What Are We Going To Do Next?

19th July 2013

As the summer holidays loom – promising long, lazy days filled with happy family pursuits –
Jo Plumridge shares some personal views on parenting…

Here’s the thing. Since I was a very young girl, I’d always been adamant that I didn’t want children. Admittedly, a lot of that was natural disgust at the thought of having to spend any time looking after anyone other than myself, but, even as I got older, nagging doubts remained. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my friends’ and family’s offspring, it was more that I just didn’t think I was very good at parenting, and most certainly wouldn’t be a natural at it.

Of course, the fates tend to have other ideas at the best of times, so it should’ve come as no surprise that the man I ended up with came complete with small child. My gorgeous stepdaughter is now almost five, and it’s fair to say that she’s altered my perspective on children. I love spending time with her and really enjoy helping her learn and find out about the world. I’ve found myself becoming a very proud stepmum.

However, even having the wonderful relationship that I’m lucky enough to have with my stepdaughter, I do still feel like a fraud at times. I frequently expect someone to come along, tap me on the shoulder, and ask if I’m responsible enough to be left in charge of a small child. I have to work at parenting and I sometimes find it hard to think of ways to keep her entertained. When she’s staying with us, I am often the one who’s doing the ‘looking after’, as I’m a freelancer whereas my other half has a full time job which he can’t always desert. The trouble with being a part-time parent of any description is that it’s not easy to get involved with local kids groups, as you’re not able to attend on a regular basis. And then, as they get older, there’s the joy of trying to ferry them in-between homes to see their friends, or the nightmare of dreaming up school holiday activities.

Although I’m lucky to have plenty of friends with children of a similar age, they’re not always available to meet up. So there are inevitably plenty of days where it’s just the two of us until the other half returns from work. And this is when I struggle. What do people do with their children all day?… I don’t mind sticking the television on for a little while, but too much tv just equals slummy parenting, surely? Living in the UK means that the weather frequently keeps us indoors, so the park isn’t often an option. We do lots of baking (she’s an expert on licking out cake bowls), crafts and ‘playing princesses’ (despite her parents’ best efforts, she’s obsessed with Disney)… but there always seems to come a part of the day where I’m struggling to think what to do next.

For a long time, I thought this was partly down to me and partly down to my being a stepparent. The aforementioned ‘not a natural parent’ phrase frequently flashed through my head. And, if I’m honest, being a stepmum as opposed to an actual biological version meant that I was never quite as relaxed as my partner is with his daughter. There’s a certain pressure being a ‘step’. And a lot of it is self-inflicted, as well as down to society’s views. I think I felt (and still sometimes feel) that I had to wrap my stepdaughter up in cotton wool and keep her stimulated 24/7, or else I’d be failing.

I’ve relaxed a lot now. Children are a lot tougher than I’d given them credit for, and once I’d dropped her on her head a few times without causing permanent damage (I jest, of course), I stopped worrying quite so much. But still, the struggle to always ‘enjoy’ my time with her is still there. It’s an awful thing to admit, but I do sometimes get bored when it’s just the two of us. I’m fairly certain the feeling is mutual at times. And a little part of that is, I’m sure, down to the fact that I don’t have that biological bond with her. Don’t get me wrong, I love my stepdaughter to bits (in a way that I would never have thought possible before she came into my life), but I don’t have the endless fascination that a lot of my ‘mum’ friends seem to have with their offspring. Sometimes, all I want is adult conversation, rather than being asked ‘why’ for the fortieth time that morning. And when I meet up with other parents I don’t want the chat to revolve around the children, especially when they’re not there.

I didn’t like to talk about these feelings. It’s hard enough being a stepparent, and a stepmum especially (the ‘wicked’ tag is never far away). But when I did eventually broach the subject with friends, they were surprisingly sympathetic. And, to my amazement, many of them felt the same. My sister was particularly helpful. She adores her son, but even she says that she sometimes needs adult time – and that, without the regular groups and play dates, she’d go quite mad. It was good to hear. Natural parents aren’t perfect after all.

The big difference though is that, while she’s enjoying time away, she misses my nephew with a physical pang. I don’t get that. Yes, I miss my stepdaughter when she’s with her mum, but it’s in a more abstract way. I might be doing something and it will make me think how much she’d enjoy it. But I don’t get the hormonal pull to be with my child, even when said child is driving me batty, that my biological mum friends get.

It’s hard being any type of parent. But at least now I know that I’m not alone and that makes life a lot easier. And the sun’s out. Off to the swings…

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