God's Girl

Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary

The Stepmother Dilemma

Today’s special guest blogger is Betsi Smith.

Betsi lives in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, with her husband, Jim.

She is a freelance writer and book editor. Her stepson, Ross, is about to graduate

from dental school at the University of Louisville, and he will be living

and working in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.



The Stepmother Dilemma


I hate Mother’s Day. There, I’ve said it. I’ll just wait for that bolt of lightning to come on down and turn me into a burnt cinder. I’ll admit I see the point of celebrating mothers. You struggle through nine months of pregnancy, then several excruciating hours of labor, followed by years of sacrifice. Or you go through a long, trying adoption process to give a lost child a home and a family. You deserve at least one day a year to be honored.


So, when I say that I hate Mother’s Day, I’m just speaking for myself. I didn’t give birth to a child. I am not a member of that club of women who brought a baby home in their arms and nurtured him from his first days on this earth. I do have a stepson, so technically that makes me a stepmom. He’s grown now, and I didn’t enter his life until he was past the stage where a kiss and a cuddle could dry tears or make a scraped knee feel all better. Instead, I got to jump in there just in time for the teen years. Nothing warm and cuddly about that stage.

Does that make me a mother? I never wiped his nose, tied his shoe, or rocked him to sleep. I haven’t earned my stripes, paid my dues, put in the time it takes to be recognized as a valuable person in his life. I’m in that gray area, where a simple “Happy Mother’s Day!” could be recognition for a job well done, or it could be a painful reminder that I’m not a “real” mom, and I never will be.


One Mother’s Day several years ago, we were attending a church with a traditional pastor who did not approve of divorce or second marriages. The pastor asked for all mothers to stand. He made sure to include adoptive mothers and foster mothers, even grandmothers. Maybe it was an oversight, but he didn’t say a word about stepmothers. I didn’t stand up. I wasn’t included. Of course, the little ones, dressed in their Mother’s Day best, handed out something to all the mothers, while everyone clapped. The worst part was, my stepson just happened to be with us that weekend and was sitting right beside me. We both stared at the floor, waiting for it to be over. Ever since then, I’ve dreamed about spending every Mother’s Day in bed, with the covers pulled over my head.


I realize that my stepson has felt the same awkwardness I do. We’ve spent the past sixteen years tiptoeing around each other, not quite sure what our relationship is. I’m definitely not “Mom.” He has a great mother, and I’d never attempt to take her place. Am I “Betsi”? Not that often. I’m somewhere in limbo, not quite a parent, not quite a friend.


I wonder if other stepparents go through the same feelings, especially if they have no children of their own.

How do you know when to step up and when to shut up?

If you discipline bad behavior, are you overstepping?

If you report bad behavior, are you a snitch?

If you accept bad behavior, are you contributing to the problem?

It’s a tightrope, and I’ve fallen off more than once.


If a questionnaire existed to determine whether or not you qualified as a mother, it might include these questions:


1. Do you attend ballgames, graduations, and any other special events in the child’s life?


Done that. I’ve sat through baseball games in the scorching heat. I’ve huddled under the bleachers, soaked to the skin, waiting for the storm to pass. I’ve attended basketball games in gyms so small that you spend half the time ducking runaway balls and the over-eager players chasing them. At the senior prom, I searched through a sea of people for him and his cute little date; I got a lump in my throat seeing how handsome and grown-up he looked. I cheered along with everyone else when he accepted his high-school diploma and later his college degree.



2. Do you endure on-the-job training in child-rearing, hoping you aren’t doing more harm than good?


Done that, too. Just as with babies, preteens don’t come with an instruction manual. They do, however, come with established likes, dislikes, and personalities. I learned he wouldn’t eat anything green (still won’t). I learned that a teenage boy’s sweaty tennis shoes need to stay in the garage, because the smell will turn your stomach and make your eyes water. I learned not to laugh when he first started to shave and decided to trim his eyebrows at the same time. I learned that when I lost my temper and said things I shouldn’t, I needed to be the adult and apologize; even if deep down I meant the things I said, I still shouldn’t have said them.


3. Do you worry about the child, want the best for the child, and pray for the child?


Yes, yes, and yes. I worry when he’s on the road late at night, especially when his car isn’t reliable. I want him to figure out that true happiness is found in family, friendships, and a relationship with Jesus, and not in a big house or a fancy car. I pray that the person he chooses to spend his life with will be smart, sensitive, and will love him like he is the greatest person on earth, and that he will love her the same way.


The best advice I ever got about being a stepparent came from someone who had recently married a woman with two little girls. “Don’t expect to love the kids immediately, just because you love their parent,” he warned. He was right. I wanted to love my stepson, but it took time. He didn’t always make it easy, and I tend to lose my patience when things aren’t easy. Let’s face it: sometimes I didn’t even like him, and I’m sure it was mutual.


That started to change the summer he turned 13. With all of his friends reaching this same milestone, every weekend meant at least one birthday party. One Saturday evening he rode to a party with a friend’s mother. Although the party wasn’t supposed to end until 10 p.m., he was home barely an hour after leaving the house. Apparently, some kids showed up who weren’t invited. Words were said, fights broke out, and the police were called in to break it up. He was not harmed, but this calm, cool kid was definitely shaken. As I listened to his story, I realized something: I was more upset than he was. I wanted to wrap him in something soft and never let him leave the house again. Anything to keep him safe. That’s when I realized that somehow, through all the awkward, difficult moments, I had grown to love this boy.


I did not give birth to this child, who graduates from dental school this month, and even more important, who has grown into a strong, smart, responsible man. My title will never officially be “Mom.” I will retain the uncomfortable label of “stepmom,” with all that it entails. And Mother’s Day will never feel natural or normal. But I know, in my heart, that this man is my son.


In recent years, he and I have come a long way. We hug hello and good-bye. When he calls, I get more out of him than just, “Let me speak to Dad.” I’ve even started getting Mother’s Day cards from him. Unfortunately, the front of the envelope is always blank. He still doesn’t know what to call me. But that’s okay. We’ll figure it out. What counts is that he signs them, “With love.”


Let’s take a moment to share.

Let’s help each other out.

How can you relate to Betsi’s post?

What have you learned about being a stepmom that you can share with others?

What questions do you have?

What’s one thing you wish someone had told you about being a stepmom?

What has been rewarding?

I will be interviewing many women throughout the Magnificent Mom series.

Today I’m interviewing you.

(you don’t have to be a stepmom to comment, just share what Betsi’s post made you think about)

What’s on your mind?