A Facebook group I belong to shared a letter recently that I think merits some discussion.
It was written to Slate magazine's parenting advice columnist, and it was headlined, "My Friend Equates Her Stepmom Experience With My Natural Motherhood and It Drives Me Crazy."
The letter writer is expecting her first child and she's done listening to her friend, who's raising a 13-year-old stepson, go on and on about her parenting chops.
"She's been married to Joe for the past seven years," the letter writer explains. "He has custody of his 13-year-old son from a previous marriage, and he lives with them full time except for every other weekend. He's a great kid. Nicole has really taken to being a stepmom. She never wanted biological kids, and still doesn't, but her generosity toward Joe's son is admirable: She reads lots of advice books and supports her stepson in so many ways."
So far, so good. However ...
"She keeps trying to give me advice and platitudes about parenthood," the writer complains. "Nicole has a lot of experience, but I don't think our situations are the same. I'm getting ready to bring a baby from my body into the world, which is something she hasn't experienced. While she stepped up to stepparent, and is doing great at it, I don't think it is the same as being a birth mother."
She wants to know how to politely put Nicole in her place.
The advice columnist has thoughts:
"You've written this letter and gotten something off your chest. Now let the matter go. Don't confront Nicole about this. Don't think about this anymore. Maybe most importantly: Don't think this way anymore."
The answer continues:
"Maybe someday, after you 'bring a baby from your body into the world,' you'll have the perspective to realize that you're not being a very generous friend to someone you've known for most of your life. Maybe you'll chuckle at what a know-it-all you were, certain that a mere stepmom would have nothing to teach you about being a mom. ... For your sake, I hope that's the case."
I have a few more thoughts. Because the way we regard stepmoms in this culture is problematic and toxic, both to children and to the people raising them. (I blame Disney.)
I am a mom and a stepmom. My kids are being raised by me, their biological mom, and my ex-husband's wife, their stepmom. My stepson is being raised by his biological mom and me, his stepmom.
I'll tell you something about "the stepmom experience" and "natural motherhood:" There's a whole lot of overlap.
Both ask you to set aside your ego, your needs, your comfort, your mornings, your days, your nights, your weekends, your command of the fridge/the spot by the front door where all the shoes gather and multiply/every flat surface of your home.
Both invite you to unconditionally love a human who will, at times, find new and practically inconceivable ways to vex you.
Both care very little for your exhaustion. Or your desire to finish whole sentences. Or your need for some quiet.
Both require almost constant calibration. What works one month is an utter failure the next. What they loved last year, they loathe today. What they feared last week, they'll embrace in a day or two. Keep up.
Both are an utter privilege and an absolute joy and incredibly humbling and, many days, leave you questioning your identity and your purpose and your priorities and whether you're doing any of it right.
When I am on the sidelines of my son's flag football games or the bleachers of my daughter's gymnastics competitions or the sticky seats of a bus full of kids heading on a field trip or the auditorium seats of a school awards assembly, day or night, I am surrounded by stepparents. Cheering, wiping tears, tying shoelaces, handing out snacks, holding hands, laughing, shouting, crying – parenting, that is.
And they do all this knowing, in their heart of hearts, that their very presence is a constant reminder that something went awry. A marriage ended. A parent died. A grown-up stopped showing up and now this one is in her/his place. And knowing that their presence may be met with love and gratitude, at times, eventually, or it may be met with resentment and grief. Maybe a little of all of those things.
So it may be tempting to put up barriers between your parenting and someone else's, based solely on how you each arrived at your roles, but it's misguided and short-sighted and mean. If you're both there in service to a kid, if you're both surrendering your heart and your time and your ego, if you're both a little bewildered but also quite besotted, congratulations. You're both parenting. Godspeed.
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