‘She’s only my stepmother,’ I say. I wasn’t on the list for daycare. Because I’m not a ‘primary’ parent, I’m not getting emails.’ ‘I’m more than JUST a stepmom,’ says a woman navigating blended family life.

“I was reared by my mother and a wonderful extended family as a child. Because my biological father did not believe I was his, he refused to be a part of my life. My mother performed an outstanding job, yet I always felt that a piece of myself was missing. I was fatherless at the age of five and, unbeknownst to me, had acquired abandonment issues. That is until my mother married my stepfather, who had children from a previous marriage, and everything was fine again, or so I believed.

Stepsiblings were the next best thing because I would never have biological siblings. I adored riding to school with my brother and getting my hair and makeup done by my sister. I felt like I was a member of a team. They belonged to me, and I belonged to them. As I grew older, I began to observe my stepsiblings’ cruelty of my mother personally. In our home, there was a severe lack of respect and dysfunction. My siblings were envious of the time my mother and father spent together, as well as the time I spent with their father. Their parents’ divorce was something they didn’t want to happen to them. They despised me because I saw their father every day while only seeing him on weekends.

After 16 years of toxicity, they were forced to divorce. On the day I lost my only family, I was a senior in high school. You’d think that spending 13 years of your life with someone would mean something, but that wasn’t the case in our mixed family. It was challenging to lose what I regarded to be family. The sense of abandonment returned. It isn’t easy to describe how my family might forget about me, but that’s exactly what occurred. I was a bystander at the age of eighteen.

Seeing my mother c-parent my stepsiblings at a young age taught me a lot. If I ever had the opportunity to c-parent, I knew what I would and would not tolerate. It fueled my desire to start a family of my own. I desired a family that I could call my own. I had a family that I couldn’t lose. I wanted my biological children to have biological siblings, so I created a family with the same last name. I had no idea that all of this was preparing me to be a stepmom to Aislinn, my lovely bonus daughter.

I opted to leave the little town where I grew up after graduating with honours from college. That’s when I realised what I wanted to do with my life.

I relocated from Pennsylvania to Texas in the fall of 2011 to figure out what I wanted out of life. It was, without a doubt, the best decision I’d ever made. I’d always told myself I was a Texan at heart, and I felt deep down that the South was where I’d discover what I was looking for. A new group of friends invited me on a river trip to Austin just three months after moving into my first apartment. I didn’t know them and hadn’t even unpacked my belongings, but I promised myself that I would take advantage of every opportunity if I wanted to get accustomed. Sal was in the front passenger seat as I loaded my weekend bag into my friend’s car. He wasn’t meant to be on the trip, but he showed up, looking as dashing as ever. I was 22, and he was 26 at the time. I recognised his face from Facebook, but we had never met before. It was love at first sight, for sure. I’d just been in Texas for three months when BOOM, it was over. My life’s passion.

Courtesy of Brogan Richie

We were joined at the hip that weekend. God’s fingerprints were visible throughout the journey. We were inextricably linked. Do you know how everything in the room moves in movies except the two main characters, who are entirely absorbed in each other? That was our group. The plot takes an unexpected turn. Sal had a wife. He was going through a divorce, but he was still married and attempting to work things out. Although it was love at first sight, it was too good to be accurate and exceedingly lousy timing for me to interfere with someone’s marriage.

We remained friends as the weeks and months passed. We used to have fun together when Sal didn’t have his kid, Aislinn, and then we wouldn’t see each other for weeks. We used to play on a co-ed soccer team with several buddies, and he once took Aislinn to one of our games. That was my first encounter with her. She was two years old at the time, and I was twenty-two. She resembled her father in appearance, and she was as lovely as ever. Nothing is more appealing than seeing a single father express his love for his daughter.

Courtesy of Brogan Richie

I babysat Aislinn as he coached high school soccer, and our bond blossomed. The first night he dropped her off at my flat, I’ll never forget. I made her a simple Kraft mac and cheese with chicken nuggets, one of my specialities. As we watched Tangled, I vividly recall decorating her nails. She adored that film. I brought her to the car at the end of the night, and she screamed because she didn’t want to leave. I was sucked in.

Courtesy of Brogan Richie

Sal’s divorce was resolved about a year after I met him, and we began dating. We won’t go there because I wasn’t the first person he dated following his divorce, which was incredibly offensive. It wasn’t easy dating a single dad juggling co-parenting with his ex-wife. I was torn, puzzled, unsure if all the waiting was worth it, and feeling second best at times. His ex-wife comes in second, while his daughter comes in third. I’d wonder if he’d ever love me as much as he loved them. Would I ever be the first to arrive?

I could tell his heart was broken. I never attempted to alter him; instead, I tried to give him grace and time to heal his wounds. He didn’t care for the thought of being married again and was quite satisfied with Aislinn. He also refused to consider having more children. You can imagine how difficult it was for me to love someone so much while also realising that our timing would always be off and our desires would never align. I adored them both, but I couldn’t let go of my aspirations just because they had already come true.

Courtesy of Brogan Richie

Despite the internal conflict, we maintained our relationship and moved in with my Dachshund Dudley. I got a daughter, and Aislinn and Sal got a dog. It had all been a dream. I went into the relationship knowing what it was like to be a stepmother and what it was like to have a stepparent. You can never be prepared for those shifts, but I had a decent foundation despite being so young.

I went all out as I do with most things in my life. I planned to be caring, understanding, amusing, compassionate, forgiving, attentive, and all the other great words a stepmom may have. Even when I gave it my all, I got some gut punches along the road. Aislinn automatically made the comparison between me and her mother, Ashley. One day, I recall being in our bedroom when Aislinn’s mother was expecting her first child, and Aislinn glanced up at me and said, “My mom is skinnier than you when she isn’t pregnant.” I wanted to cry at that point. ‘Is her mother saying her these things, and she’s just repeating them?’ I wondered. ‘Don’t let her see you cry,’ I also recall telling myself. You don’t want her to know how she made an impression on you.’ I didn’t want to come across as worried. I didn’t want it to come back to Ashley because I was upset about something.

Courtesy of Brogan Richie

At first, I didn’t trust Ashley, so I questioned if Ashley was behind when Aislinn said things like that. Even though Ashley and Sal were no longer together, she relished letting me know that she knew Sal better than I did. I was so critical of Ashley and myself that I would read too much into everything, driving me insane. I’ll never know if what I thought was intentional was or if it was just my worry and fears getting the best of me. Early on in the process of becoming a c-parent, life was complicated.

So many feelings were tied to a single phrase or syllable. Aislinn was a young girl. Even if she wasn’t attempting to be spiteful, a child’s comments could bring you to your knees. I was also troubled by Sal and Ashley’s relationship. Jealousy would naturally arise due to their chats, arrangements, and texts. It was their anniversary, and I was told not to ride along with Aislinn to pick her up if Ashley wanted to talk. ‘Why does that matter?’ I remember wondering. The mental gymnastics I was subjected to nearly broke me on multiple occasions. I believe we both saw each other as a threat and were attempting to mark our territory if you will. Ashley would give us both gifts on special occasions, sweet, but Sal’s would be unique. She probably bought me a mug and him some cologne the first year. ‘How ridiculous for you to buy him a scent for me to smell as if you know him better than I do?!’ I recalled thinking. ‘Stay in your lane,’ says the narrator.

Courtesy of Brogan Richie

It was made apparent that I was not Aislinn’s mother at all times. I was never going to relate to their past because I didn’t know their background. There are some things I’ll never forget, like having to wait to pick up Aislinn from daycare because I wasn’t on the ‘list.’ ‘No, she’s just my stepmom,’ Aislinn says when she introduces me to her friends. Because I’m not classified as a ‘primary’ parent, I’m still shut out of email communication.

I may not be the primary caregiver, but I do pick-ups, drop-offs, school performances, birthday parties, spirit week costumes, Valentine’s treats, attend her sporting activities, help her with homework, quiz her on spelling, get her hair and nails done, take her to the dentist, and so on. My credentials are superb, yet I am only her stepmother.

Courtesy of Brogan Richie

I can’t change the fact that Aislinn wasn’t born to me. However, maturity comes with time. Aislinn had realised that I wasn’t going anywhere. Sal’s regard for our relationship resulted in defined boundaries, resulting in Ashley and me respecting one other.

Everyone grew accustomed to their new roles as Aislinn grew older. We switched from individual birthday celebrations to group celebrations. Ashley would cook the cake, and I would do Aislinn’s hair. We didn’t take photographs as a group, but we did take photographs for each other. Priority was always given to Aislinn. Sal never failed to include me in his plans. He never chose without involving me, and I believe that was the foundation on which we built our relationship.

Courtesy of Brogan Richie

Ashley remarried a few years after their divorce and had Alexa (8) and Brock (6). (6). Sal and I had two daughters, Benning (4) and Demi (2), a few years later (1). Our blended family has been more vital than ever since we married in November 2020. The three of us used to text in groups, but now it’s just Ashley and me. We’ve matured and progressed.

Courtesy of Brogan Richie

For a long time, I couldn’t seem to find my voice. I observed the dynamics in my household as a child, but I was too young to have an opinion. Because I was too young to stand up to my stepsiblings, I had a lot of unspoken thoughts. It was similar for me as a stepmom. It’s better to be seen than to be heard. It isn’t my daughter, and it isn’t my home. My point of view was just that: a point of view. For the sake of continuity and unity, whatever I intended to say was filtered via Sal. I didn’t want to cause any stir and compromise his possession schedule or time with his daughter.

When Ashley’s first child was born, I had two Pottery Barn Kids gifts embroidered with an ‘A’ for Alexa, but Sal wouldn’t let me give them to her. Early on, a friendship between her and me was discouraged. He desired to keep everything separate. ‘How could I be a team player if I’m not allowed to be the bigger person?’ I often thought. I’m more secure in my ability to co-parent and parent now that we have our children.

Courtesy of Brogan Richie

I used to feel afraid and inadequate when I was younger. Sal and Ashley were both experienced teachers. I eventually found my bearings. I’ll email the teachers if I want to know what’s happening at Aislinn’s school. If I have a question, I direct it to Ashley. Sal is no longer acting as a go-between. Ashley and I are now in charge of the logistics and details. It’s relieved a lot of the tension in our relationship. There isn’t any rivalry. Aislinn, we have separate lives but a shared affection. Ashley and I have chats where we don’t read between the lines. She frequently compliments me on my abilities to be a “supermom,” and she never fails to thank me for anything I do. I admire her sense of style and ability to handle multiple tasks. There are no hidden intentions here; we both honestly want the best for each other.

Courtesy of Brogan Richie

Because our children are so close in age now that we each have our own, it’s natural for them to be friends. We sit with each other during soccer games while our children play. We include each other in our birthday celebrations because Aislinn spends most of her time with the other parent on her siblings’ birthdays. Ashley made Demi’s first birthday cake and cupcakes for her celebration. She’s a fantastic baker. Because Ashley was alone this year, we invited her over for Christmas. Alexa and Brock were with her ex-husband, while Aislinn was with us. No one, not even my husband’s ex-wife, should be alone on Christmas.

Petya Hatch Photography

The significant shift, in my opinion, occurred this past year. In August, when my daughter Benning (4) was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, I let my guard down. It began as a routine visit to the doctor but swiftly escalated into an urgent care visit and a three-day stay at Cook’s Children’s Hospital. Ashley was the first person who sprang to mind when we needed someone to assist us in looking after our 8-month-old Demi. I had faith in her parenting and believed she would treat Demi as if she were her child. I didn’t have a care in the world except for my children’s safety. That significant life experience even helped to put things in perspective.

Courtesy of Brogan Richie

When it boils down to it, we’re all family. No one but us understands the dynamics of our relationship. We’re the ones pushing for Aislinn as a group. Ashley’s faith in me led to her entrusting me with Brock and Alexa after school. At Aislinn’s basketball games, we sit together and are proud of each other. There is no hatred, suspicion, or jealousy. It’s just two mothers trying to figure out how to co-parent.

April Pinto Photography

Taking one day at a time is my advice to any lady considering becoming a stepmom. Your home is where you make it, not where you are placed by others. Everyone is attempting to find their feet simultaneously as you are. Don’t take anything too seriously. Because you’re not the biological parent, you’re an easy target. That isn’t to say you aren’t capable. Consistency is crucial, as I’ve discovered. Never fail to show up. Be present and temper your expectations. Have open communication with your partner and make sure your voice is heard. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Everyone is giving it their all.

April Pinto Photography

Take a step back and consider the big picture. ‘You cared too much,’ no child will ever say. They’ll never remark, ‘You were always there for me.’ Be present for both the big and small moments. Take shots of the group as a whole. That’s something I wish we did more of. As a result, your child(ren) will have a single photo of their whole family. Don’t be hesitant to seek help. Sal and I’s capacity to grasp each other’s perspectives improved dramatically due to therapy. Don’t abandon the life you envision for yourself.

Aislinn is now 12 years old, and I am 32 years old.

I fought for the man of my dreams, whom I now refer to as my spouse.

Tangled is presently being watched by all three of our daughters.

“I’m more than a stepmother.”

April Pinto Photography

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