I was skyping with my friend Kathryn a while ago. We’re the kind of friends who can talk to each other once in five years and it is like no time has passed whatsoever. Both Kath, and her younger sister, Jess are residing in the UK now and from the sounds of things, it’s going okay. Kath is moving to the Cayman Islands to work for one of the banks there. Chatting about that specifically sent a pang through my heart because I too applied-, and was interviewed for a job in the very same place.
Talk moved to Jess, who has been dating The Don (Kathryn’s name for him because he is scaly as far as she’s concerned) for going on two years now. Kath and Jess lost their parents in a car accident in the early years of high school – Kath was 17, Jess was 14. Ever since then Kath has been the proverbial mother hen and Jess has pretty much been the trouble-child.
The Don, who is older than Jess by just short of a decade, was widowed about 5 months before he happened upon Jess “who immediately shut his eyes to anyone else”. Kathryn rolls her eyes and spews the words as if they’re acid. Neither one of us says it, but we’re thinking “she was the rebound girl”. Kath’s dislike of him is evident, but as I said to her, she can’t choose her sister’s future husband for her. Recently (less than two months ago), Jess and her daughter, who’s four, moved in with The Don “at his insistence rather than his invitation” and his seven-year-old son. While Jess is 36 already, she doesn’t always have her priorities straight and in the case of shacking up, she is doing it because he has a big wallet. The Don is not the first one either. Not even a year before she met him, she was living with another bloke who was also supporting her and her daughter. It lasted, literally, a couple of months. I asked about the little mite’s father and all Kath said was, “He divorced Jess when their daughter was 8 months old and left Jess for someone younger and prettier, and probably more flexible.”
How often doesn’t this happen: A woman with kids falls for a guy (with or without kids, it doesn’t matter), moves in with him (because let’s face it, if he moves in with her, he is looking for someone to look after him, i.e. A Loser to begin with) and things go sour once they’re under the same roof? How long does she expose her kids to that drama before she finally calls it quits, and leaves him – and her kids wondering why they don’t see the man who has become a “father” (and I use that term very loosely) anymore? How long before she repeats the cycle?
Kath says he’s mentally abusing Jess, but that she doesn’t see it. I’m not a medical professional, but I always immediately think “Stockholm Syndrome” when I hear about people that develop a co-dependence and respect for someone who treats them badly.
Kathryn is pretty cut up about it, because she is concerned for her sister- and her niece’s welfare, because he is controlling and is already referring to her little princess as his step-daughter and telling Jessica that his precious prince is her step-son. To add insult to injury, Kath is only in the UK until the end of June to keep a watchful eye before she heads off to start her new job.
This got me thinking: When does a partner become a step-parent?
I did a bit of research, understanding full-well that different countries obviously have different rules of law. If Jess and The Don were residing in Australia, then their living arrangement would constitute that she is his de-facto partner and thus, in the eyes of that that law, step-mother to his son, and vice versa. I also got a bit of input from various friends on Facebook (one an attorney of law herself) and without a doubt the consensus was that in order to be a step-parent, you have to be legally married to the child’s parent.
Upon further investigation I found that in the UK (as in South Africa), one only becomes a step-parent to their partner’s child(ren) when they actually get legally married or are in a recognized civil partnership (same-sex relationship), as can be seen in this article and many others. Just Google “at what point does a person become a step parent in the eyes of UK law” and you get over 5.8 million hits in less than a second.
Jess’s blinkers have her totally oblivious to the fact that playing Happy Families and Hide the Salami actually means squat. She is nothing of that little boy, except his father’s girlfriend, and Jess’s daughter is that little boy’s play mate. The same applies to The Don. Jess is telling all and sundry though how close she and her step-son have become since she moved in with his father. She even told Kath that The Don has told him “to call me Mummy” and she is teaching her little one that The Don is “Dada”.
I hope that Jess’s eyes open up soon – because without a ring on her finger, he can very easily send her packing (or she could possibly (although highly unlikely) meet someone else and leave), further wrecking not only her emotional stability, but that of both children. It’s about responsibility.
Now, with that said: I am a step-child. I have been for the last 25 years when my mom got remarried to the best (step)-father a girl could ever have asked for. I called him “Uncle” for a long time, but soon he became “Dad”. My mom didn’t force me to call him “Dad”; it was my choice. He has children of his own, older than I am, who were already married at the time their father married my mother, but he has never treated me like an outsider. Often when I tell people I am his step-daughter, they can’t believe it, because we have such an incredible relationship. I will never forget the night he asked my mom to marry him and she said, “I have a child” and he told her that he knows and that if he wasn’t prepared to be a father to me, he wouldn’t have asked her to marry him. And that’s what’s missing with Jess and The Don – that commitment; not only to themselves, but to their young kids, who are still too young and innocent to understand what’s going on.
In the case of shacking up and there are older kids in the picture, I think things may be slightly different because they have some cognitive ability to understand the changes taking place, but still, it remains the responsibility of the adults in the situation to keep the child(ren)’s best interests at heart and be mindful that while they’re indeed older, they still have a mom/dad somewhere else who is their parent (whether it is as a result of a divorce or not – because so often, the new person in the child’s life only hears one side of the story as to why the person is an ex in the first place) and as another person in that child’s life, the not-yet-step-parent should respect that. Put yourself in that person’s shoes. How would you feel if you were the parent who doesn’t have access to his/her kids, only to hear via the grapevine that your ex’s new boyfriend/girlfriend/plaything is telling whoever-is-willing-to-listen that your children are his/her stepchildren?
My reflections on this subject, which I have a feeling is one that will cause a heated debate are: If you’re going to shack up with someone and either of you has kids, make sure (s)he is going to marry you because:
a) If (s)he’s not, then at any stage of the Happy Family game, (s)he may leave you. Some adults are even so selfish that they don’t stop to consider the impact their actions will have on (let’s take your children out the scenario for a moment) their children. I sometimes want to grab people by their throats and shake them. Don’t you know what a privilege and a blessing it is to be a parent?
b) In his/her wake, a gaping hole will be left in your heart, and in that of your own- and the kids you’ve grown to love as your own, and I stress love as your own, because it doesn’t matter who the person is – if you spend sufficient time with them, you do grow to love them on some level.
c) If you think I’m wrong about (a) and (b): People do it all the time because it’s easy! Married couples are inclined to think twice about splitting up because divorce is expensive.
d) If you do have the “We’re going to get married” box ticked, make sure you know when, because if (s)he wants to wait an undetermined period of time, (s)he is keeping his/her options open and in that case it might be in your child(ren)’s best interest to rather visit each other until you’re actually grown up- and serious enough to be a real step-parent!