How to Be Child-free Stepparent

By the time I was 12, I knew I didn’t want children. I loved kids, I saw the joy they brought into people’s lives, but I just didn’t feel the pang for parenthood. “You’ll change your mind,” said the multitudes of people around me. When I got married at 21, and reasserted my child-free identity, the “you’ll change your mind” was followed with things like “I could never be that selfish,” or, “you’ll change your mind once the baby is born,” or “who will take care of you when you’re old?” (As a sidenote, please mark all these comments on your list of things to never tell someone if they say they don’t want children.)

As I got older, and I didn’t “change my mind” I received more and more negative comments. Thank goodness my feminist mother reminded me that my choices were mine to make, and never bemoaned about the lack of grandchildren. When I got divorced I felt as if I was finally free of the questioning about parenthood. When I remarried, the questions started again, as if my reproductive decisions were as common a conversation as curtains, or what I was making for dinner. I am gracious that the man I chose for my second marriage appreciated all the aspects of my identity: my vegetarianism, my love of dogs, my feminist ideals, and my choice to be child-free.

Wyoming Tourism Office

Photo Credit: Wyoming Tourism Office

This is the part where I mention he has four children. I wondered if marrying him, and accepting to be a step mother, somehow negated my choice to be child-free. I didn’t choose to have a biological child, that’s still true. I did choose to be a stepparent by marrying a man with children. It was hard to see myself as a parent for these kids who still had their mother, and their father. I struggled trying to find my role with four step kids who varied in age from an 11 year old, to out of college and working.

Never having experienced parenthood, I could never know what it would be like to be a parent. My husband cannot understand what it’s like to be a stepparent. I identify more as an adult who loves them and is part of the family. I try to remove myself from all discipline, parental choices, or scolding. I try to help, give love, feed them, and participate in conversations and reciprocal learning. I’m no person’s mom, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be a loving and influential adult.

There is a certain limbo that child-free stepparenting brings.  I am not a legal parent, have never borne children, and have chosen not to have children, yet I have stepchildren in my life and bear many of the responsibilities of parent, including the emotional responsibility, financial, and life expectations. We need to live close to school. Our vacations are planned around  the kids. The money we spend is dependent on the costs that the children bring. Oftentimes I feel like I am missing some of the seeming rewards of parenting, but in choosing not to have any biological children, I feel as if it was my choice for none of the perceived rewards, either.  It’s hard being a child-free stepparent and often I feel like I don’t belong in either classification (parent or child-free).

I assert that my child-free identity is based through the choices I have made with my body. I love my step kids and want to see them happy and healthy. I enjoy my relationship I have with all of them. They are part of my family. My identity as child-free is based on the idea that I chose not to have biological children and not to insinuate that parents who do not give birth to their children are not parents, including adoptive parents, step parents, family or friends that step into the role of parents, foster parents, or any other way a family happens. Identity, parenthood, and children are all complex aspects of a person’s self and in no way do I mean to negate the roles of parents in all their forms.

I especially wonder about my role around milestones or holidays like Mother’s Day. The first mother’s day after I married their father I imagined a card, or a small token of something; a day to recognize that I am an adult in their life that loves them. Nothing happened that day; nothing was acknowledged. Was I the trope of the evil step mother? Was I any kind of actual mother at all? I didn’t know.

Holidays like Mother’s Day can isolate so many: those who wish they were with their mothers and cannot be, those who wish they were mothers and are not, those who had complicated relationships with their mothers, those who cannot be acknowledged for their own motherhood, or the multitude of people who have done the work of mothers. As a feminist, I believe acknowledging the complications of holidays like Mother’s Day help me understand the system of calendar holidays that isolate, negate, or deny such a large part of the population and understand the hierarchy of privilege it brings.

Today, a few years later, I still reassert myself as child-free. Mother’s Day passes without any acknowledgement from the kids, and I’m fine with that. The truth is that the little bits of love and appreciation that come at unexpected times are worth more than an obligatory card any day. I hope as they continue to grow, and when all four are adults, they look back at the time I was in their life with fondness. I am not a mother, but I am blessed to enjoy watching people grow up, get older, and learn so much. I have no desire for a card to mark those milestones.


Sara Exler is a visual culture historian, urban farmer, vegetarian, and fat feminist with a background in nonprofit and animal advocacy work. When not working, she can be found spending time with her husband and dogs, usually with some knitting in her hand. Follow her on twitter at @zaftigsara 

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