Friday 15 December 2017

Womanity: Life as a stepmother isn't always easy

Life as a stepmother isn't always easy, but our gal has found her way

JUST MARRIED: Maia Dunphy and her husband Johnny Vegas
JUST MARRIED: Maia Dunphy and her husband Johnny Vegas

Maia Dunphy

Step-parents (or more precisely, stepmothers) have traditionally not fared well throughout history and literature.

In a quick-fire, word association game, shout 'stepmother' to a room of ten people and odds are at least eight will shout back 'wicked', or you might get an 'evil' thrown in for good measure (I put this to the test recently, and the adjective 'manky' was included, which was a new one to me ... oh the joys of haphazardly conducting independent surveys). You're unlikely to hear a young girl saying what she'd really, REALLY like to be when she grows up is a stepmother, but contrary to the bleak picture long painted by folklore, none of us stepmothers carry around bags of poisoned Granny Smiths, or apply our cartoonish make-up by the light of a full moon in a talking mirror that assures us we are still gorgeous (we have L'Oreal for that). I say 'us', because three years ago, I became a fully paid up member of this once unpopular club.

Thankfully for me, and the other non-beastly stepmums who don't abandon children in the woods outside the candy-cottages of carnivorous witches, in recent years there has been a Ryanair-esque cuddlefication of step-parenting and blended families. Shows such as sitcom Modern Family depict a warmer, softer, but nonetheless real side to what is increasingly becoming the norm in twenty-first century families.

It is nigh on twenty years since divorce became legal in this country, before which time you could only become a step-parent if someone had died, which didn't tend to get things off to a positive start. But now that people are no longer forced to stay with someone they shouldn't have said 'I do' to in the first instance, alongside others putting off marriage and kids until later in life, and single mothers no longer being metaphorically tarred and feathered, the chances are high that if you meet someone over 35, they may come with baggage (as ex-spouses and children are affectionately known in the early days of discussing a new relationship). But as a friend said to me recently, "I wouldn't trust a man who'd got to 40 without at least a wife, a child or a dog he'd had for more than ten years". Take from that what you will (I think the ten year period applied to the dog only).

It goes without saying that there are pros and cons to meeting someone with children, and it would be a barefaced lie to say it isn't initially a daunting experience. I didn't meet my stepson for a year after I met his father – which we felt was right for us – but when I eventually did, I put ludicrous pressure on myself to be a kind of post-modern Mary Poppins at all times. Which is of course ridiculous ... not to mention exhausting when you arrive laden with an elaborate arts and crafts project when all a kid wants to do is play Plants V Zombies and eat pizza.

Not forgetting there is the other biological parent to deal with (or multiple other biological parents if you happen to date Kerry Katona). The length of a previous relationship does not matter if you can sever all ties after a break up – your new partner need never see your ex (aside from the occasional old holiday snap on Facebook you leave up to show there's no animosity). But throw a baby into the mix, and whether you were together ten minutes or ten years, that person is in your life like a long-term mortgage. In negative equity.

More important than all of the adults' feelings combined are, of course, those of the child or children. As a step-parent, you will never replace a mother or father – nor should you try – and without doubt, awkward questions and upset will arise in a blended family, as they do in any family. But loathe as I am to trot out platitudes, I do believe it is better to come from a broken home than to live in one.

There is plenty of good, nay great, stuff too. Otherwise we'd turn on our heels at the first sign of a kiddy car seat. It is incredibly attractive to see a man in 'Dad-mode'. Yes, you may have to share their time and affection with a tiny person, but you'll find out pretty quickly how they handle stress, and if you want to have children of your own, you need never second guess what sort of father he will be.

Scouring the net for holidays to family-friendly campsites in lieu of chic city breaks, trying to make vegetables more interesting, and turning down invites in favour of a Saturday night watching Despicable Me for the fifth time may have happened sooner than I anticipated; but I can say hand on heart that I wouldn't have it any other way.

Maia Dunphy is a journalist and broadcaster

Irish Independent

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