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Children often have no say in who comes into their life but are expected to acquiesce to new structures and automatically give equal respect to the new addition to the household; a stranger.
My mother and stepmother couldn’t be less alike. My mother is practical, pragmatic, and sturdy. She needed to be. She had two children, a mortgage, and she made her living as an artist. She had iron-clad rules which were the basis of an efficiently run household. The foremost of which was “This is my house and you will do what you are told.”
I am surprised that my father and my mother stayed together so long. My father is gregarious and enchanting. I love him but he is prone to tantrums. He loves the spotlight and thrives when he is the center of attention. From the get-go I knew my stepmother was more suited to my father. Every time she steps into the room and smiles it lights up in that way that only truly charming people can manage.
She first moved in with my father when I was 12, which means she has been my stepmother for over half my life. Pre-teen and teen years are notoriously difficult for children in general, so to have someone else added into the mix was understandably difficult.
These days the practicalities of step-parents are the thing that is most difficult to navigate. I remember my mother asking my sister and I to both wear robes instead of just towels after a shower going from the bathroom to a bedroom. This is a totally fair request, being that it made her feel uncomfortable thinking about her husband sharing space with us semi-naked, but it changes the home in a way that means it is not truly somewhere that you can be completely relaxed. It’s an accumulation of little things that become factors in the difficulties of step-parenting.
Initially, the biggest difficulty that I had adjusting to my stepmother was the fact that I had already developed ways that I related to my father. Being totally indulged, the affection that we shared often involved him spoiling me rotten. When my stepmother came onto the scene, I noticed a total shift with regards to gifts. In hindsight, this was probably for the best for both his bank account and my sense of entitlement but at the time it felt very intrusive.
I struggled with the fact that the ways we related to each other were being completely undermined by an outside force. I can understand why children might come to resent their step-parents—or, in the words of my step-father “Cinderella is no fairy tale.” I didn’t resent her, though it did take a lot of adjustment and finding a balance took many years.
Neither sets of parents approved of my complete inability to keep a tidy room. This trait I learned from my father. In the earlier years of the divorce—well before my stepmother—he reverted to “full bachelor” mode when it came to cleaning. Often times I would open his door to bring him breakfast in the morning or come for a cuddle, and he would say “don’t step on anything.” This meant I had to shift clothes, books, and plates with my toe to make a pathway to his bed.
My stepmother is a constant organisational force in his life, not unlike someone trying to zip up an overfull suitcase. I’m not the love of her life, however, so when I take up space with my things, it always causes a gentle tension.
One of the most noticeable differences between my mother and my stepmother is the fact that, aside from doing homework and chores, we were relatively left to our own devices. Not much was expected from us to be or do anything in particular. My stepmother was more traditional in this sense and, being gregarious as my folks are, expected me to attend social functions with them well dressed and personable. I was expected to be polite. I was expected to perform.
This did not gel entirely with the fact that I inherited my mother’s social anxiety. While I enjoy socialising and, like my father, being the center of attention, often and suddenly I find myself needing to retreat and be alone. This meant that while I could play the part at a family function, it was exhausting and I often retreated to bathrooms or into gardens to stifle any feelings of anxiety that arose.
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I remember one such incident where I refused to go to an event without a pen and paper. My stepmother envisioned me sitting in a corner being a rude social recluse. I saw it as a necessary crutch—an easy signal for others not to bother me if I needed space. I can’t remember who won out that time, but I can remember it was the first time I put my foot down. I would take the pen and paper or I would stay home. Being a step-parent of a teenager must be brutal. Teenagers haven’t yet learned the nuances of kindness but are, themselves, pushing to become independent identities.
As a step-child to a step-parent (or prospective step-parent) I can say that the insertion of a step-parent feels disempowering to a child. Whether or not this arrangement came from a brutal break up of the family unit or has happened once the dust has settled, it is still a massive shift to family dynamics and a home.
Children often have no say in who comes into their life, but are expected to acquiesce to new structures and automatically give equal respect to the new addition to the household; a stranger.
If I can encourage anything to ease the situation, it would be to constantly empower your child through the integration.
Offer your child ways in which they can build and choose structures in your new life:
“How do you do this at your other parents’ house?”
“How would you like to be involved?”
“We were thinking this might be an option. How do you feel about that?”
In this way, all parts of the equation have a common goal and step-parents aren’t intruders but just another factor in the building of a family dynamic.
Mamamia's Infertility Week shines a light on the joy, the pain and everything in between when it comes to creating families. To read more from Infertility Week, click here.