When Lisa Edelstein first started thinking about why stepparents have a negative connotation associated with them, she did what any post-millennium individual would do: turned to the internet.
“I tried to Google Why do stepmothers have such a bad rap? but by the time I typed ‘Why do stepm-,’ Google excitedly anticipated my needs, showing me Why do stepmothers hate stepchildren? Why? WHY?” the Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce star writes in a new essay for Redbook.
“Is it so impossible to imagine loving a child you didn’t give birth to?” writes Edelstein, 50, who is stepmom to husband Robert Russell‘s two sons. “Sure, raising human beings is hard even when you’ve had the opportunity for oxytocin to kick in for some chemical bonding.”
“But as any adoptive parent will tell you, love comes anyway, even if you became a parent without having sex to get there or you became a parent by default. Like me,” she adds.
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The actress married Russell in May 2014, and shares that while the timing was a little controversial (“He was less than two months out of his first marriage” and “a mess,” Edelstein writes), it was the right thing for them even “beyond the chemistry.”
“Even more controversial than that, he introduced me to the boys almost right away,” she recalls. “This seems to be a pretty common no-no, but for our story, and as the people we were, it was what made the most sense. I wasn’t dating just him — I was dating a family.”
“Because of that, I have been there for as much of our two boys’ lives as they can remember,” Edelstein writes. “I get to be part of the structure they know as family. That means a lot to me — I love my stepsons. However, when you are a step-anything, no matter how much you love your kids, it’s hard to know what you are to them.”
“Feeling like you are part of the family is really important,” she adds. “In fact, one of the biggest struggles of becoming a stepparent is that you take it very seriously, and you show up ready to do your job and parent.”
“But you are a stepparent, and there is no such verb as ‘to stepparent.’ So what are you? You’re not their buddy, you’re not their babysitter — you are a parent … sort of.”
Edelstein admits that her “position in the family came in phases,” starting with being “a solid third parent and a stabilizing force” before eventually morphing into something completely different.
“I stepped back and facilitated. I tried to make it possible for my husband to have very little else to think about when the boys were with us,” she explains. “Plus, we were not yet married, so I was only unofficially stepparenting. If you think parenting is a thankless task, believe me, I get it.”
“I was a parent without a title (as in ‘She’s not your real stepmother’),” Edelstein remembers. “In an even bigger twist, you have to support the parenting of your partner’s ex, even if you intensely disagree with it. You need to show up 100 percent ready to drive the parenting car and then sit in the backseat.”
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But on the other side, after the pains of divorce and learning to adjust to a new normal have subsided, Edelstein has “learned that the children will let you know what they need from you” and let that guide her.
“You keep showing up, forever the third parent, and the family dynamic will stretch and contort and redefine itself to include what you have to offer,” she writes, adding of a time last winter when she got to spend a few nights alone with her stepsons, “After almost seven years together, I got to see the relationship I’d built with the boys on its own. They were relaxed and chatty and open and gorgeous, and we had tons of laughs and tons of fun.”
“The question remains, though: What is a stepparent? Who am I to them? I still couldn’t tell you, not exactly,” Edelstein admits. “But I do know these few things: I’m not their mom. I’m not their dad. I’m their Lisa. And that’s f—ing awesome.”