parent opinion

“I feel like someone masquerading as a parent”: The difficult balance of being a stepmum.

My partner asked me the other night if I love his son. The question stung, both because he felt he needed to ask, and also because I understood why he did.

The thing about being a step-parent, the aspect that you could never prepare yourself for, is just how undefined it all is.

While parents define pregnancy or birth as the clear moment they became a parent, there is no obvious starting point when you become a step-parent.

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You begin “in medias res”, joining the child’s life not at the natural beginning, but when they are two or five or 10, starting without the innate immediate attachment, without the gradual emotional bond and acquired confidence that develop through years of triumphs, mistakes and lessons.

All of a sudden you, the step-parent, appear in the child’s world, insisting you are a familial part of it.

The adage is that being a parent is the hardest job in the world, but what about being a step-parent?

In essence, it is a relationship in which they don’t have to love you and you don’t have to love them, there is nothing mandating it.

So you fumble along, trying to create a bond from nothing, with a child who does not need to like you and has no connection to you apart from that his parent chose you.

When people ask me if I’m a parent, I always respond by qualifying it, “I’m a step-parent,” as though it is a side category that denotes a far less important role, one that I’m apologising for.

So much of the time I feel like an interloper, someone masquerading as a parent who will, at some point, be singled out for not knowing or understanding as he’s not my son, I wasn’t there for the first 9 years, I don’t know the shorthand.

Initially, I was too tentative, too careful, constantly caught between stepping forward and backward: loving him enough to show I care and am invested, but not too much for fear of stepping on anyone’s toes.

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I couldn’t figure out the safe point to start getting attached, to have him count on me, to start asserting authority and dispensing love. When was too soon? When was too late?

I was hyper-vigilant about overstepping a boundary, terrified to hear the words all step parents dread, the words that you can not contradict, that slap you in the face and say, you’re not valid: “You’re not my mother”.

But then a few months ago my partner said to me, “you’re a parent now” with the implication being to start acting like one.

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It was a thought that had literally never occurred to me. He didn’t qualify it, he simply gave me permission, permission I very much needed to own it.

And with that permission, I also needed my partner to allow me the space to step in. As much as I needed to learn to the parent he needed to learn how to give up some power and parent with me.

I know he gets frustrated and I do too but we can’t afford to build a sloppy foundation or it will crumble at the slightest challenge.

His son and I have to find the right way to love each other to have any hope at forging a bond that is strong in its own right. It’s taken a lot of patience, humour and self-esteem to get to where we are today, but there is progress, even though it’s sometimes incremental.

But when I get a smile, when he looks for me instead of his dad, when he shares a secret with me, when he puts his face to mine playfully touching noses, sniffs the arm of my jumper getting used to the smell of me, lets me hug him, sits between us instead of the other side of his dad, and when I say something specific and he later uses the same phrase in conversation, I know something has registered; something has made an impact.

It’s overwhelming because of how far we have come, from strangers, in a fraction of his life. Our bond is not a given, it is a hard-fought victory in a high-stakes battle.

Step-parenting ultimately is about choice. A choice centred on love.

While my partner loves his son without choice, I choose to love him. I choose every day to work not just on that unique bond, but in getting comfortable and confident with my new role.

Sassica is a freelance writer based in Sydney. She specialises in humour and personal essays on relationships, travel, health, food, women’s interest and wellbeing. You can find her on Instagram or read more here.

Feature Image: Supplied / Getty.

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