I needn’t have worried that my ‘own’ child would make my step children think I wasn’t their ‘real’ mom
When my son was born, I became a new mother – but it wasn’t my first foray into parenting, not really.
I’d become a parent around eight months before, when I married Brandin and became stepmum (stepmom, they say) to his two boys, aged nine and seven, of whom he shared custody with his ex-wife.
We became a blended family: ex-husband, ex-wife, sons, husband, wife, stepmom. We got together for birthdays, eating dinner together and unwrapping gifts and making small talk that largely revolved around the boys. His ex-wife, Kasey, and I went for coffee, and brunch, and texted each other memes every now and then, largely revolving around children, or parenting, or freelancing (she is a photographer and writer; we have a lot in common).
I hadn’t really thought that step parenting would be easy, perhaps because I hadn’t thought about it at all. I had dated a man with children once before and, when we broke up, vowed I wouldn’t do it again. There were too many moving parts, too many priorities for me to get behind in line.
When I met Brandin, though, it was more than a decade later and I had mellowed (somewhat). The fact that he had children didn’t really phase me, although I was relieved to hear that he and his ex-wife were on good terms, that they shared custody of the boys and seemed proactive in their co-parenting.
It wouldn’t be on me to take on a parenting role, too – I could be their friend. After all, I thought, they didn’t need another parent.
This lasted about two weeks; I soon realised that these boys saw my friendly gestures as a sign of weakness, and that without a firm, parent-style hand, they would soon run rings around me. (Plus, as my sister would happily tell you, I can’t so much as see a child chew with their mouth open without getting involved.)
The hardest thing about step-parenting, honestly, is the fact that, when you are together, en famille, you have to deal with all of the shit that every parent deals with. You have to clean up puke and you have to wash dirty underwear and you have to ask – nay, beg – them to take rocks out of their pockets before putting them in the dirty clothes basket and you have to watch, carefully, when they go out to play in the garden, or before you know it they’re standing in the very centre of the pond behind your house, a pond the size of two football fields that was, thankfully, completely frozen over. (But did they know this?!)
While you get all of these challenging moments to deal with as you choose, you don’t necessarily get quite all of their flipsides. You don’t get the unconditional love you see them giving their mum. You don’t get the cuddles they demand from their dad, at regular intervals throughout the day (although now, two years later, I have started demanding them myself). You don’t get the unconditional love that comes when you know a child from the very beginning, when you get to watch them grow from infant to toddler to child, to see all of the stages, with their laughs and their messes and their frustrations.
When we found out that we were having a new baby, six years after Brandin had his youngest, I was really concerned that the new baby would throw into stark relief my affections for his brothers. I love them madly – they are smart and funny and infuriating and weird and imaginative and thoughtful and loving and, yes, messy – but I suspected that the love I’d have for this new baby would suddenly make it clear, not only to me but to them, too, that I was not their “real” mom (a fact that has been stated to me only once in two years, which seems like pretty good going!).
This was compounded by the fact that, when we brought Atlas home from the hospital and he met his brothers for the first time, I felt a physical pain when they asked if they could hold him. I’d seen how they treated their Xbox controllers, their stuffed toys, their Microsoft Switch. Now they expected us to hand over our newborn?!
No sooner had these thoughts solidified in my brain than Brandin was sitting them down, one at a time, on the couch, and handing them this tiny bundle of blankets and fingers and telling them to hold his head and to be careful and to make sure their hand was holding him tightly. I felt faint.
But something unexpected happened. Not at that particular moment; in that particular moment, I counted down the seconds until I could take the baby back into my own arms, out of this imminent danger.
In fact, it’s only in the past few weeks that I’ve noticed just how my worst fears have come true, but in an entirely different way to how I’d imagined.
My feelings for the boys have changed. I realised the other night, as I tucked our now-seven-year-old into bed, and he asked, “Can you give Atlas a hug goodnight for me?” that they feel more like family, now, than ever before, because we now have this little baby we both love.
It’s like we are now parts of a chain, and Atlas is the link that bonds us together – not their Dad, who, obviously, we both love, but this little baby who is a part of each of us, and us, a part of him. Their love for him manifests in attempts to help him – in and out of his ball pit, or on to the couch to sit beside him as they watch Lego Ninjago.
It’s a love that is entirely reciprocated, too; when they come in the door after school, on the two evenings a week they stay in our house, his face lights up. He laughs uproariously when they ask him how he is; he is never more enthusiastic about eating than when they are offering the spoon.
I feel a ferocious love for him, sure, but it’s a love that spreads out, illuminating everyone who shares in it. I needn’t have worried after all.
Photography by @rosemarymaccabe. This article was originally published in November 2022.