A house divided. That’s what it feels like some days when you’re a step-parent. Both families typically want what’s best for the child and, at least in my case, there are far too many days that neither party can agree on which method to go with.
Mark came into my life when he was about three and a half years old. He was, and still is, a child filled with an insane amount of energy. My husband and I, both working full time, do our best to find all ways possible to spend his energy in creative ways. That means evenings spent at the park, and when summer hit, taking him to the beach or the pool. But what we have never thought was best for him was to plop him down with a tablet and let him veg out, especially when he was so young.
Figuring out how to deal with a stepchild who could be difficult at times was something I had been prepared for. Every ounce of me wanted to know how to be a good stepparent. There had been nothing in my life before Mark had prepared me to be an instant mom.
In those early years, we had to treat Mark’s first day back with us almost as a reset day. It was hard to watch him go through the feelings and emotions of leaving a free range, no rules, we’re the fun house (their words) environment, and adjust to our more structured schedule. There were times when Mark would be in full blown tears because he didn’t want dinner, and after having my own daughter, I now know that this isn’t such an odd occurrence. The problem was his outright refusal to eat and him demanding we make him exactly what he wanted because, “that’s what my mom does for me.”
I’m not going to lie and say that these outbursts did not cause a point of contention a few times between me and my husband. After a few arguments, we really had to set down ground rules about how to make our marriage work. If I had problems with Mark and I didn’t feel comfortable with disciplining him, I could call my husband any time of the day and he would speak to him. My husband also made it very clear to Mark that I was also a parent, and whether he was home or not, if I told him something he had to listen. I have yet to hear the words, “you can’t tell me what to do, you aren’t my mom!” but it doesn’t make every comparison hurt less. Making marriage work, that was easy, but being hurt by the child who I love as my own, that was hard. It’s gotten much better, but I had to learn how not to take everything he said personally. Mark wasn’t trying to attack me with his words, even though that’s exactly how it felt to me, he was frustrated and trying his best to explain himself with his limited ability to do so.
Slowly, Mark and I started to get used to each other. He learned quickly that screaming and storming off did not gain the same reaction from his father and I, the way it must have at his mom’s house. Each time he would act out we would explain to him why things were different here, and there were times when he understood, but he was still young, and he was still learning how to express his feelings and emotions.
In truth, Mark is a great kid. When we’re out in public he is well behaved and polite. I credit that to my husband’s roots, he’s from the south where “yes ma’am” and “no sir” are basically bred into you, and Mark is no exception. When Mark started preschool the teacher raved about how great he was in class, but she noticed something that I had noticed as well. He was nearly five and still saying certain things incorrectly.
Mark’s slight speech impediment had become a point of contention between the houses. Every time we got him back, it was worse than when he left us. I would work with him everyday, aside from basic math we would focus on learning how to read. That meant sounding out each word and enunciating them correctly. But what I learned at a t-ball game is that the other house did not practice that, in fact they did the opposite. They were encouraging the mispronunciations and thought it was adorable. If he was younger I could understand not correcting things every time, but he was entering kindergarten in the fall and kids would likely make fun of him. Some of the older kids at t-ball already were.
After watching their interaction with Mark, my husband and I had a long conversation about how we could handle correcting this problem. My husband had suggested bringing Mark to a speech pathologist but they didn’t think it was necessary. “He’ll grow out of it,” they said. That was when he was four and now at five he showed no sign of growing out of it without professional help.
At one point I wondered, “am I getting too involved?” I even brought it up to my husband and he quickly settled my nerves. To him, there was never the possibility of me being too involved. He wanted me to love Mark as my own and he knew I only wanted the best for him. We decided to leave the conversation about speech therapy alone over the summer. There was no point in bringing it up again when Mark’s elementary school offered free speech therapy. What we thought would be a no brainer, ended up being an uphill battle.
I’m not sure if they felt insulted or what, but when my husband turned in the paper work for Mark to be placed in speech classes, the other house tried to fight it. Luckily it wasn’t up to only one parent and Mark had been seen by the speech pathologist who agreed he did need some help. She explained that it didn’t mean Mark was any less smart or couldn’t excel in school, if anything it would help him develop skills on how to study and learn that were more tailored to him, and that wouldn’t be something he would get in the regular class. All of a sudden, speech classes were great and apparently their idea.
Learning to bite my tongue and keep healthy boundaries with the other family has probably been one of the harder things about becoming a stepmother. I know there are times when Mark will tell me about his weekend and how he spent hours on his iPad and didn’t leave his house. I have to keep any negative opinions to myself and redirect my thoughts. I’ll tell him, “That must have been tons of fun. But what would you like to do today?” Usually he’ll ask to go to the pool, go to the park or ask to do one of our art and craft projects.
When I became pregnant with my daughter, Mark’s half sister, I was worried about how he would adjust to having another child in the house. He was so used to being the center of attention that when we would spend time with his cousins, he would act out just so everyone noticed him. We kept the news about us expecting to ourselves until I started to show. I think my giant tummy helped him understand the idea of him becoming big brother a little more.
Once Adelyn came into this world, Mark changed. He was quiet and calm around his little sister. He would gently touch her head while cooing and tell me “I’m her big brother, it’s my job to keep her safe.” We were lucky that we didn’t end up with any of the older stepchildren problems I had read about.
In reality, every single fear that I had about being a stepparent is gone. The relationship I have formed with my stepson is fantastic. When people ask me how many children I have I always say two. I have a son and a daughter, my son just came precooked.