I’m pretty sure that it is safe to say that the words… “when I grow up I want to be a step-parent” have never been said in any language or in any location. But at this time it’s roughly estimated that 1 in 3 of all families are now step-families.
It’s also accurate that history/fairy tales and the entertainment industry have not been that kind to step-parents…which, to be honest, means the bar is set low for the job. In my experience though, any step-parents that I know are doing a pretty darn good job; the best possible job they can do in a role that is generally very challenging and often unrewarding.
This post is not though an ode/moan of ‘woe is me…I met this man/woman and now I get a kid(s) too!’. In my personal experience people are very supportive and at times somewhat shocked and surprised when I mention that I am a full-time step mum to my stepson and daughter. I generally shrug this off with a sort of ‘well he was part of the package with his dad’ – it wasn’t a choice it’s just how it is! I should acknowledge that on meeting him he was (and on most occasions still is) an adorable little boy who, to this day, is a great eater and sleeper! As my (now) husband was basically bringing him up alone I feel this was testament to the saying ‘God only gives you what you can handle’!
So it began…a courtship intermingled with full time babysitting, and for the majority of the time (as you are so in love/lust in the beginning) you just accept situations for how they are. You are so desperate to be together you don’t worry or give much time to the fact you are not only entering into a world where you are someone’s ‘significant other’ but also to eventually be ‘another mother’.
There were a few key events that starkly brought to the surface that we were not just another young couple. While shopping in Selfridges one day I overhead a couple of sales assistants discussing ‘How do you think they got him then? I would love one like that one day’. – My step-son has an Indian biological mother and as a result has the most beautiful coloured skin, hair and eyes…he also looks nothing like either of us! Subsequently we have people ‘politely’ enquire how is it that he is so different looking from his sister, who is all blue eyes and white curly blonde hair!
At this point it might be helpful to give some further insight as to how my husband became one of the approx. 10% of male single parents in the UK. His wife (at the time of meeting him only on paper) is a first generation Indian who is also an alcoholic. She would only agree with half of that statement. Her viewpoint is that she has some issues with alcohol but that she is also (I quote) “a wonderful mother, and adored by her son”. She rarely uses or refers to him (my step-son) by name it’s always in the possessive form of ‘my son’ – and usually in capitals!
One of the biggest personal challenges for me is the fact that either through nature and or a misplaced sense of duty I am always seen as a sort of second best…a poor substitute. Last week was a classic example, I took unpaid leave from work to attend his sports day. She has not worked for more than a few weeks in the past 3 years, but in the last few weeks has secured a new role, which meant she could only attend the morning part of the sports day. When I met him at the finish line for the parent’s picnic part of the day I was asked “where is my mum?”, and I explained she had had to go to work. I had seen all of his performance and brought a picnic… “Oh well at least I have got you”. Well who can blame him. The picnic I brought consisted of fruit, water and other healthy (but trying to be fun snacks). I had watched and cheered him in his races, but was not the loudest, did not have anything eye catching on and I had not greeted him by whizzing him around in a hug and then lavishing him with treats and gifts. No, I am the ‘do your homework, tidy your room, buying new school shoes mum’. He refers to his birth mother as Tummy Mummy – but I am sure she would characterise herself as Fun Mum!!
As a step-mum and mum I am constantly doing my best but most of the time that doesn’t seem to be right, but I am giving it my best shot and to all intents and purposes we get along well. But it’s tough, sometimes (I am embarrassed to admit), I can see a lot of what I consider to be her very annoying and over the top characteristics coming out. Sometimes, as he is my only focal point, her actions make my blood boil and try as I might, I know to some degree I take that out on him.
I know parenting is never easy and the rewards outweigh the bad, but I will say now that being a step-parent and a birth parent there is a big difference, for me the love you feel is just as strong, but different. I can though testify that when I feel real love from my step-son it literally makes my heart burst. A couple of months ago, he came and sat close to me on the sofa and just gave my hand a little squeeze…totally unprompted and for no reason at all. That gesture meant more to me than the mechanical ‘love you’ said each night in bed, or ‘you’re the best mum ever’ if I let him have another 10 mins of Minecraft when in bed!
His mother and I have gone through periods of getting along. I would never use the word friend as I never truly trust her but she is a person of extremes so when we get along she is warm and engaging and generous towards me and my daughter. Conversely when we are not getting along she is bitter, abrupt and hostile. I want more than anything for us to have a good relationship as I know its hugely beneficial to my step-son.
I hear from him how sad it makes him feel when his family is all fighting. At present, due to her wholly unsubstantiated, hurtful and unjustified accusations towards my husband, this comment cuts me to the bone as I hate for us to be lumped together. As petty as it sounds, I don’t like to think of us as all one family. I know that’s my issue and I never let him see my dislike in being ‘all his family’, but her actions and words have cut so deep and taken such a toll on our family life I cannot help it. Her recent ‘all-time-low’ is to accuse my kind caring and compassionate husband of emotional domestic abuse. No matter that a year ago when hospitalised it was him who she called (when we were out on date night) to request he go to her home to bring her personal items such as razors and underwear.
I have a ridiculously unobtainable dream that one day we would work together to help other birth and step parents come together and co-parent. I am hugely admiring and envious of people who have found that common ground of loving the child (regardless of parental status). Sadly, though I believe her condition and deteriorated state of mind prevents that ever happening for us.
Over the years I have helped her out both emotionally and physically. When my daughter was about 6 months old I (along with my husband) left her (daughter) with a friend to go to her house to help her through her withdrawals; wiping away her tears of despair, drying her hair and helping her dress when she tried to recover from stopping drinking. I have made pacts and deals with her for total honesty and offered up our Nanny with my daughter in tow to allow for her to have additional supervised time with her (our) son. I have never spoken ill of her to our son. I have posed as a relative to try and get her into hostels when she had nowhere to live. I have sourced rehab facilities. I have even driven around with my (now husband) searching for her in local hospitals and hotels when she had gone AWOL.
None of this matters or seems to count for anything, as she is so consumed with bitterness and a need to blame us (well really anyone that’s not herself). A few years back I heard through a mutual acquaintance that her retort when asked about me was… “She has taken my husband, my son and even my f*cking cat!” – Please note for comedy I am allergic to cats and when he did live with us I had to take antihistamines daily, I was also once forced to take a morning off work as we thought he was stuck up the chimney of a new flat we had moved too. And for additional clarity when I ‘took’ her husband, they did not live under the same roof, he no longer wore a wedding ring and her (our) poor little son had no say, he was just part of the package.
It might not have been the ‘package’ I was expecting in life and it constantly challenges and surprises me. It makes me despair/ giggle/ defend and realise that there is always more you can give and you can never judge a situation until you are in it. At the end of the day the old adage of ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ – and the ‘stronger’ comes from having an amazing husband, loving children, brilliant supportive family friends and lots of wine!
A Guest Blog from Laura Pickering
Laura is a full time kidswear fashion buyer, step-mum, mother & wife (it happened in that order!). She is a student of being her best possible self and insists on dragging her family along with that journey! She lives by the motto of ‘hope for the best and prepare for the worst’. Life rarely seems to follow her carefully made lists and plans and her family are consistently on hand to make sure none of that happens, as a result she wants to kiss them and kill them on a regular basis! The family of 4 – Jonnie (husband), Timo 8 (step-son) and Inky 3 (daughter), live in Oxted Surrey.