My mother died when I was 10. She was the sort of mum who cut the crusts off sandwiches, and could peel a piece of fruit so deftly the coil of skin would remain intact. She was a whizz with glue and glitter, baked mouth-watering brownies, and was beloved by all who met her.
She was hit on a pedestrian crossing by a speeding motorcyclist. In an instant my life splintered, and fell apart. Her loss left me with an ache that engulfed my entire being – my head, my heart, even my stomach hurt whenever I woke up and realised she was gone. I would only ever have one mother and she’d been taken from me.
Those first months and years after her death were awash with intense grief. My mother was the heart of our family, she understood my brother and I; our personalities, our strengths and weaknesses, as well as our vulnerabilities and needs. My father, like many of his generation, was the breadwinner and disciplinarian. And rather than set about the uneasy task of getting to know us, really know us, he set about finding a replacement.
Initially it was my grandmother, at times my aunt, and then four years after my mother’s death, a stepmother.
My stepmother and I were very different creatures. At the time, I was shy, sensitive and academically inclined. Susan was an outgoing divorcee who owned a hairdressing salon, and had two grown children and a life of her own.
Our conversations were either awkward or one-sided – with Susan talking and me listening. Her interest in me was, palpably, little. My 14-year-old self often eavesdropped on the conversations she had with her children, and carefully noted the transformation. In their presence she was animated and inquisitive; she exuded a warmth and love that I simply did not elicit.
And it wasn’t her fault. In retrospect I wish the other adults in my life had been more honest. The narrative I was being sold was this: She loves your father and therefore she loves you. I was too young to realise it at the time, but it was a non-sequitur, her love for my father was no guarantee she would, or even could, love me. I began to blame myself and to think I was deficient in some way – that I was unloveable. When, in fact, it wasn’t me, it was the circumstances into which both my stepmother and I had been forced.
I’m not suggesting this is always the case, many stepmothers genuinely love their step kids. But many do not. And yet, we give stepmothers no recourse – shame and guilt tend to silence any attempt to articulate these forbidden feelings. There seems to be something unpalatable about a woman admitting she doesn’t love her husband’s child – the spectre of the evil stepmother still looms large.
It can also be confronting and inconvenient for a father to realise his new wife may never love his child. My father was desperate to resume the mechanics of domesticity without giving much thought to its foundation. Much of that which parenting involves – cooking, cleaning, school pickups, weekend sport, conversations – is driven by love. In its absence, those activities can be uninteresting, and a source of dissatisfaction. And so they were for Susan, in relation to me.
In time, I figured it out – my stepmother didn’t really love me. The love she had for her kids was immediate, powerful and rooted in biology. Whatever feelings she had for me were second hand – a poor replica of love.
To be clear, I don’t think poorly of Susan. Sure, she’s averted some of my father’s attention and resources to the advancement of her own clan, but that’s biology too. My dad’s greatest fear is being a lonely, old man – and that’s made him a willing participant.
Looking back I wish she’d been given permission to say it. Perhaps I’d have spent less time in the care of a lady who couldn’t, and shouldn’t have been expected, to love me. Perhaps the adults who did love me may have come up with better and more creative approaches to caregiving.
I’d certainly have spent less time blaming myself for her inability to love me.