Okay, so I’ve been promising a post about my thoughts on step-mothering for a while and this is it – because of course I can’t go through a significant life event of any kind without writing in great detail about my process in relation to it. Sit tight folks, cause this is something I expect will warrant a lot of writing in the next year. It certainly has lead me to a lot of hard thinking in the last little while. And now that I sit down to write about it, I don’t even know where to begin!
I suppose it starts by saying I am currently working at coming to terms with the concept of being stepmother. This comes as Brian and I commit to a long and loving future together, as I get to know his daughter better, as we discuss plans to move into a shared house next year…. A far cry from the single life I was leading less than a year ago! Moving in with a partner is one thing, but becoming a secondary parental figure is another all together. And let’s not even get started with the fact that a child in the picture means that Brian’s ex will also remain a fixed part of our lives. It’s a bit daunting – downright frightening in some aspects – and while a lot of people have done this, I seem to know very few stepparents in my day-to-day life to ask advice of.
So, true to form I have turned my emotional turmoil around the subject into an extensive research project over the last couple of weeks. Although there isn’t a ton of good material out there, I have managed to put my hands on a couple of okay books, some online articles and a support forum for “childless stepmoms” which is the category that I fall into (women who stepmother but don’t have their own bio-children). Unfortunately, most of what is out there seems to confirm my worst fears – that being a stepmother is one of the most thankless roles to have in any family constellation. Not only that, but I can look forward to being told that I am not Mica’s real mother for the rest of my life, watching bio-moms recoil from me when I mention my stepmother status, and being told repeatedly that of course I can never come first in my partner’s life because he has a child (each of these things has happened at least once already, so I guess the books are right on that score).
In other words – it’s a lonely role, and one that encourages people to be even more patronizing to womanhood than normal. And although it’s increasingly a “normal” aspect of family life, the stepmother is still a popcultural anomaly. More than one book mentions the fact that stepmothers are rarely portrayed at all, and when they are it is always a picture of nastiness, gold-digging behaviour and general wickedness. The only Hollywood movie to give stepmothering a boost was the Julie Roberts flick a few years back in which the bio-mom was conveniently dying and Roberts’ character is *needed* as a mother-figure. Clearly, stepmothers are only required when filling in for dead women, otherwise we should keep our mitts off the single fathers of the world!
And while that sounds dramatic, I can attest to the fact that since I started talking to my friends about the fact I am becoming a stepmother I have mainly only heard two things: 1) How awful their stepmothers were, or 2) How awful their ex-partners current wives are as stepmothers to their children. In fact, only one friend has said anything really encouraging (which was that she was excited that I got to have an older kid enter my life and be a part of it rather than having to go through babyhood – a sentiment I really agree with). Mostly I have heard horror stories, my mother refuses to acknowledge this as something going on in my life by consistently changing the topic when I bring it up, and I am the object of mistrust to bio-moms who don’t know me very well (as though I might take their children into my family as well).
I don’t think most people are even aware they are reacting that way. But it does seem to be a pretty universal response. Which makes sense when you recognize that just as homeless people are a visible representation of an economic system that doesn’t work, stepmothers are a symbol of broken families. We are like walking advertisements for the inability of some other relationship to succeed, no matter whether our current partnership is solid. I can’t think of a single other group in society that bears such a stigma, despite the fact most people have more than one significant relationship in their lifetime and almost 50% of marriages end in divorce. But I digress.
One thing I have definitely picked up from the books and support forum is how *not* to do blended families. Some tips for going about it the wrong way include – not meeting the children before marrying and moving in (I am not kidding, there are people who do this); not discussing visitation or custody arrangements before moving in; not discussing finances including child support commitments and other debts; not being clear about boundaries, financial and otherwise; not being clear about expectations of both parties (do you really want me to play mom? i want one weekend a month just for us?); and, allowing the children make relationship or life decisions (asking the child if it’s okay that their new stepparent moves in is apparently a bad idea).
I’ve also discovered that since we will have 50% custody, as much as I would like to be a “friend” to Mica it’s not really advised I dabble in that role too much. I may never be a mother figure, but I am expected to be an adult. This works fine with me because quite frankly I find it really difficult to relate to kids. I didn’t like being a kid much, and it’s only as an adult I have found myself at all comfortable with the world – so it’s a lot easier for me to relate on those terms.
These are helpful suggestions that have allowed me to evaluate what Brian and I have going for us in a situation bound to be difficult and dramatic at times. Certainly the fact we are both older with significant relationships in our past is a huge strength. No longer am I afraid to ask a partner straight-out about their financial situation or what their expectations of living situations and roles are. As two equally confident people we come to the table with the ability to articulate boundaries and emotional needs in a way neither of us could ten years ago. We are each financially solvent and able to contribute equally in this way to our life. And on top of all that – we are going into this situation with our eyes wide open – both of us recognizing this situation has some inherent challenges we will have to work together on overcoming.
It’s funny, because although I have been aware of Mica’s existence from the time I met Brian – and I knew she would impact my life – I somehow managed to blot out the reality of that for the first several months of dating even as I was reconciling my schedule against Brian’s childcare nights. I knew eventually we would get to this point of thinking about things, but I guess I didn’t realize how much it would scare me when we did. I’ve been very grateful in this process so far though that Brian can hear it’s difficult, is reading the step-mothering books to get an idea of what I might be feeling, and understands this is a process we have to navigate together.
If I didn’t believe we could do it, I would bow out right now rather than disrupt a kid’s life any further. But I make no mistake in thinking it will be easy. Quite honestly, this wasn’t what I expected when the universe delivered the man I feel meant to be with – but at the same time I am excited to build a life not only with him but with his child. I am frightened at times, yes, but also energized around the potential in this for each of us. I am consistently amazed at what has been brought to me thus far, this phase being no less incredible than any other. It’s love and it’s life. And who ever expected that to be uncomplicated in the first place?