I never wanted kids. They always struck me as tiny little bombs with perpetually runny noses and mysteriously sticky hands. I couldn't imagine loving a child of my own, never mind someone else's. My aversion to parenthood is the very reason I entered into a relationship with a young father so fearlessly. I was in my early twenties, had three serious relationships under my belt, and thought I knew everything there was to know about love.
Spoiler alert — I knew nothing.
I had fallen for him before I met his daughter, and managed to convince myself that sudden parenthood was not going to be a deal-breaker. I was blindly confident that everything would just work out and that his daughter's existence couldn't possibly alter my feelings. It was all going fine.
Then, I met Gwen.
I remember hiding in the house when she was dropped off, terrified and desperate to get out of there. Before I knew it, her father had made his way upstairs with her and was laying down next to me with Gwen on his chest. The little girl before me had a serious case of bed-head and was quietly sucking away on her pacifier. She wasn't quite the toddler-tornado for which I'd been bracing myself. After peering curiously at me for what seemed like an eternity, her big brown eyes locked on mine.
She smiled. I felt my stomach drop.
At that very moment, I unwittingly gave away a piece of my heart that I would never get back; I'd never want it back. She was just shy of two years old the day I became her "Teph," and was rapidly approaching five when we parted ways. In those short, perfectly imperfect years of tantrums, potty training, and gibberish, she would teach me more about love than any man ever had.
I don't regret a second of the time we spent together, but I wish someone had warned me how hard it was all going to be.
Being a stepparent is not for the faint of heart. Even those who start out with the best of intentions will eventually become Public Enemy #1. You can try to remain impartial, but sooner or later you will find yourself sucked into a vortex of legalese, petty arguments, and losing battles. If you're not careful, it can turn you into a power-hungry, bitter person who looks at love as though it is a competition. The worst part of all of this is that it's not just you who suffers. In trying to make everything better, you'll inadvertently make it all worse by hurting an innocent child.
In my case, things started out rocky. Her mom and dad were still getting their footing as parents and there were growing pains compounded by my presence. Her mother and I met, spoke a few times to clear the air, and even attempted a friendship before it all degraded.
Suddenly, every day of the week was a battle between father and mother. I felt impotent, useless, and beaten down by the constant reminder that nothing I wanted would ever truly matter. I was displaced — my heart told me that I was part of a family, and yet the fact remained that I'd always be on the outside. It wasn't my name on emergency contact forms. I had no right to pick her up from preschool or to even spend time with her alone. The title of "dad's girlfriend" was weightless and it was unbearable.
My need to feel important drove me to involve myself. I desperately clawed my way into every argument he had with her until finally, it became mother versus stepmother. After a while, I couldn't take the pressure and anxiety. I possessed all the feelings, stress, worry, and love of a mother with none of the rights. I simply couldn't tolerate that I was expendable, and in the end, my fear became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In trying to find my place in the puzzle, all I did was destroy the picture. Before I knew it, he found a new piece to fit in my place.
I remember the moment I realized I'd never see her again. I was still reeling from the breakup and prone to spontaneous bouts of sobbing. I would cry the hardest in my shower, because it was the one place that no one could hear me. After standing there for upwards of forty five minutes trying to understand why I felt more broken than I ever had after a failed relationship, it finally struck me — I lost two people, not just one. I could funnel my feelings towards her father into anger at him, but what was I to do with my heartbreak over her?
I walked through life in a daze for months afterward. I had thought being a stepmom was isolating, but quickly discovered that it's even more devastatingly lonely to love a child you'll never see again. One moment I was a stranger, then suddenly I was a stepmom, and before I knew it I was an estranged stepmom. I was supposed to move on with my life as though I had never known what it is like to love a child as your own. I was expected to accept that there would just always be a hole in my heart.
Despite the fact that we live in an age with a high divorce rate and kids commonly born out of wedlock, there is no easily accessible support for young stepparents. You'll find even less geared towards former stepparents. I searched everywhere from legal forums to books to Facebook groups, but there were no blogs or social circles for me to lean on. My friends were all in their early twenties and couldn't relate. At that stage in life, most of them considered the idea of an unwanted pregnancy to be far more of a travesty than losing a child that was never mine to begin with.
So I held it in. I would write unsent letters to her from time to time, or make blog posts venting about my grief. Some days I would be fine, but then I'd hear a song, or visit a place we had gone together. Sometimes it would be a photo that would break me. I'd trip over my own memories and find myself spiraling down the rabbit hole that existed in my heart. Most holidays were tough. Her birthday was worse.
I never got to say goodbye to her. After a while, I convinced myself that she had forgotten about me.
I was wrong.
Two years after the last time I saw Gwen, her mother contacted me to say that her daughter had been talking about me, and we struck up a long, heartfelt conversation. It was the type of talk I wish we'd been able to have years prior; one free of anger, jealousy, and immaturity.
One year later, Gwen and I picked up right where we left off. She was taller, her face and arms had thinned out, but she still had the same tiny voice and wide smile when she launched herself into my arms again for the first time in three years. Her mom has since become one of my closest friends and they are now both a part of my family. We catch up regularly and take vacations together. Both mother and daughter were in my wedding party. I haven't missed any more of her birthdays, and ensure I'm there for all the other big life moments.
I know that my story is an anomaly. Happy endings for former stepparents are rare. Most simply break ties with their partners and never again see the children they once considered family.
If you have a hole in your heart like I did, I want to tell you what I needed to hear back then: It's okay to hurt, cry, scream, rant, and fall apart. It's okay to miss them. It's okay to speak their names. Most importantly, it's okay to tell someone that you were once a stepparent and now you're not.