Filling Your Niche

Definition of a Stepparent

“Why doesn’t Miss L ever come here with you?” asked my eldest niece in between rounds of hide-n-seek last weekend.

“Oh. Well, Miss L doesn’t live with us, kiddo,” I explained. “She lives with her mom in Florida, and we just see her a few times a year.”

“She lives with her mom? YOU’RE not her mom?”

“Nope. I’m her stepmom.” And I wish, not for the first time, that these sticky conversations could take place with other people instead of me.

Years ago, I was similarly accosted by a little munchkin on the playground at Miss L’s school.

“Who are you picking up?” she asked, all bright-eyed and grubby and adorable.

“Miss L,” I said.

“Oh. Are you her mom?”

“No, I’m her stepmom.”

The kid looked at me, uncomprehending.

“I’m not her mom, but I’m married to her dad, so I’m her stepmom,” I explained. Still nothing.

“Who are you picking up?” she asked again after a beat or two, as if we just met.

“Miss L,” I answered again.

“Are you her mom?”

We went on like this for a few more rounds before she finally wandered off, tired of me and my clear refusal to admit that A) I was picking up a kid so B) I was obviously that kid’s mom.

Kids have a limited understanding to work with. They beat new concepts against the edges of existing parameters, trying to make them fit into a known-shaped hole. And a stepparent is nothing if not an unknown.

There’s nothing kids can relate a stepparent to. At least, nothing positive. Stepmoms in fairy tales are homicidal sadists; stepdads in movies and TV shows are assholes. And no one’s casually picking anyone up from the playground on a normal Tuesday, that’s for sure.

Hell, even grown-ups have problems relating to stepparents; no wonder kids can’t grasp how a stepparent fits into the big picture. Even kids who, like my niece, come from unbroken two-parent homes and view the definition of a stepparent as a purely academic discussion. Should it surprise us, then, that blending a family is such a huge pain in the ass that’s met with resistance from every quarter? Our own families or friends ask why we try so hard or why we should give a shit at all, listing reasons like “But they’re not even your kids!”– as if that’s helpful.

As complicated as the definition of a stepparent seems from the outside, those of us on the inside have a simple answer: Because giving a shit about kids that aren’t ours is what we do. Even when no one wants us to, including and maybe especially the stepkids themselves.

But all of this is way too complicated to explain to my niece on a Friday night. So instead I just said what I usually say to little kids who ask this question.

“I’m Miss L’s stepmom. You know, like Cinderella had a wicked stepmom.”

“But you’re not wicked!”

“I’m a little wicked sometimes,” I said, grabbing her for a tickle.

custody chaosstepparenting

Maarit • 03/12/2015

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