‘I want to set you up on a blind date’ declared my friend. ‘I work with him and I think you’ll really suit’, he coerced, after I’d just been on yet another failed date. ‘As long as he’s not in the military, married or has kids’ I stated. ‘Well, he used to be in the Army..and he does have a kid, but he’s not in the picture’. After rolling my eyes having had very bad experiences with military men, and asking a few questions on the child front, I reluctantly replied: ‘Fine, I’ll go’. I went on that date two and half years ago. And last weekend, I became a step mother.
According to Happy Steps, the UK’s only research based stepfamily resource centre, stepfamilies are now the fastest growing family type in the UK, with one in three of all families being part of one. Research has shown that stepfamilies often have to overcome mental wellbeing challenges when developing their new family units though, with reports of increased stress and anxiety over your ‘uniform’ family.
Nothing prepares you for becoming a step parent. I had a step-dad growing up, I even resented him for giving us more of his time than my own dad could. But never did I think about being in his position, taking on two kids because of the love he had for my mum. Never that is, until now. Having your own children (which I don’t) takes an element of preparation; reading books, asking friends who have kids already, an endless source online. But step parenting? Not much out there; especially as a first time step-parent.
I’m now 30. I met my partner when we both worked in Dubai, set up on that casual blind date by our mutual friend. Our relationship obviously developed to the point where we moved back to London together, and moved in. All the while, he had a daughter whose life he wasn’t involved in. Why? I had the same question, more than one question actually. Long story short, he had a one-night stand prior to meeting me, he was involved in her baby years until things with the mother got messy. My partner lost all trace of his daughter and had to live with the fact he may never get to be a father. I saw him flick through photos of a little baby doppelganger and proudly state: ‘I made this’. I got into this relationship knowing he had a daughter and yet I couldn’t make peace with the fact he wasn’t involved. My own parents divorced when I was 4 years old and I saw my dad fight tooth and nail to gain access to us, so I couldn’t understand why my own partner wasn’t fighting. Living in the Middle East of course did devoid him of a lot of rights, so when we moved back to the UK, it was all that played on my mind.
A few weeks ago I broke down to him. I couldn’t help thinking that a 16 year old girl will knock on our door one day and ask why he didn’t come looking, was it this woman (me) in his life that had stopped him from doing so? Maybe we’d have our own new family and she’d blame herself thinking he didn’t want her, but had another family. All these thoughts were whirring round my head and I just couldn’t be the woman that didn’t make him pluck up the courage to do the right thing. After blurting all of the above out, he got his phone out and showed me something.
It was a message from a number he hadn’t had saved, a first and only message.. from his daughter’s mother. I couldn’t believe it. It was sent merely a few hours prior to my breakdown and he hadn’t had a chance to bring it up among my tears. The message was a photo of a beautiful little blonde girl with my partner’s piercing green eyes looking back at me. ‘You are missing out on this intelligent, kind, beautiful little girl, but more importantly she is missing out on having a dad’. It was the biggest coincidence. I don’t know what powers were working that day, but it was a day that has changed our lives forever.
At the weekend I dropped my partner off at a petting zoo/ play farm to meet his ‘new’ 4 year old daughter, with her mother there as a chaperone. We’d bought her birthday presents as she’d turned four a few days prior. Her little face was one of bewilderment as she carefully tore the paper to find the present she’d wished for that morning (intel from her mum meant we ordered the right thing!). I waited in the car and watched from my wing mirror, until my partner acknowledged my presence to the mum, and I saw her walk towards my car. I got out and shook her hand. I reassured her that this may all be awkward, but that I wanted her to know that I am fully supportive of him building this relationship and his daughter should and will always come first. That is what is right and I will never stand in the way of that.
I drove away, looking in my mirror at the picture perfect family; this little girl being carried by my partner, and her mum walking alongside. I felt a mixture of emotions that I’ve never actually felt before. A sense of pride for encouraging this to happen, for my partner doing the right thing, and also a sense of resentment that I wasn’t the one walking alongside him.
I drove to a nearby shopping centre to try and take my mind off what I was missing out on, with a bit of retail therapy. I walked around and around, and around, thinking of nothing but what was happening at the farm. Was I ready to take this on? Was I ready for my weekends to now revolve around a child that wasn’t mine? Was I ready to now become second best to the person I love the most? It killed me, but I knew what was happening was the right thing. I kept putting myself in that childs place.
I went back to the farm over four hours later, ‘we’re just waiting for the big slide to open’ ‘she’s doing laps now, be out soon’, I read the messages as I waited. 38 minutes went by before they all emerged, this time she was sat on her dads shoulders. He saw me in the car and directed me out of the farm entrance with a small pointed wave. I drove out and past them, to the main car park where the mum had parked. My heart was pounding as though I was running a marathon. I stayed in the car and watched as he hugged and kissed his daughter. I felt like I’d been stabbed, and then immediately hated myself for feeling that way.
While at the shops, I had bought a little Disney calendar and a birthday card, as I realised we hadn’t given her one. In the card I wrote down my number ‘if you ever want to contact me- 079..’ I called out to my partner for him to give the little gift, and card. Then the mum called out to me. ‘She wants to meet you’. Shit.
This little girl wearily walked over to me, while her mum and dad stood watching my one-way conversation. She was shy. I asked about her day, I learned that she liked the slides and fed a goat. It was all very awkward, but I tried my best to put on my child friendly high pitched voice. We then said our goodbyes and I got back in the driving seat, the most in control I’d felt all day.
As we set off, my partner started telling me about their day together, I listened, and listened, then I burst into tears. I was trying so hard to be enthused and happy for him; this was all I wanted for him, and yet I wanted what he just had. I wanted to be the one he shared these kinds of days and moments with, with our own family. I never thought our first date would inevitably conclude in me becoming a stepmum to a child he’d never even met. But it was happening, and I had to have a word with myself.
Later, I received a message from the mother. She thanked me for writing my number in the card and we began a series of essays to each other. She came across fair and even gave me tips on how to parent her daughter when I have her alone.
It’s all very new, very raw and the biggest thing I now have to do is tell my own family; explain why they hadn’t been told sooner. Maybe I shouldn’t be so anxious about their reaction, but I fear they will be sad that I’m not the only one in my partners life anymore.
I have to learn how to be a ‘parent’ to my four year old new step daughter, while supporting her father into how to be a dad. My life, as long as I’m committed to my partner (which I’m planning on being forever, if he’ll have me) is no longer the same as it was. It’s going to be a learning curve, but I have to think of this as an opportunity to become a force for good in a child’s life. Her future is going to now have the added value of my influence, and although that’s a huge task, it’s also a pretty exciting one that I am about to have the honour of fulfilling.