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I met my stepson the day after Christmas, barely over a year ago. For the most part, I’ve become a pretty tough man, emotionally distant and guarded. Despite this, I was still nervous to meet the boy who would become a part of my family.


When I met him, he was just two months shy of three years old. I’ve always loved and wanted kids, but the past year or two led me to push any hopes and dreams of parenthood aside. I’d gone through a divorce that left me thinking I should be single and without kids the rest of my life. Obviously, all that has changed.

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I’m used to kids pretty much warming up to me in a heartbeat. This was different. I’m not sure if he was shy or if he saw me as a threat. After all, he wasn’t used to a man being around his mother. Either way, he didn’t pay me much mind. Perhaps he was just as shy to talk to me as I was to talk to him.

It’s cliché to say, but reality hit me that night. He was loved, taken care of, and given undivided attention by his mother. This love was something I wouldn’t ever know again, nor could I remember. To love as a mother does was a feeling I would never grasp. This scared the crap out of me. That little boy playing teatime and getting the choice between strawberry and chocolate milk was her world and she was his. How could I compare?

I’m happy to say, that much of that has changed and his mother and I have a successful co-parenting relationship and he sees me as a parent as well.

In the past year I’ve learned a lot, so here are a few things to remember when you’re just getting started on being a stepfather. All of these tips apply to any gender, but speaking from my own experience they will be put in mostly heteronormative terms.

1 | Don’t expect them to understand partnership right away

I remember hearing his mother’s voice on the other side of the door, saying that she was having a “friend” over. It didn’t hurt, but it reminded me that a child simply can’t grasp the concept of partnership. After all, he was used to his dad living in one place and his mother in another. Eventually, the child will be excited to know that you love their parent. I remember my spouse explaining to my stepson what “engaged” means.

“He gave me this ring to show that he loves me,” she said.

“I want a ring!” was his answer.

2 | Accept the fact that you are not the biological parent

For months I was insecure about the fact that he just saw me as some guy who came over and spent time with him and his mom. Eventually, it hit me that, at three years old, it’s hard to understand much more than that. Don’t worry, sooner or later they connect the dots.

Part of being a stepfather is recognizing that you haven’t been with that kid all their life like their biological parents have. It takes time to develop trust with an adult and probably just as much, if not more to develop it with a child.

Remember, blood is not always family. I’ve known a lot of deadbeat dads in my time, be they stepfathers or not, which has told me that love and attention are more important than titles like mother and father. As Keanu Reaves says in“Parenthood” – “You need a license to buy a dog or drive a car. Hell, you need a license to catch a fish! But they’ll let any (explicit) be a father.”

If they’re older, they might have those “You’re not my real dad,” emotions, but in my experience when they’re young, this kind of thing is probably all in your head, so be proud to call yourself a stepparent.

3 | Patience, patience, and more patience

I cannot stress this enough, but patience is always key. My connection to my stepson was not an instant bond. In truth, I thought he hated me.

At first, I was intimidated by the fact that, like me, he loved his mother more than anything. I came to realize that this was our common bond. Kids sense love and by seeing that I loved her and treated her well, he came to know that I was someone to look up to and trust. They say we learn to treat our spouses from the way our parents treat each other. I can only hope that I set the best example I can, the same way my father did.

So what did I do? I took my time. We made a tradition of having me over for dinner each Sunday night. I played with him every now and then, though it took time for him to even remember my name. I didn’t take part in any kind of discipline. Instead, I remained behind the scenes, giving her advice where I could and helping out with simple chores like making dinner, cleaning up his clothes, and putting away laundry. I made a habit of keeping up with tasks he trusted me to do, like buckling him into his car seat or handing him his dinner.

Next thing I knew I was singing along to “Twinkle, Twinkle” on the way home from his father’s and helping with potty training by bonding on the fact we could both pee standing up. We would take him to the playground to wear him out before dinner and one day, after he fell asleep in the car, I offered to carry him up to the apartment for his mom. “Hold me,” he said as he woke up, and for the first time, my partner got to see me carry him as though he were mine.

A biological parent has the advantage of having always been there. They have always been a figure of authority and a figure of nourishment. With enough time and effort, you can be too.

4 | Understand that the child will always be your partner’s first priority

Unless you have kids of your own, this one is hard to understand.

The biological parent has created life and that life will come before anything else. They will feed their children before they feed themselves. They will work any job to pay bills and keep a roof over their heads. This means that you may have to spend less time with your partner because they’re busy taking care of their child. If you want to maintain a healthy relationship, you need to be supportive. Stand behind your partner when times are rough. Until you are truly declared a stepparent, they are a single parent and that’s no easy task.

5 | Don’t discipline right away

She may appreciate your advice as long as it’s not anything aggressive. Men, especially, are often under the impression that only other men can give proper discipline, that mothers are just sort of weak when it comes to keeping their kids in line, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

A study done by the National Institutes of Health says that to be effective, discipline needs to be “given by an adult with an effective bond to the child.” Unless you’ve developed this bond, it’s too early to start disciplining a child.

I used to think that by raising my deep voice, I could back my partner up when she told her child to do something, but all he did was smile at me. Remember, humans learn by example and the example you set will always be more important than any kind of discipline. I would venture to say that yelling, demanding, and using intimidation are just ways to make your child even more defiant.

It might drive you crazy to just sit and watch as he bites your partner, spits, and does all manner of bratty and mean things. Hang in there. If you’re in this for the long run, (which you’d better be,) sooner or later you’ll get to help. That won’t be easy either, but a single parent will be very grateful for any contribution. You’ll find that contributing and supporting them might be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.

6 | When helping out your partner, remember this phrase: Praise, Correct, Praise

This is a mantra I learned during my time teaching martial arts as a teenager. It applies both to helping your partner and parenting.

First, praise them, “Hey, you do a really good job of putting him to bed each night.” Correct them, “I think you could stand to be a bit more patient when dropping him off at school.” Praise again, “However, I really liked how you offered a reward for good behavior.”

This could also be called positive, critical, positive. If you start off with a critical statement, it negates any kind words. If you begin and end with a positive statement, it can help give your partner confidence while still getting the feedback they need to improve.

7 | Remember that sometimes just having you around is all your partner needs

If your partner has been a single parent for many years, or in many cases, since the child’s birth, chances are they are excited to have someone else around their kid. They are also putting an incredible amount of trust in you, and once that trust is broken it may not be regained. You may feel useless, but I assure you, you are not. It is my sincere belief that the majority of single parents find joy in any kind of help or support that you offer, even if it just means being there for them when the going gets tough.

It’s the little things that count. Baby steps.

Some questions to ask yourself:
  • What does being a parent mean to you?
  • Do you envision yourself having more children with your partner in the future?
  • Does your frustration or happiness show around your partner and stepchild?
Plans for the future:
  • Take the time to sit back, watch your partner and learn. Participate when asked to, but first and foremost, observe. Be seen and not heard until called upon.
  • Talk to your partner about any insecurities you might have.
  • Support your partner’s methods; don’t just do things your way. This creates negative tension. If you oppose their method, say it away from the child.
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When it comes to holiday gifts, we know what you really want, mama. A full night's sleep. Privacy in the bathroom. The opportunity to eat your dinner while it's still hot. Time to wash—and dry!—your hair. A complete wardrobe refresh.


While we can't help with everything on your list (we're still trying to figure out how to get some extra zzz's ourselves), here are 14 gift ideas that'll make you look, if not feel, like a whole new woman. Even when you're sleep deprived.

Gap Cable-Knit Turtleneck Sweater

When winter hits, one of our go-to outfits will be this tunic-length sweater and a pair of leggings. Warm and everyday-friendly, we can get behind that.

$69.95

Gap Cigarette Jeans

These high-waisted straight-leg jeans have secret smoothing panels to hide any lumps and bumps (because really, we've all got 'em).

$79.95

Tiny Tags Gold Skinny Bar Necklace

Whether engraved with a child's name or date of birth, this personalized necklace will become your go-to piece of everyday jewelry.

$135.00

Gap Brushed Pointelle Crew

This wear-with-anything soft pink sweater with delicate eyelet details can be dressed up for work or dressed down for weekend time with the family. Versatility for the win!

$79.95

Gap Flannel Pajama Set

For mamas who sleep warm, this PJ set offers the best of both worlds: cozy flannel and comfy shorts. Plus, it comes with a coordinating eye mask for a blissed-out slumber.

$69.95

Spafinder Gift Card

You can't give the gift of relaxation, per say, but you can give a gift certificate for a massage or spa service, and that's close enough!

$50.00

Gap Stripe Long Sleeve Crewneck

This featherweight long-sleeve tee is the perfect layering piece under hoodies, cardigans, and blazers.

$29.95

Gap Chenille Smartphone Gloves

Gone are the days of removing toasty gloves before accessing our touchscreen devices—thank goodness!

$9.95

Ember Temperature Control Smart Mug

Make multiple trips to the microwave a thing of the past with a app-controlled smart mug that'll keep your coffee or tea at the exact temperature you prefer for up to an hour.

$79.95

Gap Flannel Shirt

Our new favorite flannel boasts an easy-to-wear drapey fit and a flattering curved shirttail hem.

$59.95

Gap Sherpa-Lined Denim Jacket

Stay warm while looking cool in this iconic jean jacket, featuring teddy bear-soft fleece lining and a trendy oversized fit.

$98.00

Gap Crazy Stripe Scarf

Practical and stylish, this cozy scarf adds a pop of color—well, colors—to any winter ensemble.

$39.95

Nixplay Seed Frame

This digital picture frame is perfect for mamas who stay up late scrolling through their phone's photo album to glimpse their kiddos being adorable. By sending them to this smart frame to view throughout the day, you can get a few extra minutes of sleep at night!

$165.00

Gap Crewneck Sweater

Busy mamas will appreciate that this supersoft, super versatile Merino wool sweater is machine washable.

$59.95

This article was sponsored by GAP. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and Mamas.

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Can you believe it's already time to start decorating for the holidays? And this year, Target is making it easier than ever to create inviting holiday spaces that are still neat, organized and clutter-free. Whether your style is whimsical, traditional or rustic, there are plenty of neutral creams, frosty whites and touches of evergreen that will take you through the holidays and well into the new year with style.

This holiday also marks the 3-year anniversary of the launch of Joanna Gaines' Hearth & Hand with Magnolia line. The collection features nearly 300 new pieces from gifting and décor to entertaining. Oh, and this season they have faux Christmas trees!

Ready to create your own modern winter wonderland at home? Grab our favorite minimalist piece:

Joy wire Christmas wreath

Joy wire Christmas wreath

The word "Joy" isn't a holiday classic for nothing—it's sure to bring lots of smiles and laughs to any home. And when it's atop the garland in this festive wreath, it's an instant pick-me-up. Plus, for an extra twist: This comes pre-strung with white LED bulbs for a little light to brighten dark spaces.

$45

Mini cable-knit stocking

Mini cable-knit stocking

This stocking brings simplistic holiday cheer to just about any living space. This mini size is perfect for little ones or if you just want stockings that don't take up too much space.

$4

Faux white pine garland

Faux white pine garland

Bring the outdoors indoors with a garland that can be framed around your door. Or add holiday spirit to your table runner with a garland centerpiece. We love how realistic this one looks for such an affordable price.

$24.99

Whitewash advent calendar

Whitewash advent calendar

Let's be honest, advent calendars are nice, but some have gone a bit overboard in how complicated they are. But not this one. The cutout shape of a tree features rows of numbers, while a roaming wreath moves the countdown along. Simple, yet chic.

$20

Round tree skirt

Round tree skirt

No tree is complete without a beautiful tree skirt. This striped one is a must-have for a farmhouse-inspired atmosphere. Even better if you want a splash of rustic charm that matches your other holiday décor.

$39.99

Mini marquee star wall sign

Mini marquee star wall sign

Brighten up your living room with this attention-grabbing statement piece. Hang the star sign on your entryway wall to help welcome guests, or place it on your mantel, shelf or end table alongside other accents to add touches of holiday cheer in a minimalist way.

$8

Ceramic house decorative figurine

Ceramic house decorative figurine

This tiny house with windows, door and a chimney lends realistic, whimsical appeal, but the solid ceramic design allows it to be used from season to season. Place a small light inside to light up your mantle when standard candles won't suffice.

$8

Wood garland

Wood garland

Sometimes less is more! Upgrade your staircase or tree with this simplistic wooded garland. Pair with fresh cedar and grapevine twigs to create a striking focal point on your home.

$12.99

Joy wall decor

Joy wall decor

Create holiday cheer in a small way by adding holiday wall art that sparks a bit of joy.

For a refined look, the decor offers a hardwood frame and the sawtooth back allows for easy display on tiny spaces that need a touch of holiday spirit.

$9.99

Stocking holder

Stocking holder

Minimalists will rejoice for this multi-tasking stocking holder—acting as both festive signage and a holder for multiple stockings. It's simple, charming and will look great on your mantle for years to come.

$29.99
Holiday Shopping Guides

Madison Vining, mama of six, recently posted an honest message that went viral on Instagram. In it she described how we can't really have the full picture of someone's life just by what they post on social media. It's little fragments of their life, which probably leave out the really good moments when people decide to put the phone down to be present, and also the really bad moments they don't want documented.

The post, which has almost 12,000 likes and hundreds of comments, received a lot of praise from other parents thanking her for hitting the nail on the head.

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The post reads:

"Instagram stories. Let's talk.

If someone uses the maximum amount of stories allowed in a day (all the teeny tiny dots) guess what? All together, it totals less than an hour of their 24-hour day. Does that surprise you? It's true. It's a peek of 1/24th of their day. Furthermore, it's probably the calmest parts. After all, when was the last time you got into a fight with your husband and thought "Hang on, let me insta-story this!" or had your hands full of screaming babies and thought "Hang on... let me try and hold a phone, too!"

I really want to challenge you.

Before you look at her life and become jealous: you likely did not see her raise her voice as she struggled through schoolwork with her kids, or her picking up trash after the dog ripped it up and dragged it all over the driveway, or her doctor give her a terrifying diagnosis, or her son's preschool teacher call and say he's been a problem... Again. Or her crying because she hates her body and hasn't felt like herself in so long. Or her going to bed each day feeling guilty and like she didn't do enough for everyone. Or her husband being out of work. Or her dad who walked out on her as a kid and it still hurts. Or her burning dinner and yelling a swear word in front of her kids.

Yeah, you don't see all the bad.

But you know what? Before you look at her life and become critical, know that you didn't see her singing worship music and taking extra time as she changed her baby's diaper. You didn't see her driving all the way to recycle center when the trash would have been easier. You didn't see her close her laptop, close her eyes, and stop to pray for someone she doesn't know. You didn't see her tell her daughter, "Just keep killing them with kindness, baby" as she sobbed in her arms about a bully. You didn't see her give up "me time" to prioritize date night with her husband. You didn't see her take her oldest to lunch. You didn't see her anonymous donation.

You don't see a lot of the beautiful things that happen in her life and in her heart, because they're sacred and the first thought that pops into her mind isn't, "I should grab my phone right now."

You don't see it all. Be kind to one another."

Thank you for saying what many think, mama.

Life

Do you feel it?

That little spark ✨ in the air that only comes around this time of year is starting to buzz and pop around us. There's nothing quite like the joy and excitement that comes with counting down to the holidays—especially with your kids who think last Christmas was forever ago.

And what better way to count down to Christmas than with an Advent calendar? We've rounded up our favorites that you can use year after year, mama.

House advent calendar

It's perfectly neutral to go with any type of holiday decor, but is made to bring a spark of magic and fun as your kids rush each morning to find out what's inside the tiny drawers.

$55.30

Advent calendar wreath

This has to be the most unique advent calendar we've ever seen. We love everything about it: The simple metal hoop, the greenery and the 24 kraft boxes that can be filled with goodies for both adults and kids. It's so pretty, we might even leave it up past Christmas!

$35

Countdown to Christmas advent calendar

We love that you can fill this one with your own treats that can change as your kids grow. And it doesn't have to be sweets. It can be filled with stickers, little toys, handmade goodies and more.

$38

Modern farmhouse Christmas countdown

No treats required for this simple, beautiful sign.

$34.95

Metal advent calendar

This sleek metal sign comes with 25 small muslin bags and 30 cards you can tuck into each one. The cards have an activity or kind gesture you and your kids can do to celebrate the season.

$40

Ernie and Irene llama advent calendar

Add a touch of whimsy and coziness with this sweet calendar featuring a knit llama.

$128

DIY advent calendar kit

For the crafty mamas in the group, this sweet kit has everything you and your family need to create your advent calendar together. Once you've assembled all the houses, you can fill it with whatever treats your family will love.

$36

Customizable advent calendar

This sweet and modern fabric calendar can be customized with your family name or cherished holiday phrase. It also comes with a set of 24 activity cards you can pop into each pocket.

$107

Clever Creations traditional wooden Christmas advent calendar

Clever Creations Traditional Wooden Christmas Advent Calendar

This beautiful calendar is a showpiece. It lights up to create a cozy and festive scene.

$43

Light-up stacking house glitter advent calendar

Enjoy a tower of pre-lit cottages that will light up your home each day leading up to Christmas.

$149

My Kindness advent calendar

My Kindness Advent Calendar

The holidays are all about giving—and that doesn't stop with just material items. We can give in the form of kindness every single day, and this calendar helps us do just that.

$75

Blue and gray Christmas socks advent calendar garland

We love the twist on a traditional calendar with this sweet garland of 24 stockings.

$29.69

Motherly is your daily #momlife manual; we are here to help you easily find the best, most beautiful products for your life that actually work. We share what we love—and we may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

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Even though I'm almost halfway through my pregnancy, I still don't trust that I'm pregnant. Some people might feel this way in the beginning of theirs (at least for a little while); shocked into disbelief that some very specific cells in our bodies can become babies. But I have a hard time believing because of my bump. Or rather, because I don't appear to have one at all.

I thought the bump would be a big part of my pregnancy and I'm bummed it's not. I assumed it would knight me into the world of impending motherhood, where you hold a funeral for all the clothes you will never fit into again; where the other people in your yoga class think you're being lazy but they don't realize you have to modify the poses so you don't squish the baby; and where you believe (unreasonably) that your dog will calm down on walks because he senses you're suddenly much more afraid of falling.

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Even without it, I do get a lot of reminders that I'm pregnant: My nipples itch constantly. I need to use the bathroom every 30 minutes (sometimes 20!). I just started getting heartburn, which I've never had before. My hobbies are picking fights with my husband, going to sleep at 8pm and not knowing what to eat for lunch because nothing is appetizing. Today I did, however, put salt on a half sour pickle.

But I'm still skeptical because my body hasn't changed. If you saw me on the street today, you would not be able to tell I'm expecting a boy in April.

I've coveted the baby bump ever since I experienced a miscarriage earlier this year. With that pregnancy, I had no symptoms at all (no nausea, no stomach twinges, no breast pain, no nothing), which I thought was a little weird, but I assumed everything would be fine. Then after the doctor confirmed I miscarried at six weeks, it made sense why I didn't feel anything.

When I found out I was pregnant this time, I was obsessed with what and how I felt and I interpreted every tiny disruption from the norm as an assurance the baby was still in there and okay. This helped ease my anxiety for a while.

A second failed pregnancy felt imminent when friends and acquaintances began remarking that I was "not showing" or "hardly showing." It seemed that while I had accumulated many pieces of pregnancy that I didn't have before, I was still missing the most universally accepted indicator I was doing a good job supporting the growth of a healthy baby: The bump.

But since I don't have it, it feels like I'm already a bad mother. It feels like my body is gaslighting me. Am I even really pregnant if there's no bump to indicate I am? It's easy to explain the symptoms away without one, as if they are caused by other factors like the weather or doing too much physical activity or just being in my 30s. It's feels like my body is betraying me. After all I've been through, my body can't (or won't) do the biggest thing that would reassure me this pregnancy is going to work out? What other mischief is it capable of?

The longed baby bump arrives at different times during pregnancy for different people and I know there are no benefits to comparing my pregnancy to anyone else's. The best thing for my health (and therefore the health of the baby) is to try and remain as calm as possible. There's no evidence to suggest anything's wrong with the baby. All my blood tests come back normal, as do all the routine screens for things like spina bifida and trisomies.

But once you doubt your body for the first time, it's very easy to do it again. From there, it's not long until you're doubting each individual piece of yourself. In addition to struggling with the fact that I don't have a bump, I also worry about my motherly intuition—that special sauce that will get me through the toughest parts of having a newborn. It would be nice if I could simply acquire it before the birth, like the baby bottles or the baby bathtub or any of the other numerous items on our baby shower registry.

Friends and family say it doesn't happen that way—it shows up after birth. This doesn't seem right! It feels like I need to have these instincts before the baby arrives. They all say, "It's hard to believe, but you'll be fine. Once the baby is here, that's when your instincts kick in. It's almost like you wake up one morning and you know enough to get through the coming days." This may be acceptable to other people, but I find it hard to believe because I have only ever been uncomfortable around infants.

I don't want my child to doubt himself the way I doubt myself. I would like him to be confident in his skills, his knowledge, in who he is as a person. I also know that in order for him to be this way, I have to show him how.

So for the next five months, I'm going to practice trusting myself. I'm going to trust my body -- that it will do what I expect it to do, which is help my baby develop and grow until he can be born. Even if it doesn't look like the bodies of any other pregnant people I see, I will believe it is working in my favor. Even if it is not as obvious that I am pregnant as I think it should be.

I'm also not going to worry I don't know enough to have a baby. I'm sure someone will say to me soon, no one knows enough to have a baby before they have a baby. Until they say it, I'm going to say it to myself. I will say it to myself when I am in the shower and when I am loading the dishwasher and when I am looking for something to watch on Netflix and when I am reading a book that I am not sure if I'm enjoying. And I will say it to pregnant women when they see I have a baby and ask for advice.

I will trust that I am going to be a good mother, for him.

Life
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