Thursday, October 23, 2008

Step moms and bio moms: Do they love kids differently?

Writing about being a step parent always requires that I tread lightly; my big kids, who are my step kids, are old enough to Google, and what you put out on the internet is public record. But when I read a post by Kristin over at Single Mom at Work, about five tidbits of advice she's gotten about being a single parent, and I had to examine my own feelings and weigh in:

I was watching my kids interact today, and it occurred to me that they’re like a bunch of magnets, shaken up in one of those cups you use in Vegas to roll the dice and spilled out onto the table. Sometimes, they’re all glommed together, five wildly different kids at five wildly different ages, somehow forming a cohesive unit. Other times, it’s as if they’re all negatively charged, scattering throughout the house, caroming against and away from one another.

Call me idealistic, but I’m pretty sure the latter happens because of their ages and developmental stages — we’ve got a teenager, a pre-teen, a tween, a preschooler, and a toddler right now — and not because only two of them were born to me.

As a step parent, the step kids vs. bio kids idea is something that’s always simmering away on the back burner. It comes up in day-to-day life, to some degree, all the time.

A few weeks ago, Kristin’s great post about five best tidbits of single-parenting advice got me thinking about the subject some more. I was nodding along, agreeing with everything she wrote, until I read this:

4. Realize that no partner you’ll ever meet will ever love your child like the father of your child.

My first thought: Well, their bio mom and I are two pretty different people, of course we love them in different ways. My second thought: Hmmm… I’m both a bio mom and a step mom; are those two different types of love? My third thought: Has my relationship with my step kids changed now that my youngest two are here?

As I’ve said before, I was a step mom for years before I gave birth to my youngest children. I’m of mixed ethnicity, and so are my step kids, so we look related, all caramel-colored skin and dark, curly hair. None of us particularly like the label or the baggage that comes with being a “step,” but it requires the least amount of explanation (and, oddly, the people who question us are always adults. Children don’t seem to have a problem dealing with how I’m related to all of my kids). When someone — an adult, of course — asks how our big kids like having half-siblings, the kids say “they’re too little to understand fractions, we’re just brothers and sisters.”

I remember picking up our now 10-year-old boy at camp one summer day. He was about 5 at the time. The councilor watched as he raced up to me and threw his arms around me in a huge bear hug. “Tell Mommy what you did today!” she enthused. Our boy looked around, puzzled. Mommy is here, too?

I pointed out that I was actually his step mom, and there was this very long, very awkward pause as my excited little guy wrapped himself around my leg. I put my arm around his skinny shoulders, automatically (and, in hindsight, maybe unconsciously trying to shield him from the inevitable change in attitude). “Well,” she finally said, flatly, “he certainly seems to like you.”

So, on the one hand, I see where the person who gave Kristin that tidbit of advice is coming from; society, for the most part, tends to assume that no one who comes along later could possibly love a child the way the biological parent must, that a genetic link is required in order to be a “real” parent. On the other hand, I think it might be a case of semantics… just because the love isn’t the same doesn’t mean the feelings and the level of commitment isn’t as deep.

And I do think that my relationship with my step kids has changed. It’s grown deeper and more complex, richer and more intense, and not because I’ve experienced childbirth or had “children of my own.” It’s changed because we’ve all grown — together. I’m more mature and experienced, and they’re older and more independent now than we were when I first started parenting them nine years ago.
But do I love them differently than I do my youngest two? I don’t think so. Do I love them differently than their biological mom does? Probably. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

What did I conclude? I think it comes down to semantics: Loving a child "differently" than his or her bio parent doesn't mean your feelings are less intense or your committment not as deep.

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