When I was twenty-four, I met the man of my dreams. He was 37 years-old, going through a divorce, and the father of four children. Russell was perfect. Many people, my family included, thought that I was crazy to begin dating a man with that much baggage. However, I knew he was the one as soon as I met him.
The night I met Russell was the last night of my self-imposed dating time out. For the past two years, I chose to date myself to learn about my value. Prior to meeting Russell, I dated men who were lousy. I chose lousy men and let them treat me poorly. I won’t go into the gory details, but my decision to take a dating hiatus came after a horrendous date where a man asked me to pay for my own gas station snacks. Yep – an all-time dating low.
When I met Russell, I was immediately drawn to his love for his children. He spoke about them constantly. His eldest son was a good baseball player, his daughters were musically gifted, and the youngest son was just a bundle of love. All of his children were in gifted classes. The more he talked about his children, the more convinced I became that he was the one for me. As the night wore on, neither one of us wanted to part with the other. One week later, after our first date, we were an official couple. That was over 20 years ago.
Falling in love with Russell was easy. Combining our households into one was complicated. Child support for four kids is an economic hardship. One thing I loved about Russell was that when the court mandated the child support, he went down to the courthouse himself to make sure it was deducted from his check. Supporting his children was never in question.
Together, Russell and I, worked hard to maintain a home filled with love and experiences. It wasn’t always easy. There were days where we searched our cars for loose change to buy gas. We wore budget shoes that hurt our feet at work. We budgeted our hearts out for years to make sure that when the kids came over, they had a safe and positive environment.
Blending our family was not always easy. We had a few bumps along the way. I was twenty-four and not prepared to be an insta-stepmom. My own history with my first stepmother was pretty bad. This made me extremely aware of the negative impact another person could have on children. When I entered into this relationship, I knew that I wanted to be a different stepmother than the one that was chosen for me.
The key word here is intention. I wanted to be intentional in how I approached life as a stepmother. I knew that I wanted to have a positive relationship with my gift children. I wanted them to know that I respected them, their mother, and their father. I wanted my interactions with them to be honest and compassionate. Most of all, I wanted their road to adulthood to be as easy as possible given the circumstances they were dealing with every day.
With that in mind, I created rules for myself that I feel helped me build a strong relationship with all four of my gift-children.
Choose Them Over Yourself
Choice is a big word in our household. I believe that we all choose our path. The consequences from those choices, whether good or bad, must be shouldered by the individual. Yet, there are groups of people who do not have choices. Children are the most vulnerable group. Children don’t get to choose. The adults in their lives make choices which can positively or negatively affect them for years to come.
In our case, my gift children did not choose for their parents to divorce. They did not choose who their father chose as a girlfriend/wife. They had to accept all of these choices.
There were two people in this situation that had choice. Russell and I. As another adult in their life, I needed to choose them. I had a responsibility to treat them with all the kindness, respect, and compassion that I would have wanted when my parents divorced. For a child, when your parents’ divorce, you feel caught in the middle. You want to love both of your parents equally. Generally, you don’t want to choose one over the other. However, when the parents don’t agree, the courts choose who you live with, they choose how much time you spend with them, and they choose how involved your parents can be in education and/or medical decisions.
Everyone is choosing for you. When I realized how out of control a child feels in these situations, I decided that I would be the one person who did not make them choose. I told my gift children to “love your mom, love your dad, respect me.” From my point of view, we had a conditional relationship. Our treatment of one another would decide how our relationship grew.
One aspect in helping our relationship grow was to give them unfettered access to their father. Sometimes in these situations, the new girlfriend or stepmother asserts her place in the relationship by controlling access to the dad. Indeed, it is a difficult balancing act.
In the beginning, there were some weekends where I would rent movies from Blockbuster and hole up in our bedroom. They would have full access to their dad without my presence. I understood that their time with their dad was important. As they became more comfortable with me, we built trust with each other and we spent more time together.
In the end, I felt that by giving them space and a choice, they were able to integrate me into their lives at their pace. I was rewarded one afternoon. While sitting on the sofa of our cramped one-bedroom apartment, the youngest turned to me and quite spontaneously hugged me and said “I love you Stephanie.”
Yep – I cried.
One of the first things I had to give up to become a stepmom was control. When Russell and I decided to build our relationship, I knew that his children would always come first. That is the reason I chose him. His devotion to his children meant that he would be an amazing father to the ones I would have in the future.
One of the biggest decisions we made was to forgo building our own family until his youngest daughter was finished with high school. This meant that any family planning with me would have to wait for eight years. I was okay with this decision. I did not want to be a mother in my 20’s. Also, I remembered having to share my father with my stepmother’s son. It upset me to know that I was sharing my father with another kid. The decision to wait to start our family was an intentional choice, meant to preserve the relationship between Russell and his kids.
After making that intentional choice, I had to accept something else. I was not the decision-maker when it came to dealing with my gift children. I could be an advisor to my husband, but in the end, the choice was completely between him and their mother. My role was to support Russell when things got tough. We had some scary times with health scares, court cases, and finances. Throughout these times, I had to remember that I was a bystander in these situations.
Why did I choose bystander? Divorces can be messy enough without a relative stranger integrating themselves into the problem. As much as I loved my gift children, they were not mine. The decisions for their health, education, and visitation did not rest with me. If I were to insinuate myself into the conversation, it would have been inappropriate. I would have caused more harm than good. As these situations played out, I felt good about my decision to be as neutral as possible while giving Russell the support he needed.
Yes – it was hard. There were many days where I had to bite my tongue. I don’t like relinquishing control in my life. Yet, the potential damage to my gift children was never worth it to me. I chose to stay out of decisions that affected them. I am happy I chose to only support their needs. I am happy that I put them first.
My life is enriched because of my gift children. We often sit back and reminisce about the times we shared together growing up. There was the crazy game of charades that left us all in stitches and worried about our oldest gift son’s dating future. There was the mall incident where we said goodbye to the plastic blue jacket my oldest gift daughter wore constantly.
We watched our youngest gift daughter join the cadets and blossom from a wandering middle schooler to a responsible young woman overnight. Perhaps there has been no other joy than the open-eyed amazement of my youngest gift son's discovery that my father does not like cake – the horror!
We took trips to Las Vegas and San Francisco. We went to Disneyland. We played spoons. We snuck food into the cheap matinee movies. We swam for hours during our long summer vacations. Russell became the neighborhood dad, shuttling kids to and from the mall. The kids often remember these times with fondness - that makes me happy.
As my gift children grew, so did our relationship. Our lives became a postcard for blended families. When my oldest gift son married, my mother, father, second stepmother (whom I adore) and her mother, attended. When we adopted our two daughters, my gift children were present throughout the entire process. We have that crazy blended family where nephews are older than aunts. We love to share with complete strangers the awesome combination of love that is our family.
As the years go by, I am humbled by the family that we have built. We chose to construct our family on love, compassion, and intention.
My gift children have given me the greatest gift a stepmother could ever hope for: