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By Hanley Foundation Prevention Coordinator Nancy Valdes 

When I married in 2000, I instantly became a stepmom, which was not a title I ever thought I would hold. My parents had been married 30 years, so my experience in life was that a family was forever. I was brought up to believe that after God, your family is the most important thing. The bonds and relationships that you have in your family are unconditional. When someone in my family faces hardships, problems, or challenges, we face these together as a family. My idea of marriage, my experience, and what I had encountered said that marriage is forever.

Here I was, stepping into a role I did not understand or have experience.

I was the owner and director of a childcare facility, which meant that loving and caring for other people’s kids was something I knew well.

Back then, the relationship between my husband and his ex-wife was estranged. He was sending child support, but due to anger and resentment on both parts, he did not have a relationship with his son. I began to advocate for my stepson. I wanted the adults to understand that he needed both his mom and his dad in his life. 

Finally, one day, she agreed to have us come over and meet him. While my husband ran around and played with his son, I sat and talked with his ex-wife. She shared her fears and explained what her friends had been saying to her. I came to realize that she was scared. Her friends had been telling her that if she let us into her son’s life, we would take her son away from her. They were telling her that because we were more financially stable, the courts would award us custody. I was able to reassure her that we would never do that to her. What we wanted was only to be a part of his life.

We wanted what was in the best interest of the child.

Communication was key. It was the thing that helped us to all come to an understanding. We realized that we could all work together to give my stepson a life of happiness, mental health, a sense of security, and healthy emotional development. All too often, we require respect from our children, but we fail to understand that we first need to model it. As the adults in his life, we were able to model mutual respect. He saw a family unit that supported him in everything. As far as he was concerned, he had a mom, a dad, and “a Nancy.” 

This didn’t mean that we got it all right all the time; it meant that we never stopped trying to get it right.

In the beginning, his mom would drop off both him and his older brother. I quickly realized that his older brother was going through a period in his life where he was seeking attention. He was continually saying, “look at me,” and “watch me.” I called and explained that it might be better for all involved if she kept her older son on weekends, and we kept my stepson. This would give both kids time to receive undivided attention. She understood what I was saying and agreed to try it that way.

As I said, communication is key. The adults have to be willing to listen to each other, and we need to empathize and understand one another’s feelings. We have to talk it out and come up with solutions together; we have to encourage one another and to see our problems through an agreed-upon solution.

This models respect, communication, and problem resolution for our children.

You may have noticed that a great deal of communication was between my husband’s ex-wife and myself rather than between him and his ex-wife. That might not work for everyone, but it worked for us. My husband was serving in the United States Marine Corp. When he went away for training and deployment,  communication is what allowed me to remain in contact with my stepson.

His ex-wife called me once and said, “I don’t know if this is strange. I know Ricardo is not there, but will you come to the birthday party that I am throwing for our son?”

I responded, “That is not weird at all. Yes, I will be there!” 

Now her friends did find it weird, and my husband’s family found it strange. But she and I partnered throughout the whole event. For us, it was not weird!

When my husband was deployed, his ex-wife called me at night and said, “Sorry to bother you, but he doesn’t want to go to bed until he gets to say goodnight to his Nancy!” 

Today, I have a 21-year-old stepson who calls me his second mom! When he is excited, worried, or discouraged about something, it doesn’t matter what time it is. First, he calls his mom, and then he calls me.  

Remember, you are the model your child or stepchild is looking to.