So this blog has been a while brewing because I don't want it to be too personal but I can't get this out of my head so I think I'll have a go at writing it down and see what it looks like.
A couple of weeks ago I sat in the hairdressers listening to a conversation from the next chair. The client was a woman of about thirty and clearly knew the hairdresser well. She was talking vehemently and desperately about the seven year old daughter of her partner. I tried to carry on reading my paper but things kept leaping out at me, cutting through my increasingly frantic attempt to stop my inner ear.
"She's a nightmare."
"I dread the weekends when she comes."
"You should see the way she looks at me."
"She's just evil."
"I don't know if her mum puts her up to it."
"She just plays me up all the time."
"She pretends she can't hear me if I say anything to her but she winds Pete round her little finger. She's always insisting on getting on his knee. If we sit on the couch together she comes and pushes in between to sit next to him. She won't eat what I cook and he won't say a word to her. If I try to talk to him about it he just says she's been through a lot and I have to take my time with her. Honestly when she's there I feel like a visitor in my own house. Everything has to revolve around her. I may as well just go away for the weekend. In fact she'd like that, then she would have him to herself. She's never in bed until about ten because she keeps him up with her, reading stories and getting drinks and calling out. Honestly she's just a spoilt little madam and he won't hear a word against her. I'm thinking of saying that if he can't make her behave he'll have to cut down on her visits or we'll never survive."
I felt the colour rise in my face with a mixture of anger and anguish. I wanted to leap in. I wanted to tell her that this was a child for Heaven's sake. I wanted to make her see how she might lose the relationship she clearly wanted if she couldn't find a way of making her partner's child part of her life. I wanted to shake her and slap her. I wanted to give her a hug.
But of course I didn't do any of that. I left her to the consoling murmurs of her hairdresser and went off to be shampooed and tried not to listen any more. I even had the compulsory holiday conversation so that I couldn't hear any more.
But the things I couldn't or didn't say have continued to run around my head. I am a stepmother and have been one for more than fifteen years. I have a stepfather myself who has been part of my life since I was five years old. I wouldn't dare to say that we have got it right and it hasn't all been sunlight and roses. But I love my stepchildren and my stepfather dearly and can't imagine life without them.
So here is what I would have liked to say to the desperate girl in the next chair:
- All children suffer when a marriage breaks up and no child has ever had any power to prevent it happening. It is not her fault she is in this situation. Adults created it.
- If you love a man you love the father in him as well as the partner. A man who wants to father his children will never be ok if you prevent him from doing it and your relationship will suffer if he is not ok.
- You are the adult. An unhappy child is an awkward and difficult child but it is your job to help the child to become happy with the new situation, not by indulging her every whim but by caring about her, being interested in her, not being her mother but being another constant, reliable and loving presence.
- Let the child, at least in these early days, have some private time with her father. Have an afternoon shopping, an evening out with friends, and enjoy it. Have the confidence in your relationship not to cling to it too tightly.
- But make sure you do things together as well, things you will all enjoy. Try things with animals - kittens, puppies, baby rabbits, lambs. It is a rare seven year old who doesn't love handling animals at a petting farm.
- From a base of giving her time and affection and making it very clear that she is always welcome, you can, from time to time, make it clear if there are things that matter to you. Don't decide that everything matters: food, manners, hanging up her coat, going straight to sleep. What really matters? Just one or two things at most and be gentle. Let her help you cook. Let her choose what her room looks like. Let her have a good time. Let her like you.
- Mostly leave discipline to her father. When she is happier it will happen more automatically both from him, and perhaps ultimately from you. Focus on being friends, focus on trying to have a good time.
- Remember that she will be part of your life for ever now, if your partnership is to be for ever. Children want to be loved. Love her, or, to begin with, behave as if you do and love will grow.
- You have to set the pace, take the initiative, be the adult, but ultimately you will get back just as much as you give.
Just be kind.