Being a stepmum, in a mum’s shoes
Why raising someone else’s child has been one of my toughest challenges,
and how I’ve come to see it as some of my best work.
For most people the moment they became a parent is distinct and unmistakeable - it was when their child was born, or when they knew they had conceived, or maybe adoption day. My experience was more gradual.
If I was to pick a moment, perhaps it was just after my now husband and I checked into the Oberoi Hotel in Agra. We had taken ten days to see some of India’s most magnificent sights, and splashed out on a couple of nights in a suite with a view of the Taj Mahal. It was ridiculously beautiful and luxurious, and we were thrilled to be there together, and to have Hugh’s daughter along.
When you have children, they go on holiday with you. Hugh had Miss C, so there we three were, watching the sun setting over the world’s most famous monument to love. It was sublime.
And then a nappy needed changing.
Hugh was briefly indisposed, so I mucked in and had the job done by the time he was back, marking the start of my now almost decade-long career as a stepmum.
When I met Hugh we were both working at CNN in Hong Kong. I was delighting in being recently single, and he was a delightful single dad.
Just months before, he had been left holding the actual baby. The pressures on him were enormous - punishing morning shifts, overseas assignments at short notice - but, with support from a lovely helper from the Philippines, he was able to give his not yet one-year-old a consistent, loving home, at a time of great disturbance to her.
As our lives became enmeshed, there was a natural opening in her life for me to fill. At first we all did everything together - taking Hugh’s sailing boat out for a spin, walks after work to see the gibbons in the Botanical Gardens, trips up the Peak.
Then she and I started doing things on our own. It’s tough for a dad to access mum’s groups. Some of my friends had young kids, so I started taking Miss C to something she had had little experience of before - playdates with other kids. Then, if Hugh was away, I’d take her for weekend trips to the flat I kept on an outlying island. Soon, I was putting off after-work socialising, because I knew there was a little girl who needed a trip to the playground.
The delights of parenting flowed swiftly my way. Being a bum-shuffler, she was slow to walk. I took that on as a project, negotiating her fears and channeling her sense of achievement to coax her to her feet, then off down the passage way. Teaching her to walk was my first big achievement in parenting.
But there were difficulties too. Just as the terrible twos were coming to an end numerically, but not literally, we got pregnant, I was promoted to Business Producer and the financial crisis broke. Adding to that, if Hugh was away, I was on a double shift, returning home exhausted to a little girl who just wanted someone to do a puzzle with her.
Work was crazy: I was on a 4am start, chucking my guts up in the staff loos, before navigating my way through a sea of financial data about obscure American banks that were sinking and dragging the global economy down with them. Then back home to discover how draining a 24-piece puzzle can be in your first trimester, after an eight-hour shift.
I remember on one occasion being prevented from napping by someone constantly peeling my closed eyelids back. On another, my need for a few minutes shut-eye resulted in new murals all over our rented apartment.
But this was nothing compared with what came my way when we moved to Canberra, and I became Miss C’s primary care-giver, stepping up from stepmum at the same time as becoming a new mum.
Sleep deprived, in a strange city, and with a limited support network, I quickly discovered that many of the tougher parts of parenting - discipline, managing a child’s emotions, providing comfort - are that much harder if you don’t have the solid foundation of the primary parental bond that grows in those formative months.
Both she and I had a rough time. There were tantrums and raised voices. Unseemly displays in public made me shy away from going out, while the constant pressure to keep her entertained and stimulated had me at my wits end.
I reached for parenting books, leant on new friends I hardly knew, implemented sticker charts, looked to reward good behaviour, denied playdates, cried, despaired and drank wine.
Hugh was steadily committed to being her rock, come whatever winds may blow, but the truth is he was away a lot - election campaigns, trips with the Prime Minister, COAGs, APECs and wars. Luckily, her backstop had a backstop.
The hours were long and many were not my finest, but I’m proud to say I was there - and that made all the difference. If she ran a race, I was on the sidelines waving madly. I crossed town during lunch breaks to see her get merit certificates. I made costumes at short notice, cakes to fit briefs, and time to indulge her crafting habits.
I can now confidently say no other person on this planet has spent as much time with Miss C as I have. Our shared experience is extensive: We’ve travelled to six countries together. She attended my wedding, my honeymoon and my graduation. We’ve been vaccinated together, and endured gastro together. We’ve shared five houses, moved cities twice and built a combined social network. Her friends’ mothers are my friends. And her mother’s mother is my friend.
As with parenting of any kind, we’ve had successes and failures. On a whim I signed her up for a karate lesson. She’s now on blue belt and won’t miss a class. But ballet didn’t work (wrong teacher), violin failed (not enough support) and gymnastics seems to be losing its appeal.
On balance, however, our victories outnumber our defeats. Maths homework sometimes ends in tears, but I now have her believing she’s good at it. Her room often looks like a bomb site, but we have inside jokes, and understand each other’s humour, and both help grease the wheels that keep our family moving forward.
I now pick and choose the events I turn up to, knowing she doesn’t always need to see my face in the crowd. She gets that I’m often under a lot of pressure (three kids, two jobs), and now needs less and gives more. She steps in when help is needed at home. She makes sure everyone knows when sports carnivals are happening, library books are due, or meetings are on at school. She’ll crumb a mean schnitzel, organise endless games with the little ones, and even do kindy readers, if asked.
I’ve had some fairly high pressure jobs, but nothing compares to the emotional, intellectual, and physical demands of raising kids. Square that to get a measure of what it’s like to raise someone else’s child.
Perhaps at times I took on too much: being pregnant with two young kids, while reporting from Parliament House and knocking off a masters degree was maybe not the wisest move. And I certainly should have asked for more help when conjunctivitis hit just as an essay was due, and Hugh was overseas.
The greater challenge should deliver richer reward. But when it comes to parenting, we temper our successes with a sense of failing found in other areas of our lives.
I know I do it. I lament how my career has floundered since making a commitment to raising a family. And downplay how that sacrifice has resulted in three wonderful young people getting a great start in the world.
We all know the work of mothers mostly goes unseen and unsung. We measure achievement by certificates on the wall, professional milestones met, profile achieved or assets accumulated. And overlook the care and comfort parents provide, as well as the skill it takes to balance all the competing demands put on families these days.
And so I put it out there, that parenting is some of the best work I’ve ever done. I’m incredibly proud of the effort, time, thought, love, and attention I put into raising all three of my children. My techniques are my intellectual property. I wear the health and stability of my kids as a badge of honour. Our family is strong, and my kids really are awesome - and that is among my greatest achievements.