Everything I Thought About Stepmoms Changed the Moment I Became One

Mom with her son outside camping
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Like a lot of little girls, I remember playing with my dolls and thinking about being a mommy someday. I might've been a bit negligent as a doll mom (my dolls were always half-naked and dirty), but as I grew up, I thought I'd probably end up being a good mom. I loved babies, found toddlers delightful, and could easily picture myself rocking some maternity leggings and pushing a stroller someday.

I never once pictured myself as a stepmom

Marrying someone who already had kids was never on my radar. In fact, I always said I'd never marry someone who had been married before. Too complicated. Too messy. Why would I want to have to deal with the baggage that I assumed would come with a divorced dad?

But love has a funny way of changing your life and your expectations.

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At 26, I found myself newly married to a wonderful man with sons aged 13 and 10. All of those visions of what I thought motherhood would be like vanished as I had to figure out how to be a good stepmom. I had no frame of reference for it. None of my friends were divorced at that point. None of them had the experience of having stepkids. In some ways, I thought of the boys as the trade-off I had to make to get to marry the man I was in love with. I hoped I would love them someday and that they'd love me back. But it didn't feel like there were any guarantees about that.

For me, the early experiences of being a stepmother felt like being in limbo. It didn't really feel like what I thought being a mom would feel like. I cared about my stepsons because they were so important to my husband. I was curious to get to know them better, but I also felt nervous around them. I wasn't fully a parent, but I felt responsible for them. I was aware that when I came into their dad's life, I disrupted theirs. I also came into their lives at a fairly tough stage. While my friends were just starting to have babies, I was dealing with teenagers and all the angst that comes with that.

I worried about whether I was good enough as a stepmom, and then realized that I'd never really seen a depiction of a good stepmom in pop culture. In fact, as I thought about it, most of the stories I'd heard about stepparents had been negative. More than one person reminded me that I "wasn't a real mom" ... and I've heard more "evil stepmom" jokes than I care to remember.

Even as I grew to genuinely care about and then love my stepsons, I still felt really alone in the stepmom experience.

Despite feeling alone, I always knew I was lucky in some ways. My husband and his ex-wife had been divorced for years by the time I came along, and they have a cordial and functional relationship. To this day, I don't think his first wife has ever said a negative thing about me to the boys, and for that I'm very grateful. Once my stepsons realized that I wasn't interested in trying to replace their mom, they opened themselves up to building a relationship with me -- though it was easier for one than the other.

My stepsons are both adults now, and I both love and like them. I've now been in their lives for over 15 years, and they feel like such an unexpected bonus in my life. I'm also a mother of younger children now and I feel confident that my experiences as a stepmom have made me a better mother to my own children. Over time, we've figured out together what kind of stepmom-stepson dynamics worked for us.

I'll always be "Wendy" and not "Mom" to the boys, and that is OK.

But when Mother's Day comes, I'll get a card or text from them and I'll know that I was never an evil stepmother. I'm not mom, but being a stepmom is still a real and beautiful and hard way to be a mother.

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