Confessions of a 'wicked' stepmother at Xmas: Yes, she threw her stepdaughter's pudding out the window and trashed the tree. But Maria-Louise insists stepmums are wrongly demonised at this time of year
Weeks of preparation, 12 hours slaving away in the kitchen and £700 spent on food and presents.
It should have been the year I finally won my way into my stepdaughters' affections by putting on the perfect Christmas.
So why, despite all my efforts, did I end up throwing the tree - complete with decorations - into the garden before storming off in the torrential rain?
How could it have all gone so wrong - again - and why were my husband's daughters continuing to punish me?
Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised. My experience and that of so many other women I know has taught me it is impossible for a stepmother to create a happy family Christmas.
That year, when I (wrongly, I know) lost my temper, I had done all in my power to give my partner's daughters the perfect day.
I knew the fact I had started seeing their father, Peter, when he was married to their mother, still hurt them. I realised it would take time to stop them seeing me as the wicked interloper.
I saw Christmas as the perfect opportunity to show them I wanted to do all in my power to make amends and that we could enjoy some kind of bond.
When I met Peter in 1982, his daughters Samantha and Tracey were 13 and 11. He ran a country sports store in Tiverton, Devon, and I took a job as his manager.
There was a 22-year age gap between us. As a 25-year-old, I looked up to him and adored him, though I knew he was married and had two daughters.
When it closed down, I offered him the chance to lodge at my home, a little cottage in the countryside just a ten-minute drive from his shop.
His wife knew he was living with me and, for a time, everything was above board. But after a year we became closer and in 1983 we began an affair.
I'm not proud of the fact Peter was a married man. But I strongly believe you can't help who you fall in love with.
Christmas was lonely without him when he was living with his family, but I looked at it as just another day to get through.
Four years after I'd begun working for Peter, we turned a storage room and unused office above the shop into our bolthole, where we would retire to after work for evening trysts.
On Boxing Day 1987, Peter walked out on his family and moved in with me full-time.
Doubtless his daughter, Samantha, by then 18, had her suspicions after turning up at the shop one day to find us enjoying a glass of champagne together in our private room.
The following Christmas was our first together as a proper couple. While I respected the fact his daughters wanted to spend Christmas Day with their mother, I was delighted they were coming to us for Boxing Day.
Samantha, a tomboy and the apple of her father's eye, was 19 and Tracey was a pretty, well-spoken and mature 17-year-old. I hoped they'd respect the fact we'd fallen in love and not make a scene.
In the build-up to the day, I felt harassed, yet was determined to make the day perfect. When I served up a joint of pork, Samantha told me: 'Dad doesn't eat that.' In fact, he merrily ate it, as he'd done whenever I'd cooked pork before.
From there, proceedings went downhill. I watched agog as Samantha spent 20 minutes picking the fruit out of my home-made Christmas pudding.
Incensed and more than a little fraught, I told her I had a much better idea for removing the fruit.
I picked up her plate and threw it out of the living room window, custard and all.
My behaviour does not make me feel proud, yet no one who has not experienced it can understand how upsetting it is to bend over backwards to make your stepchildren feel wanted and welcome only to have your efforts thrown back in your face. And with divorce rates on the rise, many more women like me will find themselves in a no-man's-land this Christmas.
What infuriated me most is that Peter did not defend me. The girls left shortly after the pudding incident and he refused to speak to me for the rest of the day.
The following Christmas, I was determined to win over my stepdaughters.
That year hadn't been the easiest for Peter, who had lost his sports and leisure retail business. It was down to me to pay for Christmas.
I was working as a sales executive and had earned a decent amount in commission. So I spent £700 on food and drink - a lot of money, but I wanted to make it special - and £300 on gifts for each of the girls. Samantha had requested a cut-glass decanter, while Tracey had asked for a camera.
The girls were due to arrive in the morning and I felt confident they would love the warm, festive atmosphere I'd created in the house their father and I had bought together.
Tracey arrived first and greeted me politely. When Samantha eventually arrived at 1pm, she warmly greeted her father and sister, but not me. Even though I wished her a happy Christmas, she didn't even say hello. I was shocked to be so rudely ignored in my own home.
It was as though I didn't exist. As she opened each gift there wasn't one word of thanks to me. At lunch, Samantha ate everything, but still couldn't resist criticising me. She complained that the meat wasn't cooked correctly and laughed at what I'd put on the table.
The afternoon didn't get any better. As she wasn't talking to me, there was no point trying to play games, so we just slumped in front of the TV.
After four-and-a-half hours of putting up with being ignored, I'd had enough. I politely asked Samantha why she was ignoring me and she tersely replied: 'I didn't come to see you; I came to be with my father.'
Upset, I discreetly asked to talk to Peter in private. I begged him to have a word with Samantha about her attitude. To my horror, he sided with his daughter and jokingly announced to her that I was offended by her actions.
Samantha replied casually: 'She can say what she likes, I don't care.' My husband and his daughters sniggered in my direction, and I saw red.
I grabbed hold of the 6ft tree, ripping the fairy lights plug out of the wall, and hauled it down the hallway.
I ripped the wallpaper and knocked over a coffee table, but I was past caring. I opened the front door and threw the tree into the front garden: fairy lights and baubles smashed into the flowerbeds.
Peter and my two stepdaughters looked on open-mouthed.
Shaking with rage, angry with myself for spending a small fortune on Christmas, I drove to my mother's house. She'd never liked Peter and couldn't resist saying 'I told you so' - and then served me a much-needed drink.
When I returned home later that night, the forlorn tree was still in the garden, but my stepdaughters had gone. Naturally, they'd taken their gifts.
If Peter was hoping I'd apologise, he could think again. He told me it was my fault that I'd ruined the family Christmas - we didn't speak for two weeks.
Looking back, I'm not proud that I appear to have made a habit of reacting in such a volatile fashion. But in my defence, I felt I had been pushed to the limit by the young women I began to refer to as my 'step-demons' and who had, it seemed to me, thrown my kindnesses back in my face.
I'd even sacrificed motherhood for them. Their father - who I married at Christmas 1995 - didn't want to upset his daughters by having a second family.
I forked out thousands of pounds on gifts on them over the years. They've enjoyed hotel stays, expensive holidays and meals in posh restaurants, all paid for by me. And what have I got in return? Unrelenting stress. As for Christmas, after that year when the tree sailed out the front door, I informed Samantha in no uncertain terms that we wouldn't ever celebrate the festive season together again.
Tracey still came to see us, but each year she'd pretend to get lost when we went out for our Boxing Day walk with our labrador in the woods.
The afternoon was ruined by us having to launch a search party to look for her.
Even though my relationship with my stepdaughters could at best be described as disastrous, I took my role as Peter's wife extremely seriously.
I'd visit his two maiden aunts regularly and made a special effort before Christmas to deliver their presents. Unfortunately, one year our visit overlapped with that of his daughters.
'Why is Dad's fancy woman here?' they demanded to know in front of me. I was incandescent, especially as they continually referred to me that way throughout the afternoon.
The aunts had accepted me and weren't impressed by the girls' behaviour.
The following year, as Christmas 1998 approached, I felt nothing but relief. Peter and I planned to go to a restaurant on Christmas Day. From my point of view, it was to be a blissful time we could celebrate as a couple.
On Christmas morning, there was a knock at the door. I was alarmed to see the local undertaker in front of me.
I distinctly remember replying: 'Actually I'm fine.'
He apologised profusely before explaining someone had phoned claiming I'd died suddenly in the night.
I dismissed it as a sick prank. Privately, though, it didn't take much guesswork to establish who was behind it.
Peter, of course, wouldn't entertain the thought and insisted it was a prank call by a nasty stranger.
But when he spoke to his daughters later that Christmas Day, he was taken aback when they asked if I was still alive. When he replied yes, one responded: 'We didn't get our wish from Santa then.'
In 2008, after 13 years of marriage, Peter walked out on me unannounced - just as he did when he left his first wife.
By then we'd moved to France and, following a decade of animosity, I'd refused to let his stepdaughters come and stay.
In the note he left, he claimed he wanted to be nearer to his daughters. At the time I was devastated, but now, on reflection, quite honestly they're welcome to each other.
Did HE ever consider he had not been helpful in the process of me bonding with his daughters? I believe he felt so guilty about leaving them that he caved into them every time.
Today, I am single and no longer celebrate Christmas - the thought of making a pudding makes me shudder. I don't bother with decorations, let alone a tree.
Rather, my heart goes out to the thousands of miserable stepmums who have to put up with truculent stepchildren.
If they're able to bite their lip, good for them because the role of stepmother is always a thankless one. And at Christmas? Well, it's just intolerable.