In my mid-forties, I married a man who had joint custody of two children, both boys, from a previous marriage. The boys, Jed and Jason, were nineteen and fifteen. Not having any children of my own, I didn’t have a clue about parenting, much less stepparenting. In the early days, I didn’t know how I was supposed to act around them, and they probably didn’t know how to act around me. When my husband first told Jason that we were getting married, he asked me, “Do I have to call you Mommy, then?” I told him, “No, you have to call me Mommy Dearest.” Humor helps.
When you come into an already formed family, the deck is stacked against you. You’re not supposed to be there, and if you are it’s usually because of some tragedy: a death or a divorce. I was afraid that the boys would compare me with their mother and find me terribly wanting. With my reggae collection, my CD player, and my insistence that we sign up for HBO, I was a hit with Jed from the minute I entered the house. But Jason was more anxious about the change. His mother lived nearby, and he told me that he was worried he would wake up one morning in the wrong house. “It wouldn’t matter,” I told him. Today he says he has no memory of this, but I do: it was the first time I felt like I was helping him.
As a stepparent, you have at least one advantage over your spouse: you can see the children as they are, without dredging up old problems or behaviors. This is both a curse and a blessing. It would have been wonderful to see the boys grow and change from infancy; but on the other hand, I could accept them and be less judgmental than their biological parents were. When, as a sophomore in college, Jason called me at work to tell me that he was thinking about quitting school, I was able to react in a more measured way than his father or mother would have. I told him to come home for the weekend and we would discuss it, while carefully adding that staying in school seemed like the better plan. On another occasion, Jed got a traffic ticket and asked me what to do. I told him — I remember being in the basement laundry room — that he had two choices: I would pay the ticket and the matter would remain between us, or he could tell his father. He decided to be a grown-up and tell his father.
Though there were a few times I wondered what I had gotten myself into, I mostly felt that my role as a stepparent was a privileged one. I could be the boys’ friend and confidant — not just a disciplinarian. They are now lovely, intelligent, good-humored young men with families of their own. I hope I had something to do with that.