The guilt of wanting to have some ‘us’ time

When you get together with someone who has a child from a previous relationship, the usual rules of dating do not apply. You don’t really get the opportunity to whiz off somewhere on a romantic getaway at a moments notice, time away has to be planned out in advance.

For me I feel like if I suggest a weekend away it means that Ben has a weekend of not seeing Monkey, something he looks forward to all week. From the moment he drops Monkey back home he cannot wait until the next weekend. So I feel bad for wanting to have some ‘us’ time.

We’ve never been on a proper holiday together. We had three days away for our honeymoon three years ago, but had to be back in time for Ben to collect Monkey from pre-school as per the schedule. I cannot count weekends away where we have been to visit family, it’s not really a holiday. We had one night away for our first wedding anniversary. More recently we decided to arrange a Monkey free weekend to go away together somewhere not too far away. We had a nice time, spa treatments and nice food. We have decided to try and organise a Monkey free weekend every three months, not just to go away places but to also get things done that we don’t often get around to doing when he is with us. We both work during the week and often a lot of jobs get left to the weekends to do, but sometimes some stuff we just can’t get on with when you have a small boy following you around constantly requiring attention.

I knew that things would be very different relationship-wise when I started seeing Ben. This was totally new territory for me, not only was there a child involved but also the fact that Ben had to have such regular contact with his ex. Something I used to have a lot of issues with – with former partners – I hated the idea of them still being in contact with an ex, but it is very different with Ben and Real Mum. I know he dislikes her, at times would probably quite happily throttle her, but they have a fairly good parental relationship going on and I have never felt jealous or threatened or worried about him being at their old house with her, or having to see her several times a week with all the ‘babysitting’ and his general visits to put Monkey to bed once a week at their house and then collecting him / dropping him off from our weekend visits. They do have monthly discussions to organise the next set of dates for weekend stays, for her multitude of babysitting requests and more recently to sort out Christmas dates.

Every year since they split, Real Mum has had Monkey on Christmas Day – she won’t budge on allowing Monkey to be with his Dad on that special day. Ben hasn’t had that Christmas morning magic with his own son since he was 1 – before Monkey really ‘got’ what Christmas was. On the first Christmas after they split up he went over to her house on the day, later on in the afternoon, before having him on Boxing Day. I wasn’t around then, we’d not long been together and I was staying with my family as I wasn’t allowed to meet Monkey yet, so I wanted to make sure that Ben and Monkey had a place to be – my house, without me being there. Since that first Christmas apart, organising who has Monkey when has been like some sort of military strategy plan. We rarely have a period longer than a couple of days where it is just the two of us to be able to plan something nice together, and then rarely a period longer than a couple of days with which to plan seeing our families with Monkey, so usually we see Ben’s family as they are closer, and I don’t get to see much of mine. I haven’t seen my parents in over a year, we just can’t seem to fit in a visit.

So yes, I want to be able to go places, enjoy some special relaxing romantic time away with my husband, get away from it all. However, I don’t enjoy the feeling that I am essentially suggesting taking him away from quality time with his son. I see my husband every day, yet he sees his son at best three times a week. I don’t know how to please everyone. It feels selfish.

Plus now we have a cat so we both feel bad about going away anywhere and either leaving him to be looked after by our neighbour or face the option of a cattery (perhaps too soon for a rescue cat – he might think he is being abandoned again!) Oh the guilt!

Oneupmanship and point scoring

On some level most kids try to outdo one another. My bike is better than your bike, my Dad can beat up your Dad etc. It’s a pretty standard thing and most adults also seem to enjoy doing it too.

There also can be an element of this in terms of parenting, where the parents live apart and each may have their own way of doing things. To some it is like a kind of competition, to see who gets to get the child to accomplish the next big milestone or whose house it happens in, like the first wee in the toilet or the first tooth to come out. It’s not big and it’s not clever, but deep down I think many parents in this situation do it.

Yes there is of course a kind of sense of achievement when you’ve managed to support or encourage your child to do something for the first time, the first steps – coaxing them to walk to you from the sofa, or the first words, saying Mamma or Dadda over and over again until they say it back and that feeling you get when they finally do it. For the non-resident parent there is this overwhelming sense or knowledge that you may well miss out on an awful lot of these sorts of firsts, and of course it will feel perhaps 100 times better if something like that happens on one of your days with your child.

Recently Monkey’s grown up teeth have been beginning to poke their way out and he got his first wobbly tooth. Ben really doesn’t like anything to do with wobbly teeth at all, but he was pretty brave and agreed to watch whenever Monkey flicked it about with his tongue or finger. The other week the tooth was practically horizontal and I suggested to Monkey that he just get it over and done with and pull it out. Tentatively he pulled on it a bit “But Margot, it hurts!” So I explained the whole concept of just giving it a quick yank and it would be over quickly and hardly hurt. So he did it – and was pretty pleased with himself. So we fussed about him a lot about his first tooth having come out and doing the whole Tooth Fairy thing. We called Real Mum so he could tell her all about it (thinking she’d be a bit sad to have missed out on it.) When Ben took Monkey back home the next day he offered the carefully packaged tiny little piece of dentine and enamel to Real Mum so she could keep it as most mothers like to do, you know – along with the first lock of hair from a hair cut or their first pair of shoes, that sort of thing. She refused it and we were pretty surprised, considering her feelings on my other perhaps lesser emotional milestone type events, we had expected her to want it, and in maybe perhaps if we hadn’t offered it to her she might have bristled at that, but at least we offered. However there was an odd sense of point scoring that his first tooth had come out at our house and not hers and we got to have the experience of doing the first ever Tooth Fairy thing. I’m not sure how long we can keep up the tooth fairy stuff for, that morning when he got his little bit of money and a letter from the tooth fairy thanking him for looking after his teeth so well, he was already doubting her existence and said to Ben – “Do you know what Daddy? I’ve been thinking that the Tooth Fairy and Santa are just people’s Mummies…” and after a pause added in “Oh and Daddies…” Ben just said “Oh I don’t know about that.” So it may be that it was the first and last Tooth Fairy visit and perhaps Real Mum might not get to do it with him, which is pretty sad.

But there are other times where we feel pretty inadequate, because we aren’t better or as good as Mummy when it comes to some things. When Monkey was younger, whenever he was ill we felt pathetic. Sometimes he would be inconsolable and we’d have to take him back home to her and it felt like we had failed. After a while though I said that we needed to be better at it, and not shirk the responsibility of looking after him when he was poorly and give his Mum a rest. It’s not easy though when you have this small person, with a tear stained face, chest heaving with sobs, begging for their Mummy – who is away on a night out somewhere and is not contactable.

A while back he was on an overnight stay with us and in the middle of the night we were woken up by his cries and Ben went in to him and promptly knelt in a pile of sick. We cleaned him up, fresh bedding, fresh pjs, tucked him up with me while I read him The Twits while Ben carried on with the clean up. It wasn’t long before he threw up down the side of our bed and the wall and the floor and had to be sent off to the bathroom in case of further incidents while I cleaned up the bedroom. We were running out of bedding and pjs at this point and called Real Mum – who was out with friends. We explained that we were running out of stuff and that we weren’t sure if it was going to be a constant vom-fest. Monkey wanted her to come and get him, she was not impressed. She said that she would come back from her night out but that if Monkey was asleep when she got to ours, she would just go back out again. However, Monkey wanted to hear the rest of The Twits, which we finished just as Real Mum arrived. He threw up again several times at home, so while we washed our things and dried them off – we had him back the next day to look after him while Real Mum washed their vomit filled items. Hopefully she understood the practicalities of it all, but it was doubtful. She’d had to leave a night out, which is probably unforgivable.

Then of course there are the times when Mummy’s things are better than our things, you know the kind, her bolognase sauce is better, her house is better, her lack of discipline is better. But there are times when Ben and I are top – like being better at helping him with Minecraft, or better at answering his really hard questions. At the end of his last school year we looked through his topic books and his exercise books, one of them was for him to write about what he got up to during his holidays and weekends, pretty much every entry in it was about going to Daddy’s house and how he had an ‘Orsum’ time. In one of the books he’d been asked to write about someone he looked up to – and he’d put Daddy – because he was kind and he made him laugh and he plays with him all the time. Not that we’re point scoring, but wow, for a non-resident father that is a massive thing, hugely emotional and wonderful. Ben’s parents split when he was 5 and although he saw his Dad fairly regularly, I don’t think he would have ever written something like that about his Dad at age 6.

 

 

It’s not called babysitting when it’s your own child!

When Ben and his ex were together, she went out occasionally for things like Book Group or a work night out. On these occasions Ben had no issue with staying at home to look after Monkey, no brainer, totally fine – he is his father after all – it’s called being a parent. He didn’t go out much for things for him, but understood that Real Mum needed to get out and do stuff that was non-baby related (even if all she talked about was babies when she was out…) When they split up he and I both said it was important that Real Mum still had time to get out and do stuff and so he continued to look after Monkey if she wanted to go out. We hoped that in time it might lead to her meeting someone else and being happy.

Although he was looking after his son, for the most part Ben didn’t overly enjoy evenings sat in the house he used to live in with her, surrounded by the remnants of his past with her, to basically watch TV or read a book while his son slept upstairs. Most of the time she would ask him to come over once she had already put Monkey to bed, so he wasn’t even getting that extra bit of time with him unless he sat by his bed watching him sleep (which often happened). She would get back late (always on a week night) and he would head back home to head to bed to get up 5 hours later for work. And yes, before anyone points it out, it was his choice to leave and if he doesn’t like it maybe he shouldn’t have left, yeah sure, just stay with someone you don’t love anymore for the sake of the child, what a great life that is for all concerned…

However I digress, Real Mum’s social life rocketed once they split up. She was often out almost every night of the week for some thing or other. Book Club on a Monday, Knitting Club on a Tuesday, cinema on 2 for 1 Wednesdays with their old friends and Pottery Class on Thursdays. Sometimes she would be invited out by their shared friends on a Friday or Saturday night – but she’d make sure they would ask her first so she could ask Ben for babysitting, then when he had said yes (or offered to swap a night for an overnight stay at ours so she could go out without him having to go over there for the usual night of boredom) the friends would then extended their invite to Ben who would of course not be able to go as he’d just agreed to babysit. In time he just stopped seeing his friends because they stopped inviting him to things because he was always saying no. It wasn’t until recently that we pointed out what was going on and his friends felt pretty bad about it. About a year ago Ben and his ex both went out to the same meal out for their friend’s birthday. I think Ben didn’t really enjoy it, being out together like that just wasn’t quite right. I of course stayed at home, no way was I going to be in the middle of that one!

Real Mum’s parents originally lived about an hour’s drive from her house, so on the nights Ben was busy, she would get her parents to come. Ben had queried why she never suggested that they stay in the spare room so as not to drive home in the dark late at night, she waved off the idea with an air of annoyance “Oh if they want to drive all the way out here they can just drive all the way back again.” Charming. More recently they have moved to be in the same town so they are not so far away.

Ben puts Monkey to bed every Wednesday night, on average now he babysits about twice a month, sometimes more if requested in advance. We have Monkey overnight every other weekend, but sometimes we may have him overnight several weekends in a row and then no overnight stays for a few weeks, and sometimes overnight for a whole weekend. We also have him for extended periods over the school holidays.

But at what point can you start to really protest about it when you are the other parent? Real Mum refuses to pay for a babysitter, and at times asks for babysitting at extremely short notice – or Ben will turn up for a pre-arranged babysitting evening only for her to be all “Oh, no I cancelled that one. I probably forgot to tell you.” No “sorry”, there is rarely an apology from her for anything she has neglected to mention that has caused Ben any inconvenience. He usually asks if he can pop in to say goodnight to Monkey anyway while he is there. I think Ben wouldn’t mind so much if the time he spent babysitting he got to do more with Monkey and there are some evenings where he does ask to come over earlier so he can put him to bed, but still, there has to come a time when you stop doing things for your ex to make their life easier and focus on quality stuff with your kid? She spends more time out of the house than most single childless people do!

At one point we were over the moon that she seemed to have met someone. Monkey decided to call him Dave even though he knew full well that wasn’t his name. They went out a few times, and he did stay the night at hers. As I have previously hinted at we did not get the same respect as we gave her. Monkey met Dave right away pretty much, no six month waiting period to be sure it was something serious before he developed a relationship with Monkey, no. But they didn’t last very long, and now Dave is married to someone else.

I’m not saying that Real Mum has to meet someone else, but the majority of things she does are not really things that might open up her world to the potential of meeting someone. Book group and knitting group with a bunch of other women, who no doubt mainly sit there moaning about their partners or ex-partners or just talk about the kids isn’t exactly great man fodder. Plus going out with your same bunch of friends from the last 20 years who all have partners also isn’t ideal. Pottery Class might be an option, but could be slim pickings. We know that she has joined an online dating group (oh the joys of pop up email notifications on Monkey’s tablet for Real Mum’s account…) but no idea if she has actually done anything with it yet.

When Real Mum goes out for the night she never tells Ben where she is going. She could be anywhere and we’d never know. Sure we have her mobile number but it’s not always great if she is somewhere with no signal should something happen and we need to get in touch with her. One time she went away for the weekend and left Monkey with us but had asked Ben to drop Monkey back with her parents on a Monday morning, but hadn’t actually told her parents about that plan and said she would confirm with Ben the next day. She didn’t. Ben had to call her parents to sort it out – they had no idea and also – I must point out – they hate Ben and it is a struggle for them to be polite to him, so this entire conversation was of course a chore for them. It annoyed us that she was treating Monkey like some sort of package to be dropped off somewhere with someone for her to collect when it suited her, that it wasn’t important for her to organise who would be caring for her child for her to come and pick him up when she was done with her trip. When it came to the Monday morning her parent’s were out – and came back just before midday for Ben to drop Monkey off with them. Ben was not amused.

A while back Ben’s sister Katie was chatting to Real Mum. Katie is a single mum (her ex has regular contact with their son and has him at weekends) and had been feeling a bit fed up because she hadn’t been out anywhere in months. Her ex was planning to move back into the area so was closer for helping with one night a week of babysitting if she wanted to go out, but it wouldn’t be for a while yet. Real Mum had said to her that she ought to rely as much as she could on family and the ex doing the babysitting. How she had never paid for a babysitter since she and Ben had split up. She kept going on about how her Mum would always say yes and how it was so easy to just use them whenever she wanted to. Katie had to bite her tongue, it kind of upset her, not only was she talking about her brother Ben being used just as a babysitter and not describing him at all as Monkey’s father, but also the heavy reliance on family, something Katie didn’t really have. Ben & Katie’s Mum died in 2010, their Dad lived a fair way away from Katie and had no car so couldn’t come over to babysit whenever she wanted. Real Mum just kept on about it, not once did it occur to her it might be upsetting Katie despite being fully aware of her situation.

In the first couple of years Ben said yes to most babysitting requests and cancelled plans just to be available, but these days he is finding it a bit easier to say no because he knows he is being used. He agrees on set dates during their monthly chats (yes he and Real Mum have regular monthly chats to discuss dates and any issues – all very civilised!) He may agree to the odd night or two here and there that isn’t planned, and he is pretty flexible if she wants to change dates around, but there are occasions when her planning leaves much to be desired. A while ago we’d had Monkey overnight for three weekends in a row (something we were surprised she had asked for as she doesn’t normally want him to be away from home that much) and had also requested that we have him for a whole weekend on the fourth weekend after as she was going away with friends (it was a Bank Holiday) – we had agreed to it all – of course Ben was really pleased to have all this extra bonus time with Monkey even if it had meant us cancelling plans we’d had for stuff. Then the fifth weekend she asked if Ben could come over and babysit on the Friday night so she could go out. Needless to say it was a no, and she just got her parent’s to do it anyway, heaven forbid she not get to go out!

The child with the split personality

Children are complicated things. You expect them to be pretty basic. They aren’t as world weary as adults, haven’t absorbed as much stuff as we have over the course of their young lives, and yet they are a bundle of weirdness.

Take my stepson Monkey for example. His parent’s split up shortly before he was two years old. He has no memories of his Daddy living at home with him and often laughs if we remind him that Daddy used to live in the same house as him and that he had done most of the home improvements such as laying the living room flooring. Monkey has grown up knowing that he lives with his Real Mum and that his Daddy lives round the corner with Margot (we’ve only just started to mention the stepmum word and explained it to him a couple of times but it’s not been brought up again.) From an early age he already knew he could try the whole ‘Well Mummy lets me do it at home’ trick, but what I found odd is how different he would be with us from when he was at home.

Ever since Monkey was a baby his Real Mum has not been comfortable with letting him do stuff for himself. Ben’s sister Katie was once at their house with her baby – who was a year younger than Monkey, and just had him lying on a play mat, playing by himself while she and Real Mum chatted. Real Mum was horrified that Katie wasn’t playing with him constantly. “Why aren’t you down there with him playing too?” Katie was a bit puzzled by this and had said “I can’t play with him ALL the time, he has to figure some things out by himself, it’s a good way for him to explore things, plus it means I can do other things, like talk to you…” Real Mum was very disapproving. “Oh no, I couldn’t do that. I have to do everything with Monkey.” As a consequence Monkey started to grow up being very needy. If Real Mum was going somewhere Monkey had to be with her at all times, if she was going out for an evening he would be clinging onto her and bawling his eyes out. She didn’t like saying no to him, so there were times he would hurt himself and be inconsolable after falling off things she let him play on in the play park that were clearly labelled as only for children aged 12 and over when he was only 4.

When playing with Duplo he wouldn’t make anything by himself, he always wanted Daddy to do everything for him. He would follow Ben around and not give him a moment’s peace. It’s not good when someone feels so wound up after hearing the words “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy” over and over again all day long. And having a child standing outside of the toilet door, waiting for their Dad to come out because they cannot function until they come back to play with them, is a bit much really.

After a while I decided enough was enough. I suggested we bring in some time slots which we could increase as we went on, of periods where Monkey had to play by himself, while Daddy had a cup of tea. The first few times were awful. He said he wouldn’t do anything – so we said, fine, you can sit there and do nothing while we have a cup of tea, but your five minutes wont start until you start playing. After a while he started to do it, although there were a few tantrums and some tears, eventually he did it.

The split personality thing started when he was potty training, it didn’t take him too long to get it, but when he got back home to Real Mum, he would make out that he still couldn’t do it. Then it was things like getting up in the night for a wee, no problems at our house, but at home – nope – he always woke up Real Mum to come and help him. Wiping his own bum? After a few lessons at Daddy’s house – fine, back home – “Mummy – come and wipe my bum!” for several months until Daddy asked him in front of her why he was still making her do it when he did it by himself at Daddy’s house? Real Mum was a bit narked that he’d been stringing her along for a while.

At home he is scared of the dark and scared of wolves, at Daddy’s not so much.

However, since he has grown up and started to get into other stuff, Real Mum isn’t so keen on getting so involved with things. If she isn’t interested in something then it’s a case of ‘Oh well, you’re on your own with that one Monkey, Mummy doesn’t like Scalextric.’

However, she will still run around after him for other stuff. At home Monkey is very bossy, he tells Real Mum’s parents what to do all the time. They don’t discipline him much at all. At ours if he decides half way through dinner that actually it is yucky and he doesn’t like it, then he isn’t offered an alternative. If half of it was fine, then the other half is too. But Real Mum will often go and make him a whole other meal instead. One of Ben’s friends at one point expressed concern at how Real Mum wasn’t enforcing any kind of rules and how bossy Monkey was with her. They had been over to visit him and his family and they had been out on a walk together with their youngest son in his buggy. Monkey started to shake the buggy and the Mum was asking him nicely to stop, looking to Real Mum in the hope she would step in and enforce this. Nope, nothing. Monkey was rude and demanding of her and it really shocked Ben’s friend and his wife, especially as Real Mum allowed it.

A while ago Monkey fell badly at the park and hurt his arm, nothing major (after a trip to A&E and an x-ray confirmed no breaks or fractures) and he was given a sling to wear for a few days and some exercises to do. For the first couple of days it was fine for Real Mum to be helping him out and feeding him and all that, but after that he was encouraged to move it around and use it. But he kept wearing the sling and Real Mum ran around after him. The weekend after this had happened we were going to a family wedding and so picked him up from school to head off to the hotel. The sling was around his neck but not being used. On the day of the wedding he left the sling in the hotel room and played around with his cousin and seemed to not have any issues with his arm at all, apart from when he was reminded about it, when suddenly he would remember, hold it slightly differently for a few minutes before running off to pull his cousin on his back by the arms across the grass. On the Sunday as we were preparing to head back home and to drop him back with Real Mum, the sling was produced again. But Ben made sure that he let Real Mum know just how much better his arm was and how he’d been using it a lot over the weekend. Monkey’s plans had been foiled – no more silver service from Mummy.

I get that we have different rules in our homes, and maybe actually Monkey is better for having a bit more structure and some boundaries. The fact that when he was younger she allowed him to tear up books, or throw things around, and the like had kind of spoiled him. During the week he was the King of the Castle, allowed to do whatever he wanted, but at the weekends there were rules. He couldn’t smack you in the face, throw a matchbox car across the room or make you wipe his bum.

The thing with Real Mum (according to Ben who was with her for 14 years) is that she isn’t good at taking advice. She has no patience to keep up with something, if she tries it twice and it still doesn’t work she gives up, which isn’t ideal with parenting. She got one of those Gro-Clocks, the ones that when the child goes to bed the clock shows the moon and stars and during the night the stars go out one by one until the morning time you have set on the clock when the sun comes out. So they know it is time to get up. Monkey has always been an early riser, when he was small he would often get up at 4am or 5am wanting to play. These days he is usually awake at 5:30am – gets up for a wee, goes back to bed for a bit but wants to be doing things by 6:30am – but his ‘morning time’ is 7am. When they started to use the clock – she tried it a couple of times and gave up. We used it every time he stayed with us and eventually he got it. After a few false starts with him pressing the buttons on it over and over again until it set itself to the sun picture and telling us it was morning time… But he got it. He still uses it now, but I want him to learn to tell the time properly on both a digital and an analogue clock. I think he can, but he pretends he cant – like during our wedding weekend away recently – we set the digital clock for him in his room – but he came in at some silly time saying ‘I thought it would be seven after it had been twenty…’ No idea. So back to my point, she doesn’t like taking advice, but if you say something to her enough times, she will then think it was her own idea and then do it. So we just take that route now, eventually she tries it and then tells Ben how she did something and how well it worked and what a good idea it was of hers.

I’m not saying that we do everything better than she does, of course we don’t. But there are just some things that perhaps she doesn’t always see because she sees him all the time, whereas we have these short blasts of it and sometimes stuff can seem very obvious.

The Learning Curve

For the first couple of years after my husband and his ex separated, she pretty much let Monkey get away with everything. Perhaps it was down to guilt, or overcompensating for the fact that his family make up had changed. When they first split up, his ex had said to him ‘I cannot believe you have decided to leave me to bring our child up on my own!’ This stung hard, Ben was not walking away from his son forever, not walking away from him at all. He was leaving her because he didn’t love her anymore, but he sure as hell wasn’t abandoning his son and having no part in his life or upbringing. In this sense I don’t like the term ‘Single Parent’ because she isn’t parenting on her own, Monkey still most definitely has two parents who love him and are very much involved in his life. Yes, one more so than the other because he lives with his Mum – there was no way we were going to demand that the poor boy be wrenched from his mother and his home just to suit us.

Over the next few months from those first days I was allowed to be with Monkey after the six month embargo,  I of course spent more time with Monkey developing our relationship. Ben was ensuring he maintained a strong relationship with him, because of course he wasn’t seeing him every day, but weirdly in a sense was getting more quality time with Monkey than he had been when he was actually living under the same roof as him. My husband is not what some people might call a ‘Disney Dad’. He doesn’t flit around in a daydream expecting everything to be wonderful and never disciplining his son and every day spent with him is doing something wonderful and exciting because he only gets a limited period of time with him. No, he gets that he can’t be his son’s best friend, he gets that there has to be the normal everyday family drudgery element to our lives with Monkey. It can’t all be going to zoos and museums and play parks and holidays, Monkey isn’t going to get a present every time he sees Daddy, there has to be supermarket shops, boring days in sat in front of the telly when we all feel like poo and hearing the word ‘No’.

When Monkey was small I found it a bit easier to interact with him, because in some way I was teaching him things. I made educational games like alphabet cards and rhyming games. I played shop sometimes, and the odd patient at the doctors. We played Duplo and eventually Lego, we did drawing together and Play-Doh. However, I am the stern face of “all your fun must now stop” or at least that is what it feels like sometimes. Initially Ben didn’t believe me when I was trying to point out that at age two and a half, Monkey was already playing him off against Mummy (and me sometimes too). He knew how to get what he wanted, and to a degree still does. These days though it is a lot more transparent, you can really tell when he is telling fibs.

I was brought up by fairly strict parents, I would get a smack on the legs if I’d been really bad – which was rare. Discipline usually came in the form of a low tone of voice outlining the consequences of continuing with that behaviour, usually things like going straight home from the shops, no tea, banned from watching the TV, being grounded etc. After a few times of being told things like that you soon would rather behave than face the possibility of a week without TV! Yeah, sure sometimes if we’d done something particularly bad – when we were older then she would shout at us, mainly out of frustration and disappointment, because quite frankly, by now we should have known better. My Mum and I are very close and I am glad of the upbringing I had, I learnt good values but perhaps I am a bit stricter than Ben because of it. I must point out that I do not believe in smacking, but that I was smacked as a child on some occasions and I am not emotionally scarred by it!

There are days when I feel like the bad guy, I’m the one who warns ‘please calm down a bit because one of you will be in tears and the other one will end up being sick and I don’t know which of you it’s going to be, but it will happen, so please just calm it down’ when Ben and Monkey are chasing each other round the house and jumping on each other. I’m the one who suddenly shouts ‘get down from there’ out of fear for Monkey’s safety when I see him leaning over the banister rail about to launch a paper aeroplane off it – to stop him from potentially falling about 10 feet down to the hallway below. I am the one who seems to have zero patience and isn’t mad keen on giving Monkey warning after warning before finally disciplining (usually by way of naughty step.) I guess because he isn’t mine, and he’s not with us all the time that I feel that way. Perhaps I wouldn’t be as strict with my own child? I don’t know for sure. I try to not get so uptight about things, and at times I have to extract myself from the situation because I know I will struggle to keep things light, because I don’t always find cheeky behaviour endearing, especially when he’s being allowed to get away with doing something he was previously not allowed to do.

As the months and years went by my forced smile was starting to wear thin, I was starting to wonder could I actually do this? This being a stepmother malarkey? When Monkey first started sleeping over I couldn’t relax, it was like having a new born and being on edge. Every sound, every movement having the potential for a cacophony of crying and a sleepless night for all. I’ve never slept well, but it seemed like every sleepless night I’d ever had up until this point was bliss. This was intolerable. And several years later it is still the same. I still dread him waking up too early (happens every time – I cannot wait until he is a teenager and wants to have a lie in), I dread a nightmare, I dread the nights when he is unwell and the odds are in favour of a night of coughing or vomiting. Every sound, the movement of the bed, the breathing, the listening to him getting up to wee in the night and knowing he hasn’t lifted the seat or washed his hands… I feel shattered and yes, a little resentful. I battle with that feeling, that word – resentful, every day. I should not feel resentful of a small boy, but somehow I do, and part of that has lead me to believe that I am in no way fit to be a mother to a child of my own with Ben. I cannot bear the thought of trying to get through the day on no sleep, day after day. It is hard enough doing that with a full time job, but to be in charge of a small being who depends on me? I don’t think I could. And part of me feels resentful that this small boy has made me feel like I never want children of my own. The people I have owned up to about these feelings have told me that things would be so much different when it is a child of my own, that it isn’t as easy as people make it out to be to love someone else’s child. And I know they are right. That I shouldn’t beat myself up because I am not loving Monkey like his Real Mum does, because I am not his Real Mum, but it doesn’t make me feel any better.

How do I get past this? How can I shake those feelings? These days all I seem to do is tell Monkey off or impart amazing knowledge when I get asked questions like “What is gravity and how does it work?” or “Why is the sky blue?” Sometimes I feel like the Wicked Stepmother. Why am I the one who begs Monkey to please stop chewing every piece of clothing he owns, and at times want to shout “Why won’t you listen to me!!!????” in exasperation when Monkey asks Daddy the same question I have just patiently answered for him.

I don’t do soft play (my back just can’t cope), I am the one who stays busy doing the housework so that Daddy can have all the time in the world for his Monkey. I don’t go to children’s parties because I feel like a fraud standing there among the real parents. Not to mention they all know Real Mum and no doubt would report back saying ‘Well, that Margot! I cannot believe he took up with her after leaving you! You’re so lovely and slim and she, well, sack of potatoes springs to mind.’ Square peg, round hole.

There are even times with the in-laws when I feel out of place. Ben’s sister Katie is good friends with Real Mum and they see each other every now and then, but there are aspects of Real Mum that really wind Katie up, like her babysitting code of practice (I will blog about another time.) I know that the rest of Ben’s family didn’t really like Real Mum much, but at times I feel a bit like they wish they were still together. On our wedding day Real Mum came to collect Monkey to take him home (we tried to organise someone else to take him home but couldn’t and Real Mum offered as long as she didn’t have to come in and see us – which was totally fine) Ben’s family all rushed outside to see her and say Hi – coming back in all ‘Oh it was really nice to see Real Mum wasn’t it?’. Made Ben and I feel pretty narked, me more than him. Not what you want on your wedding day really. I am the one who is always ‘forgotten’ when it is time to say goodbye – the cat gets lots of nice hugs and farewells and I am the afterthought – with a limp one armed hug with a cheek turned. I never wanted to feel like the horrid aunt that children are made to kiss goodbye. And yet, during the holidays, when I am still at work, Monkey comes to the house and asks “Is Margot here today?” And Daddy says “No, she’s at work” and while I would have expected the response to be a gleeful relieved “Yes!” maybe with a fist pump in the air, it is actually a disappointed “Oh.” So maybe I’m not so bad after all?

The next steps

Of course I couldn’t rest on my newbie laurels for too long after the first successful meeting between myself and Monkey. Our next meet up was for a proper full day, a visit to a local wildlife park the following weekend. I don’t drive so I was in the back with my stepson – Monkey. This was the beginning of me feeling pretty inadequate – trying to keep him entertained for the 45 minute journey there and the what seemed like the twice as long journey back. I must point out here that I’ve never really been one of those women who fawn over other people’s children. Even as a child I found it hard to play with or relate to other kids – particularly kids younger than me. People often have this misconception that little girls enjoy looking after / tending to younger kids, that whole playing Mummy thing. Nope, never did enjoy that.

The actual day itself was fine, we had a good time. Animals were looked at, a small train was ridden on, and we watched Tortoises make love, the lot. I took on the role of pushchair pusher, bag carrier and general dogsbody. Which was fine, I wasn’t there to dominate over the proceedings, this was a Daddy & Monkey day and therefore it meant Ben could spend more time with his son and I could observe and not force myself into the whole situation. I took photos and pointed out exciting things and it was another good day. However, Monkey didn’t like car journeys that took longer than ten minutes (as I had already discovered that morning.) Ten minutes down the road, my attempts at keeping him amused were wearing thin. Soon the tears started rolling and he was screaming for his Mummy. I felt awful. He was overtired of course, it had been a busy day, and eventually he fell asleep. We got him back home about 10 minutes later than promised and unfortunately my husband was bawled at by his ex for being late back and for allowing Monkey to fall asleep in the car before tea time. Black mark number one.

The next several visits were similar, going to a local water park, a nearby forest, the soft play place. Any of which that involved a busy day and a car journey home pretty much always ended in him falling asleep in the car and us getting flack for it. Real Mum asked us to do everything we could to stop him falling asleep and I don’t know if anyone out there has tried this but poking and prodding a child and talking to him loudly to try and stop him from sleeping it actually not very nice and it makes you feel horrible. And you still ultimately end up with a sleeping child, and for a while I kept trying it because I hated the thought of Ben getting it in the neck when he dropped Monkey off. After about the fifth attempt we both decided that it was tantamount to torture and that we wouldn’t do it. The majority of the time he would have only been asleep for about 10 minutes so surely it wasn’t the end of the world? Yes so he might be a bit dozy and grumpy for tea time, but isn’t that just a fairly standard child thing?

This marked the start of many a car journey spent with me in the back trying in vain to provide entertainment, reading stories, playing games, pretending to be an elephant looking for peanuts. You name it, I tried it. And still he would cry for Mummy and I would feel like a total flop and started to really dread long car trips, the longest of which were to see my parents and therefore those trips didn’t occur very often (plus they usually meant us having Monkey for a whole weekend and of course it was MY family and therefore not OK.) I longed for the time when he was older and could entertain himself with books or puzzles.

Then there are the awkward moments where people assume I am his Mum, at the supermarket or at a local family fun day type thing. “So are you having fun with Mummy & Daddy?” and the confused looks from Monkey while I whisper “I’m actually his step mum” and it’s awkward all round with the confused toddler, the blushing Sainsbury’s cashier, the oblivious husband and the hot faced stepmother who feels like a fraud. In fact this sort of situation was one of the big things Monkey’s Mum was not happy about, one of the reasons that deep down she hoped I never had to spend any time with him. She didn’t want people assuming I was his Mum. But it is something that is always going to happen – unless of course I walked round with a t-shirt on saying “He’s not mine” but that could lead to all kinds of issues. And of course it is something that still goes on several years later. Sometimes people are perceptive and note that I get called Margot by the Monkey and not Mummy.

At that time in the early days I had a strong desire to have a child with Ben, a child of our own. I’d heard Ben talk about how amazing it was when Monkey was born and how he wished that he’d had Monkey with me and not his ex. To see how emotional he would get talking about it always melted my heart and also made me a little jealous that she’d had that experience with him and I hadn’t. Silly I know.

When I was younger I suppose I just assumed that one day I would have children of my own, as I got older and I saw and understood the mechanics behind it all I was quite horrified and didn’t think I could ever go through the trauma of labour. I had thought about children a little when I had been with my ex, I just figured that perhaps once we were married that eventually it would probably happen. Thankfully I backed out of that one before any marriage took place. Getting together with Ben brought out these strong maternal desires in me, I suppose seeing photographs of him with baby Monkey, hearing him talk about it all and seeing what a great father he was, all started my hormones charging around my body. In the first month or so of our relationship I had gone back onto the pill but had a scare thinking I may be pregnant and so got a test kit. We anxiously awaited the results but we were both strangely disappointed when the test was negative. Considering how we’d not been together long, the thought of having a baby together wasn’t as ‘run to the hills’ scary as it should have been.

These days my feelings are a little different. Currently our house is way too small for a baby and us. We don’t even have a spare room for Monkey to call his own. His overnight stays involve us being on the sofa bed and him in our room. I have terrible sleeping problems and most nights are spent with an hour or two of sleep at the most. At work sometimes I can barely function so God knows how I would cope with a baby. Plus as time has gone by, my hormones have stopped whizzing around so much and these days I feel more like I don’t want to have a child. I feel a bit like I am just happy with the way things are at the moment, the time Ben and I get to have together on Monkey-free days. Perhaps my feelings will change whenever we eventually do move house, but right now there are no Mini-Margot’s on the horizon.

In The Beginning

I’d been friends with Ben for about nine months before we started seeing each other. I’d met Monkey a few times over that period but only in passing. Ben and his ex (aka Real Mum) had been having problems for a few years, and like perhaps all too many couples going through problems, thought that maybe having a baby might bring them closer. Sadly it wasn’t the case. Before there was talk of Monkey Ben had thought about leaving the one proper relationship he’d ever been in, but wasn’t sure. He’d chatted online to women halfway across the globe, almost embarked on an office affair at one point but thought he’d give things another go. Then the baby suggestion came and he was a bit horrified at first, was he really ready? Then he thought – hell, I’ll never truly be ready, so lets go for it. It didn’t take much trying before they were expecting and things chugged along as usual. Monkey was born and things inevitably changed, they always do. You can never expect that twosome to stay the same when there is a small being involved.

Real Mum however gradually took over everything, Ben hardly got a look in with his own son. Eventually he was relegated to pram pusher and bag carrier and general babysitter/carer when Real Mum was in the shower or wanted to go out. At mealtimes he’d be left to get his own plates and cutlery, an afterthought. She stopped referring to him as Ben and he became just Monkey’s Dad. “Oh sorry I can’t come out tonight, Monkey’s Dad can’t babysit.” It already sounded like he was a non-resident parent.

When Ben and I met I was with someone. I was in the depths of unhappiness and we both encouraged each other to try things to save our respective relationships. After several years of banging my head against a brick wall, I eventually decided to call it a day. Perhaps it was me making that decision that helped Ben decide what to do. He moved into the spare room in his own home and eventually moved out. It was the hardest decision Ben has ever had to make. He had panic attacks, time off work through stress, all because he knew he wouldn’t be home everyday with his little Monkey. Even now, five years down the line it hurts him deep inside to not be there for him day in day out. There was just no way he could keep pretending that everything was fine, especially when she suggested having another child. By then Monkey was almost two.

They remained civil with one another, there has been minimal nastiness. No court involvement and no Child Support Agency. They were never married so there was no divorce, no custody battle. Soon after he moved out we realised that perhaps our friendship meant a bit more to us than we had first thought and we thought we would give it a go. As soon as Monkey’s Real Mum found out about us (Ben told her straight away) she said that she didn’t want me to meet Monkey for six months, she wanted to be sure this wasn’t a flash in the pan relationship. This was absolutely fine – I totally understood, but it’s not to say that it was easy. To begin with Ben moved in with me, sleeping on the sofa bed. I lived close to his old house and it was easy for him to pop by to put Monkey to bed most nights and to do the nursery runs. Initially she wouldn’t allow Monkey to come to our house, so Ben had to keep going back to the home he once lived in (and still paid half of) to have his time with his son or to take him out somewhere. It was the middle of winter and being out so much wasn’t always practical and he wanted to try and put some distance between him and her so they could both try to move on. Eventually she agreed to let him bring Monkey to the house, as long as I wasn’t there. So that meant I had to be out or if that wasn’t possible I’d lock myself in the bedroom and would have to text Ben to check if the coast was clear if I needed to use the bathroom. I couldn’t get lunch until Monkey was down for his nap and I had to be back hidden away before he woke up. Sometimes he would take Monkey out in the pushchair to walk around to get him to go off for his nap and I would walk behind the pushchair, out of sight, just to be with them.

Once the six month embargo was over we sorted out the first proper meeting. By that point Monkey was already aware that Daddy lived with someone. There was a lot of things in Daddy’s new house that didn’t belong to Daddy, but to The Mysterious Margot. Monkey and I first met properly at the local park, neutral ground, somewhere he would already be playing with Daddy. I arrived, pretty nervous, I watched from the distance and felt a bit awkward but eventually came over, Ben introduced me as his friend Margot and the penny dropped a bit for Monkey. Kind of a “Oh, so you’re Margot. OK then.” It didn’t take long before he was getting me to play on the climbing frame with him, or in the sand pit or spinning him and Daddy on the roundabout thing that made Daddy feel sick. After about an hour I left them to it and said my goodbyes and headed home. It felt like a success, there had been minimal shyness (on both our parts) and no tears, a good time was had by all and nobody died. What had all the fuss been about? The first step towards this new life…