"You Can't Tell Me What to Do. You're Not My Mother."

Family Matters on 09.14.12
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Photo: Trey Ellis

I have two step-kids: Ava just turned 14 and Chet just turned 11 (yes, a congested birthday period). My daughter, Maia, and I met them five years ago. Although the dynamic is not what my 16-year-old self imagined, our blended family feels like it was meant to be. 

Since Maia, who is six, moved in with Ava and Chet before her second birthday, she fully considers them her brother and sister. But she also understands they have another mom. The other day I heard Maia's friend ask why her brother and sister had brown skin and she did not.

"Trey used to be married to another lady who is the 'big kids' mom.  They came out of her butt, not my mom's butt. That lady has brown skin. She lives far away, but they talk to her on the phone a lot."

"Oh, ok. Can we get a snack?" her friend said, not missing a beat.

I was impressed by Maia's uninhibited recounting of this part of our family dynamic. Because of the differences in skin color, all the kids deal with these questions.

After school yesterday, Chet was excited to tell me about his friend who looks white but has a brown-skinned biological mother.

"It's like us, Amanda -- when people don't realize you're my mom because I have brown skin," Chet said.

Chet calls me Amanda, which is fine with me.  I respect the fact that he has a mother.  Still, the indirect reference to me as his mom made me smile.

It's complicated to come into children's lives when they're older. For years now, I've signed permission slips, checked their supply of socks and underwear, gone to school events, registered for soccer and cheered from the sidelines, dug out splinters, dressed cuts, and worked extra shifts to pay for summer camps. But I am also careful not to intrude on the space that belongs to their mother. They are protective of her (as they should be), and I know how much they love each other.

Expressing physical affection is also tricky for us. Chet wriggles out of my hugs and artfully dodges kisses (from anyone). And while Ava and I hug on occasion, she doesn't hang on my arm like she does with her dad. Now I'm not a hugger. But I also missed the baby and toddler years with Chet and Ava. I never got to carry them around or change their diapers or have them spit up on me. Since she was born, Maia has been attached to my breast or wrapped around my thigh. She slept in my bed (at least part of the night) until she was five, so the physical bond between us is much different.

"Mom, tell me who you love first, second and third out of the kids." Maia will ask. Of course this question is unanswerable -- I love ALL the kids--  although I usually do jokingly cycle through their names. 

At times, during arguments, Chet lashes out and says, "You can't tell me what to do.  You are not my mother!"  Of course it stings. Usually it's in response to my telling him to take out the trash or docking him five minutes at bedtime for hitting his sister. I've read books about step-parenting that advise biological parents to handle discipline, but Trey is not always around.

My response to Chet is just to say calmly, "I know I am not your mother. But you still have to respect me as a parent who lives with you and loves you." I leave it at that and let him cool down.  Most of the time, Chet will find me later to show me a YouTube video or ask me to watch a cool new soccer move. I know he is checking to make sure things are all right between us. It is my job to show him that nothing he could ever say would make me stop loving him.  

I think that is the greatest sense of security I can offer the kids. I knew without a doubt that during my teen years when I lashed out at my own mother, she would still love me no matter what. And all these years after the raging hormones and ugly insults, my mom is still my best friend. I hope when I'm in my sixties, I'll be able to say the same thing about all of our kids.

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