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The Accidental Stepmom on Milestones

Every first-time parent is an idiot in the beginning. No matter how many books you read or how much helpful advice people bombard you with, when the kid shows up, you have no idea what you’re doing. You’re making it up. Around the time your oldest kid reaches middle school, you’ve made up some things that work pretty well. You may even have some confidence. The changes in children are often imperceptible to parents. You’re going about your business, parenting confidently, then one day a teenager is sitting at the dinner table (against their will) and you think, “Who are you and what on earth have you done with my adorable baby?” But in the world of step-parenting, kids show up ready-made. Changes are constant and rapid-fire with no chance to ramp up. As a custodial stepmom to five it often feels like I’m constantly redefining my role. Learning curve? More like learning cliff, complete with rocky crags below. First I was provider of cookies, crayons and new clothes… and I was not Mom, which meant something different to each of them. It was then discovered by extensive testing that I was Dad’s counterpart; that what one of us decreed, the other upheld. In time, they learned they could count on me—to bandage their boo-boos, to tell the truth, to listen; but also to embarrass them in front of their friends, to mess up their schemes, and to check their stories. Not much about parenting is easy, step-parenting perhaps even more so. Step-parents seem to get an easier time with the milestones kids pass through, simply because the one thing we are used to is constant change. When #1 was about to enter high school, I mistakenly dragged her along to the parents’ orientation meeting. She was the only kid there. My work schedule coupled with my stepdaughter’s caution in making friends meant that we didn’t know any of the parents. The kids of all these parents had grown up together, had mostly all been here in this town since they were born. There were numerous loud, emotional greetings being exchanged all around us: I can’t believe it! I can’t handle it! How did our babies end up in high school? Funny, I thought. “I can’t believe it! I can’t handle it!” is pretty much what goes through my mind every single day. Hearing these protestations over and over magically transformed a boring wait into an extraordinarily awkward one. Every exclamation only amplified the fact that we didn’t share their history, not to mention that she could have been home watching TV. She had also been in four different school systems the year before she came to live with us. Changing the grade from 8 to 9 was hardly a shakeup for her. I turned to my stepdaughter and said, “I have absolutely no feelings whatsoever about you starting high school.” She laughed and said, “Me neither.” We marked the milestone by cutting out early for ice cream.   JM Randolph is a writer, stagehand and custodial stepmom of five. She lives in New Jersey and blogs at