The Family Tree


My step-daughters are beautiful, talented, sweet little girls, but I can’t deny the challenges of becoming their step-mother. Girls are different, parenting styles are different, individuals are just simply different. So I try hard to adjust my expectations, adjust my own style, and then enjoy them as much as I can. It’s not always easy, but when they come running up to me with huge smiles and outstretched arms as greeting, when I feel them clutch me tightly when we say goodbye, and when they yell my name when a nightmare wakes them, I can’t deny the satisfaction I feel.

I also can’t deny that there is a prefix to the word mom, and the huge chasm that is implied in that prefix. Step-mom is about fixing dinner, and then making it again because you didn’t already know they don’t like spaghetti sauce. Its decorating their room in purple, and finding out that green is the new favorite color. It’s about arranging the day, and the week around their school, dance class, and soccer schedules, and cancelling plans so I can taxi to best-friend’s birthday parties. It’s about helping them make cards and presents for mommy, but not getting one. It’s about being reminded that you’re NOT mom.

I want to tell this story carefully, because this has nothing to do with the mind-set or beliefs of a 3-year-old, I take responsibility for my feelings.

It started in the morning one day when we had the girls with us. My husband took the 6-year-old to school before going to work, and I was to take the 3-year-old to pre-school. I was trying to get us ready early and I needed to get in the shower. I set her at the table with a piece of toast, and told her that when she finished she could play with toys. We rarely have a problem with flies, but due to some warm weather we had some pretty aggressive ones in the house. As they buzzed around her I taught her to push them away and say “shoo fly!”. Hoping she would stay content for another 10 minutes, I left for my room.

I was reaching for my towel after a quick shower when I heard her screams. Screams that horror movies are made of. Holding the towel around myself I sprinted to the dining room, where I honestly expected to see blood. Mothers can size up situations pretty quickly, I saw no damage, no injury, nothing out-of-place. My heart pounded a little quicker when I saw a pair of scissors on the table, and for a brief moment I imagined a possibility that was obviously not the case. “Sweetheart, what is it?” I asked as I approached.

“The bees! the bees!”

There were no bees, just buzzy flies. Buzzy flies messing with my girl.

“There’s no bees, just flies, honey. And they can’t hurt you, you’re okay sweetie, you’re okay”. I bent down to take a closer look for injury, there was none, but she was still in trauma, crying. “Why don’t you come to my room with me while I finish getting ready ok?”

“Okay, I want uppy”. Uppy, a word she used over a year ago when she wanted to be picked up. It hadn’t been a part of her regular vocabulary in I don’t know how long. I picked her up, and carried her to my bedroom, as she held herself a few inches away from my wet skin. Sitting on my bed we talked about flies, and then about freckles. I let her inspect my arms and face and we counted to over 50; then we looked at her arms, counting the one freckle on her right arm, I looked again for bites, none. She watched as I did my hair, put on makeup and got dressed. Within a short time we were ready to go.

When we got to pre-school, we were greeted by a cute little curly blond-haired boy, who started asking me questions. “Are you her mommy?”, no, I answered, not sure whether or not to expand on it. “Are you her grandma?” OK kid, we’re not going there. “No, I’m her step-mom.” Apparently that didn’t quite make sense, and he asked it again! “Are you her grandma?” Thanks a lot kid, one more time with this grandma business and things could get ugly around here!

“No sweetie, I’m her step-mom. She has 2 mommies.” Eeek.

At this point the teacher stepped in, laughing, and letting me know that this particular little boy could go on all day with the questions. She turned to him. “Remember, yesterday, we talked about families? Some families have 2 moms, some have 2 dads, some have lots and lots and grandmas and grandpas? Remember when we made our family trees? Everybody’s family looks different!”

My little girl and I hugged and kissed goodbye.. I was curious about the family tree, and as I left the classroom I noticed them hung on the wall in the hallway. I found her’s right away. Her tree had 6 leaves on it. Mommy, Daddy, Sissy, Granny, Grandpa, Tucker.

Tucker is their dog.

They see their grandparents just a couple of times a year.

Why did I have to look?

I felt my throat catch. I’m not a crier, I rarely cry at all, and never in public. Getting into my car, I knew that I could dwell on this and cry, but then I might get in an accident. So I bucked up and went home. I texted my husband about it, but even as I read my text, I realized it looked like a joke, “Tucker got a leaf”. I told him that I almost cried, and I know that sent a red alert. We’d made plans to meet each other at the municipal pool to swim at noon. I got my stuff, got back in my car and drove there. Looking for his car as I pulled into the driveway, I went over the curb. The bang and jolt of my tires hitting the concrete shook me hard, and as I pulled into a spot I started to cry. He got there a minute later, parked next to me, saw my face, came around the car and got in the passenger seat. I told him about hitting the curb. I told him about the flies. I told him about the little curly blond-haired boy, and wept as I told him about the family tree with six leaves.

She is only three years old, three-year old minds don’t think about big pictures, they focus on the words that they just heard: Moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, brothers and sisters. And dogs. I’m not mommy, I’m Ariana. I used to be daddy’s friend. Now I’m daddy’s wife. Arianas were probably not mentioned in the lesson. I’m a grown up, I can see the big picture. I know she means it when she tells me she loves me. But I also know that in this complicated world of steps, there’s going to be more bangs and jolts.

Post script: The next time my husband picked her up from pre-school, Nate also took a look at the family tree. He had a little talk with our 3-year-old about our family and asked her if she wanted to make one more leaf.


They drew it in pen, but I got my leaf, right in between Grandpa and Daddy. They hung it back on the wall in the hallway with the rest of the family trees, some with two moms, some with two dads, and ours.

My husband is the best!

Ariana Gruver is a mother (and landlord) of 3 grown sons. Being single after 25 years of marriage seemed pretty awesome, but then Mr. Right walked into her life, bringing with him two little girls. Starting over again, moving from vibrant Portlandia to the soggy Southern Oregon Coast, changing from a full-time career to being a part-time insurance agent, thrice-weekly stepmom, growing blogger, and full-time wife, she is embracing adventure and sharing her experiences and lessons on her blog. Still Growing. You can learn more about her by following her on: Facebook: and her Blog:


4 thoughts on “The Family Tree

  1. That’s so sweet of your husband. I had a similiar experience at an open house for my (then) 8 year old step daughter not too long ago. They drew “family pictures” to hang in their classroom and hers was “Mommy, Daddy and her two siblings.” Daddy in this case would be her step dad. So even my husband/her dad didn’t get a place in the picture. 🙁 Talk about rough! I’m sure its a common step family situation. But a hard one to swallow!

    • Thanks Whitney. It was a difficult moment, and I’m so thankful to my husband that he talked to her and they altered it. I know there’s a lot more of those moments to come, hopefully I’ll be better prepared!

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