Archetypes and attitude
My ex husband recently remarried and with that our children acquired a brand new Stepmum. That’s in title only, however, because, she has been in their lives for almost four years. Similarly, I’ve been in ‘my’ stepchildren’s lives for about the same time. There are three ‘mums’ therefore in this story; so no wonder it gets a bit claustrophobic and emotional at times. I do wonder if ‘mum-strops’ have a specific wavelength — like the known phenomenon of females in the same vicinity menstruating in synch. The problems however aren’t that we are combining positive energies to generate a brilliant environment for all the children — the power of resonance — but that our differing attitudes are dampening one another out and the result is just destruction and damage.
During the past four years oscillating between:
— a mum helping my kids deal with a stepmum;
— and a stepmum learning how to help stepchildren deal with me
it is fair to say I’ve probably gotten it wrong more times than I’ve gotten it right.
There are no NCT classes to prepare you for step parenting. Although I do wonder if it would help everyone — especially the children — if there was a mandatory set of classes in grief counselling, shame and anger management that all parents had to attend when they enter into a second marriage with children in the centre.
In acrimonious family court cases there is something called a ‘Separated Parents Information Course’ that battling parents can be made to attend. But that’s not the same as the reality of learning how to be a decent Step-parent when your new partner and his ex are in a persistent state of discord and you’re left to try to be a nice person to their children or reciprocally, you’re trying to persuade the new stepmum to your kids that whatever your dislike of your ex or their version of you from your ex — you only want your children to be liked and treated kindly when they’re with the ‘stand in mum’.
When I divorced, my solicitor went to great lengths to ensure that the time my children spent with their Dad and me and the finances needed to look after the children’s best interests were firmly laid out and watertight for their benefit. At the time I challenged him, naive in the belief that ‘he will never let our children down; he’s a good Dad’. To which said solicitor replied; “this isn’t about you or Dad; this is to protect the children from the maturity or immaturity of the next wife”. At the time I found this to be a deeply cynical reflection and dismissed it as something that would never be necessary for our children. Sadly, his words have proved to be entirely true. In both ex-wife and new-wife, Mum and Stepmum role — I’ve been subjected to, possibly contributed to, some almost comedic acts of immaturity. At times I’ve had to question what I’m actually reading when a perfunctory reminder about a rugby match or a play rehearsal has been responded to with hyperbole, hubris and hysteria — of the playground variety; “he never found you sexy!”, “you’re a slut”, “you’re old”, ‘you’re ruined’, and the mesmerisingly juvenile “you’ve only got a 2:1 degree but you think you’re so clever; all you actually do is regurgitate other people’s work.” Urm — thanks for that, could you please just get my kids to practice on time tho? Cheers’.
Are all Stepmums wicked?
Whatever the reasons for these kind of outbursts — there are lots of archetypes of the ‘Wicked Stepmother’ in literature to reach to. They all illuminate women under the most hideous of lights. Snow White’s Stepmum needed to be the fairest of them all; Cinderella’s Stepmum turned her into a servant in her own home and sanctioned constant bullying by the stepsiblings. It is a struggle to find any positive Stepmum role models. It is also difficult to find any descriptions of how hard it is to be a mum and relinquishing control of the care of your most treasured and precious children into the maternal space of another. I’m not undermining Dads by expressing that; but there is a certain kind of expectation, mother-to-mother, about how someone else’s children should be treated when they’re in your care. Its ‘girl-code’, amplified.
I asked my stepson about this recently; what is it like to have a mum and a Stepmum? He described it as like being on a really long playdate with someone else’s mum who will make sure that you’re ok and be nice to you. I thought that was a remarkably insightful response from a 10 year old. What struck me was the omission of the sense that a Stepmum might also love you. For me, I never want to put my stepchildren in the middle of a woman to woman competition. Their love and loyalty should be for their Mum and that’s natural and fair. The best I can hope for from them is that I might earn their trust and respect for trying to help them. Why should they love me, anyway? I will always be the person married to their Dad who is not their Mum? When you’re a Stepmum its like being on a 1-month work notice period ‘zero hours contract’ where you’re only ever as good as your last project or behaviour because they can terminate any relationship with you whenever they want to. They don’t need you; they’ve already got a perfectly good mum to love them to the moon and back. On reflection; I quite like living by the step kids rules not mine — they keep me on my toes.
Perhaps then, any training course on how to be a Stepmum shouldn’t be written or run by the adults but directly from the children? I’ll ask them to compile some rules and blog them soon. If we take that as a sensible way forward however, what scope will there be for my kids’ ‘new stepmum’ to continue with playground antics? I guess we will see and ultimately it is the children who will make their minds up. Not me.