Marriage for the millennium: When a new dad steps in

The age of separation and changing partnerships brings children into new families, often surprisingly successfully. By. Jack O'Sullivan
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UNTIL the past few months, five-year-old Aaron had no dad. He was also short of a set of grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins. And he knew it. "Right from a very early age he felt he was missing out on something," says his mother, Carmen Fielding, whose former partner abandoned her when she became pregnant. "At nursery and school he would see other children with both parents. He felt left out."

Not any more. Aaron may have lost out because his mother's relationship broke down, but he is also gaining from an equally modern phenomenon - the creation of extended families where there is no blood tie between immediate relatives.

Aaron suddenly finds himself with a father and many other close relations. The reason? His mother is getting married.

Carmen's marriage to Matthew Middleditch will not take place until the summer, but Aaron is not waiting for the formalities. "He already thinks of Matthew as his dad," says his mother. "He calls him dad. He is the only dad he has ever known. He misses him and gets very upset when he is away. When Matthew first went away, Aaron believed that he wasn't coming back. But he has grown to trust him. He boasts about his dad at school. Often when Matthew is here, he is the one who meets him from school, cooks his dinner, reads him a story and goes into school to help out in his class."

Matthew's life has also been transformed. "Initially, it was very strange, suddenly becoming a dad. But now it's lovely. I treat Aaron as my son. I see it as completely natural. It makes me feel really good."

There were difficulties. "Carmen and I probably had more pressure than usual when we were starting our relationship," Matthew acknowledges. "I had to be sure that I could love Aaron as well. He would have been very hurt if he felt he was getting everything and then it all went wrong and that chap in mummy's life suddenly went away. But Aaron is a lovely lad and you can't help loving him.

"People ask us about where Aaron will stay when we go on our honeymoon. It has never crossed my mind or Carmen's that he wouldn't come with us. He is becoming my son and I am becoming his father. So of course he will come along."

Matthew was not the only person to find himself taking on more than usual when he popped the question. His own parents realised that they too would need to be imaginative. John Middleditch, Matthew's father, recalls meeting the couple. "My wife, Susan, and Matthew's godmother were there. The comment of one lady to the other was: 'It looks like you are going to be instant grandparents.' They had seen the chemistry, put two and two together and got five."

At first the Middleditchs were apprehensive. Matthew is 25, Carmen 34. He was educated at public school and had followed his father's footsteps in joining the forces. His comfortable upbringing in the Home Counties does not immediately sit easily with Carmen's life as a single mother, living in north-east London and relying on a secretary's salary to raise Aaron.

"Until they declared their intention to get married," John Middleditch says, "I would honestly have counselled Matthew to think, think and think again."

Meanwhile, Carmen was also worried. "I absolutely dreaded the prospect of meeting his parents. I believed they would hate me the minute they saw me. I tried to put myself in their shoes and imagine the picture they might have of me. Although I have to say, if they had any preconceived ideas about me, they didn't show them, because they went out of their way to make me feel welcome.

"I remember when I went down for the weekend the first time, the atmosphere was a little tense, but I decided to be myself. Matthew's father said to me: 'You're a bad influence on my son.' I thought 'oh dear'. He said: 'You're a bad influence because he is smoking.' So I said: 'Hang on. It's the other way around. Until I met him I hadn't smoked for a year. Now I'm smoking 20 a day thanks to your son.' From then on, the weekend was really good."

John Middleditch's biggest surprise was not, in fact, meeting Carmen. "I remember a little voice cried out and said: 'Mummy'. I looked down, saw this chirpy little face and realised there was more to all this than met the eye."

Yet, despite these initial reservations, everyone is getting on well now. "Aaron will call us exactly what any natural offspring would call his grandparents - grandma and grandpa," John Middleditch proudly declares. Aaron will be christened on the wedding day in the same village church as Matthew was himself christened and the Middleditchs were married.

But some adjustment is still needed. "I was a little poleaxed by the news," says Mr Middleditch, 52. "Normally when you become a grandfather, you have time to prepare. There is the arrival of the baby two years before it starts shouting out your name. I was dealt a fait accompli. He is a bright little five-year-old, sparky and innocent, keen to please and converse. But at first we didn't know the toys he likes. It takes a while for two old fogeys like us to get on his wavelength. It's a challenge for him and for us."

"Aaron is perfectly at home with them," Carmen says. "They always make a fuss of him. At Christmas, they bought him a kit for making a gingerbread house. John, Sue and Aaron spent hours making the house together. It was great." For Carmen, this modern way of creating a family has brought her a husband, a father for her son and in-laws with whom she is still feeling her way. But it is not all so new for her. She also had the experience of acquiring a new father.

"My mother split up from my natural father when I was eight," she says, "and we didn't see him again. So there were four of us. I was the eldest and the others were seven, six and five. We were wild. We did as we pleased. Then my mum got remarried to Roland and they subsequently had another child together. Corinne is technically my half-sister though I have never thought of her in that way.

"Roland began bringing in rules and laying down the law. At the time I resented him, but now I am a parent I really admire and respect him for what he did. If it wasn't for him I probably wouldn't have turned out as well as I have. I think of him as my dad. He is my dad. He has devoted the best years of his life to bringing us up. "

So what makes these modern-day extended families work? The first condition is obvious - the will to make them work. Perhaps most important is the presence of men who like children and are prepared to become parents to them even when there is no blood link - be it as fathers or grandfathers. Matthew, John and Roland all break with the traditional stereotype of step-fathers as problematic, indeed potentially dangerous to children. Without them, Aaron would have neither a father nor a single grandfather, since he is out of contact with all his male blood relatives.

Roland will be there to finish the job when Carmen marries in the summer. "Over the years, he has worried over me and cried over me. I know that," she says. "Now, he is very proud of me . He wants to give me away and help pay for the wedding." John and Matthew will each take up their roles. Aaron will be christened. It will be a fresh start.