At the suggestion of my husband Daniel, we spent the last year listening to the Harry Potter series audiobooks with my stepson. When we started at the start of the pandemic, we weren’t sure if my stepson, then only 6, would be able to sit still and pay attention to the narrator. While he quickly became interested in the story, we struggled those first few months as the three of us listened as a family, frequently stopping to tell him to stop struggling on the living room beanbag and to stay still.
But by the time we reached the third book, we noticed that we didn’t have to stop to correct his behavior almost as often. We are now on the final book, which we hope to complete in time for our long-awaited visit to Harry Potter World in Orlando. He listens intently, only occasionally raising his hand to ask a relevant question about the book – and trust me, he asked a few obsessed people how things work at Hogwarts. Hope no one introduces him to JK Rowling’s Twitter feed.
I’m not sure if the maturity led to his calmer demeanor or if it’s repeating this activity for the three nights each week that we have it, but his willingness to sit down and listen to the books s ‘is spread to other areas of previous frustrations, such as focusing her on the job at the table and following her football coach’s instructions. Has nature taken its course or fed on good habits? I have no idea.
We often hear about parenthood from the perspective of nature versus education. As a step-parent, I know that I only have education as an option in shaping my husband’s son – I can never brag that he has my brain or my athletic skills (the latter is absolutely to its advantage). But this “limitation” on feeding him has proven to be rewarding in so many ways, such as seeing him show good sportsmanship in football games, encourage him to read books that I know he will enjoy and. use literature to teach him social justice when he might not learn it at his age otherwise.
It is sometimes hilarious for me to see the traits of my husband in my stepson. Even at this age, they share a quirky sense of humor and a love for non-sequiturs. In turn, when I catch my husband doing something that we often see in my stepson, I tease my husband, “Where did that come from?” The three of us walk around our house, quoting sketch lines from “Tim and Eric” that my stepson has (luckily) never seen but takes great pleasure in doing.
I didn’t expect to become a parent. As soon as I got to know my stepson, I immersed myself in a mother-in-law culture: a Facebook group here, a podcast there. It has become clear that for some it is difficult to be a step-parent because you are often seen as a third level authority figure and the last to know anything. But I think I had it fairly easy: Daniel is very outgoing, keeping me up to date with football schedule changes or logistical issues long before I ask. And he’s always encouraged my parenthood to a level that I feel comfortable with. Early in our relationship and before the pandemic, that meant I could “escape” to practice roller derby or go to a cafe to write. Her pressure-free attitude made it easier for me to approach parenthood in a more natural way and at my own pace. And the more I got to know Daniel’s son, the more time I wanted to spend with him.
Because I’m not a biological parent, at first I had this little voice in my head that was ready to give me a pass for whatever happened to my stepson. Perhaps minimizing the burden of my responsibility has relieved some of the pressure, especially for someone who wasn’t considering parenting. But now that voice is long gone. I am much more invested in the accomplishments, efforts, actions and words of my stepson than I could have anticipated.
Practice and rehearsal are the tools of education, and they can enhance the talent that nature bestows upon. My stepson came by his intelligence honestly. He has intelligent biological parents who brought their own mix of interests and personality traits to who he is. But I would be surprised if he had the excellent vocabulary he has without me, as I’m a person who frankly never learned to talk to children and ends up talking to them sometimes as if they were adults. He surely wouldn’t have the reading comprehension of a third grader without the books we read, many of them on social justice issues. And whether he realizes it or not, I’m the one who brought vegetables into the house. A notoriously picky eater, my stepson skated with nothing green on his plate for the first five years of his life, at least that’s what I’m told. We started adding broccoli and Brussels sprouts to the mix, which was a horrible struggle at first. But after nearly three years roasting vegetables and knowing that he doesn’t leave the table until he has eaten them, he eats them.
But my moment of glory as a step-parent was this spring, on the football field. My stepson is athletic, something almost impossible for me to understand – my athletic endeavors only started when I started playing roller derby at 25. But while Daniel always tells his son to be aggressive and take pictures and do whatever it takes to get to the ball, I always step in at the end with my own rhetoric to make sure he having fun and that he’s a good teammate.
The other day he was playing in a football match and he shot on goal. The goalie on the other team was a little girl and she caught the ball on a skillful save. Without wasting time, my stepson said to him: “Good job! “
I’m not about to take credit for his good sportsmanship alone, but I feel like he listens to me when I tell him to make it a priority. This kid gets a lot of messages from authority figures, and sometimes he gets them from competitors. But I know he’s always listening.
While I am more than happy to leave the nature versus culture debate to the parental experts, I can say how surprised I am at the level of pride and satisfaction I feel when seeing the results of culture alone. I hope this tool will serve me well.