If one in five Australian families are blended, then there must have been plenty of people like Kelly Chandler who fell in love and then ended up with an instant family. It had taken her long enough to get on with her own stepmum and now Kelly suddenly found herself sharing the responsibility of two mini-humans. Her party days gave way to early starts, jokes about farts, games of hide-and-seek, and delicate negotiations with her partner’s ex and a cast of many.
In the lead up to Mother’s Day, we’re thinking not only about how these instant ‘bonus’ mums fit into the family dynamic but how they coped in the first place. Here are some tips from the author of the crack-up memoir The Other Mother, Kelly Chandler, on how to transform yourself into a wicked stepmum.
Top tips for becoming a wicked stepmum
I consider myself the last person to be giving advice (and I was never one for taking advice) but here are ten things I wish I knew when…
- Nothing prepares you for a house full of kids
Not even living in share houses for fifteen years. It may sound like nine children are practising dirt-bike stunts in your living room, but it’s probably just the regular amount bouncing a basketball. Inside. Again. It helps to walk away sometimes, even if you just disappear into another room for five minutes.
- Children are germ factories
Young immune systems make kids the perfect vectors for fluorescent snot and gastro. Have a bit of sick leave in reserve.
- Play nice with your partner’s ex
Especially, but not exclusively, around the kids. If I had my time again I probably wouldn’t intercept Pete’s ex out the front of our house and dump all my frustrations on her. Plus I’m not sure the kids were out of earshot, and that’s not good for anyone.
- Don’t take it personally
It takes time for the filters of polite society to squeeze the honesty out of children. Don’t take it personally if your stepchild tells you ‘don’t say words’. Children have to learn empathy, and you have to earn their trust.
- Kids are people too
What a surprise! Get to know the kids as you would that new friend you’ve been crushing on. At first I tried bribery, but it felt like a cheap trick to use a wooden train to buy the love of a toddler, so I launched into the nightly wrestle instead.
- Find out what they like
Do that stuff with them. You may end up knowing a useful amount about the parks and skate bowls in your region, or memorising all the Zac Power books.
- Have a life
However much you’re committed to your new family, don’t lose yourself in it. Meet up with friends, go to that party, read in the park, do yoga or hard drugs, whatever makes you happy. Remember that you are a whole person with interests other than making paper aeroplanes.
- Give each other space
Kids might need time alone with their bio-parent, especially after a long stretch away. And they might need time to remember the rhythms of your place. It may look like they take it in their stride, but it helps to remember that kids are expected to adjust to a new world order every time they switch houses. This can’t always be easy for them.
- Be kind to your partner
Love each other. Stick together. Find time for each other within the chaos, even if it’s just silly dancing in the kitchen while you chop veggies for another dinner before 6pm (we’re still working on this one).
- Mother’s Day is a minefield
The kids might feel they need to show loyalty to their bio-mum on Mother’s Day, even if they like being around you. Maybe they only get time to make one heart-shaped macaroni photo frame in art class, or it doesn’t cross their mind to include you in the picture. These things can’t be forced: it took me 20 years to acknowledge my own stepmum. Maybe while the kids come around, we can show solidarity with our fellow ‘steps’, or get something going for the Monday after Mother’s Day.
- The term ‘stepmother’ is loaded
Look at how we first learn about stepmothers: Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel all had jealous, mean-spirited and sometimes murderous stepmothers who didn’t have their stepchildren’s best interests at heart. I was so relieved when my stepsons’ stepdad introduced the term ‘Spare Mum’. I had a name and a place. A fun place, released from the weight of history.
- That first unsolicited ‘I love you’ feels lovely
Whether it takes months or decades to spring from the lips of your charge, ‘I love you’ is a nice thing to hear, even if the next sentence is ‘Stop that dirty smell’.
- You are not alone
An old friend and fellow stepmum recently wrote to me after she finished reading my book, and said: “This book should be subsidised by the government and given to every new step-mum at the commencement of her role.”
- This is the song that never ends
One day they’re learning your messed-up method for tying shoelaces, then the next they have feet like damp nuclear warheads. Kids change fast – don’t think that your bond is unshakeable because you and your kid invented a game called ‘crystal find’ five years ago.
Kelly Chandler is the author of The Other Mother.