I didn’t grow you or birth you, and I wasn’t there for your first steps. I didn’t hear your first word or hold you as an infant. Nevertheless, you have been my introduction to motherhood.
The first summer we met, your dad drove you home from the LAX airport. It was the middle of summer and you wore a heavy, black leather moto jacket over a hot pink dress with white polka dots that provided a drastic backdrop against your vibrant red hair and freckles. I was waiting back at the apartment for you. Sitting down and getting back up every few minutes to fiddle with things that didn’t need it, simply because I was so nervous.
“What if she hates me? What if she feels that I’m stealing her dad?”
I didn’t know the answers to the swirl of questions in my brain or how to calm the nervous knot in my stomach.
Before I knew it you arrived at the door and it swung open to show me standing on the other side. We stare at each other for a very long and awkward half second. Each of us not unlike deer in headlights.
I remember panicking as I thought, “I have no idea what to do!” Right as I reached out to grab you into the strangest and most desperate hug. I heaved a sigh of relief when you returned it just as desperately.
Later your dad would tell me that you asked questions about me the whole way home from the airport. You talked about how you planned to give me the biggest hug when we met and how you hated the title “stepmother,” and that you rather call me your “bonus mom.”
My heart swelled when I heard that and I released this little balloon of hope that I wasn’t aware I had been caging. A single balloon that I watched float into the atmosphere that carried a prayer, “Please God, I just want us to be happy.”
That first summer together was so beautifully triumphant and difficult. In my experience, the best moments are typically a cocktail of both. Our first awkward lunch together quickly turned into late night dance parties while the triple digits climbed and our little wall A/C hummed as it tried to keep up. It was too hot to move, but we all danced anyway while singing along to bad pop songs. Your freckled face turned as red as your hair and we took the next step in our relationship when I gave you a special nickname, “Fresa,” – Strawberry, in Spanish.
We jumped up and down to “You Make Me Wanna Shout,” and I convinced your dad we would apologize to the neighbors the next day.
You loved me and I could feel it, but there was still a little twinge of worry in you that would show itself in little moments, like when we sat on the couch.
“The spot next to my dad is taken,” you announced to the room as you left to get your hairbrush. It surprised me, but I hushed your dad as he began to gently correct you. I knew it could be a pivotal moment for us so I took a moment to think about how I would respond. You came back in the room with your hairbrush in hand and a mop of wet red hair on your head. You handed me the brush and I looked over your head to give your dad a look that asked him to leave the room. I wasn’t mad at you. You were right, he was your dad before he was my partner, and I was the new kid on the couch.
I began to untangle your hair as I took a breath trying to convince my jackhammer heart to cool it. I didn’t know how to do this, I didn’t know what the right words were or how to deliver them. All I knew was that I needed to show up and try.
“Hey Willow, I’ve been having so much fun with you this summer and I’m really glad you’re here. I want you to know that I will never try to take your spot with your dad, and you will always be his baby girl because you are special and no one could ever take your place.”
You stayed silent and listened to my every word with perked ears.
“Can I ask you something?”
You give me a nod.
“I’d like to sit on the couch with you and your dad and I think there’s some room. Do you think that would be ok?”
I watch your little shoulders rise as you take a deep breath and let it out as your shoulders relax. You give me a purposeful nod and from that moment on, we’ve been figuring it out together.
I’m not going to lie, I had no idea what I was doing – I still don’t. I asked a lot of questions from other stepmoms, researched and read, but at the end of the day, I just jumped in heart first with fistfuls of hope and good intentions. No one plans on being a stepparent. It’s not something that typically comes up when someone asks how many kids they want.
I wasn’t prepared for you. For the empathetic soul that you are. I came into your life hoping to add value, to be someone that you admired. I wasn’t prepared for you to be that person for me, too.
I knocked on the door of your heart, asking for permission to enter and fully prepared to respect your answer if you decided not to let me in. You surprised me when you held the door open wide. You waved me in enthusiastically and we sat down for tea at the table of your heart.
You didn’t have to answer the door or invite me in – but you did and I’m so grateful.
You’ve awoken a new way of seeing in me. I see how innovative you are. The way you create masterpieces out of random material. I see the expressions you make when you’re solving a problem, innovating and consuming new information. I watch as it falls into place like chess pieces moving across a board. I see those same expressions on your father’s face.
I see the way your heart breaks open when you discover a hurt or a need in another soul. You reach out with your own heart because you so badly want to help, to heal to extend hope. You’re a lover, and I can’t help but feel a deep knowing that there’s something in you that is going to help heal a piece of the world.
I also see the way you smile at me, glancing over your shoulder to let me know that you see me, too.
We just completed another summer together and this year we bonded in a way I’ve hoped we would. Your little giggles made my heart swell and tear at the seams, growing out of my chest two sizes too big. Oxytocin flooded my brain and made me fall in love with you in a crazy way. I didn’t know I could feel this measure of maternal love and protection for a child that I did not birth.
This year you wanted to cuddle, hold hands, eat frozen cotton candy grapes and play a hundred games of UNO. We watched sunsets on the beach, and your dad and I watched from the sand as you played in the waves.
I told you about the Amazonian Women and you flexed your muscles, so I began to call you an Amazonian Warrior. I wanted you to celebrate and know how strong your body is and how capable you are. I wanted you to know that your worth is not based on superficial things, so I complimented your creativity and innovation instead.
I haven’t done everything right. I’ve messed up and apologized more than once. But the greatest thing I’ve learned is that I don’t have to have all the answers and I don’t have to be perfect – I just have to show up and be present. Small failures mean I’m trying, while the biggest and only real failure is to never try at all.
I hope you’ll read this one day when you’re older. Maybe when you’re in college, hanging out of your dorm room window smoking reefer and exploring politics and art. I hope you read this and you know just how much I love you, and just how much your existence has changed me as a person. I hope I’ve changed you, too.
More than anything, I hope you know that you always have a safe space with me. A space free of judgment, and plenty of room for you to be you. A space for you to express every bit of your brave, compassionate and creative heart, my sweet flower child.
Thank you, for letting me be your bonus mom.