If ever there was ever a time to demolish the caricature of the wicked step-mother – a fairytale perception etched into our societal consciousness from childhood – it’s now.
Last week, we watched from afar as history was made, courtesy of two of the most high-profile women in the world, Kamala Harris and Dr Jill Biden. And while I was thrilled to see them celebrated as the first Black, first South Asian and first woman vice president in American history, and the first First Lady to maintain a career from Pennsylvania Avenue, that wasn’t the only reason for my glee. For in addition to flying the flag for womanhood and equality, they are also both raising the profile of modern step-motherhood – and I, for one, couldn’t be happier to see them.
In modern Britain, stepfamilies are no longer the exception to the rule, with 1.1 million children living in a blended household. When I was growing up in one in the 1980s and ‘90s, however, it felt like we were the only complex family to have ever existed.
Navigating that complexity has been a pain point throughout my life and, in adulthood, I’ve consciously sought to channel the experience into being the best version of myself as a mother and a stepmother. Why? Because I know how it feels to be a child growing up in a dysfunctional family.
Lessons from childhood
I was born in Hull in the 1970’s, the middle child of three girls, into a working-class family. And I was nine when our family was ripped apart.
I didn’t know it then, but I’d spent those first nine years of my life growing up around domestic abuse. My mum had planned her exit strategy – hard for a working-class woman in 1989 with three children in tow – and she made the right decision at that time, with the options available to her. Her decision to leave is one I will always be grateful to her for, her lesson in courage one I carry to this day.
In the reality of the time though, her exit plan meant our moving away pretty much overnight, to a safer place with a new dad. It meant not saying goodbye to friends. It meant leaving our home and our community and starting all over again.
Our 1980’s blended family was a complex one. As we three siblings all reacted differently to the trauma we’d experienced, a new baby sister was brought into the mix. We also now found ourselves with two identical twin step-sisters, both born with a learning disability and distinct individual needs. Social services became involved, and I distinctly remember us all attempting some sort of family therapy because our blended family was just not blending.
Eventually, my older and younger sisters went to live 30 miles away with my dad, while I continued to struggle with our on/off relationship until I last saw him, six years ago. Soon, my younger sister was placed in foster care, and then a children’s home. The generational trauma has continued to tsunami through our family since.
In short, our family never really ‘blended’ and to this day, the picture remains complex. It’s a very sad story, and one which undoubtedly influenced my own journey into adulthood.
After sleepwalking my way into my twenties, I found myself pregnant at 21. In a relationship that wasn’t healthy and had no longevity, I made the very brave decision to go it alone. Motherhood was a gift to me, offering a purpose and a focus in my life at a time when I needed it more than ever.
I held onto the hope that from the ashes of my own complex background I could carve out a different-looking family, underpinned by a co-parenting approach – but it wasn’t to be. After swimming against the tide of cooperation for almost a decade, my daughter’s father released himself from parental duty and, quite literally, disappeared.
And then, in 2013, I fell in love with a man who, like America’s new second gentleman, had two children of his own. We met on Match, and one of the things that attracted me to him the most was the love he clearly had for his children, the kind of father he was and the value he placed on family. He single-handedly restored my faith in mankind.
We got engaged in 2014, were married in 2015, pregnant in 2016, had a baby in 2017 and our family became a blended family of six. Finally, I thought, here was my opportunity to put everything I had ever learned about blended family life into practice!
But what I discovered is that blended families form from trauma, grief and loss. They are as unique as a fingerprint, bringing people, emotions and experiences together based on one single premise – the love of two individual people. And while love is strong, when it comes to blending a family it is put to the test from day one.
Life in the blender
The building of any blended family takes place in parallel to the healing from loss and trauma on which it’s created – and that takes time. It takes patience, because everyone adapts to that change in their own way and in their own time. In therapy, we talk about the complex stages we move through in relation to grieving the loss of a loved one – and those same stages apply to the loss of a family unit too. It is by no means a linear process.
I’m now seven-and-a-bit years into the building of our blended family, and I know first-hand how hard it is to create a single family unit from the disparate pieces everyone started out with.
Trying to keep everyone feeling loved, included and heard, at the same time as keeping yourself happy and your marriage connected and strong, is a constant balancing act. To not live in the shadow of a former family, but to be empowered to create something that blends it all together, is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It is also the most rewarding.
Over the last year, the pandemic has thrown curveballs at blended families like never before, requiring them to merge overnight into something resembling one household. And whilst I know for some women I’ve spoken to in therapy that has meant being left to parent on their own – the rules providing a green light to step back for exes who aren’t invested in their children – for others, including me, it’s presented a fresh opportunity for growth.
As a woman, lockdown life has given me the opportunity to find unity with mother of my step-children. She is a woman who is, and always will be, a part of our blended family, but ours is a relationship that hasn’t always been easy on both sides. We didn’t choose to be a part of each other’s lives. But accepting we are, now more than ever, is the very foundation on which it’s become easier to build a relationship.
When we went into lockdown in March 2020, we found ourselves communicating via a three-way whatsapp with the common goal of making our new shared ‘household’ work for everyone. The changes empowered us all, and for the first time in our evolutionary history, I felt listened to.
Since then, she’s even invited our now three-year-old to have a sleepover at her house – and while it felt strange at first, I also recognised how incredibly brave she’d been to extend that olive branch. There is now genuine affection between them both, and it’s so heartening to see her care for my child, the way I do for hers.
We re-defined our Christmas norm for 2020, devising a plan that worked for everyone, meaning I spent an hour on Christmas Eve drinking tea and eating cake in the back garden with my husband, our children and his ex-wife. And you know what? It felt ok.
Carving your own path
Make no mistake, navigating through the complexities of blended family life isn’t something that just magically happens. It’s a very conscious journey, with challenges aplenty. With shared calendars trying to accommodate everyone and everything. Differing approaches to parenting. Emotional blocks when it comes to letting people in. The need to try, always, to see things from different perspectives. And the knowledge, even more so during a pandemic, that everyone’s actions have consequences.
Today though, I’m hopeful that with a Vice President and a First Lady who too are on this journey, we can start to break down the stigma of the stepmother and instead celebrate the women who step up to the role, using their love and compassion to build something unifying.
There’s still one question I’d love the answer to though. Why is there no step-mothers day in the UK for us to celebrate those women? Asking for a friend…