‘Wicked stepmother? I was worse’

Devastated by his parents’ separation, for years Andrew Bullock focused his anger on the woman he blamed for destroying his family. Then he reluctantly agreed to meet her…

I was 14 when my parents announced that their marriage was disintegrating. Things had been ‘off’ for a few months but I was always good at ignoring any skulduggery that might have been afoot. That Saturday, in 1998, I walked in on the two of them bickering in the kitchen to discover that my home life, as I knew it, was over. ‘Your father doesn’t love me any more,’ were my mother’s words.

I then found myself chairing a family meeting of sorts in the recently renovated living room of our Berkshire home, which, to me, had always been a happy place. They weren’t perfect – no parent is – but Mum and Dad had always told my little sister and me that they would ‘never split up’. So you can imagine how I felt when I discovered that this was a lie. My 11-year-old sister heard the drama unfolding and popped her head in, only to wish she hadn’t. I cringe at revealing this, but both our parents had cheated. I still don’t really know how this happened, who did what and in what order. What I did know was that Dad would be leaving the family home to go and stay with some woman he’d met in a pub (albeit a very fancy pub). This news did not go down well with me. I was so bitter. I was furious, too. Mostly towards my father because he was the one leaving.

It was more complex with Mum; I was angry with her, but she wasn’t going anywhere. Dad was off to seek solace in the arms of this mystery woman. She became the target of my ire. This faceless blonde who had sauntered into our lives, uninvited, and had somehow demonstrated enough allure that my father was ready to throw away a nearly 20-year marriage.

Andrew and his stepmother Sally
Andrew and his stepmother Sally, pictured in 2012, finally forged a close bond

That afternoon, before he left, Dad went upstairs. I got wind of the fact that he was up there, on the phone, to her! I stormed upstairs, flung open the door and screamed so that she would hear: ‘Leave my dad alone, you bitch!’ This woman is now my stepmother.

I want to make it crystal clear that my father didn’t ‘leave’ the family lightly. In fact, he kept coming back. Those suitcases were up and down our stairs numerous times. The lady from the pub wasn’t happy about this, however. Here lies another reason I started to hate her. He was trying to come home, but she was coaxing him back to her. Had E-Harmony existed back then, I’d have suggested she try there instead.

Finally, Dad left properly. I remained in the family home with my mother and little sister, and Dad was always coming back to spend time with us. To their credit, Mum and Dad were good at making sure we were still a family unit (so as not to completely ruin us, I suppose). Mum was still seeing the other man, and Dad was going home to the other woman. Cake. Eating it.

Soon enough, the time we spent as a family petered out, and Dad would just take my sister and me out. But I had ground rules: I made it clear that I never wanted to be within 100 feet of Dad’s girlfriend. She was not welcome to join us.

This went on for three years. If Dad’s side of the family had a get-together, they were not allowed to invite her. I had the right to enforce these rules as the scorned elder child. It pained my late grandmother to see me being so stubborn. Dad was her son, after all, and she wanted him to be happy. But I would not budge. I was an active nuisance. When Dad dropped us off after a day together, I’d call his girlfriend before he got home and tell her what I thought of her, only for him to arrive back at their house and find her being verbally lashed on the phone by me.

Andrew and his stepmother Sally
Andrew with his dad and Sally in 2011

Things changed when my grandma turned 75 in 2001, and I was told that Dad and his girlfriend were throwing a surprise party at their home. If I wanted to be there I would obviously have to meet this woman. A couple of days before the party, my sister and I went for a tremendously awkward meal with Dad and her. I didn’t speak, barely ate, and rearranged my cutlery obsessively. Annoyingly, Dad’s girlfriend was actually all right. She made an effort with my sister and me by relentlessly asking us about school, our interests, things we liked to do. She never once addressed the elephant in the room, nor did she try to apologise for what had gone on. And this, admittedly, was the best tactic she could have chosen.

Grandma was overjoyed to see us all together at the party. Suddenly, weirdly, things began to get easier. And by the end of that party, I kind of liked my father’s live-in mistress. I couldn’t quite believe it. A month later, my grandfather – Dad’s dad – died. (At least he saw me starting to accept the situation before he passed, I suppose.) And in a cruel twist, his death actually helped things. There’s nothing like a funeral to bring a family together, after all.

Meanwhile, my mother’s boyfriend (the same man she had had an affair with, and who she, too, ended up marrying) had been introduced to my sister and me, and suddenly I was living in this modern, blended family. I was doing the kind of things with my parents and their other halves that I had done with Mum and Dad when they were together. It sounds civilised; but did I want divorced parents? No thanks. In fact, until my late teens I lied to all my friends that my parents were still together. I couldn’t admit that I came from a broken home.

My parents officially divorced when I was 17, and that sense of finality caused setbacks. I remember when Dad told me he was getting remarried, I refused to be measured for a suit and I hated every second of the wedding. I still used his other half as the outlet for my fury. Perhaps I was more protective of Mum, which is why I didn’t lash out at her boyfriend in the same way. I definitely resented him too, but I continued to think of Dad’s lover as the woman from the pub who had taken my father by the hand and led him from the family home.

The dust settled again. I got older and tried to respect my new stepmother. And she gained my respect by accepting all along that I wasn’t happy about how things had turned out. Had she forced herself on me, it might have been less fruitful. There was a certain hardness to her; she still had to look out for herself. We had to coexist alongside my father, and she couldn’t be walked all over. Anything less than this I would have seen as a weakness. So she looked for ways to connect with me and, in time, we found we got on very well.

Andrew and his stepmother Sally
Andrew with his mum in 2017

I used to want to be a sitcom writer, and her keenness to hear about my scripts encouraged me to show her the drafts. She enjoyed theatre and poetry, much like I do, and we bonded over this too. I also started to see her as someone who was in a parental position, but not actually my parent. I could talk to her about my feelings quite easily. It was an unexpected turn of events, in truth. I started to like her because she showered me with attention and praise. This woman, who I had told in the past that I hated, was patient with me and allowed me to warm to her gradually. It proved to me that she did indeed love my father, and cared about his children. She was in it for the long run.

My stepmother is strong-willed and has lost her temper with me at times. There was an incident when my father was unwell, where we had a particularly fiery argument in a hospital lobby. But, again, we both gave as good as we got, and I wonder if that’s where we learned to be friends. There comes a point when you can’t muster the energy any longer to fight against something that doesn’t need fighting against. Everyone knows I have never been a fan of my parents’ decision to throw the towel in on their marriage, but it happened. That’s that. You can forgive, and look back at things differently.

Divorce and ushering in step-parents is one of the hardest things to deal with as a family. And I would warn anyone with children to avoid putting them through it at all costs. But, to any budding stepmothers out there faced with a would-be stepchild who is out for blood – it will be fine. Just don’t be the typical ‘wicked’ figure. Don’t embrace the cliché. Don’t push too hard, but don’t be a pushover. In turn, the child (or teenager or adult) will come around. Being gentle with them will coax them into giving you a break. In all honesty, my stepmother had the patience of a saint. A child’s relationship with their parents’ second wife or husband can become a relationship of love, confidence, trust and warmth, if you do it right.

Life’s too short. It’s not easy but forgiving, forgetting and making peace with your step-parent is the brighter option for everyone in the long run. It’s never going to be perfect and there will be issues along the way. But it’s likely you will have one major thing in common with your stepmother: love for your parent. And that’s worth burying the hatchet for.

How to be a stepmother: Andrew’s tips for a happy ever after

  1. Give your stepchildren time – the worst thing you can do is to force yourself into their lives before they’re ready.
  2. Don’t overdo it – Yes, you want them to like you, but being in their face isn’t going to win them over.
  3. Don’t be too soft – standing up for yourself will gain you more respect.
  4. Remember, you’re not their mother – trying to assume this role for your partner’s child won’t do you any favours. Never try to swoop in on this territory.
  5. Think of yourself as a ‘cool aunt’ instead – teens don’t want to talk to their parents about relationships and sex, but maybe they’ll come to you if there’s a bond.
  6. Don’t badmouth their mother – ever.
  7. Don’t interfere – you may be married to their father, but there are some matters that a stepchild wants to deal only with their parents about.
  8. Show an interest in them – if you find common ground, your stepchildren are likely to want to talk to you about things that excite them. You can bond over this and forge a separate relationship in the process.