For most of my life, I never really wanted to be a parent. While motherhood was a lifelong dream for some of my friends, it was never high on my priority list. I always liked children – I taught dance classes for preschoolers and kindergarteners, and I loved being around my friends’ children and little ones in my extended family, but I never thought of parenthood as “my thing.” I was known to frequently say I liked “other people’s children,” but that kids weren’t for me. Even so, when I became a stepparent to two tween girls when I was 30, I threw myself into it wholeheartedly. I wanted to be the best I could be for my blended family – to act as a positive role model for my stepchildren, and, hopefully, over time, develop a familial (if not truly maternal) bond with them. My Disney-princess-level optimism quickly caught up with me, though (sidebar: Disney, you are not helping with making the stepmoms “evil” or “wicked” in all of your movies. I still love you, though. #PrincessesForever).
As a stepparent, issues that had never crossed my mind before suddenly became very real. One day in particular, Mother’s Day, became an unexpected landmine of emotions. Mother’s Day seems harmless enough on the surface – construction paper cards made by little elementary school hands, dismally cooked (but enthusiastically eaten) breakfasts in bed, and family photos at church. All good things, right? I have a close relationship with my own mom, so Mother’s Day was always positively associated with her and the other great mothers in my life. I don’t recall a single bad memory about Mother’s Day before I had an active role in helping to raise someone else’s children. Being a stepparent is always a delicate balance, and I never wanted to “replace” the girls’ biological mother. What I wanted, and I think what most involved stepparents want, was to be acknowledged in an authentic and meaningful way. A Huffington Post blog titled “Mother’s Day vs. Stepmother’s Day: Who Owns It?” (oy, with the aggressive title) summed it up this way:
What’s true for both divorced moms and stepmoms is this: It’s an uphill battle to be acknowledged for all the ways they give to their families each week. Tiny details no one else catches. Countless objects restored to their proper places. Endless messes cleaned up without thanks. Difficult emotions noticed and tended. The struggle to shape chaotic fragments of days into a cohesive and nurturing whole… The culture at large blindly reflects back to us what’s already taking place inside many stepfamilies: The stepmom often feels like an outsider in her own stepfamily, yet is expected to step seamlessly into the role of maternal caretaker. She’s not privy to the realm of authority that the two parents possess, yet is expected to bear the consequences of their decisions. She strives to provide love and nurturing to children she genuinely cares for, yet may still be seen as second best.
For me, it wasn’t about being “best” or “second best.” It was just about not feeling like an outsider. Not feeling like the “other.” One of the most unexpected places I ended up feeling this way was at church. I could wrap my head around my stepkids spending Mother’s Day with their mother; I expected them to and 100% supported them in that. In fact, there were several years that I either helped them make gifts for their mom, or took them shopping for her, because it felt like the right thing to do. What I didn’t anticipate was how all of the typical fanfare about Mother’s Day at church ended up being a sore spot for me. On the Mother’s Days that we did attend church, I dreaded the moment when the pastor would inevitably ask all the moms to stand up and be recognized. My (now ex) husband would nudge me to stand, but I felt like a fraud standing up with no kids anywhere to be seen around me. In a thousand little ways in our everyday life, I was already reminded that I wasn’t a “real” mom, and this felt like a very public spotlight on all of the things I wasn’t.
Last year, since church had proven to be tricky for me on Mother’s Day, I went to the gym instead, thinking I could escape the uncomfortable feelings. Surely the moms would be at brunch by Sunday afternoon, right? No such luck. I was in a class full of moms, including one who was very pregnant with twins. The well-meaning group fitness instructor asked everyone about their days and wished everyone a happy Mother’s Day. I ended up in the locker room in tears. What she said wasn’t wrong on any level; she was completely appropriate, and she had no way (or even any responsibility) to know that Mother’s Day was a hard day for me, but I felt like I couldn’t get away.
Let me be clear, before this sounds like mom-bashing or pastor-bashing: I absolutely believe that mothers deserve to be recognized on Mother’s Day, and for that matter, basically every other day of the year. The same goes for fathers. Parenting, in all of its variations – biological, adoptive, foster, step, etc. – is an exhausting and very often thankless job. Although I’m no longer a stepparent, being in those children’s lives for the years that I was there has given me a new perspective and new empathy for people who might struggle with Mother’s Day. I’m a little embarrassed to say that, before my own experience, I never thought about why or how Mother’s Day might be difficult for people. Now I think about all of the different groups who might be struggling: those who have lost their mothers, those who have lost children, those who never knew their biological mothers, those who have strained relationships with their mothers, those who desperately want to be mothers and haven’t become them, those who don’t want to be mothers but feel judged about their choices, and, those who fulfill a mother’s role but don’t feel accepted or appreciated.
Pastors don’t make a fuss about moms on Mother’s Day to make anyone feel bad. They acknowledge moms on Mother’s Day because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a celebratory day. I do think we can do better, though. A little bit of empathy can go a long way. A simple statement recognizing that Mother’s Day isn’t the same experience for everyone can be an appropriate way to make the day feel more inclusive.
I feel fortunate to count many amazing moms among my friends and family members, but I also have women in my life who are strong, inspiring, and who are enough without being parents. One group isn’t better or more significant than the other. There’s room for everyone in the pew…even a former stepmom with a whole lot of feelings about all of the things. So, hopefully I’ll see you next year, sisters. All of you.
Melinda is an obsessive music lover, a proponent of all things sparkly, and a reluctant suburbanite. She works as a paralegal specializing in domestic relations, civil litigation, and estate planning. Melinda never met a dog she didn’t like.