By Karen Pellett
Most teenage girls have a dream of the man they’ll one day marry. My personal dream was six foot tall with blonde hair and blue eyes. He would be brilliant, ambitious, and absolutely and madly in love with me. Those were just the basics, the stuff that wasn’t too much to ask.
As I got older, my mom began asking, “When are you going to get married?”
“After college,” I would say. I dated here and there, though never seriously.
I graduated from college, and my mom still asked, “When are you getting married?”
And I would reply, “When I’m twenty-five.”
Twenty-five came and went. I remained single. Instead of praying to meet the guy I’d been dreaming of, my prayers went something along the lines of, “Heavenly Father, if you want me to marry someone, please put a flashing sign over his head saying ‘This is the one’ because I don’t have the heart to deal with the wrong ones.”
When I turned 26, I gave up entirely. My dream changed from a tall man with blonde hair and blue eyes to a condo of my very own in downtown Bellevue, Washington, complete with a baby grand piano in my living room.
One Sunday, I was on the phone with a beloved Institute teacher, Brother Weber, when he asked, “Karen, would you mind if I give your number to someone I know?”
“Sure,” I said, both because I trusted Brother Weber and because I had nothing to lose. After I hung up, I walked into my mother’s bedroom and blurted, “I’m going to marry the man who calls.” My mother, watching TV on her bed, turned to me and stared, her jaw agape. Three minutes later, Frank called and asked me out on a date for later that week.
When he showed up, I was surprised to realize that I had met him the previous Thanksgiving at Brother Weber’s house where I could have sworn Frank was hitting on my roommate. I’d seen him one other time after that, but work and other issues kept me from Institute for a while. So when Frank knocked on the door and I realized who he was, I wasn’t sure what to think. He wasn’t my blonde, blue-eyed dream, but he was six feet tall, and had big brown eyes I could stare into until I melted. He had also brought me irises. I wondered if this was truly the man for me.
We enjoyed a wonderful dinner at a little Chinese restaurant, followed by a stroll along the Kirkland waterfront overlooking Lake Washington. Did I mention that I was wearing a big, black, knee-to-toe walking cast that looked like Darth Vader’s boot? The previous week, I had been playing softball for a team from work when I tore a muscle in my right leg. You know the guy had to be pretty special for me to walk a mile with a big, black boot encasing my limb. During that time, I learned that Frank had just divorced a wife in Utah after five years of marriage and had two sons—Daric, age four, and Will, age two. I hesitated, again questioning my inspiration. As much as I liked him, he wasn’t what I dreamed of growing up. But I definitely wanted to get to know him better.
Three months later, he proposed. “Karen, would you be my queen, my wife, and the mother of my children?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
Not long thereafter, reality hit me. In three months, I would marry a man with children, and that would make me a mom. A stepmom! I had no clue what a stepmom did. I am the younger of two children in my family and hadn’t picked up a lot of experience babysitting. But here I was, leaping into a ready-made family.
Frank and I had been married almost a year before I met the boys for the first time. I was an absolute wreck on the plane ride, clutching Frank’s hand the whole way. I was desperate for the boys to like me, but I wasn’t sure how to make that happen. What if they resented me for “replacing” their mother in their dad’s life? On top of that, I would be meeting their mother. I’d never met an ex before and wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Daric’s and Will’s mom didn’t want us meeting them at the house, so she brought the boys to our hotel. When a blonde five-year-old and a brown-haired three-year-old hopped out of their blue minivan, I froze. “What do I do?” I asked myself. Would it be safe to hug them, especially with their mom looking on?
Frank saved me by stepping in to introduce us.
“What do we call you?” Daric asked.
“Call me Mom,” I thought in my head, and then glanced at their mom, who stood by the minivan. “You can call me Karen,” I said aloud.
The boys’ mother had asked us to take her dad along, as it would make her feel more comfortable. I knew that my husband respected his ex-father-in-law, so we agreed. To keep this first excursion with the boys simple, we headed to the local Denny’s. Frank helped the boys’ grandfather out of the car—he was legally blind and walked with a cane—while I helped the boys. I asked them to wait by the car while I turned to see if Frank and their grandfather needed any help.
“No, we’re good,” Frank said, guiding the boys’ grandfather by the elbow so he wouldn’t stumble.
I turned back to the boys and saw that the brown-headed one had disappeared. My heart thudded as I quickly checked around the car to make sure I hadn’t missed him. “Frank, Will’s gone!” I called when I couldn’t find him. Then I turned to Daric. “Did you see where your brother went?”
“I’ve only had them for five minutes and I’ve already lost one. Their mom’s going to kill me,” I thought. I ran to the front doors of the Denny’s to see if he was waiting there for us. No Will. I ducked inside to see if he was sitting in the waiting area. No Will.
By that time Frank, Daric, and their grandfather had caught up to me. “He’s not here,” I told them.
“I’ll check with the hostess,” Frank said as he sat their grandfather down on the waiting bench.
“I’ll check outside again,” I said. My heart was in my throat and I could hardly hear myself calling Will’s name for the pounding of blood in my ears. I raced around the perimeter of the whole restaurant. He just wasn’t there.
The hostess said she hadn’t seen a little boy pass by, but she had been busy with a crush of customers. Just to be sure, Frank went to check the bathrooms at the back of the restaurant. As he returned to the front of the building, and as I entered it in full panic mode, he stopped. There was little Will sitting at a corner table by the window, waiting patiently for us to join him. When he saw his dad he simply smiled as if nothing was wrong.
I wanted to hug him, scold him, and then hide by myself in a corner. How would I survive being a stepmom? I took a seat, glancing periodically at my menu while sneaking peeks over its plastic pages at the boys. They quickly settled into coloring their placemats while my husband tried to get them to decide what to order. My heartbeat returned to normal, and the pounding in my ears subsided.
Later, when we pulled up at their home, I asked Frank, “Are you going to tell her?”
“Yes,” Frank replied.
Suddenly, dinner wasn’t settling well. Their mom came outside to greet us. Helping the kids out of the car, I could hear Frank telling their mom what had happened. She laughed.
“I’m not surprised,” she said. “We normally go there to eat. He probably just headed right to the table we typically sit at. It’s not the first time.”
Years passed and I felt I was slowly building trust with the boys, but I worried how they would feel when we started having kids of our own. I didn’t want them to think that we were replacing them, but how would we make that clear when they lived a thousand miles away? However, every one of my pregnancies ended in a miscarriage. After working with a fertility specialist, we were finally successful in carrying a baby past the first trimester. Frank called the boys with the news.
“Oh, okay,” each of them said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I thought. “Are they excited? Are they worried about what this means for them?” All I knew for certain was that, like their father, the boys weren’t the best of talkers over the phone—always multitasking during a conversation. We did what we could to keep them informed about the progress of the pregnancy, emailing them copies of the ultrasound pictures, telling them about hearing the baby’s heartbeat, asking them to suggest names. However, after all our trying, nine-year old Will was still reluctant even to discuss it with his dad. I worried that he would think we didn’t love him anymore.
“Are the boys okay with Karen and me having a baby?” Frank asked their mom.
“I think so,” she replied. “Will is just trying so hard not to get his hopes up in case Karen has another miscarriage. He wants to be a big brother so bad.”
When Frank passed her words on to me, I sat on my bed clutching a pillow to my chest and weeping. We decided to give the boys more space. We still told them how things were going, but less often.
The pregnancy became difficult as it progressed. I suffered from migraines so severe that they had to be treated with morphine, and the threat of preeclampsia was high. Then one morning when I was 36 weeks into the pregnancy, I sat in the waiting room before a dentist appointment, flipping through magazines. The sound of the dentist’s drill reverberated through the hall and suddenly my stomach jerked as the baby seemed to somersault around my womb.
“What the . . . ,” I began.
“Are you okay?” the receptionist asked.
“I think so.” I rubbed my belly; the baby made a few smaller motions and settled down. It was definitely weird, but nothing else seemed out of place, so I went ahead with my dental appointment.
I also had an appointment with my obstetrician for that same afternoon. I told her what had happened. “Let’s get another blood draw to check your preeclampsia levels; then I’ll check your cervix to see what’s going on,” she said. The nurse quickly took the required blood, then the doctor began her exam. “You are three centimeters dilated, but that’s not the baby’s head. Let’s do an ultrasound to see what is going on.”
When she pressed the wand to my belly and we could see the baby moving around, my taut nerves started to relax. Then the doctor said, “The baby’s breech.”
My daughter, who had been head down just the day before, had flipped 180 degrees, reversed as far away from my cervix as was possible. Between her position and the preeclampsia, it was clear I’d have to have a C-section.
My daughter Rebekah was born the next morning, April Fool’s Day. When I heard the first angelic sounds of her cry as they lifted her out of my stomach, I sobbed. It was the most perfect sound ever. The doctors worked to clean and sew me up as the nurses worked on Bekah. When they were done, they wrapped all five-pounds-thirteen-ounces of her in a little blanket and covered her head in a pink and blue striped hat, then handed her to her father. My arms ached to hold her but were strapped solidly to the operating table, a myriad of wires and tubes sprouting from them.
As soon as we were settled back in my room and the baby bathed, I asked Frank to get out my laptop so that we could email the boys pictures of their new baby sister. Then, when we knew that the boys were home from school, Frank called to tell them the good news. Over the next few days, as we basked in the love of family and friends, a part of me still worried about how Will and Daric felt about the new baby. So Frank called their mom.
“They are so excited,” she told him. “Will carries the picture of Bekah to school with him and shows it to all of his friends and teachers.” I felt hugely relieved and blessed that the boys truly were excited to have a little sister.
We’ve long since moved to Utah, largely to be closer to the boys. We’ve had our up-and-down moments with both the boys and their mother. Although it’s been great to see them more often, we’ve faced challenges as we merge our different lives and lifestyles.
I try to show my family that I love them by cooking good things. However, my stepsons are picky eaters who are used to eating out. They often refused to eat the meals I worked so hard on. And if I tried to cajole them to eat their dinner, Will would force himself to vomit. Then one night I was simply too tired to cook. I turned to the freezer and dug out chicken nuggets and fries to heat up. When we sat down at the table, Daric looked at Will and said, “At last! Real food!”
“Finally,” Will agreed.
It was all I could do to not burst into tears, but I managed to wait until after dinner. I shut myself in my bedroom and bawled, feeling like a failure, tired of fighting with them.
But when the boys came to visit again, Frank and I were ready. “You love to play video games, right?” I asked them.
“Yeah,” Daric said. Will nodded in agreement.
“Well, here’s the deal. You have to try one bite of whatever I make for dinner. If you like it, great. If you don’t, I won’t insist that you eat the rest. However, I am not making anything else for you to eat. What’s on the table is what’s for dinner.”
They stared at us, suspicious. “Okay,” Daric said.
“What’s the catch?” Will asked.
“If you choose not to even try what I cook, then you forfeit video games for the rest of the day.”
“And if you throw up, then you must be sick and therefore have to go to bed without video games anyway,” Frank chimed in.
They were obviously not happy, but they agreed.
The next time I made dinner I cooked a family favorite from my childhood: chicken puffs—shredded chicken mixed with cream cheese and chives, shaped into balls and wrapped up in crescent dough, then baked and topped with cream of chicken soup. As expected, the boys looked at it warily. This was definitely not chicken nuggets.
“Remember the deal,” I said cautiously.
They went ahead and tried the dinner, but it wasn’t their favorite. However, I kept to my end of the deal and let them play video games that night.
There were a few evenings when all they had was one bite, and even once when Will threw up. After Frank made him clean it up and go to bed, he returned five minutes later, asking if it was okay if he tried the dinner again. Apparently he didn’t enjoy sitting alone in his room. I felt that our agreement was truly a success the day Daric asked me to write down a recipe for barbecue cups so that they could have their grandmother make them when they got home.
The most difficult time we’ve had occurred in 2008. The boys were staying with us during their spring break when Daric, who was twelve, started complaining about a pain in his hip. The pain worsened, and one night when I went into the living room to feed Bekah, I found Daric asleep on the couch with his legs hanging over the armrest.
“It hurt too much to sleep in my bed,” he told me.
Later that day, Frank took Daric to the hospital because he could hardly move. They were gone for hours. I paced around our little apartment, wearing down the fibers of the carpet. Finally, I put Will and Bekah down for the night and went to bed myself. Around three a.m., Frank returned home without Daric.
“The doctors found an infection in his hip they felt they couldn’t treat,” Frank told me as he changed clothes and gathered a few things together. “They’ve sent him by ambulance up to Primary Children’s Hospital.”
“What’s the plan?” I asked.
“I’ve called his mom. I’m going to grab something to eat and then head up to the hospital to be with him.”
“What can I do?”
“Love me, and take care of Will and Bekah. I’ll call when I’ve learned anything else.”
Daric’s mom and uncle drove up the next day. While his mom stayed at the Ronald McDonald house near the hospital, I packed Will and his belongings into the car and met them at the hospital so that his uncle could take him back to his home in St. George. Will told me he wanted to stay with us. I knew he was worried for his brother, but school was starting in a few days and Will needed to get home. Bekah and I watched as he drove away in his uncle’s car before we went to find Daric.
Entering the chilly, well-scrubbed hallways of the hospital, I felt like an outsider, a silent referee walking a line of tenuous correctness. The unit could be entered only by family members, an electronic bracelet admitting them. I worried that being a stepmom meant I didn’t get to visit Daric and was thrilled when I was given my own bracelet. However, I didn’t know how to behave around Daric’s mom—especially since he had ended up in the hospital on my watch.
My brief time alone with Daric’s mom in the hospital room was every bit as awkward as I’d feared. Mercifully, Frank arrived quickly, and I was given a reprieve. However, from what I’ve seen, when divorced spouses deal with a sick child, tempers can flare quickly. Both Frank and his ex were concerned about the health of their child, and both felt strongly about having a say regarding his care.
Over the next few days, I made sure that Daric was plied with enough books, movies, and video games to keep him entertained. I left decisions about his care to Frank and Daric’s mom. Eventually the doctors informed us that treating the infection would require surgery. “The infection isn’t going away like we hoped with the antibiotics,” they said. “We’ll have to go in and scrape out the infection.”
Frank took time off work so that he could be there the day of the surgery. I waited at home and prayed. When Frank returned that night, he told me that things had escalated with Daric’s mom before the surgery. “We were heading towards the operating room when Daric asked if he could stop to go to the restroom,” he told me. “The nurse stepped away for a moment while he was in the bathroom and hadn’t returned yet by the time Daric was done. I started pushing his bed in the direction we were headed, but his mom insisted that we wait for the nurse. When I didn’t stop, she moved to block my path.”
“One thing led to another, and she threatened to have me thrown out of the hospital. So I told her that with one call, I could ensure that the boys came to live with us.”
“Oh no!” I said, laying my hand on his arm. “With Daric right there?”
“I know. I shouldn’t have, but I lost my temper.”
“Frank, we’ve talked about this. As much as I would love for them to come live with us, it has to be their decision. We would ruin whatever relationship we have with them if we took them away from their mom.”
“They need their mom and she needs them.”
“So what are you going to do?” I asked.
“Talk to Daric and apologize.”
The next day, Frank apologized to Daric. He assured him that we would love to have the boys live with us, but we would never force them. It would always be their decision.
Things remained tense but civil between Frank and his ex as Daric underwent a second surgery. I drove to Salt Lake whenever I could to see him, and even gave his mom a lift to the Ronald McDonald House when buses weren’t available. Before long, Daric was healthy enough to leave the hospital, and he and his mother returned to St. George.
About a month later, the phone rang. It was the boys’ mom. “Hi, Karen,” she said. “Daric had a bad reaction to the antibiotic, and we had to come back to the hospital. He’ll be getting released tomorrow, and we need help finding a way back to St. George. Would you have Frank call me when he gets home?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
Frank returned her call as soon as he was home. When he hung up he turned to me and said, “He’s been in the hospital for four days.”
“And she’s just informing you now?” I was livid. As Daric’s mother, she will forever be a part of Frank’s life, and I do what I can to respect her position. Still, though I may be the stepmom and a bit of an outsider, I am highly protective of my husband’s relationship with his kids. Daric is Frank’s son too, and I could not fathom why she would wait four days to let him know that his eldest son was in this hospital again. I don’t know if she was so focused on taking care of her son that it didn’t occur to her to call Frank, or if a part of her remained upset about their previous fight. However, I did my best to keep in mind that the fight was between her and Frank, and not me. So, as hard as it was, I stepped back and let my husband work out the details.
In the years since, we’ve faced challenges, as any family would, and we’ve survived them all. We’ve been blessed with two more children, and the boys have welcomed them with open arms. They do a fantastic job of being big brothers. Daric and Will now stay in our home for a week or two several times a year. It is a joy to have them with us.
The last time I loaded them onto a shuttle to send them home, I waited in my car until the shuttle drove away. I waved goodbye, then sat, gripping my steering wheel, my own kids in the back seat, and cried. My heart ached to see the boys go. When they are with us, our family is complete. When they go home, I know they are in loving hands, but I still miss them dearly.
Being a stepmom has been a road of continual growth for me—a bumpy one at that. It is certainly not what I expected for my life. However, I have found a great deal of joy in the role. I would not give up being these boys’ stepmom for the world. I may not have given birth to them, but I consider them as much my children as the ones I carried inside me. I laugh with them, I cry with and for them. They forever have a hold on my heart.