Genene Dwyer, contestant on this year’s Masterchef, made an interesting comment on Thursday night’s elimination episode. It seemed to go largely unnoticed to the judges but I wonder how many fellow step-parents, like me, silently cheered her.
When serving her dish to the judges, Genene was asked, “You have to have a real steel to survive [in this competition]. When have you needed to have that steel in your life?” She replied: “I think just meeting my husband, him having kids, taking them on.. that was a hard time in my life. It has its ups and it has its downs. But, you know, we got through. It was tough, but now it’s good.”
I am the step-mum of two “they’re actually quite easy, really” boys, now 5 and 10. They are chilled kids who generally do as they are told, tantrums are rare, they are each other’s best friend and they amuse themselves easily. Of course, they are not 100% perfect 100% of the time; no kid (or adult) is. But we are lucky: they are good kids.
Step-parenting, though, is difficult. As someone who loved being single prior to meeting my husband, boy was it a culture shock to suddenly inherit a family and be spending Sundays at the skate park, eating hot dogs for dinner and living in a house with toys and mess everywhere (there go my dreams of a white linen sofa…).
At first, I found step-parenting a battle against forces that seemed to want to push me apart from my husband.
It was weird, in a new relationship, for my partner to love someone more and prioritise someone over me. It was difficult that my ideal weekend involved ‘just him’ whereas his ideal weekend involved all of us. It was uncomfortable that people regularly assumed that the boys were my kids. Somehow, it was worse when my husband publicly made a point of the fact that they were not. Despite us both spending time with the kids together, they were something my husband and I didn’t share because our feelings towards them and our attitudes towards them differed. In the ‘everything-about-you-should-be-wonderful’ honeymoon phase of our relationship, there was an awkwardness in that.
And it was the same for the kids: just as they are not my kids, I am not their mum. When they fall and hurt themselves, when they’re sick or when they’re sad or upset, they want their mum, not me. Their mum makes them food they like and my food, “doesn’t taste the same.” Their mum buys them things they want when they want them, but that’s not how I was raised so I expect them to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and do chores for pocket money so they can buy those things themselves. When they need guidance or structure or stability, they look to their parents to provide it (whether or not they accept it in the moment or not!). It is inevitable, I think, in every step-parent relationship for an, “I don’t care what you say, I’ll just ask Dad,” moment to happen at some point and it has happened in ours several times. It feels, in those moments, like it is me against them (‘them’ including my husband). It feels like something is wrong and I’m on the outside.
My husband tries to fix it with cringe-worthy but sweet positivity. To me, he says things like, “The kids said something really nice about you today!” To the boys, he says things like, “Hey guys, how good was that! That was Tessa’s idea, so you have her to thank for it!”
I try to fix it by pretending I enjoy skate parks and hot dogs and a house full of kid-mess, by asking the kids lots of questions, by showing interest. I say things like, “Now that they’re in my life, I couldn’t imagine us doing this without them.” But I can imagine it. Of course I can. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the time with the kids or that I don’t love our family. It’s just that it’s not as natural for me.
The point here, I think, is that we all have to try. My husband and I now have a son of our own and so our family is created from several parts. There’s the family made up of the boys and their mum. There’s the family made up of me, my husband and our son. And there is the family made up of me, my husband, our son, and my husband’s sons. We all have different versions of our family and on any one day we all prefer a certain version of our family over the others. This changes, for all of us, depending on what is going on at the time. It’s complicated, and that complication means we all need to make an effort.
I think, though, that as Genene alluded in her comment last night, it gets easier over time.
Rather than keep battling the step-parenting forces, I’ve realised that it’s ok that my husband loves the boys more than I do. He’s supposed to. And it’s okay that I still want time with my husband and son without the boys. My husband usually understands that. We still have the odd moment when someone gets frustrated by the situation, but all families have their moments. Those boys and I have a special relationship now. The little one comes to find me whenever anything happens in his day that is interesting, because he wants to tell me straight away: “Tessa! Guess what?!” The big one recently wrote a speech about our family in which he gushed about his father: “My dad is very kind and brave. He is the best thing that happened to me and I love him a lot.” About me, he wrote, “Tessa is cool. She helped me spell a bit of this. Thanks to her, I make my bed every day. And she makes me laugh.” That pretty much sums up the varying roles of a step-parent.
So, Genene, from one step-parent to another: I heard you. And I take heart from the fact that for you and your complicated family, “now, it’s good”.