I used to joke about being a child bride (I don’t anymore because that’s of course a very real issue in parts of the world). But really, looking back, I was very young when I got married.
I was 25 years old, and I married a man 21 years older than me. He had two children, a girl, nine, and a boy, four, from two previous marriages.
So at age 25, I became a third wife, and officially a step mum.
I thought I was doing a decent job at the time, but let’s face it – I was way in over my head. What I know now as a mother, and at age 42…well, suffice it to say, I could have really used that wisdom and life experience back then.
Without it, all I could do was the best I knew how.
I was recently asked for step-mum advice. I’m certainly no parenting expert – but I can at least share what I’ve learnt.
1. Other parents often won’t treat you as an equal.
I had an interesting experience. One of the kids’ mums was pragmatic and knew she needed me on her side. But she was also very insecure with me on the scene – which meant that she was nice to my face but disrespectful and deliberately undermined me behind my back.
The other mother was much more – well, let’s say ‘outspoken’. She was frustrated with my husband – and rightly so – and was concerned I wasn’t a sufficient parental substitute. That felt unfair at the time, but I could see her point: my husband should have been stepping up.
I also noticed when I joined my husband at school social events, I was treated as somewhat of an oddity. The women were suspicious. The men, curious.
Anyone who took the time to speak to me didn’t walk away with a clearer picture, because what they would find is a very young woman, who took the whole parenting gig very seriously. It’s not possible, they thought. She can’t possibly get it.
So even if my intentions were solid gold, I was in a bit of a no-win situation. I know that’s not the experience of every step parent – but it is, often enough, for me to say let that be their problem.
You do you.
How the heck do you raise five kids with another on the way? Constance Hall sits down with Mia Freedman. Post continues after.
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2. You’ll often have all of the responsibility, and none of the authority.
If you find yourself the only adult in the house for a few hours, or the night, you will be expected to be as responsible as a parent. But what you may find is that the child can be resistant to that.
I remember once being in charge of a group of teen girls who wanted to watch a very inappropriate movie. And whilst I was in my own home, the only adult present, and thus deserving of respect – the matter was deferred to the mother.
And I lost. It was ultimately seen as “this is my daughter and she needs only to listen to me”.
Hopefully you have a good spouse who will (eventually, if not always at first) back you up.
I know it’s difficult, and it sucks. But it’s a labour of love, right? You love their father. You (hopefully) love the kids. And that’s what will ultimately make the hard times worth it.
But don’t forget that you always have the right to stand up for yourself, and make the rules in your home.
3. There's a good chance the kids will reject you at some point, but don't take it personally.
My step son used to yell out, "She's not my mother", everywhere we went. In the supermarket. When I collected him from Kindy.
We look back on that and laugh, now. I can honestly say it didn't hurt, or make me upset, because he was simply making it clear to anyone who told him 'You're mum's here' that I was not, in fact, his mother.
Little kids, especially, see the world in black and white. You can't take it personally.
4. You'll never stop being a step mum.
I got divorced from my son's father when my step son was thirteen years old. But I've never stopped loving him.
Much like Cher's dad says in Clueless, you divorce spouses, not children. This is especially the case if your own biological child is a sibling to the first child, as is the case with my own son.
My step son, and son, adore each other. I'm so grateful to the first for being an amazing older brother. He is not just 'considered' part of the family - he is our family.
Having said that, we are totally estranged from my son's sister. But this is where the 'don't take it personally' bit comes in. I used to be devastated about that, but now I accept it wasn't an easy situation for her, either. She might not want or need me as a step mum, but maybe one day she will reclaim the little brother she has.
5. The kids will grow up to understand you did your best.
It breaks my heart when I think of some of the mistakes I made parenting my step son. And I'm very sorry about them.
For some reason, though, the young man he became forgives me. In fact, he's never once, even at the time, given me a hard time about doing the wrong thing by him.
The way he sees it, it was a very unfair situation on me as a young woman. To put it in perspective, he's now only a couple of years older than I was when I first starting dating his dad.
He remembers that I took his reading and cooked him dinner every night. Drove him to school. Did a lot of the practical things that made his life comfortable when he was with us.
Whilst I think back on those years and only focus on what I did wrong, he remembers me being an important part of his childhood.
So I guess, I must have done something right.
The lesson is not to be too hard on yourself, relax, and just do what your instincts tell you is right. No one is a perfect parent - not even the 'real' ones.