In praise of the other women who raise you

I sympathize with mothers, which is why I’m always holding doors for pregnant women and hauling their strollers onto the bus. (I don’t just talk feminism, I live it.) You see, I am a stepmother, and if mothers are as fretful, guilt-ridden and hungry for love as I am, then mothers are really suffering.

No one was more surprised than I was when I fell in love with my stepdaughters. It doesn’t fit the cliché. My heart didn’t swell, it positively twanged when the girls, still tiny and utterly new to me, first hugged me. My own mother didn’t do hugs; it was not her way. But I had been taken in hand by my great-aunt Ida as a child and by girlfriends’ moms when I was a teenager. It’s a phenomenon rarely remarked upon, but even women who aren’t mothers can be mothers.

I use the term “sidemothers,” in the sense that the mother is the entrée and she’s the extra, the onions on the side, so to speak. She’s an aunt or an older cousin or a stepmother. She’s a next-door neighbour or a teacher.

Sidemothers can perform miracles. Margaret Drabble, a great student of family landscapes, wrote The Middle Ground, a novel in which a girl from a frigid, censorious family is essentially adopted by her boyfriend’s parents. “Kate fell in love with the whole Armstrong family, which she found warm, uncritical, friendly, an antidote… Kate owes to them the ease with which she embraces her own children; the liberality of her own endearments: They taught her an emotional style and she is grateful.”

The greatest novelist of our time, Doris Lessing, housed gaggles of anguished teenagers in London in the ’60s, recovering from hippie parents who believed their wants trumped their kids’ needs. Tactfully, Lessing left that era out of her autobiography, but her 2001 “novel,” The Sweetest Dream, studies Lessing’s spillage of affection on the abandoned young. “How well she identified with that misery,” its maternal narrator, Frances, says. Empathy is all.

Not all women are meant to be mothers. Some have children as a matter of course without possessing that generous maternal gene. They seem almost to resent their daughters’ beauty, say, or great ambition because theirs was thwarted. Women who dislike themselves will pass it on to their daughters, guaranteed, unlike most mothers, who would scramble, grovel and slave to ensure their daughters surpass them. And there are traps there, too. Motherhood is a skein of emotional knots and tangles.

Thus sidemothers are like money in the bank for moms. They take the pressure off. I had a sidemother. My great-aunt Ida had a talent for decor and domesticity that I observed as a child without knowing I was observing it. I remember an orange silk throw that she had placed in a bedroom in my grandfather’s rather stern, dark house. I was drawn to the exclamatory colour and to this day abhor the fashionably drab mud and sand shades of today’s houses.

I learned recently that I, a stepmother, was something of a sidemom to my stepkids’ friends. Knowing that kids never have much money for what Christmas now demands, I gave their friends good presents, apparently. I handed out girly stuff like genuinely chic perfume and those huge Estée Lauder makeup sets that are too uni-brand for thirtysomethings, but thrilling to a 15-year-old girl. (Now that I think of it, my great-aunt bought me lipsticks and monogrammed purses. I had forgotten that until now.)

These teens told me later that what they had learned from my house, full of books and comfort, was that femininity was a joy, not a burden, and that young girls should be enjoyed, not controlled. No cutting remarks about thinness or fatness, just appreciation of the person.

I never thanked my great-aunt, which I now bitterly regret. Sidemothers don’t always get gratitude and they shouldn’t necessarily, because their affection is a lagniappe – an unexpected gift. The gift itself is the fact of being a sidemother. We have none of the genuine responsibility and we oversee the nuances of a young person’s life, the honey rather than the wholemeal bread. Honey isn’t a requirement but a fine thing to have nevertheless.

A mother and a daughter can’t be everything to each other. It isn’t healthy. Sidemothering is another way to shelter and praise the next generation. Why not try it?