The Stepmom Who Hates the Word ‘Co-Parent’

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When Emily was in her 20s, she moved to a small town where everyone knew each other already and the dating scene was quite different from what she was used to. Still, Emily joked with her friends that the one category she wouldn’t date was a single dad: As the daughter of a single mom, she’d seen firsthand how complicated dating a single parent could be. But then she met a man whose bond with his son ended up being one of the things she liked most about him. Emily discusses meeting her boyfriend’s son for the first time, being introduced to the “sports moms,” living with a partner and a little boy for the first time, and what she thinks she doesn’t know about motherhood.

On the idea of parenting. I felt like that is what I would do, eventually. It wasn’t something that I thought about a whole lot — into my 20s, I was pursuing my career and figuring things out. The concept of actually becoming a mother just kind of snuck up on me.

When I was in my late 20s, I moved to the town I live in now. The dating scene was really different from what I was used to. It’s a pretty small town; everyone knows each other. I’d joked with friends that I didn’t want to date any dads, even if they were the only men available. Coming from a single mom, I knew dating as a single parent could be really tricky.

My mom was a fearless career woman — she and my dad divorced when I was very, very young. She raised me to be smart and independent and to never rely on anyone else. Watching her date — either single men or men with kids of their own — I saw how much you had to think about. When do you introduce the kids? How do you know this person will stick around?

On meeting a single dad. We met through some mutual friends. We knew each other for about a year, actually, before we even started dating. It sounds silly, but: He friended me on Facebook, and I started to see a new side of him. He posted a lot about his son, who was about 6 at the time, just funny little conversations between them. Once we started dating, he made it very clear that I wouldn’t meet his son until he decided they were ready, and that was very fine with me.

On the weekends when he had his son, I wouldn’t see him at all. We might text or chat, but he made it very clear that time was his time with his son, and I was not going to be a part of that yet. After we’d dated for a little while, he told me that previous women he’d dated hadn’t been okay with this strict boundary — they’d wanted to be involved sooner — and he didn’t appreciate that. But I always felt very aware and respectful of being on his and his son’s time table, not mine.

After a few months, some of my friends would ask why I hadn’t met his son yet, but I never really worried about it. I was going through a career change at the time — I was also really focused on my life stuff as well. Even though it wasn’t something I set out to do, dating someone with a kid ended up feeling pretty normal.

Still, my husband is eight years older than me. It wasn’t quite weird, but — here I was dating this guy who’d been married before, who owned a home, who had a son. It was new, for me. But I was excited to be part of that. I was ready to date a grown-up, someone who had his life together, who had strong priorities. I admired how dedicated he is to his son. I think that my high school and college friends were more surprised that I was dating someone older than someone who had a son. It did put me kind of out of pace with some of my peers, who were having babies of their own. We just had different kinds of time conflicts — I couldn’t meet up because of an elementary-school sports event, not nap time.

On having ice cream with her boyfriend’s son. I met his son about six months after we started dating. I’d gotten some tickets to a soft opening of a restaurant — a Stake n Shake. It was a big, big deal that Stake n Shake was coming to our small town. I’d told him about it, and he brought up the idea that this could be the time we all met up. That was the plan for Saturday, but the day before he texted me and asked if I wanted to meet up with them for ice cream, right then. So it ended up being more spur-of-the-moment.

Before meeting his son, I was incredibly nervous. What if I didn’t know what to say? What if he just didn’t like me, for whatever reason? If he didn’t like me, I knew my relationship would be over. But it was ice cream. What kid doesn’t love ice cream? He introduced me as a friend, and it was fine. It wasn’t actually a big deal.

We met for lunch, as planned, the next day, and that was fine too. That’s kind of how it was, for a while: I’d hang out with them for a meal, but not for the whole day or the whole weekend. Once we got to know each other a little better, they would come over for a meal, we might play a game, and then they’d leave. It was very gradual, which I think worked well for all of us.

On her relationship growing my serious. These first meetings were in May. In the summer, he has his son more — so we started hanging out more and more. Eventually, they met my mom, and my sister, and some of my family. He’s a very good kid. He’s very polite, very sweet. After meeting him, my sister told me she was ready to be an aunt. My mom was just immediately smitten with him.

My boyfriend and his ex been divorced about two years. When I met her, it was at a sporting event — kind of on her turf. But she was very nice. We’re pretty cordial to each other; there’s no real animosity there. She and her now-husband were getting ready to get married around this time, so there was some relief for her, I think. She was settling down, and so was her ex. They have a pretty civil relationship — I mean, there are tiny annoying things, but they’re the kinds of things that are bound to come up for two people who aren’t together anymore but are trying to raise a child together. Communication issues and annoyances, mainly. At the end of the day, everyone just wants my stepson to be doing well, to be happy.

We did move in together before we got engaged. By then, we were spending most of the weekend at my house anyway. It was interesting — I’d never really lived with anyone before, and I’d definitely never lived with a little boy. It was strange, at first. But it went well. We rented a house together, which I think helped. It was a new place, a new start for all of us.

As we got more serious, we started casually mentioned “when we get married.” We didn’t really sit down and discuss everything outright. He definitely took longer than I thought he would to ask. But when he did — about two years after we moved in together — it was lovely.

On thinking about the future. We were getting ready to host Thanksgiving for 25 people, which was a little stressful. I’d always told him that I think a proposal should be between two people. The idea of a crowd, of people watching, makes me nervous, I told him, so I wouldn’t like that. But we have a friend who’s a photographer and he asked him to be there to take photos. And he got very excited and told all of our other friends what was happening. So it did end up being in front of a crowd of people. But I really didn’t notice them — I just saw him.

He’d told his son that he was going to propose, and the next day, he told him on the drive to our house. As soon as they walked through the front door, he gave me a huge hug. That felt really good. We got married in June.

In the early dating stage, when we talked about the future, he asked me if I wanted to have kids. And I said yes, definitely, and he said he did too. My stepson has a half-sister now, and it’s really been a joy seeing him be a big brother. We talk a lot about how it might be for us, having a baby together. I don’t want their age difference to be too big — I mean, if I got pregnant tomorrow, his son would be almost 12 by the time I had the baby. But my husband is 16 years older than his youngest brother, so he’s not as concerned about it as I am.

On being a stepmom. I’m definitely a mother figure, but it’s a different kind of mothering. He’s older, and he was older when we met. He never needed the kind of constant care a baby or a toddler needs, since I’ve known him. I don’t want to say we’re friends — I am an authority figure. But we’re just kind of chill. We hang out. We watch movies together. I encourage him, in this or that. I do think it will be different, with my own.

I love my stepson, but I don’t really think of myself as a stepmom. There’s something about that title … it’s not something I ever thought would be part of my life. It’s odd to think of myself in those terms. I don’t think of myself as a stepmother first; I’m many other things. Which I think is maybe different from how some mothers feel.

My stepson plays a lot of different sports — the “sports moms” knew me as the girlfriend. I would show up to games and kind of be a part of things, even though it felt a little weird at times. All of these women are older than me. Most of them have multiple kids. They all know each other from school events, and at first I really felt like an interloper. But I think I’ve been around long enough know that they know it’s permanent. I’m not going anywhere. This might sound silly, but the first time I got a Facebook friend request from the mom of one of my stepson’s friends … that was a really big deal to me. It made me feel legitimate.

On raising a child with others. To me, my husband can be a little overprotective, sometimes. Nothing major. It has been interesting, watching him co-parent — I hate that word — with his ex. There was a situation last year, where my stepson’s grades weren’t where they should have been. They took away his X-box, games, no more friends over. That seems fine, but my first thought was that he should do extra credit — more of a proactive than reactive approach. I thought we should look at the bigger picture, to think about why his grades needed improvement in the first place. Was he not understanding the material? Is he goofing off in class?

I’m also co-parenting with his ex and her husband — they have all sorts of different rules than we do. We have him every other weekend, plus two or three nights a week. It’s pretty half and half between our two households. I’d say he gets more screen time at our house. Let me just tell you: I hate Fortnite. I hate it. My husband doesn’t hate it as much as I do.

I really hate the word “co-parenting,” though. It’s so cheesy. Who co-parents, what does that even mean? It makes me think of some perfect, harmonious system, where no one gets mad and everything works out. It reminds me of the idea of “conscious uncoupling.” It’s really not how parenting is at all. Parenting is messy. It can be really great, but it can also be really frustrating.

On having a biological baby. I feel sure I’ll be completely unprepared, to have a little baby. It’s been a long time since I’ve hung out with babies. From what I understand, couples who have a baby together kind of make it up as they go along — you can read all the parenting books in the world but until you’re in the moment, you don’t know how you’ll react to a situation. So that’s a little hard, the timing of when I came into this relationship. My husband has already done all those things. I think it will be interesting, watching him the second time around.

I’m excited to get to the next stage of life, to hopefully have a baby. There seems to be this clique of mothers — of pregnancy and motherhood, and what you’ve gone through. I want to be part of that. I want to know how that is. I can be a stepmom all day, but it’s different, I think. And then again, maybe it won’t be. Maybe it’ll be the same. But I think there’s a lot that I don’t know yet.

The Stepmom Who Hates the Word ‘Co-Parent’