The early days together. Two week road trip from Texas to Maine, down to Florida and back to Texas. Taken in Niagara Falls, NY.

When a woman falls in mad, crazy love, I don’t think her first thought is, “Oh my gosh, I want nothing more in the world than for his teenage daughter to move in with us.”

            Mine sure wasn’t.

            Everything changed when Liz stepped cautiously through the door of our house in Houston into the eager arms of Susanne and the beam of Clark’s smile. Liz aka “the Bean” moved in her things, set up her room, and established her life here, and I became insta-step-mom to an adolescent girl.  Or, as we call it at our house, the Momela.

            At first we couldn’t believe it. She left her mother and a large group of friends to live here.  It was summer, so she had no one to hang out with in Houston but Clark and Susanne (and Eric and me, and of course we are WAY cool).

            But Liz knew her own mind. She wanted her father, siblings, family dinners, rules, sports teams, routine, and — believe it or not — chores aka money-making opportunities. She immersed herself in activities with an incredible will. Sure, she complained from time to time, but she eagerly kept up her schedule of athletic practices, swim meets, volleyball tournaments, and choir concerts; this was what she wanted.  She stayed organized and made good grades without much parental prompting.

            She wanted friends too, and she soon had them. If there is anything more important to a girl in her early teens than her friends, I’ve yet to find it. We feed many extra teenagers.  I am a regular at Kroger for ramen noodles, mac and cheese, microwave popcorn, diet cola, and frozen pizza. Their giggles and Itunes are our sound track, and the backs of their heads as they Facebook the backdrop to our lives, a constant.

            Most weekend nights we “elect” to run them back and forth to their (many) activities rather than going to do something ourselves. Her friends have always been nice to me and treated me with respect. This is a really good sign. 

            So why, with all that is so easy and goes so right, is it so difficult to be a step-parent? Being a mother itself is not always easy, but I had figured out how to do that role.  But this Momela thing.  Whoa.

            As lucky as I am, as good as she is, it is still not easy.  She can be a wee bit irrational and PMS’y.   She is not always fun to be around.  But the same could be said of the other kids, or even of Eric and me. 

            What it comes down to, most of all, is that blending parental styles and rules is hard. There is no formula to figure out what fair looks like, sounds like, and feels like for kids that have grown up under slightly different rules. We can’t treat them all the same because they are not all the same, but how do we reconcile that between ourselves, and with them? Will they hate each other? Will they hate us?  And how do we reach the point where both Eric and I parent all the children instead of divvying them up and retreating into the easiness of “you’ve got yours and I’ll take mine?”

            There are other challenges, too. Liz had been coached to hate me. I was afraid of her when she got here; afraid of the thoughts in her head, and the things she had been told. It took me awhile to realize this important truth: children are capable of using their own minds, making their own judgments and decisions, and feeling their own feelings far before we as parents see that they are able to.

            Liz taught me this. She never once lived up to my fears and always exceeded my expectations of how willing she was to start fresh with me and make her own decisions. She balances that with love and respect for those others in her life who do not share our household’s opinion of me (goddess); this is a major feat.

            Liz had to overcome a past where she had been given almost everything material that she asked for. Our present finances would not allow that even if we wanted to sustain that lifestyle, and we don’t. We welcome the chance to help our kids learn personal responsibility and to be grateful and wise.

            Everyone that knew her feared Liz would ultimately hate our spendthrift ways. She has shocked us by embracing it. She has long lists of things she “needs” and we sometimes call her Liz “I-want” Hutchins, but she accepts no, most of the time. She would prefer to eat out, but she knows how much it costs to eat at home versus WingStop and can calculate the delta for you and give you a list of 10 other things that wasted money could have been spent on. She knows we usually buy Kroger store brand, and that she had better be ready to explain why non-generic is cheaper if she expects me to entertain her grocery store requests. She may not always toe the spending line, but our other kids dance around it, too.

            Liz sometimes pushes me, and pushes us, mostly about being where we want her to be when we want her to be there – she would prefer a much looser concept of deadlines and curfews. She has a way of stalling until she gets her way (staying later) by default.

            “I texted you to ask if I could be late,” she says, but her text arrived 15 minutes after her curfew.

            She  makes amazingly good choices most of the time. There is so much pressure on our teens to drink, use drugs, have sex, go to wild and unsafe parties, and for many other things we would shrink in horror if we only knew about. Bean asks to do every activity and party that comes her way, but she usually is able to choose the right path with little or no prompting if we just give her the time to work it out for herself. We are so proud of her when she does this. We hope she is able to keep it in the front of her mind that what she says Yes to now determines what we (and the world) say Yes to later.

            Like most teenagers, she finds it hard to enforce our rules with her friends, so I have learned to step in and help her without, I hope, embarrassing her too much. I encourage her to let me be the bad guy rather than break our rule. It’s tough for a girl to say to a young (cute!) boy, “I am not allowed to have boys in this room.” She is very gracious about me saying it for her instead.

            “Liz has the strictest step-mother in the world, and I don’t let boys in here, but you guys can watch a movie in either of these two other rooms,” I explain.

            The hardest hurdles for me to cross in becoming a true Momela have been “calling” Liz on behavioral issues. I hate to discipline or “lecture” her, and she isn’t crazy about it either.  I have learned that Liz tries very, very hard to do what she is told. She is strong and will disagree if she doesn’t think you are right, but she has made a visible effort to do better at things I have asked of her like communicating her plans early and sticking to them, making eye contact with an angry adult, and saying please, thank you, and I’m sorry.

            As for affection, Liz is not much of a hugger with her own parents, while I am in the habit of hugging my “birth” kids all the time. To my discredit, I still have trouble putting my arms around her and holding her.  As time goes on however, she is softer and more receptive to me touching her in other ways – patting her, putting my hand on her shoulder, stroking or braiding her hair, touching her face. She also loosens up for my touch much more if she is between Eric and me, so we get some warmth and contact in all lined up on the bed or couch for a movie.       

            Thank goodness for the times our kids are sick enough to need us; once when we were all sick with the flu, I spent hours with her curled up in bed between Susanne and me with Clark on my other side.  Despite the hacking coughs and violent sneezes, it was really nice.

            There are shockingly few challenges, really, and Liz is a joy and so easy to love. She entertains us all, and not just because we love watching her many athletic endeavors. Liz is sometimes a teenager, but she is often just a girl. We smile at her bouncing-up-an-down happiness when she announces a new boyfriend, and feel sheepishly sorry for the poor kid knowing he’ll be dumped in a week in her enthusiasm for the next one.

            One night Eric gave her and her friends a ride home from the theater and was greeted by the breathless exclamation of oh-my-gosh-Dad-I-have-a-new-boyfriend, to which he replied, “Liz you tell me that every time I pick you up from the movies.”

            Time spent on appearance is endless. Her hair is curly and beautiful, the exact hair I coveted at her age. She of course hates it and straightens it until it comes out looking a lot like what God gave me on my head. She spends even more time trying on and discarding outfits (and I do mean discarding, right onto the floor, not back onto the hanger) in her daily panic over having nothing to wear.

            She loves to shop but is very careful with her own money. She will even drag me to three or four stores only to decide to buy nothing.  I actually love this about her, that she can deprive herself of something and hang onto her money if she doesn’t really need it or it isn’t just right. And while Liz is given complete wardrobes of beautiful clothes as gifts by her mother, she usually wears the tops she chooses so carefully to spend her own money on.

            I am the daytime taxi driver for the kids, and I learned that I usually have a few minutes in the car or right after Bean gets home that she will open up and talk. I think Eric treasures these moments even more than I do, because it’s normally girl stuff that she doesn’t ever talk to him about. Sometimes Bean uses these times to “practice” for something she is scared to talk to her father or another friend or loved one about. Occasionally she even listens to my advice, and I have overheard her repeating my words verbatim to her friends as she suggests how they should handle one of the frequent scraps young girls get into.

            She surprises me every now and then, this girl who is another woman’s daughter. For instance, I did not even realize she was reading my writing until she said, “Pamela, you have inspired me to write, and I wrote a story. Will you read it?”

            I don’t know if she could possibly understand how that touched my heart.

            Another time, Susanne was writing words in the window fog inside the car and I asked if she wrote “I love Mommy.”

            “Why would I do that?” Susanne asked.

            Liz a few seconds later said, “Hey, look at my window,” where she had written “I love Pamela” across it.  I had to stop the car to hug her and tell her she was officially now my favorite daughter (and make Susanne walk the rest of the way home [not really]).

            Eric went to India for a few weeks during our first blendered year.  Liz not only was “alone” with Clark, Susanne, and me for a full week, but she also had 3 days of really alone time with me while Clark and Susanne were visiting their father. There was not a single moment where I felt she tried to take advantage of me with Eric gone, or where she was anything less than fully considerate, respectful and friendly.

            How many step-moms are this lucky?

            I gave her plenty of “rope” during this time, and she handled it well. She had boys over, and she got them out of the house on time. She beat her curfew by three minutes. She went to get her nails and hair done with me. I brought her home from a dance party (along with eight other kids in our Suburban) and she had her entire group out to the car right on time.

            But I think the biggest sign that I have become a Momela is that it has become okay for both Liz and I to be real. When she was first here, Liz was unnaturally nice, too nice, too perfect. I worried that she seemed to be afraid to mess up, almost like she thought that we would send her away if she displeased us, especially me.

I felt a little of that myself. If I had an ugly mood swing and yelled at the kids, or Eric and I had an argument and the kids were aware of it, would she run away, and if she did, could Eric ever forgive me?

            We’re over it now.

            If Liz or I need to have an ugly mood swing, we have it and the world doesn’t end.

            It’s funny to look at the two of us being bad as a good sign, but it is. Occasionally we compete for her father’s affection; I can feel it, but it’s okay. I hope she really realizes we want her here with us NO MATTER WHAT. Behaving badly is not a problem, anymore.

            Liz Hutchins coming into my home and becoming my step-daughter was an amazing gift. Clark and Susanne love her madly. Eric’s kids are the apples of his eye and to have her here with us makes his life so much more complete. Liz has enriched my life, she makes me laugh and I am very proud of her.

            I have wasted a lot of time fretting over what I am to be: step-mother? friend? mentor? annoyance? coach? caregiver? taxi driver? procurement specialist? In the first nine months she has lived with us, my role slowly defined itself into what it was meant to be.

            I am the Momela. You know, this Momela thing is turning out to be not so hard, after all.


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