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The moment I first felt like a parent: Reflections on my stepson, selflessness, and getting seasick in the Gulf of Mexico

It took rough seas for me to feel like a parent. Literally. My husband, my stepson, and I were on a ferry taking us from the Port of Cozumel to the Mexican mainland enroute to our tour of Tulum and the Mayan Ruins. Had my husband and I read the “know before you go” notes more carefully, we would have known that the ferry can cause motion sickness and probably would’ve taken some motion sickness medication. We hadn’t, we didn’t, and we were only 10 minutes into our 45-minute transfer when we realized we’d be paying for our lack of proper preparation. The boat was rocking and rolling and, I thought, maybe spinning, although it seems unlikely looking back. That was probably just my head. My stepson’s as well.

He was nine at the time and not used to motion sickness. I, on the other hand, was 34 and very used to the uneasy feeling. I get sick just watching him and his dad on the Tilt-a-Whirl and that crazy carnival machine that spins you around until it sucks you to the wall and then tilts and spins you some more. They step off those creaky contraptions with smiles on their faces, my stepson eager to tell me about what it was like (awesome!) and how it felt (so weird!) while I sip a Coke to settle my stomach which is queasy just hearing about it.

So he was caught completely off guard by the nausea. And if there’s anything worse than feeling nauseous, it’s being surprised by feeling nauseous.

“I don’t feel good,” he said, panic tickling his voice.

“I know, bud,” I said, putting an arm around him.

He curled up in my lap.

“Just focus on your breathing,” I told him, “Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.”

I talked him through the strategies that I was using. Physiologically I’m not sure it was working, since I still felt like I was going to vomit, but psychologically it helped take my mind off my the waves of nausea rising up from my stomach and crashing into the side of my head. I hoped it might work for him, too. I also rubbed his back softly, using the anti-nausea technique my grandmother successfully used with three kids and seven grandkids.

“I don’t like this,” my stepson said, barely holding back tears.

“I know, bud,” I repeated, “I know.”

“I don’t want to go back on this boat.”

“I know, bud. I know.”

Instinctively, my eyes darted around looking for motion sickness bags, then quickly stopped, the frantic movement having only added to the sick feelings sloshing around my entire being. My husband offered to take over parenting duties, but I waved (ugh, waved) him off. I had it. My stepson and I had settled in the best we could. I kept reminding him to think about his breath and continued to rub his back. He continued to try his best.

It wasn’t the first time I had comforted him. We had bonded in the two and a half years since we’d met, even more so since we had officially become stepmom and stepson a year and a half prior. Per my stepson’s request, my husband and I each got equal amounts of snuggle time with him. And when tough situations arose, we talked through them together as a family. To this point, however, there hadn’t been a situation like this — one that required immediate physical and emotional comfort. The was new.

The nausea didn’t go away, but my concern for my own well being did.

The boat continued to bounce about the waves and the horizon continued to bob in and out of view. The time continued to pass, slowly. The nausea didn’t go away, but my concern for my own well being did. I felt awful, but it didn’t matter because my stepson needed me. Every part of my body indicated that I may very well be physically sick at any moment — every part except my heart. Despite feeling awful, all I thought about was my stepson and how to comfort him. Basically, I couldn’t be sick. It wasn’t an option, not when he was counting on me.

This was the first moment I really felt like a parent. Or, perhaps, it was the moment I felt that I had proven myself as a parent. I didn’t think about it that way at the time, though. And that too, I think, is very parent-like. I wasn’t thinking about what I thought or what I felt; I was just focused on caring for my stepson. In that moment, a moment when it was just us and a boat and the waves of the ocean and the waves of nausea, I simply and naturally focused on him.

I’ve always known the human body is capable of great things; that day I realized the human spirit is capable of more.

Those moments, as rough and as challenging as they were, were also full of comfort and reassurance, I think — I hope — for us both. A year and a half before that day, I consciously accepted the stepparenting role, knowing that I could do it, that I wanted to do it. And I was certain that I was ready to take on all the uncertainty of what was to come. That’s what parenting really is, right? It’s being ready and willing to care for and comfort your children through life’s ups and downs, even though you’re uncertain when, where, and how you might be needed most. Like, say, on a bobbing boat or rocky seas in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

About the author

Amy Menzel is a wife, stepmom, teacher, and writer happily living life in Wisconsin. She appreciates the opportunity to learn through writing. Her writing has appeared in the Wisconsin English Journal, at the Three Teachers Talk blog, and in Stepparent Magazine.

Amy with her husband and stepson

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