THIS is the story about how I became an Ugly Stepmother who hurled my 14 year old stepson’s dinner at his bedroom door.
Now let’s back up a bit.
Six years ago, I met the man who is now my husband. He was much more “together” than me; he ran a business and had this general air of responsibility. Turns out that not only was there a manageable six year age difference, but he was also a long time divorced and busily co-parenting an eight-year-old son.
Back then I’d been intentionally single for a while, but I’d swapped enough stories to know that dating a man with kids was a minefield. So I knew I had to tread carefully. “Just be his friend,” my husband reassured me. “He’s got a mum, he’s got a dad, but he always has room in his life for more friends.”
I was relieved by this advice. I was a young woman with a media career to pursue — I had little interest in being anybody’s new mummy, so “just being his friend” came to govern almost all of my interactions with his son.
Flash forward six years, and thanks to my early breakfast radio hours, I’d become the one with a 14-year-old young man in my care most nights of the week. Suddenly there were school pick-ups, sporting commitments, dinners to get on the table, and homework to be done. We couldn’t have pizza every night!
Which leads me to the part where I invented “door food”. My stepson and I had one of those Mexican stand-offs people have over household chores, for hours. I’d asked him to clean up the kitchen so I could make our dinner. He refused.
Despite trying my best to be “a friend”, I eventually lost my marbles. I hated doing this, but it had become my only strategy for getting things done.
He cleaned the kitchen, begrudgingly, and I made our dinner … but as I was prepping our meal, he snuck off to bed. Without either a) eating anything or b) saying good night.
Walking into his room, I joked, “you forgot to eat your schnitzel”, knowing full well that he was still mad about being made to clean the kitchen.
He wouldn’t get up for dinner. And it was shortly after I’d caved and let him go back to sleep, that I turned into the Ugly Stepmother.
Angry the dishes weren’t done earlier, angry about expensive food that wasn’t going to be eaten and even angry at my husband for not being home, I took that schnitzel and threw it — baking tray and all — at my stepson’s closed bedroom door. Next stop: The shower to cry maniacally and wonder how the hell we ended up here.
Now, here’s the truly awful bit. It was my stepson, who came out and apologised, to me. He was crying, I cried some more and I realised that I’d probably scared the life out of him. He’d cleaned the chicken up off the floor (and door), and wanted a hug.
I felt terrible. I knew my outburst — especially the throwing part, was way out of line. Trying to explain what had happened, I told him that I’d come to love him like he is my son now, and that when we let each other down, it really hurts.
That’s when I realised. I’d never said I loved him before.
I’d had all these expectations of him — good behaviour, help around the house, respect — but failed make this boy feel loved in his own home. How could I expect so much when I’d never fully invested in the relationship myself?
Sure, my husband’s advice was useful back in the beginning, but we had become family, not friends. And my continued efforts to be his friend weren’t helping either of us.
Psychologist, author and stepmother, Sally Collins says it’s not always possible to be friend and step parent at the same time, “Many women refer to themselves as a friend rather than a stepmother because they feel so uncomfortable with the negative stereotypes that come with the title.”
“When you are an adult living with your partner and their child, it is unrealistic to think that you can just be a friend and not need to set boundaries, discipline, provide money, make decisions and provide care. You can’t be a friend and play this role,” continues Collins.
I’d begun to set boundaries, sure, but I realised that in my efforts to transition from friend to parent, I’d held back from possibly the most important element of parenting: love.
Since then, my relationship with my stepson isn’t perfect, but it’s better than ever. I’m so proud of the intelligent, funny and gifted young man in my life. And I’m grateful he had the patience to wait for me to step up and be his step-parent.
As Collins says: “Don’t rush things with the kids — let this happen at it’s own pace. Bringing a new family together feels awkward and takes patience, but it gets easier and is worth the effort.”
That night my stepson asked to take the door-food to school for lunch in the morning. Now time for my other learning: 14 year old boys can be so gross.
Carmen Braidwood is the co-host of Perth’s 96fm Breakfast, also broadcast nationally via iHeartRadio. Follow Carmen on Twitter