Sometime in the late 80s or early 90s there was a sitcom about a dinosaur family – Dad, Mom, Brother, Sister, Baby. The Baby always called the Dad “Not the Mama” – which was cute and funny and almost always followed by that canned audience laughter typical of TV in those days. But the Dad Dino was always bothered by being called “Not the Mama.” On some fundamental level he knew that that conveyed being less. And nobody – even Dad Dinos – wants to be less.
There are very few things in life about which I have no opinion. There are even fewer aspects of my own life that have occurred by chance. I am an intentional person. I plan. Nearly everything. But I have long been ambivalent about whether I wanted to have children. I am still unsure – though as I am mere weeks from my 40th birthday, I inch ever closer to time and biology making that decision for me (I know women have children well into their 40s; I just don’t know that I want to be putting a child through college when I’m a few years from retirement – personal choice on my part). It’s not that I hate kids. I don’t. But I am also not prone to gushing over small humans or uttering an endless series (or even a single) “Awwww” when I find myself in the children’s department in a store. It is an interesting experience to be that rare breed of woman who doesn’t know if she wants children. When I say this out loud to other people, they often look at me like I have 3 heads. And I can almost hear the stream of judgments running through their minds (“Babyhater” is often at the top of the list).
Any good stepparent – and any good book on step-parenting – will acknowledge that being a step-parent is not the same as being a biological parent. I haven’t read a lot on or from Stepdads, but I feel like that message pervades all blogs, books and other commentaries on Step-motherhood. Totally get it. And because I haven’t been someone who always dreamed of having children, that’s in many ways easier for me to accept than I suspect it is for others who very much want their own children. The Littles have a Mom. She has known them since before birth. I will never take her place – nor do I wish to. I am “Not the Mama.” But then what am I to the Littles? It’s a moving target. It changes all the time – sometimes in minutes. There are many things I really love about being Not the Mama. I get to have a relationship with the Littles that is different from their Mom (and, frankly, different from their Dad). I get to be in the middle space of friend and parent-like person. I can do the friend part relatively effortlessly. N and V are interesting people. I like hearing about their days – what N is reading, what V is drawing, N’s thoughts on food and being a fellow introvert, V’s latest collection of sticks, rocks, tree bark and feathers from the park near S’s house… The parent-like part is harder. For many reasons. Just typing the phrase “parent-like” raises my heart rate. I have never self-identified as a parent. I feel weird identifying in that space. It is hard for me to resolve being “Not the Mama” and also “parent-like.” And parent-like carries with it a weight of responsibility that is, well, terrifying. I also feel – I don’t know, guilty? – when the four of us are out together and someone refers to me as the kids’ Mom. I feel like an imposter (kind of like when I was in grad school and my students would call me Dr. P). But it also feels weird to correct the assumption. So – beyond the identity crisis for me – I find myself stuck between not wanting the Littles to think I am trying to squeeze in on the Mom role (by not correcting the reference to me as “Mom”) but also not wanting them to think that I am horrified to be associated with them (by correcting it). This was so not in my How to Be An Adult guide…
I am also really very lucky. Because S is such an amazing cheerleader in all of this. And I feel free to be honest with him when I am struggling – like the time I had the Littles on my own while he was at work, and they were being Al Qaeda West. I texted him that when he came home I would be huddled in a closet, clutching a bottle of wine. We both got to laugh about it when he got home (I can report that I was not found huddled in a closet, and I was clutching a mere glass of wine – as opposed to the whole bottle). And he reassures me regularly that I’m doing a good job with this balancing act (he even uses the M word sometimes – which freaks me out even more than parent-like). I don’t usually need much validation in other areas of my life, but I feel so in over my head with this so much of the time… His encouragement is invaluable, and something I don’t take for granted. I know that he struggles with parenting stuff too. I hope that he feels as encouraged, supported and validated by me as I do by him.