Nobody grows up wanting a stepmum. And nobody grows up wanting to be a stepmum.
However, there are over 2million stepmums in the UK (more if you include “unmarried stepmums”) and this number is rapidly rising.
Eight years ago, aged 33, I started dating a man with two young daughters. I was full of excitement, hope and naivety, which may have drowned out any warning sounds that may have been there.
I’ve always loved kids and was already a Mum to a 3-year-old boy, and whilst I knew it wouldn’t always be easy and that there would be bumps along the way, I didn’t realise quite how difficult and lonely my stepmothering journey would be, especially after finding biological motherhood a relative breeze.
There’s a world of support out there for “real” mums, but hardly anything for stepmums, a role which is often much more challenging and fraught with more complex emotions and relationships both inside the household and outside… yep, I’m talking about the ex. (Sidenote: before you shack up with a guy with kids, check out the ex. She’ll have more of an influence on your life than you’d ever dare to imagine).
When you start seeing a man with children, your happy relationship is founded on someone else’s loss. Whether it’s through death or divorce, the kids have lost their parents being together and the hurt or anger they feel is often directed at... (drumroll not needed) Stepmum.
We understand children’s pain and most people are full of understanding that forming a new stepfamily can be tough on the kids. But talk to any stepmum for more than five minutes and I guarantee she’ll have been through some level of trauma too. Despite all our good intentions we can often end up as the family’s emotional punchbag with research consistently showing that stepmothers suffer from significantly higher levels of anxiety and depression than any other family member (including biological mothers).
My mental health took an absolute battering in the early years of being with my partner. Treading on eggshells, feeling tense, having to watch what I did or said in my own home and constantly feeling I was under surveillance were regular features of every other weekend when his kids were with us. Add in the constant over thinking and the stress of the huge dramas that seemed to ensue after the littlest of disagreements and it’s not surprising it took its’ toll.
I’d wake up every Wednesday morning, my mind racing, my chested tightened, worrying about what might or might not happen at the weekend when the girls were coming. They were nice kids, but they were going through a lot. I was going through a lot too and it was difficult for us all. They were encouraged to speak about their pain and their hurt. I was expected to keep schtum about mine. I was the adult and I’d chosen to be in this relationship, so I had to suck it up.
“Real” mums can share their worries, concerns and frustrations freely and openly but stepmums…well, we have to keep our mouths shut for fear of judgement and recrimination because apparently, we ‘knew what we were getting into’ when we met a man with kids.
Except of course we didn’t. No parent really knows what they’re getting into until they’re in it.
Nobody ever says to a biological mum having a tough time, “Well you knew what you were getting into when you got pregnant”, or to an adoptive mother who may be struggling, “Well you knew what you were taking on when you adopted”.
Being a stepmum is riddled with double standards. We are supposed to look after the kids as our own, but not tread on their Mum’s toes. We are supposed to spoil them in the same way we would our own kids, but never tell them off as we would our own kids. We are supposed to plan wonderful experiences for them, but to understand if they decide at the last minute they don't want to come along.
And we definitely can’t have a judgement-free rant with the playground mums on a Monday morning about what little ****s our stepkids have been over the weekend. (You gasped when you read that, didn't you?!)
Other mothers are met with empathy and warmth, yet stepmums are greeted with steely glares and suspicion when we share our innermost thoughts. We probably shouldn’t be surprised by this given that in 2022 are we still subjected to depressingly predictable stereotypes of The Wicked Stepmum (I'm looking at you, Disney’s Cinderella and Hansel & Gretel: After Ever After). And the few stepmums in popular culture who aren’t wicked are almost elevated to martyrdom, giving up their whole lives to raise and nurture the children (often because the mother has died) without any thought for themselves or their own needs.
Surely now, especially when most stepfamilies are formed out of separation rather than death, it’s time to move away from these harmful narratives. Estimates suggest 1 in 3 babies born today will eventually grow up in a stepfamily, so do we really want to pre programme our children to think that stepmums are either wicked or saintly?
Can’t we just be like “real” Mums? Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we do things we are proud of, and other times we do things we are ashamed of. Some days with our stepkids are brilliant, and other times we count down the hours until they go to bed.
Underneath all the labels, it is all really just Mumming; beautifully complicated, perfectly messy and gorgeously difficult... and however many books we read, like every other mother, we are still just making it up as we go along.
Katie’s BBC Podcast “You’re not my Mum; The Stepmum’s side” is out now and available on BBC Sounds or wherever you get your podcasts.