When my marriage ended a few years ago, I took some time out to lick my wounds and find out who I was after a nearly two decades of being in a relationship. It was scary and exciting and liberating and wonderful, but after a year or so of sitting with myself and focusing on my three children, I decided it was time to dip my toe back in the dating pool.
I was clear about the sort of guy I wanted to meet; he had to be passionate about his career, fit and sporty, amicable with his ex, and he had to have kids of his own. Someone with children would have great dad skills and would understand that I was busy with my own family a lot of the time and not always available for him.
I went on some fun dates, and a few shockers, but after a few months I met a man who ticked all my boxes. Michael* was a scientist with a passion for cycling and rock climbing; he had a daughter and was on good terms with his ex-wife. Neither of us was in a rush to get serious so we enjoyed getting to know each other, and kept it all light and breezy at first.
And then we fell madly in love.
As happy as we were, though, we kept our lives separate for nearly a year, fitting in dates on our kid-free evenings and weekends. Then, finally, Michael asked me if I'd like to meet his eight-year-old daughter Hayley*.
I was conflicted because I knew this could change everything, but I was also thrilled that he was serious enough about me to introduce me into his family life. So I met Michael and Hayley one afternoon for a walk along the beach and an ice cream.
Hayley was quiet and shy, but seemed like a smart and lovely kid – and it was wonderful to see Michael in his dad role. His clear love and care for his daughter made him even more attractive to me.
Maybe this would all be okay, I thought.
(Narrator: this would not all be okay.)
Soon after, I introduced Michael to my three kids. He got on well with them and they all liked him instantly. It was all going so well, we decided to introduce the kids to each other.
This is where it all started to get rocky.
Hayley was the same age as my middle child Max*, so we mistakenly thought they'd have a lot in common. But not only did they have nothing in common (except their birth year), Hayley actively despised Max at first sight.
Thinking it would all settle down as we spent more time together, I pretended I didn't notice the way Hayley bullied Max at first. I stood by as Hayley stole lollies from Max, blamed him for damaging furniture when I had seen her do it, and generally put him down to build herself up.
Michael didn't seem to see it, and when I asked Max about it when we were alone, he told me he could see she wasn't being nice, but it honestly didn't bother him.
"I wouldn't be friends with her if she was at my school," he said. "But she's fine, Mum. She doesn't hurt my feelings."
I wondered then if I was making a problem about nothing. If Max wasn't bothered, why was it bothering me so much?
But all of this also made me see Michael in a different light too. He let Hayley speak and behave in ways I would never let my own kids get away with, and it left me feeling resentful and confused towards him.
On a recent holiday where we all went away together, I stepped in for the first time and disciplined Hayley when I could see her father wasn't going to do it – once when she was teasing Max, and another time when she was throwing tennis balls at my car.
That's when it hit me: while I thought I was casually dabbling with the idea of dating, what I was actually doing was biting off a whole lot more than I'd prefer to chew. I already have three children, and now not only have I inherited another one – but this one doesn't particularly like me or care what I think. And the situation has highlighted the massive differences between Michael's and my approaches to parenting.
After my divorce I yearned for some calm after years of negativity in my home, and now it feels like I've invited a new brand of negativity back in.
I know families take time, and with good communication and love we'll find a new normal and we'll be able to enrich each other's lives rather than irritating one another, but for now it all just seems like a lot of hard work without any of the rewards.
And one day I hope I will be able to say it was all worth it, but for now, if I knew then what I know now, I might have given that first date a swerve in favour of some peace and quiet.
* Names have been changed and the author chose to remain anonymous to protect her family's privacy.