Singapore stepmothers open up about loving their partners’ children
When Oniatta Effendi first met her husband’s three boys from a previous marriage, she was taken aback by how difficult it was to get to know them.
None of them would acknowledge her, and all of them were unwilling to accept her coming into the picture, she says.
“They didn’t want to come over when it was time for them to come over. And when they were in the house, there was no communication,” recalled the 43-year-old. “It was very hard.”
Oniatta is one of many stepmothers in Singapore who has had to face the challenge of navigating through a blended family.
She met her husband, Nizam Ismail, 50, through their mutual love for music. They became friends and eventually formed a collaboration, Awesome Twosome, which still performs today.
When they got married five years ago, the boys were between ages 12 and 17 – a difficult age to get through to them, admitted the Singapore Polytechnic lecturer. “It’s expected, I suppose. When marriages don’t work out, the kids are affected because they are trying to understand why and what happened.”
The whole family took a bit of time to figure out what this change means for them all, and sought help with a counsellor as well, added Ms Oniatta, who also has three children from a previous marriage.
The counsellor pointed out that she was “trying too hard”, she said wryly, and should let things happen naturally.
“After that I didn’t do anything. I just made sure that, if they were in my house, I would have yummy food for them to eat,” she said. “And if they wanted to talk to me, I was available; if they didn’t, that’s fine. We were negotiating spaces.”
She also tries to be present at all their important milestones, such as enlistment into National Service and graduation ceremonies, she added.
Besides the hurdle of getting to know their new stepchildren, stepmothers also face plenty of other obstacles, such as resistance from family and friends, as well as tension with their partners.
“Our relationship was like a roller coaster,” said 32-year-old Jazlyn Chew, who is stepmother to a boy, 16, and a girl, 15. She met her husband Vinz 10 years ago, when she was 22 and he was 27. They got married in 2012.
“In most cases, many relationships start with a honeymoon stage, but not for us. We devoted most of our time to taking care of the children, which caused us to feel stress and to burn out,” she added. Vinz received custody of the children in 2009.
In fact, the couple had many disagreements initially, which made her feel like giving up. “There were negative thoughts running in my mind. We also hardly had time to enjoy courtship, and we had to steal time in the evening on weekends to take a breather on our own whenever we could.”
Chew also fell out with many friends who did not understand her decision, and the couple struggled financially as they moved out to stay together in a two-room rental flat.
A step in the right direction
Thankfully, things have changed for the better. Formerly working in the pre-school sector before she left to take care of the children, she got a job as a trainee social worker a few years ago. The couple also managed to get a four-room flat in the east three years ago.
Chew makes an effort to bond with her stepchildren, bringing them for outings to the library, Science Centre, zoo and beach. They celebrate birthdays, and Chew also tutors the children.
“Every parent would have their fair share of ups and down. Whether they are your biological or stepchildren, it’s all a matter of how much commitment and time you are willing to give them,” she said, adding that she also taught her stepchildren values such as being responsible and showing respect to the elderly.
Her efforts have paid off. “Today, both of them are doing well in school and are respected by their friends. They display good attitude and enjoy going to school, too. I am always very encouraged when I look back at their childhood photos and see how much they have grown. They have done us proud.”
For Oniatta, life with her stepchildren has also gotten better. By taking things slow, she and her stepchildren have learnt how to connect with each other, and have begun to respond to each other “in kindness”, she noted.
Even though they don’t spend a lot of time together – the sons stay with their mother and come over for birthdays and festivities – she said the situation is much better now.
Her youngest stepson, for example, approached her last year when he visited the polytechnic she was teaching at, and asked her to take him and his friends on a tour. “I was so happy he came to find me. That really made my day.”
Still, for some, things do not end up quite as rosy. For Isabel Tan, for example, she and her stepson, 14, have drifted apart, now that he has grown older.
“When he was younger, I cared a bit more for him – I would cook for him, help him with a bit of homework and we could talk a little. Now, we are very much on our own and mind our own business, keeping a friendly distance,” said the 32-year-old who got married in 2014 after dating her husband for a few years.
“To be really, really frank, I feel it’s not easy to love stepchildren the way you love your own kids. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make great stepparents. We can still take really good care of them and feed them well, take them to nice places and create memories together,” she acknowledged.
On her part, she makes sure he has enough food to eat and has a comfortable living environment whenever he comes over during the weekends, she added.
For Oniatta, her decision to be with her husband was something she did not regret one bit. They now have two children together, aged two and four. “Although there were fears at first, when you love a person you accept him for what he is and what he brings with him,” she affirmed.
And despite the stigma that comes with the label of a stepmother, Chew remains optimistic. “Every season has its challenges, we need to brace through it and think of how the pain will eventually be worth it when the children have grown up. Children are brought into this world innocently, so do give them a chance to live the best out of it,” she said.
According to Tan, it is the parents of stepparents that should get a pat on the back.
“Being Chinese Singaporean, marrying a divorced man still seems like a taboo today, and even more so if he has a kid. So I’m really thankful for supportive parents who can accept this and care for the step-grandchildren wholeheartedly.”
To all the naysayers out there, Oniatta has only this to say: “Stepparents are still parents, they have the same roles. I think we need to demystify the label and throw out the old narrative. We should reconstruct the whole image.”
She adds: “We are all human beings. We come with pain, and with a desire for happiness and a new lease of life for all of us.”
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