People tend to gasp when I explain my family circumstances to them as they are complex to say the least. I consider myself to be a mother of five but feel that this statement needs a bit of explanation as I didn't actually give birth to them all!
My partner, Philip, and I have been together for nine years now and when we met, we each had two children from previous relationships and then went on to have a child of our own. Five are soon to become six, however, as I'm pregnant again (for the last time, I might add) and due to give birth in March.
Philip's children, Catriona (13) and Ciaran (12), are not with us all the time as they spend a lot of time with their mother, but when they are with me I look after all their needs and basically treat them like they were my own. My children, Colm (15) and Una (13), are with us on a permanent basis as, unfortunately, they no longer see their father. They have been very lucky, though, as Philip is the best daddy they could have ever wished for and that is precisely how they see him (especially when they're looking for something or want to gang up on me).
As for Aine Rose, our precocious three-year-old, she is the loveable glue that sticks us all together and the one who everyone is related to. Add to the mix the fact that I'm adopted and unsure of who I am exactly and a former only child, and people can be forgiven for being amazed and confused in equal proportions.
Before I met Philip I had been a single parent for a number of years and my ability to trust had been badly affected. It's always hard to think about finding a new partner when you have children as their needs must always come first and you live in dread of allowing them to bond with someone only for the relationship to end. Equally, you want to ensure that a prospective partner will be good to them and treat them as they should.
We were lucky that our older children were young when we started going out as it is only now that they are teenagers that I can see how much more difficult it would have been to introduce them to somebody new.
Even though the situation was much easier than it could have been, it still had its problems. Our girls are the same age, with only two weeks between their birthdays, and as girls are quite competitive it took a while for them to establish a relationship with each other; although I'm both chuffed and delighted to say that they are the best of friends these days. The boys get on well, too, and are great company for each other and good Xbox opponents, which in truth is where most of their bonding has taken place.
As for me, I always viewed taking on Philip's children as something that I was happy to do as they are part of him and I love him. I'm not going to lie and say that it has been a bed of roses all the time but I don't ever regret making the decision to commit to both him and them.
It has been easier for Philip to establish himself with my children as he wasn't being compared to the children's real parent, as I was. Having said that, I've always been mindful of the role the children's mother plays in their life and don't want to compete as I will never replace her, nor would I want to.
In order to make a blended family a happy one, I think it's very important to be guided by the children as they are all individuals with different personalities and varying needs to which you have to respond.
It's important to treat everyone the same and include everyone in everything as exclusion could be extremely harmful, which is why family trips away are left until they're all in our care and important events are celebrated together, as we'd never want anyone to feel left out.
We haven't always had the perfect formula and we're still learning by our mistakes, but I'm glad to say that the majority of the children are happy most of the time and in a large family such as ours I think that's a positive.
Recently, someone asked me if my first book Anyone for Seconds? which is a humorous look at modern family life, was autobiographical and I want to say categorically that it is not. I've had to reassure the girls that the horrendous teenager in the book is simply a fictional character used to spice up the storyline with her disruptive antics as a novel where everyone gets on would be no fun at all. I do have to admit though that the main male character might bear more than a passing resemblance to Philip, who now has the misfortune of being called Superman by his workmates, which he doesn't find amusing but everyone else does.
Philip and I went for a scan at our local hospital yesterday and were thrilled to see our active newest addition somersaulting in my womb and look forward to the challenge of becoming parents yet again and giving Aine a playmate.
I love having a big family. I look forward to the future and the joy and troubles it will undoubtedly bring, but know that as long as we all stick together we can get through anything.