Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to be a mum.
A stepmum, not so much.
Like everyone else who has seen Cinderella, I didn’t have the best impressions of stepmums.
So when things started to progress with my partner eight years ago and I met his two girls, aged just three and six, I felt nervous.
I was already a mum to a three-year-old boy, but I knew helping to raise his kids would be nothing like how I parented my boy.
I knew there would be bumps along the way, but even so, I hugely under-estimated the issues that would come up, and the impact that would have on me.
Even though they are wonderful kids, the role of stepmum is not an easy one to fill.
‘Treat them as your own’, was a recurring piece of advice from friends and family.
For me, that became a recipe for disaster because, simply, they weren’t my own and I couldn’t make a lot of the decisions that parents make.
There were plenty of times when I tried to do what I thought was right, and treat them like I would my own son, but it tended to do more harm than good to our relationship.
I ended up staying somewhere in the middle, trying to work out where exactly the imaginary line was that I shouldn’t cross.
There were certain rules for my own son, like eat your vegetables, take your shoes off indoors, go to bed when you’re asked and hang your towel up after bath-time, which I felt were reasonable to ask his children to do as well.
But somehow, they’d just spiral into arguments, and get blown out of all proportion.
Looking back, it’s obvious the issue was more about the underlying situation of ‘who is in control?’ But when we were in it, it made daily life so stressful.
As they became older, it was phones, and then social media, which I didn’t feel was appropriate for primary-school-aged children, that caused further fall-outs. I was worried about what they could be exposed to, yet by caring in this way, again I seemed like the ‘bad guy’.
It was exhausting. I was desperate to get it right, and felt I was failing. It felt like having all the responsibility for two extra children, with none of the authority – and none of the credit.
As a ‘real’ mum, I had plenty of people I could share my deepest truths with, but as a stepmum, I felt there wasn’t a support network
My partner would turn a blind eye to things he didn’t want to have to act on, as he didn’t want to have to spend the limited time he had with his kids arguing.
I had huge empathy for him and the children, but I worried that we would be creating a long-term family set-up where the kids were in charge – which I think every parent would agree is unsustainable.
So, I took a step back, keeping my distance a little and allowing my partner to spend time alone with his children.
I felt this was better for them; I wanted them to know I wasn’t there to keep them apart from their dad.
Instead of improving the situation, it made it worse.
In trying desperately to escape the conflict, I was perceived by my partner and his children to be ‘cold’ and not showing enough interest in my stepchildren.
The situation was taking its toll on me – I went from being a confident, strong woman to an anxious mess.
Every other weekend, when my partner had time with his children, I was treading on eggshells in my own home, feeling I was constantly under surveillance and overthinking everything for fear of saying the wrong thing.
On the flipside, things with my partner and my son were good. They bonded over a mutual love of sports and without too many torn loyalties, my son was able to build a really strong relationship with my partner.
As a household, we were like a Jenga tower, constantly moving blocks around in our dynamic and in our schedules, trying to stop the whole thing from collapsing.
All this time I looked desperately for support, feeling lost and isolated.
As a ‘real’ mum, I had plenty of people I could share my deepest truths with, but as a stepmum, I felt there wasn’t a support network.
So I decided to create it.
I created Stepmum Space, a platform where stepmums, and those who care about stepmums, can get tailored support in many ways, including a forum, virtual workshops, and even in-person meet ups.
I also launched a podcast series of the same name, where you can hear candid conversations about the good, the bad, and the ugly of stepmum life.
Being able to create this for other women has not only been life changing for them, giving them validation of their own feelings and reassurance that they are ‘normal’, it has been really uplifting for me to be able to use my own experience and dark times to be able to give support to others.
It has also encouraged great conversation between me and my stepdaughters, both incredible young women, about how difficult stepfamily life can be for everyone in it.
Our relationship has definitely grown as a result of this and we have all got very vulnerable with one another, which has fostered much greater closeness.
My aim is to bring stories like mine out of the shadows and to get a better deal for stepmums, who are overwhelmingly just decent, normal women trying to do what I know from first-hand experience is the toughest job in parenting.
More support and the forum is available at www.stepmumspace.com
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