I know. Those of you who have followed me for years have just keeled over in shock seeing Finley, six feet tall, and a boy now in possession of a beard. Honestly? It makes no more sense to me than it does to you. Where did the little boy in all these posts go? Thank heavens then that he is still as funny and as wonderful as always.
But this post isn't about Finn. It is about the other lovely boy laughing beside him. Stevie. My step-son of six years. Him and me. Me step-mumming and bumbling my way through challenges I could not predict and him growing much faster than I saw Finn do, because the gaps between when he is here and when he isn't mean that every inch he grows takes me by surprise, in a way I barely notice with my own boy.
Stevie was nine when I met him. Standing always just behind Ste's legs. His shyness then in stark contrast to Finley's chaotic exuberance. A mite of a kitten encountering a boisterous Labrador puppy, ultimately destined to be the best of friend-brothers. While I have always had the easiest of relationships with children, (probably because I am frankly ludicrous and the nonsense that comes out of my mouth makes them laugh), Stevie was a hard nut to crack and Ste's instinctive protection after the trauma of his split from Stevie's Mum didn't make it easier. But I persevered because I love Ste and I knew I would love Stevie and bit by bit their defences came down until our weekends together became a riot of noisy boys and easy family togetherness.
But there have of course been challenges. For I didn't understand the complexities of step-parenting then. Though I did my due-diligence and read as if I was preparing for an exam in step-parenting, I simply hadn't predicted how hard it would be. Not to love Stevie. Loving him was the easy bit. But to navigate the territory between the former relationship between his Mum and Dad. Ste's sorrow at not being a full time Dad and his anger at Stevie's Mum after she had moved from around the corner to somewhere over forty minutes away. Stevie's Mum's instant suspicion that I existed to get in the way of a relationship she wanted on her own terms though she had since re-married and had a little girl. Stevie himself, probably bewildered by my wont to talk endlessly, to understand and to be-friend, when his Mum is so very, very different.
I made mistakes. Lots of them. I underestimated the pull of Ste's guilt at not being a full-time Father and I failed to understand that my easy way of loving those I consider family might just be overwhelming, or threatening to a man so determined to be a better father to Stevie, than his own was to him. I thought all separated parents had the same easy and mutually respectful relationship that I had with Mark and that flexibility and accommodation of all three families concerned would come naturally. But it wasn't always the case and the firmer the family ties in our house became the faster they were unpicked, with demands for money and time and endless criticisms of Ste's gentle and kind parenting skills when those demands weren't met.
And in the midst of it all was Stevie himself. Watching his Dad's mental health ebb and flow and sitting, always so quiet in the midst of us. Leaving me muddled. Was he worried? Scared? How did he feel? Over his early teenage years it was so hard to tell. I didn't know how to help him. His own Mum wouldn't discuss it with him so I knew he didn't have even the tiniest clue of what was happening to his dad and I tried too hard to bridge that gap for him. Where Finn gives us all a running commentary of every thought in his head, Stevie is, like his Dad, prone to the kind of the silence I worried would tell on him in future years.
I made mistakes. I talked at him. I talked and talked and talked. Tried to explain. Tried to help him understand things he may have not been ready to understand. But soon I learned that if I too sat in silence when we were alone, he would eventually fill that silence with something he wanted to share with someone he knew would listen. That he wasn't silent. He just didn't communicate in the way I expected him too because he isn't Finn. How crucial that realisation was: he isn't Finn.
Step-parenting you see isn't instinctive like parenting our own children is. It includes a kind of yearning for connection that isn't rightly ours. We have to learn who those we have been gifted through a relationship are and that takes time. It is easy to compare them with our own kids. To express doubt about the way they are brought up and to sometimes feel deeply angry that our advice as a Mum is ignored by both Father and child because it has no basis in their history, the child's existence at home with his Mother, or even their understanding.
For there was no doubt that Ste and I have two very different boys, and that Stevie's Mum's values were at the opposite end of the parenting spectrum to mine and that never the twain shall meet. And it makes life as a step-mum incredibly hard. A constant game of holding your tongue or over-stepping the mark. Of balancing the books so that there was equity between the two boys and indeed Stevie's other family and ours. Though Ste has often taken my frustration as judgement, to me it has always just been part of what it is to grow roots together: to keep on keeping on working at understanding as our strength as a family unit grow. To ride the storms and not let what could have so easily divided us, win.
I have made mistakes. Too many of them. Where Finn is constantly joyful, Stevie can brood, hood up and earbuds stuffed in his ears. I am not there to witness what possesses him to declare he is vegetarian and then the next week to arrive ravenous for a burger. What conversations he has beyond our house or what mood he has brought with him so I don't always understand him and that's ok. It might frustrate me but it is ok. I might even have a little shout from time to time but love isn't always calm is it? Love is love. It isn't the same as the love I feel for the baby they cut out of my stomach. It is a different love. In many ways more valued because it has been so hard won. Something that is not a God-given right but something we have to work for. A love I have tried to make sure is given equal footing in our little family.
Loving my step-son has been taking him clothes shopping and teaching him how to make scouse. A tickle on his cheek and a shared joke about a life lived in the cupboard under the stairs if he doesn't behave, sufficient to show that we understand what it is between us and why it matters.
Stevie is fifteen now. He is handsome and broad shouldered, cheekier than he used to be and the image of his Dad. A credit to a man who doesn't realise what an incredible Father he is and cannot shake off his own demons long enough to see that despite it all he has achieved all that any of us as parents can hope for. That being on his son's doorstep, or in the next room twenty-four hours a day isn't the point: that good Fathers create wonderful children if they love them hard enough no matter how many hoops they have to jump through in order to provide that love. That building a family that welcomes him with open arms is what matters. And heaven knows Ste loves Stevie with all he has got. And so do me and Finn.
I love Stevie so much. He isn't Finn. He is his own wonderful self. I have made so many mistakes as a Step-Mum but Stevie will always be the boy I didn't have but got to love regardless. I will always, always be grateful for that.