July 30, 2008

On Family

Because I married a man ten years my senior, who had a daughter when he was too young and two children when he was too old, I am a stepmother to school-aged children and a step grandmother to a baby. It's my life. It's my family. Sometimes it's still weird, though.

With the younger kids, my role as step mom has been awkward at times, but since their parents were only together a few years, I doubt they remember a time when I wasn't in the their lives--especially for the younger one who was still in diapers when I first met him. What makes our relationship even easier in recent years is that I am now their primary mom, as we have full custody, and their mother has no input on how they are being raised.

I'm thankful that our relationship hasn't been tumultuous, and it's been a long time since they tried to throw it in my face that I wasn't their mother--that I wasn't the boss of them. I've had frank talks with them--when needed--about what my role and responsibilities are. I may not be their mother, but I am a mother to them. I'm the one responsible for them on a daily basis. There has been some struggle, but both the kids seem to accept the function of our family and the role I play in their lives. And...when push comes to shove, I have brought out the this-is-MY-home card!

Now, when it comes to the relationship I have with my oldest stepdaughter, it's a different story. She was already an adult when I met her dad. In six years, I've seen her only a few times. Distance has been a major problem, but she has also gone through some bumpy times over the years, and there were long periods of time when we didn't even know where she was. I cried after the first time I met her because she was just so messed up, and I felt so awful for her dad, my husband. She needed so badly to be saved from herself, but she was the only one who could do that. She was raised an only child, daddy's girl, but she had grown distant from her dad. So what was I to her? Nothing.

Imagine my nervousness as my sweetie and I traveled to Tennessee last week to visit his daughter--and especially his nine-month-old granddaughter. It had been at least four years since we'd seen his daughter. She moved herself out of a bad situation in California a few years back into a more hopeful situation near her mother in Tennessee. When she called last summer to announce her unplanned pregnancy, we were apprehensive. So much for getting her life back on track, right?

Over the course of the year of pregnancy and motherhood, it appeared that her life was more on track than ever before. She and her dad talked on the phone several times a week until calls were became a daily ritual. Throughout all of this, I've been on the outside looking in. I collected news through her dad, and I helped pick out gifts for the baby. (My sweetie is quite inept in the gift-giving department. Did the darling daughter really think her dad picked out the crib we sent to her on his own? Hardly!)

So, how did the visit go in Tennessee? Oh, it was awkward at times. She has a history with her dad. I have a history with him, too, but those histories don't cross at any point--until now. I'm not a mother to his daughter, and I never will be. I'm thankful. Six years ago, I distinctly remember a sticky breakfast at Denny's with my younger stepchildren, before I'd ever met their grown half-sister, when I said to my sweetie, "The oldest one can cut her own pancakes, right? She can eat on her own?" During our visit last week we spoke to each other, woman to woman. Sometimes merely cordially, as could be expected from people who don't really know each other. We warmed up to each other, trying to find our fit into each other's lives. It felt like I was the one doing most of the molding, but I wonder if she feels awkward in how she fits in her father's life--she barely knows me or her half brother and sister-- just as I feel awkward about fitting into her life.

So, I'm not her mother. It's even weird to call me a step-mother. She doesn't really need mothering. (Sure, I nagged her a bit about going back to school, but I do that to a lot of young people who need my unsolicited advice. It's a teacher thing.) In simple terms, I am her family. To me, family can be of two definitions. It's the people you are connected to through birth or marriage, but it can also be the people you love and draw into your life. Through whichever definition you choose, with both definitions fitting, my oldest stepdaughter is my family.

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