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.