I am a stepmother.
I have three stepchildren, aged 13, 12 and 10. They don't live with us, but they come to stay with us for school holidays.
I was just 23 years old, and pregnant with my older son, when they first began coming to stay with us.
In the beginning, I had the highest of hopes, about how we would have a close and affectionate relationship. I would be a role model, a confidante, an inspiration. I would cook wonderful treats, share my love of reading, and generally be awesome :-)
One way or another, real life never did perform to my expectations.
It was a messy, bitter, drawn-out divorce. Both sides blamed each other, the kids were stuck in the middle, awful accusations were made. The children were very young at this time, the eldest had just started school.
Enter me, young and completely unprepared for what I was signing up for.
My arrival on the scene, only served to enrage their mother, and things deteriorated further. She forbade him from seeing his children.
After a couple of years, due to other circumstances, we moved away. It was the best decision we could have made, in more ways than one.
My husband and his ex-wife started to get along better, with some distance between them. During this time, the divorce and custody became finalised, with an agreement that the children would live with their mother, but visit their father for school holidays.
Easter, 2005, the children came for their first week-long visit, aged 5, 7 and 8. They were shy and polite. I was nervous, and determined to be the best stepmother ever.
After a while, the politeness wore off, and the reality of life crept in.
First there was the inevitable comparisons between their mother and myself. Apparently, their mother was the best cook, bought the best presents, let them eat junk food, watch grown-up TV shows, and did not make them do chores.
(I had already made a commitment that I would never, ever say a bad word about their mother in front of them, and despite my many failings as a stepmother, this is one commitment I've managed to keep. I won't lie though, sometimes it nearly killed me to hold my tongue.)
Next came the discipline issues. Their father could not always take time off work for every school holidays, so there were days when I was left in charge. I hated this arrangement. I did not know how to discipline someone else's children. I did not know when to step in, or just leave them to sort out their own squabbles.
There was an underlying tension and testing my authority. Sometimes they pretended not to hear me, other times they did what I asked, but the resentment was palpable.
In the early days, my husband was reluctant to discipline them, anyway. I knew it was because he worried they might not come back, if he was too hard on them. He wanted them to have fun, here at his house. I understood why, but it drove me mad, anyway.
Then, as our eldest son grew out of toddlerhood, there was the sibling rivalry. The older two children seemed immune to it, but the youngest one - my stepson - seemed threatened by this child, who got to live here all the time, and have his father all to himself.
Then there was the time, right after Christmas, when their mum went overseas, leaving the children with us, including her older daughter (not my husbands biological daughter), and did not come back to Australia when she was supposed to.
They ended up staying with us for 9 weeks, missing the start of the school year. I happened to be pregnant with our second son, and was on complete bed rest at the time. We nearly went mad, with 7 of us in our little 3-bedroom townhouse.
More recently there has been anger and aggression issues with the younger son. While the older two matured into delightful young people, he seemed to become more troubled. He seems angry and blames his father for the divorce. When everything is to his liking, this is easily hidden - most of the time he is playful, and fun to be around. But it comes out, when he gets angry, or his father tries to discipline him. He took to stomping up the stairs and slamming the bedroom door as hard as he could, all the while yelling insulting things, designed to hurt our feelings.
Sometimes I found it an effort to even like him. I found myself wishing he would stay at home with his mother, where he so obviously preferred to be.
Just the other day, my younger step-son - the one I have always struggled to bond with, the one who has always seemed to resent me, the one who has always tried his best to make me feel inferior - got himself into a situation where he was in physical danger from someone else. When I realised what was happening, I ran in to protect him, and get him out of harm's way.
That I put myself in danger, was not something that crossed my mind, until afterwards. I just did it, instinctively.
Everything changed for me, that day.
I realised that this kid, despite his attitude, and his ability to turn the house into chaos in a matter of moments....was precious, and I loved him.
It has taken me 5 years to grow to love my step-children.
In the beginning, I tried hard to love them. I wanted to love them, but I just didn't feel that depth of feeling. Sure, I cared about them. I felt affection toward them, and I wanted to see them happy. I looked after them, because I felt it was my duty to do that.
After my own children were born, life got busy, I just didn't think about it anymore. When they were here, I cared for them, and when they went home, life went on as normal.
Having my own children, both complicated and simplified things, all at the same time. Just as I grew into motherhood, so I've grown into step-motherhood. It is certainly not something that has come naturally to me. It happened in fits and starts and it wasn't always pretty!
I started to find my feet about two years ago, when I started a new idea, which tied discipline and chores to pocket money.
Each child gets their age in pocket money for the week (eg. the 10 year old gets $10, and so on) IF they complete their chores and follow the house rules.
Each time they don't do their chores, or they break a house rule, then money comes off their total. The amount taken off depends on the severity of the action, but it's normally $1 - $2. Nobody has ever managed to get their full amount, but they often get close.
To earn their pocket money, everyone is expected to help out around the house, keep their room tidy, and take their dishes to the sink.
There were a few ironing-out problems. In the beginning, they could earn back any lost money, by doing extra chores. That was, until the youngest one, who'd lost nearly all his money, made a deal with his dad, to get it back by cleaning the toilet.
After that, we agreed that once you lost it, there was no getting it back.
The other side-effect is that they learn about money. The first time we ever gave them money, to go to the markets, they all bought the first thing they saw, and then regretted it when they saw other things they wanted more. It was a valuable lesson for all of them.
These kids have all got their own mobile phones, their own iPods, and their own Nintendo DSi's (Their mother buys the best presents, remember?!). But they've all been bought FOR them, not BY them.
To see these kids get excited about recieving $10 that they have earnt themselves, and they can spend however they want, is quite telling, I think...
After this system was established, the kids settled down a lot when they realised that everyone gets a fair go, they knew what was expected of them, and what the consequences were. I relaxed when I did not have to try and think up how to deal with bad behaviour, and how to get them to help out around the house, without nagging.
We began to enjoy each others company. My step-daughter asked for advice on boys, and confided that she likes a boy in her class. My step-son, and I took to ribbing each other good-naturedly.
Since the incident where the youngest son was in danger, he has treated me with respect, often seeking out my company, and making an effort to involve himself in the family activities, and get along with his little brother.
Yes, step-motherhood has been a struggle. Maybe the hardest thing I've ever done, so far.
But as I look at them now, all fallen asleep in the lounge room, after a busy day playing volleyball, all feels right with the world. They are no longer someone elses children, and someone elses responsibility. They are my "conceived in the heart" children, and when they go home, a little part of me will surely go with them.