I faced my biggest fear and learnt a lot along the way
My biggest fear when facing the end of my marriage was how I would cope with a new partner in my ex’s and my kids’ lives. A new step-parent was right up there with one of the most gutwrenching experiences I thought I’d ever have to go through.
I built it up in my head and ruminated on it for months.
I remember the day I discovered that my ex was seeing a new woman. I popped over to drop the kids back and noticed some herbal tea on the kitchen bench. My ex never drank tea period, let alone raspberry-infused tea.
I asked him if he was seeing someone and he confirmed it, amazed that I had picked up on it purely by spotting a box of herbal tea on the kitchen bench.
Women are incredibly perceptive.
I drove home that day and proceeded to feel like the world’s biggest failure and catastrophised the entire situation. I felt the awful feeling of my influence as a wife and mother slipping away, and I didn’t cope with it very well at all.
Months earlier while I was grappling with the reality that separation seemed inevitable, the idea that I would have to accept my ex having a new partner would send me into a complete panic.
My kids were seven and five years old at the time and I couldn’t bear the thought of not being the most important person in their lives (next to their Dad). How could I ever accept another person having a rightful place in our family? This was never meant to happen to us.
It took me a few weeks to get my head around the news that my ex was seeing someone so soon after our separation. Once I did, I asked him not to introduce her to the kids for a while. I didn’t want them to meet ‘Dad’s new girlfriend’ only for it to crash and burn a few months later.
My main priority after our separation was to keep our kids’ lives as settled as possible. It was already all over the place and they didn’t need any other significant life events to try and adjust to.
Thankfully he agreed to this, and they dated for an entire year before he told me he felt confident it was going to be a long-term relationship and that he was ready to introduce her to them.
I went through so many conflicting emotions. I wanted to push back and say no, but I knew I had to accept the situation, so I reluctantly agreed.
Just before he planned to do this, he called me and said that she had asked to meet with me before meeting our kids as a sign of respect.
I found this somewhat reassuring, I thought it showed a considerable amount of maturity on her part. I agreed to meet with her, even though I wasn’t one hundred per cent sure that I was ready.
She suggested a coffee in the city on a Saturday morning and I agreed.
I could tell that she was extremely nervous when I arrived, she was flushed all over her chest and face, and her voice sounded shaky. But once we started talking, it felt like a coffee with a new friend or a work colleague. I was genuinely curious to know about this woman who was now in a relationship with my ex-husband and would be meeting my kids.
I tried to look at her through my children’s eyes as she chatted away. I knew instinctively that they would like her.
After that meeting, I was an emotional wreck. I recall leaving the cafe with tears brimming behind my sunglasses as I returned to my car.
My mind was feasting on all the insecurities and what-ifs that were bubbling up inside me now:
Would my kids love her more than me? Was I going to be replaced? What if they loved being with her more and wanted to stop coming to my house? Would they have less time with their Dad now that she would be there too? What if she is not a good role model for them? What is her emotional state like under the stress of being in a relationship with kids? What if I disagree with her style of step-parenting?
The entire situation triggered my parental guilt too. I had struggled so much with guilt when I admitted to myself that my marriage was no longer sustainable. I never wanted my kids to experience the awful experience I had with my stepmother growing up.
I felt like I had ‘done’ this to them.
My ex and his partner ended up being in a relationship for four more years after we met. During that time, my kids grew to love her and had many good times with her. They had a very special bond.
We spent all our birthdays, Christmases and special occasions together as a family unit. She would attend school events that my children took part in to support them.
But not once did I ever feel as if I had been replaced.
Maybe now and then, she disciplined them in a way I wouldn’t have chosen myself. But part of me believes that children don’t need to live a perfectly sanitised life. They benefit from learning about other people and how they handle situations differently from what they usually see.
She genuinely loved and cared for them. In fact, she did some things with them that weren’t really my thing anymore. My daughter loved to bake, but once I went back to work I found I was never in the mood.
My ex’s partner loved baking so they would do a lot of that together, and it made me feel better that my daughter was getting to enjoy it again with someone who shared her enthusiasm.
Although generally, things were pretty smooth, it wasn’t all plain sailing. There were times that I had to dig deep, bite my tongue and try not to react when I disagreed with some things I heard about from my kids. That’s the inevitable part of co-parenting with another partner in the mix. You have to let go of the need to control everything.
I’ve heard many stories of this experience not going as well for other people. I understand that some new partners come into your ex’s life after divorce who are incapable of healthy communication.
If this happens, you need to identify parts of the situation that you need to let go of and the parts that you can control. Otherwise, you could find it a lot harder to cope emotionally.
Here are the principles I adopted that helped me adjust to having my ex’s new partner in our lives:
Look for the good in them
As much as jealousy may flare, try to rise above your own ego and find positives in the situation. Every person has positive aspects. Your ex chose this person for a reason, and once upon a time they chose you. Surely they have some good judgment in there somewhere.
Model resilience and maturity to your kids
Look at this as a great way to model to your children how to handle tough, emotional situations. I made a point to always speak kindly about my ex’s new partner, and make space for her where I could emotionally handle it. If I disagreed with something she said or did, I didn’t say anything about it in front of my kids.
Zoom out and think of the bigger picture
Many people are going to have an influence on your children’s lives besides you. Think of all the teachers they’ve had, coaches, aunties and uncles, your own friends, and the parents of their friends.
You don’t have to fear one adult coming in to have a relationship with your kids. Granted, living under one roof does allow more time to impact them, but it’s not going to be the sole source of influence in their lives.
Give your kids credit for being able to think for themselves
They don’t need to be wrapped in cotton wool all their lives. They can make judgments about whether or not what they’re seeing is something they want to do themselves.
A good example is how my daughter, when she was nine, told me that her Dad’s partner had gotten worked up and emotional over something trivial, and she couldn’t see the point in it.
At nine years old, that takes a lot of critical thinking and personal agency. After being exposed to it, my daughter didn’t adopt the behaviour that she saw. On the contrary, it helped her reinforce her own beliefs about showing maturity and the best way to manage difficult emotions.
If you’re facing this situation in your life right now, know that you will never be replaced as your child’s mum or dad. You have an extraordinary and essential role in their lives and hearts that can never be taken away by a step-parent.
With the right mindset, you can reframe an emotional catastrophe into an opportunity for both yourself and your kids to learn some emotional resilience and valuable life skills which can be advantageous when you face similar emotional challenges in the future.