How I Parent: A Stepmom and Adoptive Parent Who Doesn't See the Labels - but Sometimes Feels Judgment
How I Parent explores the ins and outs of modern day parenting with moms and dads from all over the world, who are raising their own unique families and sharing their best advice and most heartfelt lessons with PEOPLE. Want to be a part of it? Email what makes your family so special to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Name: Jessica Butler Bell
Location: Malibou Lake, California
Occupation: Founder of Raise Magazine, a lifestyle site for modern mothers, featuring stories of stepparenting, adoption, foster care, surrogacy and non-traditional families.
Family situation: My husband Warren and I have been married for 12 years. I have two stepsons, now 25 and 20, and a 4-year-old son, whom my husband and I adopted the day he was born. Our 25-year-old lives in N.Y.C., our 20-year-old is a sophomore in college and my husband and I live with our toddler. I work from home as a blogger and my sister is a nanny for us and several other families.
Parenting “philosophy” in a sentence: Children can have more than one mother (and father).
What was your journey to having the family life you have today?
I met my husband at work. We dated, got married and I became an instant stepmother to two boys. The only real wrinkle in our story is that my husband is 18 years older than me — he is three years younger than my mom. That makes our situation seem very non-traditional, but our families came together in a very natural way.
Even though I was a new person in their lives, the boys, who were 7 and 12 at the time, immediately felt comfortable with me and the credit really goes to both of their parents. My husband never discouraged the boys from having a relationship with me, and neither did their mother. There was a real effort by everyone to make the transition easy on them. We spent a lot of holidays together with my husband’s ex-wife and her parents, especially when the boys were younger. When both of them graduated high school, we threw their parties with both families and all our friends. We always joke that they had the least traumatic divorce experience, but I think it’s really because my husband and his ex-wife decided to make it a positive experience for them, so they adjusted really well.
Once my husband and I decided that we wanted to add to our family, we started the process to adopt our son, Levon. I never had the ache to be pregnant or to have my own biological children, but I did ache to be a mother and adoption seemed natural to me. My mother is adopted and that was always something that I thought was so wonderful.
I feel very much that my stepsons are my own children as well, and even if we didn’t adopt, being a stepmom would have been very fulfilling for me. But when the time came, we decided on adoption and everything was going smoothly until Levon decided to show up 10 weeks early.
We spent a month in the [Neonatal Intensive Care Unit] in Arizona, where he was born, and then we spent the first four years of his life doing extensive therapies, including physical, occupational, speech and child development therapy. I feel like it’s very important to talk about this because so many people don’t know what happens after the NICU. I think the general consensus is: if a baby makes it out of the NICU, they’re fine and that part of their life is over, but preemies and their parents work very hard to do things that other children can do naturally.
Levon is now four and, fortunately, he can do anything and everything that every other four-year-old can do. The only difference is that his friends were born knowing how to do things and he had to learn how to do them. For example, eating can be extraordinarily challenging for preemies. The fine motor skills that come naturally to kids have to be taught to preemies. His mouth did not know how to move in order to make sounds to talk. All of the sounds had to be modeled for him by a speech therapist. It took six months of speech therapy before he started making sounds because his body didn’t know how to.
My mother was actually a preemie who was adopted, so the first person I called about Levon was my grandma. I asked her what to do and she said to “keep him warm, love on him and he’ll be fine.” Back in the ’60s, when my mom was born, they put you in an incubator, kept you warm and that was that. I thought to myself, Okay, I can do that and everything is going to be fine because my mom was 10 weeks premature and she’s great. I didn’t have the fear I probably should have had, considering anything could’ve gone wrong. Thankfully, Levon did really, really well.
It’s wonderful to be born in California if you’re born early because the state provides you with services up until a child is three. Once we left the hospital, he had been evaluated and already set up with child development specialists. By the time he was nine months old, he had three therapists and three or four therapy appointments a week. Then at two and a half, we added a speech therapist. His schedule was intense from day one.
When he was born, I was working full time as a television writer but once my show had finished out its season, I did not go back to work. I stayed home to manage his therapies and oversee his developments. Not that other moms don’t oversee development, but for me, it was a daily grind. I felt like the therapists were training me as much as they were training him so it was really important that I was in all of those sessions learning how to help him with whatever struggle he was having.
Everything that I’ve experienced and learned brought me to create Raise Magazine. So many parents have gone through what we went through, since there are a lot of NICU babies, but nobody really talks about it because it’s hard to raise your hand and say, my child is having challenges that other children do not have. I thought, If I had a website or a magazine, I could talk about all the things that I wish other people had talked about when I was going through it; I can create a platform for people to discuss the issues we face as stepparents and adoptive parents that aren’t being talked about.
My contributors and I try to tackle things like, what do your stepkids call you? Do you correct people who think you’re their mother? Those are the types of questions you run into all the time as a stepmom.
How did your upbringing influence your parenting style?
The way I was raised is definitely a reflection of my parenting style. I mentioned before that my mom’s adopted, but I also have adopted cousins and stepcousins. My uncle’s ex-wife remained a part of our family even after their divorce, and her children were raised alongside me as cousins. I was probably eight or nine before I realized that they weren’t technically my cousins. I had a very modern family, even in the ’80s.
I never worried that my family wouldn’t accept my stepson, or my adopted child, as their family, because of what way I was raised. It made it easier for me to date a man with children and consider adoption because I didn’t have those worries. Also, both of my grandmothers were very against the word “step.” Growing up, we were not allowed to label people with that word. They wanted all of the grandkids treated equally. I use “stepson” when talking to people who don’t know me, just for clarification, but in my regular daily life, I don’t say my “stepson” or this is my “adopted son.” They’re just my sons.
What’s your favorite thing about parenting?
My favorite part would probably be family dinners. We celebrate every holiday and special occasion with a huge family dinner. It’s become a tradition and we even plan vacations around eating experiences. When the kids were little, they loved Anthony Bourdain’s travel channel show, The Layover, and they saw this episode set in New Orleans. They called me at work and said, “We want to go to New Orleans and we found all these restaurants,” so we planned our Christmas vacation based on this episode of The Layover. It’s so much fun to have kids who love experiences that you love.
We’re all foodies and we all love to cook. Well, I actually hate to cook but I love to bake. The boys love to cook, so I’m very well fed. When the kids were little, during the summer when my sister lived with us, we would have their friends over and we would have these big dinners. We would make all this food and people from the neighborhood would show up to eat and it would turn into two hours on the deck. They would tell stories and we would play games and we got to know our kids so well. Dinners are always the most fun and the most important thing we do as a family.
What’s the hardest part?
It’s tough being everyone’s secretary. I’m almost done now because my stepsons are older, but I had to manage their daily schedules for a long time and now I’m managing my four-year-old’s. I was a personal assistant for a long time in Hollywood and that was easier!
The other hard part, which was really surprising to me, were people’s assumptions and judgments about my family situation. I found that the public’s view of me as a stepmother was much more difficult to deal with than my own family’s view. Everything would be great between my husband and his ex and me and then a teacher would make a comment about how I wasn’t really the boy’s mother. I thought issues like that might come up internally but it really came from other people to sort of put me in my place. That has been the hardest thing.
What’s your trick for achieving balance when things get crazy?
When both boys were in the house, it was really easy because we shared custody 50/50. They were here every other week, so it was the perfect work-life balance. When they were with us, it was all about them, and we’d book all of our personal appointments, business meetings, dinners and date nights on the weeks that we didn’t have them. We would go from a week where it was just the two of us and we could basically do whatever we needed or wanted to do, to a week we were full time parents and we would ignore everything else.
You don’t get to do that when you have children full time; it is so much harder. I never really understood the struggle of trying to balance motherhood with the rest of your life until I had Levon. Now balance is harder to achieve and I admit, we don’t do that great of a job making time for ourselves but that’s because he’s still young and childhood goes by so fast. I know in two years, he’s going to be at his friend’s house, so we don’t really stress out about it because we’ll have plenty of time to go on dates once he gets older.
What’s the best advice you can share with new parents?
I would say, find parents who have children that you adore and seek parenting advice from them. My neighbors have the best daughters, so when it comes to Levon, I’ll ask their parents for tips when I need them.
What would you want your kids to say about you as a parent?
I would want them to say that I did everything in my power to encourage them to become the people they wanted to become and not the people I wanted them to become. I don’t see my children as a reflection or an extension of me; I think they’re individuals.
I’m always a bit taken aback when people say, ‘I don’t know if I could adopt or be a stepmother because I don’t know if I could love a child that isn’t mine.’ In my mind, children don’t belong to their parents. We’re responsible for them and we’re gifted this incredible honor of caring for them, but I don’t think we’re here to mold them into little mini versions of ourselves. I think we’re here to help them explore and develop into the people they are meant to be. When you look at it through that perspective, it’s very easy to love any child.