My family is not traditional. I became a stepmother to four kids almost two years ago when I married my husband, Craig. Our love is just as deep as other families, but it can be complicated. As a blended family, there is an added dynamic to our relationships: choice.

I waited a while to get married – I was 41 when I met Craig and 42 when we married. I’ve always done things on my own time. But when I met Craig I knew almost right away that he was “the one.” He did, too, and we got engaged fairly quickly.

As we planned the wedding, I was so excited to take on an “instant family.” I pictured a perfectly set Thanksgiving dinner table and opening presents in matching pajamas on Christmas morning. Taking family vacations and always being thrilled to hang out together. I threw everything I had into my new family and just knew it would be perfect. 

Needless to say, putting together a blended family presented a whole host of complications in the first year-plus that I had not imagined. And that meant my new life was far from perfect. Putting aside the complexities of interacting with my husband’s ex-spouse while building our new married life, the parenting part of stepparenting alone is hard work.

I made a picture-perfect spread for the first Thanksgiving we hosted for our gang. But of course, had not counted on the fact that kids under twelve don’t like half of the stuff that most of us eat for the big day. So my youngest stepson ended up with a cheese quesadilla and I ended up with a double helping of humility. 

Should I mention the time when two of the kids got in a hair-pulling slap fest in the backseat? (on the way back from a church outing, no less) Or when one of the kids threw an entire fast food fountain Coke across the kitchen, where it exploded all over our dining room? Or when, in a fit of anger, one of the kids screamed at me, “Rot in h***, you f***in a**hole!” (Except with all the blanks filled in. Welcome to newlywed bliss, right?)

These anecdotes, while extreme at times, might not be so atypical of normal parenting frustrations. But they were all new to this girl – who grew up an only child and had lived alone for ten years prior to meeting Craig. And stepparenting also has an added (and weird) angle because many people, sometimes even those closest to you, don’t understand your new role or your new family dynamic.

Stepparents can be involved in their stepkids’ lives on a varying level. Some see them on weekends, some half of the time. Some a couple of times a year, some full time. There’s no right or wrong – each family and each custody arrangement is different.

I am on the “very” end of the involvement spectrum. Craig has custody of the kids fifty percent of the time. So I cheer them on at almost all of their games, go with them to doctor’s appointments, and attend parent-teacher conferences. But don’t get me started on the doctors and school administrators that have treated me like a second class citizen, even when Craig and his ex-spouse are both there. I have been looked past, completely ignored, left off emails, and asked to prove that I’m allowed to take the kids to appointments (yes, I do have a power of attorney).

And the misunderstandings don’t stop with strangers. When one of my stepkids was about to go into the hospital not long after we were married, one of my friends remarked, “wow, this must be so hard for his mom.” Uh, yeah, but what about me? Your friend? The friend who adores and worries over this boy more than you can imagine. And the one who this precious boy clings to and constantly says he loves.

Recently, I was making plans with a couple of girlfriends and remarked that I needed to wait to figure out plans because we had the kids that weekend. One of my friends shot back, “Whatever, they’re not your kids.”

Except, well, they are. Stepparent has the word “parent” within it. Stepmother contains the word “mother.” I don’t have biological children of my own. These are my only children and I would do anything for them.

I know none of my friends have meant to seem callous, and I don’t hold those comments against them. Almost everyone has been super supportive of my new life. But I suspect it’s also hard for them to understand at times. Most of my married friends have biological children. You don’t get a choice in loving your biological children. They’re literally part of you. As soon as they come into the world, that’s it, you’re head over heels in a way you’ll never recover (or want to). I’m sure it’s hard to imagine that these kids who have only been in my life for a few years are as important to me as blood-related family members.

I didn’t give birth to my stepkids and I would never try to replace their biological mother. The kids know that and I hope my husband’s ex-spouse knows it, too. They love her and, although she and my husband had enough differences to warrant a divorce, she birthed those beautiful children and has the deep maternal love for them that goes along with that. 

A stepparent’s love is definitely different but can be just as intense. Because at the end of the day, stepparents have a choice about whether and how to love and accept our stepkids. And our stepkids have a choice about whether they want to, or can, love and accept us back. And that’s not always a smooth road.

Looking back, it felt so natural to embrace my stepkids that it never felt like much of a choice to me. But it was, and I chose to love and care for them wholeheartedly.

So much so that my heart swells when I hear one of them has done well on a test, or I watch them score a goal or hit a single. Or when one of them asks me for advice and I can tell really wants to know what I think. Or I catch one of them in the middle of a deep belly-laugh. A child’s tinkling laughter is a magical sound, but those belly-laughs are the best.

And my heart crumbles when they’re upset or hurting. I have to turn my face sometimes when our youngest dissolves into tears for fear my own welling eyes will be noticed. Craig has a complicated relationship with one of his kids and my heart breaks every time he reaches out and gets no response. Not just for him, but for her, too, because I know she is also in pain. And for me, because I do truly love and miss her.

None of the kids chose for their parents to get divorced. Or for their father to meet or marry me. In a lot of ways, they may sometimes feel like they got a raw deal because their parents aren’t together. But each of my stepkids gets a choice about whether to love and accept me.

I am no perfect model for stepparenting – I make plenty of mistakes. For crying out loud, I’m still just a couple of years into all this! But I do my absolute best to show my love to the kids in a lot of different ways on a daily basis. I’m involved in all of their activities and make sure I’m there for both the big and the small moments. I talk to them about their day and what’s going on with their friends. And Craig and I take them to church and try to teach them about service to others and our God.

choosing love: message for stepparents

As Corinthians reads, “Love is patient, love is kind.” But love is complicated, too. And messy.

And that’s okay. Because it’s the best kind of messy complicated when it comes to parenting and step-parenting. Norman Rockwell may not have chosen to paint our kind of family. I might not have either when I was a child imagining what my life would look like someday. And it’s likely not the family that the kids might have chosen for themselves.

It’s true that I wasn’t around for any of the kids’ first words or first steps. I didn’t get to pick out cute baby clothes and toys and teach them how to read. But I’ll be there for their first kisses (I mean, hopefully not right there, but you know what I mean) and when they go through their first breakups. I’ll see them off to college and watch them get married.

And for as many wild hair pulling, swearing or soda-throwing mishaps, there are other moments too. Like the tears of joy streaming down my stepdaughter’s cheeks when I surprised her with backstage passes at her first concert. Or the triumphant fist pump when my stepson beat me at Uno. Or the tender, out of the blue hug and “I love you” from my other stepson when we were standing in line at the movies. Those are the times that count.

When I met Craig, this became the family I chose – and continue to choose. Will choose every day, forever. And the family that chooses me. I love them to pieces and even in the midst of our own brand of crazy, I feel like I got way luckier than I had any right to.

Happy Valentine’s Day! I hope this day and this year are filled with laughter and light for you and all those you choose to love.