A (Step)Mother’s Love: Showing up when it matters most

Mother’s Day. A day to celebrate the woman who gave us life.

More precisely, a day to celebrate the woman who labored and cried and despite her fear, literally pushed us through her body to bring us into existence. No small feat indeed.

If we’re lucky, that mother stays around long enough to raise us, to teach us right from wrong, to do all the “mom” kinds of things. Scheduling doctor’s appointments; shuttling us to and from school, sports and friends; making sure we’re eating enough vegetables and not getting overly ambitious with our ice cream portions.

And if we’re really lucky, that mother will go above and beyond the call of duty, in a million (often unnoticed) little ways. Waking up early to curl our hair on the first day of school; leaving small notes of encouragement in our lunch boxes; cooking heart-shaped pancakes on Valentine’s Day; offering advice during the painful growth period that often accompanies new friendships and relationships.

I was lucky enough to have my mom for 26 years before cancer took her away — not long before Mother’s Day, four years ago. There’s not a day that goes by I don’t miss her and every holiday ever since has not been the same.

But there is another kind of mother who tends to fly under the radar, even on days like today: stepmothers.

A stepmother must navigate the difficult territory of being the “mother” of a household, without the authority of birth parent status. Not wanting to step on the toes of the other mother, but also needing to find her own place in the complicated story of a blended family. Once again, no small feat.

Just when I thought I was already lucky to have been raised by one woman who loved me unconditionally, the stars aligned and put Debbie in my path. Debbie became my stepmother nearly a decade ago, although it’s hard to remember what life was like before we met.

When we became family, I discovered firsthand why many people prefer to use the term “bonus mom” instead. Like my mom, Debbie also loves me unconditionally and shows me in a million little ways.

She knows my favorite kind of tea and makes sure to have a supply on hand when I visit home. She once sent me hand towels and an oven mitt with cats on them for my birthday, because I’ve leaned in hard to the crazy cat mom life. She gifted me the softest, most wonderful sets of sheets and is glad to spend hours helping me pick out decorations for my apartment.

Debbie always remembers to buy almond milk and the gluten-free bagels that I like, and shares my passion for a good scented candle and bottle of French red wine. Her baking and cooking skills are second to none, and she makes sure to prepare my favorite meals every time I’m home.

Some of my favorite moments together are the simple, quiet mornings spent talking on the couch over a cup of coffee. Or the manicures and pedicures she treats me to so that we’re sure to have some quality time together during the chaos of my holiday visits. She never ceases to find new little ways to show me her love.

And sometimes those little things turn out to be the big things — the ones that have left their mark on my heart forever, although it may not have seemed like much to her in the moment.

For example, when my mom was in the oncology ward of the hospital, I drove there each day and stayed by her side as the life inside her began to quickly slip away. Sometimes I visited her with relatives and my younger brother, but mostly I went alone — just my mom and me.

I’m grateful for the days I had with her in the hospital even though my heart was shattering. I was determined to keep my composure there and create a calm, reassuring atmosphere for my mom before she died — but I quickly unraveled as soon as I made it back home to my dad and Debbie each night.

Those days and evenings were a blur, and I don’t remember much about the details — though I will always remember exactly how I felt. Sitting next to Debbie at night, I cried and cried until I was sure I had cried every last tear inside my body. I remember thinking that I just couldn’t stop the tears; no matter how hard I tried, they sprang endlessly from the deepest corners of my soul and continued to fall for hours on end.

Debbie, despite being in the midst of her own tremendous grief, having lost her son unexpectedly only eight months prior, somehow found the strength to console me after each of my long, painful trips to the hospital. She lovingly and patiently listened to me, reassured me, helped wipe my tears and even packed my lunch for the next day.

She made me feel like I wasn’t alone during what was undoubtedly the loneliest time of my life.

Debbie had lost her child, and I had lost my parent. Neither of us ever wanted to be in that club, but there we were. It all just seemed so unfair.

But what she taught me during those moments is that true love means showing up. Showing up when it’s hard, showing up when you’re scared, when you’re tired, when it’s inconvenient. Showing up when the easier thing to do would be to run in the opposite direction.

Putting someone else ahead of your own needs when it counts the most — this takes a lot of courage. In our society, it’s so easy to become focused on ourselves; it’s all about what we want and what makes us feel good and comfortable in any given moment.

But what purer form of love is there than saying to the other, “I see you, I love you, and no matter what the circumstance, I’ll do my best to be here for you.”

Debbie and I will always be bonded by our grief, deeply grateful for each other’s presence while also continuing to mourn the death of our loved ones. I can never replace her son, and she can never replace my mother, but we each fill a void that we didn’t even know we had before meeting.

I’m proud to say that she and I show up for each other — not just when things are easy, but also in our lowest moments, because that’s what true love does.

That’s why today, Mother’s Day, is always bittersweet for us both. In a perfect world, Debbie would be celebrating with her son and I would be celebrating with my mom. Like every other day, we grieve for them but also celebrate the years of memories we were lucky enough to create.

And although my mom is no longer here, I am so grateful for my stepmom, my “bonus mom,” who has always shown up for me when it mattered most.

From all that I’ve witnessed between my many mother figures — my mom, my stepmom, my grandmom and my future mother-in-law — it’s clear that being a mother is no small feat; in fact, it seems like it’s the hardest job in the world.

Although their job was not, and is not always easy, through their example I have seen the true definition of selflessness, generosity, and most importantly — love.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of my moms. I see you, I love you, and no matter what the circumstance, I’ll do my best to be here for you too.

Sharing stories of humanity, family and my journey working with marginalized groups. Hoping to help conquer xenophobia with radical compassion.