And why I’m glad that I was a stepmother first.
It’s a big old learning curve, isn’t it.
Everyone’s struggles as a stepmother are different, but what binds us all is the wisdom we can derive from it. Whether that’s about ourselves, or human nature, or even that there are some situations we just will not put up with.
There have been times where I’ve been entirely unconvinced that I’m gaining anything at all; certainly not wisdom in the face of the mind-numbingly stupid situations my family finds itself in. An addiction to mild painkillers maybe.
However I’m pleased, or relieved perhaps, to realise that in retrospect I have gained some incredibly useful perspective. I’m genuinely glad that my stepfamily formed before I became a mother myself, as some of what I’ve learnt as a struggling stepmother is helping to shape the sort of parent I hope to become.
1. Our children are independent beings, and being a parent does not denote ownership
It feels like this should go without saying, but it seems to be quite often forgotten in the fray of disagreement between parents following a separation.
Manipulating a child, or keeping them away from half of their family, is a sign that you don’t fully recognise their individuality and the value of their relationships outside of your own. Whilst we must of course do everything we can to keep our children safe and well, part of our parenting duties surely involves teaching them the critical thinking skills needed to make up their own minds about how they want to live their lives, and who they want in them.
This means that they probably won’t always agree with you. In fact, if you’ve raised a child who can reach a point of view different to your own, and who can articulate that difference of opinion clearly and with passion, then in my opinion you’ve done your job.
If you’re interested in the concept of critical thinking, and how to encourage it in our yoofs, this TED talk from Brian Oshiro is well worth a watch.
I’ve also realised that there can be a startling difference between what we think our children need, and what actually matters to our children. Constance Ahrons, in her book We’re Still Family (a great book which I’ve referenced before), talks about this idea in the context of living arrangements. The book uncovers how adult children felt about their parents’ divorce when they were going through it, with the aim of dispelling the myths around what does and does not damage a child.
As the children got older, Constance found that they tended to want flexibility in their living arrangements. The parents, however, thought that routine and rigidity was in their best interests, and fought tooth and nail between themselves to carve out the “fair” allotments of time.
By not recognising that their children were developing their own lives, these parents were doing a great job of squashing their growing offsprings’ freedom, and their opportunities to develop as individuals away from their parents’ influence. Looking back at my own childhood, I know just how important the right level of freedom and socialisation was to me, and it’s exactly the same for our own children now.
2. That when children are involved, even the best laid plans can be brought to total waste
When faced with your own children there’s a teeny tiny chance that you may have an ounce of control in the mayhem that generally ensues. Sibling rivalries, for example, may be much easier to deal with if you’ve had a hand in guiding the little personalities from day dot.
However, quite often it doesn’t feel like you have any control at all (why won’t they sleep? Where did the peas go because I KNOW it wasn’t in their mouths [clue: nose]), and it can be completely overwhelming for new parents to be at the mercy of factors outside of their control, possibly for the first time.
In a stepfamily the chaos that unfolds tends to be much more problematic than just “I can’t get my hair done because my child has been disinvited from her best friend’s birthday party, and my roots are down to my waist”. It’s a training ground in learning patience, controlling your temper, and being flexible even when you really, really don’t want to be. It also has a habit of bringing out the basest of our emotions, and biting our tongues and participating with grace when you’re burning up with white hot rage isn’t easy.
After learning to deal with all of that, I feel as though the chaos of nuclear family life has been much less of a baptism of fire than it otherwise may have been. Fewer pitch forks, more low-level general confusion.
The biggest challenge now, of course, is learning to deal with both kinds of madness side by side… lord have mercy.
3. It takes a village, but having more people in the children’s lives does not make the role of their parents any less important
I once read the most appalling article in the Daily Mail. I know, I was click-baited, and I lapped it up with horrified glee.
High on the page there was a gloriously enormous photo of a mother, dressed all in red with satin-black hair, sat regally on a velvet chair next to her well-groomed son. He can’t have been older than 7 or 8, he had an immaculate shirt and little polished shoes on, and his hair was very nicely parted down the middle. He had an arm draped protectively over the back of the chair, and the brilliance of the photography had him showing the exact same facial expression as his mother (and I mean, it was uncanny). Defiant, and very slightly unnerving.
The premise of the article was that the mother was claiming full ownership of her child. Body and soul (this was clear to me without even reading the bloody thing). She was refusing his father access to their son, because she did not like his new partner. “That woman” would meet her child “over her dead body”, and she couldn’t understand what on earth she could possibly bring to her son’s life.
Her son, naturally, agreed wholeheartedly with her.
It’s not as if a child is only capable of receiving so much love before they have to start caching some.
I’m not even go to go into the logically problematic “moral right” she was claiming here – you probably know how I feel about parental alienation by now.
What strikes me about it now is that it’s just not right to say that one person, and one person only, matters to a child’s upbringing. That’s not to say that single parents aren’t absolute heroes, but they need help. Even when there are two, we need help. And when there are more than two? Guess what, we need help.
Grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, role models – they all matter. And stepparents, they absolutely matter too.
What it doesn’t mean is that the parent somehow matters less, or that they can be sidelined. It’s not as if a child is only capable of receiving so much love before they have to start caching some. My stepdaughter is loved by so many people (so many!), but you know what – she looks forward to going home to mummy and telling her all about.
If you want to boil it down to fundamentals, we just have to ask ourselves one question to understand how ridiculous the intention of cutting people out of the children’s lives truly is – how, exactly, is a child receiving more love a bad thing?
This realisation has brought me a sense of calm that I wasn’t actually expecting. Having been so out of control for so long, I truly believe that regardless of the multitude of people in my son’s life now, he will hold a special place for me. I know this would continue to be true even if, heaven forbid, my partner and I one day split up, and he ends up with a gorgeous, leggy, Nobel-prize winning stepmother to call his own (argh even writing it puts a knot in my stomach. You hypocrite, Stilettos!).
So, what has becoming a mother taught me about being a stepmother?
It would be remiss of me not to pay lip service to this question.
I’m actually not a fan of it, because stepmothers are constantly hit with the prejudice of being somehow less of a person because they haven’t given birth. I put up a short but ranty Instagram post about this recently, and it has the feminist in me clamouring to be let out.
We do not need to become mothers in order to have a real, and lasting impact on our stepchildren’s lives. We also do not need to go through the biological function of childbirth in order to understand where a mother is coming from, and what a child needs.
I suppose it’s now slightly easier to put myself into the ex’s shoes, but to be honest if you have any sort of empathy you can do this anyway. I don’t subscribe to the idea that you only know what it’s like to be something by becoming it yourself – if that were true, how are we ever supposed to understand each other?
What is has done is pull into sharp focus a couple of points I hadn’t fully appreciated about the role:
1. how difficult it is not to have an automatic say in decision making. Quite often we take it as a given that we don’t have that input, but I can acknowledge now that it’s really difficult to put up with. The relief of being able to decide how to parent, and where we’re going and what we’re going to do when we get there, when to say yes and when to say “absolutely no way in hell is that happening”, has been truly wonderful; and
2. that love comes in so many different forms, none of them greater than the other. I do feel different things for my son than I do my stepdaughter, but that doesn’t mean that I love her any less. It’s just different, but that’s been delightful in itself. Life is rich, and we should embrace these experiences rather than worrying about how they differ.
[NB: it’s not a given that you will love your stepchildren at all! And you know what, that’s also just fine.]
Are you a stepmother and a mother? Which came first? What have you learnt? I always love hearing from you – drop me a message or find me on social media!