Cash-strapped, loved up and six kids between us: how to have a happy blended family in your 50s

It’s a complicated business, marrying (for the second time) at 52.You’re deeply in love, but battle-scarred and broke. While you were swimming ashore to survive the shipwreck of your previous marriages, your money got swept out to sea.

Jonathan and I married in June this year, in a tiny room in the register office in Ramsgate, where we’d just bought our first house together. Afterwards, awash with happiness and champagne, we celebrated with our witnesses in a harbourside restaurant, whipping out credit cards to settle the bill.

Allocating a whole day to each other was a rare indulgence. The following day, I was back in the old school run and work routine, while Jonathan headed for meetings and a weekend visit to his daughter 200 miles away.

When you’re middle-aged newly-weds with decimated post-divorce finances and six kids between you, their ages spanning from 11 to 27, there’s no chance of Cinderella’s glass carriage whisking you to a five-star honeymoon hotel.

We’d just pooled what was left of our resources to cobble together a mortgage before the lenders wrote us off as too old. Feeling like first-time buyers, we could afford no nuptial fripperies or frills, yet our pared-down day was proof to us that we had everything that truly counted.

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The determination to make a relationship work is worth more than any diamond. Honest communication beats all the sugared almonds in the world.

Romance? Our wedding was a tribute to hard emotional work. Relationship bootcamp, if you will. Jonathan and I had been close friends since teenage years, talking long into the night at parties, though we never dated. We both married others, and kept in touch mainly via Christmas cards.

I divorced when my two boys were still little and soon after, the credit crunch put paid to my once-steady income as a freelance writer. Rebuilding was tiring and lonely, so when Jonathan called out of the blue, suggesting a catch-up over lunch, it was the greatest possible tonic.

As with all great friendships, we picked up where we’d left off. I told him what I’d been through and, as ever, he was the only person who truly understood.

A few years on, he came to see me and confided his own marriage was over. His four children were older, but he was desperate to steer them through the heartache of divorce. I knew exactly how that felt.

He started visiting more frequently and gradually, over pub lunches and long walks, our friendship turned to love.

That was the easy part. We were in the first, delirious flush of a brand-new relationship, yet in our late 40s, we had more baggage than a Boeing 747. We even had a Border terrier each.

It was the dogs, Tilly and Twizzle, who found it easiest when Jonathan moved from Bath to Kent to be with me.

We longed to bring our wonderful children together, hoped they’d see the power of our love and be happy we were happy. We had visions of a willow tree embracing our newly-formed superfamily under its branches.

How cringingly naïve that sounds now! Only his youngest, as sixth-former, still lived with her mum and while she came to stay in school holidays, the others began to experiment with weekend visits.

It was tough for them to adapt to the change, seeing their dad with someone else, even though we barely even held hands in their presence. If we went out, one of Jonathan’s girls would grab his arm, while I hung back, feeling like a rather unnecessary bridesmaid.

Jonathan and I made it a rule to be positive about our exes, but their presence loomed large. There were so many elephants in the room, I joked I should contact the conservation organisation Tusk.

My two lads, by now 10 and eight, were used to having me to themselves. Now, they had to adapt to my attention being diverted, living with a man who wasn’t their dad and seeing him in Mummy’s bed.

Jonathan was sensitive to that, would teeter on the side if one of them crept in during the night. To lessen the kids’ pain, we were prepared to bend ourselves into all kinds of uncomfortable ways – no matter the cost.

Divorce doesn’t come cheap. Our finances needed rebooting, yet there was more call on them than ever. Separate holidays with the kids, one-to-one time (six times over), experimental ‘family’ excursions and camping trips…it all mounted up.

Our bank balances were stretched as thin as our time. Work was of paramount importance. So were Jonathan’s phone conversations with his kids, which could last hours, and my attempts to keep up familiar rituals and routines for mine.

We risked time to ourselves being squeezed out. We never had a single regret about being with each other, but we’d been thrown in a maelstrom of primary-age kids, teenagers and emerging adults, and we risked buckling under the weight of their needs.

Empty-nest issues collided with full-house chaos. When there was a meltdown or tantrum, I’d come over all wicked stepmother, want to take an axe to that sodding willow tree and chop it into firewood.

We turned to a therapist for help. It wasn’t easy to find the extra £35 a week each, but it was a fraction of lawyers’ fees, and we felt we were investing in our relationship in a healthy way.

Couples’ therapy is not for the faint-hearted, though. We could both be as fiercely belligerent as wrestling crocodiles if we felt under attack. But gradually, we got better at putting our defences aside so we could listen properly to the other’s point of view.

We came to see that merging families, working out money, property, diaries, wills and boundaries was complex, to say the least. Love just got in the way. What we needed was space to think things out rationally and here, we had just that.

After nearly two years, we’d untangled a load of knots. We’d shed residual guilt, learnt how to say no to others’ excessive demands and realised that no couple agrees on everything, but we more or less shared the same aims.

We all rub along pretty well these days. The grown-up children’s concerns over jobs and tenancy agreements bubble alongside acne angst and Pokemon Go. We will never claim to have got this right, but we’ve always believed in the power of a bloody good conversation and have that to thank for saving us.

Our most important lesson has been to accept that when it comes to families, step or not, there’s no such thing as perfect.

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Five top tips from the front line of middle-aged marriage

I asked my husband Jonathan for his view on how to make sure we – and our new stepchildren – get along: ‘I’ve learnt more in the past 10 years than ever before. I grossly under-estimated how hard it would be to bring our families together and it’s testament to the strength of our relationship that we’ve survived the various grenades that have been hurled at it. These are some of my favourite life-saving lessons:

  1. Get over any idealised notion of a blissfully united stepfamily. Far better to roll with the punches, notice the great moments (there are many) and bank any wins.
  2. Be proud of  your choices. Be aware of sensibilities, but stop apologising for being in a new partnership. If kids sense weakness, instinct will tell them to undermine in an attempt to restore their old world.
  3. Get self-aware. You need to make sense of what went wrong in your last relationship to avoid repeating the same mistakes. Therapy helps.
  4. Have a weekly ‘meeting’. Proper talking and listening are much harder than you think. To recreate the therapy experience for free, carve out an hour a week to check in with each other. Go somewhere neutral, like a park bench or a peaceful café. Turn off phones. To ensure you get equal air time, it helps to have an object that you hold while you’re speaking, then pass it over.
  5. Remember the love triangle. We once Googled ‘What is love?’ and got a surprisingly clear answer: ‘Passion plus intimacy plus commitment.’ You might have one without the other, but you need all three to survive.

Some knotty questions fiftysomething second-time-rounders may face

It’s worth talking about these before you tie the knot for the second time.

  • How do we split the equity in the house in our wills?
  • My kids want pizza, yours organic quinoa. Who pays the grocery bill?
  • I’ve lost my single-parent Working Tax Credit allowance, how do I make up the shortfall?
  • My ex has quit work and cut maintenance payments. Does that make my new partner responsible for my kids?
  • How do we split household bills when it’s only my kids living in the house full time?
  • Is it fair to spend money/time on ourselves having a few days’ break away?
  • If one of us dies, will we still get to see their kids?
  • If I die, will you have to actually raise my kids?
  • If you help one kid financially, do you have to help them all?
  • Will we be able to retire before we’re 100?

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Christabel Bradley

A former magazine editor, Christabel is now a freelance writer, editor, copywriter and content creator.

Christabelsmith99@gmail.com

6 comments

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  • I so get this! Never previously married and then not married until well into my 40s. My son lived with us and my step children lived with their mum immediately down the road from us which has been just wonderful and sooo difficult in varying measures.

    The wedding was something we wanted for ourselves as it felt right. Both of us first timers we had the full white churchy do. The day stands out in the memories of all who were there as a day full of love as well as a great party. And I believe the wedding was the ultimate game changer for all 3 of our kids. Since that day they all seem to be more accepting of our relationship. In fact they appear to be proud of us and join in our love for the whole commitment thing.

    Finally – but probably most importantly I believe the amassed experience we bring to our relationship informs our conversations about the tough stuff. And I’m delighted to discover that the lessons I learn about myself through being in a loving, challenging, committed and holistic relationship just keep coming.

    Here’s to the rest of our old married lives!

  • My husband and I married last year (second time for us both) at 56/58. His kids are adult two of mine are still at home – the youngest 13 from my last relationship. Both my dependent daughters have anxiety issues (though not about our relationship). My dad is 92 and lives with my brother in Scotland now but was rushed into hospital and nearly died Leto weeks before our wedding. His mum is 83 and lives locally but needs almost full time care.
    We both still work. He moved into my home and rents his but I still have a joint mortgage with my ex partner.
    I recognise all the issues you raise and more but I can honestly say I have never been happier. We have honesty, trust and love.
    We chose to get married because we wanted to make that commitment and it was a very special day – I did feel like a princess.
    We have so much more experience of life and feel very lucky to be in a position to share a life together.

  • My husband and i married in june last year me 55 and he 60. We were childhood sweethearts that got a second chance. 6 children between us ranging from 35 to 17 so we have the full range of all of it. Fortunately the children all get on great with us and each other and that has been the key…we have love and passion and the children appear to appreciate that we have this love that we openly show it and that we are happy. We suffer financially for it….far too many birthdays and omg christmas and the older ones always needing help plus grandchildren but wouldnt have it any other way

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