Being a stepmother

This is not a confessional blog.  It is not an intensely personal one.  Someone once said to me that it  hides as much as it reveals. It hops around a bit but mostly it is about my life here, trying to make a garden on two acres of Welsh hillside having turned my back on an enjoyable corporate life to have the chance to make another life while I still can, and also about the things that occupy me:growing things, cooking things, walking (or staggering up Austrian Alps).  Sometimes I write about my family as they are so much the stuff of my life but I try to respect their privacy and to ensure that if I reveal anything at all it is more about myself, which is all that is mine to reveal.  I doubt if I get that right all the time, but I try.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. You have to set the pace, take the initiative, be the adult, but ultimately you will get back just as much as you give.
It might sound impossible, undoable, obvious or stupidly unrealistic, I don't know.

Just be kind.

Comments

  1. Sound advice, my daughter is a step mother and although her step children are older I some times wonder how she copes, but she does, he has 3, she has 2 and one between them,(all girls!) but she is fun and a friend to them, although there are times when I think she wishes she could have him to herself, especially as he is away a lot so when he is home, they are all home!

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  2. Well they grow older Penny and eventually you do have time to yourselves again, and then you have the best of all worlds! She sounds great. That is a big family.

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  3. Well said. If your Beloved person loves his child you need to get onboard. Would you not love anything that was his? This woman had better get with the program and stop worrying about her own needs and give that girl some love.

    If a parent has to choose, they seldom DON'T choose their child.

    GOOD ADVICE.

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  4. VERY sound advice and chock full of wisdom nuggets! I am a step-grandmother and I tried very hard to develop a relationship with my husband's 2 granddaughters. We are an older couple and his first wife died....after 41 wonderful years of marriage. I was married for 41 years as well...not happy but still married. My family embraced my new husband and loves him dearly. HIS family would rather not have EITHER of us in their life if they can't have him alone. He made a difficult choice but we are currently estranged from his family and have been since he had a heart attack 1 1/2 years ago. My point is it hurts everyone involved if all the people in a relationship do not try to work with each other. Old hearts ache from rejection just as the young hearts do. Poor little girl. This heart of mine goes out to her even though I have never laid eyes on her. Thoughtful post and well done!!

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  5. Well reasoned and well expressed. She sounds jealous and immature.

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  6. Much wisdom here! Thanks for putting this to words even though you weren't able to speak them earlier. I'm sure many can still glean from this insight.

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  7. Excellent post, kindness will prevail over their stubbornness. Bless you, Gina

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  8. I hope someone has this conversation with her.
    I have no experience with step-children or parents, but have watched many friend ruin relationships due to an inability to see things as you've just laid them out.

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  9. You sound like a very wise woman. It's too bad that step mom is so immature and insecure. You would be a great mentor. ♥♫

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  10. Well said! One of the most important things in a marriage split is that the parents, or step parents, never say nasty things about a child's other (absent)parent. That is SINFUL.

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  11. That's a beautiful post Elizabeth. I can imagine this conversation and I believe your advice is entirely correct. I fear that this woman may become as my stepmother became to me, although while this step-mum seems to allow herself to be dominated by the child in my own step-mum's case it was very much her forcing her will on me. I would have liked a step parent who followed your precepts. Everyone would have been a lot happier! Maybe you could try to have this piece published somewhere as it could help many adults and many children. Maybe Gwenoldy could extend its consultancy services to parenting. I've never heard of a 'consulting parent' but I'm sure there's a great need for them out there.

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  12. Words from the heart, Elizabeth, and very wise, sensitive words too. Hopefully that little girl is resilient and will come through these difficult early times with an insecure new stepmother. But how painful it is to hear such things and be powerless to intervene and offer help!

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  13. Wise words there E - what a shame you couldn't have gently proffered them where they were so clearly needed.

    Aren't these sorts of conversations compulsive listening? I used to hate getting of buses when my stop came and I was listening agog to the conversation from in front or behind!

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  14. You are so wise, Elizabeth, and this is a very moving post. No wonder stepmothers have a reputation for being wicked, but it is a hard slot to fill and to fill well. Missing you.

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  15. You are so wise.... extremely wise. However, you sound so different from the woman in the hairdressers.
    I wanted to scream at that woman. You cannot come between a good father and his child.A child who has gone through pain & suffering just needs so much security and love.
    That child must feel her stepmother's resentment and jealously coming through everything she does. Poor little girl.
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

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  16. Just read your blog, shame you could not print your words of wisdom and ask the hairdresser to pass it on. Not only will this woman destroy her relationship with her partner, but also the little girls with her dad. She should grow up and be pleased her partner wants to carry on seeing his daughter, and not dump her like so mny men do.

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  17. I hope your stepchildren realise how lucky they are to have you - its sad we cant say what we want to to strangers - sometimes they might just benefit from our experiences - but then again !!!

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  18. Wise words - so many of your comments apply to relationships in general, too, like working out what really matters.

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  19. What a wise blog this is. The other day I posted a blog about marriage break up and its effect upon the children. How I do agree with every word you say - I find it painful to even think about that little girl struggling to find love from her father.

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  20. Sound advice. I hope she finds someone else who will tell her before it is too late; someone who will be in the right position to say all that you wished you could!

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  21. I feel very uncomfortable with being called "wise" here! I am far from wise. Just ask my husband, or anyone else who has seen me towards the end of a good party. Actually he would be a very good person to ask about this as he has, in my view, been a first rate stepfather. At least he is the one all the kids, both mine and his, ring when water starts to come through the ceiling.
    I rather like Fennie's idea of "consultancy parenting"! It is so hard when you are in the middle of something like this to see that it is not forever. It will change. I wish I could share that with people struggling with it.

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  22. Hmm, this post has brought tears to my eyes because of its resonance for me. Your first point is the most important - it's the situation that every child fears and none seek - that's what should be at the forefront of every adult involved.

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  23. I love your 'chicken and garden' posts but I love your philosophy posts even more, I think. Sorry, but I also think this was pretty wise... :)

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  24. You have shared some good, solid wisdom here.

    I, myself have been stymied lately by things I have heard mothers saying to their young sons in public lately.

    One little boy was joyfully bopping along to the music being played over the grocery store sound system. His mother said, "If you like this kind of music, you're a fag. Are you a fag?"

    I had to restrain myself from beating her about the head and neck with a frozen turkey.

    I heard almost the exact same conversation in the arts and crafts store the last time I was there. A mother had brought her son along shopping, and he was admiring the strands of beautiful beads and gemstones on display. The boy couldn't have been more than 8 or 9 years old, and his mother said, "Only gay boys like this kind of stuff - what are you, a little sissy?"

    Again - all I could do not to wrap one of those strands of beads around her neck and put her lights out.

    How can adults IN THIS DAY AND AGE have so little awareness of the damage they are doing, the horrible attitudes they are fostering in their kids?

    I am once again reminded why I chose not to have any children. Not enough deserted islands to go around.

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  25. This sounds like excellent advice - wish I'd had it twenty years ago when I was living with a guy who had 5 boys and a really manipulative ex. Glad things have worked out well for you!

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  26. Untill you walk in her shoes, don't judge the Lady.. There have been 16-18 year old girls that have done
    atrocious and horrendous things,
    cruel and spiteful. I am 73 years old and they are out there.
    Believe me.
    We all want to think the best.

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  28. LPg - the little girl here was seven years old. I wasn't judging I hope. I know it is hard. I'm sorry if you have had hard experiences yourself.

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  29. Elizabeth - I have seen and overheard things that made me furious and sad as well, with children or animals getting the brunt of someone's ignorance and pain. I'd be quietly typing up your post and sending it to the hairdresser's if I knew their address. Someone intervening in a private way could make all the difference for that child. That said, I know some 7 year olds that I wouldn't want to spend the weekend with, relations or not...

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