What A Rookie Stepmother Can Learn From Maria Von Trapp

If you are inclined to take on life lessons from movies, you’ve learned all the key traits of a governess from Mary Poppins, the innate elegance of a little black dress from Breakfast at Tiffanys, and all the moves you ever needed from Dirty Dancing.

One of the most enduring movies about stepmothers of the non-wicked genre is The Sound of Music – where we are enticed to adore a pious yet lovable curtain-trasher.

Here’s what we learned from this classic.

Your life’s purpose can be subject to random revision

One would assume that there would be a fairly deep level of soul searching involved in the decision to dedicate a life to poverty, celibacy, charity and the wearing of unattractive shoes. Whether triggered by a major life event or driven by deep-seated faith, ticking the ‘nun’ box after consultation with your high school career counselor has taken some thought.

With the childlessness that is an obvious extension of this whole celibacy gig, its fair to say that launching yourself into step-parenthood after a mere dabble in some childminding work experience outside the abbey is a variation on what fate intended.

Don’t underestimate the value of a showtune

Maria won over the Von Trapp children by recognising the areas where the brood were bereft of love, where they lacked a recognition of the joys of art and culture. Given the handy availability of a guitar, Maria chose to convey both love and life lessons in song. We won’t all feel like our life’s purpose has been fulfilled by bestowing children with the ability to string together a do-re-mi. We won’t all feel compelled to help small humans understand simple joys via a melodious exploration of brown paper packages tied up with string.

The modern day childless stepmother equivalent is karaoke. In the same way Maria made a simple yet multi lingual ‘good night’ wonderfully lyrical, you can embed within a child everything from a serious understanding of deep south sentiment via ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ through to how a simple dancefloor hedonism can co-exist with chart-topping success via ‘Dancing Queen’

These are all valuable learnings.

Re-worked soft furnishings might need a re-do

There are degrees in the spectrum of adequately clothing children.

As a child of financially circumspect parents, clothes that were handed down from close relatives or family were embraced with almost the same degree of enthusiasm as a puppy. If you had a single pair of jeans that needed to stay with you while your growth spurt converted them from full length jeans to a ¾ length pant, you’d be well pleased to inherit jeans from a slightly taller relative.

For the Von Trapp kiddies, presented as they were in his’n’hers outfits that were a special kind of sailor with a large dose of daggy, they were more than content to go next level with outfits constructed from handy and expendable curtain fabric.

Today’s redo? Its going to take way more than recycled window furnishings to win over a stepkid. Cash up your Visa sister, this is a war to be won at Westfield.

There will be a battle against an incumbent

Whether previously childless or not, the path to step-parenting is varied. Whether you have employed some Disney-stepmother-like plotting to dislodge a biological mother or you simply step into the void left by death, divorce or despair, it’s a personal journey. By definition, there is an incumbent of some flavour.

Maria had two.

Firstly – a biological mother who had the fortitude to withstand the rigours of birthing seven children but somewhat recklessly succumbed to scarlet fever. This is possibly the most insurmountable type of incumbent. No matter the state of the relationship or deep-seated character flaws of the biological mother, an untimely death means that they will assume the status of a combination of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. The only upside of marrying a widower is that you are spared a living-breathing-child-support-absorbing human who will remain a fixture in your stratosphere.

Secondly – a glamorous baroness with a current role in the widower’s life. Granted most of us will not battle a Princess Grace lookalike but there are many modern day equivalents that would be fairly daunting. You might be battling the rebound relationship he had with a gym junkie with an obsession for competing in on-stage bikini figure competitions. Perhaps a  Gwyneth style earth-mother who seems born to assume parenting duties for stepchildren, with abundant spare time funded by a website hawking popular yet unproven herbal remedies. An Angelina Jolie type who has some spare positions in her rainbow family.

No matter what, there’ll be a third party of some kind.

There may be external challenges

Poor Maria. If it wasn’t enough for her to ditch her vow to a capital-S Sisterhood, convert the affections of seven children through song and stave off both a deceased and living female opponent, her desire for ongoing happiness is further threatened by the spectre of the Third Reich. Thankfully her nun-buddies play a part in sheltering the children before they all make a break across the mountains for neutral-as-ever Switzerland.

If you’ve battled with a biological mother,  a deep-seated internal ambivalence to parenthood and a full on tribe of bonus kids with needs you can never anticipate, you hardly need the brute force of a new world order to make this whole gig harder.

Just bear in mind that, unlike Maria, you are not dodging militants pushing guns, gas chambers and genocide. It’s the local PTA that restricts mother’s day stall gift-giving to purely the blood-mothers that will do you in.

Thankfully though, we know that Maria makes it over domestic, metaphorical and actual mountains to safety and a happily ever after. If unsure, google the real -life story and you’ll find that the ending was even easier – the family left openly, safely and unimpeded by Gestapo, with no assistance from any member of any Nun-derground railway, via train to Italy.

This gig could be easier than you thought.

The Rookie Stepmother – How Schools Work


Assuming you haven’t come into step parenting at a very young age, you are going to find there are vast differences in the way that schools work compared to your own tender experience as a child. If you are inserted into step parenthood via a child that is already some way into their school years, you’ll find the learning curve staggering. Here is the rookie’s guide to navigating the minefield that is primary school.


Everything is on an app

Without wanting to reveal my age, I have to declare that school communications to my parents involved photocopies of something typed in the font that we know today as courier, which was in fact the only font that you could belt out on an old-school manual typewriter. Mrs Bryan in the principal’s office constructed all the notices which were duly carted home, often adhered to a loose cheese sandwich which had been scorned during the lunch break.  This is how you knew of Father’s Day Stalls and how you received excursion consent forms (without nearly enough fine print as today’s litigious world would demand)

Now it’s an app. This is goodness in that you are aren’t subjected to the inherent inadequacy of single-copy paper-based comms where your child switches between two households. You need not delve a hand into a school bag, risking the shock that comes from sliding a hand over a long-ignored pear that has started to reduce itself to liquid. The downside? This app is the ‘Facebook of Shame’ in that it will convey to you every extra-curricular activity that you are failing to support and every thankless volunteer activity that you are leaving to that tired but dedicated group of super mums who care more than you. It has a Facebook like feed function, but denies you a like button so you can’t relieve your stepmum guilt by simply showing thumbs up support about something to do with the next trivia night. 

The canteen is different

Ordering a bought lunch was a rare treat in my primary school years. The canteen menu was free of any guilt-inducing count of calories, fat grams or healthy food star ratings. It contained a glorious array of junk food and you were at no risk of censure or removal into child services protection if you ordered the combo of sausage roll, pineapple donut AND chocolate milk.

Entrée into this olden-day world of lunch orders demanded nothing more from an overworked mother than the order written on a paper bag and inclusion of the appropriate collection of coins.

These days, again, it’s on an app. Pies and donuts don’t feature on the list. Losing a first tooth in a sausage roll half way through primary school is apparently a milestone that will be denied our current generation. The equivalent will be a tooth gouged out by a canteen-baked, guaranteed nut-free, organic oat cookie. Soft drinks are replaced by fruit tinged bubbly water and smoothies. It feels inevitable that the app will shortly include a tab that presents you with purely paleo options.

The order is charged to your credit card and there’s a neat little ‘recurring’ button if you want an intervention-free delivery of a standing lunch order, assuming your stepchild is conveniently lodged in a food rut. Just remember to turn it off once they graduate.

Traditions are reworked

Mother’s and Father’s Days are universally a big topic for kids schools. Twenty years ago this involved some concentrated craft effort in producing picture frames, hand-made chocolates and glittery cards. Now it involves a serious supply chain logistics effort in diverting cheap Chinese made products of dubious quality to local school kids.

The school app has educated me that the female champions that require honouring on mother’s day are confined to very traditional roles:  ‘Bring your mum, your nanna, your grandma!’  (stepmamas don’t get a guernsey)

Sadly, it appears that getting a male role model into a father’s day breakfast is much harder and achieving a respectable level of attendance necessitates casting a far wider net. The school app will breezily convey that it the ‘Father’s and Special Fellas’ day stall and invites ‘Dads, Grandpas, Stepdads, Uncles, Neighbours, Friends and Brothers’ and only just stops short of inviting your local Jim’s mowing guy.

Digital delivery of guilt

Social media already provides several channels to provoke feelings of complete inadequacy. There is already an amazing ability to poke at your most vulnerable bits. The sparkling blue seas around a Facebook Bora Bora honeymoon overwater bungalow pic will gouge away at that item on your un-ticked bucket list.  The Pinterest post of a pantry impeccably herded into stacked and labelled Tupperware will compare unfavourably with your food anarchy that plays host to an infestation of pantry moths and make you question everything about your ability as an organised woman.

The school app is going to grind away at your guilt levels in the same way that seawater carves out cliffs. Here are some examples

  • A call for volunteers in the kid’s canteen. A desperate call for volunteers in the kid’s canteen. A sombre announcement that the kid’s canteen is closing. The auctioning off of bulk ingredients left unused after the closure of the kid’s canteen
  • The call to send a dollar with your kid for icy pole day, noted  by you three days after icypole day
  • The call for helpers on gelato day, asking that you BYO and apron and scoop which only serves to reinforce your domestic disgrace in owning neither an apron nor an ice-cream scoop. 

A twist on fundraising concepts

There’s a wine drive.

We had a snowball drive in my day. Thousands of marshmallows gave up their lives to coalesce with faux chocolate and desiccated coconut and evolve into a mountain of half-dozen snowball packs. You had to sell them to neighbours, colleagues and family to raise money to fund school projects.

When I saw ‘wine drive’ I applauded the evolution of the snowball drive. I imagined a carefully curated collection of award-winning whites and reds, pre-bundled for you and representing the perfect emergency stash for unexpected guests. The backup/disaster recovery equivalent that will save you calling an Uber in the event of a late night wine drought. The perfect combination of a fund-raising package that benefits the school and boosts your wine stash. I’d pay over the odds for that.

No. They are actually calling on you to donate your unwanted wine to be auctioned off at trivia night.

They lost me at unwanted wine.

The upshot?

You just need to become accustomed to how your life has changed. Five years ago you would have woken up to a bunch of email notifications triggered by a late-night wine-fuelled placement of your profile on a dating website. Today you will wake up to a notification that there’s a kid to be picked up after school camp at 2:15pm.

It’s different. Try to breathe.

Three Traits You Need As A Rookie Stepmother

Given the stubborn failure of even a skerrick of maternal instinct to kick in at any stage during my child-bearing years, the prospect of inheriting a child as the steak knives of shacking up with a Dad caused me to wonder what essential life experience I lacked as a result of not having brought one of my own into the world.

Thankfully, the role of stepmother has less breadth than full-blown parenthood. Even more thankfully, most of the essential attributes for the rookie stepmother were actually part of my experience, despite not having gained them through bio-kid-rearing. Here are the top three:

Care of a small being

I may not have a great track record when it comes to the care of living things. I had a regrettable experience with the baby lovebird for which I had custody as part of a high school science assignment. To be fair, the bird required four-hourly hand feeding and my only misstep was to sleep through what must have been one of the more pivotal ones timed in the wee hours. The back-room post mortem performed by my biology teacher confirmed neglect as the cause of death and although I was able to rescue my grades by pairing up with a more responsible student, it probably contributed to the perception that I lacked the requisite skills to shepherd a child successfully from foetus to functioning adult.

Apart from this rookie error, I do in fact have a fairly consistent history of caring for small beings. Herbie the guinea pig thrived in my care, kept as he was in frequently cleaned housing, dining on balanced diet of fresh carrots and a an assortment of grains, and patiently enduring dress-ups. To be perfectly honest, his ability to thrive was probably based on the rampant amount of procreating he did with his soul-mate Fluffy, producing litter after litter of babies and cementing his lineage in suburban domestic rodent history.

I’ve also proven adept at ensuring the long life of more than one domestic cat – one of ordinary moggy breeding and even temperament and one pedigreed
tortoiseshell Persian . The latter lived for nearly eighteen years off the joy of terrorising all visitors and shedding long fur that clung very persistently to every carpeted surface and taunted those with sensitive nasal passages. Although I yearned for her affection, Sophie only loved one person in her life and it was not me.

So I did not need a small human to teach me the importance of feeding and nurturing. Fruitless pursuit of affection from a distant feline was perfectly adequate as to train me in the harsh reality of living with a stepchild not genetically obligated to return my affection.

Patience

I was not initially known for my innate patience. Midway through my career the universe recognised that this was not going to be resolved for me by the birthing and raising of small children and sought instead to gift me with a long stint working in Japan. Many will visualise Tokyo as an insanely overpopulated city that appears to vomit neon and is in a perpetually trembling state perched as it is on the combo of a subterranean network of rumbling trains and a major seismic fault-line. In reality it is driven by both ancient customs and modern norms that SLOW EVERYTHING DOWN. You only need to observe the tortuous process by which Mr Miyagi trains a young Daniel in the nuances of martial arts or the languorous coma-like procession of events in the movie Lost In Translation.

Being sent to a country to untangle complicated computer system implementations that appeared to have stalled a long way away from realising a single logon was the ultimate exercise in teaching patience. With a Japanese vocab that leaned more towards Midori and Sushi than the concepts required to unwind the actions of large project teams, the entire trouble-shooting exercise was conducted through an overwrought interpreter.  I could count the heartbeats of my draining lifeforce while a large committee conducted robust and lengthy dialog, accompanied by vigorous gesticulation before allowing my interpreter to respond back to my question with a simple ‘No.’

So I am generally unblinking in the face of the inordinate amount of time it takes to leave the house as a family, the torture involved in locating an elusive pair of shoes or the unfathomable need to perpetually find a bike pump given every item of inflatable sporting equipment appears to defiantly deflate when it enters our household.

Diplomacy

A corporate consulting career that involved trying to help companies navigate their way out of an IT environment laid waste by neglect or through a business process transformation that is far more ambitious than its current level of capability, is built on providing advice cloaked in a level of diplomacy. There’s a subtle art to helping a corporation move on from a lack of foresight or some clunky decision making and focus on the future. You may feel like an entire middle level of management needs to be sat down and given a good-and-shouty verbal shellacking but you will be required to provide advice couched in terms of ‘evolving the culture’ and ‘making step-change’. It’s only appropriate to suppress the instinctive level of outright scorn that demands to be leveled at corporation run by a rampant dictator or whose entire decision making capability hangs off a sketchy web of excel spreadsheets only understood by one person in the joint.

So step-life diplomacy was just another day in the office. It was initially challenging to find a way to respect ill-defined, porous boundaries when it came to my role in parenting, to remain unblinking in the face of new norms that appeared to defy all tenets of civilised behaviour and to navigate blatantly illogical arguments when they came from the other side of the custodial parent divide. The strategies of 1) never responding out loud with the first reaction that came to mind and 2) liberal use of wine as an aid to reflection on the day’s events proved as useful in stepmother life as they did among corporate mayhem.

Hang in there, you’ve already got all the skills.

You don’t have to have borne kids of your own to nail this.

I’m sorry Marie Kondo….

Thanks to Marie Kondo, our nature strips are groaning under the weight of tottering Pisa-esque towers of unwanted garage detritus.

Charity bins are engorged with now-reviled excess clothing.

Op shop volunteers are keeling over with fatigue as they attempt to deal with the output of Netflix watchers that grew a little tired of Ozark’s relentless violence and turned to what they thought was some light-hearted Japanese-inspired housekeeping.

E-Bay is awash with desperate attempts to gain some coin from last season’s barely worn frivolous purchases that no longer spark joy.

Every part of my being that has been ruled by the floordrobe, clothes-chair and the act of ‘shovage’ -which involves cramming everything into a cupboard then pushing it closed before the contents can fall out again – WANTS to believe in KonMari. Like every addict that clings to a new guru that promises a simple path to sobriety, I want to believe.

But I can’t even.

Here’s why:

I’m not sure she’s actually real

When Kondo was a mere child, her parents actually called a moratorium on her decluttering.

Today? There is no parent alive that thinks that their child is overindulging in decluttering.

She apparently got herself into such a spin about the state of her teenage bedroom and her inability to satisfy the decluttering demon within that she actually passed out when contemplating her clutter and remained unconsciously prone on her shag-pile for two hours. Today’s reality? Any teen that passes out in their bedroom has underestimated their ability to metabolise either a cannabis-derived product or the fumes of a long-neglected lunchbox.

She also wrote her thesis on decluttering.

Her methods are unsustainable

A festive break from work, the energy accumulated from several days of naps, a shift to cooler weather and the duress imposed by new years’ resolutions sparked a relentless quest on my part to transform my spare room. It needed to move on from a cluster of wicker baskets drooling with activewear, a queen bed whose only function was to provide refuge to a cubic metre of clutter and undetected cat vomit, and a shoe rack that lacked the spine to hold up a selection of my favourite shoes and perpetually slanted sideways.

I lost my temper, 2 kilos of sweat and 14 potential nap hours gutting this room. I invested a month’s  worth of grocery budget into throw rugs, cushions and soft furnishings aimed at making it a sanctuary. Items that were layered like recklessly unsupervised lasagne went vertical and partitioned under Kondo rule.

Like that half hour window where your newly-zshushed black car scoots around all shiny before it rains or is subjected to a gentle dust shimmer, it looked temporarily amazing.

Three days later, I’d done a weeks-worth of laundry and found myself totally disinclined to sort that stuff vertically in keeping with the Kondo-faith. All bets were off.

Books

I can forgive Marie Kondo for setting a standard for tidying that involves actually fainting on the job.

I think I can subscribe to a view that you ditch things that you don’t love.

But EVERY SINGLE MOLECULE of my being totally rejects her concept that you should retain no more than 30 books.

Ms Kondo – despite my awe at your shiny hair, your Netiflix-goddessness, your faith in your convictions, I have to declare that on the basis of that last statement, you are dead to me.

I’m assuming that you think that one book of the thirty is yours which leaves me a scant twenty-nine to contain my forty-plus years of love and devotion to everything bookish from Enid Blyton to Lee Child.

No go darl.

My view is that if you’ve invested in the appropriate amount of cheapo Swedish flat pack furniture to house all your books then you are totally entitled to keep as many as you like.

I’m sorry Marie.

I’ve gotta let you go.

You don’t spark joy.

Managing Blended Family Finances (ie hands off my shoe budget!)

Dollar Sign isolated on white background. 3D render

If food fights and first sleepovers weren’t enough, the freight train of stepmother firsts is about to bring a new flavour of normal your way.

Finances.

Specifically, shared finances. Melded finances started off simple back in the day where all you were trying to do was merge funds as a kid-free couple in your early 20s. This era probably felt very straightforward if you had refrained from diving into a mortgage or cultivating a care factor over retirement funds.

Fast forward a bunch of years and if you’ve still maintained a budget that is not impeded by the need to keep any small humans alive, you’ve probably become nicely settled into being the queen of your financial domain. If you want to pay half the GDP of a small nation to spend some quality time at a silent yoga retreat to eat and sleep like a peasant and refrain from all verbal interactions then there’s no one around to judge you.

If you shack up with a stepdad, you are buying into a complex financial world – one where all the might of the family law court, the child support agency and the tax office are king. Get used to it, the elephant in the room that is the child support calculation and it’s minions that manage the collection of school fees, books and uniforms are going to be putting their grubby feet on your furniture for as many years as it takes to marry this guy’s kids off.

Even if you get a handle on what these grabby chaps are going to shave off your shoe budget, there’s a bunch of sneaky little overheads inherent in managing a family of kidlets. Like food. Like clothing.

To top it all off, if there’s child support involved, and there almost always is unless the ex is no longer of this world, or is in jail, then you are going to watch dollars that ordinarily would have greased the wheels of your household head over to hers. Repeatedly. 

These financial shenanigans are going to surround you for a while, so you need to understand this whole get-up and have a strategy to deal. Here’s some advice.

Kids are expensive

If you are a parent already, you know all this, so skip to the next section so you can preserve some energy to dwell darkly on how child support is spent. If not, read on and know this:

Food. Kids prefer highly processed foods. This means you are not just paying for whatever original food item may have existed in the general area of a fruit roll-up, but all the rolling, extracting and packaging equipment that has been involved since, not to mention the R&D spend on genetic modification that may be secreted deeply in its past. A simple plate of pear quadrants whilst cheaper and more recognisable to Mother Nature, is excruciatingly unpalatable to a 4-year-old.

Clothes. Kids relentlessly grow out of their wardrobes and are immune to any conversation about buying cheap versions based on the solid formula of cost-per-wear that you’ve personally used to justify ‘classic’ and ‘vintage’ purchases for about the last twenty years. Those swooshy Nikes are going to be on that kid for about seven outings, but don’t even suggest that they be clad in Dunlop Volleys till their feet stop growing. If they don’t grow out of them, they’ll lose them. Losing elements of a school uniform is a special kid art form. I’ve developed a dark conspiracy that the lost property office at a primary school is a complete myth and, under cover of darkness, they secretly launder (literally and figuratively) items back into the local suburban uniform store where you’ll buy them again to replace the lost item.

If they are not lost at school they’ll be lost in that Bermuda Triangle that always exists between split parent households where neither party’s willingness to admit culpability means the most Mexican of standoffs will result when it comes to replacement.

Don’t think about how the child support is being spent

Watching child support dollars flow like unstoppable lava into another household is relentlessly disconcerting, and something you’ll be ill-prepared for unless you’ve had the experience of investing in 1980s timeshare holidays or early 2000s agribusiness.

My friends, in this case, you need to make like Elsa and just let it go.

Do not try to determine what child support is intended to cover, in an effort to see if it absolves your household income from items such as school fees or uniforms. You will lose what remains of your Netflix-binge-ravaged eyesight if you try to find guidelines on this topic on any government website.

Do not internally or overtly make any observation on how your household’s contribution to the child’s mother appears to be funding her expensive high maintenance balayage hair colour, intricate tattoo collection or new boyfriend’s desire to make his garage band the next Nirvana. Nothing good can come of you comparing your now-budget summer holiday in a wonky floored, grease-and-despair scented cabin in a caravan park awash with grubby 10 year olds to her newly subsidised trips to Hawaii complete with infinity pool and kids club. For every mother who seems to be rorting the child support system there are ten others that need every last dollar that your household is providing.

Just let the funds go forth with good grace (and the knowledge that child support law makes it non-negotiable anyway) and know that one day this too will pass.

Maybe help get the kid a job at Maccas so that day that it passes might come sooner.

An option – contribute nothing except your own share.

This would appear to be a perfectly valid strategy for several reasons. Let’s start with the obvious –  this crazy little village had its own functioning financial eco-system before you existed and it survived just fine.  It was feeding, housing and clothing itself as either a single unit or a split household well before you came on the scene. Through some terrified 3am research in one of those early dad-dating days I established that (at least in my jurisdiction) the child support overlords don’t look at the new chick on the block as a contributor either.

It does get a tiny bit tough though if you are spreadsheeting within an inch of your life just to prove that your contribution is entirely fair based on your personal consumption of utilities, fridge space and internet data. If this means that your partner’s income dissipates to a level that leaves him drinking instant coffee and taking homebrand ramen to work for lunch while you drink $60 bottles of rose and engage a personal Pilates instructor then you might have missed the whole point of a true domestic partnership.

You might want to strike a balance where you’ll possibly contribute more to the household than you would if no children existed in it, but allows for greater human dignity and equality (and perhaps a greater likelihood that occasions might be marked by little sparkly trinkets from your partner from time to time)

Above all? Its only money. This whole shindig is likely to cost you less than the single-girl-sauvignon blanc savaging of your liver that was the status quo before you dated a dad.

Tips for the First Stepfamily Vacay

If you’ve taken the gradual approach to offspring introductions and are party to the regulation alternate weekend structure of step-parenting, you may not have experienced the very special kind of immersion that is the school holidays.

As a non-maternal type, you will have rigorously avoided holidaying in school term breaks – smugly dodging inflated air fares and shuddering outwardly at the concept of theme parks overrun with children recklessly toting multi-coloured ice-creams near your white linen pants.  Inevitably, you WILL holiday as a newly blended family, high-season tariffs be-damned. This relentless period of consecutive exposure to a new stepchild will be a learning experience on both sides. Here’s a guide to planning for this momentous event.

Carefully select the venue

Your holiday venue selection criteria to date may have involved:

  • High expectations regarding the thread count of bedroom linen
  • A need to be walking distance to a local restaurant or within the range of Uber eats so that your afternoon drinks aren’t dampened by needing to pilot a vehicle to get fed
  • An in-house day spa
  • Proximity to wineries

None of these apply to the first accompanied-by-stepchild holiday.

The single most important factor? Activities. Lots of them. For avoidance of doubt, this does not mean guided wine flights, cheese tasting tours or the 3-hour spa indulgence package. It means distinctly different things like trampolines, an outdoor pool awash with like-minded ten year olds, a games room and proximity to any joint that serves nachos.

On holidays, kids expect a ridiculous amount of entertainment. During school terms, they know how their day pans out  – wake up, protest about having a shower, do six hours or seven hours of school, eat everything in sight, reject dinner, protest about bedtime and sleep. On holidays, a new timetable applies and it needs to be filled, and it needs to be understood. 

An actual conversation on my first step-vacay:

“after breakfast, after we go to the beach, then you get your coffee, then we ride the bikes, then we have lunch, then we go to the pool THEN WHAT WILL WE DO???”

Be aware that if you answer that question with a proposed activity, you are bound by it. If you fail to deliver on that, you are guaranteed to hear this

“BUT YOU SAID!?”

Ensure you pick a venue that is a veritable Disneyland of extracurricular activities unless you want to be subjected to a lot of a whining and even more Monopoly.

Pack wine

You will likely already know that a certain amount of wine creates a very lovely temporary shroud that will protect you all from all kinds of reality in the form of heartbreak, work stress and the guilt of a carb binge. Mothers know, that once past that pesky period involving breastfeeding, wine will also take the edge off dealing with toddler tantrums, primary school dramas, endless laundry and hair washing battles.

Your first step-holiday might sound like the perfect opportunity to abstain from drinking, to insert a bonus detox event into your calendar given that you should probably stay upright and alert whilst partially responsible for a dependent human.

No. Wrong.

Firstly, this is not your child. If someone needs to retain their ability to drive a child to an emergency room following a cycling accident, it certainly need not be you.

Secondly, you are going to need SOMETHING grown-up to look forward to after a relentless day of child-centred activity.

Be prepared for the intensity

Family holidays are intense. As pre-work, binge-watch all variations of the Griswold movies. Then try to imagine them without humour.

Be reminded that this involves MULTIPLE consecutive days of unfolding stepchild experiences with the added spice of

  • No intermission. You are three hours from home. You can’t take a day off part way through the event. The best you can do is head out to ‘get a coffee and the newspaper’ and try to stretch that to an hour. 
  • No personal space. If you make the rookie mistake of re-creating what you loved when you were a kid and booked a cabin in a family caravan park, you are going to be confined to an area smaller than a shoebox and filled with cheap furnishings.  You will be huddling around a 32 inch LED TV. You will not be able to sneak in a nana nap mid afternoon while some kind of robust father-son wrestling and screaming ensues on the other side of a wafer-thin wall. Although I’m going to now avidly lobby for its universal acceptance, it is currently unheard of to book an extra cabin across the other side of the park to allow you to read crime novels in peace accompanied by home-made espresso martinis.

Control the duration

As a new couple, luxuriously lengthy breaks in amazing locations will always adhere to the principle that more time is better than less.

For your first step-holiday, try to consider the way in which children start kindergarten. Gradually. They go for a couple of hours each day. They do a day here and there. Only after a carefully planned time do they try to string together five consecutive days. It’s very gradual. In the holiday scenario, its you that needs to be ever-so-slowly immersed.

Don’t lock yourself into a ten day break, regardless of your previous principle that amortising the airfare over a longer holiday duration makes everything more economical.

My empirical research suggests this:

  • If you are in a location that has a long documented history of excellent weather and a procession of theme parks use the formula of number of theme parks plus one day.
  • If there is any chance of rain, a three night maximum is best.

An even more-evolved strategy, which I feel I should almost stamp with a personal patent, is the blended holiday. The blended family holidays together for the first portion of the break, with you returning to work at the halfway point. Nearly genius, this allows some father-child bonding time and an opportunity for you to return to your couch and your cat. Not recommended for the first holiday, this an advanced strategy to be implemented when you are three or four years in.

This is about planning,  people. Fail to plan, plan to fail.

The Every-Other-Weekend Wardrobe Wars

There is one single challenge that gets more airtime on Stepmother social media than any other.

The vagaries of child support calculations?

Conflicts over discipline in split households?

How to integrate the lives of all the kids – the ‘his’, the ‘mine’, the ‘ours’?

Nope – the number one source of stepmother angst seems to be the inter-house hold wardrobe wars. This largely consists of conflict over one household (yours) purchasing clothes for the child which are worn when the child returns to the other household. They apparently routinely disappear into an abyss and never return.

As a member of many stepmother social media groups there is an evident level of boiling infuriation when kids go to the other house dressed in a carefully curated junior Kardashian-worthy outfit only to have the offspring return in Cinderella-esque rags / dirty / torn, too-tight clothing.

Here’s the 101 on how to deal with this apparently angst-inducing phenomena:

No one is doing this just to infuriate you

This is not a deliberate undertaking to have you routinely invest in new clothes as another sneaky way to redirect your income elsewhere. This is not the social services equivalent of the ‘dark web’; a secret parallel child-support-like entity designed to hive off more of your spending money and send it to the other household.

It’s NOWHERE near as sophisticated as that.

You can be 99% sure that your partner’s ex is too worn down by domestic duties, relentless school routines and twin-household logistics to be even remotely enticed towards the carefully-contrived deeds required to relieve you of a bunch of outfits  you bought for the kiddos.

It’s very unlikely she’s dreamt this up as a secret second tax on your household.

Very unlikely.

These are not ‘your’ clothes

Yes, you bought these clothes with your own money. With that you have wrongfully assumed ownership.

You did not buy that nattily nautical Tommy Hilfiger polo with the intent that you’d be personally rocking it down to the yacht club on the weekends. You did not buy that spangly pair of sneakers with inbuilt roller skate heels so you could glide around an outlet mall on the weekend in your own personal throwback to Xanadu.

You bought this stuff for the kiddos. So whether that outfit is preserved to only parade in your presence, or whether it’s unleashed to your child’s alternate custodial universe and you never see it again, it still exists and your child is still reaping the benefit of your sartorial style.

Just as you intended it.

If you must, try to think of it as you raising the style standards of the other household, persisting your stylist stamp into the places where you currently don’t physically exist.

Influencing and infiltrating. One semi-designer polo at a time.

This too will pass

Once your child passes into teenager-hood, you will no longer have ANY clue about what that small human considers fashionable. You will relentlessly invest at will, only to have a 50-50 chance that the child will deign to wear the outfit more than once. Let’s face it, you are probably at 25-75 right now.

So it won’t always hurt. It won’t always feel like you invested two months-worth of a quality free- trade coffee budget in a t-shirt only to have the OTHER FAMILY snap it on Insta and masquerade it as one of their own purchases. This is because your lavish purchase will languish, unworn, beneath a bath towel unused since last month due to the simple fact that Cristiano Ronaldo is no longer a thing so an exxy CR7 Nike dri-fit tee is about as appealing as a congealing pile of bulk Christmas Maltesers neglected during an Australian heatwave.

At this point, you are just as likely to win if you battle it out based on quantity and not quality and invest in a vast supply of department store quality sport socks.

So your ability to purchase then lose something meaningful is precisely zero.

Let it go

It might feel like the purloining of polos is the absolute last straw and that defeat at the hands of the every-other-weekend-wardrobe-warrior is the bitterest of pills.

No. There are worse fates.

A two-night variation in the share of care (not in your favour) can blow out your household budget faster than that time you ventured in a DJ’s after being dumped the night before New Years, clutching an underutilised credit card and belly full  of lunchtime Tequila shots.

A flippant decision by your partner’s ex to quit their nicely paying job to pursue their dream as an apprentice Reiki healer can really guillotine a family budget.

The angst that starts to build from October, in anticipation of a festive feast where your in-laws will relentlessly release praise for your partners ex, will wreak more mental damage than the financial fury felt by a lost junior (fake) Fendi.

Focus all your attention on navigating the real challenges associated with step-parenting and simply set the garments free.

The (Stepmother) Princess Diaries

Having ‘Stepmother’ set up as a Google alert presents an endless array of fodder. More often than not it’s a fairly relentless reinforcement of the Disney villain style stepmother stories – women implicated in acts of casual violence, wilful neglect and harsh vengeance. Every now and then though, there’s a shiny little nugget nesting in the Google swamp. This week it was this headline.

Princess Beatrice could become a STEPMOTHER.

Note: I did not add the CAPS. The article had the CAPS, suggesting Princess Bea’s destiny was as astonishing as if she were to become an ASTRONAUT, PLAYBOY BUNNY or the NEXT PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. Had this publication unearthed the potential for her to become a scientologist, JayZ’s next wife or the host of American idol I feel they’d be less likely to lean on the caps lock.

I am inexplicably pleased at the ability to consider a young princess becoming a stepmother. Neither of these two fates were those that I’d considered a possibility as I contemplated my life plan. One of them did eventuate and it’s not the one that involves diamond tiaras, summer country estates and a brace of corgis.

Could the rocky road to stepmotherhood be less nuts and more pillowy marshmallows if you were a princess?  I think yes. Here’s why.

You are a princess

If you are a princess, dating a man with a little girl, surely you have hit the jackpot. Every little girl wants to be a princess. Very few little girls have a mama, even a faux-mama, who has hived off a portion of the crown jewels, has Phillip Treacy on speed-dial, and has a grandma who happens to be a reigning monarch. Surely it’s easier to impress a new step-girl if you are able to let her parade around the house in actual tiara that’s probably worth more than her actual mama’s house.

Note:  Princess Beatrice’s new boyfriend’s offspring only comprises a son which is just another example of the universe failing to cut a stepmother a break.

You have privileges – the child will pick up on this

Although the new royals are refreshingly modern and are at times spotted doing their actual own grocery shopping, they do generally operate in a cosy cushion of privilege.

As a royal, you don’t catch the bus. You are generally schlepped about in a black Range Rover.

Even if you are too low on the royal rungs to fly private, there is still no fear of being relegated to an egg and bacon burger in an airport Hungry Jacks. The doors of the highest status airport lounge will literally fling themselves open and welcome you in.

The kid’s Instagram is going to be next level.

Surely you can’t fear the bio mum

Stepmothers are innately prone to regarding themselves unfavourably in any comparison to a biological mother. Even on your best day, your most confident day, where all your pros far outweigh the cons, you are still reminded that your new partner had a flesh-and-blood child with this woman.

Princess Beatrice, on her darker days, might feel any of those feelings that she’s not smarter, prettier, or has fewer bad hair days than the child’s actual mother.

But darl, you’re still an actual princess. This is right up there with having actually spawned the child.

 

No financial fears

As a princess, the monarchy has been funding every frivolity you’ve ever engaged in since you emerged from the womb, no matter how many other heirs stand in front of you ascending a throne. Your mama’s pricey pram, the upmarket education, your time out to do good works and those sparkly earrings you flounced about in at your 21st.

NOWHERE in your future are you likely to experience any of the financial challenges that litter your regulation stepmother’s universe – trying to agree a fair split of school books and uniforms, rationing the extracurricular activities, figuring out who pays for the first passport.

Nor are you going to be subject to any of the vagaries of child support arrangements. You are part of the infrastructure that oversees the child support agency. No one married to a royal ever got garnisheed.

You are very likely to simply shut up the ex by leaping all the waiting lists and swiftly ensconcing your new stepchild in an upmarket, strictly blue-blood school whereupon all financial discussions will just drift away.

Good luck Princess Beatrice, hopefully you’ll pave the way so that the next royal stepmother doesn’t suffer the ALL-CAPS.