How I learnt to love being a stepmother

After her 20-year marriage ended in divorce, Terri Wiltshire had come to terms with not having children of her own. But then she fell in love with a father of three boys – and her life changed forever

When I was in my early teens, living in Alabama, my family believed I would grow up to have a large family, and I always liked the idea. I was surrounded by young cousins who looked to me as a mother figure, and I enjoyed playing that role. At 16 I became the most sought-after and highly paid babysitter in our neighbourhood. I enjoyed being with children. I imagined myself living in a big, rambling, bohemian house filled with children, music and creative chaos.

I always expected it would happen, but not right away. I had things to see and do first. I embraced the social and academic life of university, I married, and moved to Britain. Life was good, and it was exciting to be living and working in Europe, so when my new husband decided he wasn't ready for a family, I didn't worry. I figured he'd come round to the idea eventually. He didn't.

After 10 years, it was obvious that children would not play a part in our future, so I concentrated on creating a different life that involved travel and work and friends. My family stopped asking when I was going to start that big family I'd always wanted. I slipped into the role of the glamorous cousin who lived in Europe and sipped cappuccinos in outdoor cafés.

Instead of "accepting" my childless state, which seemed too negative and failure-based, I learned to celebrate it. I focused on the positive aspects of not having children. I could live anywhere I wanted, regardless of whether it was near the right schools or not, or had a garden big enough for a football pitch. I didn't have to choose holidays that offered face painting by the pool or served fish fingers in the restaurant. Without children, I didn't have to pay twice as much for flights during school holidays. And most importantly, I could spend my money on Jimmy Choos instead of Xboxes.

I settled into my life with only a few occasional moments of sadness and regret. Holidays, especially Christmas, were difficult. Christmas with grown-ups just never seemed as magical, and year after year I found it harder to decorate the house from top to bottom, knowing that there would only be two of us to see it. In spite of these lapses, I convinced myself that I wouldn't have lived a better life with children, just different. I continued with positive determination to make the best of what I had, but after 20 years, the marriage ended in divorce and it was time to redefine my life and needs.

For a very brief time I toyed with the idea of starting a family on my own, but I was far too old to do it the conventional way, or even through adoption, and after some careful thought, I decided I'd lived a childless life for too long anyway. I was too set in my ways, too selfish, and too scared that I might actually get what I'd wished for and discover that I was an awful mother.

Instead, I set out to create my ideal environment. I bought a small but perfectly formed flat, with a terraced garden and threw myself into spending time with friends. I believed the rest of my life would be spent quietly reading, decorating, writing, entertaining, pottering, and dabbling in anything that interested me. It seemed like a simple, uncomplicated way to live and be happy. For the first time, I felt settled and content.

Then, without warning, I fell in love with a man with three boys and everything changed. Suddenly, at age 50, I was thrust into a world of rugby practice, piano lessons, school runs and assemblies. I was making Halloween costumes, putting carrots and mince pies out for Father Christmas, and playing the tooth fairy. It was an amazing world to step into but not an easy transition. Everything I knew or thought I knew dissolved and I found myself without a rulebook.

From the beginning there were loyalties to consider, and jealousies and suspicions. The two youngest boys, Alexander and Thomas, were 10 and 11 at the time, and for five years they had enjoyed their father's undivided attention. They were very protective of that relationship and I'm sure they saw me as a threat. Someone who would take their father away from them and shut them out.

Derek and I were together for six months before I was introduced into the circle and even then it wasn't as a "girlfriend" but as a friend. The first time I met them we chose neutral ground in Cardiff Bay on St David's Day. We spent a few hours together watching parades and eating ice cream, giving the boys plenty of time to study me and ask questions. They were very clingy with their father, letting me know with politely suspicious glances that he belonged to them. It was another four months, following many days out together, before Derek and I started holding hands in front of them. By that time we felt they trusted me and realised that I wasn't there to take anything away from them, but simply to add to what they already had. I naïvely believed that once the trust issue was settled, everything would be smooth sailing, but there was far more for me to learn.

There were questions about authority and defining the lines of parenting that I could and couldn't cross. I found it hard in the beginning to ask anything of them or to make any demands, even though they were living in my house for the time we had them. To avoid that first inevitable confrontation, I scurried around after them, clearing their dinner plates, picking up their dirty laundry, and letting them have free-reign of the house and computer. I told myself: "this is what I've always wanted, so I can't complain." But I soon realised that attached to that dream was the responsibility of teaching, guiding and loving. I lived in dread of hearing those words "you're not my mother", so I was amazed that, once I set guidelines and house rules, they followed along without a battle. Oh, I still have to remind them, and remind them, and remind them, but there haven't been the loud, angry, shouting matches I feared.

In a very short amount of time my priorities changed drastically. My domestic life was turned upside down. I went from doing laundry and running the dishwasher once a week to once a day or more. I had to learn new timekeeping skills, and daily routines became a major logistical nightmare. I discovered that if we were leaving the house at a particular time, we needed to start the process 30 to 40 minutes earlier just to get teeth brushed, hair combed, and shoes on – with socks and laced up.

Do I resent this dramatic change to my private life? I can honestly say that I don't. I welcome it. Judging by what I've heard and read from other stepmothers, this makes me quite unusual. I think the difference here is that from the moment we met, Derek made it clear that his sons were his number one priority. As soon as it was evident that our relationship was serious, I could see that the boys – their feelings, their sense of security and my relationship with them – were going to be the most important thing. My acceptance of this is the key to the success of our relationship, and this has paid huge dividends.

During the week, the boys live with their mother, Susan, near London, but we have them for all school holidays and most weekends. Derek and I have learned to squeeze our working week into four-and-a-half days so that we can drive to London and pick them up from school on Friday. It's around trip of anywhere from four to six hours, then we turn around and do it again on Sunday night. It isn't easy, but we both feel it's worth it. The time we spend with the boys is very special and when they're not here I miss them terribly.

The eldest son, Jamie, is 22 and presents a completely different set of challenges. He lived with us for six weeks until he found a job and a flat nearby. He's at that difficult juncture in life – stepping into adulthood and discovering all the consequences that come with choices and responsibility. For the most part he gets on with his life, which at the moment leans heavily on the social aspect, but he's in a new place making new friends, so that's to be expected. It's nice to have him so close. He often pops in for supper when his cupboard is bare or just for a coffee when he has something on his mind or a problem that's worrying him.

I've come to terms with living in a house full of boys with all their skateboards, computer games, and masculine habits. My tidy, highly decorated flat looks lived in and messy even after a clean-up, but I like it better. I've given up control of the television remote and watch every episode of Top Gear – twice. These have been remarkably easy transitions. The biggest challenge was losing my personal space. I yearned for time to do manicures and experiment with hairstyles. I missed being able to get up in the night without putting on a bathrobe for modesty's sake and I missed having time to daydream or the freedom to meet my friends for a coffee or a drink. I'm in the process of regaining that time and finding new ways to create space for myself.

Overall it has been a courtship – a time to get used to someone else's fears, idiosyncrasies and habits multiplied by four. It's been a steady stream of milestones – the first time I felt protective or proud, the first time they held my hand, the first time they kissed me goodnight and the first time I realised I'd fallen in love with them all.

Carry Me Home by Terri Wiltshire (Macmillan New Writing, £12.99) is out now.

Give and take: How to be a good stepmother

* Put the child's feelings of security first

* It can never be a case of "we're together, and they're just going to have to get used to it". They need to know that they have an important place in this new relationship.

* Don't be afraid to set parameters Part of the security that children need involves knowing what the rules are and the consequences of breaking them. If rules are fuzzy or inconsistent children become frustrated and anxious about what's expected.

* Be patient and don't rush things You can't force children (or anyone for that matter) to like you and trust you. It comes with time. The most important thing is to be yourself and let things happen naturally.

* Show an interest in what they do Even if you have no interest in something yourself, it's easy to appreciate their own excitement and commitment. Share that with them and encourage them.

* Show respect and expect it in return Never allow negative discussions about the children's mother. It's important that they know you're united and always interested in what's best for them. It's not acceptable to take sides in order to seem more "popular".