My children know a girl. Let’s call her Lucy. She’s an only child, raised by two parents who are approaching their silver wedding anniversary.
Lucy is a spoilt brat. Her parents have placed her at the heart of their world, and as a result she thinks she’s also at the centre of everyone else’s. In her house, there is no trauma, no conflict; it’s just her and them.
If her parents do argue, they do so in whispered voices after she’s in bed. She has never had to move to a new house or experience the loss of anyone close to her. She has no emotional resilience whatsoever and is devastated by any kind of change.
Lucy lives her life cocooned in protective packaging. And when she eventually leaves home, she’ll find the real world is a much nastier place than the one her careful, cautious parents have laid preparations for.
Meanwhile, my son Jack, 15, and his 12-year-old sister, Lizzie, look at Lucy with a mixture of worldliness and bemusement. I think they feel sorry for her. This sounds counter-intuitive, but it isn’t at all.
You see, Jack and Lizzie are what used to be called “children of a broken home”. Their dad and I split up five years ago. Our marriage, for all kinds of reasons, was already spluttering towards a slow and painful death and then, one night, I met someone else.
Negotiating their way through all this has made both my son and daughter stronger. They have learned to accept, compromise and be less judgmental…they have learned to appreciate what they have, rather than bemoan what they have not
It was love at first sight. That isn’t a cliché by the way. It speared me like a butterfly impaled by a pin and demanded I make a decision. It was not romantic. It was terrifying.
So began the hardest, most testing and traumatic five years of my life. Simon, the man I met, is now step-father to Jack and Lizzie and has lived with us since the summer of 2014.
Their father now lives more than 200 miles away, and he and I are divorced. The divorce process cost a lot of money and the kids, Simon and I endured a traumatic move to a smaller – but much nicer – home which we renovated ourselves. Simon is a builder, and he’s built a new family with us.
The children see their dad two or three times a year, but keep in touch by text and Facebook messenger. It sounds like they’ve been through the mill, doesn’t it?
Don’t feel sorry for them. Negotiating their way through all this has made both my son and daughter stronger. As a result of me bringing Simon into their lives, they have learned to accept, compromise and be less judgmental of other people. Crucially, they have learned to appreciate what they have, rather than bemoan what they have not.
You might think these are the deluded words of a mother who feels guilty for telling her husband he had to leave the family home. You might think too that while I’m saying this, the children disagree and silently hate me for doing what I did. You’d be wrong.
We talk a lot, in this family. I’ve learned that my son understands why I left his father, who comes from a different part of the UK to me: I felt he was not a strong enough role model. We relocated from London back to my native Yorkshire, to a tight-knit and traditional community, when Jack was a baby. It’s fair to say his father found the culture shift difficult and, in hindsight, this contributed to our problems.
I felt frustrated on Jack’s behalf. As he grew towards adolescence, he seemed to need a different kind of father for this different kind of place. He’s an emotional, exuberant and extrovert boy; his father is the quiet, reserved polar-opposite.
She knows he would lay down his life for her and protect her from anyone who caused her pain
As he’s bonded with his step-father, who shares all his own predominant characteristics, Jack has analysed himself in depth. He knows what kind of people make him feel most comfortable. He now respects the differences between himself and his father, instead of railing against him in a blind rage, as he did as a frustrated child.
And he respects his mother for accepting the failure of her marriage and having the courage to change direction. There are times now when our roles are reversed; he can take the lead when I might falter, because I’ve shown him how to lead.
And because Simon and I have respected Jack’s feelings from the start, he has the confidence to express them. This, I’m proud to say, has made him a very emotionally-literate young man. He’s never afraid to hug, kiss and say ‘I love you’.
His sister, who was only seven when Simon came into her life, has learned how to juggle different kinds of love for different kinds of fathers. Simon, also previously married and now divorced, was not blessed with children of his own. He cherishes Lizzie as a gift from the gods.
She knows he would lay down his life for her and protect her from anyone who caused her pain. But she protects him also, reassuring him when he feels vulnerable and worries about doing the right thing. I regard this as a characteristic which will only strengthen as she grows.
Yet she has compassion for her dad too; her main concern is that he is not alone and is happy living back in his family home with his widowed sister. He appears to be.
Her brother has dark colouring, as do Simon and I. But Lizzie faces the truth every time she looks in the mirror and sees her father’s blond hair and blue eyes gazing back.
She will never forget who she is, but recognises it is not all she is. I see Lizzie, with her natural talent for music, singing and dancing, and struggle to establish where nature begins and nurture takes over.
Lizzie’s ambition is to be a choreographer. Both her dad and Simon are talented guitarists who played in bands semi-professionally over the years. Her dad once told Simon he knows his children are in safe hands; when I listen to Simon and Lizzie singing together I know this is true.
Ok, so my children may not have the protected existence of their friend Lucy. They may not have several foreign holidays a year, nor the fancy big SUV where she rides, lonely, in the back seat.
But they do know they have survived divorce, the thing every child dreads, and have come through it stronger, happier and more well-balanced than any parent could wish. I’m proud of this, as I’m proud of us all.