I first became a step-mother at the age of 22. I was straight out of university and in my first serious relationship with a man seven years my senior who had two children, the youngest aged one, the eldest three. I can’t say I gave the role much thought, considered the responsibility, pondered over what it would mean for my life or weighed up the pros and cons. Like most 22 year olds, I probably gave it the same amount of thought as buying a new outfit: I liked what I saw, it fit, so I committed.
I wasn’t even a maternal twenty-something. I didn’t really like kids that much and I certainly wasn’t dreaming of having my own any time soon. But I took to it well. I participated actively on the weekends they were with us and fully supported his relationship with them; and when they weren’t with us, we were a normal young couple.
Divorce sucks. It’s a complicated grief – but on top of grieving for my marriage, I was grieving for the children that had been part of my life for 10 years. I was alone, no-one’s wife, and no-one’s mother
As our relationship developed I remember finding his devotion to his children very attractive. I respected that he wanted to be an active part of their lives and found his sense of responsibility admirable. There were down-sides though. I could feel jealous of the time and attention that he would devote to them and as we progressed through our twenties I felt there were limitations placed on our lives because of the children. A job offer to Sydney had to be turned down, the radius within which we could move was limited and measured by journey times, and our finances were always compromised by maintenance payments. But I went along with it and never put my partner in a position where he would have to choose. I simply understood that his relationship with his children was as important as our relationship and that my choice to be with this person meant I would make sacrifices.
When the children’s mother took them to live abroad, our lives changed again. The new -found freedom of not having them every fortnight was tinged by the deep sadness and longing that my now-husband felt, and we spent much of our holiday time travelling to visit the children. I missed them too and it was hard on all of us to not have that regular contact and time together.
Ten years into our relationship and after 7 years of marriage I felt ready for my own child. Although at the time my husband went along with the idea, within a few months of trying, he left me.
Ten years into our relationship and after 7 years of marriage I felt ready for my own child. Although at the time my husband went along with the idea, within a few months of trying, he left me. This came like a bolt out of the blue. I had been aware in the preceding months that he was unhappy, that he was having some anxiety, that he was dissatisfied with his job and missed the children but I never equated it to our relationship.
He told me he didn’t love me and that he wanted a divorce, the day before my step-children were due to fly over and stay for a week. I hadn’t seen them for six months and was looking forward to spending time with them. What followed, as you can imagine, was total devastation. In desperation to protect the children, I concocted a story that I had an ill grandmother and had to go and visit her unexpectedly, I went to my mum’s and curled up in a ball for a week, not knowing which way was up, or how I was going get through the next hour, let alone the rest of my life.
He moved out quickly, moved away and wanted to divorce me. Things needed to be sorted out: the house, the bills and the children. This was the first time I realised that they were the package deal, him and them. Not me. I pleaded with him to show them it was OK for us to stay in touch. I remember telling him they would look to him for how to be with me, but his silence made me realise that he couldn’t support an ongoing relationship. In the end I had to call them to tell them and to say goodbye. I told them I was always here if they needed me, that they could call anytime, but we all knew that this was it. My heart broke again.
I felt excited about the future and was finally open to the prospect of meeting someone, but I vowed I would never get involved with a man with kids again. Then him: handsome, funny, a divorced father-of-two
Anyone who has been through a divorce will tell you that it properly sucks, it’s a complicated grief which takes a lot of time to heal from, but on top of grieving for the marriage, I was grieving for the children that had been part of my life for 10 years. I was alone, no-one’s wife, and no-one’s mother.
The two years that followed were a struggle. I had never been alone as an adult so I used the time to grow, to become emotionally independent, to work out who I was and what I wanted. I thought a lot about what I had sacrificed and what I had invested and I struggled to feel OK about what felt like a waste of 10 years of my life on somebody else’s kids. I thought a lot about them, too, but it was right that we weren’t in contact, I had to heal and move forward and I couldn’t do that with one foot in the past.
After two years I began to feel happy again. I had my own place, great friends and a great job. I felt excited about the future and was finally open to the prospect of meeting someone, but I vowed that I would never get involved with a man with kids again. It was then that I met ‘Mr New’ – handsome, funny, a divorced father-of-two (his kids were six and eight years old at the time). On the way home from our first meeting my brother was teasing me that he liked me. ‘No way’ I said. ‘He’s got kids.’ His response surprised me: ‘Maybe they will enrich your life?’.
I quickly realised that this was a different relationship with different children and the only way to be happy was to fully commit with an open heart and let go of the fear of being hurt again
As the weeks passed, Mr New emailed me a number of times and then one day he asked me to meet for coffee. I wanted to but I could see no future with this man and his life-sucking, opportunity-limiting children, so I made an excuse, feeling it was better for everyone if we just nipped this in the bud and he moved along to find some other gullible fool to waste her life on his needs only to be dumped 10 years later (I was still working through the anger).
But I couldn’t stop thinking about him. It was then that I spoke to a Buddhist friend of mine. I explained that I couldn’t get this man out of my head, but he had these children and I couldn’t get into a relationship with a man with kids. ‘Why not?’ she said. ‘Because I can’t go through that again’. My friend smiled at me and said ‘Maybe you shouldn’t limit yourself. Maybe this man and his children will bring you the greatest happiness that you have ever known…’. (Bloody Buddhists.)
Taking this on board, I went for that drink. The drink turned into dinner, dinner turned into a relationship. I didn’t meet his children until six months into the relationship. We were both older and wiser and we knew we wanted to be sure before we complicated their lives. It’s now eight years down the line, my step-children are 14 and 16 and we have a 4-year-old son of our own.
My experience of being a step-parent before has made an enormous difference to my partner and my step-children’s lives and his experience of being a father has benefited me and my son, in my role as a first-time mother
So how was it second time round? Being a step-parent has universal challenges, your life is limited in certain ways, your partner’s attention is shared and your finances are compromised but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I went into this commitment with my eyes open and 10 years of experience under my belt. I knew what to expect and understood the pitfalls. I knew how to play the role and what they needed from me but I also knew to make sure my own needs were met, too. I also very quickly realised that this was a different relationship with different children and the only way to be happy was to fully commit with an open heart and let go of the fear of being hurt again.
My experience of being a step-parent before has made an enormous difference to my partner and my step-children’s lives and his experience of being a father has benefited me and my son, in my role as a first-time mother. We’ve had our struggles to create the right balance as a family and we don’t get things right all the time, but I can honestly say that my relationship with my step-children does enrich my life enormously. They are both wonderful people and I’m incredibly proud of them and grateful to have played a part in their upbringing and to have them as wonderful siblings to my son.
As for the first lot? Well they did come back to me, through the power of Facebook, and although we haven’t met up again we have had enough conversations for me to know that the love that I gave them wasn’t wasted, it meant something to them and had a positive impact on their lives. But not only that, it hugely benefited me, teaching me invaluable lessons about motherhood that has made me a better step-mother second time round and a better mother to my son.