Being a Step-parent is no fairy-tale.

This post has been in my drafts for months pending legal settlements. I am now free to share my story and although a little off topic from my usual career focused information, I feel is important to share. Please note that for privacy reasons, names have been omitted.

We met on a blind date at the Italian Forum in Leichardt, Sydney. A water feature created some ambient noise as we dined at a small restaurant known to his family. He did all the talking which was fine with me.  Towards the end of the evening the words “I have a daughter” hung in the air before I responded with “Really? How old?” and the rest is history.

Yeah right!

For me, adjusting to the label “step-mother” did take some serious work. In fact I fought the label till the last day insisting I just be referred to by name.

Images from classic fairy-tales like ‘Cinderella’ flashed through my mind. Fear of warts suddenly appearing on my face along with a hunch and cruel sneer haunted me. The reality was less dramatic of course but I still smile when I think back to all the stereotypes I worked through as his five year old daughter entered my life.

The challenge was of course not entirely my own. The child had some serious adjusting of her own to contend with and at such a young age, her challenges were far more open for the world to see.

I was told I was her father’s first serious relationships since the child’s mother and as a result I received the full brunt of the child’s insecurities.

I was faced with frequent interruptions during moments of intimacy with her father. Sitting next to her father on the couch would prompt her to dive between us, nestling into his chest while simultaneously smirking my way. I come from divorced parents myself so this allowed me probably more patience than most but to say it was easy would be untrue.

This was during the early days and things soon moved into more of a harmonious rhythm.  I began to develop a mountain more understanding around the challenges of being a parent. I had no children of my own and to land a 5-year-old instantly was unexpected to say the least, and exhausting. However I was determined to persist. I had always been told I had a kind heart and compassionate nature plus I held a volume of sympathy for this little blonde firecracker. She had not had her father in her life as much as I had at the same age and this was evident in her need for constant attention and validation. She was resilient but she had been given a hard lot in life.

During 2008 the child witnessed both her biological parents marry – confirmation that her parents would not be getting back together – ever. Comments such as “Why don’t you go back to living with mummy?” often came up in her conversations until that point then it suddenly stopped.  Neither of my parents has remarried but I suspect at such a young age her parent’s weddings left their mark on the child.

Unfortunately my marriage to her father did not last. Four and a half years we were together, two and half of which we were married.

During the few years our relationship endured we included the child in all family events for my side of the family which usually involved my siblings and my parents. The child instantly inherited a new family and seemed to enjoy the attention of being the only grandchild. My father in particular, a master at shunning labels, announced from the outset that there was no such thing as “step-children” in his home, only children.  To him, that was that. She was family.

Christmas soon became focused around my step-daughter. We all looked forward to our portion of her heavily scheduled Christmas day to watch her unwrap each gift and exclaim “Just what I always wanted!” before pushing it aside and moving onto the next gift. The child wanted for nothing. Existing between four sets of extended families now that both parents were married, her Christmas wish lists were always fulfilled.

Her life was carefully scheduled by an attentive mother to insure all grandparents, parents and relatives received equal time with the blonde beauty. We fell at the end of the priority list however we accepted our status and enjoyed the time regardless.

As the ashes of my marriage scattered to the wind the child remained forefront in my mind. Her father, not one for maturity, utilised threats to push me from her life. While telling me we would have an opportunity to re-define my relationship with his child at a later date, he had gone and told the child she would never see me again. Upon hearing this sometime later my heart broke into a 1000 angry pieces. The blonde princess, who curled into my chest and came to love me and was apparently asking to see me, had been told I would remain a memory of her past and that would never change. We had not even been given an opportunity to say our goodbyes – not that a goodbye would have been easy.

Legally step-parents have minimal rights in this situation. Although a step-parent does have the option of perusing visitation it is a lengthy and costly process through the courts. I did consider the option – considered it very seriously. However I was fuelled by anger and resentment rather than the best of intentions for the child. Once I had taken time to consider my actions fully I realised walking away is the best option for the child – burying her father in expensive legal paperwork does not benefit her much in the long run. The child’s father prides himself on being seen as the ‘victor’ in most situations so the choice to stay compliant was a hard one to make. I still have moments where I hover over the words “proceed” in response to my lawyers request to commence legalities. I am only human after all plus what I perceive to be injustice and manipulation of a child are two things I really struggle to stand by and watch unfolding.

But sometimes you have to stop thinking about yourself and think of others. Maybe I will change my mind, but for now I am doing my best to hold my head high.

Being a step-parent, and now ex-step-parent, was by far the most challenging and rewarding thing I have done in my life. As a step-parent you always fall second to the biological parent which does take some serious getting used too. After the initial transition period I found my niche by behaving more like the fun-Aunt. The child did not need any more authority figures so I moved into the “let’s have some fun” space. This saw the child transition from seeing me as competition for her father’s attention, to the person who she would happily play hairdresser and dress-ups with for hours. I enjoyed watching her practice new dance moves while dressed in her latest pink tutu more than I ever thought I would. Assisting her with the choice of clothes for the day and braiding her long blonde hair were highlights for me during those few years and each time I reflect back on those moments my heart clenches.

I am told being a parent is the most rewarding thing a person can do during their lifetime. The glimpse I had of it while being a step parent certainly confirmed this statement.

Of course just like parents, not all step-parents are equal, but most have the best of intentions. I share my story to shed some light on the role of a step-parent in the hope the future will hold more sensitivity to the position and its challenges.

The step-parenting role is challenging from all sides. Blended families are becoming more and more frequent in society as marriages and relationships fail. Sad facts I for one have lived through.

If you happen to be new to the role of step-parent I offer you the most important piece of advice once given to me – be patient!

Yes you will always fall second or third to the child’s parents (as we should) but that does not mean you are less of a person. Find your niche, carve your own path and remember to enjoy the small moments for as I discovered, they may not be around tomorrow.