Its Alton Towers and the sun is shining. We are screaming on the white-knuckle rides and enjoying warm doughnuts covered in sugar. We are walking miles, chatting and laughing and yet, something feels strange as we all have fun together. You see, today we are a four. Today, it is me, Andrew and his children as my boys are enjoying a few days in Spain with their Dad.
I know they are having a great time and their holiday has followed a short break that the six of us enjoyed (plus the dog) in the Lake District. My boys are happy and yet something is niggling me.
I say niggling, because it has replaced a sadness that used to accompany me on the rare occasions that I spent time with Andrew and his children while mine were with their Dad. In fact, I can count on one hand the amount of times we have gone out or spent much time together as a four.
One reason is that Andrew tends to stay at his house when I don’t have my boys. He utterly adores his children and needs that time. I think that one of the reasons we work so well as a blended family is that we each have time with our children where they have us to themselves and don’t have to compete for attention. It makes being a six much easier. But another reason is that when I first met Andrew, over seven years ago, it was just too hard for me part of a ‘normal’ family when I didn’t have my boys. Hearing siblings talking, playing, fighting even. Sitting at a dinner table without having to cut up food or help anyone to eat. Having time where I wasn’t on high alert. It felt alien to me and very uncomfortable. Being immersed in a life I had imagined for myself and my boys was just too painful so I stayed away, choosing to spend time on my own or as a six.
Its easier these days but Andrew is aware that I struggle and I see him cast a knowing glance at me from time to time. He squeezes my hand as if to say “thank you for coming when you find it weird. I’m glad you’re here.” I love the bones of that man and I genuinely couldn’t wish for better step children. They are both incredible. A real credit to their parents and a pleasure to be with. But being part of a family when my boys aren’t there makes me feel unsettled. I don’t feel guilty now, as I have done in the past and it certainly doesn’t stop me having fun but there is a feeling gnawing away at the back of my mind. The sort of feeling you have when you are sure you left the iron on or the backdoor open at home. One that lurks constantly, making you feel slightly uneasy, despite telling yourself that everything is fine.
Today, Bea and Harrison chat as always and I smile at the typical conversation that I would give anything to hear between my boys. In my trio, it falls to me to be the conversation partner for Oliver and believe me, that boy can TALK! One of the many things I love about Oliver is his inquisitive mind but with that often comes a relentless barrage of questions, opinions and comments. None of these are absorbed by Harry. It’s all me but at the same time, I hate to leave Harry out of conversations that I am sure he understands despite not being able to participate in. So, I engage with Oliver whilst ensuring that Harry isn’t left out. In chatting with him of course, I have to make sure that Oliver doesn’t think I am ignoring him or don’t value his ideas. Its an exhausting balancing act. No Oliver means no intense conversations and I feel that absence keenly. My ears strain to fill the vacuum and I find myself either talking for the sake of it or just being quiet.
Then the are the things that fill my mind and days that I don’t even know I am doing until my boys aren’t with me. The way I constantly think of Harry before anything else at all. Like watching the surface of the ground which determines whether I hold his hand or not (as does the surrounding activities.) In a field, I can let him walk at my side. Where there may be uneven ground that he can’t distinguish (one eye means no depth perception) or people, places or objects which will attract his attention and see him running off, I need to hold his hand. This changes often and so I have a perpetual risk assessment running in my mind.
I am also acutely aware of his behaviours, noises, movements and expressions as each denote a different state for Harry and the rate at which I respond can mean the difference between enjoying another few hours or coming home early. One simple pull of my arm and groan of displeasure can signal the beginning of the end and so I can’t afford to miss a moment. I am hyper vigilant at all times (and don’t forget, still having a constant conversation with Oliver)
And then the simple things, like the fact that Andrews children can just nip to the loo or the refill station for the drinks without panicking that we will leave. Oliver is convinced that I will have relocated in the 2 minutes that he is away and asks for reassurance half a dozen times before he will leave my side. If we go to the toilet, we have to agree a meeting point outside of them which he checks with me two or three times before we disappear into our separate areas. Even more ‘fun’ than that, he has been known to yell after me “Is it a number one or two?” so that he can gauge how long I may be in there for. He sent a woman into the toilets of Wagamama’s once to see if I had had a heart attack when in reality, I was just having a number two. I have to pee quickly as I know he will be anxiously waiting outside. Harry comes with me of course and will often yell at me if he thinks I will try to make him use the toilet too. More than once I have had to relock the cubicle door with my pants down.
Even going to the loo is stressful for the three of us but rather than enjoying the time that I spend out and about without these pressures, I miss them. I find myself feeling redundant when I’m not risk assessing the landscape, paying conversation tennis or living on my nerves while I have a pee. It’s similar to the night when your baby sleeps through for the first time but you’re wide awake from 3am wondering where they are. I am wired to be the proactive protector of my boys and without them I am like a kite with no breeze. I lack my purpose.
I absolutely adored my Nan and we often said that she needed to be needed. For the last 9 years of her life, she helped me immensely with my boys and it kept her going. Now, it seems, she has passed that on to me. My boys are my purpose, my very own white-knuckle ride and it’s days like this when I know that I wouldn’t change the life I have even if I could. Its who I am now and I need it like my Nan needed my boys. In fact, I think I need my boys more than they will ever need me.
As we are leaving Alton Towers for the day I reflect on the fun we have had. I eased myself into it in the same way that someone creeps into a swimming pool but the moments that I managed to relax, I genuinely loved and I’m sure it will get easier in time. How could I not have enjoyed a day with two brilliant children and partner who adores me. I smile at him and squeeze his hand as we head to the car and hope that he knows that I am saying “Thanks for today when I know I am weird. I’m glad I’m here”