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Step by Step

Marrying a man who's raising his kids is not such a bad deal for a childless woman. But there are a few things she'll need to know.


When I told people I was engaged to be married, their faces lit up. When I added that I was getting three teenage daughters in the bargain, those faces dropped.

"Oh, my god" was a typical response, along with a few who said, "I'm so sorry for you."

Haven't we evolved since Cinderella had all that trouble?

Among us are a growing number of single fathers. And then there are the childless single women, like I was, with time running out for biological offspring, but in whom the urge to mother is strong. I think these women and men should get together.

My story involves Bill Robinson, 50, a divorced, charismatic, thoughtful building contractor in Santa Barbara who had been raising his three daughters for seven years. Jenny, 15, is a vivacious, tough and emotional artist. Sarah, 13, is a passionate home designer, sketching out floor plans in her spare time. She has asked me to stop calling her Martha Stewart Jr. Amy, 12, is a soccer goalie, karate kid and animal lover. I am 42, never before married, and a free-spirited, intense writer.

How do you make it work? Here's what I've learned:

* Marry a funny, sexy, caring man. Note that a father who is raising his children has already proved his talent for making long-term commitments.

* Be as wild or mild as you want to be. You want misery? Try fitting into some preconceived notion of motherhood. There has never been a time like this, kids like this, a woman like me. Create your own mothering style.

* Celebrate your collective weirdness. If you are coming into a family without a live-in mom, the kids had to let go of the Ozzie and Harriet fantasy years ago. "We're not a normal family," Amy told me. Months later, running her hands through my curly, wild tresses, she said: "If you had normal hair, you wouldn't have fit into our family."

* Learn to compromise. As a single, self-employed woman, I made the decisions and my dog wagged her tail. But these Robinsons, they have opinions. I abhor TV. They love it. So: I don't blow up the TV. They don't watch it during the day.

* Listen to your husband. After raising these kids for a long time, he knows a lot.

* Use some power. Jenny disobeyed our TV rule. It was spelled out, on a sign taped to the TV, that the consequence was loss of phone privileges for a day. Later, I told her that her boyfriend had called. "But," I added, "the telephone in the kitchen has been removed." She glared at her dad and snarled: "Did you take the phone?" I jumped in: "I did it." When Jenny's eyebrows shot up, I added calmly: "I may be the biggest bitch you ever met." She grinned: "I bet you are." Our relationship has been smooth ever since.

* Savor and use your power as a nurturing adult. One afternoon before Sarah's new ballet class, she came to me and said: "I'm too shy to go." I said: "Get dressed, I'll take you." On the way, I said, "You probably don't want me in the class watching you." 'Oh, no," she implored. "I do." So I watched her, she felt comforted, and went thereafter on her own.

* Accept that you'll have to give up something to be a stepmom. I used to go to two or three movies a week. No more.

* But don't give up everything. One movie a week works for me. And when things get wacko, I'm in my room meditating.

* Exorcise June Cleaver from your memory. When I stress about not cooking dinner every night or keeping the house spotless, I think of this nightmare: I'm standing at a table containing one canister of hydrogen and one of oxygen with tubes feeding into a vial and repeating my mantra: "A good stepmom makes her children's water from scratch."

* Be prepared for heartache. Prior to my first Mother's Day in the family, I fantasized about being honored, coddled and brunched as Stellar Stepmom of the Universe. But the girls were taken away by their mother on the morning of Mother's Day and not delivered back until late that night. Thankfully those 24 hours passed. But they will be upon us in fewer than 300 days.

* Be prepared for elation. Being mostly alone for two decades didn't prepare me for this kind of evening: Bill and I watch the videotape of our wedding reception, holding hands tightly; nearby, Sarah flips through a home decorating magazine, and leans over to me: "Kathy. Look. This is my dream bedroom." In the kitchen, Amy makes bread, running in with questions: "Kathy, is this enough yeast?" I think, how did I earn all this?

* Never talk negatively about the children's mother. I violated this rule once, made my apologies and vowed not to be stupid again. When the kids voice frustration with their mother, I simply acknowledge their feelings. Also, the mother and father need to communicate about the kids. I'm out of that loop.

* Get some help. I read books on stepmomhood and still do. We saw a family counselor. When friends tell you that the teenage, hormonally charged thunderstorms will pass, believe them. During one trying time, I would have preferred that one of the girls live out her childhood on a remote Alaskan island. But we worked it out and now I wouldn't give up this child without a fist fight.

* Trust yourself. We childless women have had time and energy for personal growth. I've developed spirituality, wisdom, compassion, strength and morality. Only now have my qualities been put to the test, and I'm a more gifted woman than I ever suspected.

* Be happy. I'm honored to help three girls bloom into heathy, self-assured women. Plus, I may be holding stepgrandbabies in my arms in 10 or 15 years. Not bad for a late starter. I'll be forever grateful to Sarah, who, a few months after Bill and I began dating, told him, "Dad, Kathy's the one."

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