Once upon a time – November 2003 in fact, at the end of a terrible year – I met a bloke who was kind and normal and I rather liked him. We became friends, and he told me he had two daughters from a previous relationship. We carried on being friends for a bit and in February 2004 we started ‘going out’ together, as we old people would have it – well, he came round for our first date and never really went home again, and now we have three kids of our own as well as the two he started with.
When you fall in love with a bloke with kids, you’re getting a package deal with an extra baggage allowance. You live with the certain knowledge that as well as the kids you’re getting their ex in your life as well, no matter how badly that worked out. I’m not going to tell you it was easy, because for many years it was anything but: things I said and did would be twisted and turned back on me. I wasn’t a suitable person to be around the children: when A got a Facebook account set up by her friend using a fake name, I hadn’t told her mother she had one. A had messaged me and told me about it, and I’d told her dad, and that (given my prickly relationship with their mother) was the end of my responsibility. He didn’t confess to her that I’d told him – so I became the bad guy. Like I say, it wasn’t easy.
But I love their dad, and so I love them too: at various times one or other of them has lived with us when things have been tricky at their mum’s, or when A was on holiday from college. We practise open door parenting (as my mum and dad did): if they know they’re always welcome here when times are easy, they’ll know there’s always a welcome when they’re in trouble or in need. We patch them up, feed them up, hug them and listen because we love them. My garden has been full of teenagers (throw pizza at them and run is my advice), and that’s a joy in itself. We’ve withheld judgement on questionable boy and girlfriends. I have taken the girls to medical appointments, whether that’s mental health or midwives because sometimes everyone needs to know there’s a hand to hold or a hug waiting for you when you get out. I have frozen mini lasagnes for A when she was away from home and missed my (mediocre) cooking, I have marched H off to coffee shops so she could talk to me about why she was self-harming and how we could help her. Because step-parenting is a package deal, and loving them is an extension of loving their dad.
I am fiercely proud of them: A left uni when she got pregnant, and presented us with a gorgeous grandson who is now three. He has chronic allergies that are increasing as he gets older, so she spends a lot of time researching those and how to help him, so she can be informed when she sees consultants and health visitors and so on. He’s a bright little button. At the same time she started the Pass it On Kids UK group, which not only stops things from going to landfill but makes sure that toys, clothes and food get to people who need them. Right now she and her fellow admins are raising money for gift vouchers so families in need will have Christmas dinners and presents. H struggles with mental health issues but is determined to get past them, and I am proud of her too: for reaching out for the help she needs, and for getting up every day (notice I didn’t say morning). They are my girls, whether I hatched them myself or not. I might not have been the perfect stepmother but I have done my best.
In the news over the last few weeks there have been horrendous stories of step-parents who have not only not loved their package deals, but have tortured and brutalised them ending in their deaths. My heart breaks for those babies, who were let down by their parents and by overworked social workers with massive case loads, few resources, and not enough time to seriously investigate the accusations made by friends and family.
Not very Christmassy, but from the heart.
What I’ve been reading:
The Canterville Ghost – Oscar Wilde
Clock Dance / Vinegar Girl – Anne Tyler
Hogfather – Terry Pratchett