The Velveteen Stepmother

By Barbara Burkard
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woman with 2 boysMy seven-year-old stepson ran up to me, face flushed with pride. ”Here, Barbara. I got you a Mother’s Day present.” In his outstretched hand lay a green and purple rubber frog, with a red tongue that uncurled when you squeezed the frog’s body, as if to zap up insects. ”I know you like frogs, so when I saw this, I thought you’d like to have it.”

As I hugged him and assured him that it was indeed a wonderful Mother’s Day gift, I couldn’t help but think how far our relationship has come.

Not quite three years ago, I moved to England. I was quite proud of myself for having the courage to move 5000 miles away from my home in California to a new life in England. But I didn’t know what courage meant until I met and married my husband, gaining two stepchildren in the process.

Ironically, Steve and I met in a divorce-recovery seminar when we were both freshly divorced. Neither of us had any intention of dating, and were there solely to share our experiences with others and gain insight into the process. As the weeks went on, this open and sharing environment allowed us to get to know each other without playing any of the ridiculous games that normally occur when looking for love. It wasn’t long before we realised we had the makings of a very solid relationship, and began dating.

The first six months, though, were scary. Although I have no children of my own, I’m an auntie three times over, and thought myself well-versed with children. Perhaps, but I definitely was not well-versed with children in crisis. The anger was the hardest bit. My then four-year-old stepson particularly struggled with his parents’ divorce, and was a very angry little boy. It seemed that everything was a battle – bath time, meal time, dressing, going to bed. The anger in his eyes and the way he would scream out rebelliously, ”I don’t want to and you can’t make me!” used to truly frighten me.

Then there was his then two-year-old sister, who barely spoke at all. Most of the time she was in her own little world, except for bedtime, when she would throw the most amazing temper tantrums. Steve and I would time them: forty-five minutes was not unusual.

The difficulty for me really began when Steve and I realised our relationship was turning into something long-term and special. In my heart I knew I no longer had the option of walking away if the kids became too much for me. Watching Steve struggle to discipline the kids and pay attention to both of them was painful – he needed help, and I felt compelled to give it. Somehow, I was going to have to make it work, with or without the children’s cooperation.

But what was I? I hadn’t yet married their dad, and I didn’t live with him even if we did spend most of our time together. I was more than a babysitter, but not family. The kids were confused about my role in their life, and so was I. Initially, I treated them as if I were a caregiver: lots of play, discipline only when necessary. Leave the real parents to work on the long-term stuff.

But my heart had other ideas. I was beginning to genuinely love the children, and wanted to be more in their eyes than just the hired help. I tried not to take things personally, but nevertheless found it extremely painful when I would offer to tie a shoelace, or push a swing, only to hear, ”I don’t want you, I want Daddy,” or try and converse at dinnertime and receive, ”I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to Daddy.”

During those hurtful times, I found myself retreating from the children. I would bury myself in housework, too busy to play. I lied to myself that I wasn’t pulling away, but supporting my husband by doing the brunt of the chores so he could spend time with his children. Yet their laughter drifting in from the living room made me feel alienated, marginalised to the role of maid and housekeeper.

Knowing that it had been my own choice didn’t make it any easier to take. I felt bitter and resentful at times, and desperately missed my old flat. It had been my adult haven, solely for me, decorated to suit my needs and tastes alone. In my old flat, I never had to share the bathroom or the television remote. But I also never had anyone to come home to. With that sobering thought in mind, I would take a deep breath, put down the ironing basket, and make my heart available once again to the children. One step forward, two steps back.

My impending 40th birthday didn’t help. I became more and more morose as I realised the chances of having my own child were slipping further away with every passing day. I began to feel like the Velveteen Rabbit, who gets to become real only because he’s been well-loved by a child. I worried that I would always be velveteen myself – never real – because no matter how much I love the children, they will never love me the way they do their mommy and daddy. It’s not that I want to replace either parent; I’m grateful that the children have good relationships with both their mother and their father. It’s just that I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to be loved, simply because I’m mommy.

No matter how lousy the relationship, it seems we all want to connect with each of our parents, and feel there’s something missing if we don’t. I thought about the relationships my friends and I have with our parents. How many of us had the perfect childhood, and were completely happy with the way our parents raised us? How many of us felt our childhood was lacking because we didn’t have the perfect Brady Bunch family? How warped is that image, anyway?

For the first time in my life, I began to question my attitude towards parents and parenting. Perhaps it was time for me to give up unrealistic ideals of family life, and embrace reality. Brady Bunch we would never be, but perhaps we could be a family in a different sense.

Having made my choice, I was determined to make it work, but it was far from easy. My husband told me the other day, ”It’s easy to love your own children. I really admire you for taking on these two children that aren’t yours, and loving them the way you do.”

High praise, but I haven’t always deserved it. There were times when I felt bitter and resentful at having the responsibility for raising these kids, without having their full love, affection or respect. Inwardly, I ascribed their undesirable behaviours to poor parenting, arrogantly sure that I would have done a better job of raising them had they been mine. How easy to judge my stepdaughter’s stubbornness as an incurable character flaw inherited from her mother, instead of the normal toddler behaviour it actually was.

It would have been easy to write the children off emotionally as the price I had to pay to be with my husband, but that sure wouldn’t make us a family. What was I to do now? Being the caretaker wasn’t working anymore. The only way forward for me was to stop distancing, and start treating the children as my family – not just my husband’s family, but mine too. As with anything worth having, there was risk involved; I might spend the rest of my life loving the children in vain, never receiving love or acceptance from them.

But their thoughts and feelings are not within my control. All I can do is manage my own. If I didn’t accept them completely and wholeheartedly as family, then what chance would there ever be for them to accept me?

The test came when Steve and I married last September. I was scared to death about how the children would react to the news, imagining the worst. I underestimated them. Not only did the children not mind, they were delighted. In fact, their only concern was whether or not there would be wedding cake!

Raising someone else’s kids is without a doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Every day I pray for the strength and wisdom to love them consistently, without strings or reservations, whether I’m in the mood or not, and whether or not my love is returned. I pray for the maturity to accept love on their terms, receiving in gratitude whatever they want to give, and not asking for more. I pray for the wisdom to accept them as they are now, recognise their potential, and nurture all that is best in each of them.

Two and half years on, I now have good, loving relationships with both my stepchildren. They have gradually come to appreciate the things I do for them, and the way we play together. They are genuinely happy to see me, and want to spend time with me. I even occasionally hear the most precious words of all, ”I love you, Barbara.”

I hope that one day when they’re older, they will say to me,” You were just like a mother to us.” Not their mother, not a substitute or replacement for her, but someone in addition to their mother and father, that loved them and looked after them just the same. Which is how it should be. And perhaps that will be enough for me to lose the velveteen and become a “real” parent after all.

Barbara Burkard is the stepmother of a seven-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl. Raised in California, she now works as a freelance writer and lives in the suburbs of London, England.

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