Good Housekeeping (UK)

EARNING MY STRIPES AS A STEPMOTHER

Author Rachel Edwards wrote about a blended family in her debut novel, Darling, and here she shares how she learned to navigate Mother’s Day as a stepmum with patience and understand­ing

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Author Rachel Edwards on celebratin­g Mother’s Day as a blended family

When I was a young girl, I had very definite ideas of what Mother’s Day should entail. As one of four children, the second eldest but self-appointed ‘spokespers­on’ of the kids, I often led the celebratio­ns, overseen by Dad. This meant toast (not too burned) and tea for Mum in bed, cards we had lovingly scrawled at school, some hand-thrown pottery that my poor mother would have to live with on her mantelpiec­e at least until we left for university, that sort of thing. Insisting upon waiting on her every (usually modest) need all day long was a given and a joy – we delighted in our mother and she delighted in us.

Back then, it seemed as natural as spring sunshine that one day I would be on the receiving end of all that Mother’s Day love and affection. Life turned out to have other ideas, though. I was 29 and working at an Oxfordshir­e marketing company to fund my evenings of writing when I realised that I was hopelessly in love with my boss.

It all started innocuousl­y enough. Pete, then 42, was separated and a single dad of five-year-old twins, Emma and Charlie. He had been firmly off my radar – he was my boss, he was previously married, he had kids, and he was too, er, mature. But life throws out constant surprises. Before the slightest flirtation crossed my mind, I had quit my job to travel solo around Cuba for a month – writing, learning Spanish, knocking back rum cocktails – only to return with a maxed-out credit card and needing my job back. I was graciously re-employed.

Soon afterwards, Pete and I clicked at a colleague’s dinner party; later we kissed… and there was no going back. It may sound like a movie cliché, but in that one moment of dazzling connection, I could feel life would never be the same again. Luckily, I did not crave a future in marketing; I quit my job (again) for a worse one and embraced this miraculous new relationsh­ip. My future started at that point.

The early days of getting to know the children were a revelation. I used to spend every weekend with them, as ‘Daddy’s friend’. Pete and

I would read Harry

Potter to them at bedtime, then enjoy a romantic meal by the fire as they slept.

They were curious about me, uncertain and ridiculous­ly cute. I think I was the first Black person they’d ever seen up close, and their guilelessn­ess was utterly disarming. When they wondered about my plaits, I let Charlie count them, which he did with great attention to detail; when they wondered why I was Black, I told them I was made of chocolate and let them bite my arm! Not that PC, even then, but they were mere infants… and once the giggles and nerves subsided, I calmly explained to them about the different types of people in the world and that, when you put it in black and white, I was simply ‘their Rachel’.

After two years of dating, Pete and I had forever on our minds. I had naively assumed for many years that I would bear four children, as my mother had. However, I had to revise my deep-rooted ideas about motherhood once I knew I was in love with a man with whom

I would have no children, but that at the same time, I’d be raising Emma and Charlie full-time. I was terrified, enthralled and longing to give the children the active mother-love that was not present in their lives. It would not be everyone’s choice, but my kind, remarkable husband and the overwhelmi­ngly intense feelings that we had for each other (still do) made diving in a no-brainer.

With two little darlings to think of – their busy school and social lives, diverse needs and fast-flourishin­g personalit­ies – there was no dress rehearsal. I moved in, the nanny moved on and, hey presto, we were a family, for better or worse, even before vows had been made. I became a stepmother long before we actually married. Luckily, I am a woman who goes with her gut: I had the right man, so everything else would surely come good.

Family life is full of calendar highlights (or low points) and one of our first was Mother’s Day. This triggered anxiety in, safe to say, all of us, for a few years.

The first year was straightfo­rward: I was just ‘Rachel’ and yet to earn my stripes. The children’s mother was alive but wholly absent and I was painfully sensitive to this difficult situation. I would never have been so crass as to expect a Mother’s Day card back then, nor to do anything other than support them through a day that all their friends would be celebratin­g in a less complicate­d way.

As my relationsh­ip with Pete grew, I morphed from girlfriend to partner. I had fully committed, not only to Pete, but also to his children. Bring on the school run and parental socialisin­g, first bras, hellish hormonal tantrums and loving late-night chats, menu adjustment­s, holidays for four, GP and dental appointmen­ts, endless shopping, friendship counsellin­g, homework support, sports days, parents’ evenings, prizegivin­gs and all that good parental stuff – full-time, no weekends off. Moreover, due to my husband’s previous marital experience, it was at first without the ring for which I was increasing­ly ready. Optimistic by nature, I threw myself into it, clinging to the faith that our relationsh­ip was the real deal. Our fledgling family was my destiny.

A few years in, I had more than earned those stripes. Come Mother’s Day,

I was hopeful I would be acknowledg­ed not as ‘Mum’ – I was and still am ‘their Rachel’ – but in some vaguely parental way. At first, we would mark the occasion in our own idiosyncra­tic fashion, either dialling down heightened expectatio­ns with me tactfully removing myself to visit my own beloved Mum, or by creating wider family gatherings. The children’s needs, at this most sensitive of times for them, always came first – I would have wanted it no other way.

The breakthrou­gh, when it came, was beautiful and unexpected. Simple, handwritte­n Mother’s Day cards given to me when the children were about 10, containing personal, heartfelt messages; bought by their dad at their request and featuring gorgeous hearts and flowers, one from each child. They were given – shyly, solemnly and with no fanfare – when they felt ready to give them… and it meant the absolute world. As an author, words are of profound importance to me, and I love the way the messages in the cards have evolved from those first polite ‘thanks for all you do’ notes, ended with a little kiss, to the relaxed, cheeky, loving in-jokes of the teen years, to the heartfelt profession­s of adolescent love and gratitude for having me in their life. Of all the words, it is seeing the written sign-off in black and white, ‘Love’, that still moves me beyond measure.

Since that first Mother’s Day, we have celebrated with increasing confidence in the solidity and strength of our family unit. These days, having been my stepchildr­en’s primary mother figure from five years old – they are now

23 – the day has become emotionall­y far less fraught and my own tremulous expectatio­ns have been more than satisfied; they have repeatedly been blown away by pure joy and affection.

The word stepmother often brings with it negative connotatio­ns rooted in folklore and fairy tales, suggesting a lack of care, closeness or love. In our family, the ‘step’ is now barely discernibl­e, while the ‘mother’ is branded on all our hearts.

Now, on Mother’s Day, I still tend to receive a bunch of flowers or thoughtful, personal gifts – from cuddly toys to embroidere­d handkerchi­efs – from our children. They have also surprised me with more than one breakfast in bed, when I felt like my own delighted mother. Every gesture is a welcome reminder of how lucky I am to have them in my life. But, as with any loving mum, of any kind, it is the precious, indelible words in those cards that have me putting my fancy hankies to use, every single time.

Darling by Rachel Edwards is out now. Her second novel, Lucky, is out in June and is available to pre-order

It is solidity, strength and love that builds a family

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