Trying to find new love in mid-life? Beware of the little saboteurs on your sofa

Trying to find new love in mid-life Beware of the little saboteurs on your sofa

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UPDATED:

00:08 GMT, 25 July 2012

Looking back, I’m not quite sure when I noticed my daughter was watching the film The Parent Trap on a loop, but it definitely coincided with the arrival of my new boyfriend — the first man I’d dated properly since my divorce.

The movie tells the story of twin girls desperately trying to get their divorced parents back together. Being Disney, the children succeed and their perfect nuclear family lives happily ever after.

I’m fairly sure the reason my daughter Olivia, now ten, was hooked on the plot was that she was struggling to come to terms with the fact her fairy-tale — the dream of her parents reuniting after 2 years apart — was finally over.

Balancing act: Katie Agnew found juggling a new boyfriend with the needs of her children difficult

Balancing act: Katie Agnew found juggling a new boyfriend with the needs of her children difficult

When my boyfriend Matt entered our lives 18 months ago, it must have felt like a slap across her pretty little face. And so, to make her point to me and Matt, she played the movie constantly.

Even if what she felt was subconscious, her message was clear: I don’t want him here, I want Mummy and Daddy to still be together.

It probably wasn’t the warmest welcome Matt had ever received.

I’d thought my children — Olivia and her brother Charlie, six — must have had plenty of time to get used to the idea of their parents being apart, though, of course, initially they had been devastated by the end of their parents’ marriage. We all were

In the months that followed the divorce, I’d been on the odd date, but I felt very strongly that I would never introduce my children to any man unless I was sure he was a keeper.

The last thing I wanted was for the children to get upset or, worse, attached to someone who would be around for only a few weeks.

The Parent Trap starring Natasha Richardson, Lindsay Lohan and Dennis Quaid.

The Parent Trap starring Natasha Richardson, Lindsay Lohan and Dennis Quaid. 'The movie tells the story of twin girls desperately trying to get their divorced parents back together. Being Disney, the children succeed and their perfect nuclear family lives happily ever after,' says Ms Agnew

They’d had more than enough emotional upheaval in their short lives already and I was adamant I was going to give them as much stability and continuity as I could.

And if there was to be a new man in my life — and theirs — he had to be a good one.

So when Olivia and her friend Ophelia started teasing me about not having a boyfriend over brunch one Sunday, I started to think that maybe the children were ready. I even discussed it with them.

Granted, their idea of good boyfriend material was a man who was so rich he lived in a castle — or someone who owned a cafe where they could get free milkshakes.

And Olivia was rather keen on Leonardo DiCaprio as a suitable candidate.

The children seemed comfortable with the idea of Mummy having a boyfriend — in theory at least.

So when I met Matt in a bar 18 months ago, it didn’t cross my mind that there would be a big issue.

For a start, he’s a primary school headteacher — how much more child friendly can you get

He likes Monopoly and Top Trumps, loves playing football and rounders in the park, is a whizz on the Wii and can name all the characters in Super Mario Bros.

'I once left dinner at his house with mascara running down my face, torn apart by guilt'

And he has three children, who are similar ages to mine. I trusted him immediately. He’s just one of those men: if he were a stick of rock, he’d have the words ‘Good Guy’ running through him.

What’s not to like Well, actually a lot, according to my children.

In The Parent Trap, the daughters try everything possible to break up the relationship between their father and their prospective new stepmother.

They stir, lie, plot and scheme before finally, during a family camping trip, they push her air bed out onto a lake while she’s sleeping.

Of course, my children have never tried anything so overt.

But merging your children with a new partner is a precarious business, so a certain degree of sabotage is inevitable.

We first went public with all five children in the park.

'How much more child friendly can you get He likes Monopoly and Top Trumps, loves playing football and rounders in the park' says Katie Agnew (posed by models)

'How much more child friendly can you get He likes Monopoly and Top Trumps, loves playing football and rounders in the park' says Katie Agnew (posed by models)

It was neutral territory and child-friendly.

Matt and I were nervous, hoping that each other’s children would like and accept us.

At first, things went remarkably well. We had a picnic and a game of football, and the sun even shone.

Then Matt started to come round to my house once or twice a week. And that was when The Parent Trap started playing and playing and playing . . .

Olivia became incredibly clingy with me, even though she’d been independent and confident before. She would cry when I went on a date with Matt.

I once left dinner at his house with mascara running down my face, torn apart by guilt, feeling selfish for having a life of my own, even though the children were being babysat by their grandmother, who was spoiling them with bedtime stories, cuddles and hot chocolate.

Bedtime was the biggest battleground. Because I’d been on my own for so long, I had made the typical single parent mistake of allowing the children to creep into my bed.

There had been a time when I honestly believed I’d never have a man in my bed again, so wondered: what harm could it do for the three of us to snuggle up in my kingsize bed together, safe, warm and loved

Olivia used to love the quote from the film Lilo & Stitch about the characters’ family set-up: ‘Is little, and broken, but still good.’

'The children seemed comfortable with the idea of Mummy having a boyfriend — in theory at least'

That’s how we’d been for more than two years, a tiny, tight unit, and now suddenly someone new had gate-crashed the party — and he even wanted to sleep in Mummy’s bed!

When Matt started to stay overnight, Olivia would do anything possible to avoid going to sleep. She’d suddenly develop a mystery tummy ache, or her bed would be uncomfortable, or she was too cold, or too hot, or we’d be talking too loudly downstairs and keeping her awake.

Matt and I had to tip-toe upstairs and sneak into bed, but still Olivia would hear us. She would pace around the landing, go to the loo over and over again or wander into my room and just stare at us in bed together.

Often she would ask if Matt was coming round and if he was staying the night. If I said ‘Yes’, she would ask to have a sleepover at my parents’ house.

It broke my heart to see Olivia so obviously unhappy and it must have been horrible for Matt to be made to feel so unwelcome. I have no idea why he didn’t leg it.

Charlie went to the other extreme. Probably because he was so young when the divorce happened, he had far fewer issues about me moving on.

In fact, he adored Matt immediately and wanted him and his children around as much as possible.

But he had a problem with the sleeping arrangements, too.

He often asked Matt if he would like to stay for a sleepover.

When Matt said ‘Yes please’, Charlie invited him to stay in the spare bed in his room and was offended when the invitation was politely declined. As far as he was concerned, why would a boy want to sleep in a girl’s room

Even now, Charlie often wakes up in the early hours of the morning and climbs into bed with us.

There were other little signs of sabotage from the children. It wasn’t deemed appropriate for me to look too attractive. Little hands would reach up to ensure the buttons were done up on my blouse, dresses would be declared too short and T-shirts too low-cut.

Bedtime battleground: 'Because Id been on my own for so long, I had made the typical single parent mistake of allowing the children to creep into my bed'

Bedtime battleground: 'Because Id been on my own for so long, I had made the typical single parent mistake of allowing the children to creep into my bed'

Any kissing or public displays of
affection were — and still are — frowned upon. If we’re all sitting on
the sofa watching a movie, Olivia, Charlie and even the dog insist on
sitting between Matt and me.

The
frustrating thing is that the children like Matt very much — they’re
just not so sure about the whole ‘Mummy liking Matt’ thing.

I
asked for advice from my friend Belinda, whose mother had started
dating her stepfather when Belinda was around Olivia’s age, and she told
me not to underestimate the cringe factor.

She
explained that one major issue about your mum dating post-divorce is
that, when you’re ten, it’s just plain embarrassing. When you’re a
child, seeing ‘old’ people kiss and canoodle is disgusting — especially
if one of them is your mother.

When
I spoke to other divorced friends, I realised that my children’s
behaviour was quite normal, under the circumstances. In fact, it was
pretty tame.

One
friend has a five-year-old daughter who climbs into bed with her and her
new partner and wets herself every time — yet never has an ‘accident’
when her mother is sleeping alone.

Another
friend fears her son may deliberately have given her (childless,
well-groomed, fastidious) partner nits, just for the sport of seeing him
scratch and squirm.

'If the choice is my children or a relationship, I’d choose my children every time'

One woman I know felt emotionally wrecked after her daughter claimed her boyfriend had sworn at her and threatened to beat her.

The boyfriend denied the allegations, but the child stood firm. The mother had no choice but to end the relationship. She’s still not sure who was telling the truth.

In The Parent Trap, the father’s fiancee eventually gives her partner an ultimatum: ‘It’s me or them. Take your pick.’

Of course, the dad chooses the children. Which is exactly what any parent would do.

With this in mind, I’ve explained to my children that if they want to make it a war between them and Matt, there’s no need. That’s a war they’ve already won.

If the choice is my children or a relationship, I’d choose my children every time.

But I’m hopeful, if I take things slowly, that I can have both.

I’m careful to give the children lots of ‘just the three of us’ time. We holiday as a threesome and often go to the cinema and enjoy their favourite treat of sushi as a trio.

We languish in bed together watching TV on Sunday mornings and we have sacred Thursday nights that are family time.

The truth is that it’s difficult for Matt and me — we have virtually no privacy or time on our own — but he’s very understanding of the situation.

As he says, the children have to come first, and if they’re upset or being difficult, he understands why and says it’s not a deal breaker. But I’m quietly hopeful that things will work out.

A few weeks ago, Matt and I had a bit of an argument. There’s nothing strange about that — I’m the argumentative sort. But the next morning Olivia was quiet and tearful.

When I asked her what was wrong, she said she’d heard us shouting the night before and was scared in case Matt and I split up.

I felt awful that my temper had upset her, but it also made me realise just how attached to him she’s become and how settled our life is again.

It was then it hit me: if we take careful baby steps, perhaps my family can have that happily-ever-after ending — even if it is not quite as tidy and perfect as the Disney version.

TOO Hot To Handle by Katie Agnew (Orion, 12.99) is out now.