Hint: It's really freaking hard.
I often think of being a step-mom as walking a very precarious tightrope: you want to bond with your step-child but you don't want to overstep your bounds and usurp the birth mother's place.
It's delicate, being that emotional support without taking over more than you should. I try to err on the side of caution, without making it seem like I'm detached. I'm still trying to figure out just how to get there ... how to find that balance.
My stepson was just a little boy when he moved into my home and into my world. He was understandably confused and in need of some extra special care. I was the most readily available mother-type. So I did what I could.
He saw his mother twice a month and, when school started, on spring breaks and summer vacations. That left a lot of time to deal with nightmares, scraped arms, sore throats and run-of-the-mill childhood events.
Not having done this before and having no idea what he was used to or expected, I tried to imagine what I would have felt like if I were in his place, and went from there. When I heard him in the middle of the night, calling for me to come chase away the nightmares, I knew we were on the right track.
It's been hard to establish boundaries, adoring the kid like I do. He wanted to call me "Mom," which was no reflection of his feelings toward his own mother but, rather, an indication of how comfortable he had become with me.
I told him he already had a mom, and that it might get confusing to use the same name for both of us. I told him that special word had to be reserved for her. I didn't want him to feel rejected, but I also didn't want to let him begin a habit that might lead to a sense of separation with his own mother.
It felt more important to keep his relationship with her intact than to foster the closeness I loved having with him. I reminded him that his Mom would always be his Mom, no matter what, that she would always love him and that he would always be able to connect with her any time he wished.
Luckily, he didn't feel rejected at all, and we have remained close while also making sure his mother never comes second in his affections. When Mother's Day rolls around, he makes cards for both me and her.
He introduces me as one of his parents. He proudly proclaims me the best stepmother he's ever had.
(I'm also the only stepmother he's ever had, but why split hairs?) He feels free to talk about his mom with me, and about me with her. We have birthday parties for him as a group, and he gets the time to bond with everyone. (Though in those situations, I try to fade into the background a bit and let her take over.)
It's hard; I won't deny that. At times, I feel like this is my kid to take care of, mine whose homework I supervise, mine to take to school every day, mine to be attached to.
And then I have to step back and remember that as close as he and I are, as much as I love him, as much as I love being the one to tame the bad dreams and take care of the scrapes and give him attention, I am not his mother.
I am not here to take her place. I am a supplement, an addition, but not the mother of this child. That will always be her place, and I would never want to take that away.
One day, we had a snow day, which was unusual for our area, and had a bit of early-onset cabin fever. After a day of driving one another insane, trapped in the house, going mad, I was putting him to bed. He looked up at me and said, "We're special together, aren't we?"