By Justine Lister, writer and blogger at My Crazy Magic Life – My Life. My People. My Work.
And then there were three
We have been a family of three for nearly thirteen years now. Before we were a three, it was just the two of us, for six years. Me and my girl.
Recent statistics show that currently in the UK there are over one million step-children under sixteen years old. Further studies show that between 60-70% of blended families don’t go the distance and I, for one, can fully understand how that can happen, regardless of how much love is shared between the family members.
I don’t think that there is ever a perfect time for an introduction that is going to change a whole family unit dynamic – but there could be easier times. Meeting her at age eight, my partner didn’t ever get to know the sweet toddler and small little buddy that she had once been. She would hear the washing machine ping and come tumbling in to help me hang it out. She would put together her mini electric piano and be my live band, every time she heard my Robbie at Knebworth DVD being played. She would know exactly when to climb on my lap and let her warm solid body ease my soul.
In the aftermath of leaving an abusive relationship and then navigating the juggling of setting up a new home, divorce, injunctions, work, and study, she was my constant, my safety, and my security. If I had her by my side, then I was upright and functioning. I used to be a million times happier with my identity being ‘Molly’s Mum’ then I ever was being ‘Justine,’ She will never know how much she saved me and kept me going. I have tried to tell her before, but there aren’t enough words. I don’t think there ever will be.
Looking back, my relationship with her was as much a co-dependent one as it was a parental one. I didn’t ever mean for that to happen. I can see now how it began, very on early when she was a baby, I learnt that I was safer from ‘him’ to have her in my arms, or by my side. At least then his nastiness was limited to verbal only. We suffered with separation anxiety whenever we were apart and, although it was good and healthy for us both to socialise independently, deep down we were only truly comfortable when we were back together. Just knowing that I was on my way home to her would quickly reduce my state of permanent heightened anxiety and fill up my heart.
So, you see, she really did save me.
I was over the moon when I met my partner, and it really wasn’t long at all before I realised that he was someone very special and someone that I wanted more permanently in my life. However, as much as those first dates and days were romantically heady, exciting and wonderful, I couldn’t help but feel like I was cheating on and betraying my girl. It seemed that all of a sudden our ‘us’ time diminished and even though it was replaced with a plethora of days out, trips and experiences with our new plus one, we all now felt a pending change to our way of life.
She reacted to this change in her world, the way many children do when they are unable to process and verbalise their feelings, by changing her behaviour.
I can only think that my new partner either had the patience of (or was) a saint, or that he must really, really love me, because Molly was relentless in her vendetta against him. Her battles with him put me right in the middle, in No Man’s Land, a place where I had never been before. On one side was a child who needed discipline and boundaries and on the other a child who clearly felt isolated, lost and confused. I have never been so overwhelmed with guilt, as I did during that time. For a while no matter how much I tried to reassure, comfort and explain, it was clear that she was raging mad – with us both.
She spent one lunchtime at Harvester, flicking peas across the table at him with her fork. He tried to combat her aiming strategy with a fort made of the salt and pepper shakers, but this only made her more determined and prompted her to turn her fork flicker into a catapult. Then there was the dancing incident. She was always a fab little boogier, but less so while atop of his car bonnet. There was no funny side to be seen to this act of wills which saw him assert his authority for a millisecond before she jumped back up for an encore.
Initially, when he stayed over, there was no way that she was going to cope with the logistics of what a sleepover with our new family member would entail. He would turn up each time with romantic hope in his eyes only to have to trundle off at bedtime to her cabin bed in her pink and lilac groovy chick adorned bedroom, while she slept blissfully on ‘her’ side of my double bed. Finally, we managed to swap the sleeping arrangements – a happier fella for sure – but then each hour on the hour we were presented with a Molly who felt the need to come in and check on us.
One memorable Sunday morning we were jolted awake by her CD player booming out her Pop Party CDs and her having a solo karaoke session in the doorway. When we managed to get her attention, we were met with a look of innocent ignorance and told that she had no idea that the noise would bother us at all.
The poor guy could not win, and I did not envy his position one little bit. If I thought I was having a hard time with her – it was nothing compared to what he had to endure. He had no choice but to not accept her poor behaviour and rightly voice his disapproval. This led to yet another rock and hard place for me. Her behaviour was goading and provoking and upsetting for us both but as much as I knew this something in my being panged with pain each time, he (very rightly) told her off. He saw a naughty, disrespectful eight-year-old and I saw a disoriented and nervous kid who had never ever had to share her Mum with anyone before, ever.
You know as much she was hell bent on winding him up, she was also using her behaviour to test me. Each time she started on him she would look straight at me to see what I would do as if she were daring me to state my allegiance to one or other of them, challenging me to have the audacity to side with him rather than her. Two’s a couple and three’s a crowd was definitely the way we functioned in the early days, months, probably even years.
My attachment helicopter parenting style coupled with Mum guilt and an overwhelming fierce sense of loyalty to her would often be at a disservice to this lovely man who was trying so hard to establish himself as a confident partner and a strong father figure. He was damned if he spoke out against her as I would undermine him and damned if he didn’t as she would walk all over him. A lesser person would have run away. I remember honestly believing that one more tantrum or incident would have him leave. Thank goodness he didn’t.
The power tussle continued over the years – an invisible tug of war with me holding on in the middle desperately trying to maintain the equilibrium to keep us all sane.
Nearly thirteen years on we are all still here as a three and functioning as a perfectly imperfect family unit – like everyone else. Eventually and gradually, they softened towards each other. My girl started to see the good in the new person in her life; the man who dug his car out of several inches of snow to get her to fracture clinic after she had broken her wrist; the dad in training who would whisk her through the drive through when she was heartbroken; the friend that will always lend her tenner and the taxi driver that will ensure that she always gets home safe.
In return he now understands her efforts to seek his approval; humours her car singing and her sense of the inane and ridiculous and recognises her need to have first dibs on time and hugs with me. I try my absolute best to resist the urge to fly in to defend my girl. She is more than capable of defending herself now at the age of twenty, as she is at being able to wind him up still. Some things won’t change. She can’t resist the temptation to shake a can of drink before giving it to him and I am sure that lights and TVs are left on purely to antagonise the man that sometimes just can’t let those little things go unsaid.
The latest instalment of Man vs Molly was a water pistol standoff where they hid in waiting for each other to super soak and shock at any given time. This got completely out of hand one night and saw me huffing my pillow downstairs onto the sofa while the whole of upstairs got drenched. That reminds me I need to hide those pistols before she comes home again in the summer!
She is at university now and not a day goes past without him asking ‘Have you heard from Beast?’ (Beast being an early on nickname from him to her – when I asked why he had chosen that moniker for her he sheepishly admitted it was because he feared her and her outbursts) likewise my daily Facetimes with her invariably have her requesting ‘Show me Julian.’ There is genuine love and a little more toleration between them now which means that I can drop my United Nations role most of the time. There is one thing guaranteed to bring these two together and that appears to be my wrath, grumps and moods. They delight in rolling their eyes at each other behind my back, bullying me into ordering takeaway on a school night and telling each other how unreasonably over reactive I am being. They are the closest of allies when it suits them or inconveniences me.
We three have come a long way and it has not been plain sailing, or easy at times. I will forever thank him for his patience and understanding and I will forever thank my girl for not quite seeing him off and checking his staying power most thoroughly – he was definitely a keeper. And she will forever be the love of my life, my reason for being and my funny little girl.
Adapting: A Personal Story
By Molly Govus, originally written for and published by the Cardiff University Magazine, ‘Quench’ in July 2019
At the age of 8, I had comfortably spent all of my life by my mother’s side. With an absent father, it is easy to say that my mum was, and still is, my dearest and closest friend. We spent every day together, close and entwined between the walls of our ground floor flat. It was just my mum and I, our own little bubble of a world where no one could touch us.
I vividly remember the moment that I met Julian.
With a belly full of apprehension, I walked into our kitchen to welcome this unknown man into my life. My world, as I knew it, evolved to create space for a man that would soon bring something to my mum’s life. Often still, I regret not realising sooner. That something is what I now understand to be a thing called safety. At 8 years old and after seeing the destruction following my father’s absence, cautious would be the perfect word to describe my reaction to Julian’s arrival into my life.
Even at 8 years old, I recognised my mum’s strength the same way as I do at 19. When I look at my mum, I see the embodiment of everything that has made me what I am. Within me, I see her. I see what she has fought for, what she has spoken up for and what she has sacrificed for me. What if he hurts her? What if she loves him more than me? Will she spend less time with me? Did I look after her enough? All of these thoughts plagued me for months whilst I slowly let the stranger, that I now call my dad, into my small world.
I used to share a bed with my mum up until Julian arrived. I was far too old to be sharing a bed with her, but the safety I felt being physically near her was indescribable. I can imagine how Julian must have felt coming into a relationship with a daughter who held onto her mother like a guide rope – I applaud him to this day for his strength and resilience. Not many men would sleep in a Groovy-Chick themed bedroom for the first few months of a relationship. The day my mum told me that I should probably start sleeping in my own bed was the day my heart broke. The two initial emotions were sadness and pure anger. Maybe even rage, if I wanted to take it a step further. He’s taking her away from me was the very first thing I thought. I look back now, and I wish I could just look myself in the eyes and say ‘trust him, it will all be okay’. Unfortunately, at that point in time, no amount of reassurance from my Mum could help me from thinking otherwise.
I never really understood what a proper dad was. With my biological dad not being around, I had always assumed a father/daughter relationship would be cuddles and the ‘carry-me-on-your-shoulders’ kind of love. As Julian’s presence became more constant, I went from resenting his presence to yearning for a father figure. I remember struggling to understand why Julian wouldn’t want to be emotional with me, why he wouldn’t offer hugs or empathetic words of support. It wasn’t until I was 13/14 or so that I really grasped the fact that sometimes people just aren’t emotional and struggle emotionally with others – I know now that this in no way makes him a bad father, but at the time, I thought he hated me. There were many years where Julian and I remained on different pages but most of this can be explained by teenage hormones (I like to think). Imagine being in his shoes, arriving into a new relationship and being introduced to a teenage girl on the brink of puberty and being thrown into the depths of fatherhood. He took on the responsibility bravely, and I have never been more grateful for the patience he gave me whilst I adjusted to him being in my life.
Without Julian, I’m not entirely sure where I’d be today. I look back and I don’t even have to try and find evidence for all the things he has done for me and my mum. It’s all in front of me and around me: the roof over my head, the food I eat, the extremely detailed budget on my laptop, the Saturday cycling sessions down to Old Leigh and most importantly, the smile on my mum’s face. It’s all him. After two years of visiting our flat every weekend, we moved to our town in 2010. My first family home has been made with so much love and happiness. He searched for the best schools, the best locations – all to give me the best start. I love him the most because of what he’s given my mum. After such a hard relationship with my biological father, he gives her, and me, the security and safety that we both needed. With Julian around, I never feel scared or afraid. There is no longer a need for me to sleep in my mum’s bed because I know he is there. I know my world was meant to change for him to be in my life; blood and relation makes no difference to me.
Last year marked 10 years of Julian being in my life. Over half my existence, I have had a man who loves me and cares for me in his own unique way. I have had a man give me and my mum safety and unconditional love. Words will never quite be able to describe how lucky I am to have met him and how proud I am to call him my father. Biology makes no difference to who you choose to be within your family – within 2 years, Julian had been more of a dad to me than my biological father has been in 19. I am the luckiest girl in the world to have him, and I hope he knows that.