Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

That First Step's a Doozy: Parenting from a Stepparent Perspective

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

That First Step's a Doozy: Parenting from a Stepparent Perspective

Article excerpt

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 too many paper towels. Jim, who has Down syndrome, is "doing windows" and, in a way, in the 23 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 the 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 classes. I remember she was quiet, had a nice occasional smile and she smelled vaguely of urine. 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 case contained classic stereotypes and blatant examples of myth and misconception presented as fact.

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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. …

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