Case study – Changing relationships

27 March 2012

Embarking on a relationship when one or other of you already has children creates a whole new set of challenges. Now on her third major relationship and determined to make this one work, one mother says hindsight can be a wonderful thing after we’ve made mistakes and wishes she’d known when to ask for help in the past.

Lucy, 36, is a local government manager. She is living with a new partner and is now regular step-mother to two children, aged seven and five. She has one daughter, Amanda, who is 18 and lives with them at home.

I became a single mother at 18 after a casual relationship ended and that has fundamentally impacted on all my relationships since, because protecting and nurturing my daughter has always come first.

At six months pregnant, I began a relationship with a man who’d been a good supportive friend first and foremost and which I now see was based, on my part, on convenience rather than love. I needed someone and he was there. The problem is that he effectively became Amanda’s father for six years and that’s a whole different ballpark.

I had to be honest and admit that the relationship was making me unhappy and wasn’t going to last. I talked it through with my family and their opinion was that I should stick with him since I was lucky he took me on. At 22, my friends had little idea how difficult it was ending a relationship when a child was involved.

I can safely say that no amount of counselling or advice would have saved this relationship but I would have benefited hugely from advice on how to separate a 5-year-old and her ‘father’ while inflicting the least amount of damage and finding a way to maintain contact at an emotional time.

Asking for advice helps us examine our motivations and see things more clearly.

I went on to college and for the next six years had a series of short relationships. I always made it clear from the outset that my daughter came first and that if she wasn’t a priority for them, it was best to end it – which I now realise isn’t the right way to go about things! My mother died from cancer and I went straight into a relationship with another friend, Graham. I think I moved in with him the day after mum’s funeral.

In hindsight, two things went wrong with this relationship. First, we didn’t understand how to share parenting. We had very different ideas on discipline and respect. I now see I was very defensive of any conflict between Graham and Ashley and always tried to get in between them, which meant they never had the space to work out their own relationship.  Where my daughter was concerned, I never compromised and that was wrong.

Most couples have a baby and work out together how to parent. We started half way through. The other problem was Graham’s mother died in the middle of all the parenting battles going on and I didn’t find a way to help him with that.

In my current relationship, the tide has turned and I am now the step-mother. I sincerely hope my experience with Graham has helped me understand a bit more about what NOT to do. My number one rule is that I try never to comment on Alan’s or his ex-wife’s parenting. I don’t expect Alan’s children to love me, all I need to do is make them feel safe. Their relationship with their parents is the most important thing. I might not agree that they have to eat up everything on the plate or go to bed at seven o’clock, but I make myself butt out!

I did buy a book on step-parenting and asked friends in similar situations for advice.
I love them being with us two days a week but I do sometimes dread it beforehand. When they say to me, which they do every time I tell them to go to sleep, “You’re not our mother.”

I say “I know that and I’m glad, because I get to be your step-mother.”

I hope I’ve gone into this with my eyes wide open. In the past, I’ve had to learn by my mistakes and wouldn’t be told anything. Relationships can provide as much unhappiness as they can happiness and intuition doesn’t necessarily provide the answers for every situation. Sometimes the right thing is counter-intuitive. Asking for advice helps us examine our motivations and see things more clearly.

Some names have been changed.