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Monica Porter

Perfect Step-parent

The Times, 15 January 2003

Finding a partner who can co-exist with your offspring is a challenge. But it can be done, says Monica Porter, who has a few tips.

When my partner Nick and I moved in together about 18 months ago, I was on tenterhooks for weeks. I was sure that he and I would have no difficulty sharing a home; we’d had an intimate relationship for over two years and were obviously compatible. No, my anxiety was caused by not knowing how he would respond to living full-time with my younger son, then seventeen.

Nick has no children of his own, nor had he ever before had his style cramped by anyone else’s kids. And as we know, a teenager can do some serious style-cramping. How would my quiet, privacy-loving partner cope with the thumping ‘garage’ music emanating from my son’s bedroom, or the visiting mates departing late at night on their motorbikes? And a man used to living on his own might not like to find that his last beer has vanished from the fridge, while a pile of dirty dishes has just as mysteriously appeared in the sink. Typical teenage misdemeanours which I, of course, was used to, but which I feared might so shock Nick that he would pack his bags and do a midnight flit.

In the event, things have worked out smoothly. There hasn’t been a single ‘scene’ since we set up house together, a harmonious state of affairs due in great part to Nick’s innate sense of exactly what his delicate role requires. He has, to my relief and delight, turned out to possess ideal qualities for any man wishing to be a divorced mum’s second spouse/partner. He knows when – and to what extent – to involve himself in matters, and when to step back. He doesn’t try to be all things to my children, understanding that it is better to play a less central part, more sincerely. And when they annoy him he’ll grumble to me instead of them, which is far better.

I can appreciate this all the more because of past experiences of a very different kind. Some of which still make me wince.

I was a single mum for seven years after my divorce and during that period I had a few relationships, of the ill-fated variety. The most disastrous happened early on, when my sons were aged nine and 14. I got involved with a hard-drinking, rough-cut disc jockey from Liverpool. (Well, it seemed a good idea at the time.) I’ll call him Dave.

He was 10 years older than me, divorced and with two grown sons. I think that in his simplistic way, he thought he could just re-enact his own past paternal role with my two boys. Within five minutes he had proclaimed himself the new man of the house, and was laying down the law. The 14-year-old kept out of his way, but my younger son didn’t have that option. If he reached across the dining table to help himself to some food, Dave would grab his wrist and bark ‘Ask first!’

I did my best to encourage him to calm down and let me do the disciplining, but he regarded me as a hard-done-by softie. ‘Don’t you dare speak to your mother like that!’ became a common refrain. There were tears and tantrums. And my son got pretty upset, too.

Then one day, after consuming a copious amount of whisky, he actually lifted my little boy up by the lapels and pushed him against the wall for some minor infraction. I ordered Dave out of the house, and that was the end of that particular episode.

While none of the other men I went out with ever matched Dave’s depths of crudeness in their dealings with my children, they were fairly ill-equipped to win their approval. Not that all even tried. To many men, a girlfriend’s children are about as desirable to have around as her ex-husband.

My older son, with his raging hormones, was too wrapped up in his own doings to take much notice of any man in my life. But junior kept a close eye on me and always made his feelings clear. He took a particular dislike to one man for trying too hard to ingratiate himself. This hapless suitor did card tricks for him, told not-very-funny jokes and engaged in forced conversations to ‘show interest’.

My relationship with him came to a (literally) explosive end when he drove me home one evening and we were saying good-night in his car…parked under my son’s bedroom window. The intimate moment was shattered by the sudden blast of fireworks on the street before us. My son had decided to use his Bonfire Night bangers to break up our little scene.

I tried to make light of it. ‘He’s just having fun,’ I said with a nervous laugh. ‘You know what boys are like.’

But he didn’t know, and he no longer cared. With a look of undisguised horror he drove off into the night and I never heard from him again.

A single mum doesn’t choose a partner purely because he gets on well with her offspring, but it’s pretty important to the success of her relationship. The same applies, of course, to single dads and their partners.

To be a good consort to a single parent you need considerable diplomatic skills, according to psychologist Oliver James, a specialist in family relationships. ‘You need to know when to keep your gob shut; it’s a bad idea to weigh into altercations between mother and child. But to do the job well you must also recognise the occasions on which you should make your views felt, otherwise the children will mess you about something rotten.’

He warns against ‘falseness’ in all its guises, as children are quick to spot it. ‘Never praise them falsely, or give them expensive presents as a short-cut to their approval. And don’t pretend to be part of the family until you genuinely are. You might still be treated as an interloper after three years, but you can’t hurry things along. Children often come with damage caused by previous parental relationships, which can take a long time resolve. Keep working at it and you’ll get there.’

James has sympathy for the childless person who acquires an ‘instant’ family. Without the gradual acclimatisation of nine months of pregnancy to prepare you for parenthood, he says, it’s like getting the bends.

But he claims it is still easier to be part of a reconstructed family when you don’t have children of your own, as blending two broken families together is a far more complex scenario. ‘And someone without kids will have a higher quotient of parenting attention available for their partner’s children.’

This is good news for my own reconstructed set-up. Which, by the way, has recently expanded with the arrival in our household of my older son, now 24 and back from a sojourn abroad. Once again I was apprehensive, worried about how things would work out. Now Nick would be living with not one, but both of my sons.

As I said before, my partner has got all the right qualities for the role, the ideal temperament. In fact he’s been bloody brilliant.

But I don’t want to push my luck…