I’d always promised myself I’d never get involved with a bloke who had children – because I knew my ego couldn’t handle having an ex-wife as a permanent fixture. Cut to August 2016, and I’m standing at the Euro Disney turnstiles with my Fendi tote groaning under the weight of Shopkins and baby wipes. The masochistic dial had been ramped up to full whack – I was balls-deep in a relationship with a recently separated teacher and his 4-year-old daughter. Most of us will have come into contact with some proper tricky bastards at one point; pig-headed shitheads who hurt us, conceited two-faced morons who make us question everything, or malicious twisted liars with the ability to cause 3am night sweats. Apparently, difficult people are quite often the humans who teach us the most in life but, generally, this realisation only occurs some years later, after the trauma has finally ended. As a seasoned horror-magnet, these days I’m au fait with weeding out the ones who aren’t worth bothering with – or at least I thought I was. I cringe now at the frustration I caused my female friends, as they repeatedly warned me that he was a troubled soul, that he wasn’t ready, that he needed space and, more so, that they weren’t sure he was even really that into me. He got paralytic the night we met. Dressed in high-street double denim with a silver Michael Hutchence-style crucifix swinging round his neck, he could barely keep himself on the barstool. His godawful tattoos should have been an early warning sign – but no, this time I was determined to wait and see what was inside the person. Perhaps I should have just made for the door. After two decades of shallow love affairs with fey north London types who made their own hummus, I was ready for something heavy, something real – and oh boy, I got it by the bucketload with this one. Many an evening was spent listening to him intently while he ranted about the endless suffering the split from his wife had caused, and how the pain of trying to raise his little girl alone was often too much to bear. He missed his old family life, he was livid at how she’d simply walked away from their home and into the arms of another man. My heart broke watching him repeatedly recite the same tales, his brain trapped in a loop of agonising emotional torment.
When he suggested we could try for a baby together, it felt like one of the happiest days of my life.
I’d never felt more secure; aside from his tumultuous personal circumstances, he was all I’d ever really wanted in a partner. I never cared that his finances were in ruins, or that his views on marriage had been tainted forever. When the conversation turned to children, I was surprised to discover he wanted a vasectomy reversal and when he gingerly suggested we could try for a baby together, it felt like one of the happiest days of my life. I made the decision to loan him the cash to pay for his operation at a private hospital out of town, and within a few months we were trying to conceive. We started looking for a house together soon after, and decided on a substantial Edwardian gaff that needed shitloads of work doing. I’d wasted all those years with career-obsessed, selfish wankers and now I’d found a dude who made my heart skip. Shit was finally going good. But then Euro Disney happened. The sun was beating down on all three of us as we entered Walt’s European utopia. Candy-floss stalls, families in Minnie Mouse ears wandering the phoney clapperboard streets, slugging back slushies, screams of delight from overexcited tots looking for pixie dust among the spinning teacups and swirling boat rides. His daughter was enraptured; he’d made all her tiny dreams come true. I, on the other hand, was feeling a subtle, significant shift in his behaviour and was starting to feel paranoid that I’d done something wrong. He was bad-tempered and seemed unable to maintain eye contact. The notion of being so desperately anxious about someone I loved in the shadow of Disney’s stupid pink sparkly castle made me feel even more distraught – the entire scenario felt fucking ridiculous. Falling for a man with a child wasn’t without its pitfalls. Knowing I’d never be his screensaver upset me initially – until I realised it was pathetic to fret about something so juvenile. My jealous streak would peak when he glanced mournfully out of café windows on days when she was at her mum’s house, and I’d hide away when she came to drop off his daughter, shuddering on hearing her voice echoing down the hall. His demeanour changed dramatically when clashing plans with the ex meant his custody routine was disrupted, and knowing I could never soothe that ache inside him depleted my self-esteem. Loving someone who loves someone else more than they will ever love you hurts, but as the days passed and the bond between all three of us grew stronger, I found myself embracing and enjoying my part-time family life. I was in love with the pair of them, and it felt good to commit to something so serious. Our day in the Parisian suburbs marked the end of our glittery love dream. He told me he’d cancelled the purchase of our new house, unable to process the thought of moving in with me, in addition to the spiralling cost of renovations and the emotional tsunami of his impending divorce. I’d invested so much of myself in him and his child that, instead of dropping to my knees and sobbing, I took some deep breaths and assured him I’d be there to support him, and we could slow things down instead. Yet again, I put their needs before my own, mistakenly thinking my martyrdom was the route to a nuclear family ending. I sobbed alone in the cabin on the ferry back home. As he whisked her above deck to see the onboard pantomime, I realised I was weak. Decades had been spent basing my self-worth on the success of my relationships with men. I’d been obsessed with the supposition that being fancied was the same as being loved. Deluded with the idea that nonchalant sexual liaisons were a good place to begin a potential life partnership. Meeting him had jolted me into adulthood – he and his pint-sized descendant had taught me what real love was and, at 42, it had been my first true experience of how to be selflessly devoted to another human being. I’d never put anyone else first before; now I was a seasoned expert at keeping my own needs on the back burner while I tended to his and hers. The old me would have kicked off on hearing he’d pulled out of a joint mortgage at the 11th hour, complete with door-slamming and screaming fits, but the new me just felt quietly heartbroken and entirely able to forgive him. I empathised with his sudden need for financial independence, and understood how my web searches for Thonet chairs and Farrow and Ball colour charts had no bearing on his primal instinct as a father. He was going it alone. And now so am I. Initially bereft and broken, but somehow so much better inside.