Riding the Waves of Becoming a Stepmother


being a stepmotherWhen I first met my stepson, Michael, he was at the tail end of 10. His cheeks were pink and smooth and maybe even a little chubby, with the last remnants of babyhood. Michael’s dad (my now husband, Chris) and Michael’s mom met when they were both pretty young, and they parted ways back when he was still a toddler. In the time after that, Chris dated a bit but hadn’t introduced Michael to many girlfriends. I was special, and that made it weird for all three of us. I thought I knew Michael fairly well from his dad’s Instagram account and the many stories I’d heard on our earlier dates. I realize now that I knew nothing, and becoming a stepmother was probably the last thing on my mind at that time.

In the couple of years leading up to it, my most recent marriage had crumbled – quickly, and unexpectedly; the second of two short, failed marriages without any children. Chris and I began casually dating, with very low expectations.  We were both single and free as the wind during the week, except on the nights when he coached Michael’s hockey team. On the weekends, Michael stayed with him, so I did my own thing. They would go to hockey tournaments, eat at the diner, and watch 90s movies. I followed their adventures on Instagram.

As things became more serious, Chris started to float the idea of a meet and greet with Michael. I felt curious but cautious. An acquaintance warned me that as the child of divorced parents, she’d met too many of her dad’s ex-girlfriends. I knew I didn’t want to meet Michael, get attached, and then leave.

We were about three months in before the Worcester Ice Cats meeting. “I think this is too soon,” several people in my circle warned. I didn’t necessarily disagree with them. Michael was shy and curious, and we were both awkward in our first interactions. I asked him endless questions about hockey, which led him to the conclusion that I knew absolutely nothing about his favorite sport. “Don’t worry,” he assured me, “I’ll sit next to you and explain exactly what is happening.” And he did.

Over the next year, we developed an easy friendship. I made sure to stay in my own lane and never step on either of his parents’ toes. I came to cheer him on at most of his games, but I was quick to correct anyone who mistook me for his mom/stepmom. I tagged along on some (not all) of his weekend adventures with Chris. We raced go-carts and went hiking. When the weather got warmer, I invited them both to stay at my parents’ house on the Cape. We rode our bikes to Woods Hole for fish tacos.

When Chris and I decided to move in together, I worried that it might be the last thing Michael wanted, but we were relieved when he replied, “That’s so awesome!!!” Even with his blessing, I wasn’t sure what to expect after the boxes were unpacked. Michael had always referred to his mom’s house as “home” and his dad’s place as “my dad’s.” He brought a duffle bag full of clean clothes with him on Friday night and took them “home” with him every Sunday. He and Chris also had a habit of eating every single meal out – breakfast at the diner and hot dogs at Coney Island. Their fridge typically contained milk, beer, and baking soda.

I wasn’t interested in becoming a parental figure right away, but I felt certain that once they moved into our shared space, I could make it feel a little more like a home. I bought throw pillows and blankets and curtains for the windows. I lined the hardwood floors with colorful area rugs. Michael and I went to the grocery store to pick out snacks for him. We baked cookies together and came up with a few dinner recipes that he would eat. We came up with new traditions – Cobra Kai on Friday night and homemade pancakes on Sundays.

I stuck with my non-parenting approach for a while. Sometimes Chris complained that it undermined his authority if I failed to enforce his rules. As the new girlfriend, I just wasn’t sure that it was my place – I was not a stepmom, and I certainly wasn’t an actual parent. Chris took this as a reasonable excuse for a while but was more adamant after I became pregnant with our son, Wesley, and after we got married. “You’re his brother’s mom. You’re his stepmother,” he’d remind me. “You can act like a parent now. You SHOULD act like a parent now.”

My position has remained relatively constant for the past five years, though. I like to think of myself as more of a bonus adult in Michael’s life. I love and care about him. I will cheer for his accomplishments as loudly as his parents, but I will not critique him (positive or negative). He can tell me anything, and know that I won’t judge him. I don’t often intervene in what he does, and the list of rules that I enforce is entirely safety based. I will ask him to put on a seatbelt, but I won’t nag him to clean his room. I will invite him to participate in things, but I don’t get bent out of shape if he opts out.

I would never suggest this as a universal solution to everyone’s blended family equation, but for our family, this approach seems to have served us well. Maybe because of the way we came together. Maybe because I had no parenting experience at all before I met Michael – I’m not 100% sure. But, I can say with some certainty that Michael and I have a great relationship. We never fight. There’s no resentment, on either side.  He treats me with the same courtesy and respect that he treats his actual parents, and I show him the same love that I show his little brother. I still look at him and see that pink-cheeked little boy that he was when he was 10, but I’m also in awe of the handsome, well-rounded young man he has become.

By Sara Whitman

Sara lives in Shrewsbury with her son, Wesley, her stepson, Michael, and “The Hockey Dad” (aka her husband, Chris). She works full-time for a large general contractor in the Boston area. In addition to writing, her interests include running, cooking, and spending time with her family on the Cape.


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