Nicky, 37 is mum to Seb (17) and 4-month-old Violet, a special guardian to her niece Tilly (7) and step-mum to Mia (7) and Teddy (3)*. Danni from the Mummy Social team recently caught up with her to talk about how they all came together as a family.
Hello Nicky, you had your first child Seb, when you were 19 years old. Your second biological child, Violet, was born 17 years later. Did you feel like a first-time mum again? I should imagine that things had changed somewhat with regards to advice, the variety of products available etc. What did you make of this second time around?
I definitely felt like a first-time mum again. I remember my midwife saying I would miss one of the standard antenatal appointments as it wasn’t my first child. I asked her to book me in for everything and treat me like I’d never done it before! Lots of advice relating to sleeping and feeding has changed but to be honest, after 17 years, I’d forgotten most of it anyway. There are definitely some brilliant new products around though. Simple things like the Isofix and sleeping gro bags are genius.
One of the biggest changes for me was having advice, information and support so readily available online. Smartphones were not really around when I had my son so there were no baby apps or mum communities to call on and these have been a real help for me this time.
Your life dramatically changed after an event in 2013, which left you as the special guardian to your 18-month-old niece. How did this change your everyday life? Does your niece know you are her aunty or as she was so young does she not remember?
That’s right, I began caring for my niece Tilly in 2013 and went on to secure legal guardianship at a later date. In the first few weeks, we experienced a lot of change, putting the day to day things in place like child care, changing work patterns, borrowing or buying all the things you need for a toddler and adjusting to our new life. In my experience, all of that quickly becomes the norm though, it’s the changes to the family dynamic and how you explain that to people that takes longer to adjust to. There were two major changes for me though – one was how it changed my outlook and the other was my relationship with family and friends.
Firstly, I reflected a lot at that time and got into positive psychology books. They’re not for everyone but they helped me to be resilient enough to support my niece and son and pushed me to set up my own business so that I could have a better work-life balance for them. Secondly, it made me much closer to my immediate family and friends. It’s fair to say it was a tough time and they were incredible. I have a big group of girlfriends who were my support network. They all have children too and my niece quickly became one of them so she had a ready-made group of children to socialise with, which was important for her; and which helped me with going back to toddler-friendly days out!
Yes, my niece knows I’m her aunty. We have always been honest with her but she also understands that I am taking care of her in a way that a parent would. She is aware that our family is a little bit unique but is very comfortable with it.
For those of us who are unfamiliar with the term Special Guardian, can you please briefly tell us what this is and what it entails?
I have something called a special guardianship order (SGO). This is a court order which places my niece in my care until she is an adult and gives me parental responsibility for her. I am responsible for her day to day upbringing, care, health, education etc just like any other parent. We secured this by applying to the Family Court and went through an assessment process which was done by a social worker.
After four years of it just being the three of you (you, your son and niece), you met your partner. I understand he has two children from a previous relationship which then added two step-children (then two and six) into the family mix. How did you bring everyone together? Was it a gradual process? Did everyone get on or was it something that took time and work?
There have been so many different stages, emotions and conversations that it’s quite difficult to put it all into one answer but I’ll try…
The main thing for us was understanding and dealing with each child differently as we knew they would respond in their own way. It was less gradual for my son as he was 16 and more understanding of the situation but we took more time with my partner’s children and my niece.
For the younger ones, we introduced each other as friends and gradually spent more time together. We focused on them getting used to us before we introduced them to each other so they didn’t become overwhelmed with everything. My partner’s daughter Mia struggled with it the most and we seemed to take one step forward and two steps back some weeks. Sometimes she enjoyed having me around and others she really resented me. At times like this, we just listened to her and gave her the time and reassurance she needed.
Introducing the children was the next step. We started taking them for days out together and just let them make their own minds up. Watching the two girls get to know each other has been the most interesting. They are complete opposites and we thought that might cause some problems. For a few months there seemed to be an unspoken battle over who was top dog and there was so much bickering! Over time, they got to know each other and things began to settle. They became true friends and are now incredibly close. They still fall out like all siblings do but I know they adore each other.
Our situation was made more complicated by the fact that I fell pregnant quite early on in our relationship. We didn’t want the children to have to deal with lots of massive change at once, so we moved in together much earlier than we might have done. This gave us time to work on building our relationships before the baby arrived. It took almost a year for us to get to a stage where things were much more settled and where I would say we were living and working together as a family. That’s not to say there weren’t some brilliant times during that year but I think there was always the underlying feeling that things hadn’t quite slotted into place yet.
Do you have any advice for families in a similar situation, whereby they need to integrate their families to become one?
Compared to some, I’m still in the early stages of blended family life so I really don’t profess to have all the answers but in my experience, two things go a long way to making things easier for everyone.
The first is advice given to me by my nan who parented a blended family long before it was a ‘thing’. She told me not to take sides when the children are falling out. Children will always argue and the girls, in particular, did quite a lot of it at the start. We have a natural urge to want to protect ‘our own’ so at first, I would defend my niece and my partner would do the same for his daughter. This created a divide in the family and caused us to argue but whereas the girls would have forgotten about whatever minor thing they were arguing about in minutes, we would still be dwelling on it hours later. It wasn’t healthy for us or them so now we ask if it’s something they can work out between themselves which they have responded really well too.
The second is managing your expectations. A friend pointed this out to me recently and it’s so true. I was naive at the start and thought that our two families would blend together with no conflict and live happily ever after from the start. This put massive pressure on us and meant that my partner and I struggled when things didn’t go to plan. Understanding that everyone will deal with the new family dynamic differently and some may take longer to feel comfortable with it than others will help when times are tough.
*names have been changed to protect the identity of everyone.
Interview by Danni, Mummy Social Team