By Bunmi Sofola
MY husband, Made, a surgeon, was 56 and at the end of a 27-year marriage when I met him five years ago,” recalled Susan when recounting her experience as a step-mother to three hostile children from her husband’s first marriage. “I was 43, with a 10-year old daughter from a previous relationship; he had three daughters ranging in age from late teens to early 20s.
“While we realised weeks after meeting that we had most definitely fallen in love, we knew we would face considerable challenge blending our domestic lives. Still, we kept saying to each other, with deluded pride,it would be a piece of cake. What I hadn’t realised, in my excitement, was just how demanding or complex becoming a second wife could be.
For the first 18 months of our relationship, our blissful high were punctuated by damning lows, raging arguments and periods of insecurity. I hadn’t envisaged I’d have to navigate such lonely and inhospitable terrain.
“Four years into my marriage, I now have a special empathy for second wives. It’s like a taboo club, particularly if you’re struggling to unite two families. When you meet another member, there is this sigh of relief knowing that they relate only too well to what you are going through. I believe mine and Made’s problem stemmed from our different family backgrounds and attitudes. With a grass-to- grace background, he didn’t place that much importance on education, and had never once encouraged his children to do their homework or even read school reports. His former marital home was chaotic and untidy. I, on the other hand; was upper middle class who believed in firm boundaries, discipline and tough love. As the daughter of a retired high court judge, education ranks highly amongst my list of parenting priorities. I’m also a house-proud neat-freak!
“Our different parenting styles became a sort of battle ground. I couldn’t believe that it didn’t matter to him if his daughters went to the university—or even strive to get a job. Worse, he would over-compensate whenever he saw or spoke to them. I soon realised this is common among men who’ve left the marital home to begin a new relationship. Some days they are so eaten up with guilt about choosing their own happiness at the expense of their children’s security, that they can become over-placatory and —often in the eyes of the second wife—weak.
“I remember staring at Made agape the first time his youngest daughter then 16, joined us for lunch, six months into our relationship. (To this day, the two older children have refused to meet me. I have some sympathy with this; they felt we got married too quickly). As we sat in the restaurant, I simply couldn’t believe his funny, dopey smile and forced jollity. I’d never seen this side of him before, and I was frankly stunned.
And for the first year, whenever he spoke to his daughters on the phone, he would adopt an ingratiatingly sugary voice I’d never heard him use with anyone else. He’s endlessly patient with them, never rising to anger. Yet in the rough and tumble of our domestic life, he will shout at me, eyes cold with fury!
“In fairness to him, he’s always been wonderfully inclusive of my daughter. I did not introduce her to him until we were engaged four months into our relationship, so she, like Made’s children, had to accept our marriage was a done deal!
“As things stand, there is a constant fracture between ‘his family,’ i.e., the first family, and ‘our family,’ the second one. I was so resentful of his first wife that I often broke the cardinal rule, criticizing his children. I asked myself how could he bring up children who according to him were never taught to say thank you or tidy their room.
And because of my attacking nature, we had furious rows, and naturally he became defensive on their behalf. He began to creep out to phone his children on his mobile, speaking to them in his car, which created a sense of betrayal. If they rang when we were in the car together, he wouldn’t take the call. His older children never phoned our landline, as that would mean they’d have to acknowledge I actually existed, and lived with their father.
This is my warning to anxious second wives; take note—the secretive texting and furtive calls your husband makes are far more likely to be to his children than his ex-wife or any other woman. Recently, we were in the car when his daughter called. He was unsure whether to take the call, and I urged him to. But when he spoke to her, he said, ‘I’m in the car’ as opposed to ‘we’re.’
I felt insulted that I was not referred to—as if my presence was a guilty secret. When I share my experiences with other ‘second wives,’ I find the mobile phone scenario typical. One friend feels nauseated every time her husband speaks to his 27 year-old-daughter and goes all gooey and adoring, calling her ‘darling’ and ‘sweetie’ as if he’s speaking to his young lover. She also has to endure her step-daughter rearranging his clothes and patting his hair to shape while staring pointedly at her. Another friend is incensed every time her step-daughter waltzes into her kitchen and help herself to the choicest of meat in the pot.
“I agree such behaviour over steps a boundary, just as I believe children should phone and thank their step-mothers when they have been to stay. Yes, it’s their father’s house, but when you—as the eager-to-please wife—have put yourself out to accommodate them, trying far harder than with your most challenging and exhausting guests, it would be a generous gesture that the father could endorse.
I’m not surprised statistics show that second marriages are struggling and increasingly ending in divorce. Third marriages are even worse.”