‘She’s just my stepmom.’ I wasn’t on the daycare list. To this day, I’m left off emails because I’m not a ‘primary’ parent.’: Woman navigates blended family life, ‘I’m more than JUST a stepmom’

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“As a child, I was raised by my mother and an amazing extended family. My biological father didn’t believe I was his and therefore didn’t want to be a part of my life. My mom did an amazing job, but I always felt like a part of me was missing. At 5 years old, I was fatherless and unbeknownst to me, had developed abandonment issues. That was until my mom married my stepdad with kids from a previous marriage and all was made right, or so I thought.

I was never going to have biological siblings, so stepsiblings were the next best thing. I loved riding to school with my brother and having my sister do my hair and makeup. I felt like I was part of a unit. I belonged to them and they belonged to me. As I grew up, I began to witness the mistreatment of my mother by my stepsiblings firsthand. There was an extreme lack of respect and dysfunction in our household. My brother and sister were jealous of the time my mom and dad spent together and of the time I spent with their dad. They didn’t want their parents to get divorced. They resented me because I got to see their dad every day and they only got to see him on the weekends.

Inevitably, after 16 years of toxicity, it led to their divorce. I was a senior in high school the day I lost the only family I ever knew. You would think that spending 13 years of your life together would mean something but in our blended family, that wasn’t the case. Losing everything I considered family was hard. That feeling of abandonment resurfaced. It’s hard to explain how my family could forget they ever knew me but that’s essentially what happened. At 18 years old, I was collateral damage.

Witnessing my mom c-parent my stepsiblings taught me a lot at a young age. I learned what I would and wouldn’t tolerate if ever given the chance to c-parent. It made my desire for my own family even stronger. I wanted a family that was mine. A family that couldn’t be taken from me. A family where we all had the same last name, and I wanted my biological children to have biological siblings. Little did I know, all of this was preparing me to be a stepmom to my beautiful bonus daughter, Aislinn.

After graduating college with honors, I decided to break free of the small town I called home. That’s when I found my future.

In the fall of 2011, I moved from Pennsylvania to Texas to discover what I really wanted out of life. It was by far the best decision I ever made. I always told myself I was a Texan at heart and deep down, I knew I would find what was meant for me in the South. It was no more than 3 months after moving into my first apartment a new group of friends invited me on a river trip to Austin. I didn’t know them, and I hadn’t even unpacked my boxes, but I told myself I was going to embrace every opportunity if I wanted to get acclimated. As I loaded my weekend bag into my friend’s car, Sal was in the front passenger seat. He wasn’t supposed to be on the trip and yet there he was, handsome as ever. I was 22 and he was 26. I was familiar with his face from Facebook, but we had never met. It was absolutely love at first sight. I had only lived in Texas for 3 months and BOOM that was it. The love of my life.

Courtesy of Brogan Richie

That weekend, we were attached at the hip. It was evident God had his fingerprints all over that trip. We were inseparable. You know in the movies where everything in the room is moving but the two main characters are standing still, completely immersed in each other? That was us. Plot twist. Sal was married. He was going through a separation but very much still married and trying to make it work. I would never interfere with someone’s marriage so although it was love at first sight, it was also too good to be true and/or extremely poor timing.

As the weeks and months went by, we continued as friends. When Sal didn’t have his daughter, Aislinn, we would have fun together and then we might not see each other for weeks. At one point we played on a co-ed soccer team with our friends and he brought Aislinn to a game. That was the first time I met her. She was 2 and I was 22. She looked just like her daddy, beautiful as ever. There’s nothing more attractive than watching a single father show adoration for his daughter.

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As our friendship grew, I would often babysit Aislinn while he coached high school soccer. I’ll never forget the first night he dropped her off at my apartment. I made her something simple, Kraft mac and cheese with chicken nuggets, my specialty. I distinctly remember painting her nails as we watched Tangled. She LOVED that movie. At the end of the night, I carried her to the car, and she cried because she didn’t want to leave. I was hooked.

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About a year after I met Sal, his divorce was finalized, and we started dating. I wasn’t the first person he dated after his divorce, which was highly offensive, but we won’t go there. Dating a single dad trying to navigate co-parenting with his ex-wife was by no means easy. At times, I found myself torn, confused, unsure if it was worth all the waiting, and feeling second best. Second-best to his ex-wife and second-best to his daughter. I would wonder if he would ever love me like he loved them. Would I ever come first?

His heart was broken, and I knew that. I never tried to change him, I tried to give him grace and time to heal those wounds. He didn’t love the idea of getting married again and was completely content with Aislinn, she was perfect. He also wouldn’t entertain the idea of having more kids. You can imagine the struggle I faced, loving someone so much but at times recognizing maybe our timing was always going to be off, and our wants were never going to align. I loved them both, but I wasn’t ready to give up on my dreams simply because his already came true.

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Despite the internal battle, we continued our relationship and moved in together and I brought along my Dachshund, Dudley. Aislinn and Sal gained a dog, and I gained a daughter. It was a dream. I went into the relationship armed with some knowledge on what it looked like being a stepmom and what it was like having a stepparent. You’re never fully prepared for those transitions, but I had a good foundation despite being so young.

Like most things in my life, I went in full force. I was going to be nurturing, understanding, fun, empathetic, forgiving, attentive, and all of the other positive adjectives you could use to describe a stepmom. Giving 100% still resulted in some gut punches along the way. Aislinn naturally compared me to her mom, Ashley. I distinctly remember standing in our bedroom one day, Aislinn’s mom was pregnant with her first sibling and Aislinn looked up at me and said, ‘My mom is skinnier than you when she isn’t pregnant.’ In that moment, I wanted to cry. I remember thinking, ‘Is her mom telling her these things and she’s just repeating them?’ I also remember telling myself, ‘Don’t let her see you cry. You don’t want her to know that she affected you.’ I never wanted to appear bothered. I didn’t want it to get back to Ashley I was upset about something involving her.

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I didn’t trust Ashley at the beginning so when Aislinn would say things like that, I often wondered if Ashley was behind it. Although Ashley and Sal were separated, she enjoyed letting me know she knew Sal better than I did. I was so critical of Ashley and myself I would read into every little thing and it would make me crazy. I will never know if anything I perceived as deliberate was or if it was just my anxiety and insecurities getting the best of me. Life in the early stages of c-parenting was complicated.

So many emotions hung on a single word or sentence. Aislinn was a child. She wasn’t being malicious, but even a child’s words can bring you to your knees. I also struggled with the relationship between Sal and Ashley. Their conversations, arrangements, and texts would naturally cause jealousy. I remember it being their anniversary and I was asked not to ride along to pick up Aislinn in case Ashley wanted to talk. I remember thinking, ‘Why does that matter?’ The mental trickery that went on almost broke me several times. I think we both considered each other a threat, trying to mark our territory, if you will. On certain holidays, Ashley would buy us both gifts, which was thoughtful but Sal’s would be personal. I think the first year she bought me a mug and him some cologne. I remember thinking, ‘How inappropriate for you to buy him a scent for me to smell as if you know him better than me?! Stay in your lane.’

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It was always made clear I was not Aislinn’s mother. I didn’t have their history and I was never going to be able to relate to their past. There are certain things I’ll never forget like picking up Aislinn from daycare but having to wait because I wasn’t on the ‘list.’ Or Aislinn introducing me to her friends and saying, ‘No, she’s just my stepmom.’ To this day, I’m left off of email communication because I’m not listed as a ‘primary’ parent.

I may not be the primary parent, but I do pick-ups, I do drop-offs, I do school plays, birthday parties, spirit week outfits, Valentine’s treats, I go to her sporting events, I do homework, I quiz her on spelling, I get her hair cut and her nails done, I take her to the dentist and the list goes on and on. My resume is impeccable, but I am just her stepmom.

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I can’t change the fact I didn’t birth Aislinn. But with time comes maturity. Aislinn grew to realize I wasn’t going anywhere. Sal’s respect for our relationship led to clear boundaries, and those clear boundaries led to respect between Ashley and me.

As Aislinn grew older, everyone settled into their new role. We went from having individual birthday parties to shared birthday parties. I would do Aislinn’s hair and Ashley would make the cake. Although we didn’t take pictures as a big group, we would take pictures for each other. Aislinn was always the priority. Sal never left me out. He never made decisions without consulting me and I think that was the foundation that led us to where we are today.

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A couple of years after their divorce, Ashley remarried and ended up having two children, Alexa (8) and Brock (6). A few years after that, Sal and I had two girls, Benning (4) and Demi (1). We married in November of 2020 and our blended family is stronger than ever. Group texts between the three of us are now texts with just Ashley and me. We have grown and evolved.

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For the longest time, I struggled to find my voice. As a child, I watched the dynamic in my household, but I was too young to have an opinion. I was too little to stand up to my stepsiblings, so I had a lot of thoughts that were never spoken. As a stepmom, it felt similar. Be seen and not heard. It’s not my daughter; it’s not my place. My opinion was just that, an opinion. Everything I wanted to say was filtered through Sal for consistency and unity purposes. I never wanted to make waves and jeopardize his possession schedule or time with his daughter.

I remember when Ashley had her first baby, I had two gifts from Pottery Barn Kids embroidered with an ‘A’ for Alexa, but Sal didn’t want me to give them to her. A friendship between her and I wasn’t encouraged in the early years. He wanted to keep things very separate. I often wondered, ‘How could I be a team player if I’m not allowed to be the bigger person?’ Now we have our own kids, I’m more confident in my ability to co-parent and parent.

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In the early years, I was young, I felt intimidated and inadequate. Sal and Ashley were both teachers and well versed. Eventually, I found my footing. If I want to know what’s going on at Aislinn’s school, I’ll email the teachers. If I have a question, I ask Ashley myself. Sal is no longer the middleman. Now Ashley and I handle the logistics and details. It’s taken so much of the pressure off our relationship. There’s no competition. We have separate lives but a common love, Aislinn. Ashley and I can have conversations without reading between the lines. She often compliments my ability to be ‘supermom’ and is forever thanking me for all I do. I compliment her style and ability to juggle a million things. There are no hidden agendas, we both genuinely want each other to do well.

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Now we each have our own children, it’s natural for them to be friends because they are close in age. When we are at soccer games, we sit with each other and our kids play. When we have birthday celebrations, we include each other because more times than none Aislinn is with the other parent on her sibling’s birthdays. Ashley made Demi’s first birthday cake and cupcakes for her party. She is an amazing baker. We even had Ashley over for Christmas this year because she was alone. Aislinn was with us and Alexa and Brock were with her ex-husband. No one should be alone on Christmas, not even my husband’s ex-wife.

Petya Hatch Photography

I think the real shift happened this past year. I let my guard down when my daughter Benning (4) was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes this past August. It was a PCP appointment that quickly turned into an urgent care visit and a 3-day stay at Cook’s Children’s Hospital. When we needed someone to help us watch our youngest Demi, who was 8 months old, Ashley was the first person that came to mind. I trusted her parenting and I knew she would treat Demi like her own. I wasn’t worried about anything other than the well-being of my children. That major life even put things in perspective.

Courtesy of Brogan Richie

When push comes to shove, we are family. No one knows the dynamic of our relationship but us. At the end of the day, we’re the ones advocating for Aislinn, as a team. My trust in Ashley led to her trusting me to pick up Brock and Alexa from school. We sit with each other at Aislinn’s basketball games and we are proud of each other. There is no jealousy, distrust, or resentment. It’s just two mothers navigating a co-parenting relationship.

April Pinto Photography

My advice for any woman entering a relationship as a stepmom is to take one day at a time. Your place is where you make it, not where someone puts you. Just as you’re trying to figure out your footing, so is everyone else. Don’t take things personally. You’re an easy target because you’re not the biological parent. That doesn’t mean you’re inadequate. I’ve learned consistency is key. Never stop showing up. Temper your expectations and be present. Have an open dialogue with your partner and make sure your voice is heard. Don’t be too critical of yourself. Everyone is doing their best.

April Pinto Photography

Try to look at the big picture. No child will ever say, ‘You cared too much.’ They will never say, ‘You were there for me too much.’ Be present for the big moments and the small ones. Take pictures together as a cohesive unit. I wish we did more of that. This way your kid(s) have one picture of their entire family. Don’t be afraid to seek counseling. Therapy did wonders for Sal and I and our ability to understand each other’s perspective. Don’t give up on the life you see for yourself.

Aislinn is now 12 and I’m 32.

I fought for the man of my dreams; I call him husband.

We now have three daughters that watch Tangled together.

I’m more than just a stepmom.”

April Pinto Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Brogan Richie. You can follow their journey on Instagram and Facebook. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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