On being a step-mother

Readers! It is now exactly seven days to the relaunch. Seven! Get ready to be bowled over because we have some seriously good posts, and some seriously big changes that we just cant wait to share with you. it is so exciting even Emilia just let out a little yelp of excitement. Or it could have been wind. Whatever.


We recently posted Vivienne’s piece about being the ‘second wife’ (or ‘last wife’ as I prefer to be known), and how it can sometimes be difficult to get past the fact that this is not the first time your significant other has been through the process. There can be lots of little nagging reminders that at some point, he (or she) had another life, with someone else, and that is hard. 

I’ll tell you what must be even harder though? Having two huge great reminders in the form of two small children. And on top of that, there must be huge pressure to not only make a good impression on, and bond with, people who very often don’t *want* to like you, just out of principle, but also to intelligently and carefully weave yourselves into their lives, whilst negotiating the tricky politics of merging families. 

Helen writes really honestly about how bloody difficult it is, and after reading this I just wanted to applaud her for her bravery in admitting that ‘hey, this is not easy, and certainly not ideal, but i love him so I *will* make this work’. A true AOW woman.

When I met D he had (very) recently separated from his first wife – and he had two small children (who lived with his ex). This was far from the fairytale scenario I had imagined for myself, but I knew very early on that he was the one for me, ‘baggage’ and all.

We had been together for about a year before I met the children – with the feelings about the separation still very raw, D wanted to be careful not to cause anyone undue upset, so I had a year to build myself up to the big introduction.

The thing is, I had no experience of children – and I mean none. At that time there were no nephews or nieces on the scene, I had no younger siblings or cousins, no friends with children and, to be totally honest I was a little bit scared of children. I had no idea how to act with them – while other people seemed to have an innate knowledge of how to make a child laugh, how to comfort them, how to talk to them, how to engage with them, I was scared stiff and had absolutely no idea of just how to *be* with them.

People said to me ‘don’t talk down to them’ (really? but they’re five and two-and-a-half – I can’t exactly ask them what they think of the global economy!) and ‘treat them like little adults’ and ‘just be natural and wait for them to come to you’. I now realise that this was all sage advice, but none of it felt like any help whatsoever and none of it was any comfort to me.

Looking back now, I find it bizarre that I was scared (proper butterflies, sweaty palms nervous) about meeting these two little people, but that is really the way it was. Our first meeting was not a roaring success – there was no sudden enlightenment and miraculous discovery of all the right things to say/do and the right way to be with them and I shed a fair few tears after our first meeting in disappointment at my complete inadequacy in the child-magnetism department.

I can’t say it got hugely easier.

As I got to know them better, some of the things fell into place but a barrel load of other issues were raised – how to act with them in front of their doting grandparents/uncles/ friends of the family who had known them all their lives and had a much stronger connection with them than me. How to discipline them (should I even attempt it?), especially in front of other people. What to say if strangers mistakenly thought I was their mother.

We soon started to have them come to stay with us (at my house) every other weekend. I tried really hard to embrace it, but before too long I started to dread the weekends of their visits – when they came to stay I found that I couldn’t relax, I couldn’t get a decent night’s sleep or a weekend lie-in, I couldn’t go shopping, I couldn’t visit friends, I couldn’t watch tv (unless it was cartoons or kids’ tv), there were too many interruptions to read a book, and there was no point even in doing household chores as there would be more cleaning up to do at the end of the weekend. I felt like a prisoner in my own home. D would say to me on a Thursday “great, it’s nearly the weekend!” and I would just feel a heavy sinking feeling – I couldn’t look on weekends with the kids as “real” weekends. (I realise that all of this sounds horribly, horribly selfish, especially to anybody who has children of their own, but I was finding it extremely hard to adjust to a situation that I hadn’t (really) been prepared for.)

I found it difficult living in an adult environment for 85% of the time and then suddenly having my world (and house) turned upside down in a whirl of kids’ toys, mess and noise – and then, *just* as I was starting to get used to it and relax a little, they’d be gone again.

Just to throw an extra element into the mix, D told me fairly early on that he didn’t think he could cope with having any more children – much as he loves his kids, he didn’t find fatherhood came naturally to him, either. Now, although I hadn’t always dreamt of having children, I did always assume that at some point I would have a family – and to have that taken away was quite a shock. I was (and still am) certain that D is more important to me than having children, but feelings are not logic-driven and it’s not as straightforward as being able to say “I know he is more important to me than having children, therefore I will feel no regret or sadness about it”. I suspect that deep in the recesses of my mind this has not made my relationship with his children any easier, but I really hope that it doesn’t colour the way I am with them.

Categories: Becoming a Mother, Family, Friends and Relationships, Marriage
14 interesting thoughts on this


  1. Posted February 27, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    This is such a touching and brilliantly written post. Both of my parents remarried, and as a child you don't really empathise with a step-parent's plight until you get much older. I always hope I didn't give my step-mum and step-dad too rough a time.

    I'm not saying it necessarily gets easier – I think there's always a strangeness to being a step-parent in adapting to a role with very blurry boundaries – but you WILL build a special relationship with your partner's children that both you and they come to value. I hope you're proud of how well you've done so far, and your partner is proud and (very!) appreciative of your strength and bravery.


  2. Posted February 27, 2012 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    What a great post. I can't speak from personal experience but I have seen my sibling become a step-father – or as it seems to be, a real father who just isn't biological. This may not be the right definition for you, but whatever is 'right' is also certain to take time. It took my brother two or three years, and there was only one child involved and he was very young.

    How does the childrens' mother view you and your involvement? Perhaps that is something to help lead you – or help you decide what you don't want the relationship to be.

    Anyway – brilliant post. Thank you.

  3. Posted February 27, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Wow, what a brilliant post! Talk about jumping into the week head first!

    I have no sage advice whatsoever. My father (who brought us up) met my stepmother when I was about 7, and the upheaval it caused to her life (she was 10 years his junior and really not ready to have suddenly be handed three daughters) was so great that they actually broke up for a year before realising that they were ultimately happier together. My dad was really honest with us about how hard it was for her, so I have some inkling of the impact on someone's life and I can really empathise with your situation.

    If it helps, my sisters and I eventually came to realise that this woman made our father whole, and although she is in no way my mother, she is one of the most precious people in my life.

  4. Becca
    Posted February 27, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    This is an amazing post – I think a lot of people must be thinking about it first before responding.

    There is no way that I could ever be with anyone that has a child. I realise its incredibly selfish (and completely pathetic) but I think I would have cut the strings early on, as soon as I knew about a child, rather than let myself fall in love any further. It takes an incredibly secure and well balanced person to cope with an ex's child and I'm not that strong. I have incredible respect for anyone that is in this situation.

    I think the key is communication with your new partner. The Boy has a step-mother and when with them, discipline was done by her or his Dad, with the support of the other. I contrast this to my cousin's partner who has made it perfectly clear to him that her daughter from a former relationship is "her" child and therefore discipling is for her and her alone (and FYI never happens).

  5. Posted February 27, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    This is a brilliant post. Thank you.

    I'm umming and erring whether to say this, but do you want your own children? I think it's perfectly reasonable of your partner to not want anymore children, and he's been truthful about this. However, it sounds to me like you might? My cousin and her fiance do not want children, and I think this is fine, they are very much in love, have good careers, and enjoy travelling together.

    I want children, not right away, and if it doesn't happen, then my husband and I think we would still live fulfilling lives, with our animals and nephews and nieces to adore.

    However, I would not want to have it imposed on me, from my husband whether we have children or not. If Andy had told me, he didn't want children. For me, it would have been a dealbreaker, as much as I adore him. I would need to true to myself on this.

    Please, don't persuade yourself, that you don't want children, because he doesn't want any more.

    I can't really advise you, and hope I have not stepped out of line, but I was just concerned that you might not have something you want…. if that makes sense.


  6. Posted February 27, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Katie, that's a really valid point. I'm sure Helen has really really thought about this, and it's a decision she's comfortable with, but it must have been incredibly hard to make. If you're in this situation and are not 100% happy in your mind, there is always the danger that it could lead to resentment further down the line, especially if for whatever reason the relationship were to break down.

    I completely understand the feeling that 'this guy is worth giving it up for' though – you just have to be absolutely clear in your mind that he IS worth it. then put it behind you and concentrate on making what you have, wonderful.

  7. Posted February 27, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Clare, very good point. I wasn't sure whether I was doing the right thing bringing it up.

    I asked the question, as I could not tell whether Helen wants children, from the last paragraph.

    It sounded to me, like she'd let her partner make the decision on this, and had not completely embraced the idea.

    I'm sorry Helen, if I sound interfering / patronising / unhelpful. I really do think kudos to you, for bring a step-mother.


  8. Posted February 27, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    I read this this morning and I've been trying all day to find time to formulate a proper comment. I've been failing. All I can really say is… bloody brilliant post. You've taken on such a huge emotional challenge, and I wish you all the best, because THAT is what love and marriage is really about.

    K x

  9. Helen
    Posted February 27, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Thank you all for your lovely comments :-)

    It's really interesting to hear the point of view from the other side of the fence – from people who have grown up with step-parents, as that's not something I've had any experience of.

    The children are a little older now, and that makes things easier – I also have to say that I am incredibly lucky in that the children have always accepted me into their lives and never grumbled when I’ve snapped at them, never answered back, never shut me out. All told, they are really lovely, thoughtful, and well rounded children – and I am grateful to them for their patience with me!

    Katie, no, you don't sound interfering / patronising / unhelpful at all! But, it is something I've had a long time to think long and hard about – we've been together for nine-and-a-half years and I've known for about eight of those years that more children weren't on the cards. (It's also not something he takes lightly – we've had some very difficult discussions in which he's decided that it would be best if he left me so I could find someone else to have children with, but we're still together now because I know that he really is more important to me than children – and because I love our life together.)

    It helps that I haven't always hankered after having children, and I still don't – but my point still remains that, although I've made a decision that I'm happy with, and which feels right for me, it doesn't make it black-and-white and it doesn't mean that every now and then I don't feel a slight tinge of sadness when I realise that no-one will call me 'mummy' and no-one will be there to look after me when I'm old (and that, in years to come, no-one will be interested in looking me up in their family tree – I know that's weird, it comes from watching too many episodes of "who do you think you are..?" !!).

    I feel that sometimes society expects women who have made a decision not to have children (for whatever reason) to be totally detached and unemotional about it, and I guess I'm saying that even when you know you've made the right decision, the emotions don't completely disappear!

    H xx

  10. Posted February 27, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Helen – I think your partner is a very lucky man to have you.

    I chuckled at your family tree comment. If I ever have a daughter, I'm giving her the middle name Frances, after my great-great-aunt, as I truly adored her. I shouldn't say this, but she was a much more interesting person than my grandparents, she was well read, educated, travelled, and her and her husband owned their own school. She had lots of controversial opinions, and always spoke her mind. She lived to be 101, and often used to stay with my Nan. She outlived her only son, who did not have children. I have one of her paintings on the wall, so if I have children, they will know who she is, and hopefully look her up. If they sell her painting, I will definitely haunt them. I don't think you need children, to be looked after in old age, just people who love you. You sound so lovely, I'm sure you'll be looked after.


  11. Posted February 27, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    A really interesting and honest post.

    I have a stepson (to be) who I have known since he was 2 (he's now 18) and I found it really tough, especially in the early days, and knowing that I didn't want children of my own.

    The cutest breakthrough moment came when he was about 5 when a clown (shudder, hate them) came up to him and referred to me as 'mummy'.
    "That's not my mummy" he explained.
    "Auntie?" queried the clown.
    "That's not my auntie"
    "Then who?" asked the clown, presumably dialing 999 in his pocket.
    "That's my [my name]" he said in tones that spoke volumes of his opinion of the clown's stupidity.
    And I realised I had as much of a role in his life than any other tag – he just thought that every child had a me.

  12. Posted February 27, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    Peridot, I love that last line in your comment!

    Again, such an excellent post on AOW, I think it's very impressive that you have managed to tackle the possibly tricky issue of how to deal with step kids for so long and with such obvious success. I don't know how I would feel about having the not having children thing 'imposed' as it were. I assume it must have been difficult but then I've always known I do want kids someday so it would have been a deal breaker early on for me too. Maybe it was easier for you, or your man is just 'that' amazing! Lucky you! :)

  13. Posted February 27, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    This is a brilliant post, and yes, I did have to go away and think before commenting.

    In my post, I touched on how I was 'lucky' that my husband didn't have children from his previous marriage, as it would have only made it harder to accept being the second wife.

    So, you deserve nothing more than respect for the brave, humble and dignified attitude you have towards your stepchildren and the impact that they will have on your own future child bearing

    Sadly, beyond that I have no sound, sensible, or even non-sensible advice/snippets of wisdom to offer you. Not that you need it – I don't think there is anything I/we could say that would improve on a situation that you are managing so well



  14. Katie
    Posted March 21, 2013 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    Ahhh I hope you wrote a follow-up post to this somewhere. I could have written this. In fact I considered it but I thought all the comments would be very negative since whenever I think something about my situation, I think I sound horribly selfish. Right now I am at the dreading weekends stage. And I convinced him to move in a year. Well, he wants to move anyways but now I will be blamed for taking him away. Which means our weekends are going to be very long months. He doesn’t seem to understand that it will be very strange to be childless then switch to full time parenting for 1/12 of the year. It is a whole different lifestyle! Different friends and activities!
    So do you just get used to giving up time? Does it get better as they get older? Right now she is 4 and I can’t wait until she can be alone for a single moment. She is great and adores me and I am naturally “good with kids” but I always feel rushed. This wasn’t what I was planning for right now. But I do love love my man and he does try but if I bring it up I make him feel guilty for having so many screw ups in life.

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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