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by Melinda Brown, Stepmom for 5 years, Houston, Texas

Editorial Note: Are you a stepparent who needs a little inspiration? Read on...
(The following was submitted by Melinda Brown for the Chicken Soup for the Stepfamily Soul book. She has graciously given us permission to share it with you.)

I come from the type of family environment that these days one might call “old school”. Kids should respect their elders, say “Yes, Ma’am”, “No, Ma’am”, “thank you” and “please”. They should give up their chair when an adult comes into the room if none is available, and never argue or talk back. These behaviors, among others, were drilled into mine and my sibling’s heads from birth, as they were for my parents and their parents before them. If we made the unfortunate mistake of forgetting our manners, you can be sure our parents, usually my mom, would let us know! If we were in public this was accomplished with little more than a raised eyebrow accompanied by a stare that carried more meaning than any words could ever hope to convey. And you know we understood every time!

Never having had children of my own, entering the world of a step-mom was an intimidating and uncertain path that I chose to take when I married my husband. Over the last four years, I’ve often thought about the ways I influence my step-kids, and I hope I’m doing a good job. I like to think I am.

My step-daughter Natalie, having just turned thirteen and entered the mysterious and challenging world of a teenager, is one of the brightest, generous, dramatic, and most energetic kids I’ve ever met. She’s in ballet, an honor student and a “peer mediator” (a group of students nominated and chosen by the school faculty and staff to assist other students in conflict resolution) at her school, and has a quick wit and wonderful sense of humor. My stepson Nick is ten, very affectionate, and has a funny sense of humor as well. He’s a little introverted and a little oblivious, as most ten-year-old boys can often be. And although he doesn’t always show it, he’s extremely smart.

My step-kids live with their mother and stepfather, and my husband and I only have time with them two or three weekends a month and Wednesday evenings. This doesn’t allow very much time to instill the values and attitudes towards life that we feel are necessary for them to become well-rounded, self-sufficient, respectful adults. We spend a lot of that time trying to reinforce the same ideas from previous visits, while also making sure to enjoy them for who they are now, and to build a strong loving relationship with them. This can be difficult, but it’s the hand we were dealt and we do the best we can.

As a step-mom for whom parenting is a completely new world, I find that it can be stressful, and at times a thankless job. Granted, this is true for any parent, whatever their family structure might be. However, when it comes to trying to teach your step-kids the way others should be treated (when your own values and morals might be different from that of the custodial or biological parent), a stepparent’s voice is the last to be heard, if it’s being heard at all. As frustrating as this can be, from time to time, something does happen that shows me my efforts just might not be in vain.

My husband comes from a more lenient family environment than I do, as does his ex-wife, and they both carry residual guilt towards their children from a bitter divorce. There’s also the fear of their children rejecting them for the other parent if he or she is too strict, or the other parent’s home is “more fun”. This can sometimes keep them from being as strict as I believe a situation might call for.

As a step-mom I feel I’m able to be more objective, not influenced by the experiences and subsequent feelings that my husband must deal with. Because of this, in our house it’s usually fallen on me to remind Natalie and Nickolas of their manners and try to teach them certain behaviors expected in “polite” society. I believe my efforts over the last four years are proving worthwhile, and this became clear to me on a warm sunny day last summer.

One weekend my husband and I took the kids to visit my parents. They live in a rural area in east Texas, in a cute little house that overlooks the Angelina River. We adults were all out on the back deck, enjoying the lazy day, relaxing in the shade from the overhanging trees. The kids were swimming in the shallow bank of the river where my dad had long ago roped off the area creating a safe “lagoon” and small sandy beach.

My grandma was there as well. She is the matriarch of our family, and I respect her more than any other woman I know. This respect is given with love, but has been earned over a lifetime. Her work ethic pushed her in hard times, she administered strong discipline when needed, and warm hugs were given often and for no reason. She gave nourishment to our bodies with a bountiful table, and nourishment to our souls with her love, and her knowledge and teachings of God and his presence in our lives. This is the woman who helped to instill those manners in me that I try so hard to instill in my husband’s children.

On this warm sunny day, Natalie and Nick were their usual selves, the center of attention, catching my parents and grandma up on their latest accomplishments and adventures, and basking in the knowledge that these people think the world of them, and love them as if they were linked by blood.

The kids had finished swimming and joined us on the deck, and were talking with my grandma. I was sitting next to my mom, talking about something or other, with one ear tuned to the laughter and chatter between them. I don’t really know what they were talking about, but I remember watching my grandma’s face and seeing the joy she felt just being around these children. They weren’t aware that I was listening, thinking I was in deep conversation with my mom. That’s when my attention was caught by something my grandma was saying to Natalie, “Natalie girl, where’d you learn such good manners?”

I’m not sure what Natalie had done to warrant this question, but I listened with even more awareness, waiting to hear what little “gem” she would have to say, or even the expected, “My mom.”

Instead, as she was turning to run into the house with Nick, I heard two little words, said simply and without hesitation, “Mindy did!”

“Well, it seems she’s doing things right then!” Grandma said as Natalie turned to go.

No one else noticed that little exchange between Natalie and Grandma, but the implication of what had happened struck me with some surprise. To me those two little words held more meaning than anything I’ve heard since. They struck my heart, and filled me with emotion, and such a sense of pride.

My step-kids have a good mother and stepfather that they live with and a wonderful, loving dad who cherishes every moment he can spend with them. Yet I, the person they have known for only four years, the one who insists they pick up after themselves, who gets onto them when they’re being mean to each other, and enforces the rules that their dad might choose to overlook; I was the one Natalie gave the credit to.

After Natalie had gone into the house with Nick, I turned to my mom, struck with emotion. She’s always been able to read my face pretty well (sometimes to my frustration!) or tell when I’m upset, and she asked me what had happened. I told her what Natalie had said, and she looked at me, smiling, and putting her arms around me she said, “Mindy, don’t you know you are one of the most important people in those kid’s lives? And how good a job you’re doing with them?”

Being a step-mom is a hard job. There are many obstacles one must face, many pre-conceived judgments about how you do your job, based on the actions of those “evil” stepmothers who don’t understand their role. As I was growing up and dreaming of how my life might turn out, “step-mom” was never a role I thought I’d be in. But, I took on this role aware of those obstacles, and with an understanding of how my attitude and actions might effect these children’s lives.

It’s amazing how something that occurred in only the space of a few seconds can influence you for the rest of your life. But, my confidence in the way I parent, and my ability to trust and believe in myself when it comes to how I relate to these two kids, have been effected so strongly by those two little words that Natalie spoke. Those are the moments that keep me going.