Just what is a “real” mom anyway?
I never really thought of there being such a thing as a “real” mom. I grew up in a traditional, nuclear family (my parents are still happily married even now) and few of my friends came from anything different. I grew up in a university town, so it’s not like I never encountered a child of divorce or a child of a single mom. However, none of them ever referred to their parent or stepparent as being real or not real. Once I became a stepmother myself, I was often faced with the question, “So where is their real mom?”
Excuse me? What am I? Plastic?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not about to suggest I should be seen as their only mother. Or their birth mother should be ignored. But, why is the term “real” used? It makes the rest of us sound like a pretend Barbie doll. Yes, I am Barbie stepmother and come complete with my own stepchildren, first aid kit, frying pan, laundry basket and bottle of Valium. Certificate enclosed to prove this stepmother is 100% plastic and in no way, shape or form real.
As a custodial stepmom, I am about as real as it gets. I should probably back up and explain a little of my story and how I got here. I had previously been married, but I had never had children and even been told the probability of that happening successfully was very slim. I returned back to my hometown, looked for a job and found some temp work that led me to my DH. We started talking, and I found out about his pending divorce. His wife had left him the previous year to move in with her boyfriend. In the temporary hearing, my DH and his EX shared custody 50/50 both physically and legally. They had a highly contested, bitter custody battle and it was still in process when we met.
It took nearly a full year to finalize the custody issues, although the divorce issues were settled rather quickly. During that year, his EX kept their children from him for approximately three months. This, combined with her admitting to living in her boyfriend’s home with the children (against the court order, since we are in the South), resulted in her losing custody to my DH. He won full custody and she had standard visitation. At that point, he enrolled the children in counseling at my suggestion – he would have done that sooner had his EX allowed it. By the time of the final hearing, she settled for modified standard visitation (she would not get any mid-week visits only every other weekend). Eventually my DH and I married, and I settled in as a custodial stepmother. Did I mention that he was custodial to five children?
In the space of about twenty seconds (the time it takes to say “I do”), I went from zero to five children. Most women at least get nine months to get accustomed to a family. And unless you have a reality show, you typically don’t have five all at one time. And they certainly don’t span the age range of 2-15. Oh, and no, I didn’t have a brain tumor. Nor did I realize what I was getting into. If I may digress a moment, the whole concept of “you knew what you were getting into” really chaps my hide the most. Until you have walked it and lived it as a married woman in that situation, there is no way under the sun you would ever know what you were getting into. Trust me.
The 15 year old was the daughter of my DH and his first ex-wife, and he already had full custody of her when his second ex-wife left for her boyfriend. Unbelievably, the first ex-wife waited until he was about halfway through his second divorce when she filed for full custody of the 15 year old. That was another ugly one, but DH retained full custody. Through the following years until now, we have retained custody of his children. The eldest, who is now 23, eventually grew up, graduated, moved out, married and now has children of her own. I have a cordial but distant relationship with her. I never wanted to be a mother figure or anything else, since her own mother functioned perfectly fine and loved her completely. I may have disagreed with many of her parenting decisions, but that is not a reflection of either of us other than different parenting styles. I only wanted to be a mentor to OSD23 (the easiest way to refer to her).
The second ex-wife is completely different. She has been an inconsistent figure in the kid’s lives, going between unsupervised to supervised visitation and back again a few times. Currently, she has therapeutic supervised visitation by the court order – but she has chosen not to schedule any visits since August 2008. There have been several periods where she has just not seen the kids – sometimes by choice, sometimes because she is in jail, and sometimes because she was prohibited by the Court. As a result, I have many times been not just a custodial stepmother – but a 100% custodial stepmother with no breaks. There is a substantial difference in those two situations. A custodial stepmother typically gets every other weekend and perhaps a couple of weeks in the summer without any stepchildren around.
This can be a much-needed break. That may sound harsh, but think of the role we have. We are very much like school teachers. We are pretty much neutered in firm discipline – time outs, restrictions – those types of discipline are fine and can be handled by a custodial stepmother in most situations. However, like a school teacher, if our child acts out further we can only sit by and watch then refer that child to the principal (in this case, daddy). Now imagine you are that school teacher – only you don’t get to go home at the end of the day. And you don’t get summers off. Instead, you have those children all the time. It can wear you down in a hurry. Adoptive parents and biological parents form bonds with children where the children realize the bonds are lifetime and pretty much unbreakable. Even though my stepchildren’s mother has been inconsistent, they still feel her love and they are still very much bonded to her. For stepparents, they are like teachers – if they are “fired” (in this case, there is a divorce), then they are removed from the children’s lives. Stepparents have no legal rights. In the event of a divorce, they do not get visitation. They simply disappear. That realization alone prevents certain bonds from forming.
In those respects, I guess it is correct to say I am not a real parent. I have no legal standing where the children are concerned other than what my spouse gives me. (I must add here, there are some very rare cases where a stepparent is made a child’s legal guardian – and in those cases, they are granted legal standing.) I have no right to discipline those children – and I am okay with that in my case. Each stepfamily is different, so in some cases it is a detriment to have the stepparent so neutered. So, I guess in that respect I am not real. However,
I was real enough to potty train SD12 when she was almost 3 years old.
I was real enough to be the chosen parent to go into SD15’s room when they had to reset her broken arm.
I was real enough to teach SD12 how to ride a bicycle.
I was real enough to cook their meals, do their laundry, and help with homework 365 days a year for almost ten years.
I was real enough to quit my job to raise them full-time.
I was real enough to be the one the school called when SD15 threatened to commit suicide – and real enough to take her to the emergency room and later to the pyschiatric hospital.
I was real enough to bake cupcakes, lead Brownie Scouts, volunteer in the PTA, and coordinate birthday parties.
I was real enough to hold SS17 through all of his tantrums and crying spells when he was a little boy.
I was real enough to stand up and take care of these children even though I was not the one who laid down to give birth to them.
I have shed real tears many days and nights. I have had a very real heart break at some of their hateful words, but glow at some of their kindness.
In the end, I am not their biological mom. I am their stepmom. But that does not make me any less real. I think all of the reasons I just listed make me very real indeed.