If you are a single mum – or else just an incredibly open-minded married one – there will come a day that will make you feel worse than any of the days that have gone before. The day they meet their dad’s new girlfriend.
You will have been expecting it for some time. You may even have cheerfully talked about it with your children, told them you are OK with it. They are not to worry about you, or feel guilty about anything AT ALL. It’s only fair, you will have told yourself, especially if you too are enjoying the thrill of a new romance. Even more especially if you want your kids to get to know your new love interest, and for his kids to think you are the coolest would-be step-mum ever. Which you do, don’t you? You pathetic creature. If that’s the case, you can’t really be getting all uppity about them meeting their dad’s girlfriend – can you?
Besides – you tell your friends, all breezy and feministy – she’s probably really nice. And It’s just so great that the kids are meeting new people. Broadening their horizons. Building their confidence. They totally have your permission to like her. It’s all COMPLETELY. FINE.
But then they do meet her – a trip to the museum, with her kids too – and it’s like nothing you’ve felt before. Not a stab, but an ache that creeps through you. A devastating, silent scream. Except you don’t scream, or cry or wail. You don’t look shocked and drop your phone, or get angry and hurl your glass at the wall. You don’t do anything. You can’t. It’s just there, sitting in your gut like a piece of tough old meat you can’t digest.
Because even with all your reasoning and forethought, all your down-with-it stuff, the idea that your children might actually like another woman, might find a space for her in their kind little hearts – the ones you grew in your own belly – chokes. And behind your nice liberal smile, your mind is on emotional Rightmove, wondering what it would be like to sell up all this acceptance and relocate to the Dark Side. A torrent of terrible thoughts flows through your head.
You want her to be ugly, of course. You hope your kids ignore her and don’t respond to her questions, in that way that gets them a proper telling off when they do it at home. You pray for the meeting to be awkward and dull, that she’ll leave feeling traumatised and never want to see them again. That would be great.
The schoolgirl meanness turns to ferocious anxiety, the sort not even your daily dose of sertraline can muffle. What if they have a good time and can’t wait to see her again? What if they think she’s cool? What if they get married and your daughter is her bridesmaid? What if they want to live with them instead of you? WHAT IF THEY LOVE HER MORE THAN THEY LOVE YOU?
You are forced to accept that you cannot be in this family photo. In fact, there may well be a whole album one day, without a single picture of you in it. You cannot decide what happens in this part of their lives – it is not within your powers, Evil Queen. Nor is deciding how they will feel about her. They will arrive at their own conclusions: not while they are with you, holding your hand, but while they are in a museum, far far away, probably holding hers. The idea of it all, of your daughter kissing her goodbye or your son laughing at her jokes, seems profoundly weird. Why are you here, while they are there, with her? Everything is wrong.
Occasionally the bad thoughts fade – there is still light in you! – and you consider doing something mature and dignified. Reaching out to her, woman to woman. Maybe you’ll write her a note: ‘please take care of my children,’ or get the kids to make her something – draw her a picture. Yes, that would be the right gesture. But as much as you know you should be Susan Sarandon in Stepmom, you are not sure you have it in you yet, to be best friends with Julia Roberts.
You’ll get there eventually. In the meantime it’s easier just to bury your ugly thoughts somewhere deep, where no one can see them. So you turn to your old friend Work and his close associate Alcohol, and arrange to spend some quality time with them both. There’s comfort, too, in the arms of New Man. But if you are just scouting out the Dark Side, seeing what the schools are like, he has been a fully naturalised citizen of the Empire for some time, thanks to his own ex-marital shit-bonanza-from-hell. Besides, it feels somehow wrong to moan to him about how your ex-husband’s new girlfriend is making you feel funny.
Thank goodness then, for your new best friend Marie Kondo, who shows you a good time by making you radicalise your pants drawer and talk to your furniture.
Between them this crazy gang gets you through until the babies are back, safe in your nest. And even though you know you shouldn’t, you ask them what she is like and your daughter says, ‘She was nice, she had black hair.’ And even though you know you shouldn’t, you ask if she is pretty and your son says, ‘I can’t tell, I’m nine.’ And neither of them looks up from their screens, apart from him to add, ‘Mum, will you stop trying to talk to us about it? We’re all right.’ And then, ‘What’s for tea?’ And everything feels OK again.
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