Parenting My Journey from “Spare Parent” to Stepparent
If there was one thing I was clearly not cut out for, it was being a stepmom.
When I began falling for Q, his children seemed like a welcome and natural limit to how far we could take a relationship that neither of us were looking for. I was thirty and recently single, looking forward to having a Sex in the City -like phase of flings after breaking up with my boyfriend of six years. Q—thirteen years my senior—was still married, navigating a divorce that involved kids, a house, and the usual amount of grief and recrimination. We agreed—repeatedly, out loud—that this couldn’t really go anywhere, even as we began spending more and more time together.
I was never keen on marriage, had always dreaded motherhood. I treasured my autonomy. I liked being in a relationship, but had always been happy taking things one day at a time. Q, it seemed, would make it easy for me to continue this pattern—because even when the divorce was final, the fact of the children would remain. And if there was one thing I was clearly not cut out for, it was being a stepmom.
Despite our mutual promises to keep things casual, we fell in love. There were some half-hearted attempts to break things off, but we always found ourselves back together. We carved out a rhythm, seeing each other only on nights when he didn’t have the kids. Eventually, though, we agreed that I should meet them. It was not a milestone any of us relished. Q was in an impossible position, needing to inhabit the steady, well-known persona of Dad while introducing me—a destabilizing element that represented competition for his attention and affection, an intrusion on their familiar, familial alchemy. All four of us felt a bit sorry for ourselves. All four of us entered with reluctance, goodwill, curiosity, and as much open-heartedness as we could muster.
I met his daughter, T, first—thirteen years old, all good manners and warm smiles. The three of us walked from Q’s place to an ice cream shop down the street on the Fourth of July. I met G, eleven, a few days later, when he and his sister came to Q’s apartment on his birthday. Wearing a basketball jersey and gym shorts, already a smaller, sports-themed replica of his dad, G was wound up and couldn’t stop moving. He wanted me to watch him try to bounce and roll off the ottoman, which he did for longer than I would have thought possible. We then pulled out a game— Trouble —and he took his coiled tension out on the plastic bubble enclosing the dice, punching it for each of us on our respective turns with what seemed like unnecessary vigor. He insisted on moving our pieces around the board and we all deferred to him, sensing his fragility, the flintiness of his fuse.
Though we tried to keep the mood light, the collective emotional effort vibrated just under the surface. I tried not to think about the scene Q had described to me a few weeks prior, when he had told G about me for the first time: G had broken down, sobbing, his last hope of his parents reuniting—of his sideways world righting itself—finally dashed.
Being in a relationship with a parent of two means eventually, inevitably being in three relationships, two of them assigned rather than chosen. And being a father embarking on a new and long-term romantic relationship means forging a bridge from your past to your future out of tender tissue and bones—a bridge sturdy enough to hold the weight of the emotional needs of your kids and your new partner—and deciding whose needs to meet first when they inevitably conflict.
I spent a lot of that summer and fall with one thought constantly streaming across my mental screen like a chyron: I can’t do this . But love acted like anesthesia on me, allowing the exploratory fingers of some expansive force to pry open bricked-off corners of my mind as I slept. I had dreams about discovering new space, uncovering whole wings of my house I didn’t know were there, walking through walls to find ballrooms, infinity showers, bookcases that stretched to the ceiling. Other nights, I dreamed of moving into a cramped apartment with train tracks behind, finding babies in the cupboards, fuming at the responsibility that had been thrust upon me, and running outside to jump on the first train passing by.
Q moved in a year later, bringing the kids when it was his turn to care for them. The house I had purchased in 2011 had three bedrooms, so the kids each had their own room. But this was small consolation for the fact that their dad, once a short block away, was now twenty minutes away in a suburb —more circumstances not of the kids’ choosing, which they would have to arrange their lives around.
Falling in love with a man who has kids comes with challenges both existential and linguistic. In conversation, I referred to G and T as “my partner’s kids”—accurate but cumbersome. “Stepmother” and “step-kids” I resisted mightily. The etymology of the “step-” prefix supported my choice. It comes from Old English steop- , which carried a connotation of loss: a steopchild was deprived of a parent by death. When the surviving parent remarried, the child became a steopson or steopdaughter. Q’s kids’ mother was alive and well; Q and I were unmarried. The shoe didn’t fit.
Q and I came up with another word we liked better: sparent . A spare parent. The mismatched emergency backup in a car with four perfectly good tires, content to be along for the ride—not overly eager to be put to work, but in close proximity should the need arise.
Not only was I attached to my identity as a childfree woman, I was also terribly anxious about anything that could be perceived as edging in on Q’s ex-wife’s maternal territory, whether emotional or practical. I wanted to broadcast pure support of her, eradicate any hint of competition. I praised her as much as possible in front of the kids, making sure they knew that I didn’t see their mom as a foe. I didn’t know how to explain this loyalty I felt to her, except as some strange off-shoot of my feminism, a sense of mandatory solidarity with a fellow woman and a rejection of the stereotypical narrative of competition and undermining. I imagined that if I had kids of my own, it would sting to see them in another family unit, with another “mother,” even in brief flashes. Though I barely knew her, I wanted to protect her from that sting.
So I always volunteered to take photos of the three of them—Q and the kids—rather than be in the picture myself. When it was his night with the kids, I’d often make plans with friends. I avoided asking about their homework or whether they’d brushed their teeth. I almost never touched them. In hindsight, I see that in my reluctance to impose, I put their mother’s imagined emotional needs before their real ones—and my own.
We came up with a word we liked: sparent. A spare parent. The emergency backup in a car with four perfectly good tires, content to be along for the ride.
I was also afraid to make myself vulnerable. Then twelve and fourteen, Q’s kids were in the same age group I had been at a particularly turbulent time in my life. My junior high years were a mess of bullying and ostracization, and ever since, kids that age have made me nervous. I was afraid of reopening old wounds, baring my heart to those who might maim it again with their derision and rejection.
The learning curve of sharing my home with my insta-family was steep. In a flash, here came three new humans with their own ideas about appropriate TV volume (loud), whether my cats should continue to be allowed on the kitchen table (no), and what constituted a clean dish (the kids, unaccustomed to not having a dishwasher, inspected each plate from the cupboard before using it, as if it were covered in invisible feces).
One night shortly after they had moved in, I was folding laundry in my bedroom. Q and I had defaulted to dumping our dirty clothes into a shared hamper, the contents of which I continued to think of as my responsibility, as they had been when the hamper had been mine alone. On this day, he had grabbed some of G’s things and thrown them in with ours. After doing the wash, I picked through the clean clothes, folding and sorting everything into three piles—one for me, one for Q, one for G. As I was folding a pair of G’s gym shorts, I felt something like panic rise up from my gut, through my throat, into my eyes. My breath was thin, my chest tight. How had I gotten here? I had ordered my whole life to avoid being the woman folding the laundry of a man and a kid. How was I going to get out of this?
I sat on the edge of the bed, eyes darting, mentally scanning my life for an escape hatch. It was as if I had fallen asleep at the wheel and woken up just in time to avert disaster, if only I could think fast enough. But it was our night with the kids, and they were downstairs with Q. I couldn’t march down there and announce that they all had to gather their things and go because I was having an existential crisis over a pair of gym shorts. I calmed myself enough to get through the evening. The next day I laid it out for Q: the laundry, the panic, the untenable nature of it all, my obvious unsuitability for family life.
He suggested that there might be some middle ground between a grim life of indentured gender-normative domesticity and blowing up our whole relationship: We could just get a second hamper. I’d do my own laundry, Q would do his (and the kids’, as needed). The simple elegance of this solution soothed me. It hadn’t occurred to me because my mom had done all our family’s laundry while I was growing up. But that didn’t mean I had to do the same thing, just because my life now contained a family. This was a revelation.
We all have our own internalized assumptions that surface when we start (or join) a family, ideas embedded early on about gender roles, traditions, and the expression of love. These are things every parent has to unpack, even when they’re starting from scratch with the blank slate of unformed humans. Stepparents have the challenge of entering the game in the eighth inning, trying to learn the rules, roles, and expectations established long before they showed up, and realizing that the instincts stirring in them may not fit the open job description.
My own childhood left me with specific and colorful ideas about what discipline, authority, and love look like. My dad was always urging my sister and me to be more self-reliant, pushing us far beyond our comfort zone. My mom, meanwhile, provided a near-saintly level of nurturing and support, cooking us all breakfast and dinner every day while working fulltime. In our house, love manifested in a mixture of food and dares. Thus my long-internalized concept of the ingredients for proper parenthood: challenges, high expectations, generosity, and lots of home-cooked meals. Q was working with different internalized instincts and ingredients. And of course the kids’ mom had beliefs of her own.
Stepparents have the challenge of entering the game in the eighth inning, trying to learn the rules and expectations established long before they showed up.
So when T expressed reluctance to get her driver’s license at sixteen, we all had different reactions. Her mom thought she shouldn’t be expected to drive if she didn’t want to, and that Q should continue chauffeuring the kids back and forth between our homes twice a week. Q empathized with T’s anxiety and committed to a plan of patiently waiting for her to outgrow it, with the occasional gentle nudge. I had to restrain myself from urging her out to the curb to run parallel parking drills before dinner.
I cooked most nights the kids came over, the one conventional mom task I embraced without hesitation. The busyness of cooking was a comfort to me, a way to channel my energy and attention that felt useful but also somewhat separate. I didn’t think it would be too much to ask the kids to help wash the dishes after we ate, but Q never pressed the point. Reluctant to assume the mantle of Evil Stepmother, I didn’t push, either, but sometimes I’d hector Q about it later. He was dealing with his own guilt over the divorce and the subsequent upending of the kids’ lives, so asking more of them felt wrong to him. But to me, choosing never to challenge them or expect any help in household chores felt like a dereliction of parental duty.
My instincts generally didn’t get a vote. I hadn’t established the authority or emotional capital with the kids to really parent them—in no small part because I didn’t want to. And yet those instincts rose clamoring and insistent within me, particularly when the opportunities to exercise them played out under my roof. I’d end up wheedling and poking Q, trying to enact my ideas through him, though I knew it wasn’t fair to expect him to override his own instincts in favor of mine. So I would vacillate between doing it anyway and making myself scarce, sometimes retreating from the house entirely on our nights with the kids.
I’ve never been the first to say I love you . In all of my romantic relationships that lasted long enough, I outwaited the other person. I’m not one to tip my hand until it seems safe. With Q, we had been seeing each other for about six months when he first said it. We were standing in the kitchen in his apartment, and it sort of burbled out of him. His eyebrows shot up, as if he’d dropped a wine glass.
“Oh,” he said. “I guess I just said that.”
“You can take it back if you want to,” I replied.
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Okay, then. I love you too.”
This approach was not going to work with the children. Despite all my frustrations and fears, I loved them. By the time they’d been living in my house for a month, I was agonizing over whether to say so out loud. I couldn’t expect kids to display more emotional courage than I could muster up. This time, I was going to have to say it first.
I resolved to do it. But the time never felt right. We’d drop them off at their mom’s house, and as they were climbing out of the car, I’d say, “See ya, guys! Have a great week!” A phantom Love you! would rise to my lips and stick there like a burr, itching the whole drive home.
This went on for months. I was afraid of putting them on the spot and making them feel like they had to say it back, even if it wasn’t true on their side. I was afraid they’d think I was trying to be their mom. I was afraid it would be unrequited, and I’d look foolish. I was afraid of things I couldn’t begin to acknowledge or name.
Despite all my fears, I loved them. By the time they’d been living in my house for a month, I was agonizing over whether to say so out loud.
On Christmas Eve, 2014, the four of us went out to dinner, then came home to open presents. The kids would be heading back to their mom’s house that night, but we had a few hours to watch Elf and play board games in the warm glow of the Christmas tree. When it came time for Q to drive them home, they packed up their loot and headed for the door.
“Have a great trip, guys,” I said, standing in the living room and watching them go. “Merry Christmas. I love you.”
It wasn’t planned, however many times I’d tried to say it. It just spilled out of me, as it had for Q in his kitchen. For an instant, I felt as if I might puke.
The kids didn’t miss a beat. “Love you too, Mo,” they threw back over their shoulders, as the door closed behind them. It was so simple for them, so sincere.
Tears pricked my eyes. I exhaled in a burst through my nose and did a little dance around the tree. I had done it. We had done it. A Christmas miracle.
I proposed to Q in 2016, after asking the kids’ permission. G gave his eagerly, T somberly. The wedding was small and casual, a pizza party in the park by our house. When the kids brought us our rings at the makeshift altar, G surprised me with an impromptu and emotional hug.
We’ve all exchanged a lot more hugs since then, taken family photos and trips, had fights and resolutions, weathered hormonal storms and exciting transitions. I still don’t know what box to check when a form asks whether I have children. And sometimes being a stepparent still feels like standing next to a fire I can see but whose warmth I can’t quite feel, with the knowledge that no amount of present and future can give us a shared past. But I now introduce them to people as my stepkids and have watched them introduce me as their stepmom, feeling happy and grateful and a little out-of-body, all at once.
This past August, the four of us sat on the back deck in the fading evening light. T would soon be flying to Madrid to study abroad; G would be going to Chicago to begin his freshman year of college. The kids and I shared sly, affectionate smiles when Q said something particularly Q-like, and they all ribbed me together when I went off about the importance of eating enough fiber in the school dining hall. The evening slipped into night, we slipped inside, the kids slipped off to their rooms and screens. As I climbed the stairs toward bed, I heard G yell through his bedroom door, “’Night, Mo! Love you.”