One mom shares her transition story with a blended family, including her newborn daughter and older stepdaughters, and the “secrets” she learned to make it work.
I had just finished a delightful forty-five minutes with a smiley, alert, eager-to-greet the day three-month-old on her changing table. The sun was finally shining in Western New York after days of gray.
We FaceTimed with my parents, sang our new morning song, and discussed animal decals on her wall. In short, it was a morning unlike many I’d had since giving birth: calm and joyful.
My phone rang with a number I didn’t recognize but that had a local area code. I thought, “Oh shit, what appointment did I forget?”. Instead, who greeted me on the other end but my 12-year-old stepdaughter.
She asked tentatively if I was busy; my heart leaped with panic as it must be serious if she called ME. She said she had left her laptop at our house, where she stayed for a few days while her mom was away.
I can tell you that for a tween who thrives on routine, desires perfection, and struggles with anxiety, very little could be worse than realizing a missing laptop at school and that it was at her dad’s.
Did I mention it was 16°F?
Or that she attends a middle school about twenty minutes from our house?
Or that my much-anticipated Mommy and Me yoga class started in a few hours?
Believe it or not, I was delighted to receive this call despite all that. Even six months ago, my sweet Mia would not have made this phone call. She would have lived without her laptop, panicked for the day, or pleaded with her dad to leave work and drop off the computer.
What for many moms might seem like a simple phone call home and a major inconvenience, for me, the call symbolized all the work I’d put in through thousands of Uno games, watercolor painting, Target runs, and camping and beach trips paid off; she trusted me enough to show vulnerability and asking for help.
As I drove to drop off the laptop, I reflected on what got me here – not even annoyed at this emergency request. The following is what I think brought me to this place of feeling more secure in my place as a bonus mom to three teen-tweens.
From my experience, three things that help blend families with young and older children
1. Celebrate the small wins
My husband suspected that the baby’s arrival would bring me closer to his daughters; their reactions when he told them were less than appreciative of the news, so I was not convinced.
However, her arrival shifted my role in their eyes from dad’s wife to “our sister’s mom.”That seems to mean I can be trusted with panicked phone calls, an early pick-up from school, more intimate details of a friendship they’re struggling with, and time spent with me without their dad.
The natural behavior that comes easily (most of the time) between children and caregivers needs to be earned by bonus parents; however, I try to celebrate each of these moments as a step closer to building the trust I have to earn.
I can’t always see the wins for what they are in the moment, but I’m so thankful that this time I could. And it gives me hope that I can see them more clearly.
2. Accept help…even from unlikely places
The girls’ mom has not been so receptive to my relationship with her girls or former husband, so you can imagine my surprise (well, shock) when he told me that she had offered to watch the baby when we chopped down our Christmas tree.
This has become a tradition over Thanksgiving weekend, and it wasn’t entirely clear how we’d maintain it with a three-week-old. That this woman, who didn’t quite meet my eyes on the infrequent occasions we were together, was my daughter’s first caregiver outside my parents was a hard pill to swallow.
As we drove away to complete the tradition with the teen-tweens, my husband griped my hand tightly as I let silent tears fall.
But it was important to him that, for the girls, we honor our annual tree chopping, and getting out of the house on a mild sunny day gave me a moment with our fivesome that I didn’t know I needed but that couldn’t have happened if I didn’t accept help even it meant being uncomfortable for a short period.
When I returned, full of fresh air and exhausted by this small amount of physicality, the baby girl slept snuggly in her sister’s mom’s arms, and I couldn’t help but be grateful.
3. Commit to de-center the baby
This outing reminded the older girls that our plans, traditions, or holidays didn’t have to change because the baby had arrived. That means the baby sometimes stays up later than the books I read about sleep told me she “should.”
It means my husband held a fussy baby during indoor ice skating so I could get my bearing again on the rink with the older girls. It means she sleeps in her stroller while I “sittervise” (© busytoddler.com) at the children’s museum during after-hours or wander in and out of stores looking for the perfect black leggings.
None of these harm our baby, yet, they’re not how I imagined them to be as a first-time mom. Decentering the baby, I hope, will lead to a “can nap anywhere” easy-going youngest child that, in turn, creates sacred time for the older ones to enjoy the outings we’ve built into our weekends when they come to stay.
How I prepared for blending a family with my newborn
Early in my relationship with my now-husband, I read the following in A Career Girl’s Guide To Becoming A Stepmom by Jacquelyn B. Fletcher: “no one wants to be a stepmom, AND no one wants to have a stepmom.”
Even though I didn’t envision myself as a stepmom and the girls certainly don’t prefer that I’m in their life since the alternative would be their parents still together, I know that our family is the way it’s supposed to be right now: still learning about each other, snatching moments of joy and leaning into hard things together, and doing our best.
Being a bonus mom, especially with such an age gap between oldest and youngest, adds more complexity to our lives. Navigating it has moments of joy and moments of resentment and discouragement, much like parenthood.
Finding the small gifts, accepting help, and decentering the baby at times in our first few months as a family of six have led to more joyful moments, and I’ll gladly cherish those.
Later on, I told my husband later in the day about the frantic phone call from my stepdaughter. He said, “You should know she didn’t call or text me,” I felt proud and empowered in my role.