be with my husband and be there for all the kids. And I have always been one who is up for a challenge–the bigger, the better.

Although I knew C. and A. their starting out years–I was familiar to them and vice versa–there was a steep learning curve at the beginning that was a series of trial and error. I had to better learn their habits, preferences, needs and trigger points. The good thing was that they enjoyed so much what my blood children did. The bad thing was that I was a very engaged parent with strict rules of behavior, something they might still note that I named “appropriate” or “inappropriate”. The girls’ birth mom and dad had had more permeable, changeable limits. But they didn’t fight them very hard or often, maybe because the other three were in the same boat. They had group solidarity for solace and co-conspiring. The good thing was that I could be a bit more generous about other things–weekly allowances, playing dress up, making messes with art and playing or making music often and loud–so this counterbalanced things, made me a heroine occasionally.

And, after all, I was a girl with four daughters. That helped. Marc as well as my son J. were the ones who had it harder. J. fought off the redesigned family like mad at times and who could truly blame the only boy in a gang of girls, and both his fathers not even there on a daily basis? Marc had to work long hours and often away. J. took to any new neighborhood where we lived, but he always had. Gregarious and rambunctious, he liked being outside with pals far more than hanging out with sisters. But as he grew up, they shared more (and do now). He, too, loves the arts and being of service to others. Of course, I may have been accused by the girls of making him, the only boy, “too special”. But they felt my hugs, found me ready to listen, knew as a female we had that other deep bond–they knew better.

Our new baby girl was a definite interruption in their lives when they already had plenty to reconfigure. But she was pretty easy to enjoy with a bubbly temperament and an intense interest in their goings on. The littlest of the family physically, too, she became doted on and protected as they adjusted. And she was, after all, the blood link between them all, everyone’s half-sister. For that reason alone I think she held a certain good spot in the unit.

You can see that this is not so much different than when there are two parents in any sort of family arrangement. Oh, I can tell true stories that include storms of disagreement, words tossed out like firecrackers that blistered as they landed. We recovered. Was it because I was a stepmother and Marc a stepfather to two each of our children? Sometimes, yes; we were not the other missed, beloved parent. But I would wager generally not. Fortunately, my first husband saw our daughter and son like clockwork and more. And if my non-bio daughters saw their own mother less, she was still their mom, they would always so love her and do. Marc and I encouraged the other parents to be involved even though we were no longer cohorts as once we were. This was not the era of “conscious uncoupling”. Our situation was not desired by that many. We were all divorced from each other, our amiable college foursome divided. But we respected one another’s wishes as was possible, we were courteous and generally fair–but not co-parenting “buddies”. But we knew each other. That counted.

I will now not say that I was not maligned by my so-called step children. It happened a few times. But my biological children said and did things, too that have reached me where it hurt most. Did I err many more times than I’d hoped (my husband, too), let slip the words that should never have been formed much less stated? How can we as families avoid this? It’s hard being who we want to be all the time. And children of divorce have extra wounds to heal, as do the grown-ups. During this family’s process of realignment there were ruses and small wars, there has been misplaced anger. Sufferers of grief. We have had words, wept and reached and stepped back a bit. Held onto each other. Just like any family that cares enough to pull back into the fold one that is foolhardy or temporarily blind or otherwise slipping away. I always used to count heads in stores, at the swimming pool, along the sidewalk before moving too fast. A parent doesn’t take a hard look first to see exactly who is missing before an ardent search is on. Recount, pull tight the forces, go find the one not there. Strong hands of love sometimes grab, will hang on tightly. But then discern when to loosen and let go.

It’s an honorable phenomenon, family making, whatever sort. Mine has been one kind, made amenable and stronger with shifting patterns created day by day. Free-form as well as orchestrated interactions and commitments contributed even though we might not have realized it. It is worth noting that decades ago, some people looked askance at adults who chose divorce, then had the nerve to bring together various stunned children  with a new partner. To try again. I recall, though, some even said we were brave (If not also foolish): Five children, all so close together? And that made me wonder. What did they think was so risky? Why did this take such courage? If it had been just three, would that have made any difference? If they had all been two or more years apart, would they have had a better time of it or worse in the commenter’s perspective? I wasn’t being heroic. I was welcoming life that presented itself, one that I did chose to embrace. I was certain this had been going on for centuries for one reason or  another.

So was it terribly convenient as it might have been, had everything been planned out? Did that even matter more than a pause or three? The bottom line was that living without them, every single one, would have been a terrible mistake. And I don’t think they waste time wondering what it would have been without me. Or perhaps not anymore, at least. It has been the life we’ve shared. And there has been those things that tied us together: the need to carry on, coupled with a tenacity of love.

So, my children were given each other. They grew up through all sorts of events together. They were so close–irritating and loving, sharing and fighting–that most outsiders did surmise we were just one complete family. Marc and I felt it when we first gathered them together. And the adult kids remain in touch, even though they don’t all live close to one another. We’ve had more emotional and spiritual trials and abundance than we would have had without the whole of us. And that’s the gist of it. Becoming a stepmother was an extension of what I already had come to know and care about. It has been about holding on and being there. Working as if our lives depended on it. Defending with all it took. Teaching and encouragement. Listening and learning amazing lessons of my own. Lying close with a cool cloth, a healing story or song when fevers ran high. Forgiveness and compassion in the midst of tough, confounding matters. Offering acceptance and hope when the rest of the world has closed its doors.

All this is nothing extraordinary for the willing parent, I am sure you will agree. It is what we do when we are given children to watch over–whoever they are–for as long as we can. If you have a non-biological child, remember that they–like all kids– just need more openhearted, committed parenting. They are looking for your helping hands.

7 thoughts on “Becoming an Ordinary Stepmother

  1. Me again, Cynthia . . . I just want to add; In my opinion (for what that’s worth!) there are only Mothers. There’s nothing ‘step’ about you nor many other fantastic women like you. Stepmother is a word best left in Faitytales. 😉

  2. You know Cynthia, as a South African born in the 50s I witnessed the so-called ‘apartheid’, an Afrikaans (SA indigenous language) or separation, if you will, of our National Family. Here the line was colour or skin pigmentation. I notice in your piece that you mentioned the judgmentalism of many strangers in public places. “Why/how so close together? Why/how different physical attributes (colour?)?” and I’m reminded of the bigotry of the uneducated masses. And I don’t mean formal schooling and college education either!

    You know what was brave? Doing what you all did and making a success of it. Love and compassion trump all obstacles. Even braver, your decision to write about it and entrust us in this community with your deepest held values. You and your entire family are a bunch of Champions and every raised eyebrow, crass statement or question the labels of true losers at life.

    Thank you for your openness and courage. I look forward to reading more from your pen.

    1. Ah, thank you for such a forthright response. There have been a few responses to our family re: the span of appearances due to the mix of ancestry (Irish/Scots/English/ German/African American/Native American). Most thought they were all my children until they met my husband. But the main issue was that people taken aback by the close ages and were trying to figure out the real story without being too nosy!
      But I’m still not convinced we were unique or “champions” as you nicely note. It was a life opportunity, situation where we made a choice to care for our enlarged, blended family. (There were complicated situations at work but this post does share what it needs to share!) Yet, truly, I think how many do that on a daily basis and it may not be a choice, but of survival, a dire necessity. Or a cultural way of living. Or a generous response to a need for a child to have a home. It goes on and on. Those who adopt all infants and hard-to-place-kids are special, and those who care for the young who are refugees or without family due to war. I salute those parents, those created families.
      But thank you very much for your generous reply. I appreciate your thoughtfulness–and that you are reading my writing. Blessings.

  3. Another honest piece of autobiography, Cynthia. As you know, I know something about stepmothers, and also have five children, although I have never been a stepfather. For that reason, this was an especially good read for me.

    1. I thank you, Derrick. perhaps a beleaguered “non-bio” mom will find some solace and hope in it. And five is such a good number, yes? You do have insights aplenty, have observed some things over the years that many have not.:) I think immediately of your photos of family–the stories of enduring love and joy they reflect. So glad it was a good read; that makes me feel gratified, perhaps even a bit warm and fuzzy this time. Best.

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