Raising children who aren't your own


Photo: Getty Images

I’ve never had any vested interest in the term ‘stepmum’. That was until I apparently became one. Since moving in with my current partner and his two children who live with us half of the week, I’ve noticed the “s” bomb being dropped quite frequently of late.

The term stepfamilies and its familial offshoots are ingrained in our lexicon; so I understand that people who refer to me as a stepmum are well meaning. Nonetheless, I wince every time I hear it.

Originally, ‘stepmother’ defined the role of the new wife of a widowed man in context to his children. In modern times the term loosely fits any women who cohabitates with a man and has contact with his children to a previous relationship.

The former makes sense in its pragmatism. When childbirth was once associated with a high mortality rate, a second wife was often viewed at the very least as a practical solution to raising the children left behind. The expectation, granted, was that she would fulfil the role of mother.


In my case, however, the mother of my partner’s children is a loving and active presence in her children’s lives; so it seems insulting to claim a title that infers that I’m a replacement mother to them. But perhaps my distrust for the term has more to do with my relationship with my own mother.

My mother and I have always shared a close bond, a bond that for me cannot be replicated. For this reason, it’s easy to reverse the roles and see how my partner’s children might view the situation. If my parents had separated when I was young and my father re-partnered I know I would never have accepted another woman as a ‘step-in’ mother. Provided she was loving and respectful, I’ve no doubt we would have negotiated a new kind of relationship, but something quite unique to that of mother and daughter.

I think the latter has functioned to offer me a balanced perspective of my role in the lives of my partner’s children. It’s certainly acts as a sobering reminder that when I feel a strong yearning for motherhood and my own children not to confuse my role and overstep the mark.

Experts on the subject of ‘blended families’ (a term growing in popularity) emphasise that new partners should build a solid platform of trust before rushing in and taking a disciplinary role with the children.

This is why if ever the analogy of walking a tightrope was apt, it speaks volumes for becoming part of a blended family. It’s a huge adjustment process for everyone involved, one that requires time, gentle care and patience for trust and respect to flourish.

I’ve known my partner’s children for approximately eighteen months now; and I’ve been really fortunate in that both children who were under 10 when I first met them have been largely accepting of my presence. But I’ve heard plenty of stories to the contrary.

Since embarking on my current relationship, many women have shared with me their lack of success in being the new partner to a man with children. But as experts on blended families point out: just because your partner loves you does not guarantee that his children will. 

Only recently a woman confided that whilst the youngest child of a previous partner was entirely accepting of her, the oldest child was not. As a result, this woman was relegated to the role of clandestine girlfriend, which meant she had to hide any evidence that she’d been in the house while the children weren’t home. The relationship soured as a result.

In traversing the tricky nature of my situation, my role thus far - as my partner fondly calls it – has been that of the ‘fun aunt’ which has been hugely satisfying (you could safely add cupcake queen to the title). But while someone was recently revering my role as the perpetual good cop, it can also be frustrating keeping up the façade especially when you’re tired.

I’ve only being living with my partner and his children for five months; nonetheless I can see even now that the role of fun aunt is limited. I’m not in hurry to shift gears but I see little signposts that indicate that the role is evolving. I can’t ever imagine dictating to my partner’s children to sit up straight at the dinner table or do their homework but as an adult you still need to be an authoritarian figure especially when they defer to you if they’re fighting and their dad’s not home.

I won’t lie and say that being part of blended family is easy. At times it’s difficult enough to negotiate the terms of a partnership, let alone endeavour to create good relationships with children who, quite frankly, did not get to choose you. Having said that, I often hear myself describing my situation to others as the best thing that’s ever happened to me. So it certainly can’t be all that bad.



  • I am also very close to my mother but I have a step mother who I also adore. She came on the scene when I was 6 (now 21) so her presence was a non event at the time and she just was someone who I could take my case to other than Dad. But she was never in a "mother" role even though she used to pick us up at the school gates and cook for us etc. I had a mum already.

    If you don't push the role they may form it themselves. It's really good that you aren't trying to be "mum" because you are very correct in saying that you are not.

    Date and time
    March 11, 2013, 8:39AM
    • I'm in an age bracket where meeting single mothers is a high probability if you are looking for a partner. And although it is impossible to know who you may end up falling in love with I keep a very wide path from the single mum. It's only my humble little opinion and I only apply it to myself but I'm not at all interested in going there.

      Date and time
      March 11, 2013, 9:56AM
      • I've been on the receiving end of that. Each to their own of course, but it's not the most fun I've ever had to be told my single parent status is the reason a chap doesn't want to go out with me.

        Alice Shaw
        Date and time
        March 11, 2013, 1:04PM
      • Alice put yourself in their shoes. You're not just marrying the single mother (or father for that matter), you are marrying into a family so not only do you have to fall in love with that person but also ideally with their kids or at least be willing to look after them. More than likely you will also have to sacrifice money you would otherwise spend on yourself and your partner on them as well. Unless you love kids, and bear in mind they aren't your kids genetically either if that is important to you, why would you want to put yourself through all of the extra hassle that comes with dating a single parent when you could just date someone who doesn't have kids?

        Date and time
        March 11, 2013, 2:48PM
    • I am sure many natural parents look at their rebellious teenagers and reckon that they have 'raised children that are not their own'.
      As an adult when my parents divorced I don't regard that either my father's new wife and my mother's new husband should be regarded as my stepmother or step father.
      Both parents made a good choice in their new partners.

      Quantum of Solace
      Date and time
      March 11, 2013, 9:59AM
      • The role of the 'fun aunt' is OK for a little while, but sheesh, your their fathers partner, you need to feel confortable enough to tell them off. Kids get into dangerous situations, try and do stupid things, if you create a situation where you are the 'fun' pushover you will never feel comfortable in their presence.

        It's OK to be the bad guy once in a while! It's OK for them to not like you once in a while! Obviously they are going to be resentful if you tell them off, but kids act that way with parents too.

        My last point is, you are not raising someone elses kids, you are part of a unit where people are helping to raise kids. You all have different roles, but each is important and will have a lasting effect on the children. This is what my step mum was like, and in spite of my mum trying her hardest to get my sister and I to hate her, we both loved her influence and involvement in our lives.

        Date and time
        March 11, 2013, 11:05AM
        • In my experience, having had both a stepmum and stepdad, it's not so much the relationship the child has with the new "step" (c'mon you're an adult you can figure this part out), its when the new spouse has their own kids with the child's parent.
          My stepfather negotiated this well. My stepmother did not.
          Reports from friends say similar.

          Date and time
          March 11, 2013, 12:37PM
          • Thank you so much for highlighting the insult of claiming the "mother" title, irrespective of the step in front of it. I realise everyone has different experiences but as far as I am concerned, my children have a mother. Me. Their father has lived with three women (and is now married to one of them) since we divorced. To suggest that any of these women is anything more than their father's current partner is hurtful to me and confusing to the kids. I know a woman who is so wonderful to her husband's child but she refers to this child as her "son", and he's not. He has a mother and to do so is to suggest his mother is obsolete. I accept that lots of people have amazing "step" parents but for me, it feels like a way of pushing me out of the picture, and discounting my most treasured role, that of being a mother.

            Alice Shaw
            Date and time
            March 11, 2013, 1:02PM
            • Alice, as a step mother I found your comment that I should never be more than my step kids father’s partner very hurtful.

              I am a good step mother and my husband and I have worked hard to provide a stable and loving family for the kids. As a result, my step kids view me as one of their three parents and are healthy, happy and well-adjusted kids.

              I have never tried to be the kid’s mother, but I am a parent and given I do the same job as any other parent, I think I deserve the same respect.

              Date and time
              March 11, 2013, 2:12PM
            • I couldn't agree more. I married a man who had one of his kids living full-time with him. My answer to everyone on the "stepmother" issue has always been: I am not their mother: I am their father's wife, and my role with the kids is to assist their father to help them turn into functional adults. This neatly stops any bickering about who are the primary parents (my husband and his ex) and about my role (assistant to my husband). The whole notion of "stepmother" in my opinion, leads only to confusion and heartache.

              Date and time
              March 11, 2013, 2:18PM

          More comments

          Comments are now closed