That first step?s a doozy - Parenting from a stepparent perspective

Posted in Our Stories

Sometimes your life unfolds in front of you in mysterious ways when you’re not even trying. I think becoming a stepparent is like that, or at least it was for me. I hadn’t even really set out to have children, but one day I was standing with one foot in the air at the edge of jumping into a new, pre-made family with three children, one of whom had Down syndrome. I suppose what has most closely affected my writing and me as a person is someone who, as I write this on a Sunday afternoon, is singing O Canada in his room down the hall, armed with a sprayer of glass cleaner and way to many paper towels. Jim, who has Down syndrome, is "doing windows" and, in a way, in the 21 years I’ve known James Christopher Schwier, he’s helped me see things a lot more clearly. In 1985, I really met my future stepchildren for the first time. Jim was 11, Erin 8 and Ben had just turned 5. I had known Rick and Char through the Saskatchewan Association for Community Living. They divorced in 1983 and in the summer of ’85, Rick had flown down to California to pick them up for their summer in Saskatoon. I met them at the airport and the second they came through security, it suddenly struck me that I might have left a teapot on the stove at Rick’s house. Shrieking at them all to hurry up and get in the car, we had to get going before the house burned down, I remember Jim studying me very carefully. As we raced home much too fast, careening around corners, Rick hollered at the children, "Well, kids! This is my new girlfriend. How do you like her so far?" Jim yelled out, "Cool, Dad!" As a kid in Sixties, I had pretty limited experience with people who have disabilities. When I was nine, I had a girlfriend whose sister was deaf. We lived in a tiny, I mean tiny town in northern B.C.. The school, two trailers put together, only went up to grade seven. But Shelley’s sister had always been sent all the way to Vancouver to a school for deaf children. Tammy would like to hang around with us, and I always felt embarrassed when Shelley was mean to her and called her stupid. I thought sign language was fascinating, but wasn’t brave enough to say so. Years later we had moved to northern Alberta. I remember a girl in junior high who, now that I think back, probably had spina bifida. Her name was Joy and she rarely seemed full of that. She used a chair and our old school had daunting flights of stairs so teachers and bigger students lugged her up and down between periods. I remember she was quiet, had a nice occasional smile and she smelled vaguely of pee. I always thought her parents should do something about that. When Joy had the use the bathroom at school, the teacher would call the school nurse. I always thought that was pretty weird, too. A nurse? I became a newspaper writer in high school, a job I continued after graduation and I met a variety people, including some with disabilities. I admit I fell into the “special people” and they can "overcome their disability to still lead a rewarding life" syndrome, a lazy way to write that many media people seem to fall back on. I cringe when I read that stuff now. The media coverage of the Tracy Latimer murder contained classic journalism stereotypes and blatant examples of myth and misconception presented as fact. I’ve had occasion over the years to reflect now and then on my role in our family, as stepmom to Jim, Erin and Ben. It easier for me to collect my thoughts when I write about it. This was a little piece I wrote from Chatelaine magazine a few years ago. I sent it to the Gem in My Life competition; the winning entry was published in the magazine’s February issue in time for Valentine’s Day: James Christopher is brilliant. He has his father’s gentle disposition and humour, green eyes and quick smile. Of my three stepchildren, he is the first to ask about faraway relatives, write a thank you card, take the garbage out, set the table, rub my shoulders and plant a kiss on my cheek. He is the most optimistic person I’ve ever known. He wakes up each day with utter certainty there will be friendly souls in it. A cheerful volunteer at the YMCA and community college, people ask about him when he’s not there. He believes people are basically decent even when he’s presented, sometimes cruelly, with evidence to the contrary. He meets stares with squared shoulders, though on some days, those shoulders sag a little. I cringe at the word “special.” It’s used in a way that makes someone with a disability feel anything but. What Jim is, however, is a good person, a compassionate man. He faces his future with unwavering faith that family and friends count in our lives. They are the only things that ever will. He teaches all of us to slow down, criticize less, praise more and say "I love you" with wild abandon. It didn’t win, but I liked it. It reminds us what’s important as we look toward Jim’s future as an adult, as someone who deserves an interesting, interdependent life full of challenge, relationships, contribution and fun. It would be a lie to say that Jim’s Down syndrome hasn’t posed difficult situations for him and his family over the years, but it’s not significant all the time. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that most days we don’t think about it. It’s the orchestration of Jim’s life that provides us with some twists and turns and surprises. Jim is who he is, a good man. He pure, but he’s complicated from time to time. His disability is a part of what makes him him but it is not who he is. That’s sometimes hard to explain to people when Jim’s disability is pretty well stamped on his face. It’s been a great ride so far, this stepparent thing. I can’t compare the experiences of parenting and stepparenting. I only know the one. But I think there are aspects that must be the same for any parent. We just keep figuring it out as we go, one foot in front of the other. You ask other parents, friends, your own parents and family. You read. You discipline. You set an example. You remember to laugh. A lot. Usually, it’s your children who lead you over the rough spots. (Karin lives in Saskatoon with Richard, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, and Jim, who is a veteran volunteer at the YMCA. Daughter Erin lives in San Diego with her husband Michael and Alexander James, the new baby (the FIRST GRANDBABY!); son Ben is a musician in San Francisco. Visit Karin Melberg Schwier