|I don’t have kids. |
Never wanted them.
I’ve spent most of my 40-something years on earth single. Free. Doing what I want, when I want.
When I left the house it looked exactly the same when I came back. If I woke up on a Saturday morning feeling like bingeing Netflix on the couch all day I’d do exactly that, guilt free.
I’d occasionally be around friends with kids. Be anxious at the sight of their wine glass on the edge of a coffee table while a toddler ran wild nearby, get irritated by the constant interruptions, and breathe a sigh of relief when I left and headed home to my life.
Yet somehow, I’m living with 2 kids. How on earth did that happen?!?!
It started with a right swipe and a coffee 3 years ago.
‘He’s cute’, I thought. He’d always been the primary caregiver for the kids, aged 7 and 10. ‘He’s got kids almost full-time but I’m sure it’ll be fine. Being a committed father is a good quality’ I naively told myself.
And so began our relationship… One evening during the week he is child-free for a few hours, and for 1 day and night at the weekend. Dating was restrictive, but blissfully self-indulgent. Entirely focused on quality time together.
Eight months in, I met the kids. A year in I started staying over. Two years in, the downsides of living out of a bag and travelling between houses 5 nights of the week were outweighing the benefits.
‘Surely adding the extra 2 nights and moving in wouldn’t feel much different? I usually hang out with friends those nights anyway and I can still do that’, I told myself. ‘We get along so well, we never argue, it’s not like we’re rushing things’… so I moved in.
I could not have underestimated the difference that extra 2 nights would make more.
I’ve been living there for 10 months now. The kids are 10 and 13. My partner is a great Dad and the kids adore him. They’re not awful kids. They don’t say horrible things to me. They don’t throw things at me. They aren’t feral beasts ruling the roost with no boundaries. They’re just kids being kids. It’s still the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Firstly, the words ‘step-parent’ and ‘step-mother’ fill me with uncomfortable anxiety. I was filling in a profile to register on a step-parenting forum recently. ‘How long have you been a step-mother?’ it asked. ‘I’m not’, I thought. ‘Been in the relationship for 3 years, living with the kids for 1 year’ I typed. ‘Invalid response’ it said. ‘You can only put a number of months or years’ it said. It didn’t actually speak to me you understand, I just couldn’t move on without entering only a number. ‘1 year’ I typed reluctantly.
I’m not a parent, I’m not a mother, I’m in a relationship with a man who has children. My baseline for what parenting looks like is how I was parented. That’s all I’ve got. Playing in the garden with my brothers and watching cartoons on the TV while my Dad worked and my Mum did the housework and got dinner ready. ‘In my day’ we did as we were told, and if we didn’t, we’d get a whack and be sent to our room. These days things are different.
‘Kids should have some autonomy and be able to make choices’, I’m told. ‘It’s science’, I’m told. ‘They’ll grow up to be considerate adults and not traumatised robots like us’. My partner is a pretty relaxed parent and doesn’t want our home to be an authoritarian home where the kids are complying out of fear. Getting things done eventually, and in a way that doesn’t cause massive fights, is enough.
Our approach to my role in the home is that he does the parenting and I do not. The logic is this will avoid unnecessary conflict between me and the kids. So does that mean I drift around the house with an air of calm while the ‘parenting’ is background noise?
Hell no! I’m only used to adults who can, generally, be reasoned with and who take responsibility for themselves. I’ve never been around kids. So, in comparison, their behaviour seems selfish and entitled.
When all you’ve ever been used to is adults, it’s very hard to shift that view.
Much as I try not to, I can’t easily keep my views to myself. I’m a sharer, a venter. There’s no way on earth I can just take a deep breath, let it pass and not have an opinion, regardless of how unhelpful and lacking in any context or experience that opinion is. There’s nothing essentially wrong with how he’s parenting, and we made a conscious decision that I wouldn’t be doing ‘parenting’. Neither of these things stop the opinions on how he does things or magically help me keep my mouth shut.
So what does parenting in our house look like? It means that there’s not much yelling, which I’ll admit is a good thing. It also means that by the time the kids have been asked calmly 3 times by their dad to clean their teeth and on the 4th request the response is ‘I’M DOING IT!’ when that’s clearly the complete opposite of what’s happening. By this stage, I’m so annoyed I’m on the verge of losing my shit, storming into the bedroom and yelling ‘JUST CLEAN YOUR FECKING TEETH WILL YOU!’. Disclaimer: I’ve never actually done that, it’s just what I feel like doing.
I’ve tried to learn about these mysterious beings. I’ve read books, articles and joined step-parenting forums. I’ve learnt how kids’ brains work. I’ve learnt that they have no pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain that enables rational thought, planning, understanding consequences, and empathy for others. Unfortunately, knowing that doesn’t mean that when I see kid behaviour triggered by kid brain that I remember this. I don’t go ‘poor kid, that meltdown is because he doesn’t have the brain functionality to manage his emotions when he’s told it’s time to stop playing Roblox, that must be an awful experience for him’. Oh no. My very present pre-frontal cortex fails miserably to kick in and I see a selfish, entitled, adult in the body of a small-person and I get MAD.
The teeth cleaning thing – I see it as them not respecting their Dad. My partner sees kid-brain forgetting what’s needed, and needing to be reminded. I see his daughter not being ready for school by the time she should be and getting driven half-way again as laziness. He sees it as helping her settle into high school by not adding the stress of a deadline to be organised by. I see asking ‘why should I put that away, it’s not mine’ as selfish, entitled with no appreciation of how much is done for them. My partner sees – you’ve got it – the kid brain. They find it hard to empathise with others. The constant badgering when they want something, over and over again, always trying to get one extra lolly.
Everything seems to be a debate! It feels like I’m surrounded by constant conflict. I’m permanently wound up just listening to all this parenting. Then there’s the mess and the noise. God, the noise. Who knew a 10 year old boy could be so loud? I lived alone for 7 years before I moved in. 7 years of tidy, quiet and peaceful. I no longer have control of my living environment and neither should I expect to when I live with 3 other people. This very reasonable fact does very little to make up for the very unreasonable feelings I have about the loss of control.
To my partner’s credit, the house is a lot tidier than it used to be and I have to remind myself that this is down to daily effort on his part to keep it that way, and he does that for me. I’ve talked with humour about my experience, but the truth is that it is heart-wrenchingly difficult to share my partner with 2 kids, 6 days per week. He is a very involved father and I often feel like an outsider. They’re so tight-knit and love spending time with each other. It’s hard not to resent the lack of time and energy that’s left for me because they take it all.
Our decision for me not to be actively involved in ‘parenting’, plus the fact that he works part-time and I work full-time, means that he’s doing more housework and cooking than me. While I’m chilling in the other room, he’s cleaning up after his kids and cooking our meals. He says he doesn’t mind, he needs to do it for the kids anyway, he enjoys cooking. This doesn’t take away the guilt I feel and chilling doesn’t feel the way chilling used to feel.
We also disagree on how much the kids should be contributing towards household chores, so if I do more of the chores I’ll just get pissed of that I’m cleaning up after them while they watch TV. Guilty or resentful. Great choice. We’re lucky that we have a separate living space I can retreat to, a cabin in the garden all set up nicely with a TV, couch and desk he had it built for me before I moved in. Chilling in there doesn’t feel like a choice any more. It feels like going into exile.
I’ve been ‘retreating’ a lot lately. I feel overwhelmed by the kids’ presence and it means my tolerance and patience is way down. I tend to avoid them so I don’t get triggered and react unreasonably to things. This makes me feel like more of an outsider and they have made comments to their dad that I am avoiding them. I can’t win.
Sometimes I struggle to even like them. When I do make the effort to try and engage with my partner’s 13 year old daughter in an enthusiastic and positive way, I mostly get a barely audible teenage grunt in response. It feels pointless. How nice it would be to be greeted with the same level of enthusiasm the dog gets. It is very hard to have the mental energy to try and build meaningful relationships with kids when I feel permanently annoyed, guilty or resentful, or all of these things at the same time.
Those people who love and adore their step-children – I wish I was like that, but I’m not. Trying to co-exist in a way that feels ok and conflict-free currently seems like the best I can hope for. I know parenting is incredibly hard. It’s not like my partner’s just cruising along loving every moment. While I can opt out whenever I want to, he can’t. He gets the love, the hugs, they want to be around him. I get none of that.
My friendships have changed. My single, childless, 40-something year old friends’ eyes glaze over at the mention of kids, so I don’t mention them very often. I don’t know people who are in my boat. Child-free, almost-full-time ‘step-mothers’. It can be pretty lonely.
So why am I still here? Why do I do it if it’s so hard? I love my partner with all my heart. After being single for most of my life I found my person. He’s the kindest, most patient man I’ve ever met and I adore him. This wonderful man is trying his best to bring up 2 kids to be good humans, doing the work of 2 parents, and trying to keep me happy. Every time someone isn’t happy or something goes wrong, he’s the one it gets dumped on. I try to remember that when those opinions rear their ugly heads. I have to look at it as a long game and largely suck it up for now, knowing that the kids won’t be dependent forever.
How am I getting through it? By remembering that this is still really new and there’s a lot of learning to do. If my partner didn’t understand how I felt or support what I need, if he wasn’t open to changing things for me, if his expectations of me were more than I could give; I couldn’t do it. We still argue, frequently. I was listening to a podcast recently and the difference between communicating to each other and relating to each other came up. It was a lightbulb moment.
We are in a relationship and live together but our experiences within that are very different. We sometimes get so overwhelmed by our own experience that we forget what it’s like for the other person. We forget to be kind to each other.
A friend who’s a teacher once made a passing comment, saying that kids just need patience and kindness. It’s stuck with me and I try to remember that. My partner, in trying to explain the extent of kids’ brain functionality once told me, just think of them as half cat, half alien.
We get therapy. It’s a godsend. We’re going to try a different approach to the parenting. The problem with me staying out of it completely is I feel like I have no power, no say, in my own home, and I find it impossible to just let the parenting be background noise. My partner is going to work to change those aspects of the parenting that drive me nuts so that I can feel calmer and happier in my home. And I will keep on reading books and articles, engaging in the Facebook groups, listening to the advice of people who know better than me, trying to learn and find ways to make things a little less hard. And seeking out help when I’m really struggling.
In the meantime… ‘Half cat, half alien. Half cat, half alien. Half cat, half alien’.