Finally quiet. Finally asleep. I hold my breath and pull the door shut behind me, hoping that the little creature in her crib won’t notice my absence as her eyelids flutter.
Outside of the nursery, sunlight illuminates the framed pictures of our family in candid moments, trapped like captured rare birds in their frames. I stand, looking at them, steeped in a quiet minute of nostalgia.
Descending the staircase catapults me to another planet: a 15-year-old boy simultaneously texts, works on homework, and talks with his dad; a 12-year-old girl bursts in from the back yard, flushed from volleyball practice. My husband cuts some vegetables for dinner, music plays. They see me and the chaos quiets slightly—the fact that I’m empty-handed means Norah is sleeping. We are a modern family in so many ways, but we are also very classic: we have dinner together, evenings are a mix of homework, sports, friends, and relaxing, we go on vacations, we talk about school, but we also sing “Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star” and find pacifiers in the strangest places.
My husband had two kids from a previous marriage whom I had met before, due to the fact that he and I had worked together and been good friends for years. When he first expressed interest in being more than friends, I declined. What was I looking for in a partner? The same things any proudly independent woman in her late twenties was looking for: kind, honest, thoughtful, and adventurous, no strings and no baggage. What was I not looking for? Exactly what I fell for in the end.
Navigating a relationship with a single dad can be a tricky thing. From the start, we decided that calm, consistent predictability and open communication would be the norm for us. Gingerly, we folded the kids into things we did, or rather, they folded me into the things they did. I found myself dating a man with two kids, and surprisingly, I found myself in love. Loving him, loving them, and loving who I was with them. This is not to say that there weren’t some rocky roads that left us heart-broken and weary, because there were, and I’m sure there will be more. The most nuclear of families cannot escape some difficulties.
Since the kids were 10 and 13 when we married, I never felt as though I was a mother to them, or needed to be such. My role had to be different. Unfortunately, the term “stepmother” is one that, thanks to Disney, paints the stepmother as an evil interloper, intent on removing the children to a tower, a coma, or to some other horrifying demise. I exhausted every resource for definitions as to what I was, and this is what I learned: every single woman in my shoes has to build her own role from scratch, in a family that already exists, with two parents and two kids who have two homes.
When becoming a new parent, it seems as though advice pours forth regarding the correct ways to parent a newborn, most of which is either bunk or worked for every child but yours. The same is true when becoming a stepparent. Those who have been down the road before attempt to provide guidance. And exactly like becoming a new parent, it is a unique experience for every family.
Regardless, it’s important to remember that stepparents are a type of parent, too—many, if not most, of us are engaged fully with the children in our lives. We try to guide them towards making good decisions, towards being kind and thoughtful people. We sit up worrying about them as the curfew draws nearer. We are sad when their hearts get broken. Our schedules rely on their schedules. Our paychecks go into the family pot. Most of us went from being a party of one to a party of three, four, or even more simply by saying “I do”, and it takes getting used to. We must learn about entire lifetimes as they learn about us, develop new skills overnight that biological parents have a lifetime to master, all the while walking on eggshells made out of how things were done before we came along.
When making the decision to add to our family we weighed carefully what we wanted for our future and what we wanted for the two kids already in our lives. When we told them that they were going to have a little sibling they were excited, but nervous of the unknown: how would our family look after this little stranger arrived? The day Norah was born, her siblings each held her close, tears in their eyes, saying, “She’s so small!” Norah, in turn, stared back with wide-eyed curiosity, already responsible for being the little thread that loops and winds its way through all of us. Through her veins runs blood that is connected to each of us, and has bonded us to each other in new ways. In my ability to love as a biological mother, now, I have found my love and admiration for my step kids grow even more profound.
Soon enough, a small cry comes from upstairs. “She’s awake!” my stepdaughter smiles, “Can I go get her?” Moments later I hear these two sisters, 12 years apart, cooing and babbling to each other. Their grins have started to look increasingly similar, and Norah’s eyes match her brother’s almost exactly. There is nothing “step” or “half” about these siblings. The love they feel for one another is full and entire, the only way children know how to love. She will grow always learning from them, and it makes me so proud when I can step back and say, “This is my family.” Sure, we all met at different points in our lives, we are a patchwork, we took leaps of faith, we found love in the most unexpected of places, but that doesn’t make our family any less real or any less steadfast.