Source: The Sunday Times

Shane Watson

There are no hard and fast rules on how to be a mother to children who aren’t yours — except that you’re not their mum

Something is going on in the stepmothering camp. Call it an uprising, or a rebranding. It all started with Gisele Bundchen, talking about her husband Tom Brady’s baby son. “To me, it’s not like because somebody else delivered him, that’s not my child,” she said. “I feel it is, 100%.” So, to clarify, although Bridget Moynahan is John Brady’s mother, Bundchen thinks John is her child. Then there was the story about the woman in Australia who went to court to prevent her daughter calling her stepmother “Mummy D”. It was a small item in the news — one of those designed to make you marvel at the pettiness of divorced couples — but look closely and there is something else going on here. A mother battling to maintain her unique status. A stepmother who imagines she is no different to a birth mother, and wants to rewrite history with her centre stage in the family portrait.

I am a stepmother. I’m not crazy about the term — the step part makes it sound cold and hard, not to mention all the negative baggage that goes with it — but it serves a useful purpose, which is to clarify exactly where I stand in relation to my stepchildren, and they to me. I am not my stepchildren’s mother. I did not give birth to them. I had not even met them until they were in their teens. Those are the plain facts and they are the sort of facts you mess with at your peril.

What I am is a full-time parent — someone who fulfils a motherly role in their lives on a daily basis. I am the one who bandages the cuts, buys the spot cream, answers the homework questions, takes them clothes shopping, gets their hair cut, and nags them to shower. I’ve done my share of delousing and standing on the touchline in the rain, separating fights, clearing up sick and talking through various problems, from oblivious girls to trunk rash. It’s me who gets the phone call after the exam. Me who gets the text in the middle of The X Factor (from my stepdaughter at university) to compare notes. Me who sobs at airports when they disappear on gap years and me who worries when they aren’t home on time. Still, I’m not their mother. I am something important, but significantly different. I am their stepmother.

The trouble is, there’s a new generation of stepmothers who want to compete for pole position, instead of accepting that they have something unique to offer. It’s the philosophy of the “me” generation taken to its logical conclusion — because I’m worth it and I do the work of a mother (even if it’s every other weekend), I deserve to be called a mother. Ladies, really, this is madness. There are so many advantages to being a stepmother as opposed to a real mother.

For a start, if you make any sort of effort, you are regarded as a heroic, selfless figure, whereas real mothers are simply expected to get on with it. Stepmothers can forget the sports kit, turn up late for the parents’ meeting, shrink the blazer, burn the birthday cake, and the world thinks she’s doing a fantastic job (“They’re not even hers”). Strangers are always congratulating me for what I have “taken on” (particularly when they hear I don’t have children of my own). Divorced dads offer their condolences and mutter guiltily that being a stepmother is “the most thankless task in the world”. It’s like being Mother Teresa, Princess Di and Sandra Bullock rolled into one. What is more, we stepmothers can moan, and ask for help, and admit we’re not sure we’re getting it right without seeming unnatural or disloyal. It’s a win-win situation and it works both ways.

Because I am not their real mother, my stepchildren can pick and mix. On days when I manage to stay the right side of cool (if I’ve bumped into Lily Allen in a shop, or bought them an item of clothing that is not, for once, “gay”), then I am their stepmother, loud and proud. On days when I am a total embarrassment (conferring with shop assistants, dancing in the kitchen, ogling footballers and getting their names wrong), they are free to say, or just to think, “She’s not my mother.” How liberating is that?

And because I am not their mother, they find it easier to talk to me about subjects that are traditionally agony for mothers and children to discuss — namely sex, their ambitions (or lack of them), clothes, drugs, disloyal friends. I can see them as the age they are, not — as mothers inevitably do — as babies. Every exchange with a real mother is loaded with expectation and the potential for hurt, but stepmothers aren’t plugged into their stepchildren’s nervous systems, so they are cushioned from the worst agonies. (When one of my stepchildren goes to the dark side, I do not think: “Oh God, that’s because I didn’t potty train you early enough/didn’t breastfeed for long enough/took that stressful job in my second trimester.”) And if one of them wants a piercing, I can discuss it objectively without a voice in my head screaming, “But you’re my baby!”

So much for the pros of this special relationship. There are downsides, too. I get tired of round-the-clock giving (more tired than a regular mother, because I haven’t had the practice), but at the same time I feel sad when they thank me for small kindnessness that children should take for granted. It seems a shame that they are appalled at the thought of being caught naked by me (or worse, me by them), though I guess that, past a certain age, that’s normal. And I am sometimes brought up sharp by the yawning gap between their life experience and mine. I am not part of my stepchildren’s history — they are a gang with their father and I am, if not the outsider, then the new member of the band. Our house is full of photographs of their lives before I came along, holidays I never went on, houses I never lived in, plus a couple of our wedding day, with all of us in a line, squinting into the camera. But you know what — that’s exactly as it should be. We’re not rewriting history, we’re making it — and we’re doing a pretty good job so far.