When Kate met Mark she couldn’t have been happier. However, his step children made her life a misery … and threatened her relationshipwith their father. She told us what it was like adjusting to life as a step mum and how things are now she has a child of her own.
How we got together
I met my husband Mark five years ago just as his first marriage was breaking up. We’d been part of the same cycling club and gradually had become close as he told me the stress he was going through in his relationship. He was very worried about how his son and daughter were dealing with the break up as he and his ex-wife had had a long and prolonged battle over custody, money, etc, often in earshot of the kids.
I tried to help Mark through the worst of it by being a shoulder to cry on. I think he appreciated this even though I couldn’t completely understand what he was going through – I had never been married nor had kids. Gradually we got closer and, six months after his divorce came through, we were living together.
It was at this point that we decided the kids should meet me. We hadn’t been introduced before then as we wanted to make sure the relationship was secure rather than put them through meeting a girlfriend and then that relationship breaking up too. Mark had been seeing the kids every other weekend and two nights a week, while I made myself scarce so they could enjoy uninterrupted time together. However, moving in together, we couldn’t and didn’t want to keep this up – we thought the time was right to show we were a happy couple and be honest about our relationship.
I tried too hard to win their affection
I don’t think I have ever been so nervous as I was when I first said hello to Jessie (6) and Ben (4) one Saturday in March in Legoland. We had picked a fun and neutral location to put everyone at ease but, while this was the best solution in the situation, it was unlikely that anyone could have felt at ease, considering the circumstances!
We met over a cup of hot chocolate in the café. I had got there earlier while Mark picked Jessie and Ben up. When they sat down, I started fussing immediately, gabbling about how wonderful it was to meet them and that I knew we would all be excellent friends. I had everyone’s best interests at heart but, in hindsight, I know I was trying too hard to win their affection. They looked at me suspiciously and didn’t say a word except ’yes’, ‘no’ and ‘thank you’. I kept looking at Mark anxiously but he didn’t seem to be bothered by it.
The day itself was OK. The kids stayed near Mark’s side, which was to be expected, but I felt disappointed that they didn’t engage with me any further. I took Jessie to the loo once and chatted with her briefly about her school and what she liked reading and watching on TV. She talked politely back but didn’t initiate any further conversation.
At the end of the day, Mark dropped the kids back to their mum’s. Normally they would have stayed with him for an entire weekend but we wanted them to adjust to the situation gradually rather than have it forced upon them. Mark’s wife had not been keen on them meeting me and I do wonder if she had said something to them in advance which had put them on their guard. I am probably being paranoid but she had not had a boyfriend since the break-up and Mark kept telling me that she kept trying to pick fights with him whenever he dropped the kids off.
I started excluding myself
Over the next few months, the kids came to stay with us every other weekend. I kept trying to be keen and enthusiastic but was usually met with blank stares or glares. Jessie wasn’t too bad and would speak to me a bit but Ben was always very sullen and would cling to Mark’s legs. Mark shrugged this off and said he was a typical mummy’s boy and always had been but it still didn’t help us resolve the situation.
I decided to back off a bit and let the kids have as much of their father as they wanted. I started booking appointments on the weekends they stayed and visited friends in the day so I didn’t have to be home with them. Their closeness reminded me of a world I had never known nor existed in. It was quite painful to be excluded so I thought it best to voluntarily exclude myself.
Unfortunately it all started taking a toll on our relationship. Mark’s wife had rung up a few times and shouted at him because we had let the kids stay up later than their bedtime. On another occasion, I had allegedly smacked Ben, which was nonsense but he had told his mum this and she was furious. She had a go at me before I passed the phone to Mark to deal with. He gently placated her which incensed me – why wasn’t he standing up for me? He used to fight tooth and claw with her when they were married and now he was being civil when I was being attacked for something I hadn’t done?
The situation came to a head
I started wondering if all this hassle was worth it. I loved Mark but the constant stress from his ex and the chilliness from his kids were making me depressed. Mark and I bickered a lot from the moment the kids left on Sunday night. He couldn’t see why I was upset and thought it was natural that the kids were a bit stand-offish with me as I wasn’t their natural mother. The worst accusation came when he said I just didn’t understand children because I didn’t have any of my own. That was too personal, too hard to take. I had never had the chance to have children so how could he throw that at me?
After another six months, I packed my bags and left the house to stay with a friend. I had had enough. Jessie had started playing her dad off against her mum and when we refused to buy her something she wanted she ran to her mum and cried till she got it. I could see she was an excellent manipulator but when I mentioned this to Mark, he got angry with me. At the end of the day, we as adults couldn’t agree on what was acceptable behaviour so it’s no surprise the kids reacted in this way.
My moving out brought the situation to a head though. Mark kept calling me, asking me to come home but I refused to budge until he both made a commitment to me as his partner and had a good talk with ex about how to handle the situation as it seemed to me they were using the kids to fight their own battles.
I had to stop smothering his kids
I also spoke to a friend of a friend, who was a relationships counsellor. She suggested it would be good to sit down with the children and for all of us to talk about acceptable rules in our house that we could all adhere to. She also advised me to take a more neutral stance when the kids were there – not to smother them but also not to avoid them completely. I had to regain their trust by letting them dictate the speed with which the relationship progressed. She also stressed that it was vital Mark help me with this though … and if he didn’t then I had to really consider my relationship with him.
To my surprise, Mark agreed to this. I think the constant battles - with his ex, with me and with his kids – was wearing him down. Before I moved back into the house, he met with his ex with a mediator present so they could finally arrive at a civil place in their relationship for the sake of Jessie and Ben. Once this was sorted, I moved back into the house and worked at getting our relationship back on track. I even met his ex so we could see each other as people rather than as faceless monsters!
When the kids saw me again, I made sure that I was pleasant but not overbearing. I took a back seat, asked them questions about what they had been up to and tried to find some common ground. They were both still resistant but I kept on being relaxed (at least on the surface – underneath I was a bag of nerves!) and, over the next few months, things got easier.
What helped break the ice a bit was asking them questions about them and their mum – nothing too personal but just what they liked doing with her and what meals she cooked for them, and could they help me make them too. Rather than ignoring her presence, the fact that I accepted she did exist made them more open to me. The first kiss goodbye I got from them, a year after we had met, showed me they had finally accepted me and it was moving and wonderful.
Now we are a family
Mark proposed to me soon afterwards. He said he wanted to prove to them and his family and friends that he loved me and wanted to be with me. Since our relationship had come on in leaps and bounds since those awful months apart, I accepted and we got married in a quiet ceremony at a register office. Mark has asked Jessie and Ben if they wanted to attend and they did. Jessie asked me if she could be my flower girl! It meant so much to me that they no longer viewed me as a threat and they wanted to celebrate our big day together.
Three years later, Mark and I have our own baby. At first we were nervous that the kids would react badly again to having a new girl but they have been fine. They like to help me look after her when they visit at weekends end I know they are going to be fabulous. We even went away on a week’s holiday to Wales together and had a fun time. Jessie and I share our love of fashion by looking at all the magazines and giggling over the crazy styles. Ben is still very much his mother’s boy but he does like dancing around the living room with me – and this is when he really lets his guard down. I am just grateful that we have become a family of sorts and that we are all great friends.