Why I Love Being a Stepmother

Being a stepmother can be an astonishing privilege.

Posted Oct 16, 2009

One of the most problematic moments in the world used to appear disguised as the benign question, asked after I've given a lecture, by a nice-enough and genuinely curious woman in the audience: "Do you have any children?"

For a few years, I actually wrestled with this issue, desperately trying to figure out the right response. I cribbed lines from the old movie Goodbye, Mr. Chips, saying, "Every year I have about two hundred children, and all of them are college students." Finally, I just started answering the best way I could without making a long story out of it: "Yes, I have two terrific stepsons."

I figured this was the correct answer, because it was, after all, the truth. When in doubt, tell the truth, that's my motto (my other motto is: "If you can read this, you're too close"). But, in part, because I give workshops dealing with personal issues and talk frankly about such intimate topics as "Why Women Hate the Three Stooges" and "Why Women Will Persist in Asking How Much You Love Them While You Are Simply Trying to Watch ‘Motor Week,'" I find that folks really want to hear me dish the details about my own life. So, on occasion, when I have indeed bared my soul and talked about my two stepkids, I am then asked, with an air of great patience, if I "have any children of my own."

It's said as if these children, now perhaps better referred to as "these guys" (given their advanced ages), these two stepsons, aren't really part of my life. Trust me: they are the real thing. We've been in each other's lives for a long time, and if that isn't a cause for declaring reality in a relationship, I don't know what is. But I also know that I have only a small part in their reality, and that's also fine.

Let me explain. Knowing that they had a devoted mother, I never assumed or attempted that role; I knew the boundaries, the unwritten rules that dictated a permanent backseat in their lives. But I also knew that they liked me, these sons of my husband (a phrase I saw as a compliment, not a curse) and that we enjoyed more than an ordinarily affectionate relationship.

After all, we love one another. Seriously. After 20 years, I can say that without offering a caveat.

I saw them go through some pretty tough times at school, drove them where they needed to be, met girlfriends, got over girlfriends, bought clothes and CDs, worried over colleges, worried over late nights, worried over phone calls that didn't come—not to mention also worrying over a few that did come: bizarre, late-night orations on the nature of reality and love and bus travel. We would have enjoyed one another's company whatever situation placed us together; if we'd been standing in line waiting for tickets to a concert or boarding a plane, we'd have made conversation and made good use, therefore, of the time and connection.

No, I didn't have the privilege of making them into the strong, smart young men they turned out to be: I give that honor to both their parents, their mother and father, who put in those long and unrecorded hours early on. Surely those times count most profoundly, and I bow to their significance. I also give credit to these young men who did not avail themselves of the myriad excuses offered to them, as if at a banquet, to screw up.

They went through their bad times, not around them; like good gamblers, they played—successfully—the hands they were dealt. None of that had anything to do with me.

But I do give myself credit as a supporting bit player, someone who enters in a middle scene and gets a few good lines, but who nevertheless helps move the action along in a positive way. Someone whose name appears way down in the list of credits, but who does, finally, merit the recognition of naming. Too bad the name has to be "stepmother."

They've taken to introducing me as one of their "parental units," and I like the phrase, but I've also come to appreciate even the more conventional and charged phrase "stepmother." That they want to introduce me to their tribes at all is itself a vast and inarguable compliment. That we might well be stuck with the word "step" between us is something I can live with.

They are a step ahead of me, after all, and I am grateful to follow easily in the exuberant and surprising grace of their path.