Cristina Odone

Journalist, novelist and broadcaster

The stepmothers’ survival guide

October 31, 2009 @ 11:11 am

A reluctant stepdaughter herself, Cristina Odone was determined not to force a good relationship with her stepsons. But what was the alternative in a modern-day fractured family?

Step by step ... Cristina Odone and her husband, Edward, with (from left) Isabella, Johnny and Hugo. Photograph: David Levene

'You're not my mum!" I wanted to scream whenever my stepmother told me off for showering late at night, talking too long on the phone, or coming back late from a party. I, a stroppy teenager, sometimes spent the weekends at my dad's – my brother and I lived with Mum – and inevitably Michaela would criticise something I did, triggering long sulks, if not outright rows. I saw myself cast as Cinderella; just as when we'd been younger, my brother and I had identified with Hansel and Gretel. We were lost in a scary wood, where grown-ups grew distant, our home changed irrevocably, and an unfamiliar figure lurked.

Stepmothers are the stuff of fairy tales and, increasingly, of contemporary life: one in three of us is involved in a step-family situation.

It can make for tricky terrain. Flesh and blood ties may not temper outbursts, or soften criticism – but introduce a "step" into the equation and the result can be explosive. A "blended" family of his children, your children, maybe even an ex hovering in the periphery, requires a delicate balancing act of love and authority, reassurance and restraint. The investment is so huge, for many it proves a step too far – or, as one beleaguered stepmother put it, "isn't this what boarding schools are for?"

For me, it has proved immensely rewarding. I'd left marriage so late that, at 42, I never dared hope I'd be able to have a child, let alone three – two ready-made, providing me with an instant family. For the past six years, our blended ménage has consisted of Johnny (16) and Hugo (14) – my husband Edward's sons with his first wife Claudia – and Isabella (six), my daughter with Edward. Edward and I are constants in this family group, but Claudia, who lives in Germany, is also a presence – via telephone (with me) and internet (with the boys).

In retrospect, I should have been anxious and maybe a little wary at the prospect of turning my self-indulgent single life upside down to make room for a divorced man I barely knew and two boys I hadn't met. Since my own experience as the child of a "broken home", countless studies had shown the children of divorce were more likely to binge, have sex, drop out of school and get in trouble with the law. Divorce, the stats were clear, set off an avalanche of horrors; it traumatised lives, and left children and grown-ups desperate and dysfunctional in its wake. Would anything – love, discipline, sense of humour – survive such emotional upheaval?

But I was pregnant, and floating in a placid daze. Like a hormonal Pollyanna I could see only the best in every situation. A divorce was not a dead end, but a great challenge. Being a stepmother was not the dread repetition of a troubled period in my life, but a wonderful opportunity to right some wrongs. Having us live in a small rented flat was not a test of our budding, blended relationship, but a chance to develop a "one for all, all for one" mentality.

From the outset, I knew which elements of my own experience as a stepdaughter I wanted to repeat – and which I didn't. My stepmother's generosity and interest in my life had been a welcome extra in my youth; but I had also resented the automatic love, acceptance and intimacy expected of me. It had been a question of too much, too soon, with no one taking into account the conflicted loyalties that all children of divorce feel towards the new face on the scene.

By my 20s, moreover, my allegiance to this blended family was desperately needed. Lorenzo, our half-brother and Michaela's only child, was diagnosed with adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a rare genetic disorder which soon robbed him of speech, sight, hearing and movement. Lorenzo was kept at home where Michaela nursed him 24/7 while she helped my father research the little-known disease that had struck down their son. The result of their study, Lorenzo's Oil, became a therapy used widely by boys afflicted with ALD – and the subject of a Hollywood film starring Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte. I still remember watching the film, and for the first time seeing Michaela not as my stepmother, or as my father's second wife, but as a fierce and indefatigable mother.

I instinctively felt that I should let my stepsons come to me, rather than bombard them with attention and affection. We could take as long as we needed to get to know each other – this was a lifelong relationship, not a head rush. They approached me differently from the very first day I met them at my in-laws' in Somerset. Johnny, then 10, slipped his hand in mine and led me to see Dennis the donkey in the nearby field. Hugo, eight at the time, clung to his father and stole furtive glances from under his long lashes. About a year later, when I was cooking on my own, Hugo stole up behind me and suddenly whacked my bottom hard. He didn't say anything by way of an explanation – and I didn't ask for any. I felt I understood his little boy's frustration, mixed with longing and confusion and sadness, at having to deal every day with this woman who was not his mum but was doing mummy-like things with him.

If the past sets the tone, the ex, too, is key in any blended family. He or she can decide to turn the children against the "intruder" (or intruders, when there are step-siblings to cope with); or can opt for constant interference, monitoring daily the children's meals, homework habits, dental hygiene. You, the new spouse and parental figure, can only stand by as the "real" mum or dad play havoc with your carefully laid plans for Christmas at your parents'; or your schedule for after-school activities.

Luckily, Claudia, Edward's ex-wife, ignored such tactics. When Edward told her that he and I were in love, she invited me for a tête-à-tête. I still remember the mixture of curiosity and fear I felt as I made my way to the shabby hotel in Victoria: what if she hated me, thought me an unsuitable influence on her sons, or felt compelled to explain what had gone wrong between her and Edward? In the event, we drank a great deal of whiskey, and discussed the future, rather than the past. We agreed that the children came first, and that communication between the grown-ups must be clear and frequent. Because there was no history between us, there is no animosity: indeed, we sometimes find it easier for me and Claudia to work out the boys' flights, holidays and visits. Between exes, even a weekend at the grandparents' can be emotionally loaded.

When Isabella was born, I was secretly relieved that she was a girl. A baby brother might have triggered jealousy and rivalry; a baby sister was an utterly non-threatening addition to our household. Claudia brought back the boys from their holiday to see the newborn, and it was clear she had presented the arrival as a welcome event rather than a worrying development. While Claudia and I cooed over the crib, Edward instructed the boys on the basics of brotherhood: they were to tease her mercilessly so she'd never become precious, and, later on, protect her from unsuitable men. For weeks thereafter, Johnny walked around muttering, in practice for meetings with putative future boyfriends: "I have a gun and a shovel, and no one's going to miss you."

With Izzy's birth, my Italian mamma side came out. I was a full-blown and irrepressible stereotype, and although I didn't wear black, with an apron and six chins, I did cook army-sized portions of spaghetti, and cross myself every time one of the children sneezed. The boys poked fun as the maternal overspill swamped them: no, they did not want a second helping; no, I should not polish their trainers; no, they would not catch pneumonia if they went to sleep with their hair wet.

Their presence, I am convinced, explains why Isabella is vaguely normal: without them, my fussing and worrying would have had only one object; instead, it has been divided by three. But if I spend a great deal of time cosseting them, I harbour no desire to replace their mother. On a Primark shopping trip recently, an unusually solicitous salesman helped Johnny and me locate a pair of the right (ie frayed and faded) jeans. When the salesman referred to me as "mum", I winced, remembering how much I had hated anyone mistaking me for Michaela's daughter. Johnny, instead, was very relaxed, pointing out that it was Hugo, dark and more swarthy, whom everyone usually thought was my son.

If I knew from the outset that I didn't want to replicate some aspects of my childhood, Edward knew from the very beginning that he wanted to safeguard the very close relationship he had with his sons. We decided that he should spend one day a weekend on his own with the boys, while Isabella and I would visit my mum. Close-knit families have a repository of memories, running gags, small rituals and sometimes even their own language which they cherish, but which exclude everyone else. I was respectful of this – while looking forward to the time when Isabella and I would be able to share insider jokes about the rich branch of the family, the thrill of blowing up old laptops, and three-hour sessions watching DVDs with titles like "Hatchet Massacre 3" and "Invasion of the Paranormal Spooks".

What I consider our perfect blend puzzles some acquaintances. "You can't enjoy having two teenagers who are not your own flesh and blood around?", I often hear. But I do: I enjoy the way they tease me about Izzy. Sometimes the boys themselves want to test their new nest. Last summer, as we sunbathed on the beach, Johnny and Hugo presented me with a moral dilemma they had devised. Our home was on fire, and hanging from one window was Isabella, while hanging from another were Johnny and Hugo. I could only save one lot – which would I choose? The question took my breath away, not because it was so brutal, but because similar dilemmas had kept me awake at night when I was growing up, a child of divorce.

I didn't answer the boys. But I know that some months ago, as I crossed the street, I turned to see whether the children were following me. To my horror, they were – and a white van was hurtling at top speed towards them. I saw them, holding hands and smiling unawares, and I screamed. The van braked with a screech. The children ran to safety. As I rushed to them, I realised that I had not thought about "my daughter" but about "the children".

Divorce has spawned a lucrative industry of lawyers, counsellors and estate agents – not to mention internet dating and Botox specialists, and personal trainers, who all capitalise on the ever-increasing number of divorcees in need of a new partner, and a makeover to snag him. But while the headlines are about the spectacular rows Jordan and Peter Andre went in for, and the pay offs that John Cleese gave his ex, many couples are quietly engaged in keeping their divorce friendly. Like Claudia and Edward, they believe that a "good divorce" is not one in which you fleece the ex for all she's worth, or secure for yourself the house, the seaside cottage and both kids. These couples have understood that divorce does not mean you shut the door and throw away the key. It is, especially when children are involved, an on-going relationship – like marriage, parenthood, or friendship.

When my parents orchestrated their civilised split, I remember we had a couple of Christmases when we invited my father. My brother and I basked in the seasonal atmosphere, and took delight in the friendly exchanges between my parents. More than 30 years later, I sat down to a Christmas lunch with Edward, my dad, his girlfriend (Michaela passed away in 2000), my mum, the children, my sister-in-law and her partner. I looked down the table at those familiar faces and decided nothing could be nicer than sitting with a large, slightly dysfunctional, rather eccentric clan, watching your mum pulling Christmas crackers with her ex, and your stepsons spoon-feeding your daughter bread sauce.

Cristina Odone's new novel, The Good Divorce Guide, is published by HarperPress, £7.99

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