Apparently, I am raising my daughter in a "reconstituted family"
Novelist David Mark on his unusual family set-up
I’ve just got off the phone with school. Elora’s in bother again. She’s taken the time to tell her French teacher exactly how much she hates him and she’s written out a permission slip giving herself the right to throat-punch one of the school bullies if they tell her she looks like a boy again.
This is not a unique situation. Elora’s incredibly clever and incredibly odd. She doesn’t like authority, thinks rules are funny, and is so scatter-brained she routinely leaves the house without shoes. The school is pretty patient with her. The teachers like her, in that slightly exasperated sort of way. But they can’t be letting her get away with this kind of thing. So I need to go and chat with the pastoral manager. So does Mum.
‘And Mummy too?’ I asked, with sinking heart. ‘The other one.’
‘Oh,’ said the nice lady on the phone. ‘I see.’
I don’t think she meant it in a bad way but there was definitely an element of joining the dots mentally.
Then she said a term that has been playing on my mind ever since. Apparently, I am raising my daughter in a ‘reconstituted family’. I’d previously thought that to reconstitute something meant restoring it to its original form by adding water. I had a nightmarish vision of myself, my partner and my ex-wife starting out as stock cubes. Or Pot Noodles.
A reconstituted family is apparently a ‘blended’ family; a domestic set-up that involves remarriages and step-siblings and all manner of complicated familial titles, like step-cousin and auntie-in-law.
Let me clarify. When Elora was a few months old, I split from my wife, Sarah. I was a bit of a disaster in those days. I was horribly unfulfilled professionally and brought a black cloud of misery with me everywhere I went. Sarah was great about that until the baby came along, at which point she said that babysitting my feelings had to start coming second to parenthood. We parted on good terms. A few months later, my friend Nikki and I became something more, which meant that baby Elora entered her life, in the way that Nikki’s five-year-old son, George, entered mine. Sarah was about as cool with the situation as I had any right to expect. So was Nikki. Me? I was probably too feckless then to feel anything.
'For a while we even all lived on the same street, before the sheer weirdness of that led to a move.'
It wasn’t the perfect set-up, but we muddled through. For a while we even all lived on the same street, before the sheer weirdness of that led to a move. For the past few years, Sarah and I have had shared custody of Elora. She’s with me three nights a week one week, and four nights a week the next. She calls George her brother and always has done. She refers to Nikki as ‘Mummy Number Two’ and calls her by the name ‘Mum’. Her mummy, Sarah, remains ‘Mummy’. I’ll be ‘Daddy’ until the day I die.
Up to speed? So was I, until big school came along. Elora will be 12 in July but has decided to start becoming teenage a little early. Some of what used to be cute and endearing about her has developed into a full-blown rebellious streak. And we’re at loggerheads as to how to deal with it.
Mummy is a teacher. She looks at statistics and research papers and examines the best way forward from every angle before instigating merit schemes or punishments. She works 12-hour days and spends most of her spare time rubbing her forehead with the heels of her hands and wondering how to reply when her beloved daughter says she didn’t do her homework because ‘it just seemed completely irrelevant’. She’s terrific with El, even if it’s never quite clear who’s in charge.
And then there’s Mum. She’s old-school. You misbehave and you go to your room. You’re cheeky, you get your phone taken away. You’re naughty and there’s no pudding. You sulk and you’ll end up with something to really cry about.
Lastly, there’s me. I’m the hippy. I’m the talker and the soft touch. I say things like, ‘I’ll fix it – just don’t tell your mums.’ And I give her helpful advice such as, ‘If he does it again, hit him in the throat’. I’m also very good at telling teachers I have no idea where she gets such ideas from.
So, here’s the situation today. Mummy is blaming Daddy for the fact that Elora is in trouble. And Daddy is hoping to get a chat with Elora so he can help coach her on what to say to get out of this pickle. Mum, meanwhile, is feeling a bit put-out that she’s not going to the meeting at the school because Mummy, while pretty reasonable, simply couldn’t credence the idea of all three of us being there. So Mum is cross with Daddy for not making more of a fuss about it, and planning some form of disciplinary measure for Elora that will only work if Mummy also carries it out while she’s at her other house. And in the middle of it all, Elora is sitting eating a Cadbury’s Mini-Roll, completely unperturbed.
It obviously isn’t the first time the three of us have disagreed on what to do with El. Potty training was a chore. Nikki’s George had gone straight to using the toilet. But Sarah decided a potty was worth a go. I received much advice from both sides before Elora made the decision for us by wetting herself almost constantly until she decided to use the toilet in her own good time.
She was also a fussy eater. Nikki would make her sit to table until the food was finished. Sarah would try motivation techniques to get veg down her. And I would try and persuade her to eat her vitamins while knowing that it would take a man with a gun to force me into eating a single vegetable.
So what does Elora think about having three parents? She’s just popped into my office and I’ve told her what I’m working on. I’ll let her answer verbatim.
‘It’s frustrating sometimes because I get in the middle of it all and I hear you all wittering on, but then I suppose I’m in the middle of it all because it’s me they’re worrying about. I don’t know really – you all just take it in turns to be a pain, but I’m lucky, or so you tell me. Anyway, have you seen my fly-swatter, I want to play Extendable Death-Tennis.’
'What I worry about is marshalling the affections of two women who both adore their little girl, and where that leaves me.'
Truth be told, I don’t worry about Elora. She’s me in miniature and I manage to get my shoes on in the morning and have done okay from a much more challenging start. What I worry about is marshalling the affections of two women who both adore their little girl, and where that leaves me.
They’ve started agreeing, you see. They think Elora needs a firmer hand. They’re sharing jokes about what a pushover I am and exchanging texts outlining what she had in her possession in a morning, and what should still be in her possession at night. They’re drawing up some sort of homework rota and are both using the same incentives to get her motivated. And with two competent mothers on the scene, I feel a bit lost, to be honest. Maybe if Nikki wasn’t in the equation, I’d have to step up a bit.
As it stands, I’m just the overgrown man-child who wakes up Elora at 3am to go for a swordfight in the woods – no, really - dressed in full ninja regalia. But I’m also the one she talks to about how unfair it is that her mummies are so mean to her and keep trying to stop her having fun. I’m her storyteller and the guy who makes her laugh. I’m her secret-keeper, and we’re the only people who understand the imaginary world inhabited by Cerise the Unicorn Rider, Bad Kitty the 18th century vigilante, and the immortal witches Panther and Lady Violetta.
I’m happy with that.
:: DEAD PRETTY by David Mark is published in hardcover at £12.99 by Hodder & Stoughton