It’s Time To Banish The Cliche Of The Wicked Stepmother

Stepfamilies are the fastest growing type of household in the UK, yet realistic portrayals of them are rare – something Kate and Rio Ferdinand want to change, says Shane Watson

Kate and Rio Ferdinand

by Shane Watson |
Updated on

‘There ain’t no manual that tells you how to become a stepmum,’ says Rio Ferdinand, doomily, at the start of Rio And Kate: Becoming A Step Family, which aired on Monday. Following on from Being Mum And Dad – the moving documentary about bringing up his children after the death of his first wife Rebecca – this is about Rio and Kate trying to rebuild his family.

He’s wrong, of course – there are tons
 of manuals about how to be a stepmum, including The Happy Stepmum by Professor Lisa Doodson, who is an expert adviser
 on Rio And Kate.

An estimated one in 
10 of us is part of a stepfamily, and step- parenting is never out of the news, whether it’s Gwyneth Paltrow declaring she prefers the name Bonus Mum, or Fearne Cotton tweeting on the tedious stereotype of the wicked stepmother. Stepmothering is the norm, and yet Rio is, once again, on to something big and potentially overwhelming. Because there is no manual that can prepare you for the challenges of step-parenting. Like Rio and Kate, millions of us go into it, eyes wide open, thinking, ‘We’re in love, they need love, how hard can it be?’ Cut to Kate sobbing on camera, ‘I just want the children to be happy,’ about Rio’s three children, Lorenz, Tate and Tia.

There comes a point in the life of every stepmother when you will find yourself crying under a tree in the park (because you don’t want to go home) or sobbing behind the locked bathroom door. Any number of things might have driven you to this point. For fashion designer Anya Hindmarch, the trigger was her young stepchildren refusing to eat her macaroni cheese, because she didn’t know she had to cook the macaroni. For my friend Jane it was the uncomprehending look on her stepchildren’s faces when they realised they’d been expected to get her a Christmas present.

These fall into the category of early phase traumas. Later on, the trials are different. You expect more, or less. You toughen up, or get more confident, or both. I’ve been at it for 14 years now – a full-time stepmother of three who are now in their twenties – and I can report that it does come good, and keeps getting better, but it will take longer than you think. Professor Doodson says that a critical stage is two years in – the official end of the honeymoon period – when the new stepmum looks up and sees that her life is not what she imagined. ‘This is when clients say, “I thought it was going to get better and it hasn’t,”’ she says. We’ve all been there.

According to Doodson, the happiness of a stepmother depends on her starting point. Stepmothers who have children
 of their own may feel overwhelmed by their blended family and balancing their interests, but those who don’t have their own children ‘have higher anxieties and struggle with the role because they are not mums themselves’.

That was me. You are expected to know the ropes of parenting overnight and, while most of it is common sense and remembered bits (who knew
 I could do tie dye?), it is also hard. ‘You don’t know how to do this because 
you don’t have children,’ I remember the youngest saying to me on the first of many de-nitting sessions. ‘It’s not rocket science,’ 
I said, but I was crushed. There is a kind of lesser status to being a childless stepmother and he knew it. But you can learn on the job. Pretty soon he came to me with burns and rashes and fully expected me to have the mother touch. It’s also OK if their father takes on the parts that make you nervous; OK for you to dodge certain ‘good mummy’ tasks. I never made a birthday cake, but I bought some crackers.

Then there’s the degree of lifestyle change involved, and the particular shock of switching from being social and single to being a full-time parent, as Kate did. I can’t compete with her The Only Way Is Essex credentials, and I was in my forties, not my twenties (better), but I definitely went from an easy, selfish life to cooking every night for five, sorting out school uniforms, living in a house close to their schools, miles from where I’d hung out for two decades and where all my friends lived. Big change. Huge. (This you can alleviate by making time. Going away together for the odd weekend. Taking a day out on your own.)

The last big happiness factor is the children’s ages. Research has shown
 that anywhere below the age of 10 is significantly easier to step parent (my three step children ranged in age from 11 to 18... oops). After 10 they are hardwired to challenge boundaries, so you go straight to sulks and door-slamming and ‘you can’t tell me what to do’, without experiencing the bedtime stories and holding tiny mitten hands in the park. Little children are automatically loving and easy to love. Teenagers don’t want to be near you, even if they do really. Nobody’s fault.

All of these factors we stepmothers can’t change; you can only be prepared. So what about the things you can? Here are a few: Take it slow. Trying to be the fun centre of their world will only put them off and whatever you do, it will take at least four years for the cement to dry – and for us it was longer.

You and their father must be on the same page. So when you say ‘no phones at the table’, he doesn’t say, ‘Oh just let them.’ That may be the most important requirement of all. You need to feel supported and in control of how your home is run.

Find a shared interest with each child
 so you have something that connects you. Don’t bribe them; spend time with them on that thing, even if it’s watching Peep Show.

Make their father happy and they will appreciate you for that.

Finally, don’t expect love from them and don’t expect to love them right away. But you will get it, in the end, and you’ll love them right back. And there’ll be a closeness and a special pride in having made it happen together.

READ MORE: Things You'll Know If You're A Child Of Divorced Parents

READ MORE: Princess Beatrice Is Becoming A Step-Parent - We Spoke To Step-Mums To Ask What Advice They'd Give Her

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