This is an online interview I did with 55 year old Annie. I hope her story can inspire those who are just starting out living as a blended family.
How old were you when you and your ex divorced?
Separated when I was 36, divorce went through about three years later.
What led to your divorce? Describe the marriage.
Where do I begin? Basically, I eventually just stopped loving him. The marriage started out well (as they all do). We shared the same values, had the same ambitions and loved each other. We started seeing each other after I had gone through a series of very unsuccessful relationships with men very different to him, and he swept me off my feet with his charm and complete devotion/infatuation – no one had ever been so attentive to me before!
We were only married for about six months and I fell pregnant with our first son. That’s when he started to change. I suffered from shocking morning sickness, and he didn’t cope with my sudden need for him to become the nurturer and look after me. This was the 1980’s, and men still expected women to do all the ‘looking after’. So when I was out of action, he struggled to cope. This was the first sign that things were not as perfect as I had thought.
We had the three boys within five years, bought a house, I stopped work after baby No 1, and things just got more and more difficult. He was an amazing father, completely devoted to his sons and very hands on. But, he was not a good husband. He was, I think, jealous of my relationship with my babies, wanting me to reserve all that affection for him alone. He became critical of my appearance (I gained a lot of weight after the babies and probably due to being secretly unhappy), critical of most things I did, and became an entirely different person. He worked extremely hard (six days a week) and provided very well for us all, but in doing so, we grew apart and spent very little time together.
The most significant factor in the breakdown of the marriage – was his erratic behaviour. He would be really good for a while and then slip back into weird behaviours. He sulked, laid in bed, or would storm out- crazy stuff! As it turns out, years and years after our divorce, I found out that he had in fact, been diagnosed with bipolar disorder- explains everything!
I have to accept responsibility for half of the breakdown of the marriage, it was not entirely his fault! I know I threw all my energy into my boys, I eventually gave the relationship very little attention, and I gave up on working on us as a couple. I was getting so much strange behaviour from him, that I eventually just ignored him. The more I ignored, the more he performed.
It’s very hard to tell the story in a few paragraphs, but basically, I was fooled into thinking I was marrying someone completely different from who he turned out to be. I matured, grew up and became a parent – he stayed young and hated the responsibility that came with a wife and family.
In the end, he confessed to infidelity, I think expecting me to beg him to stop, and I responded with a very firm “GET OUT”- and that was it!
How did you cope raising your three sons?
In a word – barely! No, not true. It was hard, as you can imagine, but I found it much easier being on my own with them and being able to just get on with raising them, than coping with the crazy stuff that went on with their father whilst trying to raise them!
At first, people rally around and give you lots of support, feel sorry for you, take care of you, invite you to things you normally wouldn’t be invited to, etc. That soon stops, and you find out who your real support network are. In my case, my Mum and Dad and other family members were it. Lots of ‘friends’ disappeared, and others stepped up.
There were three things that were the most difficult:
- Coping with the kids’ heartbreak. Whilst I stopped loving their father – they did not; and being separated from him was devastating for them. The oldest was 7, middle one 5, and the youngest 2. The two year old was fine, he became very clingy and developed a dependence on me. The five year old had started preps three days before the separation, and he became wildly angry, presenting all sorts of behavioural challenges. The seven year old was a heart breaker! He cried, and cried and cried for years. He could not understand why I didn’t want his Dad in our home, and hated having to say goodbye to him after weekends spent with him. In those days, the norm was access for Dads only every second weekend, so the kids went long periods without seeing or speaking to him. Lots of counselling, play therapy etc helped them, and me a lot. There are amazing agencies out there, designed to help kids with these sorts of issues, and I’m sure they have improved since the 1990’s.
- Coping with the never ending responsibility – one of the things I found the hardest. At the end of the day, every little problem, every task, every need, every difficulty, is yours and yours alone. There is NO ONE to share the burden with, so after the day’s crazy schedule had been met and the kids were finally settled for the night, I would sit alone with all that responsibility – EXHAUSTING!!! This is something I did not admit to at the time, but in hindsight it was very, very hard. There were times when I would have happily run away, but of course, the love you feel for your kids stops you even considering that.
- Coping with the emotional loneliness. I would often say to friends “I’m not lonely, I’m alone”. By this I meant, I was never on my own physically, in fact, I couldn’t even go to the toilet on my own. I had plenty of friends and family, and a very full life with my kids and their activities. But, I was emotionally alone. Nobody took care of my needs, nobody nurtured me, and nobody made sure I was ok – including me! This was probably the hardest thing to cope with – presenting the brave, mother / lioness face to the world, but inside, dying for some attention that was about ME, not the kids!
Did you have any support raising your sons?
Yes, I had lots of amazing support from my wonderful family. My Mum and Dad came to the rescue. Dad became the man of the house, repairing things, lawn mowing etc. But more importantly, providing an amazing role model for my boys. Mum took us all under her wing, had us over for countless meals and sleepovers, fussed and doted and basically, allowed me a break from the day to day care of three wild little men! To this day, my sons have an amazing relationship with my parents (who are now 86 and 90), and know the value of family in a different way to most young men.
There were also other friends and relatives who stepped up in a big way. As I mentioned, lots of people retreated and no longer wanted to know the ‘broken family’, but those who really cared were amazing. The Stalwarts invited us over for meals and holidays, spent time with the boys (providing activities I couldn’t afford to give them), and brought lots of fun and love into our lives.
Did their Dad see his sons?
Yes, for a long time he did, but he no longer does. Every second weekend was the norm back then, so they would pack up and go to Dad’s happily at first. Things went well, until he got himself a new partner. She was kind to the boys at first, but after a while things changed. From what they tell me, she made them feel like they were in the way, a nuisance, costing too much to feed, basically not good enough sons. She badgered them to be kinder to their father, who eventually had very little contact with them, and finally, they all stopped going to see him at all.
Having said that, there were a lot of years that they went every second weekend as little kids, the breakdown came when they were teenagers and we all know how tricky relationships with teenagers are!
How did you meet your current husband?
Would you believe, on an Internet dating sight?! After the disastrous marriage, I was determined to never go near a man again – I had never chosen well! I was on my own for about eight years, and a friend put my profile on a dating site, and she and her husband then ‘fielded’ candidates (unbeknownst to me) and sent out ‘expressions of interest’. Thank goodness I was unaware, or I would never have met my now husband! Eventually, they convinced me to email the only one who responded and sounded half normal, so I emailed, we then spoke, arranged to catch up for coffee, and have been together ever since.
Was he divorced/ widowed at the time?
He was divorced, and had three children to two different women (two girls from one, a boy from another), so plenty of baggage!!
What were your struggles of being in a blended family?
Huge question! Well, the biggest struggle was letting go of expectations. I truly believed (perhaps naively) that love would conquer all – we loved each other, so blending the families would be easy. Again… Wrong!
Another misconception is that, because you love each other you will instantly love each other’s kids. Just like it takes time to learn to love each other, it takes time to love each other’s kids.
A huge struggle in blending our families was that it didn’t just involve the two of us and the kids. There are LOTS of other important people in the mix – other parents, exes, grandparents, partners, friends etc, and they all weighed in on the situation, causing all kinds of dramas. There was never a week went by without a drama involving someone’s mother or father, and this puts HUGE pressure on the relationship. They have, finally, all accepted the situation, or moved on and ignore us now, but during the early years this was a massive problem for us.
As mentioned above, different rules and attitudes for different kids is a very real struggle, and one that takes a lot of working out.
How did you overcome these struggles?
It took us a long time, and countless disagreements, to come to a point where we truly are a family, in every sense of the word. We are now in a place where everyone has equal importance and feels totally accepted and secure with their roles in said family.
As before mentioned, my husband was very good at letting things go unnoticed with his kids, but picking up instant faults in mine. Never maliciously, but nevertheless, a fact. On the other hand, I was so busy trying to be ”Supermum” and keep everyone happy (felt like walking on a tight rope at times!) that I turned a blind eye to this and let my kids deal with this behaviour alone, thinking that it would ‘all work itself out in the end’.
Blended Family Rule # 1 – It does not work itself out on its own!!!
It takes honesty, and lots of negotiation to make sure EVERYONE is equally important, and treasured.
We realised at a certain point, that we had both come to the relationship with different sets of parenting values, experiences and insecurities, and once we figured out what they were, we were able to work on each issue and sort them out.
Blended Family Rule # 2 – Don’t expect others to parent the same way you do.
Perseverance and honesty was really how we overcame the struggles.
Blended Family Rule # 3 – It’s incredibly important to be brave and honest about what is going on.
Despite the fear of losing the relationship you have with each other, it is paramount to be an advocate for all the kids and their happiness. In the end, if you truly love each other, it should be possible to bend and compromise – otherwise the relationship isn’t worth keeping.
Time and patience has seen us all find our places in this large, happy, loving family. The boys have gained two beautiful sisters, a brother and three amazing, adorable nephews and nieces. I have been given the gift of daughters, and grandchildren and couldn’t be happier with them all. It really is true that family relies not at all on biology, but on love.
What was it like to be a step mum at the very beginning? How did you feel?
Being a step mum has never been difficult for me. At the very beginning I just assumed that I could love these kids and do what was best for them without any issues. The two older girls were, to their credit, delightful! They had been through a couple of difficult episodes with their Dad’s partners, and at their ages, could have given me lots of grief. Instead, we became firm friends immediately. At first I assumed the role of friend and support person – careful not to step on their mum’s toes. As the years have progressed, I think we now honestly love each other as close to mother and daughter, as is possible. I am very aware that I am not their mum, and I don’t try ever to replace her, but I support them and love them and their children like a mum.
My stepson has been a different story. At first I was incredibly maternal towards him, and there were times when I spent more time with him than his mother or his father! His mum was, in a word, crazy! She disagreed, argued, stalked, manipulated and abused her way through the first ten years of our relationship. In fact, she was the number one reason why our relationship faltered at the times it did. Despite her, his relationship with me was a loving one, and he was more at home in my home than his mothers. As the years progressed, she worked on him and little by little, convinced him that he should not love me, and that he should see me as a threat to his relationship with his dad. As a result, we now have a friendly, but quite surface relationship. He is a 16 year old boy, and relationships with them are always monosyllabic, so I’m hoping we will work it out as he gets older.
I have always felt very protective and loving towards my step kids. I am strongly of the opinion that the kids should never suffer due to their parents’ mistakes. I have never played games or used them as pawns in any way, and I love them very much.
There are a few things I would like young mums to know.
The first is that parenting / step parenting is not easy – but it is not rocket science either! From what I observe, there is enormous pressure on young parents at the moment to produce extraordinary kids, who reach every milestone on or before time, and arrive at adulthood unscathed and totally well-adjusted due to incredible knowledge and dedication from helicopter parents!
Whilst I agree totally that parenting is the hardest job you will ever do, my advice would be – don’t take it so seriously! Don’t beat yourself up because your child is not walking/talking/toilet training/reading at level 20, at the same time as some other kids – they all get there in the end. People have raised well adjusted, intelligent, successful kids through wars, depressions and world crises for thousands of years – and there were no ‘milestones’, or ‘wonder weeks’ in sight!
What is most important is the sense of love and security they get from a happy home life. The milestones they truly need to reach are the development of respect for themselves and others; the desire to be kind and give back to the society they are a part of; and the joy of knowing they are truly loved and valued.
Co-sleeping, attachment parenting, schooling, immunisation debate, and the countless other concerns you are forced to deal with seem incredibly overwhelming, and must make the job of parenting more complicated than it needs to be. I’m not saying that advances in the world’s understanding of children’s needs and stages of development are not relevant, I’m just advising to not worry eternally about stages and labels. Just have fun raising your kids – enjoy it, because it passes by in a heartbeat and the little person that you hoped would become a Brain Surgeon – is a plumber, and a happy, well adjusted, fully functional, amazing young man! Things don’t always go to plan, but they generally work out well in the end.
The second thing is that if your marriage ends; learn from it. Don’t repeat the same mistakes in your next relationship. Learn to bend and compromise, and expect some problems. Life is not like a romantic comedy – relationships are not fairy tales or love affairs, they are sometimes difficult, sometimes messy, but always wonderful! Don’t give up on your relationship because your Prince Charming is out there somewhere – he is probably sitting on the couch next to you, just wrapped in a different package!