WFPP Guest Post: Feminist parenting when you’re Not The Mama

This entry to the Womanist/Feminist Parenting Primer comes from Maria, a stepmother in a noncustodial parenting situation.

She discusses the ways that she has had to accept her “last-rung” status in the collective of her stepdaughter’s parenting figures — but then, through conversations with her stepdaughter about having babies and NOT having babies, realizes that she is expanding her stepdaughter’s awareness of what it means to be female and the choices a woman has available to her. She realizes that rather than being a detriment, as the kyriarchy would have us believe, the wide variety of perspectives her stepdaughter is exposed to is ultimately helping her “[become] an insightful, capable and wise woman” — the goal of any feminist mother raising a girl child.

Feminist parenting when you’re Not The Mama

One quality that I have always admired in other people is perspective–a broad understanding of many different conditions and points of view, and the ability to perceive things and situations based on that understanding; to step outside of one’s own experiences and consider those of others. I’ve realized that what makes perspective so valuable is the fact that, as much as it is quality we wish to cultivate in our children, it’s impossible to impart single-handedly.

This is part of my story about perspective–about my expanding perspective as a woman becoming a stepparent, and about the ways I can contribute to the perspectives of others.

When I met the person who would become my spouse, he had already been a father for four and a half years. He is and has always been a noncustodial parent, meaning that while he and his daughter’s mother have joint legal custody, they do not equally share what is called “physical custody”; his daughter lives primarily with her mother and spends some weekends and summer time with him.

This arrangement gave me some time to adjust to the idea of committing myself not only to my partner, but to his daughter as well. Being on the noncustodial side of things isn’t always great in terms of spending time together or in terms of the parental learning curve, but it did mean that I could ease my way into the family and continue, at least for a while, to live as a more typical young single woman. I was fortunate that my partner’s daughter embraced me with unequivocal enthusiasm, and by the time we moved in together, I had long since begun to incorporate the role of stepmother into my identity.

It wasn’t easy. I had previously thought that if I had a child someday, I’d be able to raise that child with my own feminist values. I suppose that, like many fantasies of parenthood, that particular one assumed a certain level of control and power that most parents come to discover is much harder to maintain than they expected (“You’re not raising them in a vacuum,” as many of my elders remind me). Being a parent of any kind means accepting how little control you actually possess.

But on top of that, here I was in a position of more extreme powerlessness. Despite the fact that I don’t usually like to think in hierarchical terms, I must admit that I often feel like I’m the bottom rung in some imaginary ladder of my stepdaughter’s parental figures. I have not known her her whole life (her bio-parents and -grandparents have), and I do not live with or even near her most of the time (her mother, stepfather and maternal grandparents do). I hold relatively little influence. Even so, I wanted to be just as good a role model as I would for a legal/full-time resident child. I just wasn’t sure how that would work.

During the first couple of years, my stepdaughter would constantly compare me to her mother. She was never looking to get a rise out of me, nor do I think she was judging, criticizing or trying to reject me; the simple fact is, she’s very close to her mother, and that was the basis she had for exploring her relationship with another younger female parental figure. I didn’t mind, but all the same, I did find myself at a loss when she would say things like, “I think you should have a baby. My mom already had two and you’re the same age!”

I tried to frame my responses in terms of how I felt or what I wanted, and not in terms of absolutes. My stepdaughter’s mom (who also self-identifies as a feminist) has simply made different decisions than I have, and it’s not my place to judge or to even to speculate as to the reasons for her choices. I can only speak for myself. As insignificant as I sometimes felt, I knew I just had to be honest and explain where I was coming from, so that at the very least, she would understand that women are free to make different decisions, and that that doesn’t make us any better or worse than each other.

I explained that first of all, I probably could have a baby if I wanted to, but just because I can doesn’t mean that I have to. Personally, I didn’t feel like I was ready or old enough. I had a lot of other things I wanted to do first. Second of all, that was a decision that her dad and I would have to make together, and it was something we hadn’t seriously talked about yet. And after a while, she began to see where I was coming from. More importantly, she began to comprehend an awesome paradox: the womanly power to bear children is also the power not to.

Every so often, I have an experience with my stepdaughter that assures me that she gets it; she’s getting better at connecting the dots. One day, about a year ago, when she was seven, she asked me, “Why did Granny Jo [my mother] only have two children?”

I started to say something generic about some people having small families and some having big ones, yadda yadda, and she said, “No, I mean, how did she only have two children?”

Wait a minute. Did my stepdaughter just ask me about contraception?

“Do you mean, how did she keep from having more than two?” She nodded.

Well. I knew that she understood how reproduction works, so I asked her, “What are some ways you can imagine that a woman might keep from getting pregnant?”

“…Maybe have an operation?” [Whoa, easy there!]

“Actually, yeah,” I said, “Some people, men and women, decide to have operations to keep from being able to help make a baby. But how do people make a baby in the first place?”

“They have sex?”

“Right, or at least that’s the simplest way for most people to get their egg and sperm together. You can’t make a baby unless you put an egg and sperm together somehow. So, an easy way not to make a baby would be not to have sex.”

“So…you’ve never had sex?”

Jeez. Walked right into that one.

“Well…the thing is, adults like having sex. It feels good to them, and it’s one way for them to feel close to each other. They like it even if they don’t want to make a baby. So your dad and I do have sex, but I don’t want to get pregnant now. One example of something I’ve done to keep from getting pregnant is I’ve taken medicine that keeps me from ovulating. You always need both a sperm and an egg to make a baby. If there’s no egg, it won’t work.”

That seemed to answer her question for the time being. She thought for a minute, then changed the subject and kept right on talking in that way a seven-year-old does when her train of thought is going 200 miles an hour.

That evening at dinner, she asked her dad if he ever does anything to keep from making a baby. I didn’t have to spell it out for her–she had already figured out that contraception isn’t just a woman’s responsibility.

After conversations like that one, I’ve felt that it doesn’t matter if ours isn’t the custodial household, or if I’m not her primary (or secondary, or even tertiary) parent. As long as she feels comfortable asking me questions, and as long as I respect her enough to listen and give her my best in terms of an honest answer, I’m adding to her concept of what is possible. Each of the other adults in her life adds something different. And with perspective like hers, she is on her way to becoming an insightful, capable and wise woman.

Maria is an urban homesteader and gardener, AmeriCorps alumna, musician, on-again-off-again student, and stepmom. She lives in the DC area with her spouse, two cats, and eight-year-old stepdaughter (some of the time). You can find more of her writing at Small Red House.

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4 Responses to WFPP Guest Post: Feminist parenting when you’re Not The Mama

  1. I think stepparenting has got to be one of the most difficult and complicated kinds of parenting out there so my hat is off to Maria for not only embracing and understanding her role, but performing it so very, very well. Brava!

  2. I think that kids can never have too many supportive and caring adults in their lives. Truly. And I agree that having many people caring for them leads to many perspectives. It sounds like your stepdaughter is very lucky to have you as part of her community of care.

  3. What a great post! I love how you treat your stepdaughter with respect and honesty even in potentially uncomfortable situations. Actually, this struck a chord with me that I can’t fully explain… I’m inspired by it though.

    Thank you.

  4. thanks, all. i was really happy that arwyn provided the opportunity to share my experiences with you. it’s true; i don’t think most folks dream of being stepparents when they grow up, but the fact is, there are a lot of single parents and their kids out there, and someone’s gotta love ‘em. :)

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