I was in no hurry to settle down, but it is a luxury to get a preview of the kind of father your partner will be.
James and I met on a snowboarding holiday in early 2011, and he was perfect for my non-committal tendencies.
Recently separated from his wife of five years, he was proud dad to a three-year-old boy, and living in his parents’ spare bedroom awaiting a divorce settlement. The prospect of me – a carefree woman not yet 30 – dating a man with kids was met with fear and trepidation by my friends. The only thing she’d previously seen me take responsibility for was which pub we should go to for a night out, and I often got that wrong.
With too much baggage to contemplate a serious relationship, he was just the thing, I thought, to kill time between now and my trip. And yet I knew I wasn’t the anomaly, given that the divorce rate among 25- to 29-year-olds is twice that of the average across all age groups, and concentrated mostly in the early years of marriage (between three and five years).
In any case, I thought, what’s the big deal about dating a dad? With all the will in the world, you can’t give – or receive – the unconditional love that a parent can.
One that makes the idea of growing up a lot less scary.
Being a dad makes James who he is and, in turn, makes our relationship what it is: a solid team marching into an unknown future that’s messy, complicated and utterly brilliant in equal measures.
The word stepmum is loaded with negative connotations, often prefixed by ‘evil’ or ‘wicked’ (thanks for that, Cinderella). James’ boy has a perfectly good mother and, when he’s with us, his dad does all the disciplining, cooking and bottom-wiping. ‘Tom and his ex split amicably, but when he met me it was quickly twisted into a “he left us” story.
His ex would tell Jacob that he wasn’t allowed to hold my hand, or she’d send him to our house without a coat in winter.
But I make it to the park after almost turning back, to find James* (my boyfriend) clutching a Pokémon rucksack and an armful of coat, from which a pair of huge eyes and a half-smile appear.
I wave awkwardly at this tiny yet enormously significant human being – all gangly limbs and pretending to be a dinosaur. I have no idea how I got here, but in this moment I realise that life as I know it is about to change.
I spent far too long in an unhappy marriage, so when it was over I recognised The One the minute I met her. There’s so much hostility from my embittered ex-wife – it’s like she holds a gun to my head in terms of access to the children. But it’s an ongoing challenge that we’ll only realise the enormity of as time goes on.