“What was your favorite part about our camping trip?”

My husband and I looked expectantly at our three-year-old. This was last Tuesday. We were just back from a four-day family adventure on Vancouver Island. The ferry boat ride, digging holes at the beach, sleeping in a tent, roasting marshmallows – I fully expected my son to name any of those things.

Instead, he crowed his big brothers’ names. My stepsons. To do all those things with them is what makes him most happy. And I am happy too, that he has these two big brothers he looks up to so much.

If you’re a stepmom, you may understand what a big deal that is: to be happy that your family is sprawling and complicated.

Every day, I’m thankful that Michael and I made the choice to add ‘our’ two little boys to ‘his’ two big boys. Wise people will tell you to be cautious, that there all kinds of stepfamily dynamics to consider before trying for an ‘ours’ baby.

Except I longed to be a mother. So with fear and trembling, we went for it. And I got way more than I bargained for. My sons didn’t just make me a mom. They are transforming me as a stepmom – in five crucial ways.

1. I learned it’s natural to love your stepkids differently. I used to watch Michael with my stepsons and wish I could be that devoted. I loved them, but not always easily. Daily, hourly, I had to choose it.  I didn’t feel very good about that.

Then came the moment the midwife put my screaming newborn on my chest. My baby boy looked up at me through confused, squinty eyes and a tsunami of love – terrifying and magical – slammed into me.  I was helpless before it. Oh.  I get it now. This love was pure gift – a deep bond I could never manufacture on my own.

I became much more compassionate with myself after that. Of course it felt tough to love my stepsons sometimes. With them, I didn’t have a bottomless well of affection to draw on. It was okay to work at loving them, I realized, and I began to relax.

2. I’m growing in cheerful generosity. “What’s this charge on our credit card?” I asked Michael a few weeks after our honeymoon. Michael was between jobs and money felt tight. “The boys needed some clothes,” he explained. Logic told me he was perfectly right to buy his sons clothes. But I’d never had to share my money before, especially not with two kids. Learning to think of it as ‘our’ money was a big adjustment.

Time helped ease that transition for me. What helped even more was having two boys of my own. Oh, to be able to give them things! Fun toys and favourite books, swimming lessons and trips to the zoo! I wanted to spend my hard-earned money on them.

This is how Michael feels, I realized. Parents love to give good gifts to their kids. How sad if I were to dig in my heels every time my husband wanted to bless his sons.

Juggling our finances hasn’t grown easier, exactly. But my desire to give to my little guys has spread outward to include my stepsons too. It was incredibly fun to see the smile on my oldest stepson’s face the day we bought him a brand-new bike. I was smiling too.

3. I’m more patient with my stepsons. You know how some kids like to sit quietly, reading books and drawing pictures? Those are not my stepsons. My stepsons are exuberant. They fight and tease and have meltdowns. They can ransack a room faster than the CIA. It was enough to make me lose my mind.

Then I had a baby boy. Combine my husband’s dramatic streak with my iron will and what you’ve got is one opinionated rascal of a kid. He seriously thinks he’s the boss of the universe. Parenting him is a challenge, to put it mildly.

Next to my firstborn, my stepsons suddenly seem quite normal. I find myself far less irritated with them, far more understanding. I still lose my mind periodically, but it’s just as likely to be because of my own kid. They’re all just Jantzen boys.

4. My compassion for everyone in my family is deepening. When my husband and his ex-wife separated, my oldest stepson had just turned three. His little brother was 18 months old. Anyone with a heart would feel sad reading that.

I don’t just have a heart now; I have two small sons too. My oldest is three. I imagine him losing his family, his world crumbling. I think of how little he’s able to understand.  He can’t even name the days of the week or the seasons in a year. How could such a little person make sense of something so huge and sad?

I imagine my husband too, in those years between, coming home to emptiness. No tiny feet running to greet him at the end of the day.

I watch my stepsons’ mom say goodbye to her boys every weekend, surrendering them to our care. Not knowing what they’ll be eating, what time they’ll be going to bed or what they’ll be watching on Netflix.

If I weren’t a mom, I wouldn’t grasp just how broken a broken home is. This newfound understanding is a sad blessing, but a blessing nonetheless. It makes me kinder. Softens me. Fills me with more grace for us all.

5. I enjoy my stepsons’ time with us far more. Friday evenings were once my least favourite part of the week. With one knock at the door, we’d go from ‘just the two of us’ to ‘three Jantzen guys and a stepmom.’ The transition felt wrenching – like an invasion – and I never seemed to get used to it.

But my sons have changed that for me. On a practical level, weekends are easier simply because we’re in ‘kid-mode’ around here seven days a week now. The transition from four to six is a lot easier to handle.

It’s more than that, though. My heart is changing too. It doesn’t take a camping trip to excite my firstborn. Every weekend with his big brothers feels like an adventure to him.

How can I not look forward to their coming when my son – heart of my heart – anticipates his brothers’ arrival with so much longing?

Together, we count down the days until they come. Two more sleeps… one more sleep… Friday evening arrives. A knock at the door!  He runs squealing to tackle his beloved playmates. I am caught up in his love and joy. They’re here!

“Are you going to take the big boys too?” My mom asked me that question when I shared our plans to go camping on the Island.

“Of course,” I said. Later it hit me that ‘of course’ wasn’t really such an obvious answer. Nothing was compelling us to take all four boys camping.

But we wanted to. I wanted to. It didn’t feel right to leave them behind. We are six.

Two of ours, and two of his, and I am learning to love it like this.

And that is a blessing indeed.

Read Caramel’s story: Blended Family: Caring for the Wounded.

Read more from Stephanie on being a Stepmom

Photo Credit: Jordan Whitt