I have been a stepmother for 30 years and a mother for 27 and this has inevitably found its way into my poems. People sometimes ask me what it’s been like to be a stepmother and how it differs from being a mother. The comparison I make is that it’s like wearing different shoes; as a mother I feel like I’m wearing my old walking boots; they’re comfortable, reliable, I feel in control and if there are mountains ahead, we’ll climb them together. As a stepmother I sometimes think it’s like putting on my party shoes, they feel a bit unfamiliar and edgy but also special and when the party goes well it’s exhilarating but they can also pinch and blister and sometimes you just want to take them off. Which stepmother hasn’t gone from being upbeat and positive to sobbing behind the bathroom door all within the space of a few hours?
For a long time, the experiences of being a stepmother were not discussed, we were consigned to the background, described as not being the ‘real’ mother and worse had to fight against the evil stepmother stereotype in fairy stories. The truth is that there are hundreds of thousands of stepmothers all over the country quietly making packed lunches, checking that homework has been done and remembering the P.E. kit; just trying to make it work on a day-to-day basis. Things have changed enormously since my early days of being a stepmother in the 1990’s and I was really impressed with a series of Radio 4 programmes recently by Katie Harrison called ‘You’re Not My Mum : The Stepmum’s Side https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0b5l9wc/episodes/downloads.
They were a refreshingly honest examination of being a stepmother today and brought back a lot of the situations and emotions I remembered.
Like a lot of writers, I write to try and make sense of things and the section at the end of my first poetry collection Auscultation contains a sequence of poems about my experiences as a stepmother. The first poem in the section Fairy tales and Step Monsters is an exploration of being a stepmother. The hesitation I felt about not doing it ‘right’, when now I realise I should have worried less and enjoyed it more.
I wish I’d held your hand more often.
it would have been easy.
I wish I’d worried less
and made a nest of my fingers
for it to curl inside,
it used to slip into mine anyway.
Then the sense of trying so hard to make everything work for everybody
me holding things together
while the glue dried.
and finally that feeling of being so closely connected to someone but there still being an almost invisible barrier because they’re not quite your own.
However hard I tried I could only see
you through a window, hear your voice
on the other side of a door,
touch your arm through your sleeve.
The full poem can be found on my poems page. The section goes on to describe the traumatic experience of going through a court case with my husband so he could get regular contact with his son. A situation where there were no winners and we were all left scarred. As I was writing, fairy tale themes and motifs wove their way into the poems, perhaps it was a way of counterbalancing the trauma of the emotions, perhaps it was the sense of surrealism I experienced at times.
It wasn’t thirteen fairies that sealed your fate
but a man in black robes, a king in his own little
castle and because those closest to you turned
on a spit of loss and hurt and jealousy.
The final poem in the section was written as a reconciliation. In the heightened emotions of a stepfamily situation the relationship between the birth mother and the stepmother can become fraught, but in the end;
The truth is, neither of us was evil,
we both laid a trail of breadcrumbs
for you back to our doors.
I would also like to make it clear that I write from my own perspective and how I experienced those heart wrenching few years; the joy of falling in love with a man who happened to have a little boy and then falling in love with that little boy too, who taught me so much and revealed a side I didn’t know I had. My stepson has his own poems to write and his mother and father theirs. We can only write most honestly about what we know and that is what I have done.