Cooking a birthday dinner with my stepson changed our relationship for the better

This essay is part of Motherwell’s Parenting and Food column.

By Tess Clarkson

Lost in my suburban kitchen in the Midwest, I stared into the refrigerator, feeling panic about Steve’s birthday, the first we’d celebrate as husband and wife. A mostly single Wall Street lawyer, I didn’t have any children. But then life took me back to Missouri, and I met my dream partner, who had three sons of whom the youngest, a 16-year-old, lived with us part-time.

Pushing jars of crushed garlic, a container of Steve’s special mayo concoction, and a hunk of meat, I asked myself, “What am I going to do?”

The year before I’d thrown a surprise birthday party at the house for Steve with close family and friends. Now I regretted that spectacle because of the pressure to top his excitement.

I closed the refrigerator feeling defeated. Steve made dinner every night. He did all the grocery shopping too. He knew I hated to drive and missed my Manhattan lifestyle of walking to stores and restaurants. This birthday, I wanted to show I appreciated all he did day-to-day to care for us. I wished I could give him a more cohesive blended family too, although I’d learned that with older children it can take longer to create bonds, and for me, this particular bonding wasn’t easy either.

I knocked on my stepson’s door, interrupting his video games after school. A ritual in which he indulged when he wasn’t training for football. 

I felt like we’d come from different planets. I’m sure he felt that I was an alien too. Before practicing law, I had Irish danced on Broadway while in school, and later became a yogi and studied astrology. His football games gave me anxiety.

On the last full moon, I walked around the house with dried sage leaves smoking to smudge our home and my crystals too. 

“It stinks in here. Did you burn that stuff?” my stepson growled. 

That stuff helped me cleanse our home and clear my mental state. I felt lighter and more centered after my rituals. But I knew it just furthered the divide between us. I didn’t know how to be a stepmother to a teenage boy whose real mother lived five minutes away. When picking him up from school, I let him drive my new car home. I delivered cookies and bowls of ice cream to his room. 

But our communication was sparse, which stressed me—a painfully quiet child who turned into an excessive talker as an adult. My daily greetings when my stepson arrived home felt like tortured inquisitions given his short responses. My nieces and nephews considered me the “fun” aunt. But any time Steve or I suggested an activity, my stepson declined. When Steve called, asking, “How did it go today?” I could hear worry in his voice as he hoped his son and I would connect and capitalize on the hours we shared at home before Steve returned from work.

“Your dad’s birthday is soon. Any ideas on how to celebrate?” I said to my stepson.

He shrugged. 

“Do you think we could make him dinner?” my voice quivered. Plus, I never even turned on the oven in my last two apartments; my most recent oven in Brooklyn was used for storage. But I knew my stepson had taken a culinary arts class at school. 

“Sure.” His quick response surprised me.

“What should we make?”

He shared ideas and said he would grill the meat. I nearly cried. A year ago, I’d asked him to test the bakery I’d found for Steve’s birthday cake, by giving my stepson a cupcake to sample. He’d simply said, “It’s good.”

We then picked a day to celebrate, given he’d be at his mother’s house on his father’s actual birthday. 

On the targeted day, I ventured to the grocery store with a list. Back at the house at exactly 2pm, my stepson joined me in the kitchen as promised. No begging was required.

He scanned my purchases.

“Where do we start?” I asked. 

We tackled the potatoes—both white and sweet, washing them and cutting the ends. I held a large bowl while my stepson worked the slicing machine, teasing me that normal people eat real potatoes, not my orange ones. 

“The sweet potatoes hear you!” I giggled. 

He rolled his eyes.

We prepped broccoli which I planned to steam before Steve arrived home. My stepson grabbed the cake mix. He found eggs and butter and began mixing everything. I loaded the dishwasher.

“Oh no!” he said.

I turned. Chocolate powder was in a heap on the floor. 

“Ten second rule,” I shouted and grabbed the bowl. We raced to scoop up the mix, laughing as we gathered chocolate piles and put them into the bowl. 

“When we bake it, it will be fine.” He smiled, then taught me how to find the dimensions on the pans. He poured the smooth mixture into one and slid it into the oven.

“I’ll grill the chicken after Dad gets home,” he said and returned to his room to do homework. 

I put up “Happy Birthday” signs, picked a wine, and set out glasses, dishes, utensils, and napkins. Just as I finished, the cake was done baking. After it somewhat cooled, I iced it, tearing part and adding extra cream to hide my mistakes. I topped the cake off with candles.

Checking the clock, I raced to double check that everything was in place. The broccoli was finished. The potatoes cooked. The garage door made a noise, and I lit the candles. 

Steve walked into the house as my stepson walked into the kitchen. From the entrance way, Steve looked at the counter covered in our celebration prep, and then glanced at me and his son. Steve’s eyes welled. 

I turned towards my stepson. He grinned. The wall between us had cracked.

“This is the best birthday ever,” Steve said as we began singing.

Tess Clarkson is a former professional Irish dancer (“Riverdance” and “Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance”), who spent over a decade on Wall Street as a lawyer regulating financial markets. Now in Missouri with her husband, stepson and Shih Tzu, she’s a freelance writer working on her baking skills. Find her at and on Instagram.

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