My partner asked me the other night if I love his son. The question stung, both because he felt he needed to ask, and also because I understood why he did.
The thing about being a step-parent, the aspect that you could never prepare yourself for, is just how undefined it all is.
While parents define pregnancy or birth as the clear moment they became a parent, there is no obvious starting point when you become a step-parent.
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You begin “in medias res”, joining the child’s life not at the natural beginning, but when they are two or five or 10, starting without the innate immediate attachment, without the gradual emotional bond and acquired confidence that develop through years of triumphs, mistakes and lessons.
All of a sudden you, the step-parent, appear in the child’s world, insisting you are a familial part of it.
The adage is that being a parent is the hardest job in the world, but what about being a step-parent?
In essence, it is a relationship in which they don’t have to love you and you don’t have to love them, there is nothing mandating it.
So you fumble along, trying to create a bond from nothing, with a child who does not need to like you and has no connection to you apart from that his parent chose you.
When people ask me if I’m a parent, I always respond by qualifying it, “I’m a step-parent,” as though it is a side category that denotes a far less important role, one that I’m apologising for.
So much of the time I feel like an interloper, someone masquerading as a parent who will, at some point, be singled out for not knowing or understanding as he’s not my son, I wasn’t there for the first 9 years, I don’t know the shorthand.
Initially, I was too tentative, too careful, constantly caught between stepping forward and backward: loving him enough to show I care and am invested, but not too much for fear of stepping on anyone’s toes.