To my 3 stepchildren.
I’m writing this open letter because I feel strongly that I want to record my feelings at this time. Sometimes being a step family is bloody hard. My heart breaks often when I listen to the things you have to say about being part of a separated family.
Ok, at this time you are not officially my ‘step children’ and I am not officially your ‘step mum’, however we won’t clutch at straws – there is no other word that covers my part time role of tending to your emotional needs, collecting you from school, washing your pants, making your beds, tidying your stuff (so much stuff!), preparing your food, negotiating misunderstandings and upset with your step-siblings (gah!) and taking care of you to the best of my ability when you are with us.!
Step mother conjures up all sorts of images and thoughts and I have to be honest, I didn’t give much time to what it actually really meant when I fell in love with your Dad in 2015. I was a mum already, how hard could it be??
The answer: bloody hard…………
There are so many times I have to stop myself from responding to you too openly and honestly. There are so many things I want to tell you and explain to you, but I refrain from doing so because I have heard you say you feel stuck in the middle and I do not ever want to be responsible for sticking you there. I’m so sorry if I have ever inadvertently put you there. So much of being a step family is out of my control and I can only try to influence one of your parents positively. I guess I can fail at that sometimes too, although I try hard not to.
If the relationship between separated parents is positive and respectful then this creates a healthy co-parenting dynamic. Sadly, In many cases and for many children this is not the way it is. Then instead it can become an odd game of one-up-man-ship and when separated parents communicate it can be brutal. Welcome to the world of games with a perceived winner and loser. An ongoing fight for control, where sadly one parent often holds all of the cards. Children can be a very powerful weapon. Threatening withdrawal of contact a very powerful tool. Saying ‘I choose not to communicate and have my reasons’ when the child or children live with you generates much bigger difficulties for the parent without the children and only serves to sce the child in a position of responsibility for their relationship with the separated parent. We are gradually learning to not join in with the game, to recognise we have no power but clearly the other parent needs to sense they do have the power, to go along with whatever we are told – because it is the option that causes the least stress, to you and us, however sadly holds the biggest losses for us. We want to focus on our family and our future and when we do that we don’t have time to take part in the games.
And we also know when we take part in the game the only real losers are you……..
Every separated parent program offers advice on how to prevent your children from feeling stuck in the middle during and beyond separation. Sadly, for so many adults it is clearly impossible to follow the guidance and advice, and believe me – I know why it is so hard. I too feel the urges to treat you like miniature adults, to pretend you have the same fully developed comprehension and brain as a grown adult. I too have the desire to talk to you as though you are my adult friend, desperate to make you see the unfairness when you hear mine and your fathers side of the story. It would feel temporarily great to have you on ‘our side’. I have to work really hard to hold back and remember there should not be sides for you to take. It is absolutely not OK or fair to you. You are not old enough to process the adult world, and this stuff is not your stuff to process.
The knock on pressure to a part time step family to have a good and positive time is huge. The desire to build a familiar and normal routine is strong, but the pressure to want to stuff weekends and our limited time together full of fun and excitement is even stronger. The pressure for the weekend and time together to only ever be positive is very real, but unrealistic because we are all human beings with emotions.
Believe me, the hardest bloody work happens when you feel you are always the parent having to restrain yourself, particularly when faced with conversations that start with sentences like “my mum hates you” – whilst this is not particularly headline shocking news that you hold an awareness of that, it is deeply upsetting because you should not have to know those things or suffer the burden of the knowledge of that stuff. You should not have to feel guilty for having a positive relationship with me. It is after all your grown ups responsibility to protect you from ‘their shit’. I work hard to protect you from mine. Your Dad from his. In those moments it is hard not to respond with more negativity, but I wont. I will always hold the space, and tell you how sad that is instead of unleashing my anger or further hurtful information for you to carry around with you. I will always prioritise understanding how hard and conflicting it already is for you.
I am proud of the positive relationship our blended family have worked towards. My children (your unofficial step siblings) and I accommodate you into our lives every other weekend and at other adhoc times and we have done so for over 3 years now. It’s taken time for us to adjust and to coordinate ourselves as a blended family. We have our ups and downs but I think we are doing really Ok. I know adjusting to the differences in our families takes a lot of work for us all.
♥Being a parent is hard work, being a step-mum is even harder work. Being a step-mum to children whose separated parents do not get on is even harder still.
I know I get it wrong sometimes and sometimes being a step-mum reduces me to tears of frustration. To be a good and fair parent takes so much self reflection and double the amount of work. The love I have for my own children is unconditional. The love I have for you has had to grow from my love for your father and be built in short, sharp doses of time together. The way you feel about me will have to grow from seeing your father happy and positive in his relationship with me. Not only do I have to check in with my parenting morals, I also have to check in with myself frequently that my expectations are fair, realistic, and whether I would hold the same expectations of my own biological children. This stuff takes real courage and honesty and an ability to reflect…..it’s painful. It can’t be brushed under the carpet. I care deeply for you all, however the external situations that being a Step family brings can be triggering in so many ways. Sometimes I feel I have little control over massive parts of my life. I wasn’t prepared for that. I sometimes feel I can’t do this step parenting thing. I can’t walk away from my own children, even if I want to. It feels different to know you can……….tempting sometimes, but I promise I won’t.
I hope one day you will understand how hard I worked to not put you in the middle, to protect you, to listen to your needs, treat you respectfully and fairly and to ensure you always feel welcome and cared for when you are with us. I hope you don’t ever feel that I prevented your Dad from spending time with you. I will always encourage him to spend 1-1 time with you all. I do not want you to ever feel you have to take sides. If there were sides, I am on yours. I know I am not your mum and am not trying to be. You will only ever have one Mum. You can love her and still have a positive relationship with your Dad and me. Hopefully, based on your own experiences with us. As you become adults and grown up I know this will all make sense to you.
I promise your Dad and I will continue to work hard at our relationship, and remaining connected so this blended family of ours continues to be a positive thing for us all. We are all trying to find our place and we will.
Over time, and keeping you plugged in to your emotions, validating your feelings in relation to being part of a separated family we have started to see the fruits of our labour. We see wonderful insight from you, articulate, wise as you notice what is happening from your own perspectives without our influence. Your own perceptions developing without us needing to influence your thoughts – but just from recognising how you feel in relation to the experiences and positions you are placed in.
And I guess in the end the word you use to describe me and our relationship is not important and it’s the actions and the way I behave that will contribute to how you think of me and the relationship we have in the future. Whenever it is hard, that is what I hold on to. I hope you will mostly think of me fondly from our experiences together.
and I hope you won’t ever describe me as your evil, wicked step-mother…………
I’m quite simply happy to be your ‘Katie’.