'I am the mother of two boys and they are three months apart in age.'
'How is this possible?', I hear you cry. The answer I give, with alarming regularity, is this: 'because one was born in February of a particular year and the other in May of the same year, dummy'.
The fact that I gave birth to one and the other is my step son is, to me, insignificant. But it seems to be quite a big deal to others.
When I was at school, there was only one girl whose parents were divorced. She lived with her step mum and was an object of fascination! I could only stare at her and wonder if she was being fed gruel like Cinderella. But come on people, it's the twenty-first century, one in three people in the UK is either a step mum, step dad or step child!
I once welcomed the mother of one of their friend's into my home, only to be asked, 'which one is yours?' as we watched the boys tuck into their fish fingers. I pointed to her child and said, 'not that one, but the other two are!' A teacher said to me quite recently, when I was about to travel away from the kids for a protracted period of time, 'I expect you don't really mind about leaving the other one so much...' referring to my step son. I was, for once, gobsmacked.
So here's the back-story. I met and fell in love with a single dad who I knew from my son's school, when our children were eight. It was a bit like a good supermarket offer; buy one get one free. So, just like that, I got a husband and a new child.
We became a family. Think 'The Brady Bunch', but with cramped living conditions and fewer polo necks. Initially we were caught in a tornado of new love and adventure, figuring that the boys were happy to be hoisted and swirled around in the melee. And they were, up to a point.
It was a full eighteen months later, when the shock had subsided and the novelty had worn off, that the hard work started, that of really getting to know each other's children. At that point I relaxed into my role as wife and mother of two and felt able to parent my new son without sugar coating the reprimands, constantly fearful that if I shouted at him or lost my temper he may not like me (whereas I was perfectly content to scream at my other son like a fishwife on a daily basis).
Living whilst trying to be on my 'best behaviour' had been emotionally and physically exhausting, a bit like constantly trying to appease a tricky houseguest. Once I relaxed however, the whole dynamic of our family changed. I got to know my new son and, quite simply, fell in love with him.
The key to our success can be attributed to one thing, honesty.
We sat the boys down when they were still little and explained that we loved them both very much, but we would love them differently. It seems to be a topic that is avoided, but I always give a truthful answer when asked, 'do you love your step son differently to the way you love your birth son?'. The answer is, YES. And this works the same for my husband. However, is this really any different to the various ways in which you love your parents? Friends? Siblings? Lovers? There are numerous types of love that each of us feels, all unique and valid.
Our boys have grown up secure in the knowledge that whilst there was enough love to go around, the special bond they shared with their birth parent would remain intact. But do we treat them differently, NO!
Nearly a decade later, we are a happy, stable family. Our lives have not been without turbulence and frustrations, we have ups and downs, good months and bad, just like any other family. My sons go through periods of loving and hating each other, they are either partners in crime or enemies, just like 'normal' brothers. They also go through periods of loving and hating us as parents, both individually and collectively, that I also consider 'normal', and it is this normality that makes me realise how far we have come.
I'm immensely proud of our children. Being thrown together to form an instant family is not easy, but the one thing that makes it infinitely harder is other people's desire to pigeonhole and make assumptions. Not all clichés are correct. I may be a step mum, but I'm not wicked and only feed my son's gruel if they really really deserve it...