More then a decade ago, this picture was taken. I was a line cook on the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf in a high-end Mexican restaurant. I would come in first thing in the morning, prep for the day, work the line at lunch and stay through the dinner rush.
Anyday I was not in school, I was there.
Holidays were no exception and as a result, I decided one Easter Sunday to surprise my coworkers with an Easter egg hunt.
I shopped and stuffed colorful eggs, came in early and went nuts. I did a pretty good job. The closing bartender even found one that had been over looked by everyone else at the end of her shift. I made everyones’ day a little happier.
I told myself I did this not expecting any thanks or reciprocity.
That summer was my 21st birthday. I came in with my family and bought my first legal drink. Eveyone came over and (of course) bought me the obligatory 21st birthday rounds. My cohorts were genuinely happy to share this milestone with me.
But it wasn’t enough. I realized that I had expected more.
Where were the banners about how great I was?! The decoration on the table? Wasn’t this a much bigger deal than Easter?! I had spent most of my days with these people- for years?! Hadn’t I been the one who, more than once, had gone out of my way to make someone smile during shift. Spent my own money and donated extra time when (as a college student with a full load, full time job AND a commute) it was the most precious commodity I had to give.
I felt I had gone above and beyond. Yet, I was shown no such consideration.
In my (possibly) inebriated state I learned something very important about myself that allowed me to truly thank my coworkers for their consideration instead of feeling needlessly slighted. This same lesson would be integral to help in my understating of stepparent-hood years later.
I know these two topics seem disjointed, let me attempt to join them. My expectation (and sadly) my motivation; was to receive what I had given. Even though others had entered into no such contract.
The problem always is the expectation. If I do nothing- I expect nothing. But when I do something- that sentiment changes. If I had chosen a life free of all the complications of our blended family I would expect no acknowledgment. I made a different call and unconsciously hoped that my contribution would be visible to the group as a whole.
When I was young and put effort into some aspect of my situation that I felt was for the common good, I expected that it would come back to me with equal measure and effort from others. Like the unrequested Easter egg hunt.
The reality is- that the only reward you get as a stepparent is the bond you form with the person your stepkids will become. It is easy to get wrapped up in the moments, especially when they are small. You plan elaborate adventures and sleep on bathroom floors next to sick younglings, you wake to tales of bad dreams and still have all the expectations/schedule of a person with no children from the rest of the world.
Good coparenting is measured by what is is the best interest of the child. Very often this intent as a stepmom means, keeping quiet, standing back, not belonging in some of their greatest moments.
And that’s ok.
All that matters is they they are happy. That they are growing up with support all around. Whatever direction they choose to go as they begin to make their own choices and create their own unique lives, I will support. Most parents get to have some sense of control and expectation for their young. As a stepparent you start from a place of no control. There are exceptions to this rule and each blended family situation is different. I can only speak with any authority about my own personal experience.
When others see the boys and me (especially when doing mundane things like negotiating the grocery shopping) they assume I am their mom. When it becomes apparent in our conversation that I am not the boys’ biological mother, people often get embarrassed or confused. Sometimes these instances are hilarious and sometimes they are extremely uncomfortable. I think it is most important that any negativity or awkwardness doesn’t come from the kids. It comes from assumptions of the world around us.
I am not their mom, bearing them is not the crux of our bond. We are happy in our reality, as it is. We don’t go around pretending to be other than we are.
Most importantly THEY are fine walking around in this world that doesn’t always understand the dynamics of our family.
This brings me back to the original point of connection between the two situations. It is a deflating moment when any of our expectations go unfulfilled. Disappointment and inferred judgements like “well if I had done better, I would have gotten…” or “I guess all I did doesn’t matter anyway” or “My efforts will never be good enough.” This needless negativity misses the point- while going about 80Mph in the opposite lane.
When giving, give.
Don’t mistake giving as a voucher for future getting.
When I am acting at my best, I work as hard as I can to enhance the world around me without expectation of compensation. Please, do not read this and think that I have actually accomplished such a lofty goal. Resentment and anxiety are major issues for me. I am aware of this ever present wrinkle in the fabric of my life. I can choose to be kind even when I have every reason not to.
It is the hardest thing to do most of the time. I default to personal rule that the hardest/most uncomfortable option I have in a situation is usually the one I should take. The one that makes my toes curl and teeth grind is (in hindsight) the one that results in the greater good for the most people. A blended family and a restaurant family can be very similar things. You will spend a lot of time together, often under stressful situations. Committing to show up everyday (you’re on the schedule) and do your best to be kind to the people in the room- is a difficult undertaking.
I don’t mean to imply that my small role in the boys’ lives goes unappreciated, just that it is easy to have disappointing expectations for what that appreciation should look like. The most rewarding aspects are subtle. Like the look exchanged between parents over the heads of astoundingly amazing children. The inside jokes and the comfort of a family home. Just as my coworkers had gone out of their way to make my day special. They had just neglected the 10 piece orchestra- I so obviously deserved.
At every point in my life there will be a valid reason to talk myself out of expending so much ‘unrequited’ effort. As a stepmom it is easy to wonder:
“Where were the banners about how great I was?! Wasn’t I the one who planned all of Easter?! I had spent most of my days off catering to these people- for years?! Hadn’t I been the one who, more than once, had gone out of my way to make someone smile, when they were crying, sad or hurt. Spent my own money and donated extra time when (as a part time stepparent with a full time, high stress career AND a commute both to work and to pick up / drop off the boys) it was the most precious commodity I had to give.”
All that negative reduric does is invalidate my own efforts to myself. What matters is that I try my hardest to be as kind as I can. This does not mean being a doormat. It means realizing that no one can take something I gave to them freely. If I judge all my actions by the results I see, I leave out the good I inspired that never gets back to me. Good is good. Not a single moment of effort that I have spent being considerate and compassionate has been wasted.
From both situations I learned:
It is not about me.
It is not about getting back.
Your efforts won’t always be recognized.
The result of your time, will be enjoyed but not acknowledged.
And that is ok.
It is in fact, what I signed up for. A willing adult participant. The kids don’t have a say in who they are born to, or how those people choose to live their lives. I am proud of all of us, as we have grown over the years. It’s far from perfect and often uncomfortable but it is worth it beyond a shadow of a doubt. It is not about what I get out of it, it’s what I put into it that counts.