HAPPY (STEP) FAMILIES; When Divorce, Remarriage and Step-Parents Tear a Family Unit Apart, Can Harmony Ever Return?

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NOVELIST Tess Stimson 38, has two sons with Brent Sadler, 55; Henry, 14, and Matthew, 11. The couple divorced in 1999 and, two years later, Tess met and married Erik Oliver, 34. They have a daughter Lily, six. In 2003, Brent married Jelena Anicic. They have no children, but share the care of Henry and Matthew when they visit. So how do they all get on?

THE MOTHER: TESS

THERE was never any question of me feeling jealous of Jelena, but I did resent her spending time with the boys in the beginning, because, unfairly, I blamed her for the breakup of my family.

I couldn't bear the thought of her hugging or kissing them.

Secretly, I was pleased whenever they refused to hold her hand.

When I met Erik, we agreed that if this was going to work, he'd have to be a full-on, full-time father. Erik made me see I was turning them into brats.

But it was hard. Even now, the only thing we ever argue about is the right way to raise the boys. I think he's too tough on them, and yet they have impeccable manners, respect women, and are helpful. That's due to Erik.

I think he's a far more dedicated parent than either Brent or me. There's no question of him treating Lily differently from the boys just because she's genetically his. Jelena's the same.

Four years ago, she rang me from Montenegro to say Brent wanted to take the boys up in a small plane, which she thought was dangerous. He wouldn't listen to her, and she wanted me to stop him, which I did. The following week, the plane crashed and everyone was seriously hurt.

I realised then that she loved them. I know if anything happened to Erik and me, Brent and Jelena would take on all three of my children and do a great job.

THE FATHER: BRENT

WHEN Tess and I separated, my life was thrown into turmoil. It was especially hard for me when

Tess and the boys left our home in Lebanon, where I was based as a journalist for CNN, because she wanted to return to London.

The sense of loss I felt when I waved goodbye to Henry and Matthew, then aged four and one, was overwhelming. My hectic schedule had always made family life hard but now there was an emptiness that tore at my heart.

I'd call to speak to the boys, but they were too young to talk on the phone. I flew to see them as often as I could, but it was never enough. When Tess met Erik, I didn't feel threatened but I did feel sad that he'd be the one enjoying the day-to-day ups and downs of family life with them.

In the beginning, I often overcompensated, taking the boys on expensive holidays. I felt I had to cram a year of fun into two short weeks. It was hard to discipline them because I couldn't bear to ruin the brief time we had.

Erik and I talk often on the phone. I'm hugely grateful to him for taking them on. Our blended family may not be conventional, but it actually works pretty well. …