Prue MacSween enjoyed her fancy-free single life until three children arrived – all at once.
I had decided early in my career that remaining single, with no children, was my life road map. That road was exciting, unpredictable and totally indulgent, if at times lonely.
But my life changed well and truly when I inherited three stepchildren, who came along as a package deal with their father, whom I met five years ago. Suddenly, gone were the self-indulgent, hedonistic days of singledom ... the expensive overseas holidays, the groaning wardrobe of designer clothes, walking around the house in the nuddy, nursing a hangover through a quiet morning, putting my diet yoghurt in the fridge and finding it there the next day, and knowing that my house would be tidy when I invited a friend home for an impromptu drink.
One can sugar-coat the experience and reflect on the positive aspects of suddenly having a 14-year-old boy and seven- and 12-year-old girls thrust into your life. But the reality is that there was a huge learning curve and long period of adjustment for all of us as we coagulated into a family – some of it painful, much of it fun.
I had played many roles in my life: journalist, TV reporter, magazine editor, radio shock-jock, media commentator, author and small-business owner. I was confident handling tricky interview subjects, proffering my opinion on life's issues, dealing with difficult clients, managing a business and mixing it with big-name politicians, Hollywood prima donnas, princes and pimps. But a prepubescent 14-year-old?
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine myself in the role of "mother". Did I ever picture myself getting up 15 minutes earlier to make school lunches before heading off to a meeting? No. And what the hell do you put on kids' lunches? (I was always a Vegemite or devon-and-tomato-sauce girl, but it appears super-mums these days have to be much more health-conscious, and the F-word, "fibre", and the C-word, "calcium", have to be factored in.)
I had to find the boundaries ... Should I go to parent/teacher night? Which parent holds the birthday party and would I be allowed to attend?
And when is the right time to talk about the birds and the bees and sanitary napkins with a young girl? Maybe doing it in the checkout queue in Coles wasn't ideal if the blushes of my 12-year-old were any indication, but timing has never been my strong point. And is it tragic that I now hide food like a person with an eating disorder so the biscuits are not all eaten in one sitting and can be meted out to last the whole week?
But, trifles such as these aside, I realise I am one of the lucky stepmums. The three kids I inherited are healthy, charming, well-mannered, largely uncomplicated and have embraced me as part of their lives unconditionally. I have never tried to be their mother, even though I've taken on the role of full-time parent, and I have never had the words, "You're not my mother", flung in my face. We always talk about their mother in a very respectful way.
I was also fortunate because their father was 100 per cent supportive of me, and there was no sabotage when I set the ground rules in the house. The children were respectful and (after my constant reminding – okay, nagging) compliant about picking their clothes up off the floor, not leaving the milk out and cleaning up after themselves.
We were also lucky that we had an "ex" who didn't use the children as a weapon, and who was grateful they had a stepmum on P-plates who was willing to welcome them into her life and turn the former country kids into "city slickers".
Others have been less fortunate. While I haven't encountered any stepmums like the Brisbane one in the news earlier this year whose 12-year-old stepson hid peanuts in her toothpaste, knowing it could trigger a life-threatening allergic reaction, I have come across some women who have had very painful and tricky experiences.
Julia*, a 55-year-old schoolteacher and stepmother of two, is challenged on a daily basis by the petulant 16-year-old daughter of her new husband, Brian*. His 15-year-old son is happily blending in, but Julia says the girl uses her natural mother as a weapon against her, and that, sadly, Brian, whom she describes as a pacifist, is not providing the kind of support she needs.
"He doesn't want me to discipline them at all, which means I can't impose my standards on them in my own home," she says. "When you get sullenness and rudeness, you must pull children up, but Brian doesn't like it and it causes a lot of friction between us. I am determined not to let a 16-year-old come between us, but our relationship would be so much better without the children."
The unfortunate, though not uncommon situation where the stepchild's mother deliberately tries to sabotage the child's relationship with the stepmother, was experienced by Elisabeth*, 32, who is in a blended family. She and her husband, Colin*, each had a six-year-old son when they met seven years ago. They have since had two children together and have full-time care of all four children.
"Most often, it is the step-parent who is treated badly, and it doesn't help when the other parent is encouraging the disrespect, and bitching about you to the child," she says. "In effect, the child is being given a green light to be rude because logic tells them that if Mum thinks she is a bitch, she must be!
"This disrespect seemed like a bonding experience for my stepson and his mother. The result was that my stepson would come back to our house full of the hate his mother felt for me. It was cruel to my stepson and it did not make life easy at home.
"Luckily, that time is over, and as my stepson has got older, he has realised that I'm not the bad guy and in many ways I am the parent he can rely on. But it has been a difficult and heartbreaking process."
Elisabeth offers this word of warning for anyone contemplating step-parenthood. "The most important thing you can do is look at the relationship between the parents. If the biological mother is not going to be supportive of your relationship and your role, they can make your life hell. You need to know your partner will back you up, or your stepchild will see that your opinion is optional."
Ten years ago, Melbourne stepmum Jill* was a 26-year-old small-business owner and dedicated career woman when she met Gary* at a dating event. "On our second date, Gary showed me a picture of his two children, Amy, then 6, and Lachlan, 4. He had been separated for 18 months and was going through a divorce."
When Jill and Gary married two years ago, the children played a big role in the ceremony and Jill included them in her vows. "However, there were lots of challenges at first with Amy, who was very protective of her mum and reacting because her mother was telling lies about us, using emotional blackmail," she says. "It has also been challenging financially, physically and emotionally, but Gary was always very supportive of me and helped practically in many ways in a fair and equitable relationship.
"I made sure in the early years that Gary had plenty of alone-time with the children, and that was good for me as I could spend some time with my girlfriends," Jill adds. "Sometimes I didn't know whether I should try to be their mother or a cheerful aunt, but I was never tempted to walk away. I never felt duped or hoodwinked into the relationship."
Jill says the challenges of being a parent on training wheels remain and it continues to be a learning process. "I read a lot of parent books and ask the mothers questions when I work at the school canteen, but you need to have self-acceptance of your role and not be too hard on yourself. There are a lot of rewards and it's important to have fun with your kids."
Career woman Sue Martin met her husband, Brad, when his son, Joel, was four years old. Joel (now 13) eventually came to live with them full-time when he was seven. "I was not blessed with having a child and thought that part of my life was over. Then my world was turned upside down. I had to find the boundaries of what I could say or do. Should I go to parent/teacher night? Which parent holds the birthday party and would I be allowed to attend?
"One of the greatest mistakes you can make is to try to push the bond between the child and yourself. Just because you love their mum or dad doesn't mean they will love you, or you will love them. But I wouldn't know what to do if Joel wasn't in my life; while we are not connected by blood, the bond we have is definitely parental and totally run by my heart."
Yes, it's an interesting ride. For me, being a stepmother on training wheels has been fun and rewarding – but I do check my toothpaste, just in case.
If you need help, contact Stepfamilies Australia at stepfamily.org.au or call Family Relationships Advice Line on 1800 050 321.
*Names have been changed.
From Sunday Life