Have you ever pretended to be a Mom?

“Our kids.” “My son.” “Being a mom . . .”

I have been going through old writings from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Most are columns or essays, some of them published in the community newspapers where I worked or sent out as freelance pieces to various magazines and newspapers. In addition to being embarrassed—I really thought that was good?—I’m surprised to read frequent phrases like the above that implied I had children. Did I really consider myself a mom or was I trying to fit in with the rest of the world?

I had three stepchildren. The older two, in their teens when Fred and I got married, did not live with us. The youngest, only 7 when we met, lived with us from age 12 to 20, flying to Texas to spend time with his mom for holidays and summer vacation. Sure, I was doing full-time mom duty for a while, but did I really think of myself that way? Certainly not on Mother’s Day when the honors went to Fred’s ex. Certainly not when it came to decisions about “our son’s” religion, extracurricular activities, or his future. Certainly not when other women talked about their children’s birth and younger years. Certainly not when I tried to hug my stepson and he backed away.

I was kind of a mom, but in my writing, I seemed to imply that I was a full-fledged just-like-everybody-else mom. So why did my “son” call me “Sue?” Maybe it was just too complicated to explain that these were stepchildren, that I had not given birth to them. Or was I embarrassed, feeling that I had failed?

Who was to know different? Not the photographer who kept calling me “Mom” as he posed us for a family portrait. Not the school secretary who called to tell me young Mr. Lick had not shown up for class. Not the Boy Scout leader who wanted me to bring two dozen cookies. Not the other moms who sent their kids to our house to play. In most cases, I did not set them straight.

It’s as difficult to put myself back in that head space as it is to fit into the skinny clothes I wore then. I know I wanted desperately to be a mom. I guess I claimed as much of that status as I could, aware that it could be taken away at any minute.

These days, with Fred gone and no contact with the kids beyond Facebook, I just tell people I never had any children. That’s not quite true either, is it? I still love Fred’s kids and pray for them every day. But they’ve got a mom. I’m just Sue.

This seems like an odd post. Things have been odd lately for me, going through all these old writings, dealing with some worrisome medical issues, and slogging through the rainy days of winter. But maybe you have experienced some of this, too.

My questions for today: Have you ever pretended to be a mom or dad when you’re not? If you have stepchildren, do you feel like their parent? Do you claim that status among other people? Please comment. I want to know what you think. Tell me I’m not the only one.

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Stepparents caught between two worlds

In response to my Halloween request for subjects folks want to discuss here, Evil SM commented last week:

In thinking about my biggest concerns as a childless woman that I’d love to discuss with other women who “get it”, I’d say it’s definitely the tension between feeling 100% childless and still having to reconcile the relationship with my stepkids. I’m not going to lie, I’m very resentful, and am trying to make my peace with it all. Sometimes I want to embrace having no children, and then there are my husband’s kids. I feel stuck between two worlds, and no matter how much I have given to them, tried to feel something parental towards them, I just don’t. But, I can’t say that. I have to put on a mask and pretend I feel like a certain way about them and my role, or lack of, in their lives. Some days it eats me alive. I have most, if not all, the responsibility of a parent, and none of the warm feelings. Like you, Sue, we are custodial. My husband expects that if/when the kids have kids I will feel like, or want to feel like, a grandparent, and that’s just not my truth. In the beginning of our relationship I thought I wanted a baby, but for some reason that changed and now I’m almost completely on the other side of the fence, though I still have some of those baby blues days. I feel more childless with my husband and his kids than I would otherwise. It’s constantly in my face. Anyone else feel this way?

I do, Evil SM. My stepchildren are all grown now, and with my husband gone, I rarely see them, except on Facebook. But I remember those feelings. To be accurate, only the youngest of Fred’s three lived with us. Sometimes I felt like his mother. Sometimes I felt like I was co-parenting with Fred’s ex. Sometimes I felt like a mother, but more often I felt like a babysitter who had no idea what she was doing. I loved him, but I’m not sure how he felt about me. I was always aware that he had a “real mom” who had first dibs on him.

As for the other two, we tried, but that warm fuzzy feeling proved elusive. I’m watching my words here because I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings or start a war. (We have enough problems with the fallout from the election.) They just didn’t feel like my own family. Even when I became a step-grandmother, it was like I was playing a role. I wish we could have made it one big happy family. I wanted that so bad. But they weren’t mine. So now I “like” their Facebook posts, send Christmas and birthday greetings, and pray for them every day.

To Michael, Gretchen, Ted (and Shelly), if you read this, I love you and miss you and feel so far away. You haven’t reached out, and I’m afraid that if I reach out to you, I will be rejected.

Oh, God, I feel as if I have opened myself up too much here. Thanks a lot, Evil Stepmother. 🙂 I used to call myself that, too. Thank God the kids laughed.

So, readers, it’s your turn. Many of us have stepped into relationships that include children from previous partners. Does the presence of these offspring make you feel worse about not having your own children or does it ease the pain? How do you get along? Can you love them like your own? What gets in the way of that?

Let’s open up this can of worms and see what’s inside. It might take more than one post. You can be as anonymous as you need to be. Me, not so much.

Thank you for being here and sharing with me.

 

 

 

 

 

Graduation and the childless stepparent

It’s graduation season. Does the thought make you feel a little queasy because your stepchildren are graduating and you don’t know where you fit in? Welcome to the club. I know you don’t all have stepchildren, but enough do that graduation issues are starting to come up in the comments. Graduation can certainly magnify the awkwardness in the family when there are both biological parents and stepparents.

Let me share some of my experiences.

The first graduate was my stepdaughter Gretchen, who had dropped out of high school when she got pregnant with her first child and went to an “adult school” to finish her classes while she was pregnant with her second child. Her mother was living in Texas, so the “family” that attended was her father, her brothers, and me, the new wife. Honestly, it went great. I took lots of pictures and had this warm mushy feeling that I finally had a family. Whatever arguments we had had before didn’t matter.

I was also the mom on duty when Michael, my youngest stepson, graduated from middle school a few years later. Again, his mother was not there, but my parents joined us for the outdoor ceremony. I was working for the local paper and ran around taking pictures for a story, split between my roles as reporter and mom. I loved it.

Four years later, when that same stepson graduated from high school, everyone was there: Fred and I, Michael’s siblings, my parents, his mother and HER parents, all sitting in the bleachers on the football field. Now, this was June in San Jose, so we were dressed in our summer clothes. The few clouds overhead were a welcome relief from days of relentless heat. But shortly after they got through the L’s and Michael received his diploma, the clouds turned black and it started to rain, a hard soaking deluge that sent people scattering for shelter.

At that time, Fred, Michael and I lived across the street from the high school, and the party was happening at our house. I handed my mom my keys and asked her to put the lasagna in the oven while we looked for Michael. Soon we were all gathered at our house, and I was handing out towels. Although things could have been weird, we all got along and felt like one big happy family, laughing over the rained-out ceremony.

Of course there are always those awkward moments. “This is my mom, this my dad, this is my, um . . . .” Know what I mean?

Years later, when Gretchen’s daughter Stephanie graduated from high school, I wasn’t there. Fred was in a nursing home, and my nephew was graduating from a college nearby on the same day. I went to his ceremony instead. There was still time afterwards to get to Stephanie’s graduation, but I was riding with my dad and he didn’t want anything to do with my step-family. (Someday soon I should do a post on the relationship between our own parents and our stepchildren. Now there’s a tricky relationship.) Anyway, I missed it.

And when Gretchen graduated from college a few years ago, I was widowed and living in Oregon and was not invited. Nor did I expect to be, even though I’m very proud of her. I’m proud of all of them, but sometimes that “step” between us is huge, especially with their father gone.

None of the kids came to my late-life master’s-degree graduation from Antioch University in Los Angeles. Fred was the only family there while other grads had big groups, including their children. But then if I had children, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to go back to school.

Enough about me. Graduation can be tough. When your stepchildren graduate, whether it’s from kindergarten, high school or Harvard, are you pitted against their biological family? Are you not invited? Are you expected to smile, give gifts, and be the hostess for kids who aren’t your own? To make nice with people you can’t stand? Are you gulping back tears because you may never watch your own children graduate? When you hear the band play “Pomp and Circumstance,” do you think back to your own graduations and how you never imagined things would turn out the way they have?

Let’s talk about it. You can let it all out here. I look forward to your comments.

Lee Ann: If I had it to do over . . .


I have been following up on what happened to some of the women in my Childless by Marriage book. Today we hear from Lee Ann. I first met Lee Ann in a choir where we sang together here on the Oregon Coast. She met me for a heartfelt interview way back in 1999. Highly educated, working as a social service administrator, she had been married twice and had no biological children. But when her second husband’s two daughters showed up mistreated and abandoned, she took them in as her own. The marriage ended, but she has continued to have a close relationship with her stepdaughters.

She is now 61, retired and living in Portland. Although I already knew what she would say to some of these questions, she patiently answered them all.
Did you wind up having children after all?
Nope.
When people ask you now why you don’t have children, what do you tell them?
No one’s ever asked that, so I guess I’m lucky. Probably I would make some vague remark about it not being in the cards.
Do you regret the choices that led to you not having children?
Yes.
If you could go back and change things, would you?
Yes.
Are there stepchildren or other children in your life that fill the gap?
There are stepchildren with whom I remain close, even though I often wonder if biological children would be more attentive to me when I’m feeling neglected. But I know that biological parents often feel neglected by their kids, too . . .
Are you worried about being alone in old age? 
No, but I do worry about being a burden—and having enough money to live comfortably.
What are you proudest of doing in your life so far? Could you have done this if you had children?
Lots of little things I’m proud of doing, including “saving” my stepdaughters from their extremely neglectful mother. Most things I could have done regardless of having biological children. Could have done a whole lot more, probably, if I hadn’t had to save (and support) my stepdaughters.
What would you say to others who are dealing with partners or spouses who can’t/don’t want to have children?
See a therapist to work it out. If I’d started therapy before taking on my stepdaughters and their father, I would have had to deal with the issue of what it is in my personality that makes me sacrifice so much of my own needs for the sake of others. My final decision about staying or leaving would have had a much more solid basis had I made it with the clarity about myself that I gained in therapy much later in life.