When I first met my husband, he was two years into a bitter divorce battle with his then wife. Divorce is an ugly reminder that as easy as it is to commit to someone, it is just as hard to sever ties.
After a long and expensive process, my partner secured both the divorce and custody of his eight-year-old son. We do not have custodial agreements in India; we have divorce petitions that lay out the guidelines for sharing a child as per the agreements between the petitioners. Sole custody is a provision that the court rarely grants, unless requested. My partner took on the role of the permanent custodian whereas his ex-wife has interim custodial rights. These terms are only loosely defined as per the law.
My partner’s son came to live with us six months before we got married, and if it was hard to live together as an unmarried couple in a small city in India, it was just downright scandalous to do so with a child. Most people in my life told me that I didn’t need to hide it, but I didn’t need to unnecessarily brandish it either. The Indian policy of ‘don’t ask/don’t tell’: empowering you to live freely behind closed doors, one secret at a time. I began to be bombarded with the usual rhetoric of advice I can only assume has been passed on by films and triple-takes on glitzy television shows.
“You are such a great person for accepting his child,” a few people said.
My mother was concerned that having a child before we had even gotten married would mean we would never have any time for each other, that I would get old before my time. Others told me to take it slow so we could get to know each other before we fell into any roles. The most resounding refrain bellowed, ‘Don’t try to be his mother, just be a friend.’
I don’t know how many of them had 8-year-old friends they had bankrupted themselves to get, but I heard this from every mouth I encountered. I never intended to be his mother – but every bit of advice seemed to project this insecurity onto me.
Still, all the advice in the world cannot actually prepare you for this. It’s like going into the Olympic arena carrying two bags full of books, but never having launched a javelin before. The rhetoric teaches you to expect only big moments, but in reality, when my partner’s son first entered the house, he wanted food and water – not catharsis and redemption. In reality, you don’t always get months to get to know each other.
Emotional connection and love develops over time, but the moment you are an adult who has a child in your house who is your responsibility, you are a parent. You don’t have the option to be just a friend. The moments to provide emotional support and have difficult conversations present themselves in due time, but the moments to feed, care for, pay for and nurture a child begin the moment you have the child.
There were no big moments when it all just started to click: there were school pick-ups, runny noses to attend to, math to teach and noodles with ketchup to sneak vegetables into, and somewhere through all that, I started to love him. Somewhere along the path of doing experiments together, playing with the cats, putting up fairy-lights in every corner of the house and taking rain-baths together, he started to love me too. We started to have an endless list of things to talk about.
He started asking me not to leave whenever I travelled for work, and I started missing him whenever I was gone. It turned out that what I had dreaded the most, was actually the easiest part of being a stepmother.
While his schools were gracious enough to understand our situation and recognise me as his guardian on my partner’s deputisation, even before my husband and I were married, other people are less gracious. All the people who gave me loving advice before we had the child, then turned on me to remind me constantly that I was less-than-mother; that any slip-up on my part was worse than anything that any biological relation of the child could ever do to him.
‘Evil’, because it is easier for us to believe in the woman who would hate a child just because she didn't birth him, we remind her that her love will last only until she has children of her own. We discourage the use of terms that signify any real claim to parenthood. The term ‘stepmother’ is almost an affront. My stepson, when he introduces me as such to his friends and their parents, eyes roll. When he had to read out an introduction about himself at a school event, he was told it was inappropriate to mention his stepmother. Even the people who mean well, discourage us from using the word because when we say ‘stepmother’, they prefix the term with ‘evil’.
The accurate descriptor is powerless. In the real world, I sit and struggle with this powerlessness everyday –– I remind myself that parenting is not about expectations, but provision and protection of the child. I worry about being able to bring him back home each time he goes to visit his biological mother, even though we have a legal contract that details exactly how many days he is to be gone. I try to protect him but every so often I have to watch him go through things that we should be able to stop but cannot.
Anything I say or do is overstepping my boundaries, but everything I provide is quite simply my responsibility. There is no situation where anyone would acknowledge that I could have the best interests of the child in mind, and I am able to do so because I am not operating out of the lingering venom of a contentious relationship.
After all, I am not his mother, I should be content being just his friend.
(Aarushi Ahluwalia is a freelance journalist currently based in J&K. She has worked extensively on the subject of gendered violence and women's issues for organisations such as Cobrapost, CNN and The Guardian. She loves her cats and is incredibly tired of being told to smile more. She tweets @theseicepacks. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)