My parents fought a lot when I was a child—mostly loudly and often in the same room as my sister and me—and although I was usually able to brush it off, occasionally my mind would wander to what our lives would be like if they were to get divorced. I would definitely choose to live with my mother, I would think to myself. And I certainly wouldn’t want my father to remarry. I would hate to have a stepmother.
Some fifteen years later, I’m mere months away from marrying a man with a child from a previous marriage.
My relationship with T was intense and urgent from the beginning, so we moved in together quickly, which effectively enrolled me in a crash course on parenting. I have learnt a lot since then: how to be loving, yet firm; how to be attentive without hovering; how to get dressed in the morning with a pair of five-year-old arms locked around my waist.
I was exceptionally lucky, in that I found almost effortless acceptance with T’s beautiful, cheeky little girl. At the beginning, I thought this would be the difficult part: forming a relationship with a child who I assumed would be confused and defensive. I presumed she would automatically dislike me, so I approached the situation cautiously and tried not to force myself on her. So far, we haven’t really had many problems. I’m not one of her natural parents, and I didn’t come into her life until she was four, so my relationship with her isn’t the same as what she has with her mother and father. She calls me by my first name, often with a “my” in front. She’s old enough to have a basic understanding of the situation, and knows that I’m not the mother that gave birth to her, but that I do play a similar role when she’s at our house. Our bond is strong, which makes me feel proud and humbled and incredibly lucky.
Quite unexpectedly, the place I have most struggled to find acceptance, or even tolerance, is within our community and society on the whole.
Everyone is familiar with the wicked stepmother trope. The first time I ever used the term, A, who was four at the time, told me that I couldn’t possibly be her stepmother, because I’m not wicked. My view of divorce and subsequent remarriage has changed significantly since I was a little girl listening to my parents fight. Rather naively, I assumed that this was symptomatic of wider social change around the issue. I thought everyone saw stepparenting as normal and valid. But the first (and only) time I took A to a birthday party, I was shunned by all the other parents. I get odd looks at her school. I can understand this to a certain extent. These people know A’s mother, who isn’t my biggest fan, primarily because she feels like I am trying to replace her. This is a feeling that most other mothers can relate to, so I seem to be resented on principal.
I was more shocked by the reactions I got from people who didn’t have a clear reason to have a bias. Work colleagues have told me that parenting her “isn’t the same” as parenting my own child would be. My own mother, who loves A, has told me that I “need” to have at least two children and that A “doesn’t count”.
I feel like I am constantly having to define and justify my role in her upbringing. I feed her, I bathe her, I read to her, I teach her things. I spend upwards of twenty minutes braiding her hair each morning. I recently explained the basics of human reproduction to her after she asked me how babies are made. I love her more than I thought I ever could, and I make sure she knows that every single day. But still, I’m told that I’m not a parent. That even though I dedicate time and energy to raising her to be functional adult, I’m meaningless. That my very existence in her life is an affront to her biological mother.
I have tried very hard persuade people that I’m not attempting to take over as A’s mother, but short of ignoring her or being mean to her, I don’t think there is any way to avoid that assumption. The reality—for us, at least—is that there is room for more than two parents in a child’s life. A effectively has four adults invested in raising her, and she considers herself lucky. I will never replace her mother, and that’s great because I don’t want to. I want to love her and care for her and watch her graduate high school and university and maybe get married someday. I will be whatever she needs me to be for as long as she’ll have me, because the only permission I need is hers.