The post-nuclear family option

1950's nuclear family

I never really noticed how awful stepmothers are until I became one. They get a bad rap. Fairy tales are full of evil stepmothers who make their husbands’ daughters work like slaves and are jealous of their goodness and beauty. Mainstream movies make hay with the gold-digging, threat-whispering, saccharin sweet stepmother trope. And then there are the real life horror stories of human cruelty featuring stepmothers.

Even now that I am a stepmom, I don’t hear the term too much. My stepdaughter Rosena mostly calls me “My Frida” when she talks about me to other people: as in “My Frida made me a rainbow cake for my birthday,” or “My Frida really loves crosswords.” It is just as sweet as it sounds, and it means that all the kids in her class know my name — another mom pointed this out to me while we were on a field trip. I thought that was great until one girl asked Rosena “Who is your real mom?” Hmm, I thought, how is she going to handle that? “My mom’s name is Corina,” Rosena said matter-of-factly, adding, “My Frida is my stepmom.” That seemed to settle it for the classmate and for Rosena, but I got a little hung up on the whole “real mom” thing.

It is easy to go down that road — who is responsible for dentist appointments and haircuts and new shoes and summer camp and bruises and bed time stories? Me or Rosena’s real mom? Thankfully, we don’t think about things that way. The answer in our family is: Everyone is responsible and everyone is a real parent.

Rosena spends seven of every 14 days with us. I pick her up at school on Tuesday or Wednesday depending on the week and we drop her off with her mom on Saturday afternoons. She moves back and forth between her households so smoothly. And she should, she’s been doing it her whole life. Her parents broke up before she was born and worked hard to build a new platonic relationship of strong communication and shared values for raising Rosena. And for the time being, Rosena’s mom is living with Patrick’s parents. So Rosena’s other house is the place where her dad grew up.

This is not unique to our family. I meet people all the time who are in these sorts of arrangements — a woman across from us at the Lenten Fish Fry lives with her grandkids and her ex-daughter in law, while her son is in and out of the house all the time to be with the kids. A guy at our church lives with his wife and their kids, and her ex and their kids. It’s not the nuclear family as lived by the Waltons or the Cleavers, but it is family.

This all makes a lot of sense to me. I grew up with half a dozen (or more) other adults, many of whom took a lot of responsibility for my brother, sister and I when we were kids. They made our lunches, picked us up from school, took us on excursions and played games with us at the house. They held our hands in court when our parents were sentenced to jail time and read us their letters from prison. They were part of our family first and part of the community of Catholic nonviolent resistance to militarism and nuclearism, called Jonah House, second. We grew up in an anti-nuclear family in more ways than one.

Even with this background, it takes work to navigate two households. We all make it work — lots of communication back and forth, lots of accommodating to different styles and priorities. TV there, but not here. Pets there, but not here. Siblings here, but not there. Rosena knows the drill and doesn’t ask to watch TV at our house any more than she asks her mom for a baby brother. As far as I can tell, she genuinely likes toggling between the baby love, toddler mess and chaos-studded routine of our house and the (relatively) quiet free time and one-on-one adult time she gets at her mom’s. She is always happy to arrive and happy to leave our house. That seems like a good litmus test for our collective success.

Because everything has a name these days, this is called co-parenting. It also has a celebrity face: Jude Law is co-parenting four kids with ex Sadie Frost (their three kids and her son from a previous marriage). There are books and websites and tutorials about this trend. There is also a romantic comedy — Friends With Kids — about two friends who decide to have a kid together but keep it platonic.

But pop culture aside, there is something Golden Rule-ish about being co-parents. We treat Rosena’s mom how we want to be treated. We trust that she has Rosena’s best interests at heart. We give her the benefit of the doubt when there is confusion or miscommunication. Our rule of thumb when asking for a change in Rosena’s schedule or extra time for a special excursion has to always be: “Would we be able to say yes to this if we were asked?” And if we gripe — because we are human and humans gripe — we make sure that we do it well out of earshot of the kids.

Earlier this week, me and the little kids (Seamus, 2 years old, and Madeline, 7 months) picked Rosena up at school and took her to a dentist appointment.

“Okay, mom,” said the dental tech, “take those earrings out and we’ll get her into the X-ray.”

“Oh no,” I wanted to say. “I am not her real mom.”

Confession/self-revelation time: Readers, I do not have pierced ears and have never put in or taken out earrings. I think they are gross. Rosena’s mom took her to get her ears pierced when she was two and Rosena has been sporting stylish hoops ever since.

But, I did not demure. I did not call stepmom exemption. I mom’ed up and took those suckers out without so much as an audible gag from me or a scream of pain from the 7-year-old in question. Rosena rocked out her dentist appointment — no cavities, flying colors, keep doing good on the brushing — and I put the earrings back in at the end of the appointment. It wasn’t a question of being stepmom or real mom; I was the mom there. Comfort, reassurance, home-base, elicitor of tension releasing giggle — I was the mom of the dentist waiting room and my momness didn’t take anything away from anyone else’s.

Co-parenting can be complicated and there are tons of resources and guides out there aimed at making it work, but it can also be as simple as being friendly, inclusive and open — and not spending time trying to define who is the realer mom.

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