The Stepmom Club Series: Jo!

Happy weekend, my friends!

I'm excited to share today's feature on The Stepmom Club Series!

Jo has an incredible, unique stepmom story and perspective that I think needs to be shared, and I'm so grateful that she was willing to tell her story here today!!

(Would you like to be part of the project?  Fill out this Google form and I'll get back to you with more information within 48 hours!)

And without further ado, here is Jo's story...

-What is your name and general location?
Hi! My name is Jo, and I live in southern New Hampshire.

-How many stepchildren do you have? (And what age and gender, if you’re comfortable sharing) If you have biological children, feel free to let us know about them here, too!
I have an 18 year-old stepson named Quinn, and my husband has two stepcats (Percy and Link).

-Can you tell me a little bit of background about your stepparenting story?
Here comes the long answer! My husband (Norman) and I met four-and-a-half years ago when I was hosting karaoke at a local bar and he came in to sing. I'll openly admit that I pre-judged him semi-harshly, but the minute he started singing I turned into a Looney Tunes character with my eyes popping out of my head and my heart comically beating out of my chest. We chatted a little that night and on and off when he visited the bar over the next few months, but we both misread each other's platonic friendships and didn't realize we were both single. Then, unfortunately, he moved an hour away and we completely lost touch.

Fast forward a number of months to me sitting on the couch doing my best imitation of a Cathy cartoon, and I got a text from another karaoke host friend saying, “Norman’s at the bar and he says he won't sing unless you come down!” Grumbling, I threw on some not-pajamas and dragged myself to the bar, and I'll be damned if he wasn't even cuter than I remembered! I ended up inviting him to my 30th birthday party the following week, we finally went on our first date a month after that, and we’ve been together ever since. We pretty much skipped right over being engaged, but we did make things legal in a surprise wedding at that very same karaoke bar a little over a year ago!

So, where does Quinn fit in all of this? Well, Norman actually told me about his son on that reunion night at the karaoke bar. I couldn't believe he had a teenage son, but I think I was even more surprised to learn that there was a 10-year age gap between me and Norman! That was also the night he told me about Quinn’s Autism. Sweet, goofy Quinn has pretty severe Autism with limited verbal skills and a decent amount of self-injurious and tantruming behaviors. He needs 24/7 supervision, so he lives full time at his school. Norman used to have shared legal custody with Quinn’s mom but when Q turned 18, Norman became his sole legal guardian. We’re now in the beginning stages of determining the best plan for when Quinn ages out of his current school and needs adult care.

Professional Photos by Jasmin Hunter Photography

-What does your stepchild call you?
To start Quinn always called me “Jo,” then one day Norman very sweetly lamented the fact that there wasn't something more special Q could call me. Very shortly thereafter, Q independently started calling me “JoJo,” which no one has ever really called me, so that has now become his special name for me.

-How/When did you first meet your now stepchild(ren)?  Did you run into any difficulties bonding with them?
Neither Norman nor I remember the details exactly, but a few months after we started dating we all went out to dinner together. I think this is where the pros and cons of having an Autistic stepkid first became apparent - we didn't have any of the typical bonding difficulties, but that’s partially because Q doesn't bond the same way a neurotypical kid bonds. The first few times we met I'd say he was pretty indifferent toward me and barely acknowledged my presence, but I remember one day Norman left us in the car together while he ran an errand. Q started pointing at my phone and pleading for “YooToo” (YouTube) and “Craypan!!” I had no idea what he wanted to watch, but kept trying various words and videos until I finally realized that “Craypan” was his was of saying “Squarepants,” and that he wanted to watch Spongebob. I think I earned some major points with him for solving that, and from then on I felt like he acknowledged my presence much more directly. Now I get hugs and smiles, and even the occasional “I luff you Jo-Jo!”

-How do you and your partner handle discipline/rules within your family? (Is it 50/50?)  How do you and your partner make sure you are both respected by the child?
In our situation, we rarely have to do much major disciplining. He’s generally on his best behavior when he’s with us because he loves being out of school and seeing his dad, so the school ends up taking the lion’s share of disciplinary actions. That being said we do have to correct his behavior or language some times, and Norman both supports me initiating corrections, and backs me up if Q doesn't respond appropriately. The one thing I haven't yet experienced is a full tantrum. At school, Quinn pretty regularly tantrums to the extent where he needs to be restrained. If he were ever to do that with us, I'd definitely let Norman take the lead since I think that would be the physically safest option for all involved, but I'd jump in if asked.

-Do you participate in communication/relationship with your stepchild’s other biological parent? (Not your partner)  If so, how much and how do you maintain that relationship?
I do not. One of the best decisions we made was for me to proactively block Norman’s ex-wife on Facebook before accepting friend requests from his family members (many of whom are still FB friends with her). By doing things that way, I could avoid the awkwardness of ever receiving a friend request from her, and as far as she can tell I'm not even on Facebook. Perhaps there wouldn't be any drama, but this way there definitely isn't any! That being said we have met, but both times were very short interactions. Sometimes I wish we could all be friendly co-parents, but this approach seems to be the best for our situation.

-How do you decide what things to do when you don’t have the child (or when the child is with their other parent) and what things you want to wait to do until you have the child with you?
We don't have too much difficulty with this, but sometimes we test things out to see if we think they’d engage Quinn before we bring him along. The harder thing for us is finding consistent visiting times because we both work a ton and his school is over an hour away (in the middle of nowhere). We’d love to have him closer to us so we could see him more and do more fun activities, but he’ll remain in his current placement until he’s 21 (another two and a half years). We’re also working on setting our apartment up so that he could safely do some overnights at home with us; we currently only do overnights at hotels since hotel rooms have a single entry point that we can block to make sure he doesn't wander off. Last year we took him on a mini-vacation to Universal Studios, and he did so well that we’re taking him to Disney World this year!

-Hardest/Most Difficult stepmothering memory?
There’s not one specific memory, but the hardest thing for me has been those times when I can sense that Quinn is in physical or emotional pain, but he can't communicate why. He very simply can't communicate much at all to us, and that can be so hard. An acquaintance once complained about their child talking too much and asking too many questions and Norman said, “Do you know what I'd give for my son to be able to ask me a question or just tell me how his day was?” It broke my heart.

-Best/Funniest stepmothering memory?
Norman and I were driving somewhere with Quinn one day and he said something that sort of sounded like “C is for cookie.” We decided to run with it and started singing the Cookie Monster song from Sesame Street. When we got to the final “C is for cookie, that’s good enough for me…” Quinn belted from the backseat, clear as day, “Oh, cookie, cookie, cookie starts with C!” We were so shocked we almost had to pull over! Once we got past the joy and tears we tried a few other Sesame Street songs and we discovered that Q loves to sing and dance; plus he knows tons of songs! I keep hoping that maybe someday we can teach him to link little songs to wants or needs to help him communicate, but until then I'm more than happy to have sing-a-longs to Disney’s greatest hits every time we get in the car.

-Any particular resources (books, magazines, blogs, podcasts, etc) that have helped you along in your stepmothering journey?
The Gradybird Blog #stepmomclub! Honestly, it’s the only consistent resource I use because I'm a pretty private person and it’s not easy for me to share my story with others. That being said, I'd love to find an Autism group that's as positive and accepting as the #stepmomclub.

-What advice would you give your former self if you could send a letter back in time?  Please write a short version of that letter here.
Not to cop out here but I rather believe that, for better or for worse, my former self did the best she could. Sure she made some mistakes but maybe without them she wouldn't have eventually met the love of her life, so I don't want to upset her journey with my hindsight. That being said, I wouldn't mind sending letters to both my present and future selves to remind them both to work less and enjoy their families more!

-Do you ever get jealous that you aren’t the child’s biological parent?
I don't think I'm jealous that I'm not Quinn’s biological parent, but I do often wish that I had been able to be part of his life a lot earlier, if that makes sense. I came along when he was already in his late teens, and I feel like I missed out on so much. Norman and his family have been awesome in recognizing my role in Q’s life though, and there are some great people at Quinn’s school who try to make sure I'm recognized in special ways. I think that support has made me feel valued for the part I do play, which has helped to keep me from feeling jealous of someone else's part. But would many things be less complicated if I was Quinn’s biological mom? Absolutely!

-What do you say when people ask if you have kids?
I typically say I have a stepson if someone asks if I have kids, but there are times when I refer to Quinn as my son to simplify communication.

-What do you say when a stranger (waitress or something like that) refers to you and your spouse as mom and dad? (ie “Ask your mom and dad”)
We don't correct it and, to be honest, usually it makes me smile.

-How are you preparing for when the child might someday say “you aren’t my real parent” or if others say that to you?
Is it weird to say that I'd be thrilled if his communication skills developed to the point where he could sass me like that? I don't think that’s really in the cards for my stepmom experience though. I will say, however, that last year I was in a conversation with some coworkers about their children. When I started to chime in about Quinn by referring to him as “my kid,” one of my coworkers cut me off and told me that it didn't count because Quinn isn't my son. I felt like I had been slapped. All I could do was stammer a bit and walk away. I've often thought of how I might handle a similar situation if I'm ever faced with one again, and I have yet to come up with anything that I think would both make me feel better, and would help change the other person’s frame of mind regarding stepparents.

-Was your now partner having a child or children a pro or a con when deciding whether to date and ultimately marry them?
I guess it was sort of a pro? I've never had a strong biological need to have kids, but I've also never been fully set against it, so it’s kind of a happy medium between the two. I also grew up with two stepparents, so the idea of being one wasn't a foreign concept to me. To be super honest, the trickier thing for me was deciding if I was okay with the fact that Norman had a vasectomy after Quinn was born. I effectively had to decide if I wanted the option of bio kids at some point, or if I felt I could be satisfied without ever being a biological mother. I'm very confident in my ultimate decision against having children, but we have both agreed to leave the foster and/or adoption doors open.

I'd be lying by omission, though, if I didn't admit that I also had to weigh out some major pros and cons regarding becoming a stepmom to a disabled child. When most parents become parents, they expect to nurture their tiny humans to a pretty standard level of independence. Quinn will need a lifetime of special care and expensive medications, and he will never be independent. That’s a lot to voluntarily sign up for. Arguably, that’s a pretty big “con.” But having both Norman and Quinn in my life is worth facing those challenges. They’re my “pro” :)

-Knowing what you know now, would you still choose to get into this relationship?
100%. I love my little family more than I thought possible. Cats and all.

-Tell us three interesting facts about you that DON’T have to do with stepmothering.
- I stay pretty busy managing a 2200 capacity concert venue that hosts nationally recognized music and comedy acts
- I'm a giant trivia nerd - Norman and I have won a number of trivia tournaments, including two years on the winning team at the NHPR Trivia Smackdown
- I collect rare Disney World artifacts (latest addition to the collection is an original construction blueprint from the Haunted Mansion!)

Thanks again, Jo, for your willingness to share your stepmotherhood story today!  I'm so grateful for the insight you've shared. You and Norman and Q and the cats are the cutest little family! <3 

Did you like reading Jo's interview?  Want to read more in this series?  Check them all out here!

(Don't forget that if you're interested in sharing your own stepmotherhood story just out this Google form and I'll get back to you with more information within 48 hours!)

Thank you, my friends!  Have a great weekend!!

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