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Kate MacDonald: Step parenting

Illustration by Kordeena Clayton

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Nothing like the movies and no one could ever adequately describe it…I present to you…step parenting. What may well come to mind when you think of step parenting are movies of evil step moms or characters of whack “step boyfriends” who take up space and don’t do much. 

The reality is that being a step-anything is a really precious, precarious place to be. I am honoured and was chosen to step parent three wild, fierce children, ages 13, 9 and two and half. 

This journey was one my partner offered for me to not have to take part in. In the beginning I did truly only sign up for one relationship. But I have operated through the lens of the next generation, truly here to kick ass. 

I love kids. I think they are the vibrancy and curiosity of community. I wasn’t fazed at the task. Little did I know what weight this would carry. 

The youngest angel chose me immediately. Our energies align and we became close. Boo boos and changing diapers. Long, sick nights. And puke. Lots of puke. Lots of cuddles, laughs, new words, talking with the moon and firsts. The ever exciting firsts. She and I get each other. The hurdles in our relationship have been mostly about my own hang ups. Nothing she needs to shoulder now or ever. 

The middle angel. The only boy in the house. A scorpio for some context. Embraced me with a couple questions locked and loaded in his back pocket when he felt like he wanted to test my waters. An activist in his mindset. Watching him break through the confines of masculinity like a flower through the concrete has been magical. He thinks I’m cool. In truth, he’s the coolest. Hard conversations and hugs that I won’t deny because soon I’ll be the one dying for them. 

The oldest flower. If our relationship was a song, it would be named “Trials & Tribulations”. Her fiery emotions remind me a lot of myself. When my flames roared, they licked and lashed. She is sure of herself. Sure of her relationships. The toughest road to navigate with no compass. But truthfully, the moments of connection, love and family with her are so deep.

Everything. I mean everything is worth it. I would travel this road back again fifteen times just knowing that she trusts me enough to tell me the hard things, ask me the super hard questions of being a new teenager, and the weird new words and concepts thrown loosely around junior high…she brings me those things. Those are gifts. I get to pass on all of the shit I learned the hard way. I get to talk to a 13 year old star and offer flowers to her when the world might feel like thorns. She miraculously thinks I’m cool. She mimics me in gentle ways. And truthfully I admire her. 

This is the stage for our story. I had visions of myself parenting and perfectly doing so all the time. I am an early riser, was once a huge party girl so I don’t need much sleep…right? Wrong. So desperately naive and wrong. I wouldn’t give myself an A+ by any means. I don’t infuse every conversation with wisdom and I don’t leap at every opportunity as a learning moment. I am tired. Get grumpy. My inner work sometimes makes me distant. I want to do this work so in the moments they call on me I can show up authentically. 

Sometimes I need moments alone – a reset. Sometimes I don’t have answers. Or am so checked out I answer with “I don’t know”. Barely even having registered the question. I balance activism, project coordinating, community care, and youth working and trying to heal deep and ugly wounds with being a stepparent. And sometimes…I fail. Probably a lot, to be honest. But you know what else I do? I pack up my failures, fears, ego and pride and I say sorry. I talk through my ugly pieces openly. I try to give tools to show them that emotions happen and people feel things. If nothing else, we will communicate our feelings. I try my best to do that. To encourage their choices as perfect because only they know what’s perfect for them. I celebrate them. Their wins and loses and shining moments. I’m proud of it all. 

Another added layer of understanding to this needs to be that these kids are African Nova Scotian. They are black, my same black, family black… And me actively seeking the learnings about black history, struggle, and beauty makes me so acutely aware of the stats and realities of black childhood. The fear of parenting black children is real. A fine line between love and severity are injected to every conversation around safety and choices. I want to teach them their DNA and last names are worth their weight in gold. While also knowing the system hunts and punishes black kids for sport. I am ferocious about how the world speaks to them and about them. 

That test was proven when someone called our 9 year old Scorpion “unsafe” for having big feelings and taking space…you know the kind of silent, calm stalking of animals you see in the woods? Quiet, fearless…anyone who knows me knows I’m hot headed. But not this time. You will not, repeat not, call a young black man unsafe. That’s your projection. He is considerate and sensitive and can feel your bullshit…Another parenting moment no one can prepare you for. Instincts take over. You’re entirely at the will of your protective senses. This story, or movie, or…wild reality t.v. show unfolds like this daily. 

This adventure will be as long as our lives. I could keep on writing for forever in truth. Hoping that through the documentation and admiration of my own experiences others can feel validated and connected. 

We are all just doing our best, moment to moment. And some days, on the lucky days, that looks really good. 

See also: Kate MacDonald: Now is the time for healing

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