What do you think of when you hear the word ‘stepmother’? A snaggle-toothed hag from a fairy tale? A scheming, greedy, and cruel temptress attempting to get everything for her own children, at the expense of the children that came before? Or perhaps you’re a stepparent yourself and you’re only too keenly aware of the cruelty and shallowness of such entrenched archetypes?
That’s one of the reasons Kelly Chandler wrote The Other Mother. When she became a stepmother of two young boys after falling for a man already ‘baggaged’ with an ex-wife and children, what did she do? She turned to books for guidance, but much of what she found was out-of-date or didn’t sufficiently relate the complexities, the joys, and the frustrations, of stepparenting.
Kelly and her partner Pete, also children of ‘broken’ marriages themselves, are determined to get the blended family thing right for the sake of the boys. But it’s not easy. As a stepmother, there’s often all the drudgery of looking after two young children but none of the perks – the affection, the hugs, the Mother’s Day presents – at least not at first.
There’s also the abruptness of it all. Kelly relates the challenge of one minute not being a mother – and suddenly mothering two little humans, with none of the slow build-up of pregnancy, birth and nursing a newborn. And there’s no training. Yet she’s managing the delicate balance of scheduling the boys’ lives between two homes and she also wants time with their dad in this new and passionate relationship. She’s honest about the awkwardness she feels around the boys at first, meeting other mothers at the school gates, and dinners with the in-laws. She tries hard to build a relationship with the boys, but it takes time to win their trust and affection – and then there are all those stereotypes to tackle.
What makes the whole experience bittersweet is Kelly’s frank recall of her own 15-year-old self and how she treated her stepmother, coming to the painful realisation of all that she and her brother put their father’s second wife through. But this compelling memoir takes an even more interesting turn when Kelly has her own child and all that comes with that – the sleepless nights and the demands of the newborn, balanced with the regular visits of the boys.
Kelly writes with raw honesty not only about the children and her relationship, but about each of the players in their lives, creating a wonderful portrait of a modern family. There’s Pete’s ex-wife, her new partner, and Pete’s ex-in-laws, the children’s grandparents – who are a huge part of the boys’ lives – and Kelly’s own parents and stepmother. With all these relationships to navigate, she still writes with plenty of candour, but with obvious sensitivity.
It’s fascinating to read of Kelly’s growth as a step mum into a ‘spare mum’ and she relates the many challenges of a blended family with humorous and sharply observed detail. The Other Mother is a beautiful and thought-provoking memoir. You’ll never think of stepmothers in the same way again.
Kelly Chandler is a writer and editor, and has contributed to The Age, The Lifted Brow, The Big Issue, The New Zealand Herald and Griffith Review, among others. A former editor of Voiceworks, she was also chair of the National Young Writers’ Festival and journalist trainer at the Independent newspaper in Vanuatu.