Fairy tales portrayed stepmothers as wicked and unjust. But in real life, one in three families is now a stepfamily and the stepmum has a major role in society.
Striving to be a good one can be tricky at times, though. As Mothers’ Day dawns, Jo Davison talks to three women about mothering once-removed...
“I was only 23 when I found myself a stepmum to an awkward 11 year old,” writes Tracy Walters.
“Katie was not impressed with her dad having another woman in his life. She wanted him all to herself – and if I’m honest, so did I.
I’d never dated anyone with children before; I wanted to go out and party with him, but there was this little girl to consider most weekends.
“She and I had a rocky relationship, especially during her teens– I nicknamed her Kevin at the time. Though we got much closer and became good friends as time went by.”
But when Katie was 18 and Tracy became a mother at the age of 30, the whole dynamic of their relationship changed– for the better. “When my baby Izzy was placed in my arms I got that blow-your-mind feeling of maternal love and I suddenly “I got what Katie needed,” she recalls. “I got what being a parent was all about.”
The Dinnington 40-year-old describes her relationship with Katie, now 28 and a nurse, as “amazing”. She says: “I love being her second mum. She opens up to me with problems she won’t always go to her parents with, I guess because I’m that step removed. “I’m also stepnanan to her son Mason, who is 17 months old, which has brought another dimension to my life, and Katie and Izzy, who is now 10, are incredibly close.”
Tracy sees a stepmother’s role as hugely important. “It’s a big responsibility and you have to step up to it,” she explains. “It’s not a child’s fault that their parents are no longer together. It’s up to the parents and the step-parents to ensure that children always feel accepted and secure. But as a step parent you also have to take on board what their real parents would want you to say and do. I have always tried very hard not to tread on her real mum’s toes.”
She can now see step-parenting from the other side of the fence, too. Her relationship with Katie and Izzy’s dad broke up five years ago and he now has a new partner.
She admits: “My daughter gets on really well with her stepmum, which I have struggled with, if I’m honest. I felt a bit jealous. I didn’t want my daughter to have a second mum.
But I have to remind myself that this is how Katie’s mum Anita must have felt when I came onto the scene. And I realise there are Izzy’s feelings to consider. Katie talks about how much she has appreciated having another positive female influence in her life and that is what my own daughter is now getting.”
‘I’ve a happy little girl in my life. I love her to bits’
Charlie Shepherd is almost 30, happily married– and not at all broody. Her stepdaughter fulfils her mothering instinct.
“She is a wonderful little girl. I adore her,” says photographer Charlie of the child she first met four years ago.
“She was this super-sweet two-year-old with blonde curls, but getting my head around the fact that I was going out with someone who had the responsibilities of a child was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. It was never going to be just the two of us; I was never going to be Stuart’s Number One Girl,” she says.
“But I happily settled for Joint First. What I realised was Isabel is the priority; she needs help and support and to know that she is loved by everyone in her life.”
She and Stuart share their Dungworth home with Isabel most weekends and when they married in Bradfield Church last May, Isabel was flower-girl.
But as her only experience of children had been gleaned from taking photographs at schools and family sittings, Charlie, who runs CS Photography, worried she might not be any good at relating to Isabel.
“I still ask myself sometimes: am I doing OK? Was that the right answer I just gave her? A lot of step-parenting is guesswork, but then parenting must be, too,” she reflects.
“Having children of my own is not something I’ve given a lot of thought to. Our jobs keep us busy and it may happen in the future, but it’s also true to say that Isabel fulfils the maternal side to my nature right now.
“We do lots of girly things together. When she arrives she can’t wait to get pinnied up in the kitchen and make tea or do some baking and we both love doing arts and crafts. We usually make a Mother’s Day card for her mum.”
But a stepmum has to know her place, says Charlie: “I’m very respectful of the fact that Isabel has a mum and I’m only her stepmum– and she comes to us so she can see her dad. Often I go out to give them daddy-and-daughter time. I think that’s really important.”
But, she adds, it must be even harder to be a stepchild. “You have to share your parent with someone else and share your life with that other person,” she says. “There are different sets of rules the child has to adjust to.
“I can understand why challenging behaviour and jealousy happen, though I’ve been so lucky; I’ve had a happy, well-adjusted little girl in my life for the last four years and I love her to bits.”
‘I’d fight for the children with dying breath’
Sarah Jameson can’t have children, but she knows maternal love.
She cares for her two step-children so deeply, she would lay down her life for them.
“I didn’t understand how people could say that. But now I do. I’d protect and fight for my husband Mark’s children with my dying breath,” she says. Sarah, 34, met them as awkward teenagers. Ben was 15, Charlotte 18.
“It was difficult. They were trying to work out who they were and what life was all about and in I walked. I felt like the other woman, particularly with Charlotte because she was older, and because of the dad-daughter thing,” Sarah reflects.
“Early on, Ben and I managed to bond over games of dominoes, of all things. Mark had ended up in a loser’s strop, which Ben and I had found really funny. He came on holiday with us a few months later and we got on well from that point on.
At just 27 and with no previous experience, Sarah was thrust into the role of full-time step-parent when Ben moved in a few months later. A year on, Charlotte moved in, too. Mark and Sarah made a small flat for her in their Broomhall home. Then the task of helping two teenagers cope got even harder; the children’s mother, who had been seriously ill for some time, died.
“They were devastated. In many ways I knew how they felt.
“My dad died of Alzheimer’s when I was 20. In reality I’d lost him a lot earlier; he was diagnosed when I was 14 and from very early on he didn’t know me.”
The dilemma for Sarah was how to care for them without appearing to be taking over their mother’s position. She tried to be like the step-parent who had changed her life when she was 21; her mother’s second husband, John, “one of the loveliest men I’ve ever met,” says Sarah, who owns Jameson’s Cafe and Tea Rooms in the Sheffield Antiques Centre. She has been advised not to have children of her own. She was diagnosed with a cyst on her pituitary gland at 20 and now has hypertension in the brain, which causes headaches daily.
Polycystic ovary syndrome also means she would be highly unlikely to conceive. “But I’ve been blessed with Ben and Charlotte,” she says.
I think I have a better understanding of life because of them. The love I feel for them quite overwhelms me at times. It’s also brought another emotion I never thought I’d feel so strongly; worry,” she laughs. “I feel it for Ben especially, because he still lives with us. My heart is in my mouth when he goes out in his car.”
There is another worry– she would love a closer relationship with Charlotte but admits: “I don’t know how to go about it. I want to put my arms around her but I don’t know how she would react. I know she misses her mum terribly.”
Sarah understands there will be no acknowledgement of her on Mother’s Day, not even a card. “It’s a really difficult day for Charlotte and Ben,” she explains. “Their mum will be in their thoughts and their grief is still so raw.”