But I am real.

“Oh, so you’re their stepmom.”

“So they aren’t your real kids…”

And my favorite, “But you’re not their real mom.”

I feel such a jolt when I hear these things – a combination of a stab in the heart (and a little in the back), anger, injustice and offense.

And I often wonder if these same people who need the clarification also look at parents of adopted children and say the same thing. My neighbors’ son came to them via an orphanage in China – do people look at them and say ‘oh, he’s not your real son then?’ I can’t imagine. Yes, he’s their real son. And bringing him home involved so many more hurtles, heartaches and headaches than their first child. As has my journey as a stepmom. Or, as my own children say, as a mom-mom. Well, one child. But I’ll take it.

I do get it though, a little. Ten years ago, if asked my opinion, I probably would have said that being a stepmom would be easier than being a real mom. Kids part-time, no real decisions, no real responsibility for disciple or organization, every other weekend off the clock. And maybe that’s true for some, but it is certainly not true for me.

I’m the designated taxi, signer of the forms, keeper of the band aids, planner of meals, liaison with the schools, the cry on my shoulder host, vacation planner, appointment maker, clothes buyer…well, the list goes on. So, yeah – what about that doesn’t make me a real mom? I feel very real when I’m driving one kid one direction before taking the other kid another. I feel very real when I’m consoling a child who has been wronged. I feel very real as I’m behind the stove hoping for a dinner success while simultaneously noting who needs new socks, composing an email to the school and tallying the birthday gift stash. I feel especially real when I get a morning hug. Or a good night hug. Or any hug. I feel real by the amount of need my kids have for me, even if they are slow to admit it. I feel real by their acceptance of my very real nagging which they know is the cost of my very real organizational skills. I feel especially real when I’m told “I love you” by one or the other and also real when the other reluctantly agrees with a “yeah, me too.”

People sometimes ask what it’s like being a stepmom. I’ve never really been able to nail it down until I blurted it out a few days ago in a mini-family meeting. Being a stepmom is always doing your best for your kids and giving 150% for them all the while knowing that it’s never really going to count or put you anywhere near the level of love they have for their biological mom. And yes, I know it’s not a competition. And yes, our situation is different. What I said, when we were talking with the kids about exactly how hard step-momming is, was something to the tune of ‘I got thrown into this, your mom was imploding – she’d lost her house, was driving illegally, wasn’t working…we were getting calls from jail and still, still, you liked her best. I just felt like I must really be awful at this because no matter what I did, I still couldn’t even top that!

That’s what it’s like.

I have learned that the biological relationship is something that can never be broken – no matter what that biological parent does (or doesn’t). I have examples of this from my husband – born to a 15 year old mother and 17 year old father. His upbringing was rough, with a mom who was working her tail off to better their lives, but at the cost of rarely being home, and a dad who took turns in various gangs, meth houses and occasional jails. Yet Rich kept going back for more, regardless of the disappointment. It’s a relationship that is nearly impossible to sever.

I waiver between wishing it was possible to sever and being plagued by guilt for thinking that. And then thankful that it will never happen because I can’t imagine what that would do to the kids. I remind myself, and occasionally them (when we’re having a good car talk) that I made a choice to be with Rich – and that choice included another choice – which was to be with them. It was a decision I thought through carefully – and yet came nowhere close to the reality of how hard stepmomming actually is.

Yes, I know, it’s not a competition. I know comparing myself is pointless. I know. But I guarantee every stepmom does it. How can you not? On a very basic level, females are programmed to want to be the most popular (and the prettiest and the tiniest and have the best shoes and, and, and). Of course we want the blue ribbon for momming. Find me one stepmom who hasn’t felt an inkling if competition. Because I’m want to punch her in the head. Rich often says ‘the more people that love the kids the better.’ I also want to punch him in the head. I do understand that. But I’m also a catty girl at heart.

Being a stepmom means spending your family vacation watching a 13 year old panic that he won’t find the perfect gift to bring home for his mom. All the while knowing that when he goes on vacation with her…there will be no gift for you. Being a stepmom means you have to be the heavy one sometimes, knowing that the story will be adjusted when re-told to their mom in order to solidify your place as the evil one. Being a stepmom means watching something unfold between them and their biological mom, knowing that it will eventually hurt your kids, and having to remain silent while preparing to clean up the mess. It means biting your tongue endlessly and opening your arms just as much. It means keeping your face in neutral when your kids vent about their biological mom, looking slightly aside so as not to give anything away.

Of course, yes, I do realize that across town, their mom could repeat back most of the above paragraph verbatim on what it’s like to have a stepmom in her kids life. I’m sure it feels a bit competitive for her. I know she’s (generally) got my back and I know she appreciates all that I do for our kids. We waiver between having a relationship and not – currently on a bit on the downswing, but I’m sure we’ll pick back up again eventually.

And I do realize how hard it is for the kids to have two of us. Although it seems to be getting easier as they age. Zack used to dread coming across the soccer field at the end of a game because if he went to his biological mom first, I might be hurt – and if he came to me first, she might be hurt. You could see the agonizing decision all over his eight year old face. I finally told him to go to her first – that I would get my hug at home, that we’d talk about the game on the ride. That’s what it’s like.

It’s also the feeling of an unexpected handhold the first time – and with every handhold after. It’s the knowing that, sometimes, I’m the first call – whatever the reason – fear, trouble, success, friend drama, aced tests. It’s the full heart that comes when someone notes how much Zack looks like me or how he obviously inherited my sense of humor. It’s the pride when another mentions that Zoe’s creativity must have come from me.

So, yeah, they are my actual kids.

And, yeah, I feel very real.

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