When asked what I would like to be when I grew up, I can’t say I actually aspired to being a divorcée, however glamorous it sounded, or, for that matter, a wicked stepmother. I don’t know about you, but it’s not exactly every girl’s childhood fantasy, and besides, I was brought up to believe that divorce was nearly always attributable to loose women, menopausal men and the ensuing infidelity all this engenders, whilst stepmothers were, quite simply, an abomination. Infidelity, divorce and stepmothers…it was like some obsessional mantra of my childhood. Against this background, never did I in my wildest dreams imagine I would find myself accomplishing, well, at least the latter two. And so on a beautiful balmy night as the celebrant declared us husband and wife, like many other women before me, I made the transition from divorcée to wife and wicked stepmother, and in the twinkling of an eye became a member of that internationally recognised sorority-‘women who marry men with children’.
We may have become an instant family, but the transition to stepmother or stepchild does not automatically mean love or even affection for each other. It takes time to define your roles and responsibilities, to develop a relationship with the child, and to build trust on both sides. And I should know—I’ve made the grade. On that night seven years ago, I set out on a journey in pursuit of love and, with a little luck, a happy ending. It’s no exaggeration to say that I was unsuspecting, ill-equipped and unqualified. What’s that term Americans use? Greenhorn—that was me. Be that as it may, within the space of twelve months I became a full-time step mum to a child who resides with us permanently and has little or no contact with his biological mother.
I did not have nine months to prepare for the birth of this child, nor motherhood. I inherited a ready-made model without instructions, and our early years were characterised by misconceptions, unrealistic expectations and absurdities. The complexity of dealing with someone else’s child day after day, coupled with my anger and frustration at the absent mother, has at times been overwhelming. Parenting is a formidable task at the best of times, but step-parenting is in a realm of its own. Not only are you, in a primordial sense, nurturing genes that are not your own, but it’s a practice full of unwritten conventions and obscure rules. My grandmother-in-law, when I’m feeling sullen and sorry for myself, likes to tell me that I knew what I was getting into when I married my husband and took on my stepson. I mean, how does anyone really know what they’re getting into? You can read the books and talk the talk, but I don’t care what anyone says: nothing, absolutely, nothing prepares you for the realities of childbirth or becoming a parent of the first time. You have some vague idea, and on a wing and a prayer you hope for the best.
At the time of becoming a stepparent, I found that few resources existed to provide support or strategies to help deal with the merger of families. There was no one-stop step-shop—at least, not that I was aware of—but I did find books offering practical tips on how a stepmother can find fulfilment, even pleasure in her role. By and large these are down-to-earth guides to surviving the much-misunderstood role of the step-parent, but they all assume an active, if unwelcome, working relationship with the biological mother and some level of shared care. In my case there was neither. There’s also an assumption that a step-parent is one step removed from the parenting process, that you’re a spectator in your own domain. It’s a belief perpetuated by these parenting manuals and self-help books, as though somehow the very act of parenting is a proprietorial one: How could you know what it’s really like until you’ve had your own kids? I can see it in their eyes. “Well, if she hasn’t squeezed one out between her thighs, what would she know?” It diminishes my role and relationship with my stepson. I know it’s not always intentional but it wasn’t until I had my own daughter that I was invited into that most exclusive of realms—‘the mother’s group’.
With stepfamilies predicted as the family of the 21st century, this notion of the nuclear biological family unit is changing. Today’s families are rarely the tidy, homogenous nuclear models many of us knew when we were growing up or at least saw idealised by TV shows like Little House on the Prairie. Mum, Dad and their genetic offspring remain the dominant structure, but in suburban streetscapes there are same-sex parents, single parents, de facto partners, step-parents, step-siblings and half-siblings involved in the mix, as well as an assortment of races, cultures and religions struggling to merge customs, habits and parenting styles. Despite the cosy, caring lives of the Brady Bunch, reality is a little more complex.
A 2003 Family Characteristics Survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that step and blended families make up 7% of all families with dependent children, and that nearly one in four children live apart from one of their natural parents. These children may live in, as in our case, visit regularly, rarely, or not at all. 23% of all children between the ages of 0 and 17 have a natural parent living elsewhere. Of these, 50% see their other parent frequently, while a staggering 31% of children have no contact with their non-resident parent or see them less than once a year. Despite all this, a step-parent’s role remains socially and legally undefined.
Being a step-parent does not necessarily mean we feel less responsibility towards those minors in our care. I’m well aware the roles step-parents play in the lives of their stepchildren vary widely, but step-parents and bioparents are not so different. On the whole they want to provide the same thing: a loving, nurturing, safe environment. No matter which country they hail from, step-parents do, for the most part, play a significant parenting role, and most residential step-parents, like me, contribute significantly to the economic and emotional well-being of the children. So where does this leave me?
It seems to me that what this is all about, quite simply, is being a parent. What I want, what we all want—biological parent, step-parent, foster parent, grandparent notwithstanding—is to raise young men and women who are responsible, happy, creative and kind. I have high hopes for us, for my stepson, for the family. There’s no doubt my stepson is a vastly different entity to the lost and unhappy boy I first met, and for some time now, I’ve been privileged to witness the growing maturity and strength of this child. Ultimately, we’ve come a long way on a journey that can’t be erased. Okay so maybe we haven’t quite arrived at the “living together in perfect happiness” but we’ve made it thus far, flawed and inconsistent, but hey, who isn’t? Our children have a stable, loving, happy home and an involved extended family. My relationship with my stepson still has some growing to do, but we have an understanding he and I. Stepmother or not, I can’t imagine my life without him.