The phrase “childless stepmom” is a term some people actually use, even though it is an oxymoron: If you are a stepmom, then you do have a child. How am I childless when I pay for clothing, school tuition, drive to birthday parties, wake up in the middle of the night to lay with her during a fever, practice lines for the school play, bring her to urgent care, attend plays and soccer games, knowing as a sixth sense when her cereal is running low, when she’s about to get sick, when she’s dehydrated. Make it make sense.
I’m 36, and I’ve been trying to conceive since I was 34, and met my stepdaughter three years earlier. Celebrities who have gotten pregnant during the time I’ve been “Trying”: Ilana Glazer, Stephanie Beatriz, Maya Erksine, Iliza Schleisinger, Anna Konkle, Chloe Sevigny, Alanis Morrisette, Emily Ratajkowski. and Rihanna. But who’s counting, right?
Before then, I wasn’t trying and wasn’t preventing. Every test has come back normal, and I was even told I have a “perfect uterus.” My egg count is regular for my age, fallopian tubes are wide open, all blood tests are normal. My husband has been tested too — also normal. I’ve never been pregnant. When you Google “childless stepmom” the first thing that comes up is “childless stepmom depression.” When you google “Does infertility cause” the first thing that comes up is “Does infertility cause mental illness?”
Yes and yes. Being a stepparent is one world, and infertility is another, but being a stepparent while experiencing infertility? They compound, from their respective places on the outskirts of mainstream society, and become the loneliest planet. Unless you’re a stepparent, you can’t really have an understanding, and unless you experience infertility, you can’t begin to fathom the feeling of failure it brings on.
Unexplained Infertility is a special kind of hell and often feels like it’s happening to someone else. It’s surreal and a shock to the system. When we think of shocks, we think of a quickness, but with infertility, the shock is prolonged. My situation felt specific and nuanced as it kept happening, and none of my friends were experiencing both. My stepparent friends weren’t trying to get pregnant, and my friends experiencing infertility weren’t stepparents. I found a Discord group that was nuanced enough for me: stepmoms experiencing infertility. The group is called Going Bio.
One of the moderators and creators of Going Bio told me she got the name from 2005’s “The Single Girl’s Guide To Marrying A Man, His Kids, and his Ex-Wife: Becoming A Stepmother With Humor and Grace.” She created the group because many stepparents in the Reddit Trying To Conceive groups weren’t able to discuss having a living stepkid as it was a trigger for those trying to TTC. She wanted to create a place where we could talk about both, stepparenting while TTC.
For me, being a stepparent has eased some of the pain of infertility, rather than make it worse.
Everything happened fast with my husband when we met in 2017. We said “I love you” three weeks after we met, and got engaged a year later. My periods were so regular you could set a watch to them, and even though I was diagnosed with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, a severe form of PMS, which made our relationship hell for a week a month, I figured that the silver lining of PMDD’s struggle was that it made me in tune with my cycle. Hadn’t I struggled enough that the universe owed me this? Why wasn’t I getting pregnant? Was this really my coda to PMDD? Were infertility and PMDD connected? There was zero justice.
I ended up writing The Red Zone: A Love Story, a book about PMDD, where I also explore other identity shifts, like queer identity, stepparenting, and going from serial single to married. Of course, I assumed; I’d become pregnant during the writing of the book. Maybe that would be how it ended!
But another year went by.
I stopped counting.
My stepmom-situation has revealed itself to be unique. Kids were always second nature to me, regardless of if they were related to me. I was a career nanny, and when I look back on all of my nannying adventures, I see I was on a path to becoming a stepmom. For me, being a stepparent has eased some of the pain of infertility, rather than make it worse. When I hope my parents stay alive for however much longer it takes to get pregnant, it gives me relief that my stepdaughter has close relationships with them both (she sleeps at her “grandma’s” once a week) and often says how she wishes my dad still lived close by, who she learned how to play guitar from. Someone in Going Bio who is going through IVF posted a photo with her stepson on Mother’s Day saying she is glad she gets a taste of being a parent.
You know how they say that the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting different results? That is also the definition of infertility.
If I’ve learned anything from the Discord group, it’s that our experiences run the gamut. When I broached the subject with Going Bio, I asked their thoughts on the “childless stepmom” phrase. One member named Natasha said that she thinks the distinction between bio moms and stepparents is important because in some ways they’re such different experiences, but that the specific phrase childless stepmom, “Feels like a contradiction and underplays my role. It conjures images of a barren woman who can’t have her own kids so latches onto someone else’s family.”
Another member, Ashley, chimed in, as someone who has transitioned from a (childless) stepmom to having a bio kid: “Having been a childless stepmom, the transition to instant parent is a huge one that is part of the experience that a stepmom without kids doesn’t have, so there needs to be a term to capture the experience. But “childless” sucks and “child-free” has already been taken as a term to mean “I don’t want children” so it’s not one we can use as a descriptor. Maybe Solo Stepmom?” I’m two glasses of wine in though so can’t tell if Solo Stepmom is the worst or the best.”
Having a stepkid while experiencing infertility also means I often have to hide my feelings. Phone calls from the fertility clinic are hidden. Some people in my discord group have miscarriages or IVF treatments while their stepkid(s) are with them. When my stepdaughter sees a hot water bottle on the couch, and asks what it’s for, I don’t tell her I was trying to keep my uterus warm like the acupuncturist told me too. When she gets home from school the day I found out my IUI failed, I splash cold water on my face and we get a pizza, while I conceal the pain. When I have a bloodwork appointment at the fertility clinic at 6:15 in the morning, I tell her I’m just going to the doctor’s for a check up. Though we speak intimately about most things, this is a topic I don’t think a kid should be burdened with.
The way we have made room and space and discourse for all biological moms to have their experiences, we need room for all stepparents to have their experience.
A moderator of Going Bio was pregnant and on holiday with her stepdaughter and partner when she began bleeding and cramping. She was miscarrying and excused herself to lie down in bed and cry. “We told my stepdaughter my stomach hurt, and my significant other was torn between wanting to comfort me and needing to entertain my stepdaughter. It was terribly lonely.”
You know how they say that the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting different results? That is also the definition of infertility. As Heather Havrilesky writes in response to, “Why Do Women Obsess About Babies and Fertility?” we are women just trying to make it through the next disappointment without losing hope: “Imagine the immediate future and the distant future alike turning into this giant question mark that pervades your every thought,” she writes, “Imagine taking your tiny kernel of neuroticism and giving it a giant playground where it can take over everything good in your life.”
It bugs me that the culture thinks I want a kid because my stepkid isn’t “enough.” You’d never say that to a bio mom — question their want for a kid because their first born wasn’t enough? You would never call an adoptive parent childless, implying that since their child is adopted, they don’t have a child. My theory is that movies like Cinderella and Snow White have embedded themselves so deep into our collective subconscious that we equate stepkids with nuisances rather than loving relationships.
Just last week, I was working in a shop upstate, where I live, and my stepdaughter came in to say hi after getting off the bus down the street. I was helping a customer as she was chatting away to me about school, boys and how annoying they are, and what homework she had. When she left, the customer said, “That was so cute! That’s your daughter?”
“Yeah,” I said, “My stepdaughter.”
She smiled, but then it sunk in and her face changed. “Wow,” she said, “Your stepdaughter actually likes you. You must have met her young. Because girls are the worst. Especially teenage girl stepdaughters.”
I know plenty of stepkids who like their stepparents, I wanted to say, but changed the subject.
It bugs me that the culture thinks I want a kid because my stepkid isn’t “enough.” You’d never say that to a bio mom — question their want for a kid because their first born wasn’t enough?
At dinner that night, I told Louise about the customer. Louise wisely said, “She must either know someone who had a bad experience as a stepmom or she had one herself.”
I am haunted by a scene in “Six Feet Under” that stuck with me even as a teenager. Keith, David’s boyfriend, was trying to make the point that everyone secretly wanted their own child of their own biology. The character Brenda, who is a stepparent to a kid named Maya, and also has a biological baby, counters, “I love Maya as my own,” and Keith argues back, “And you still wanted one of your own.”
But it’s not necessarily always about just one of your own. Many people in the stepmom community call their biological kid an “ours baby” which makes me a little uncomfortable. The truth is more complicated than that; it’s not always that being a stepparent isn’t enough, it’s that you want to grow your family, just like people who experience secondary infertility. Or you imagine your stepkid holding a newborn, knowing they’d always have a sibling now. It’s wanting to experience pregnancy.
The way we have made room and space and discourse for all biological moms to have their experiences, we need room for all stepparents to have their experience. These experiences range the same way motherhood has range. It isn’t just bliss or conflict. It lives in between both.
In some families, perhaps the stepmom is someone who doesn’t have an active role or relationship in the child’s life, but is still technically a stepmom. And some stepmoms maybe want to be called childless. The conversations around stepparenthood should be as nuanced and complex as the one around motherhood is. There isn’t a blanket statement for all stepparent experiences.
“Childless” implies a lack. It implies your stepkid doesn’t count.
My husband and I decided to give it one more year of trying. And then I want to focus on the life I already have, because the life I have is pretty great.
I may be a stepmom experiencing infertility, but I’m definitely not childless.
You can order Chloe Caldwell’s memoir, The Red Zone: A Love Story on Bookshop.