“Daddy! Lynn! Is it wake-up time yet?” Kai shuffles closer to the nightstand next to our bed, his voice a forced whisper. “The clock says six-one-four.” 6:14 on a Sunday morning, but my four-year-old stepson is eager to start the day. My husband, Joe, and I will soon cave and put on an episode or three of Dragon Tales to buy us a bit more sleep. We need to grab it where we can: our five-month-old daughter has finally given in to slumber in the bassinet beside us.
Sometimes when I talk to our baby I surprise myself by saying “Daddy and Lynn…” — the parental unit phrase we use with Kai — and have to correct myself. “Daddy and Mama love you very much!” And sometimes I wonder how my experience as a stepmom will affect the kind of mother I’ll be.
Kai came into my life when he was just 14 months old and fresh from his parents’ divorce. I was in my early 30s, just back from traveling the globe, and filled with mixed emotions about plunging into the unofficial role of parenting a toddler part-time. I felt ready to settle down and have a family, but, coming from a traditional nuclear family, this wasn’t the one I’d envisioned. I also didn’t have nine months or any real support network to prepare for the kind of change and sacrifice (lack of sleep, bedtime stories in lieu of happy hour banter) that most new parents experience.
Kai and I liked each other right away, but at first I kept my distance. I was sure of my relationship with his father, but less certain of my role in the life of a child who already had two parents. I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes and I feared getting hurt. Without any personal role models to offer guidance, I hovered near-silent in the background, feeling I didn’t have the right to get close. I held myself back, never joining in the pickup ritual at daycare but choosing instead to stay in the safety of the parked car. I watched Kai’s routine waddle up and down the exit ramp before Joe whisked him to his shoulders to signal it was time to go. From behind the windshield I felt wistful, and the scene always appeared faded and gray. I wanted to be a “real” mom with my own tot wobbling into my arms.
At home, while his dad bathed Kai at night, I scraped sticky rice from the floor and hand-washed little plastic parts of sippy cups. For better or worse, self-protective instinct told me not to intrude on the nighttime bathing ritual. I was so quick to brush aside any “clean up crew” irritation that it soon became a series of hollow gestures. But one day I joined them instead and helped Kai squirt water from a fish. A small smile began to fill out the hollow. The next, I stacked blocks for him to knock down through giggles while Joe was shaving, and I laughed with him. Little by little, the fair-haired boy with boundless energy and hazel eyes like my own wormed his way into my heart.
Then he started to break it on a daily basis.
“Where’s Daddy?” he asked every time we were alone. My body would clench in anticipation of his question the moment Joe left the room. “No! Dada!” he screamed each time I took him out of his car seat or pushed his shopping cart at the store. Oftentimes I gave in and let his dad take over. “Go AWAY!” he’d cry as I tried to push him on the swing at the park.
I let it get under my skin, sometimes retreating to the hollow motions of helping care for him, and other times directing my anger into shouts at the wall when he wasn’t around. No matter how much Joe tried to reassure me with his words and warm eyes, I didn’t understand the fickleness of toddlers or the fact that Kai also asked for me when I was absent.
A year into my relationship with Kai, I said to my own mom: “Being a stepparent is hard.” Her response was a simple headshake. “Being a parent is hard.” Not having been a parent without the “step, ” I didn’t have a response.
A close friend advised: “Just love, guide, and play with the little guy. That’s all he needs.” Coming from an outsider, the advice sounded simple and clear. I began to make a conscious effort to give my own ego a backseat while keeping my confidence at the forefront, and to trust my burgeoning maternal instincts.
Soon after, as I buckled two-year-old Kai into his car seat, he touched my hair gently and said, “You’re beautiful.” My eyes watered joy.
Shortly after our wedding, three-year-old Kai burst through our front door at drop-off time shouting “Lynn! Lyyyyynnn! Where are you!” bypassing his dad and ignoring his mother’s plea for a kiss good-bye. It erased the memory of the hundreds of other times he’d run straight to his mom at pick-up time, barely giving me a wave. Our hello hug that day was passionate and tight.
When I was four months pregnant, three-and-a-half-year-old Kai collapsed on my lap in a friend’s living room, amidst the low buzz of an early evening dinner party. Before long he fell asleep. His head lay firmly against my chest, his breath flowing straight towards my heart for the next 30 minutes. As I carried him to the car that evening, I found myself thinking what every parent does: don’t let anything happen to this little boy. And then the stepparent’s corollary: don’t let anything happen to my husband, because then I’ll lose them both. For me, this is the hardest part of stepparenthood: realizing I have no legal bond to this child I love and living with the fear that he could easily be snatched from my life.
While logistical messiness with Kai’s mom often overtakes our days, I used to feel my stomach tighten, to swallow knots of air whole, to resent the endless complications and unnecessary upheaval. Time and again I would retreat to the metaphorical passenger seat in the car outside Kai’s daycare, trying to distance myself from him because of things beyond either of our control. It was easier than confronting the thought of losing him.
After the birth of our daughter, the potential for loss sprouted new branches. I now watch our baby’s face brighten when she sees Kai and hear her laugh as her half-brother grabs her in a head-lock hug. I ask of the universe: please don’t take away her brother.
I can no longer retreat.
Kai watches me nurse the baby and asks questions about where the milk comes from. He’s disrupting my peace and I’d rather he leave, but something inside lets me humor him instead of sending him off to his father in the other room. I say “my body makes it” and he creates an elaborate story. “Oh, so the milk chefs make it in your tummy all day and all night, then they take it up to your boobies on an elevator. . . or maybe it’s an escalator.” I laugh, Kai laughs, and the baby suckles.
The next day I walk the two of them to the park while their father works, and the following I take videos of Kai dancing and singing in front of his sister. Slowly but surely, the three of us create our own bond, outside their father, and outside anything fate can alter too greatly. Or so I continue to hope and believe. My protective instinct now wraps more tightly than ever around them both, my own little girl and the boy who is her only sibling, a child I do my best to guide and nurture as my own.
On this Sunday morning, Kai sneaks back into our room to find his sister babbling in her bassinet. “Hello Jelly Bean. It’s bro bro.” Before long, we’re all on the bed together, chatting and giving morning hugs. Kai tries to teach his baby sister her first words. “Say Dada. . . say Lynn” and I gently correct him. “Not Lynn, Mama.” He giggles and starts over. “Mama, say Mama. . . Mamamama!”
Then his attention shifts and he throws his arms around me to whisper a muffled “Mama, I love you!” into my chest. I look at both children and smile.
I am a mama, by more names than one.
Laralynn Weiss Rapoza earned a master’s degree in literature from Georgetown University then started a career in Web content and publishing. You’ll find her articles on travel and tech culture online, her short fiction in the anthology series Hot Flashes: Sexy Little Stories and Poems, and her creative non-fiction in the East Bay Monthly. She lives in Berkeley, CA.