The Day I Learned They Loved Me Unconditionally
I remember our first date - the four of us - so vividly. “Four scoops of ice cream, sprinkles, chocolate chips, and anything else you want,” I said to my boyfriend’s children the first time I met them more than seven years ago at an ice cream parlour. I was very nervous, to say the least.
This was a real first for me, dating a man with kids. I felt alone, scared, eager and excited all at once. My boyfriend had never introduced his children to any other girlfriend. I didn’t want to disappoint.
I knew in my gut the kids and I would get along. I absolutely love children, and wanted my own one day. I was excited to finally be a part of my boyfriend’s entire life, and not just every other weekend. I wanted to be all-in: birthday parties, homework, and the trials and tribulations of growing up. Bring it on.
In the end, our first date went well. We ate too much ice cream and the kids showed me silly pictures of their dad. They asked me out again. And again.
At the beginning, I felt my role was to be a grown up these kids could have fun with. I’d show up with loot bags, arts n’ crafts and a fun activity, scared that me on my own wasn’t enough. I was quickly falling in love with these children and our life together. I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize our bond.
Building The Bond
I spent years nurturing my relationship with my stepchildren, and had my own son along the way. I was patient and internalized a lot, including when they didn’t want me around. As I evolved into my step-parenting role, I promised myself a few key tenets:
- I’d strive to create a safe and nurturing environment where they always felt at home, not just fifty percent of the time.
- I’d never yell at them, or make them feel unwanted.
- I’d always put them first, and once I had my own biological son, I’d ensure they did not feel like I put him before them.
- I would always exude strength and control.
- I’d never react or put down their parents, and I’d never overstep in my role as stepparent.
Our relationship has blossomed in a beautiful way where I believe my stepchildren feel loved by me unconditionally. Now that they are teenagers, the very odd time they tell me they hate me, and I know can only mean that they think of me as a parent, which I kind of love.
And for so long I kept the promises I made above.
And then it happened.
The Words I Thought I Would Never Say
In March 2020, my stepchildren saw me in a way that they hadn’t before.
It was the beginning of Covid and we decided to go up north for March break. Although we’re grateful for our home away from home, it’s a much smaller space for our family of five, and even smaller when you include the emotional stress we were carrying. Every day felt like chaos - gloves and hats all over the place, kids fighting, multi-tasking with emergency work conference calls – on top of anxieties around school closures and our family’s safety and health in question. There was nothing we could do but put on a façade for our kids that we had everything under control. But we so didn’t.
I remember my breaking point so clearly.
I asked our kids repeatedly to be quiet as I participated on conference call upstairs. My husband tried to corral them to silence too, but despite our best efforts, they didn’t listen. I felt invisible, disrespected.
Scared, stressed, and out of control, I lost it, which I never do. Crying and screaming, I announced March Break was over and we were returning home to Toronto. Then, I said it. The seven words that I swore I’d never say the moment I became a stepmom “YOU ARE GOING STRAIGHT TO YOUR MOTHER’S!”
The moment those words left my mouth, I regretted them. I had never used that threat before. I hated myself for saying it. Who was I to declare something like that? These are our kids. You can’t just ship them away when you are mad at them.
The second the words left my lips I was worried that my husband would hate me for sending them away, and even more terrified that my step-kids would hate me forever. Oh, and their mother, what would she think of me for speaking that way to her children?
I was in survival-mode. I had said it out loud and I knew I had to follow through. That was a parenting philosophy I ascribed to. I had announced that March Break was over and therefore it was over. My husband gave me a look like, “Are you sure about this, it seems a bit much?” But I knew it was the right decision. I told them to collect their belongings and wait outside.
I ran upstairs to cry in private. As I hid in the closet, I felt as though I had made a colossal parenting mistake and would never recover. “I was going to lose my family,” I told myself. I was shaking and for the first time truly felt vulnerable in front of my stepchildren – I had broken down in a way that I had never before. I was usually the one that settled the family, kept the harmony and positive energy. I can’t remember a time my stepchildren had seen me cry.
They Love Me For Me
What happened afterward surprised me in the most beautiful way. My stepdaughter came to find me crying in the closet. She apologized and embraced me. I realized in that moment she didn’t hate me at all, and she never would. Even though they are not my own, they do feel unconditional love for me, even at my worst. My stepson waited outside and wrote me a beautiful apology note too.
Looking back on this breakdown, I realize it was actually a breakthrough. Allowing myself to be vulnerable and show emotion was a profound moment for us. I had grown up holding in my emotions - to show I was strong - and was perpetuating that in my family. I had rarely let myself go, and for once, I had let them see the real me, all of me.
As promised, we left that day and to my surprise all three kids stayed close to me. We got McDonalds on the way home. We spoke calmly about what happened, and we all apologized. Me especially. We enjoyed the scenic side-roads of our drive, and played our favourite tunes, and of course “I spy” for my young son.
This was a defining moment in our family. This was the day I knew my kids loved me unconditionally, even if I didn’t come with sugar and sprinkles. I was scared and emotional, and they loved me anyway. This tantrum was a true gift, and has brought us all closer. It has allowed me to be my true self.
Michel Lederman is a Toronto lawyer, who is married with two stepchildren, 15 and 12 years old, and a son, who is 4 years old. She happily co-parents alongside her husband, his ex-wife and her partner. Michel is on a mission to rebrand what it means to be a stepmom and spark a national conversation around the important and fulfilling role of stepparents.