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Stepmothers and daughters: blending a family

When Barbara Meakin* fell in love with a widower who had a daughter, she thought she was walking into a fairy tale. Instead, she found herself embarking on the emotional journey of her life

by Psychologies

Family

6 minute read

When I met a clever, kind handsome man with a beautiful 11-year-old daughter, it seemed like a dream come true. I was 49 years old and had always wanted children, but that had never happened for me. When he asked me to marry him on my birthday in Venice, it was the happiest day of my life. At our wedding, we included a prayer for children. I was determined to be a mother to J. I wanted to fill that gap in her life.

It had started well. J and I had our first meeting over a litter of puppies at a street party. She loved them. I loved them. She was earning points to get a puppy and I suggested to her father that, as she was obviously going to get the puppy anyway, why not let her have it now? It was the summer holiday and she’d have time to enjoy it… He wisely gave way. J was delighted and associated that happiness with me.

I held back initially – it was her pet. But, when the dog started refusing to come back on walks, my husband suggested that we find a way of managing her or look for a new owner. I felt as if giving up on the dog would somehow be giving up on my relationship with J. I was in a bit of a panic, never having had my own dog , but threw myself into it. Compared to people, dogs are, literally, a walk in the park. You feed them, love them and they hurl that love back at you to the power of 10. So far, so good.

Then I tried to train J. Big mistake. I suggested that she tidy her room, help with the washing-up and have her turn to get drinks for the family. My husband’s hackles rose. I probably did it in a tone like my own mother’s; she was a head teacher and I’d always done lots in the house when I was a child. What I failed to get was that J was already in a set parenting style. My husband, his friends and family were always telling me that I was the exact opposite of his first wife. She was a great manager, businesswoman and homemaker. I’m creative, scattered and impulsive. I got depressed.

What’s my job?

While I struggled, my husband became even more protective of J. He believed in giving her a relatively easy life to compensate, in part, for her losing her mum. He took over both roles – mother and father. But where did that leave me?

I looked for the gaps, to try to win J’s affection and find my niche in the family. She likes food but is picky. I can cook, so we went through her mother’s old cookery books in an attempt to find meals she might like. She was polite, but most of my attempts were flops. If she liked something one week, she’d be off it the next. I suggested going to have a makeover together and shopping trips – her response became increasingly lukewarm. It was clear she didn’t want me to try so hard.

On our first wedding anniversary, J gave us a card, then ran off. My husband found her hiding, ashamed she’d been disloyal to her mum. That first year, I also got a Mother’s Day card. It was utterly unexpected and I was elated. It was the only time. Another year, there was a Mother’s Day card with a thistle on it knocking around the house. Was it for me? If so, why wasn’t anything written in it? Was the thistle symbolic? Had she bought it or had he? I tied myself in knots. I googled ‘stepmum of child with deceased mother’ – nothing remotely helpful out there.

I was overtaken by rages. I resented each pile of washing, every bit of tidying. I fuelled my fury with my mother’s words, ‘What am I, the cleaning lady?’ There were other litanies: ‘He treats her like a princess – he butters her toast; he carries her bags. I do everything!’ I slammed around, feeling like Cinderella, ‘Mutter, mutter, feminism! Mutter, mutter, emotional labour!’

I was convinced it was only a matter of time before the whole thing split apart. I felt like the Greek god Tantalus, sitting in a river surrounded by unreachable fruit. That fruit was the golden father-daughter unit. J addressed almost everything she said to him, as if I wasn’t there. As she got older, they started watching gory action movies together. I couldn’t help thinking this was a convenient ruse to shut me out, as I hate that kind of film. I took everything personally. When my mother-in-law said, unprompted, ‘You are not the outsider, you know,’ I had my label. I was the outsider. The real story was between them – and his late wife.

It wasn’t until I realised I was acting out Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier that things began to improve. I was obsessed with that book as a child. And now I was playing the victim second wife, haunted by a ghost, ranting like Mrs Danvers, the grief-stricken housekeeper. I’ve always been a drama queen. I went to sleep one night realising I’d fallen prey to evil stepmother syndrome. I had to get out of it. When I opened my eyes in the morning, I remembered a self-help course I’d been on decades ago – ‘Victim, persecutor, rescuer’.

Sorrow and expectation

It took an hour to read A Game Free Life by Stephen Karpman. It’s old but gold, as they say. That led to another book, Bouncing Back, Rewiring Your Brain For Maximum Resilience (New World Library, £15.99), by Linda Graham. I read it, slowly, and did all the exercises twice. I began to deal with my rage and grief compassionately. They were clearly just my stuff. My father died when I was four and I had a fantasy of what I thought a family should be.

Before I met my husband, I’d avoided family situations and my grief about not having my own children. Now, I was in the thick of it. These were two primal sorrows that were nothing to do with my marriage or my role as a stepmother. I finally admitted I was jealous. I wanted a child like J to love and be loved by. I wanted to be ‘spoiled’ like her. I began to listen to my feelings with understanding. Once I got the knack of comprehending my responses, my volatility began to decrease. I would retreat into a space I privately dubbed my ‘womb room’.

I’m condensing into paragraphs what took several years – and is ongoing. I’d say I manage to keep level 80 per cent of the time. It’s up to me. I can be glass half-empty: ‘This isn’t the family of my dreams.’ Glass half-full: ‘This is so much more than I expected.’ Or even: ‘Ooh look, a glass with my name on it!’

Muddling along

Six years later, this is where I am: I have absolutely no idea what I am to J. I know I’m something. For my part, I feel like her adoptive mother. As for her relationship with her father, it’s their business. I’m beginning to enjoy the way he treats her like a princess – it gives them both pleasure. He knows he’s doing it and laughs about it. She knows perfectly well how to butter her own toast, but that’s not the point. It may not be feminism to expect your father to carry your heavy bags, both literally and metaphorically, but it’s his way of being a good parent. He has her back – totally.

Now, I also butter her toast, make her smoothies at the drop of a hat and leap at any opportunity to nurture. I’m sure it makes her feel loved, and maybe even helps with the loss of her mother. I didn’t receive that kind of attention when my father died – but now I have to give it to myself.

Of course, J needs time with her father. I’ve noticed that now I’ve dropped my controlling gaze, they don’t have to choose films I wouldn’t like to ensure they get time alone – they cuddle up and watch Glee with relish and I get on with something else that I enjoy.

Often, I have beautiful dreams in which J and I are really close. Perhaps they’re compensation dreams but actually, underneath the dramas, we get on pretty well. I’ve recently been helping her study. It’s a small thing that makes me hugely happy.  

Very occasionally, she’ll come to me for advice. Once, she was struggling with friendships at school and poured it all out. She took my advice and I feel that’s a silent bond between us. She’s not demonstrative, so I’ve learned to stroke her arm instead of lunging for the bear hug, and to appreciate the occasional, small, but genuine, smile.

It helps that my husband often says he feels for me because I do the practical work of a mum but don’t get the emotional benefits of the blood relationship between a daughter and her mother. That recognition is enough. Nuts to Mother’s Day! Why should I be controlled by the global hype? Eating together on a daily basis, creating the environment for banter and sharing stories about our days is more important.

I realise that when his mother used the word ‘outsider’, it was her way of being deeply empathetic towards me. I note and appreciate how, now that my own mum has died, she says she loves me all the time. Even his late wife’s mother tells me she sees me as a daughter.

Having a cat, a dog, a house, a husband and a stepdaughter is more than I had hoped for at 56. We’re a blended family, a real family and, when it works best, I know that I don’t ‘have’ any of them. We’re travelling together, like free-floating reeds in a river.

*Name has been changed

Image: Getty