The 'evil stepmother'

You adore him, but when it comes to his children, you feel like the evil stepmother. Alison Cameron explores why admitting you don't love - or even like - your new charges is the ultimate taboo.

You're in love with the man of your dreams. The only hitch is that he comes as a package deal with his kids - and it's no holiday. Your romance is conducted under the gaze of his children, who are ready to barge in at the first sign of affection. Instead of walks in the moonlight, your evenings are spent picking up toys and preparing school lunches. And all the time you feel the children's eyes on you, resenting, criticising.

Being a stepmother can be fraught territory but, for many, admitting you don't like - let alone love - your charges is the ultimate taboo. It's admitting failure, and you may as well tattoo "wicked stepmother" on your forehead and throw in your lot with the bitches and witches of Snow White and Cinderella.

For Dolla Merrillees, the experience of becoming a stepmother was so tough that she wrote a book to help women who found themselves in a similar situation. In The Woodcutter's Wife: A Stepmother's Tale, Merrillees describes how she went from being an independent 34-year-old Sydney art consultant to the stepmother of a preschooler whose mother was a drug addict.

Before meeting her husband and his son, whom she calls Ben and Jonathan in the book to protect their privacy, Merrillees had no interest in children.

"I had never envisioned having any. I was pursuing my career." She knew Ben had a four-year-old son but assumed the boy would live mainly with his mother, hardly affecting their life. She was wrong. Within 12 months of meeting, they were all living together full-time.

At first, Merrillees had a clear idea of what she was and was not prepared to do. On the "no" list was wiping bottoms, cleaning up vomit and disciplining Jonathan. Again, things did not go to plan. "It all deteriorated within the first month," she says. "I was doing all the things a normal parent was doing."

Jonathan had learning and behavioural difficulties, due in part to the neglect he had suffered as a result of his mother's addiction. "Having to do so much made me resentful," says Merrillees. "He was a fretful, needy child who was very wild. It was confronting."

She found it hard to feel deeply for Jonathan. Instead, she says, "I alternated between being vaguely fond of him and finding him immensely irritating. Ben was realistic. He never expected that love or even affection would come easily to either Jonathan or me, but he was torn and upset. He wanted to support me, but Jonathan was his primary concern."

Life became more difficult when she gave birth to Camille two years later. On the night after her birth, Ben was unable to find anyone to mind Jonathan, and Merrillees found herself alone at the hospital. "Everyone else there was enjoying that time as a couple, but I was without my partner." Although she wasn't angry with Jonathan, she was angry. "This was my first-born and I wanted to enjoy it more."

She was also surprised by the contrast in how she felt between her daughter and stepson. "I had not anticipated the extraordinary intensity of emotion I had towards my newborn daughter. There was no way I could describe how I felt about her as being the same as the way I felt about him."

Merrillees had no one to turn to for advice; few resources existed to help stepfamilies and few of her friends had children, let alone stepchildren.

Writing the book was therapeutic, and today the family are still together and happy. Jonathan now calls Merrillees "Mum", but it took nine years to cement the relationship. "Now, I couldn't imagine not having him in my life," she says. "Although at times I despaired, I also knew I would never give up on Jonathan or Ben and I truly believed we could overcome the obstacles. I also didn't want to look back on my life and think I hadn't the courage to see things through."

Merrillees' readers have confirmed that many stepmothers feel isolated and guilty. "Many said it was a relief to read someone prepared to say they did not automatically love the child. They realised they were not alone," she says.

Indeed, these women should not feel alone. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures from 2006-07, 30,000 stepmothers live with children under the age of 18. This is dwarfed by the number of stepfathers - reported as 132,000 - because, traditionally, children have tended to remain with their mother after a break-up. However, since changes to the Family Law Act in 2006, the number of fathers applying to share the care of their children has increased. This may mean that in the future more women will take on the role of stepmother than before, and with that will come the often increased demands of housework and nurturing.

One of the challenges new stepmothers will face is to have realistic expectations about their role, says Margaret Howden, a psychologist who co-founded support organisation the Stepfamily Association of Victoria (which has now joined other state groups to become Stepfamilies Australia). "There is an expectation you will take on the kids and love them. It is a shock for some women when they find they don't have the loving relationship they expected."

In Howden's experience, it is also common for stepmothers to feel invisible. The children ignore them, which is particularly hurtful when it happens in the woman's own home. "The children often don't want the step-parent to be there. They want the biological parent to themselves or they want their parents to get back together. They are not in a rush to welcome the step-parent with open arms."

Space is another issue - and something one stepmother, a 47-year-old Melbourne teacher, has very little of these days. The woman, who prefers not to be named, married her husband five years ago, and went from living with her two children to caring for a family of seven kids, ranging in age from four to 14.

The sheer slog of packed lunches, cleaning and caring was overwhelming. "I was quite comfortable with my two," she says. "We had our cooking and cleaning and school routines. Then, suddenly, there were so many meals and they all had to get to different schools. It went from comfort to chaos.

I became tired, worn out and depressed." Her husband helped, but the work was overwhelming. She also felt guilty about her own children. "I thought, 'If it's difficult for me, then what is it like for my kids?'"

Her husband's ex-wife made it clear she did not like a new woman in her children's lives. "The children were never rude, but were withdrawn, angry and confused, as though they felt it would be disloyal to like me." She found herself naturally siding with her child when there was conflict between step-siblings. Even today she struggles to be fair. "I know I overlook my own children's shortcomings more than my stepchildren's. I can overlook my child not putting their clean clothes away, but it grates when my stepchild fails to do it."

Experience has taught her that people have little sympathy for stepmothers. "If you whinge that your stepdaughter won't tidy her room, you are made to feel like you should be making a special concession - 'after all, she is a stepchild'.

But if you say, 'My daughter won't tidy her room', everyone nods in sympathy with you."

Dr Elspeth McInnes, a sociology lecturer at the University of South Australia and an expert in changing families, has no doubt step-parenting is tough.

"It's not easy, and that's borne out by longitudinal studies that show there's a higher rate of break-up for stepfamilies than original families," she says.

McInnes believes anyone considering entering a serious relationship needs to understand the responsibilities that come with being a stepmother. "You may not particularly like a child but, as the adult, you have to deal with your feelings," she says. "You don't have to fall in love with them, but you can't vilify or abuse them, scapegoat them or have tantrums over them."

There was no instant love 28 years ago when Sonja Ridden took on her husband Ian's two children, aged three and four. Ridden, from Terrey Hills in Sydney, gave up work to be a full-time stepmother while Ian worked as a business consultant. The children's mother was not involved in their lives and one child had behavioural issues, later diagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Exhausted from coping with the caring, housework and other challenges, Ridden admits, "I felt angry with everyone, including myself. I felt angry with the child with the difficult behaviour and felt angry with my partner for getting me into this situation."

Two years into their marriage, Ridden (now 56), gave birth to the first of two sons. This had a profound effect on her relationship with her stepchildren. "When I had my biological child, I became aware of what the maternal instinct was all about and I started to feel a deeper connection to my stepchildren."

Her experiences prompted her to train as a counsellor and therapist, and much of her work is now with stepfamilies. She has also written a book, Hell...p! I'm A Stepmother, which tackles the issues of step- and blended families. She describes the expectation that stepmothers will immediately love their stepchildren as "unrealistic". "I fell in love with my partner, not his children. Just because it is a child, we think we should be superhuman."

It took 10 years as a stepmother for Ridden to come to terms with her circumstances. Today, all the children have left home and she enjoys with them what she calls "normal adult family relationships". They meet for birthdays and come together each year on Christmas Eve. But there were times she didn't know if she would make it through.

"If I had known what lay ahead when I first met Ian, I would absolutely not have got involved.

But knowing what I know now, I am not unhappy I travelled the journey. The challenges of being a stepmother were the making of me."

A Woodcutter's Wife (Halstead Press, $29); Hell...p! I'm A Stepmother (ACER Press, $30).