“How many kids do you have?”
It’s one of the most common questions that I am asked and it’s consistently problematic for me. Sometimes I keep it vague and simply say that my husband and I have three kids together. However, people typically expand upon this by asking their ages, and the 10 year age gap between my eldest and middle child generally raises eyebrows until I explain that the eldest is my stepdaughter, my husband’s daughter from his first marriage. The interviewer generally responds awkwardly to all this and, for whatever reason, I feel like I deceived them somewhere along the way.
To avoid this routine, I usually tell the asker that I have a 9 year old and a 6 year old and a 19 year old stepdaughter, but it pains me to differentiate among my kids that way. You see, my stepdaughter Amanda has been in my life since she was three-years-old and I truly consider her as much my child as her siblings. Yet – and this is the conflicting part – she’s not 100% mine and I respect her mother too much to claim her as my own.
In the early stages of our relationship, people would often assume that Amanda was my daughter when we’d be out and about. A server would innocently ask me what my daughter would like to drink, for example, and Amanda would inevitably inform the server that I wasn’t her mother – that I was her father’s girlfriend. I learned to shrug it off, but I have to admit that it always slightly stung that Amanda couldn’t stomach even one person mistaking me for her mother.
I had to learn to shrug off a lot of things in those early stages. Let’s just say that little kids generally lack tact, to put it mildly, and Amanda was not 100% on board with our relationship. She’d loudly ask her father how long I was staying when we were all hanging out; she’d refuse to let me touch her hair or help her in any way that she perceived to be motherly; she’d turn her nose up at any gift I gave her; and she’d make jokes about my appearance or go out of her way to be rude to me.
There were several occasions that I locked myself in the bathroom and questioned whether or not Amanda would ever accept me in her life. I’d fake a smile and try my best to be supportive of her autonomy whenever she’d dismiss my help, no matter how rejected I felt. If Amanda were rude about it, my husband Jim would respond appropriately as her father and would remind Amanda to mind her manners and apologize. I really appreciated that he took on that role, because any stepparent will tell you what an uphill battle it can be to discipline a kid who doesn’t consider you their parent. My husband was also really good at carving out weekly alone time for just him and Amanda so that she wouldn’t have to feel like she was in a competition with me for his attention.
Two years later, we had all more or less adjusted to our new normal when Amanda did something that completely blew our minds. Jim and I were watching television together one weekend afternoon when Amanda suddenly appeared in the doorway and out of nowhere said, “I’m sorry, Nathalie. I know that I’ve been mean to you and I’m sorry. I thought you were trying to take the place of my mommy, but I know now that you aren’t trying to do that. Thank you for always being so nice to me. I love you.”
She may have been only five-years-old, but she exhibited more wisdom and clarity in her apology than the average adult I know. Needless to say, my husband and I were a blubbery mess as hugs and kisses were exchanged and we realized that we were going to make it as a family. And, it’s probably that scene that plays out in my head whenever I tell people about my 19 year old stepdaughter, whose mommy I’d never want to replace. Thankfully there’s room enough for both of us in her heart.
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