Happy (step) families: How we battled the bitter jealousies after both mother and father remarried

Novelist Tess Stimson, 38, has two sons with former CNN correspondent Brent Sadler, 55; Henry, 14, and Matthew, 11. The couple divorced in 1999 and, two years later, Tess met and married U.S. fundraiser Erik Oliver, 34.

They have a daughter Lily, six. In 2003, Brent married Jelena Anicic, 36, a PR consultant. They have no children, but share the care of Henry and Matthew when they visit. So, how do they all get on?


Step families graphic

Tess at first resented the stepmother of her children

There was never any question of me feeling jealous of Jelena as a stepmother, but I did resent her spending time with the boys in the beginning, because, unfairly, I blamed her for the break-up of my family.

I couldn't bear the thought of her hugging or kissing them, and found it hard to hide how I felt.

Secretly, I was pleased when they threw a tantrum, or refused to hold her hand.

I was also resentful that while I got the day-to-day grind of enforcing discipline, Brent took them on holidays.

I hated that they'd associate boring chores with me, and fun with him.

They'd come back from a week with him and play up.

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're turning out nicely.

They have impeccable manners, they respect women, and they're helpful.

That's due to Erik.

In some ways, 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 really loved them. It was a turning point for me.

I know if anything happened to Erik and me, Brent and Jelena would take on all three of my children and do a fantastic job.


Step families graphic

After the separation, Brent cried every time he said goodbye to his sons

When Tess and I separated, my life was thrown into turmoil as I scrambled to juggle my career with the disintegration of my marriage.

It was especially hard for me when Tess and the boys left our home in Lebanon, where I was based 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 challenging - in the last year of our marriage, I was on the road for ten months - 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 London as often as I could, but it was never enough.

When I left, Henry would say: 'Daddy, when are you coming back?' I broke into tears every time I left them. I still do.

When Tess met Erik, I didn't feel threatened - I'd always be the boys' father - 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 one or two short weeks.

It was hard to discipline them because I couldn't bear to ruin the brief time we had together.

For the past few years, they've spent a month with us every summer in Montenegro.

Erik and I talk often on the phone, and the boys know they can no longer play one set of parents off against the other.

I'm hugely grateful to him for taking them on.

We recently spent a skiing holiday together, including Erik and Tess's daughter Lily.

Our blended family may not be conventional, but it actually works pretty well.

In some ways, the boys are lucky: they have four parents looking out for them instead of two.


Step families graphic

For many years Henry wanted his parents to get back together

When we left Lebanon without Dad, I missed him more than anything.

I wanted him and Mum to get back together and for us to be a family.

I didn't really care about Jelena. She was OK, but she wasn't Mum.

When I was little, I wished she'd go away.

It was weird when she and Dad held hands, and I didn't really like it when she tried to kiss or hug me.

Dad visited us, but I always knew he'd go away again, which spoilt it.

He and Mum didn't argue any more, so I didn't see why they couldn't make up.

When Mum met Erik, I liked him a lot, but I still really missed my dad.

They got married and had a baby, which I didn't mind, but it meant that Dad wasn't coming back.

Sometimes Erik and I argue, but that's not because he's my stepdad, it's just because he won't let me do whatever I want. Jelena is strict, too.

She makes me tidy up my bedroom when we stay with her and Dad.

I'm really glad now that Mum and Erik got married.

I don't get confused about Erik and Dad because it seems natural.

I'm pleased everyone gets on. I guess Erik and Jelena are pretty cool.


Step families graphic

Erik instilled discipline the boys had never seen before

I never thought twice about taking on Tess's boys.

They were part of the package. They were great children, but they were very spoiled when I met them.

They had a nanny and most of the discipline seemed to be left to her.

Not long after we'd started dating, we met Brent and Jelena in a hotel bar.

The boys were jumping all over the chairs and neither Brent nor Tess did anything to stop them.

The bar owner looked at me to intervene.

I realised that if I was going to be a full-time parent, Tess had to let me do things my way, or it was never going to work.

I took them aside, put the fear of God into them and then made them sit quietly and play cards.

I'm not sure their parents even noticed.

Having been a stepchild myself, I know how children play parents and step-parents off against each other.

If Henry or Matthew don't like my response to something, they'll go to Tess, and if she sides with me, they'll try it on with their father.

Sometimes I get fed up with being the 'bad guy'.

But I do it because it's necessary to equip the boys with tools for their future.

My relationship with the boys is based more on teaching them and raising them to be decent men rather than anything else.

You just have to hope they reach a stage where they trust your judgment and ask for your opinion, instead of looking at you as the person who lays down the law.

They're my sons and I love them unconditionally.


Step families graphic

Jelena says she was made to feel like an outsider in the first few years

I knew from the start that if Brent and I were to have a deep, lasting relationship, it had to include the boys. But it was very stressful.

They were both so young and they were very suspicious of me.

Neither of them would hold my hand or let me kiss them, and every time I reached out to them, they shied away.

I tried to understand, but it was very hurtful.

The boys blamed me because Brent was no longer living with them.

I had to be very patient and try not to take it personally as I struggled to rationalise my feelings.

Some days I despaired they'd ever accept me.

But there was no question of me leaving the boys to Brent to deal with.

So I gritted my teeth and persevered.

Of course there have been some agonising times.

The boys are fiercely competitive with each other and vie for Brent's attention.

I had to find my own place in their relationship. In the early days, I felt like the outsider.

There were times I was tempted to just leave them to it, but I didn't want to create that sort of division in the family. It's taken time, sweat and tears, but it's been worth it.

When the boys are with us in Montenegro, I feel very responsible for them.

I call Tess to let her know what they're up to, as I know she worries.

They've finally learned to trust me. The first time Henry said 'I love you' on the phone, I cried. It showed how far we've come.

• The Cradle Snatcher by Tess Stimson, £6.99, out in paperback.

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now