[OPINION] Raising someone else’s children
"There are no unplanned babies, only unplanned pregnancies." This was the lesson taught to me in 2002 as I choked on an air bubble as my doctor confirmed my fourth pregnancy.
Of course, the four children had been my plan since I was seven, so there was no surprise for me. I just hadn't factored in the feelings and views of my husband, family, friends, or in fact the whole village it takes to raise these rewards and responsibilities called four children.
After being widowed while I pregnant with my second son, I was 100% in charge of the miracle baby who survived with me the darkest days of my life and his 21-month old brother. Our loss was one usually reserved for the brave and life experienced.
Needless to say, when I started dating and moving from widowhood to an address called single parent and dating, my sons were my priority. They only had me. It was our fortune that my new partner and I discussed upfront and early that my sons and I were a family, alone and together. He taught me a few things about what we were and what we weren't and that was useful too. Most of the time it felt ordained and like the right thing.
Alas, after a few months the reality for a single, busy, child-free man dating a woman with children and responsibilities hits like a heavy, wet rag against the cheek. Candle light and romance, time out, dates and surprises actually have to be planned. The spontaneity to which he was accustomed rocketed up and out like an escaped, sizzling balloon. Favourite weekend getaways, cosy dining places for two, weeknight work functions, formal dinners and mountain walks, which before were a given, became a luxury. There were enormous insights, there were fights, there were break-ups, breakdowns and breakthroughs. There were apologies, the children and both he and I had questions to which we didn't have the answers. The people around us had a surplus of advice, opinions and judgements. Some of them thoughtful and loving, some of them curious and some of them mean.
Eventually after trial and error and endless conversations to resolution, there was a discussion with my sons about whether they thought WE could and should get married. He proposed somewhere over the Republic of Congo and when we landed in London he also bought the boys engagement rings. They were super excited and one of them got 'engaged' to a girl at preschool when we got home a few weeks later. The symbolism for me confirmed that he was choosing me and he was choosing my children. They did not just come with me. The four of us were choosing each other. We spoke about this to the boys simply and seriously and they got it.
It is fifteen years later and our experience covers the good, the bad, the ugly and the not-on-your-life predictable. The most important things I have learnt is that you cannot date someone for a long term in spite of the fact that they have children. You have to date them and come to terms with their children being an extension of them and thus an influence on the relationship.
If you have any intention of marrying a person with children, the chances are the children will feel threatened, they will wonder if their parent is choosing you over them, they will wonder in the case of divorce if this means their biological parents will definitely not be getting back together. Children manipulate their biological parents and play them up against each other; it is fun when you know they are doing it, but it can be disruptive if you are not on the same side about parenting your children. It doesn't need much imagination to understand what children from different parents will do for attention, love, acceptance and position.
I have witnessed some heartbreaking situations where people are so pleased to be in a relationship that they do not prioritise their children. Children are resilient and operate best with boundaries and the truth. "Children will rather come from a broken home than live in one."
When you are a single parent for whatever reason, your responsibility is to raise good people. It is a complex thing being a single parent. I believe it is even more complex not being a biological parent and then choosing to love someone who has children. Those children represent so much about their parents' past, but being mindful that they did not choose to be born into this situation, the situation was created by adults or circumstances, gives a place to stand when making choices about the relationship.
I know of many happy, whole blended families. It is, however, a choice, it doesn't just happen, it has to be built, created on a clean canvas, together. This is always easy to say, hard to do but worth it when your children realise that someone chose to parent them when they chose to marry their mum or dad.
The dynamics in a blended family have to be managed with care. There is a lot of give and take and compromise, understanding, respect and trying to do better; these are some of the foundations that glue a happy home and make it safe. There are no unplanned children, this we need to grapple with and the children need to know it too.
Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn