There are moments – usually early in the morning at weekends, when groggily watching a TV programme about felt hamsters which also happen to be cars – that I find myself asking: how did I get here?
I have spent all my life feeling utterly immune to maternal urges. Feeling smug about my lack of grey hair and wrinkles, I put my Peter Pan youthfulness (some would say – have said – immaturity) down to not having had kids. When friends have bemoaned broken nights or ruined outings, incidences of projectile vomiting or supermarket tantrums, I have mentally high-fived myself at remaining unshackled by such needless drama. I considered myself a lesbian with no desire to ape heterosexual behaviour; a bold outlier; a resister of gender stereotypes.
Then everything changed. At first, my partner was just a name on Facebook, who made a joke about having six kids. Nobody has six kids, so it was pretty hilarious. This name became a woman who made me laugh and did excellent online banter. She then became a person who said: “No, seriously, I do have six kids.” And then she said “Would you go on a date with me?”
Cue Sliding Doors moment. I could have decided against that date (there was a deadly virus doing the rounds in Asia after all – reason enough to stay home), but I decided to go. This woman, an intelligent, brave, compassionate, feisty Feminist with a generous laugh and an eye for the absurd, swept me off my feet. It wasn’t long before we were seeing one another regularly, and before I knew it (but not before some serious gatekeeping on her part), it was time to meet the family. Picture me, if you will, sitting stunned by the noise and kerfuffle of six children (including some teenagers) around a dining table, politely declining anything to eat that they had handled (I have a terror of catching stomach bugs from unclean hands) and trying to make conversation through a rictus grin.
Yet, incredibly, they’re my family now. I have learned, in these last months, the simple pleasures of family film night – of being awkwardly sandwiched between two small people like the sleep pile in The Croods. Dammit: I have watched The Croods! And more Disney than I watched in the whole of the rest of my life. And something called Paw Patrol. And now, cult films with the teens, sharing the uplifting Shawshank Redemption and the enigmatic Shutter Island and Inception, and loving the noisy post-mortems afterwards.
I have learnt that I can be maternal, caring, practical and stable around those children. It turns out I’m a bit of a natural. When you’ve grown up internalising a sense that you are unnatural and broken, that revelation means a lot.
Now there are family in-jokes which involve me! Like how, because of the pandemic, my partner and I had organised two family holidays before our second date. And those camping holidays, with their unexpected thunderstorms and adventures in camp cooking, have become part of family lore. There’s also a joke that never seems to get old. My partner will mention the kids and I will say in mock horror: “Wait, you have kids?” And, deadpan, she’ll shoot back “Yeah, I’ve been meaning to tell you…I have six actually.” And I will mock-faint, drop my fork, or back slowly away, and everyone will laugh – despite us having done this routine umpteen times.
Most importantly of all, I have learned that the blasé dismissal of family which kept me aloof from serious relationships and even the thought of children stemmed from a terror that, because of my own dysfunctional and broken family experience, I would not – could not – trust myself not to damage my own children. So, I wrapped myself in that blanket of aloof smugness, and sipped another cocktail. But here’s the strange thing: children allow you to heal those childhood wounds. In parenting them, I parent myself. I have learnt that I can be maternal, caring, practical and stable around those children. It turns out I’m a bit of a natural. When you’ve grown up internalising a sense that you are unnatural and broken, that revelation means a lot.
A sample of things I have learnt from my first 18 months as a step parent:
- I have to talk about penises way more than normal. Our youngest is delighted and fascinated with his, and when hurrying him up/rescuing the unravelled toilet roll/supervising getting dressed, this subject often, erm, comes up. I suppose there might come a day where the words “I just need to wipe my penis” might not sound strange, but it’s more likely he’ll just grow up first and stop saying it. I bloody hope it stops, anyway.
- I have had more encounters with vomit than in all of my years of youthful drunkenness put together. Specifically, in-car vomiting. I have become adept at tuning out the retching as I maintain a determined focus on the road. Horrified updates from siblings about quantity and quality of output wash over me, as my grip on the steering wheel remains steely and determined.
- Teenagers in lockdown are fun. They shoot their own horror movies about haunted shopping trolleys, and take very seriously their roles as guides in Halloween treasure hunts. They invent whole books on car journeys, and enjoy imagining the battle to do their laundry as an episode in a reality TV programme set in their house.
- “Snails eat other snails” is a legitimate contribution to an intense dinnertime discussion (if you are four years old).
- Kid logic is hard to beat. How does a wise child answer the question: what’s your favourite colour? Answer: pink, purple, and rainbow.
According to the youngest, I will be moving in “when we get married”. Yes, I am currently engaged to all seven of them. Little did I know…
Deborah Evans is a gender critical lesbian feminist who works in education, and is currently learning how to be a parent.