Supermarket. Sunday, 4nbsp;p.m. The aisles are packed. There are no carts left. I feel my tenuous grip on reality sliding away. The kids and I move with precision, dodging shopping carts and grabbing what we need for the week.
Arms laden, we pick a checkout line. Eight-year-old Bobby keeps dropping a bag of pizza rolls. The girls plop gallons of milk and juice on the floor, nudging them along with their feet while I pretend not to mind.
Eventually we approach the conveyor belt. Teen Mom headlines scream from every tabloid. We stare. "That's such a stupid show. It totally sends the wrong message." This from Janice, 15.
"It's not stupid — it proves how hard it is to have a baby when you're 16," replies Angie, 13. "Nobody would want to after watching it."
I fantasize about canceling our cable TV. Or maybe our electricity. Janice, again: "It's telling kids to ruin their lives for the sake of being famous."
"No, it makes them realize they shouldn't have a baby when they haven't even gone to prom!"
"People should know that already."
"Well, obviously they don't. Maybe if the girls understood how hard it is, they wouldn't have done it."
I think to myself, Wouldn't have done what? Had sex, had the baby or been on a reality TV show? But I say nothing. I'm pretty proud of both of them right now. If there's one thing I've learned from becoming a stepmom to five kids literally overnight, it's that my input is not needed at moments like this. When the kids want an answer, they ask me a question. My unsolicited advice either gets ignored or drives them to contrary behavior. I've also discovered that the more I trust their judgment, the more they believe my answers.
I don't say a word, instead reflecting on how I'd love to dismiss Teen Mom as total trash. But programs like that do get the girls thinking — Janice asked me about sex after an episode of The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Had I followed my impulse to ban those shows, an opportunity would have been missed.
Suddenly, Bobby chimes in. "How do people even have babies when they're only 16?"
I blurt out, "Because either they have sex without birth control or they have sex and their birth control fails."
He grows quiet and tilts his head like a puppy trying to figure out where the ball went. Oops. Probably there was a more age-appropriate answer I could have given. Like maybe, "Ask your father."
I turn to find the cashier staring at me with her mouth open. Suddenly I am that mom, talking to her 8-year-old about sex. At 4 p.m. on a Sunday. In the checkout line. And everyone can hear.
Realizing I'm being judged, I start to feel a twinge of regret. But then I change my mind. I'd rather err on the side of too much information than too little. I'd rather be completely candid about their need-to-knows than evade their curiosity.
Bobby will probably forget the specifics of this day (wish I could). But I believe that I've successfully shown that he can always count on me to tell him what he needs to know — and not just what I prefer he know. I won't make up stories to shield him from a reality that he will find on his own soon enough.
Besides, I can't take it back now. Though I may need to find a new supermarket.
JM Randolph lives in New Jersey with her husband and five stepkids and blogs at accidentalstepmom.com.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.