I learned this lesson and thought I was done with pedestal mythology but this week I’ve become aware of another pedestal I’ve been placed upon and no matter how many jokes I’ve cracked about being an evil stepmother, a series of myths have been applied to me and my failure to even see the pedestal, let alone sit prettily upon it has become apparent.
It wasn’t that I entered my relationship unthinkingly but I made some assumptions. I thought that the only additional concerns to dating a man with kids were regarding the kids and their mother. As long as I got on well with the children and raised them according to the values dictated by my partner and their mother, I thought everything would be fine. And it actually seemed quite straightforward. The boyfriend and his ex-wife’s views on their kids are largely my own ideas when it comes to kids. The ex-wife is concerned with things like manners and education which mean the two small boys I share my home with on alternate weekends are generally polite, interested and interesting children. I’ve met her a couple of times and she shares many characteristics with her sons; she is polite and seems very nice.
Of course this doesn’t mean I’m always positive about the idea of her. Every plan, every idea for the future that the boyfriend and I have necessarily considers her and how she’d feel: If we buy a property to renovate and are living on site what would she think of the boys being in a caravan when they stayed with us? If we want to take them on a foreign holiday, what will she think? If we had a baby how would she feel? I don’t consider myself answerable to her but she is hugely important to the boys and therefore to us. It is a curtailment of freedom I didn’t consider when starting out on this path.
Where the mythology lies is that when it comes to being a step-parent, people are one of two types; the kind of people that can do it and the kind that can’t. Those that can are emotionally intelligent, mature and generous. Those that can’t are too selfish; understandably so as to become a step-parent is to take on a huge challenge. Such people have expressed admiration for me and wonder how I do it.
Of course the reality of being a step-parent is that you don’t look at the bigger picture all that often. In my day to day life I rarely think about it. Doing the laundry includes pairing some very tiny pairs of socks and endlessly picking stickers out of the washing machine (the boys are obsessed and the things get everywhere), running a bath requires fishing a collection of toys out first and I get up far earlier than I used to but you stop noticing these things very quickly. The thing about children is that they need routine and the impact of this is that the pace of your life quickly changes to fit that. So it’s not emotional intelligence, maturity or generosity that sees me getting on with things, it’s that meal times, bath times, story times, school and swimming lessons all have their dictated slots and I’m far too busy washing swimming kit, cleaning the bath and making the Yorkshire pudding that the two year old is fond of to think about the meaning behind what I’m doing.
I think I do a good job. The boys are fond of me and baked and sang for my Birthday (the two year old blew out my candle before I had chance to and after relighting it for me to blow out, it was relit again for the five year old). On Friday night I sat and played a board game and I always leave what I’m doing when one of them wants to show me something. When the two year old hurt his finger at the weekend I had him giggling madly at my making his stuffed hedgehog kiss it better. All this creates an impression that I’m serenely perched upon my pedestal.
Am I not then? Well after a long day at work, that board game is played with a gin and tonic in my hand. The fondness the five year old has for me is partly due to my being funny as I threaten to kick him across the room, through the French window, down the garden and into the stream... yes it’s said with a wink and I wouldn’t actually do it but that’s not to say the joke doesn’t originate in fantasy. And all that consideration for the ex-wife, well we have a nickname for her that makes me feel better about everything I sacrifice in order for everyone to be as happy as is possible.
This week, my fall from the stepmother pedestal became apparent to a couple of people and I received a little flak (nothing major, merely expressions of disapproval) for some of these coping mechanisms. As a result, the pedestal that I had been placed upon suddenly became immediate and obvious to me.
Still, realising the pedestal mythology does not necessitate my participation. Sorry but I’m just not interested. I do not and will not subscribe to there being a standard for my behaviour. I feed these kids, I wash their clothes, I clean up after them but more importantly I listen to them, I play with them and I think about ways to make their lives happy and healthy. How I do that is nobody’s business really and so I’m opting out. If I don’t meet your standards, if I seem selfish or flippant, then I’m afraid that is your problem and not mine.
One positive has come from all this however. I feel far greater empathy for the boyfriend’s ex-wife. If this is the degree of expectation placed upon stepmother’s, I dread to think what mother’s have to deal with!