Portrait

Step-parenting with the author of The Other Mother, Kelly Chandler. By Romy Ash.

Writer and step-mother Kelly Chandler

We’re sitting on high stools at Kelly’s kitchen bench. She’s got one leg tucked beneath her, yogi style, the other dangling far from the floor. She’s tiny. The kitchen is white and beautiful. There are toys tucked away in open shelves and in the background we listen to the rumblings of the washing machine. Kelly’s an old friend, but we haven’t seen each other for a while, in the way that sometimes happens when people have young children.

“I was writing at this bench in my Ugg boots with the kids in bed, or getting up to get glasses of water,” Kelly Chandler says of her memoir, The Other Mother. “I was writing about a slightly earlier time, so it was hard to keep the time that was happening now, the softness and the loveliness to one side – and just write about the hardness of those first couple of years.”

Kelly’s family arrived more suddenly than most. When she fell in love, her bloke came with a two-year-old, a five-year-old and an extended family of in-laws, an ex and the ex’s new boyfriend. She tells me how far it was from the love bubble that normally accompanies the beginning of a relationship. They were firmly anchored in the real world, a world that required her to dip her hand into bathwater that was mostly wee and peel tiny underpants from muddy tracksuit pants.

Kelly pours us peppermint tea and slices a grapefruit into segments. “I had no experience of kids, except for dancing at a music festival with a two-year-old whose mum had gone off for a couple of hours and I had care of her, or babysitting when I was 17. I’d really had no contact with kids. It was a shock.”

Kelly’s parents split when she was a young teen and the book not only deals with her own experience of stepmotherhood, but the spooky parallels between her experience and that of the stepmother who was in her life after her parents’ divorce.

“I listened to this podcast called Dear Sugar, and they were talking about when the classic evil stepmum turned up,” she says. “It was around the same time as property. When a stepmother came into a family she would be in direct competition with the children for inheritance, and in some cases, the inheritance would go only to the children, so she’s basically powerless. You get something like Hansel and Gretel where the stepmum encourages the father to lead the children out into the forest to starve because otherwise she would starve herself. It was a famine. So that to me is a really poignant indication: she was trying to save herself, and she’s become evil.

“Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts has this perfect paragraph about step-parenting where she talks about them being ‘structurally vulnerable’, because you don’t have any say in how the children are raised, in certain respects. I’m projecting, this is not the case with us – but I still felt it. You’ve got no control and you’ve got the weight of history, of having to prove yourself to be good otherwise you’ll be considered to be an evil stepmum. I think about the way I treated my stepmum. I went straight to, ‘She’s bad.’ And I wonder how much of that is the weight of history pressing down on these women who come into families, when families are in crisis. Historically – maybe women are not to be trusted with other women’s children – and what is that – what are we saying through literature?”

We both rip into the tart segments of grapefruit and think on it. I listen to the washing machine pause before energetically launching into a spin cycle.

“I almost killed the big one, on our first date.” She means her first date with the kids. “We went to Luna Park and the little one only wanted to go on a really gentle elephant, so I said to the big one, ‘Come on, we’ll go on the big dipper.’ He’s always glued to his dad, but he wanted something exciting, so we went together. I didn’t know what to say to him and then I realised just how small he was compared to everyone else. I knew that there was a height restriction, but we were already packed into the queue. I’ve got this tiny kid and I’m trying to work out if he’s a metre tall or not, trying to work out whether he was going to fall to his death. But I contained my anxieties, and we got on this roller-coaster and went all the way to the top and everyone around us is going, ‘Wwhhhhhooooooo’, and he looked to me, and he was deathly white and he said, ‘I think I’m going to die.’ At the very top, when we were about to plunge to our possible deaths on an 18th-century piece of engineering. But this was a little allegory for me, about how easy it is for kids to fall to their doom and how you’re actually responsible for them. That was going to be me, I was going to have to care for these kids.”

I hear a key turn in the lock, and there’s the sound of small feet in the hallway. Toys are pulled from the shelves. Her son, the new and third boy of the family, comes in. He has a wooden penguin in his hand, a bowl of marbles at his feet. “This is the penguin’s house,” he says.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 1, 2017 as "Not so wicked". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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