The art of being a step mother (originally published in Red magazine -May 2015)

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Stepmothers

This was commissioned by RED magazine and appeared in the May 2015 issue.

As my new boyfriend Colin ambled towards the corner shop, I wound down the car window and called after him, ‘Don’t forget the milk, babe.’ He turned back with a warm smile, acknowledging my request. Sitting back contentedly, my thoughts drifted to our romantic supper for two – yet they were quickly interrupted, when a tiny, but perfectly articulate, voice rising up from the back of the car.
‘He is not your babe, he is my daddy!’
I turned to look at the angelic three year-old – Colin’s daughter, Charlotte – her little face screwed into a scowl and I’m ashamed to say, not for the first time, the anger rose inside me. I found myself glaring down at this small being, who was staking her emotional claim over my partner with such force. She glared back at me, completely holding her own. She was just a toddler and I knew, as the adult, I should let it slide, as I usually did, but on this occasion my anger at her was palpable.
When Colin returned with the groceries, and I told him what had happened, he thought it was hilarious. But I found the whole situation intimidating, infuriating and frankly upsetting. What was I supposed to do with that comment? How could nine words emitted from the mouth of such a small human being carry such weight? And why couldn’t I count on the support of my boyfriend in dealing with his angry little girl. She’d pelted me with an emotional curve ball – but it was just one of many that I endured when I first became a step-parent.
I’m happy to say that now, Colin (who has since become my husband) and I have a lot better relationship with each other’s children – we have six of them between us, including Charlotte. We’re more tolerant and hopefully more understanding. Yes there are still incidents aplenty, but they are quickly resolved and carry less emotional weight. Nevertheless, I still regard these early days as a baptism by fire. Step-parenting is a hard-to-navigate role, and with over half a million step-families in the UK, and a divorce rate at 42 per cent (and counting), it’s a position that many of us find ourselves in. Becoming part of someone else’s ‘unit’ requires an often lengthy period of adjustment – for everyone. And while it took a few years for Charlotte and I to truly find a balance that worked, for many step-parents a feeling of equilibrium and happiness never happens.
I think a lot of it comes from guilt. It’s an emotion that most mothers seem to battle with anyway, but it only intensifies during a break up. When I broke up with my sons’ father, after 13 years together,(he had an affair) I was painfully aware that I was also destroying the secure environment they had come to rely on. Making them feel loved and safe was a priority for me, and we quickly fell into a routine that suited all of us. The boys, who were four months and three years at the time, still lived with me in our family home, and saw their dad at weekends.
Things remained like this for seven years, until I met Colin, who had also separated from his partner. He’d been invited by a mutual friend to join us for supper and I instantly fell for his sense of humour and his kind, gentle nature. Yet I knew creating a home for my boys and his four children would nevertheless prove a challenge.
I was 38 when we met, and Colin’s older kids from his first marriage were already 18, 20 and 21. He had separated from three year-old Charlotte’s mother, before she was born. At first I assumed our relationship would start with lots of indulgent dinners and lazy mornings in bed – particularly when my boys, who still lived with me, were with their dad. I felt like we’d both already done our fair share of baby duty in our lives, so we didn’t need to worry about that anymore, but of course, we were propelled back there every time Charlotte came to visit.
She instantly took priority over the other kids because she simply needed more attention than they did. This may have been easier to swallow if Colin and I at least had similar parenting styles. But Charlotte’s mother had instigated a strict routine – one that she shared with me via a long list of ‘dos and don’ts’ and that my husband was fearful of deviating from – so the weekends we cared for her, everyone had to adhere to a toddler’s timetable. I also found myself tied to another woman’s parenting style – which was completely at odds with my own, far more relaxed, approach. And I realised I was expected to cut short everyone else’s fun to maintain Charlotte’s schedule too.
I remember one occasion when, on a joint family outing, my youngest son became upset because he had been promised a trip to a museum but we had run out of time. Colin’s constant clock watching had already driven me to distraction, but now I had to disregard my own child’s feelings for the sake of Colin’s offspring. It was too hard to ignore my son’s tears, too upsetting that Colin seemed immune to them and too frustrating that yet another ‘happy’ family trip had descended into an argument.
When I’d been a single mother, I’d always assumed embarking on a relationship with a man who had no children would be catastrophic, as how could he ever understand what it was like. Instead, I’d found a partner with kids, and constantly felt undermined and unable to vocalise what I really thought for fear of causing a row.
My relationship with Colin’s three older kids was equally as challenging. At times it felt like we were developing great friendships, but then something would happen and we’d be back to square one again.
Weeks after the museum incident, Colin’s eldest son spotted a bottle of champagne in our fridge and reported this back to his mother. As she and Colin were in the throes of financial negotiations, this information became ammunition. Times were hard for all of us back then and the champagne was a rare treat – purchased by me – but of course, his son didn’t realise this and viewed it as misplaced priorities. I could understand his loyalty to his mum, but I was devastated too. I’d recently helped him to raise a deposit for his first home, and acted as guarantor, but at the first opportunity to unfoot me, he did. In retrospect I realise he was dealing with his emotions by lashing out. I was just the easiest target.
Poor Colin spent a lot of time trying to keep everyone happy, but for me, the fact that he didn’t instantly spring to my defence was yet more evidence that the lines were drawn. It was very much him and his children, and me and mine. Blending had failed. We were not ready to be step parents – being parents was hard enough.
So we went our separate ways, for three years. We remained friends during this time and out of the blue, met for a coffee in 2011. We both had dates lined up for that evening, but decided to ditch them and go out for supper instead. Guess what? We’ve never looked back.
A few weeks later we broke the news of our reconciliation to our children and they were all delighted. It seemed that time not only helped us to heal, but gave us a shared history, something to help the kids feel unified. The first time Charlotte, then six, came back to visit us, she cried because she was worried she would never see us all again. It made me realise that despite what had happened before, my children and I were important to her.
Almost a decade on, I’m able to say that I now love being a stepmother to Colin’s four amazing children. Each one of them has brought a positive, new dimension to my life, and luckily, their mums have both helped to make the situation more harmonious. Their acceptance – and support – of our relationship means that they feel like allies. And actually, they always have done. Even when things were tough for Colin and I, his ex partners never weighed in and made things worse. They were sensitive to the fact that we might need time alone without the kids and they also seemed confident about leaving their children in my care, which made me feel accepted by them too. they seemed just as happy as the kids about our reconciliation.
So how did we do things differently second time around? By being more supportive to one another as a couple and clearer about the roles we’d take on with each other’s children.
In 2013 we got married and our children were ushers, flower girls and bridesmaids. As I stood back and looked at our big, crazy family, I was proud of what we’d become. Now we are more honest, settled and confident. Am I still sometimes seen as the wicked step mother? You would have to ask the kids (I’m still working on being slightly less opinionated!), but so far this fairy tale has a happy ending.

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