I stand in doorways, trying to get a hold of the rules. They seem to be: comment on child’s growth and/or new haircut; make a joke at her father’s expense; make polite enquiry into general work and/or leisure activities. Usually it’s a Saturday morning, and we are picking the child up or she is getting dropped off.
In the beginning, I didn’t think much about it. It was a novelty. It was – on occasion – logistically annoying. I am good at adapting, but as my relationship with her father continued, the real scale of the situation became apparent.
Oh, you have a daughter. Forever. It’s not like a job you might leave or a house you might sell.
I still shun the title of stepmother. The child in question has mentioned in passing that I will not be her stepmother until I marry her father. This event may or may not happen. So I may remain…without official title.
In late 2009 I subscribed to Overland and I won a prize: a collection of twenty issues from 1956 to 2004.
In Issue 144, Spring 1996, I found an article by Kevin Brophy called ‘Looking at Sophie’. It is about becoming and being a father. It is written with honesty and simplicity. The thing that strikes me most about it – something that seems miniscule – is the apparent ease and naturalism with which Brophy and his wife decide to have a baby. ‘Yes, we’d both like to do this. Yes, let’s do it.’ I recall similar conversations with friends and family in my life: ‘We both knew we wanted children so we gave it a go.’
I am thirty-six years old and I have never had this kind of conversation. My feelings about having children have always been ambivalent. I am one of the ‘waiters and watchers’ that author Leslie Cannold writes about in her book What, No Baby?: Why Women are Losing the Freedom to Mother, and How They Can Get it Back. I skimmed through the book at a friend’s place, feeling equal levels of repulsion and attraction, hoping I could speed read it while looking generally disinterested (‘Oh no, not me, I’m not like the women in this book…’), only to casually leave it on the arm of the chair, and race out the door to Google it as soon as I got home.
About three and a half years ago, I thought, for a week or two, that I might be pregnant. At the time, I had been reading Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. In it, a female character lives alone in a mountain hut. She has a brief liaison with some visiting mountain man and, aged forty, she becomes pregnant.
Both reading this book and the possibility of being with child evoked a unique emotional response that I had not felt before (or since). I had a secret. I was special. I had this wise little creature inside me that had nothing to do with anybody else. I quietly gloated. I woke up in the mornings feeling excited. When it became apparent that I was not pregnant, I felt a sharp loss. And then the feeling faded.
As far as I know, I have never been pregnant. Once, when I was twenty-two, I thought I might be, so I went and got a prescription for the morning-after pill. It’s a violent way to combat failed contraception: I was so sick for a day that I figured I must have been pregnant. I felt as though something powerful was being expelled from my body – it couldn’t just have been me.
There is nothing quite like being a not-quite stepmother to throw the curly issue of reproduction up in one’s face. Motherhood may or may not happen (there I go, waiting and watching again). There are many contributing factors: my age, my partner’s age, his lack of desire to have any more children, the size of our house, the issue of names, schools, upbringing…
Much has been written about the natural phenomenon of being a parent. Less has been written about the very unnatural phenomenon of being a step-parent. Reading Brophy’s article got me thinking: How has this unnatural occurrence changed me? For better? For worse? For older, that’s for sure. Not so long ago I was in my early thirties, relishing that rare period where youthful energy and zeal are tempered by some genuine life lessons and maturity. The world was my oyster.
Five years on, I am definitely changed. I have passed the golden-egg age of thirty-five; I am suddenly approaching forty. More waking hours during the last five years have been spent worrying and wondering about a child who is not mine – my relationship with that child, with her father, her mother, her friends, her education, her life choices, her school lunches – than is surely healthy.
As she gets older (now nearly fifteen), she looks and sounds more like her mother. A natural occurrence. But imagine, if you will, living with a person who looks and sounds like your current partner’s ex-wife. It’s unsettling. I fantasise about sending back a mini replica of me to haunt the ex-wife. Problem is, I don’t have one. Maybe, occasionally, something the child says – a comment, attitude or opinion – will sound foreign to the mother and she might ask herself: ‘Hmm, I wonder if that is Emilie’s influence?’ Slim pickings, I know.
There we have the primary way in which this experience has changed me for the worse. And though, admittedly, all experiences help us grow, they don’t always help us grow into better people, do they?
My irksome habit of wanting to throw a little metaphorical sand in the face of my partner’s ex-wife (because she is the mother and I am not; she gets the final say about everything and I do not; a modified version of her is living part-time in the bedroom next to me and I am expected to feed it and help keep it alive) has not made me a better person. There is no mother-in-law in this situation. My partner’s mother died just after his daughter was born and long before we were an item. So, I figure the ex-wife is equivalent to the mother-in-law – and I’m sure she has an equal number of metaphorical sand-throwing moments about me.
A year and a half ago, the three of us went on a ‘family’ holiday to Tasmania. We took a late afternoon hike, down in the south-eastern tip, through some bush, to a place called Duckhole Lake. None of us are particularly outdoorsy. We left the walk too late in the day and by the time we had reached the stunning lake and gasped in awe and squelched our bare toes in the icy mud and slipped our socks and shoes back on and taken a wrong turn and then found the right path and headed back to the car – it was getting dark. Tasmanian wilderness dark. Fast and silent. I had my mobile phone. We had no other source of light.
My partner walked first, then his daughter, then me. Fired by adrenaline, we stepped quickly and quietly. All through the journey, an unexpected mantra played in my head: as long as she gets back safely, that’s all that matters. I kept my eyes on her white runners as we walked, and silently willed her to know that I would protect her to the best of my ability and if a crazed serial killer or a wild snowstorm should come, I would not hesitate to swap my life for hers.
It sounds ridiculous. It was ridiculous. And yet it was real. In that moment, I absolutely knew the correct order of things. Children and youth first. And given my general reluctance to embrace her youthfulness and give anything much of myself, I was pleased with this powerful instinct. It meant I was not all bad.
Travel writer Rosemary Bailey once observed the most common accusation levelled at childless women is that of being selfish.
It is generally assumed that as a woman in her mid-thirties without a child you must be a ‘career woman’, and you’d better have an impressive career to show for it.
I am not a ‘career woman’. I am a writer, but I don’t make a fulltime living out of my creative writing. I hold down many jobs at once; I freelance. I work diligently on improving my writing, be it playwriting, fiction or poetry. I can sleep in on a Saturday. I can go out at night and drink wine. I can go away on holidays where it would be difficult to take children. Until my partner’s daughter is fully independent, I live the life of a quasi-parent, with some of the responsibilities and restrictions that come with it. I don’t see my contributions of time, money and effort to my quasi-stepdaughter’s life as an act of selflessness. They are just what must be done if I am to be in this relationship.
One of the keenest ironies about being a childless person living with a child is the reversal of what I call ‘care factor’. In the beginning I couldn’t have cared less, and didn’t really care if she knew that. Just not that into your netball, your school results, the names of your friends – sorry!
As time wears on, however, and I invest more, I find myself caring. Not so much about the details of her life but about our relationship. I don’t want to be the evil stepmother. I don’t want to be the reason she is unhappy or the thing she takes to therapy in later life. But I don’t want to change who I am to suit her. I don’t want to force her to love me. But yes, I do, at some level, want her to love me.
I leave poetry books and alternative-culture magazines lying casually around in the hope she may see them and think that I am my own kind of cool. It is not the most dignified of gestures. I’m not on any of her favourite television shows and I’m not in a band. I will never be her kind of cool. I’m not supposed to be – that’s what generation gaps and evolution are all about.
Our relationship, I observe, is the most tenuous and disposable in her life. With the pressures of hormones, adolescence, friends, two households and her own life ambitions, ours is the one relationship that could give if the going got tough.
Luckily for me, my quasi-stepdaughter is a kind and generous soul. She bounces back after our bouts of difficulty. She always greets me with a smile. She wants to like me. My own boundaries are not so clear. I am the ‘adult’ in the relationship; I’m responsible for managing some of the more grey areas of emotion. This is where I fall down time and time again.
Five years on, I am not standing in doorways so often. We see less of her mother and stepfather as she becomes more independent. But I am still busy trying to work out the rules. How did I get here and how do I play the game?
A Christmas cynic from way back, I nonetheless race around the week before Christmas – before she goes back to her mother’s place – in order to find a tree so that we three can decorate it together. The delight on her face makes this effort worthwhile.
I wouldn’t have deliberately chosen it, this unnatural scheme of things. (Find me any girl who writes ‘stepmother’ on her bucket list of ambitions.) But here I am. There seems to be a greater quotient of pain than joy (and I gather from what friends say that it is the joy of a child’s love that makes the pain of motherhood all worthwhile). But some days it works. She spontaneously grabs my arm in an embrace. She whispers to me, ‘Be positive’, as we walk together into a place where she can sense I do not have complete faith. We dance like idiots around the kitchen table to music from the 1980s. At these times, I count myself fortunate, knowing that I have accidentally lucked upon a relationship completely unlike any other I have known.
Unnatural – yes. But evil? Not necessarily so.