Dateland: Step It Up

Illustration by arloo/
Illustration by arloo/

Illustration by arloo/

When I married last year, I became stepmom to two boys, one in middle school and one in high school.

At age 50, it’s been a tricky transition venturing from the shallow delights of a me-me-me lifestyle into the murky and mysterious depths of them-them-them.

The currents are made more challenging with the addition of an ex-husband, his wife, step- and half-siblings, and intensely detailed calendars that chart the comings and goings of all the constellations in this complicated galaxy. For my own sanity, I’ve settled into the crazy orbit as a distant and benevolent object whose role is ill defined. I’m the family’s Pluto: not quite a planet but significant enough to be given a name. In my case, it’s Stepish Mom.

I’m a parent-like figure, but don’t meet all the necessary criteria of being an official parent.

I do all the things that are required of a stepparent, but with a complete lack of confidence. I keep my mouth shut when discipline needs to be doled out because I don’t want to be the bad guy. I buy their love with sugary drinks and video games when their mom isn’t looking. And I tag along to band concerts and soccer games like a slightly dotty maiden aunt who claps too enthusiastically following a performance, even though it’s not my approval the kids are seeking.

When we first moved in together, I was determined to master my new parenting duties. So I looked on the internet for help.

Like the time I used the web to self-diagnose the weird growth on my toe, this was a mistake. Here are some sample headlines from a search on the subject:

“Being a stepparent will put your self-esteem to the ultimate test”

“How to avoid letting your partner’s kids destroy your relationship”

“Choosing to be a stepparent: Don’t do it!”

And then there are a bunch of links to porn sites.

Surprisingly, given the high divorce rate in this country, there is very little constructive advice available for “stepping,” which is what I call it because that makes it sound active, fun, and wholesome, like something you do at a hoedown.

I treat family life as if it is a merry melodrama where I have no real responsibility and serve as only a bit player whose function is comic relief. This has served me well, up to a point.

That point has a name. The point’s name is Christina, my spouse, who understands that parenting isn’t instinctive and pokes me in the right direction when I’m doing decidedly unparental things, like suggesting we allow the 12-year-old to spend the night alone at a water park hotel while we go to a spa. The kids also have been wonderfully forgiving of my foibles, quietly nudging me to act like an adult when they need one.

What is rarely noted about stepparenting are the rewards, which come in unexpected bursts and light up your atmosphere as bright as a comet.

Last week, for example, I got an urgent text from the middle-schooler asking me to bring over snacks for his entire class. I was at work and couldn’t leave the office, so I contacted my spouse, assuming he had tried and failed to reach her or his dad before making the hail-Mary text to me.

But I learned that, no, I was his first contact. Of the four parents in his life, he chose me, the dwarf planet, to come through with the snacks. “Why me?” I asked him later that day.

“Because I knew you’d bring good snacks, and not carrots and apples,” he said.

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