When people ask me if I have children of my own, I usually answer with an apologetic, "no." My brain then floods with a string of excuses from which I choose my next sentences depending on my listener's facial expression.
"I am an educator, so I have hundreds of children."
"I tried, but it wasn't in God's plan for me."
"I have a brood of great nephews and nieces and love being an ideal aunt."
Nearly seven years post-menopause, I still have people gently pat my hand and tell me there's still time. After acknowledging the unintentional compliment, I make a joke about a miracle.
My identity as a married woman without children took an odd turn when, at age 50, I remarried a divorced father of two teens. From all outward appearances, I now have a unique version of the life I always imagined for myself. I am quick to post online photographs of my newfound family, while friends and relatives are quick to celebrate my status.
But here's the reality: For the entire first year, I felt more childless as a stepmother than I did before I remarried.
My husband's children like me well enough; we get along fine. They are respectful, obedient, charming, funny and affectionate young people, just like my students and my nieces and nephews. The difference with students is that you see them everyday and the relationship expectation is bold and clear: As a teacher, you may be the one person who makes a significant difference in the direction of their lives. And the boundaries of these relationships are also clear and agreed upon in advance.
Similarly, the beloved aunt has her special, clearly understood place: blood-bond; in no uncertain terms family; you can't get rid of her if you want to; and the added bonus of similar-looking noses, curly hair or a quirky laugh that only shared genes can transmit.
As a stepmother, I am proud to say that I have none of the jealousies found in young wives who dream of having a man all to themselves, despite the fact that he has children from a previous marriage. I am a self-made woman, so nothing material they receive from their father is in any way a sacrifice on my part. The shopping, cooking and cleaning that many young stepmothers complain about is taken care of by my husband, who sees his children so seldom that he delights in any care-taking they need. And they are teens, so self-sufficiency is growing as quickly as their feet.
Yet, I still feel disingenuous calling them my children. They aren't. Even though they have bedrooms in our house, I sometimes feel like a guest at the dinner table. The discussions about past holidays, childhood remembrances, blood relatives, insider jokes, lifelong likes and dislikes leaves me feeling like a an outsider and causes me to be even more aware of what I missed in not having children. It's kind of lonely being a stepmother. It tends to keep pushing the lack in your face. To compound this, I don't cook like their mother. The ways I bundle socks, line up condiments in the refrigerator, load the dishwasher, sometimes grimace, burp or (god forbid) fart are clearly noticed as foreign and gross, but never commented on because they have learned to be polite in the company of strangers. I am an outsider. My gifts are suspiciously viewed as trying too hard. The framed photographs of my family are just a bunch of strangers on a once familiar mantle. My dog smells bad to them. Still, as far as step-mothering experiences go, I know I have it really good. It's just that being a stepmother is nothing like I thought (or dare I admit, hoped) it would be.
As soon as I knew marriage was the next step in my relationship with Jeff, I began writing letters to his children to give them at our wedding. As a stepdaughter myself, I knew everything necessary to alleviate the anxiety of displacement the kids could feel when I entered their father's life. So, I wrote letters explaining how much Jeff loved them and described all the ways he showed me he honored them, missed them, loved them, grieved for their company when we were not with them. I was determined to be as unthreatening as possible. The unopened letters sit still wrapped in the white satin ribbon on my stepdaughter's desk.
As soon as we were engaged, I took it upon myself to try and befriend their mother, as well as speak highly of her in their company, even though she drives by me on the street without as much as a wave. Alone time is important to dads and their kids, so whenever it is appropriate, I bow out and let them have bonding outings without me. They are kind children, but they don't need me in their lives. Not now, at least.
I dreamed of being asked for advice, attending their school functions, introducing them to my friends and family. I imagined sharing secrets, fixing warm soup when they felt badly or listening to their hopes and fears. I envisioned text messages, phone calls, long walks in the park, doing dishes together, meeting their friends.
They are teenagers.Their parents got divorced. It's not about me.
But there is still time.
Being a good stepparent is about the future. It's like a bank account where a lifetime of little deposits may one day return as a great gift of appreciation. At least that is what I am banking on. My hope is that one day, after years of my consistent generosity, they will love me. And this love will be different than the love they feel for their teachers or their aunts because I will see them through all that is yet to come.
When they graduate, I will be there. When they fail, I will be there. If they marry, if they are heartbroken, if they have children, when they get promoted or fired, I will be there. And even if they are never able to meet my expectations, I know that love endures and is well worth all the tiny griefs along the way.
Loving someone with no promise of any return is a sacred kind of love. Because of its unconditional nature, a true stepmother who loves mightily from the background is maybe one of the truest forms of parenting. While I am not a birth mother, I now know that I am a universal mother. For me, that is more than enough.