The McGrath’s at the Blackmores Sydney Running Festival 2014
When Sara Leonardi-McGrath married Aussie Test cricketer Glenn McGrath in 2010, she took on the role of stepmother to his gorgeous two young children wholeheartedly. “It’s a role I took on with great love and respect,” explains Sara. “I thought about what I would want if I was in the other person’s shoes – I’d want someone who would respect my memories, discipline my children and set boundaries, look after their welfare and health, love them unconditionally and make every decision regarding them from a place of love and with their best interest at heart.”
Sara, 32, married sporting great Glenn McGrath, 44, in November 2010 and became stepmother to his two young children, Holly and James. The children’s biological mum, Jane McGrath, died of breast cancer after a long battle in June 2008. Sara met Glenn at a party in Cape Town, South Africa in 2009, and up until now, the couple have kept their private lives very private. But now, Sara has decided to share her story about becoming a stepmother in a new book, Stepmother Love by Sally Collins, in an effort to help other women and create greater understanding about the roles stepmothers play.
Sara, how did the opportunity to contribute to Stepmother Love come about?
“A friend of mine told me about Sally (the author), and how she was writing a book about stepmothers. She suggested I meet up with her and share my experience. I knew as soon as we met that Sally was an incredibly amazing woman. As well as being a stepmother herself, she wanted to dispel the Disney myth that stepmothers are evil (think Snow White, Cinderella etc).
Blended families are becoming much more common. Although my story is slightly different to most, as step-parenting a child where one parent is deceased is different to step-parenting children with divorced parents – particularly if the child feels like the step-parent was the cause of their family break up.”
You are a very private person. Why did you share your journey?
“I’ve never felt the need to share my story publicly. However, I am aware that there was a lot of judgment about me written in the media, although I avoid reading it. Equally, there are a lot of negative judgments made about many stepmothers, but they play a very important role in children’s lives. I hope that by sharing my personal story, other women can draw from my experience or it may help them in some way, and that is a good thing.”
Tell us about the book…
“It’s a group of women, stepmothers, who have shared their stories with Sally. Hopefully by sharing these stories we can promote greater understanding of the important role stepmother’s play and alleviate some of the judgment women face.”
What advice do you have for Stepmothers?
“This is not a ‘how to’ book – it’s a collection of women’s personal experiences. I am very reluctant to give other people advice – who are we to be telling other people how to parent? But what I can do is share my experience, and if that’s any consolation to other women, then that’s fantastic.
While not everyone can have a child, potentially, everyone can be a step-parent, so the book offers great insight to both stepmothers and biological mums. People think that the step-parent is somehow removed from the immediacy of the family unit, but our children love us. I know of incidences where when the stepmother and father have separated, the children have continued to live with the stepmother. When we take on this role of being a parent, we do it wholeheartedly. It’s not something we do part-time and just take a day off when we feel like it!”
What was it like for you becoming a stepmother?
“It’s a role I took on with great love and respect. I thought about what I would want if I was in the other person’s shoes. I’d want someone who would respect my memories, discipline my children and set boundaries, look after their welfare and health, love them unconditionally and make every decision regarding them from a place of love and with their best interest at heart.
James was 9 and Holly was 7 1/2 when I first met them. I was really lucky they accepted me with open arms. But Glenn and I did things in small steps. Initially, when I first moved to Australia (from South Africa), I lived in an apartment and would visit the children at their house. It wasn’t right to just ‘move in’ to their space and home. Glenn and I then organised a trip to Disneyland a few months later, along with one of my friends. This was great way to get to know each other and have fun together as a group. And it was a really big deal for the children to travel, so it was a great bonding experience.”
What insights can you share with other women about to become a stepmother?
“Any woman embarking on becoming a stepmother really needs to do some introspection – knowing your limitations, how you like to do things and the importance of the role. Your life changes – and I took on this role wholeheartedly. We have had our challenges. Making healthy and nutritious meals and sitting at the table as a family is something that’s really important to me, and also the reason I created McGrath’s Kitchen. In the early days, I had these big ideas to cook nutritious dishes, like Risotto with Porcini Mushrooms! But Glenn quickly let me know dishes like that wouldn’t go down well with the kids!
So many people have problems with children eating food. There were times where I got tough and said ‘If you are not going to eat, then you are not hungry.’ But it’s about taking baby steps and gradually developing their palette – anything forceful is not going to go down well but children do need discipline and respect. I always tell the kids when they go to someone’s house they need to respect the lady of the houses’ rules. They may be able to have their feet on the couch at home but that does not mean they can do it at someone else’s house. You learn and grow together. I am really lucky to have great kids though.”
What are some of the most positive lessons you’ve learnt?
“Being a successful stepmother is as much about having a strong partner who participates equally. Glenn gave me responsibilities, but he is also a very present dad – he is always there for the kids and has always been a real family man. Stepmothers play a really important role – my role is 24-7 in the kids’ lives – taking them to school, making lunches, organising their after school activities. There is no space for jealousy or selfishness – you make decisions as a family with the children’s best interest at heart. Being there for them, teaching them, being responsible for their wellbeing, loving them…”
How do you think Holly and James have responded to having you as a stepmother?
“I think I’ve been a very steady figure in the kids’ lives – they feel very comfortable with me. I’m really blessed because we have great kids – partly due to their mother, Jane, who nurtured them, partly genetics and partly because they were simply born with great personalities.”
What advice do you have for women meeting their partner’s children for the first time?
“Have no expectations and be genuine. If the child is not keen to get to know you – they may feel like you are the reason their family has broken up, for example – and you are being forceful, you will only drive them away.”
How did you bond with Holly and James?
“For us the key was having fun together. We grew as a family by doing activities together. We’d take the kids skiing, rock climbing, ice skating… Holly was terrified the first time we went skiing and ice skating, while James was twirling around! Now she is the best skier in the family. But experiences like this helped us bond. If everything is done with love then that’s the main thing.”
Keeping Jane’s memory alive. How do you do it?
“We celebrate Jane’s birthday and her life with an intimate family dinner- it’s really important to keep her memory alive. I’ll often say to Holly, ‘You are gorgeous, just like your mum.’ We talk about how Jane is their guardian angel and how her spirit lives within them. It’s important that the kids live the memory and hold it precious in their heart, celebrating her, but don’t go through life using it as a crutch or excuse. Talking about how beautiful and nurturing Jane was as a mum takes nothing away from me as a person – I’m happy and honoured to be in my role – but it does help the kids.”
“Life is a juggle and we all drop balls – no one is perfect, but you learn and grow together.”
Buy the book
To buy Stepmother Love by Sally Collins click here.