Mum of one Maggie Prince* had always wanted more children, so when she developed a relationship with divorced dad Andy Mason she was hopeful they might eventually form one big happy family…
I’d never planned for my daughter, Tilly, to be an only child. I’d always wanted two or three kids but my marriage broke up when she was only six months old. I met Andy at my local rambling group and I was very happy when I found out he had two sons. As we got closer, we felt that we had the possibility of becoming a family, especially as their ages were very compatible: Tilly was six, Jacob was eight and Harry was nine.
Meeting my potential stepchildrenAndy and some friends were spending the day at Centerparcs with their children and he invited me to join them there. We weren’t living together at that stage, so I wasn’t presented as ‘this is the woman I’m planning to settle down with’. It was quite relaxed. We all met in the car park: he introduced me as his girlfriend and the kids said “Hi Maggie” and ran off to play on the slides. I remember thinking that they were nice boys, but a potentially awkward situation was diluted by the fact that there were other people in our group, so there was no pressure for us to get on.
Andy had had quite a few girlfriends since his divorce, and the boys had met some of them, so as far as they were concerned there was no indication that I was going to be a significant part of their life. Jacob and Harry didn’t live with their dad; they lived a couple of hours’ drive away, with their mum and her new husband. They stayed with Andy one weekend a month and spent school holidays with him.
Could we become a family?Over time, the boys got used to me being around. If they were coming for the weekend, Andy would ask Tilly and me to stay at his house. So family weekends began to take shape and gradually I got to know them. However, I was very careful not to get in the way of their relationship with their father. Early one morning, when I was in bed with Andy, Harry came into the room. I realised that he usually came in for a cuddle with his dad, so I leapt out of bed and went to make a cup of tea.
Afterwards, Andy said, “You didn’t need to do that.” But I did. I was very careful to take a back seat when necessary. I didn’t want to be in the way.
Tilly loved the weekends with the boys because she didn’t have any siblings, but I’m sure she wouldn’t have wanted them to move in with us at that point because she was used to a one-to-one relationship with me.
There was never any rivalry, but I don’t think she and the boys would have got on so well if she’d been either a boy or the same age as them. Because she was a girl, and younger, they didn’t seem to be at all jealous of the time their dad spent with her. He always worried that he was seeing more of Tilly than them, though.
We’re all going on a summer holidayWhen Andy and I had been together for almost a year and our relationship was getting more serious, he suggested that we all went on holiday together. I was wary of stepping on the boys’ toes, particularly Harry, who is very close to his dad. I didn't want him to resent sharing his valuable time with his dad with me. So the next time they came to stay and we were discussing holidays, I asked him whether he’d mind if we came with them to Cornwall. Luckily he said, “Yeah, great.” So it was fine, but I let him feel he had some say about it, not that I was being foisted upon him.
On holiday, Harry and I had a bit of a breakthrough moment. We were on the beach when he told me that he really didn't get on with his new stepfather. It felt really nice that he was confiding in me. Somehow, we seemed to click.
During that week, I loved being part of a family unit. Before we went to Cornwall, I’d never taken Tilly on holiday for a whole week on my own. We’d go away for weekends, which we enjoyed, but it was lonely for me, especially in the evenings once she was in bed. Once we went to Wales for a long weekend and ended up driving for over an hour to see an old friend just because I wanted another adult to talk to.
Taking time outIn the first two years Andy and I were together, our budding stepfamily was never really put to the test. There was a very big safety valve: after each weekend or holiday, Tilly and I went back to live in our house, Andy went back to his and the kids went back to their mum. It worked well, as all the children got plenty of time with their own parents.
When we first started talking about living together, I threw myself into it. I was prepared to change everything in order for us to move in with Andy. However, just before we moved, he suddenly changed his mind and decided he wasn’t ready yet.
He’d been badly hurt by his first wife leaving and taking the kids with her and he got cold feet. He wanted things to stay as they were. I couldn’t deal with that and pulled away from him as I needed some space.
His son got us back togetherThe next time the boys went to stay with their dad, Harry asked Andy if they could go roller skating on Sunday morning… at the time when I usually took Tilly to the rink. So, thanks to Harry’s intervention, we ‘accidentally’ met up. When I realised Harry had set up our meeting, I felt very touched and realised that he wanted his dad to be with me. His plan worked: as soon as Andy and I got talking, we knew somehow we’d have to find a way to be together.
Despite our reconciliation, a few months later when we were talking about buying a house together, he changed his mind again. Determined not to be mucked about a second time, I took Tilly and went to stay with my parents while I retrained for a different career.
But I was still in love with him and I didn’t want our relationship to be over. Nor did he, and by the time my course finished we’d decided we were definitely ready to set up home together.
A home of our ownAndy was adamant that our new stepfamily set-up wouldn’t work if either of us moved in with the other. Despite loving my little house, I could see his point, that we had to find a new, neutral space in which we could start our life together. We also wanted a big enough property for all three children to have a bedroom of their own.
We put my house on the market and started house hunting together in Leeds. We found a lovely area, by a river, with fields and space. At the back of my mind, I was still expecting him to change his mind when it came to signing the mortgage papers, so I was cautious. Happily, I was wrong.
In the event, both our houses sold quickly and we three moved in together. Our new home was a lovely Victorian terrace, with five bedrooms so there was plenty of room for all the children.
Five’s a family… but three’s a crowdOur family of five, when the boys were with us, worked well, but when it was just Andy, Tilly and me, it wasn’t nearly as successful.
Tilly looked forward to the family times, when she and the boys would play together. They were nice to her: there was a bit of teasing but no real problems. The dynamic between the five of us was great. But Tilly had had me to herself from the day she was born, and she loved being the centre of my world. She'd never talked about wanting a brother or sister.
There were a few tantrums and teething problems when we moved into the new house, but no major dramas. Tilly had to change schools, which she wasn’t happy about. Luckily, the teachers were lovely and made her feel very welcome and within a fortnight she’d made friends.
Soon after we moved in together, the boys came for Christmas. Andy hadn’t spent Christmas with his sons since his divorce. He didn’t think they’d enjoy it if it was just him and them. But when there were three stockings hanging up and they were all playing with their toys, it felt like home.
The boys were much more keen for us to be together than Tilly, but of course it didn’t affect their daily life; only their high days and holidays. It was different for Tilly. On one occasion, she and I were talking about family relationships and I said to her: “I know you're only nine, but one day when you're 16 or 17, you'll want to go out with your friends and you won't want to leave me home alone. You'll be glad then that Mummy's got a boyfriend.” She thought about it for a little while and then she said, “Yes, I think you're right. When I'm 18 you should meet someone!”
Fun family timesOur best times as a family were on our annual summer holiday. We’d go to Eurocamp in France or Greece and the kids loved it. The holidays gave us the chance to have fun together and establish our own family traditions.
We all love seafood and the first night of every holiday would be spent weighing up the respective merits of all the seafood restaurants, which we then had to sample in turn. Moules frites were everybody’s favourite. We’d play boules on the beach and bodyboard until the sun went down. I loved seeing Tilly building sandcastles with the boys. I’m not very practical and Andy would spend hours helping her to create something amazing.
Funnily enough, I was the only one who sometimes felt I didn’t get the holiday I wanted. The children’s wishes dictated where we went, which was invariably a seaside resort. I’m not really a beach person – I prefer to explore and see a bit more of the world, but I was out-voted!
I know some teenagers try to duck out of family holidays, but all three of ours were keen to come. Now they're grown up, they all look back on our family holidays with affection, which is nice.
She didn’t need a stepfatherI did my best to encourage their relationship, but I feel that Tilly and Andy didn’t have the chance to bond as I would have liked. From the start, her dad, Brian, was determined not to let Andy take his place.
I don’t think Brian set out to undermine us, but he phoned her every single day. From when Andy and I moved in together until she was a teenager. From Tilly’s perspective, she grew up thinking, I've got a mum I love; I've got a dad I love. What do I need a stepdad for?
Very early on in our relationship, Andy and I went out for a walk in the country and Tilly took my hand and said, “Come on Mum, let's run.” It’s classic only-child behaviour: she used to do things to try to take me away from him. If Andy and I were sitting next to each other on the sofa, she’d come and sit in between us.
She and Andy rubbed along okay. There wasn't constant tension, but she didn't need him when she was little… and she still doesn’t. Andy really regrets that their relationship isn’t closer.
Blood is thicker than waterI love all three children dearly, but I'm closest to Tilly. It makes sense: she and I have spent most of our lives together whereas the boys lived with their mother and she raised them.
Although the boys lived with their mum, they spent a lot of time with us, especially when they weren’t getting on with their stepfather. Their mum would ring Andy and say, “I can’t handle him, can you have him for a bit?” and whichever boy needed some space would come and stay.
I worked hard to win the boys over and I think they saw us as a refuge. Instead of feeling obliged to spend time with their dad out of duty, they enjoyed coming to stay with us. We live on the edge of the city, so it’s great for teenagers: there’s a cinema, sports centre, great shops and clubs on the doorstep. Their mum lives in the countryside, so there’s nothing much for them to do there.
Stepsibling relationshipsTilly and her stepbrothers have always got on well. She's closest to Harry now, partly because he went to university near our home. He didn't live with us for his first couple of years as a student, but he really wanted to be nearby, which I thought was a big compliment to his dad.
In his sandwich year, he got a job and lived with us. On Tilly’s 16th birthday, she wanted to go out clubbing. I thought she was too young, but Harry took her out to the Students’ Union. She loved it because it felt grown-up and adventurous, and I was happy because I knew her big brother was keeping an eye on her. As time went on, Harry and his uni mates would meet Tilly and her sixth-form friends in town. I loved it, because he was very protective of her, and they’re still close.
I think we did a good jobThe children have all left home now, but they don’t live far away and visit regularly. Looking back at our experiences of stepfamily life, I think we did well.
It was very tiring. It was expensive. We both had to work full-time to enable us to have a big enough house to accommodate everyone, but now we have three happy and well-adjusted kids and a good family life.
Andy tells me that I gave him his life back. After his divorce, he became a weekend dad, spending hours on the motorway to see his boys. He did his best, but he found it difficult to provide them with the life they needed. When I came along and we moved in together, we became a family.
*Names and identifying details have been changed.
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