(Courtesy of the author)

On the evening before my 37th birthday, my husband gathered all six of our children into the living room for a “family meeting.” Although I was not invited to join, I was pretending to do the dishes within hearing range, so it was easy to eavesdrop on their discussion. It’s not often, after all, that a family meeting occurs without mom.

“Who is the most special lady in this house?” my kind husband asked the children, clearly hoping for a particular response. I was the only “lady” in the house, the competition for the “most special” didn’t seem to be shaping up as fierce.

“Mom!” my younger kids yelled, dutifully.

“Nicole!” my step children shouted.

“I have homework to do,” my teenager sighed, her boredom audible from the next room.

“It’s her birthday tomorrow,” my husband continued. “And I think you should all take the time to make her a birthday card.” There were groans of the teenager variety and a sweet little cheer, in a girlish voice. Then the rustling sounds of the meeting being adjourned.

I quickly turned on the garbage disposal and tried to look busy. My oldest daughter strolled through the kitchen with her head down, sharing these latest life developments on various forms of social media. My family is #solame.

Our boys ran back to the video game they were playing, stopping only to trip and fall on each other. But my stepdaughter went straight to the dining room table. She pulled the paper and crayons from the cupboard and arranged them carefully. Then she set to work.

I left the room so I wouldn’t ruin the surprise. For her, or for me.

The next morning, on my birthday, there were cards waiting for me on the dining room table. There was the usual first grade birthday related artwork — hastily drawn dinosaurs holding lumpy birthday cakes, in messy colored pencil. A sincerely scrawled “Your the best mom” printed above a half colored mandala, abandoned because my 10-year-old said it was “taking too long” to finish. There was the promise of a “super sincere birthday Facebook post” from my 14-year-old daughter. And then there was a perfectly folded piece of paper, with a bright orange cat on it, colored with careful effort. Happy Birthday Nicole! was written on the cover of the card, in third grade penmanship. Two coffee mugs, complete with waves of steam wafting up above them, were illustrated on the interior of the card. All of my favorite things. She had drawn all of my favorite things.

Inside she had written: “Dear Nicole, Thank you for helping me learn how to ride my bike. Thank you for bringing us to Grand Haven. Finally, thank you for being the best Nicole ever!”

And at the bottom, a little further down: “P.S. I Love you.”

The best Nicole.

When my husband and I got married two years ago, and we tried to combine two families into one big one, I anticipated it would be a tumultuous experience for all. I had barely a clue what I was doing as a mother, what did I know about being a stepmother?

I wasn’t sure exactly who I should be to my husband’s children. They already had a perfectly fine mom to do “motherly” things for them. I wasn’t interested in putting pressure on them, or her, by competing for that role. But I didn’t want to be their friend, either. As we all adjusted to life in our new household, where I was working from home and acting as the primary caregiver, I didn’t want the lines of the child-adult relationship being blurred. I wanted to build their trust in me and to offer them the support of another grown person who was going to be there for them. I knew I did not deserve to have their love, any more than they deserved to have to shuffle their lives between two houses, every week.

But I hoped I would earn it, someday.

“I just want to be the best Nicole I can be, to you both,” I told them, simply, in the early days. I don’t think any of us knew exactly what that meant, but it seemed to give us all a sense of peace and placement.

Mom was mom, Dad was dad and I was Nicole.

As time passed, the relationship between my stepdaughter, her brother and I stretched into comfortableness. Sometimes there was this omnipresent figure of the mother who I was never going to be to them, lurking in the shadows. Other times, I was an almost-mom, a soft place to climb on after the longest days, when they struggled with the most hurting of growing pains.

Eventually, I was in love with these little creatures who crowded our breakfast table in the morning and scowled over their plates of meatloaf at night. I was the big laughter in their lives, a confidante, the person who taught them to ride a two wheeler in the cul-de-sac, the woman who kissed them when they were sleeping in their beds down the hall and remembered to take the glasses from their sleeping faces. I was an almost, a not-quite, a sometimes, not really mom — but I was always, always their Nicole.

On the morning of my birthday, I kissed all of the children thank you, and tried to find one meaningful thing to say about each of their cards. I hugged my teenage daughter, who allowed me to hold her close, in honor of my living to the ripe old age of 37, an impossible feat in the eyes of a 14-year-old girl.

When at last I leaned into my stepdaughter, though, I know she saw that my eyes were wet with tears. “Anna,” I whispered. “Your card is so very special to me.” A big teardrop slipped down my cheek and onto my sleeve. She looked up at me, and even though there was no biology between us, no cells the same, nothing but a handful of years of history that we had shared, I knew I did not have to translate my love into spoken words. She could read my heart.

Thank you, Anna for letting me share your days. I’m sorry that you had to lose things and your life had to change when your parents got divorced. I know I’m not ever going to be your mom and I won’t try to be your friend. But thank you, thank you, for letting me be Your Nicole. It’s the nicest gift you could ever have given me. It’s truly one of the nicest gifts I’ve ever received.

P.S. I love you too.

Jankowski is a mom of four kids and two awesome step-kids, a divorcee and a writer. Read about her experiences with autism, addiction and awesomeness at www.momof4istired.com or on Facebook and Twitter.

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