I never planned to have children.

It wasn’t on my list of things to do. I had my reasons, several of them.

I know several women who decided they were satisfied with the size of their families and then life handed them One More Baby. By the time the baby came, they were joyful. My own mother was told by her doctor she could not conceive; desperately wanting children, she and my father adopted my sister. I surprised them two and a half years later. She tells me they couldn’t have been happier. . . and isn’t that what every child deserves, to believe they are cherished?

When Life wants you to do something, it is insistent. Sometimes Life knows something you don’t. Though I do wonder if sometimes Life just needs a good laugh at my expense. Life decided I should have children. I got five, in varying stages of childhood, all at once.

On good days, I am honest because I believe that respect is closely tied to it. But let’s face it: being honest is easier than remembering lies. I strive for honesty to become a habit because if I make it habitual, I don’t have to think about it. It had never even entered my mind that the fact that I was planning not to have children might offend an actual child. Her reaction—bursting into tears—clued me in to the fact that it wouldn’t hurt to temper my honesty with tact. Until that moment it had never occurred to me that the kids might think I didn’t want them.

Perhaps some of the Wicked Stepmothers in fairy tales were in reality just Rather Obtuse Stepmothers.

I told her that just because I had never planned to have a baby and didn’t want one now, it didn’t mean that I didn’t want her, or her four siblings, in my life. It was so clear to me that I was here with them because I wanted to be; I’d never thought I needed to say it out loud. I told her that my being here now was the very proof of how much I wanted to be with them. I left out the part about how if I didn’t want them in my life, I never would have moved to New Jersey and instead would be somewhere in the sand on the West Coast counting my money. I sensed the nuances of that honesty wouldn’t be well received.

The next time one of them asked me that question, I was prepared—or so I thought.

I was with #2 on a grocery outing. Funny how our deepest conversations happen at the grocery—though I guess that’s better than in the bathroom. We were picking out apples and she asked the now-familiar, Were you ever planning on having kids? I answered the familiar, No, preparing to follow up with some good stuff about how happy I am that they are in my life. I didn’t get the chance, however, because she immediately asked the one kid question that always trumps: Why?

It struck me that none of them had ever asked that before. I faltered, but I knew the answer. I knew she could take it. I just wasn’t sure I could take her reaction to my answer. The honesty habit is ingrained enough to make me a terrible liar. With no other defense, I told the truth.

Me: Because I am very aware of my limitations, and I know how selfish I am. I just never thought I’d be any good at it.

She didn’t say anything for a moment. She had a plastic bag and was filling it with her own favorite kind of apple. Then she gave me the very best compliment I ever got:

#2: I don’t think you’re that bad at it.

Parents usually have a unique relationship with each child. Step-parenting is no different. Out of all five kids, #2 is the one who had the hardest time with her parents’ divorce and the custody change and everything that followed. She is the one who always keeps me at least an arm’s length away. But she gave me that compliment that day and I cherish it.

Being a stepmom is hands down the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and many days I think I’m terrible at it. I tend to notice my screw-ups more than my successes. I’ve recently been learning that really doesn’t serve anybody.

People can give you compliments all day long but when you don’t believe yourself to be worthy, you can’t accept any of them. When you picture yourself being on the lowest rung of the ladder though, and somebody comes down to meet you two rungs up and holds out their hand, you find that you can climb.

I’m trying to decide if I should get her words put on a T-shirt, or if a neon sign would be more suitable.

— JM Randolph

JM Randolph is a writer, stagehand, and custodial stepmother of five. She blogs at accidentalstepmom.com