There are so many elements to stepmotherhood that I could write about here, but I decided to start with this as it is kind of where it all began.
When did I first become a step mum?
If I’m honest, I’m not sure. It’s not like becoming a mother. That just happens, as soon as you have a baby, or as soon as you are pregnant even, and is never questions and never goes away from that moment forward. The responsibility to be a mother is solely yours, and no one expects anything less than that. But becoming a step mother is a far more gradual process. So if I had to stick a pin in a date or time that felt like a real shifting point, when might that have been?
Was it when I decided to start a relationship with a man who already had children?
No, obviously not then, you might say. After all you could be with someone for years who had children and never even meet them, or they may never even know you exist, as was the case with an ex work colleague of mine. Her boyfriend saw his son every Sunday and in three years she had never been invited to join him, and he never mentioned her to his ex, which is a complicated can of worms as it is. But what this decision did mean is an acceptance that it might be a role you play in the future. No one grows up dreaming of raising their future partner’s children from their usually complicated previous relationship, so it is not a decision that is often taken lightly, nor should it be. In fact when I first met my future husband and found out he already had children, I instantly wrote him off because of them despite fancying the pants off him. My head did, anyway. But then my heart did something quite different. We started seeing each other, and then a few months in I decided I needed to meet the children to see if they were something I felt I could accept and cope with, because I knew that otherwise we would have no future. So I took the leap.
Was it when I first met my partner’s children?
No, that would be silly, anyone could meet them. Any of his friends could be introduced to them and they wouldn’t instantly become a step parent to them. But this meeting was a thousand times more meaningful than a casual introduction to friends. It could potentially set the tone for the rest of your life, your partner’s life, and most importantly their children’s lives. We decided to take them to the circus. I brought flapjacks that my mum had made, not that she knew that was where they were going – she was highly disapproving of the idea of me being involved with someone with children – and I also brought a friend to make it seem more informal. Whether that was for them or me I wasn’t quite sure. My first impression of them was that they were much smaller than I had thought they would be. That might sound silly, but my partner’s daughter had just turned three and was small for her age and his son was four and a half, and I really didn’t know any children that age at the time so I had had nothing to compare with to manage my expectations. They were smiley and excited though, thanks to the circus and meeting someone new (“Daddy’s friend”) . They enjoyed the show, I enjoyed watching their enjoyment, and we all ran around the park afterwards and had fun. And then I went home and it was over. I wasn’t sure what to make of what had happened – nothing awful had occurred, they seemed like nice children, and most importantly of all, they didn’t instantly hate me. I was also very aware that it was an unspoken audition for my partner to see how I was with them. He put no pressure on it at the time, but I am fairly sure that any early signs of him not liking how I interacted with them would have meant calling our relationship a day, and rightly so. I came away from it trying to picture myself as their step mum, and he must have been doing the same.
Was it when I started playing a caring role?
I have babysat many kids of all ages over the years, so looking after children was not an alien concept for me. We started going on a couple of excursions as a four, gradually getting used to spending time together like that. We went swimming with the kids one Thursday and I helped out with little bits like getting the kids changed, helping them up and down ladders in the pool, carrying them around and washing hair in the showers. I took both children to the toilet because the men’s toilets at a swimming pool are not a fun smelling place for any small child. On the way home we stopped for food and Phil’s daughter said her lips were sore. They looked a bit red so I washed around the area with a wet tissue and put some lip balm over her lips and chin. Phil looked at me and said “those little things you do, the caring things, that’s the mummy bit.” Did that make me a step mum? No, it didn’t. It did put me in a place where I was going out of my way to care for a child who wasn’t my own, and that came from a place of genuine care rather than duty – this wasn’t babysitting because no one was paying me to do it and with their dad there I didn’t have to. But I did, because I wanted to help, and I think I wanted to show them that I did care about their basic needs and they could trust me. I might not have been a step mum, but I was at least a step above just a friend who had come along for the fun and might occasionally lend a hand.
Was it when they started staying over at my flat?
My flat was tiny. It was a studio flat consisting of a bedroom/living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom, and it was very well proportioned for one person to live in. With me and Phil it was manageable, but a bit of a squeeze. With two small children as well, it was decidedly cramped. However, when Phil had them, the children usually lived with him at his mum’s, where he had moved back to post break up to save money, regroup and try to buy a house, and there wasn’t much room for them there either. So a couple of sleepovers turned into them staying at mine every night Phil had them, which was either two or four nights a week depending on whether or not it was his weekend with them. I would wash their school uniforms with mine and Phil’s laundry, sometimes cook them dinner and help with bath time. The boy slept on the sofa bed and the girl slept in a travel cot (she was still tiny for an almost four year old). Sometimes Phil would go to work for three hours from 6am on a Saturday and leave them there with me, and I have a distinct recollection of being woken up by her little voice at about 7:30, saying “bet-sest”. I gave her a cuddle and she said “bet-sest” again. Some early hearing loss due to small ear canals meant her speech took longer to develop than normal, and she would occasionally say things I didn’t understand. I asked her what she meant but she just kept saying it. I couldn’t work it out at all, then her brother woke up and so I asked him what she might mean. “She wants breakfast” he said sleepily, and it suddenly seemed like the most obvious thing for a child to ask for first thing in the morning, and why hadn’t I worked that out myself? Or already provided it? The responsibility that I had for their basic needs hit me a bit there and then, and I think for me that was a bit of a turning point. These children were living in my house, spending almost as much time with me as they were with their biological father, and sometimes I was the sole adult responsible for them. Not that I hadn’t been before, but this was a moment from which I knew I had to take this seriously. There was much more at stake than just mine and my partner’s needs in this relationship. These children lived with me, and that meant we had passed a point of no return where if things went badly between me and Phil, their lives would definitely be affected.
Was it when we first went on holiday with them?
Excuse the timehop framing, I felt it gave some rather nice context and it also appeared the day I wrote this!
We took them camping in France over the Easter bank holiday weekend. We drove and got the ferry, and camped at a lovely site near Calais. The weather was mostly good, and the campsite put on a brilliant Easter egg hunt which we came third in, beaten only by the families who were doing it for the second time that day and therefore knew where the eggs were hidden (scoundrels!) and the kids loved it. There were stressful moments on the break, Phil and I bickered and snapped at each other on occasion, but overall the memories from the holiday are good ones and as I have since realised, holidays with children are never stress free! The trip itself was actually my idea, and I also booked and planned it because I speak French and Phil doesn’t, which in itself shows the level of trust he had for me when it came to his children. Not only was he trusting my idea of a holiday to take his children on in terms of travel, location and accommodation, but he was also trusting men to take care of all of them while we were there – he only had my word for it that I could speak French, after all! While we were away I had the thought that no one in that country knew I wasn’t their mother. As mums we often deal with imposter syndrome, and as step mums this is amplified tenfold. Every time I went anywhere with the kids in London I was always somehow afraid that I would bump into someone who knew them and their mum and not me, and I would be…I don’t know, called out on not being their real mother, and told I had no place acting like I was. That would never happen to me in France, so I found myself relaxing into the “mum” role in a way I quite liked, and told myself I would try to continue with confidence when we got home.
Was it when I was cited in court by her lawyers during their custody hearing?
No, hah, this was not the validation I craved, but I thought I should throw this in because it is very rare to be able to become a step parent without any kind of complication like this along the way, and the dynamics with the ex partner is something that never goes away either. Her lawyers said Phil’s (read: my) refusal to meet with her, refereed by his mum, for what would basically be an interview to determine my suitability to be around her children, meant I was an inappropriate influence and shouldn’t be allowed to spend time with them. I mean, really. Obviously this quite literally wouldn’t hold up in court, but it did make me re-evaluate how suitable a person I was to be around them, just in case I ever ended up in some kind of situation where I would actually have to defend or justify myself. If I were to apply for the role of step parent, my qualifications are as follows:
- Plenty of experience in childcare (almost a decade of babysitting)
- Fully DBS checked for working with children
- A pending teaching degree (since completed)
- A competent cook (have never given anyone food poisoning to my knowledge)
- Fully literate for reading bed time stories (English Lit degree)
- Reasonably versed in laundry management
- Enthusiastic and willing to attend school events such as sports days and performances and cheer on the children
- Cat owner for child companionship
- Experienced driver (have safely driven other people and cat around)
- A trained musician
- The list goes on…
I decided that actually, I would make a pretty great step mum, on paper at least, and this built some confidence in my own abilities to not only justify my presence as a positive influence but also to do a good job in the first place.
Was it when I bought a house with Phil based on the children’s needs?
It was the first house either of us had bought, it was a huge financial commitment, and I had based it around the children’s futures as well as that of mine, Phil’s, and our relationship. It meant building a home together, as a family, from scratch, that equally belonged to all of us, and in many ways it secured my place, for both them and me, as a stable figure in their lives, because I lived where they lived and there was never a question of whether or not I or they would be coming over to visit, because our house as home was where we all belonged.
Was it when I gave birth to their half brother?
As always, pregnancy and giving birth opens up a whole new world of hormonal emotion for any new mother, and at first it felt incredibly overwhelming, especially times when it was me alone with all three children, and at times it felt unfair that I wasn’t given the space and time a new mother of one would have to get the hang of things and adapt to how life changes with a newborn. It also meant that I didn’t have as much of Phil’s attention as I felt I needed because he had to spend time keeping things normal for them, with laundry, cooking, after school activities and taking them out at the weekend when all I wanted to do was try to catch up on sleep. However, after a few months I started noticing that nothing made Alfie smile as much as seeing his big brother and sister. A few more months went by and suddenly there were extended periods of time where Alfie would want to play with his siblings rather than have my full attention, and I would have a bit of time to catch up on house work, cook dinner or just sit, unhassled, for all of three minutes. I was also picking the kids up from school much more regularly, and turning up at the school gates with a pram containing the half brother of the children I was picking up made me feel a lot more like I deserved a place there. The other parents started to recognise me and come over to see how I was getting on, and I realised that by being the biological mother to their brother, I felt a lot more like my step children’s step mother. I’m not saying that I needed to become a mother for this to happen, but it eased the imposter syndrome somewhat, and it also meant being on maternity leave and then going back to work part time gave me much more time with the kids than I had had before.
Was it when I married Phil?
Legally, yes! And whilst I appreciated the official title and sharing part of their middle name, it didn’t feel like it changed much at all, which made me realise I had been their step mother without it officially being the case.
So here we all are, as one big ever changing and ever growing happy family.
Family life as a step parent is rarely consistent. Our family has grown to one of four to one of six (plus cat) over the last two years, and our relationships with one another have grown and evolved with that. Becoming a step parent is a far more conscious and deliberate act than becoming a mother in many ways, as it often doesn’t come as naturally, and ironically it was more planned for my than becoming a biological mother, as both of my sons were complete surprises. I can’t choose one moment that made me a step mum more than another, it has more been a cumulative journey, as any personal transformation often is. It is rarely easy, but it has often been rewarding, and it is most definitely surprising, as I am surprised at myself and what I can take on and how I react to things as well as the daily surprises children present you with, but it is something that despite saying it was something I would never do, it is now something I would never change.