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.