Stepping Up – By Haley Jones-Chiarmonte

It is a familiar scene for all of us, sitting back in an uncomfortable chair, mouth open wide, a bright light in your eyes and the powerful smell of fluoride. You squint to find relief from the seemingly relentless light, when your dental hygienist leans over your helpless expression and begins working. We’ve all been there (hopefully), and it would seem that this moment would be the least likely place to have a conversation, but it was here, mouth open, slobbering, and pink in the face when I realized I was exactly where I needed to be.

You see, I’ve always had “small talk” conversations with all of the professionals in my dentists office, but when Vikki (not her real name) started cleaning my teeth that day, it was apparent she had a message I needed to hear, one that was far from small. As she scrubbed the tarter off my pearly whites, she started telling me about the 10 years she had been married to her husband, how they were going on a trip for their anniversary this year, and how difficult marriage, and stepchildren can be. Vikki had married a man much older than her, similar to my situation, and became a stepmother to 3 sons. I nodded my head and made facial expressions I hoped she would understand as she explained how badly she wanted to be accepted in the first years of their marriage. She wanted to beneeded by her stepson’s and she talked of how badly she felt when they said or did things that portrayed the opposite. Vikki recounted reunions, weekends, and trips where she felt depleted, out of control, and left out of her “new family”. She also mentioned how damaging it was when the boys crossed boundaries and she felt she had no parental power or influence. After a bit of venting on her part, she paused, smiled, and started talking about how her step-kids have grown and are living with their own families now. She talked valiantly of her struggle through the teenage years, and reassuringly about the rewards that came shortly after. She no longer begs for acceptance, or tries to control the situation; instead, she backed off until they became adults, until they could fully understand her. “All it took was a lot of patience, during a difficult period of time”, she explained.

I gazed up into her eyes, blinked, and felt the tickle of a single tear roll down my face.

It was almost as if she had been a fly on the wall of my house, listening to my prayers, my cries for help, and my confusion.

Vikki immediately looked shocked by my reaction and removed the tools from my mouth so I could speak. I wiped my eyes and said, “thank you… I needed to hear that.”

I’ve been a step-parent for 2 years now, and a major part of my step-kids’ lives for almost 4. Finding boundaries, letting go of “trying to be accepted”, and balancing two homes with an ex-wife has been the hardest challenge of my life. I grew up reading books and watching movies with the term “evil step-mom” embedded into my head, so I constantly live in fear and anxiety about whether I am doing a good job or how I can improve. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, and I question whether any of my sacrifices are worth it or if I am adding any value to their lives. As a stepparent, you must walk into a family without any guarantee’s or life long loyalties. Instead, you must fight for your place and hope for the best.  Simply put, it is difficult.

Vikki and I shared our similar stories and hugged a little more. She gave me encouragement by acknowledging my internal struggle and reassured me that marriage is worth it, children are worth it, and someday, I will celebrate my 10-year anniversary with a powerful story to tell.

Today I sit at my computer after a week of having my step-kids and my heart is filled with gratitude for the ups and downs that we’ve learned from. I am grateful for the experiences life is handing me, and the tests I am given. Now I can say to anyone who needs to hear it, you are not alone. Step parenting is hard, but you are not alone. Hell, parenting is hard, but you are not alone. I am grateful to Vikki for sharing her story, being honest, and showing me that sometimes all that matters is that we are all in this crazy journey together. We are not alone.