My son calls my partner by his first name, to adults we describe him as Leo’s ‘stepdad’ though we are not married. Scandalous shock horror. No wait, it is ok nanny already knows I have a child out of wedlock. The title stepdad is a weighty title to take on, step-dad, it also never sounds as important on the tongue as it should. To me he is a man who makes me feel like a grown up, that takes care of me, even though I am stubbornly independent after being alone so long. To Leo he is a man that plays Lego, loves him and cuts up his dinner in careful squares.
At first I was anxious, ready to startle like a fearful horse. The dating world I had forgotten, cast away, lost in a haze of nappies and sleepless nights. Casual dating is much more complex with a child. As relaxed a person as I am I did come with baggage, a beautiful blue eyed boy that brings me unending joy, but who also does make me a little bit more complicated.
I did not want to bring someone new into child’s life that might drift away again. I did not want my boy to grow up thinking that men leave. I want him to have positive male role models, to respect men, to be proud as he is a man, albeit a mini one. In the beginning when Leo would spend time with his dad, my partner and I would spend time as a couple. The weekends were for us. It was gradual and steady. ‘Us’ weekends began to develop into ‘us three’ weekends. My partner moved from a friend to mummy’s boyfriend which we explained clumsily but as best we could to a toddler who could only just understand his own name. I made sure Leo and I still had our 1-1 special time.
After two years we moved in together. Some say it was too long, some say it was too soon. There is no one size fits all approach.
If I were to offer some tips for introducing a new partner, I would say;
- Talk to the person about how they feel about kids. Not in a scary I want your DNA way but if you do want something serious your child will be in their life, it is only fair to all of you to be honest.
- Talk with your child about what is happening, and listen. My son was 10 months at first so conversations usually centred on hummus. But as they get older you need to acknowledge their feelings. Leo recently went through a phase of asking why doesn’t Stu live with his mum? I replied because he is mummy’s boyfriend, I love him and we love you so he lives with us. Little ones want to feel reassured, to have structure and security. They may feel jealous, insecure, sadness or excitement. That is ok.
- Take it steady. You don’t need an instant coffee parent replacement. Have time for you as a couple. Go out on dates if you have the chance. Have a cider, go for a picnic. Work as a two before a three.
- Be patient. Someone else with opinions is coming into your parenting world. You must be flexible, you are asking them to take on family life so let them be part of it when you all are ready. You will have different perspectives. Do not put too much pressure on your new partner, you know parenting can be a minefield and you have had practice.
- Both your partner and child will likely need reassurance, you all may be as anxious as each other. Sometimes it’s best not to overthink things and just enjoy some time together, go to the park, get ice-cream. Be kind to yourselves.
Your child is your heartbeat, your world. But does that mean you can’t love? That if you date you are somehow stretching that love too thin? It takes quite a person to come into a relationship knowing that there is a smaller person that is going to have to come first. I specifically did not type a smaller person that you will love more, as I love them both to the moon and beyond, with no rivalry or contest as I love them in different ways. Both are equally important.
Sometimes I do struggle with juggling parenting and a relationship, sometimes my son is unkind, sometimes they fall out. I think that is normal family life.
Nothing worth it is easy.
This post was originally written as a guest post for the lovely @teacuptoria and her amazing ‘Step family stories’ series. If this story resonated with you and you would like to share your own experience please give her a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org.