(Step) family values

The other day, we were watching a DVD where one of the characters was a wicked stepmother, when The Boy piped up, ‘What’s a stepmother?’ It was one of those questions I’d been dreading, although I always knew it would come up one day. You see, The Boy is part of a step-family – not that he knows it yet.

I was only The Boy’s age when my parents got divorced. Looking back now, I realise what a struggle it must have been for my mum, raising two children on her own, and with very little money to do it on. But my younger brother and I were perfectly happy. We had a doting mum and adoring grandparents living nearby, and while our Christmas presents might have been second-hand (notably the Barbie camper van that was my pride and joy), we definitely weren’t lacking when it came to love and security.

Fast forward a couple of years, and my mum remarried. My new stepfather was a single dad to Steph, a girl who I went to school with, an academic year above me but only six months older. When Steph and I bumped into each other at the swimming pool, we were totally unaware of the sparks that must have been flying between my mum and her dad. But something must have clicked between them that day, because in January 1987, the two of them tied the knot. It was a low-key affair at the local registry office, and Steph and I were dispatched back to school afterwards, where we stood up in assembly, holding hands, and announced to the school, ‘We’re sisters now.’

I was only seven when my mum remarried, and while my real father was always very good at fulfilling his legal and moral duties towards my brother and I, my stepfather was the man who I knew as Dad. It never seemed odd to call him that. We had – and still have – what I consider to be a very natural father-daughter relationship, and when I got married, it was he who walked me down the aisle and made the Father of the Bride’s speech. I never think of him as my stepfather, and he’s certainly never treated me any differently from his own daughter.

All this is entirely lost on The Boy. As far as he’s concerned, my mum is his Grandma, and my step-dad is his Grampy. We still see my birth father (who I have always called by his first name, even as a child), albeit infrequently, as he lives a five-hour drive away, but The Boy calls him – of his own volition – Uncle Geoff, and has no idea that he’s actually his grandfather.

So, when The Boy asked me to explain what a stepmother was, my first instinct was to dodge the question. He’s a tireless questioner, my boy, and I knew that once we got started, he’d keep on and on until he’d extracted the precise ins and outs of our family history from me.

I was hoping that he’d forget all about my promise to explain later, but of course he didn’t. So I launched into a (hopefully) simple explanation. ‘Sometimes, if a man and a lady stop loving each other, they decide not to be married any more,’ I offered. ‘Then if the man marries another lady, she becomes his children’s stepmother. She’s like their mummy and helps to look after them, but they still have a real mummy as well.’

I was beginning to confuse myself, so I stopped, and held my breath in anticipation of the next question. Surely he was going to ask if anyone he knew had a stepmother; would this be the right time to explain that actually, Grandma wasn’t Aunty Steph’s real mum? Was he, at five, old enough to hear the truth? Would he fly into a panic that hubby and I were on the verge of divorce every time we had cross words?

Sure enough, the next question followed swiftly. ‘Are stepmothers always nasty?’ he asked. (Perhaps I should refer that question to Aunty Steph!). I reassured him that no, in real life, stepmothers are usually very kind, but in stories they are sometimes nasty. And then, miracle of miracles, he let it drop. Thank goodness.

I’ve no doubt that I won’t be able to evade this subject for ever. Recently, I mentioned to a friend that we were going to stay with my (real) dad during the summer. The Boy leapt on it. ‘Who’s your dad?’ he asked accusingly. I brushed it off (no, no, I made a mistake, I meant Uncle Geoff) and he didn’t mention it again, but one of these days he’s going to have to hear the truth.

But not just yet. Mum and (step) Dad will be celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary next January; theirs is one of the most stable and loving marriages I’ve ever seen. And when The Boy is rolling on the floor laughing at one of Grampy’s silly jokes, no one would ever guess that there’s no blood link between them. I consider myself lucky to have spent the majority of my childhood in a happy and secure two-parent family, and for now, I’m quite content to let The Boy think that his grampy is my real dad. Genetically, my children may have no relationship with him, but he’s the one who raised me as a child and supports me as an adult; I think he’s earned the privilege of being their grandfather.

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12 thoughts on “(Step) family values

  1. I think you’ll tell him when you feel the time is right and not when you feel society, friends or family are presurrising you into doing it. My husband is my daughter’s step-dad and she calls him dad. She has done for many years now. She calls her real dad by his name but that’s because his step-children call him by his name and Amy’s just copies. She doesn’t see her real dad often and hasn’t seen him since October 2009. Her real family are here. She does know about her step-dad and real dad but she sees my husband as her real dad.

    CJ xx

    • Ah, there’s no pressure from anyone to tell him anything; most people don’t even really know that my step-dad isn’t my biological father. It sounds as if your DD has a wonderful relationship with your husband.

  2. I think that you handled it well for your family. For us it’s different as Tops and BB have known about divorced grandparents who have remarried since before they were born (I used to talk to them about family dynamics when I was pregnant with them) and so they don’t think anything of it.

    One thing though you should tell your son before someone else does or he might think you are hiding something from him.

    • You have a point. It’s not that I’m trying to hide anything, as such, just preserving his innocence for a bit longer. And, of course, trying to avoid the brain-ache that I will no doubt end up with when I *do* try to explain it to him!

  3. Mine have known about divorce and step grandfathers very early on as they have 6 sets of GP’s and my father died many years ago. So they know all about divorce and how it works. Of course this means that every time DH and I argue, DD2 asks us if we are getting a divorce?

  4. Pingback: My first re-blog:(Step) family values (via mymummylife) | Great Stepparents Do Exist!

  5. Thank you for your story. You answered his questions so well, and spoke the truth, rather than hide it. I wish your statement about ‘usually step-mothers are usually very kind’ was true…My Step-mother was a doting mother until after they tied the knot, then she was awful, jealous and deceitful! And my children have huge problems with their stepmother. I guess it’s fair to say that some have better experiences than others. I am so glad that some do. 🙂 Kids deserve the best childhood experience possible, no matter who is raising them. Thanks again, I loved and appreciated you sharing such personal moments.

  6. I’m with you on the whole ‘step’ thing. I think family is family when they love each other. I have two kids from my first marriage, and a third from my second. Never, ever, have my children referred to each other as ‘half’. Likewise, a man I was once betrothed to, shared a home and life with, had a daughter, and as far as I was concerned she was mine (sadly I couldn’t keep HER when the relationship ended). I wouldn’t worry to much about his reaction when the time comes. He’s already surrounded by love so ‘step’ is going to end up being just a word. If you’re okay with it, he’ll be.

  7. Pingback: Reflections on a family holiday | mymummylife

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