‘She was from a different country and spoke a completely different language. HOW was I going to do this while in the middle of a lockdown?’: Stepmom shares blended family journey, ‘Love is best shown through action’

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Becoming A Stepmom

“I have to admit, from the very beginning I LOVED the fact I was going to be a stepmom. The fact my husband was a dad didn’t deter me–I thought it made him hotter. At almost 31 years old, I figured the chances were whomever I would marry could possibly already be a father. While we were dating, I loved seeing my husband be a father. He made my heart swoon. It was the perfect glimpse of what kind of dad he would be for our own kids someday.

International couple take selfie in a car
Courtesy of Cheyanne Cleyman

I believe my acceptance and excitement of being a stepmother came from being a nanny for over 10 years. During my 20s I had the blessed privilege of caring for over 50 children from all kinds of different races, backgrounds, beliefs, and upbringings. I believe God began developing in my heart then the capacity to unconditionally love a child who wasn’t biologically my own. I fiercely loved those kids (any nanny gets it) and I quickly felt the same for my bonus daughter, Billie, from the moment I first chatted with her on Facetime. She was beautiful, witty, smart, and had the kindest eyes.

Although I must say, the idea of being a stepmom is a lot easier than actually being one. I had a few special circumstances stacked up against me. Billie was from a different country, different culture, and spoke a completely different language than me. I hadn’t actually met her in person when her dad and I married (special circumstances kept her from attending) except through FaceTime. She also was 9 years old, so she’d had almost an entire decade with her dad exclusively to herself.

American woman marries single Dutch dad and kiss on wedding day
Courtesy of Cheyanne Cleyman

Meeting My Stepdaughter

I’ll never forget the moment I first met her face to face. I had just immigrated to join her and her dad in Belgium to begin my whole new life. My husband Kim and I went to pick her up at school–and I am not sure who was more nervous, her or me. Kids are so resilient and brave, Billie included. As I saw her walk out to us, it was all suddenly surreal. I got this huge lump in my throat. I was brought back to the day of our wedding, 7 weeks earlier, when I had made a separate set of vows entirely for Billie (since she couldn’t be there, Kim later read them to her in person translated to Dutch, their native language).

I suddenly felt the incredible weight on my shoulders, and yet also pride, of co-raising a child. This beautiful little girl wasn’t just someone I’d spend a few hours with, order pizza, braid her hair, watch a movie and greet her parents when they came home. No, this little girl was different. I was now partially responsible for her. I became a parent the moment I married her dad. There was no growing into it–just like a band-aid, I ripped off all fear and nerves, and dove right in. But, how do I do this? I constantly asked myself in the beginning. And honestly, 3 years later, I still do. How do I help raise a young woman whom I can’t even communicate with?

Blended family at a restaurant eating dessert while dog kisses girl's face
Courtesy of Cheyanne Cleyman

Stepmom Challenges

When I first became her stepmother, Billie couldn’t speak or understand English. As someone who is a huge talker and loves to tell stories and jokes, I was very intimated by this. But, I looked fear in the face and didn’t let it stop me. I committed not only to this man, but also this young woman for life. She was now part of my world–part of my responsibility–and I needed to find a way that would work for us both. I learned very quickly LOVE doesn’t take words, it’s best shown through action. Since we couldn’t communicate beyond a couple of words, we used a lot of gestures and spent most of our time doing activities together.

stepmom bonding with stepdaughter from a different country while holding dog
Courtesy of Cheyanne Cleyman

We would see Billie about every three or four days, and my husband, being the supportive man he is, always made sure she and I would have some alone time together. Even though it made me nervous, I knew it was good for our relationship. Whether it was baking cookies, walking my dog I brought with me from California, creating Harry Potter wands, building forts on the terrace, or having Twilight movie marathons, Billie and I found our way to each other. We even got to share the same last name–which in Belgium, is uncommon for a woman to take her husband’s last name–because I followed the American tradition.

As any stepmom knows, the continuous challenge–whether there is a language barrier or not–is to rebuild what you had when your stepchild goes back and forth to their other home. Sometimes, Billie and I would really start connecting and growing a bond, for her to come back from her mom’s as a stranger. She would distance herself from me and sometimes, not even acknowledge me. As much as it hurt, my husband would encourage me to not take it personally. He would remind me how hard this was on her too and we were all growing through this together. Shortly after our first year of marriage, Kim and I had our first child together, our son Mason Brave.

American woman Pregnant with Dutch man points at her belly
Courtesy of Cheyanne Cleyman
dad and sister stare at baby boy while laying in the couch
Courtesy of Cheyanne Cleyman

Billie, who had always told her ‘papa’ (dad in Belgium) she didn’t want any siblings, was now a big sister. She made us both remarkably proud by adapting so beautifully into her new role. She went from being the only focus to now having to share her dad and her stepmom with her new baby brother. Kim and I both loved watching her step up and be helpful with what was needed as we faced this new reality…all while also in the middle of a lockdown. You see, our son was born in March 2020–right at the beginning of the COVID pandemic. None of us knew what to expect or what our future held.

Blended family standing on grass outdoors carrying a dog and a baby
Courtesy of Cheyanne Cleyman

During this time, Billie also came to live with us full-time for almost a year. Suddenly, I went from being a new wife and stepmom to a mom of a newborn and a pre-teen, stuck inside in the middle of a pandemic. If the language barrier hadn’t frustrated me before, this brought it to whole new levels. I started to fear again…HOW am I now going to do THIS? How am I going to care for an infant, while also making sure this amazing young girl is provided for? What if something is bothering her and she can’t talk to her dad about it? How can I help her with her homework, which was all now virtual? How can I help her further develop into being a responsible, kind, and respectful human being?

Dad and daughter exercising with dumbbells at home
Courtesy of Cheyanne Cleyman
stepmom and stepdaughter exercising on yoga mat
Courtesy of Cheyanne Cleyman

Even though I wasn’t her biological mom, during this season where I was the main female role model in her life, I wanted to support her and help her through. Especially during her first year of middle school! And this is the juggle of being a stepmom–you’re kind of half in, half out. You’re a mom, but not. You feel this intense love and sense of responsibility, but you’re not completely able to parent them in the way you desire. Every family is different, but my husband and I choose to come together as a team to best raise his daughter. There are some things we disagree on, and at the end of the day, for the health of our marriage, I agree to disagree with him and respect his decisions.

Life As A Stepmom

What some people don’t understand is just because you weren’t there with your step-kids from the beginning, or because you didn’t birth them, doesn’t mean you don’t lie awake thinking about them and their future at night. It doesn’t mean you just stop caring about them when they go to their other parents. It doesn’t mean you don’t want the best for them and also want to guide them in the way it feels best to you in your own home.  Step-motherhood comes with highs and lows– but that’s just PARENTING, right? As a mom of an almost 2-year-old, I’ve experienced this already myself.

baby body squatting while looking at camera next to a water canal
Courtesy of Cheyanne Cleyman

What started as an innocent, playful relationship full of TikTok videos, developed into a sincere friendship and closeness, to then also ebbing back towards a more distant relationship as a young woman is stretching her wings in this world and discovering her own beliefs and thoughts. Billie, now at 13, is already taller than me. We see her now 50% of the time (we share week/week with her mom). We have different religious beliefs. We have different values in life. We definitely have a different opinion on clothes and style. And what chores should be done. But, I still love her. Instead of focusing on all the differences, there are between each other, which can be so easy with a teen from a different culture, I like to focus on the similarities.

sister looking at baby brother while while on a bike
Courtesy of Cheyanne Cleyman
Dad holding stroller up to a giant metal ball where daughter sits playing with baby brother
Courtesy of Cheyanne Cleyman

We both are crazy about her dad. We think he’s the best man in the world. We love her little brother–and all enjoy working together to make him laugh. We both love holidays and find it so fun to obnoxiously decorate the house together. We still don’t speak the same language, but I can speak a lot more Dutch than I used to, and Billie can understand about 90% of English, even though she doesn’t speak it. We basically have our own language, which sometimes only each other can understand. I don’t know what the future holds for Billie and my relationship, but I do know my heart will always hold space for her. She’s a part of me now and always will be.

Dad blowing bubbles on the patio while teen daughter and toddle son play
Courtesy of Cheyanne Cleyman
preteen sister holding baby brother upside-down in the couch while they both laugh
Courtesy of Cheyanne Cleyman

Step-motherhood isn’t for everyone, but I know it’s for me. I know I was meant to be one. There are so many kids out there who have no parents, and Billie gets three who are pretty crazy about her. It takes a lot of unconditional love, sacrifice, dedication, and love, but I wouldn’t trade her, or who I’ve become in loving her, for the world. If you’re a stepmom who feels alone or wants some extra support, please reach out to me on my social media. I’d love to connect with you and help you through the hard times–and celebrate the good ones, too.”

preteen sister and toddler brother playing in the swing at playground
Courtesy of Cheyanne Cleyman
blended family wearing sports outfits holding baby and dog in arms
Courtesy of Cheyanne Cleyman

This story was submitted to Love What Matters  by Cheyanne Cleyman from Mechelen, Belgium. You can follow her journey on  Instagram. Submit your own story here.

Read more from Cheyanne:

‘I went to surprise my friend at her wedding in Belgium. As I walked into the room, there he was…the most handsome man I’d ever laid eyes on.’: Stepmom shares love story, life as blended family

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