When I was in the 2nd grade, I got pulled into the school counselor’s office.
After being escorted into her office, I sat in the floor with three other peers. These students were not in my class, but I recognized them as other second graders.
There were coloring sheets and crayons in front of us, so naturally, I started coloring. The counselor sat down with us, and welcomed us to a “group for students who live with their grandparents.”
This would have been all fine and dandy, except for the fact that I didn’t live with my grandparents.
I spoke up and let the counselor know that I didn’t live with my grandparents. My mom was just a little older than all of the other moms… the counselor must have been confused.
After what I can only imagine was an awkward response, the counselor got us back on track. She continued with what I would later understand to be a group therapy session… one I now know that my mom must have signed me up for…
I went to this counselor’s office and met with her and the other kids several times throughout the year, always reiterating to them that my mom was just older, like a grandma… but not a grandma.
At the time, I was living with my mom, aunt, and two older cousins. My grandma, who had lived with us, had just passed away over the summer.
The Impact of Non-Biological Parents: A Story of Resiliency
In the third grade, I started to put the pieces together.
People had referred to my two adult brothers as my “uncles.” My mom couldn’t tell me who my dad was. The icing on the cake was when a church friend of mine told me on the playground, “My mom told me your mom is dead.”
I found a baby calendar with unrecognizable handwriting on the first few months, before changing to my mom’s classic cursive around month four.
After months of detective work, it boiled down to my friend’s mom overhearing a phone conversation, then calling my mom saying, “Ashley’s figured it out.” (Y’all remember landline phones?! Oh, the joys…)
My world as I knew it came crashing down that day, as my mom told me she wasn’t actually my mom.
My “mom” explained to me that she was my grandma, but also my legal guardian. She went on to explain that my “real mom” had died when I was just under four months old.
She told me why I didn’t know my dad. She also explained that my aunt and cousins were actually my great aunt and second cousins. My brothers were my uncles. And their dad was my grandpa!
She then went on to explain to me who the woman was who picked me up the first Saturday of every month and spent the day with me. That woman was my paternal grandma. The “sister” I spent time with on those visits was my half sister, and those uncles, aunts, and cousins were all legitimate, too.
All of this time, I thought the “grandma” who picked me up was just a family friend. You know, the same way how your best friend’s child calls you Aunt Sarah…
Surprisingly, it didn’t take me long to process all of this news.
I was resilient. I knew my truth. I assured my mom that she was still my mom, and that this new information didn’t change anything.
My mom and I lived another happy four years as a blended family with her sister, niece, and nephew.
Four years later, my world turned upside down again, when I lost my mom to cancer.
In her last will and testament, my mom left me in the care of my uncle and aunt (one of my “brothers” and his wife). A few days after her funeral, I came home from school to my room mostly packed, and was swiftly moved into my new home with my new legal guardians.
I had spent a lot of time with my aunt and uncle, but had never had a sleepover with them, let alone lived with them. I was 12 years old.
Once again, I was resilient. I tried to make the transition as peaceful for everyone as possible.
For the first time in my life, I was given chores… daily chores… so I felt a bit like Cinderella; however, I always remained happy to be living in a nice home with nice people who had nice things.
My life at my uncle and aunt’s was a complete 180 from my life with my mom, great aunt, and cousins. There were pros and cons, but my life was undeniably different.
Eventually, as many children do, I graduated high school and moved away to college.
When I moved away, I was on my own financially, mentally, and emotionally.
As miserable as that sounds, it was actually during this time I realized just how lucky I was to have my unique upbringing.
Today, I want to tell you about the best impacts being raised in non-traditional households have had on my adult life:
I am fiercely independent.
I started working at age 14 and filed my taxes on my own that year… the ol’ paper and pencil method. I’ve worked upwards of 4 jobs at a time to get by.
I have always worked for my own money, and can’t imagine ever not working. I can’t imagine relying on someone else’s income to survive.
I have been allowed to fail and was able to learn from those failures. I wasn’t calling my parents three times a day from college asking for money, or demanding they drive out to settle my roommate conflict.
I’ve lived a full life for someone in her late twenties, and I’ve grown from each and every life experience.
I am emotionally desensitized.
Now, before you peg me as a jerk, hear me out…
I don’t get worked up by some of the “little things” that work other people up.
I’ve been through things, and have developed a mindset of perseverance.
You won’t catch me crying at work over negative feedback from my boss, or crying in my bathroom over a rude Instagram comment. In fact, you won’t catch me crying at all… unless you’re with me the next time I drop my dog off for boarding.
I have my own feelings, and I’m also empathetic to the feelings of those around me… but when things go south, rather than wallowing in self-pity, I come up with a plan of action. I fight. I am no victim… I am a warrior.
I am a great stepmom.
I can empathize with my stepdaughters. I understand what it’s like to live in multiple places, and to not be fully aware of what the adults are going through.
I can see the big picture for my stepdaughters. I know I need to instill my work ethic and attitude of resiliency and perseverance into them.
I don’t get upset when my family is on the back burner for holidays or weekend visits. I know that’s how family works sometimes. I’ll see them when I see them, and that’s okay.
I know what it’s like to live with an adult who isn’t mom or dad. More importantly, I know that people other than mom or dad can love a child, and raise them “like their own.”
If I would have been raised in a traditional, nuclear household, it would be difficult for me to be a stepmom. Not impossible, but more challenging than it has been.
I truly believe that my upbringing was preparation for my adult life… for where I am at right now. I know that this- my blended family- is where I’m meant to be.
I know that being raised solely by mom and dad doesn’t matter, because I was raised by countless other adults, all who loved me and who made a profound impact on my life.
Despite my imperfect living situation, I was still afforded the same opportunities as my peers. I made friends, participated in clubs and extracurriculars, went to church, and held a job.
My family made sure that I didn’t miss out on “normal” opportunities.
As a member of the parenting team for my stepdaughters, that’s our job now. It’s our job to make sure that in addition to being loved and well taken care of, our children never miss out on an opportunity due to adult problems.
To the stepmom who wonders whether or not you can make an impact in the life of your stepchild, you can.
To the parent struggling to provide a “better life” for your child than what you had, please know that you are enough.
To the caregiver who is worried you have “messed up” your child with all of the struggles you’ve faced, trust that you haven’t.
Growth comes from failure. Growth comes from experience. Growth comes from love, laughter, and perseverance.
If you are any influence in the life of a child and are upset that your title isn’t mom or dad, rest assured, you are still so, so needed. Your influence may be unmatchable.
P.S. Trying to model resiliency and goal setting, but needing to work on that yourself? Maybe NOW is the time to break the cycle of complacency!