Childless but not childfree

The word “stepmother” is banned in our house. My husband’s daughter was 11 when I met her, and nearly 13 when he and I got married. We have a very good relationship, but in no way am I a “mother” to her. She already has a mother, and a very good one at that. It was weird at first, awkward. I wanted her to like me. Luckily we got along quite well naturally, but it was hard for her to place me. She wanted her dad to be happy, but felt unable to come to our wedding as she was worried she might burst into tears. She didn’t want to ruin our day. It took me a while to get my head around that. In the end I realised that she didn’t hold it against me, it was more that she was sad that her dad loved someone who wasn’t her mum.

We’ve had interesting conversations over the years. Before her dad and I got married, she and I were in the car together, just the two of us. I felt a bit nervous, but asked her how she felt about the situation, whether she wished her parents were still together. Her answer astonished me. She said that around the time when they realised they didn’t love each other any more, the atmosphere in the house was unbearable. She couldn’t stand it. She’d rather they were both happy and separated than together and miserable. Wow!

We gave her the choice of which parent she lived with. She chose to live with her mum and we had her to stay every other weekend. That was hard for her dad, as he would have loved her to live with us. I would have liked that too, but it was probably easier the way we did it. When she got to 16 she didn’t come every weekend any more, as her friends were more alluring than us! My husband felt sad that she was choosing her friends over us, but her mum reassured him that she barely saw her either. It was normal. Another conversation she and I had around that time was revealing. She had a friend who lived in our village, who lived half time with her mum and half with her dad. I asked her about it, and she said she was so grateful that we hadn’t insisted that she live half time with us, as she felt so much more secure having just one home. The friend didn’t feel settled in either “home”, and she thanked us for putting her needs before our desire to see her more often.

Christmas is a funny time when your husband’s child doesn’t live with you. Since we got together, she’s had 2 Christmases. It used to upset her, but we got over it, as I think she realised that it was important for her dad to celebrate some sort of Christmas with her. She almost didn’t come one year, and I had to soothe my husband’s distress by reminding him who was the child and who was the adult here. It helped when she found a friend who also had “2 Christmases”, so they could compare notes and roll eyes together.

Now, 6 years down the line, she is nearly 19 and has just gone to university. She never lived with us, so I don’t have empty nest syndrome. She was never in my nest anyway. But I am married to her father and when I took that step I made the decision to love her unconditionally and to support her financially as if she were my own. I have never regretted that decision. Having a child in my life who is not my own has brought both joy and pain. I was insanely proud of her when she got her A level results. I love watching her dance in the show the ballet school put on. I love seeing the grin on her face when we’ve bought her a special present. I enjoy sharing those moments with her dad. But she’s not my daughter. I’ve borrowed her. She will never have the emotional attachment to me that she does to either of her parents. Of course not – I wasn’t there for the first 12 years of her life.

In every decision we’ve made in our marriage, we’ve had to consider her interests before our own. That hasn’t always been easy. We were refused IVF on the NHS because my husband already had a child. No matter that she didn’t live with us. Even before considering having a family we had to think about the impact that having a half brother or sister might have on her. Would she feel displaced? In the end it never happened, so I needn’t have worried. Then when we were applying to adopt, we had to ask ourselves the question, would she feel that she wasn’t enough? Why did we feel that we needed to give a home to someone else’s child? She was older by then though, and I think that if adoption had worked out for us, she’d have loved to be big sister to a child who’d had a difficult start in life. But that didn’t happen either.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I love my husband’s daughter to bits. But it’s not the same as having a child of my own. I am childless, though not childfree.