I remember, when I was ten years old, my parents separated. A year later – possibly earlier, I can’t really remember – I was introduced to my father’s new partner. I didn’t know what to do – hug her? Hit her? In the end I think I did neither, just nodded. I then spent the next decade trying to work out this tangled web around me – my father, his new partner, my mother.
Breaking up, moving on, finding another, the blending of families, causes emotions to run high.
Maybe no one should be surprised. What woman, who has given birth to a man’s children, wants to be usurped? Very few women are contented to back off, sit down and watch another woman enter in to her exes life and take over ‘mummying’ her children, especially with a gaggle of photographers round her. It must be utterly galling.
In my own experience, as well as being step-parented, I have also been a step-parent – a former partner of mine and father of my eldest son had a previous child. A few years ago I a single mother of four children, having separated from the father of my subsequent three children. I liked to think I will be able to cope when the inevitable eventually happens but, in all honesty, I am not convinced. Even though my relationship with my children is as about as strong as it could possibly be, the thought of my children calling someone else ‘mummy’ makes me breathless with fear and shock. I haven’t been through all this, all these pregnancies, this breast feeding, nappy changing, sleepless nights, potty training, parent-teacher meetings, doubt, elation, love, tears and endless worry, worry, worry just for someone else, some unknown woman, to breeze in bearing gifts, smiles and tauter thighs and stomach than me. I don’t want my children to have a ‘Mummy Two.’ To me, this is terrifying.
Kate Figes, author of Couples, says, ‘of course it’s terrifying but it needn’t be. When couples split up, everyone needs to reform. The problem is, one half of the couple tends to be more ready to move on than the other because they are the ‘leaver’, they are, emotionally-speaking, already half way out of the door. For women, it’s more difficult. It is usually the woman who keeps the children so they re still in full-on Mummy mode. They don’t know how else to be. So anyone threatening that role is terrifying.’
When I voice my fears to my friends, they say, ‘but you will always be the children’s mother. Nothing will change that.’ In my heart, I know that. But the thought of seeing them holding another woman’s hand, sitting on her lap, being picked up from school at Hurley did to Warne’s youngest daughter this week with hugs all round, makes me feel physically sick.
Then again, I also have to accept men too feel this way. Do they really want to see another man playing ‘dad’ to their kids?
It’s a tricky balance.
Figes, who is also training to be a family mediator, says, ‘separation is a fact of life. You have to accept that. The welfare of the children then has to be seen as something separate to the relationship between the parents. They have rights. They are not possessions. If you are grown-up enough to have kids, you are grown-up enough to separate in a way that minimises the children’s pain. Mothers have to understand that, however panicked they are, nobody can replace her as the mother of those children. The parents have to create some boundaries about when it is proper for the children to meet a new partner. We are all made differently and we are all at different stages when it comes to break ups and new partners have to understand this and behave in a tactful fashion.’
However, this is not always as easy as it sounds. I have a friend who married a man who has three sons.
‘It’s very hard,’ she says. ‘I want time with my husband. I love him. In fact, I love him more and more each day but, when I met him, I don’t think I really took on board what it meant for him to have children. He’s a great dad and he loves his kids but I can’t help feel resentful when I think he’s putting them first. They want time with their father and I can’t help but feel possessive about it because it takes his time away from me. Of course I’ve always known he had children but I married him, not his children.’
She also admits to feelings of intense jealousy and rage against his former wife.
‘She has a hold over him because of the children,’ she says. ‘She calls up all the time, professing to want to talk about the children. But actually it’s because she still wants him in her life and won’t let go. It drives me mad but I can’t say anything because of her status as the mother.’
Executive coach Sarah Noble, mother of one and step-mother of three agrees. ‘I think the mother always wields the ultimate power in the end. The mother knows the children all their lives, that’s how the mother-child relationship is perceived. Even if you have been in your step children’s lives since they were tiny, the mother still has a hold and it can be very tough to witness that. The man also may well have some residucal guilt and so, whatever the mother wants, she gets. Men see the mothers of their children as being Madonna. That’s the hold they have over them.’
Psychotherapist Phillip Hodson says there is a very difficult power play that goes on between the new love and the ex-wife and mother.
‘The mother of the children will always play a pivotal role in the man’s life. There is that sanctity that goes with motherhood. She has provided the man with children and, for most men, this is very important. It is a hold that never really ceases until the children become adults. Many new partners find this hard to cope with. The mother will have an access because of the children and some women play on that, especially if they have been left for someone else. If they can’t get love, they will opt for power. They might decide to make life as difficult as possible for their former partner because it is the only gratification they have left.’
It’s a very tangled web. My own personal experience has, so far, been pretty positive. After a few teething problems, I got on well with my step-mother. I think – hope – I was a perfectly good step-parent of my ex-partner’s son. My style of step-parenting back then was to let father and son get on with their relationship while I quietly supported it from the sidelines. I hope that any new woman in my ex-partner’s life will take a similar attitude, be present, respectful, kind and do not encroach on mothering territory. Taking a child for a first haircut, as Sienna Miller did with one of Jude Law’s and Sadie Frost’s children, is red rag to a bull. Most people, I hope, are not that tactless.
Kate Figes finishes by saying, ‘you have to see it as a triangle. The step parent is a presence but is hopefully someone who brings something in to the equation whilst not stepping in a ‘mummy two’. Children need good role models and step parents can provide this. An extended family, or a blended family, can work very well if everyone puts some serious thought in to it. The mother will always defend her role but, given time and respect, a blended family with many good role models can benefit children in the long term.’’
For more information on counselling go to www.itsgoodtotalk.org.uk