Who'd be a mother? Well actually I would. Quite a few times over in fact as I'm in the running to give Fraulein Maria a challenge! People are usually in awe when I tell them of my family circumstances which are complex to say the least and take me 20 minutes to explain to those ‘not in the know', especially when the conversation starts with “Philip and I have five children — three each”. Confused yet?
So when it came to writing my first novel I adhered quite literally to that great piece of advice ‘Write about what you know’ and decided to write about family, the kind of family I know best — a compilation family.
Anyone for Seconds? is my debut novel and tells the story of Frankie McCormick and her hilarious and sometimes disastrous adventures as she tries to dip her toe back into the dating world after a marriage meltdown.
Trying to maintain sanity while raising two children alone, Frankie discovers that second chances are hard to navigate. Enter into the equation Owen Byrne, who is everything she ever wanted in a man except for the fact that he has a particularly difficult teenage daughter and you have a situation which undoubtedly a lot of people have experienced.
Although entirely a work of fiction, Anyone for Seconds? deals with issues that have presented themselves in my own life, predominantly my experience of being a single mother, embarking on a relationship where my partner has children and starting a second family. My name is Fionnuala McGoldrick but for the purposes of writing I decided to adopt the pen name Fiona Cassidy as Cassidy is my maiden name of which I am extremely proud and Fiona is much easier to remember and pronounce for potential readers. I was raised as an only child in Galbally, Co Tyrone and educated in the local primary school where my parents both taught.
I then progressed to the nearby grammar school in Donaghmore where I studied A-level English and developed aspirations of wanting to write for a living and was accepted onto a newspaper journalism degree course at Napier University in Edinburgh. My chosen path was not to be realised at that time, however, as I became pregnant with my son, Colm, as I sat my A-levels in the spring of 1994.
I got married shortly afterwards and had my daughter Úna at 21. Unfortunately, my marriage didn't work out and I was a single mother for a number of years. I was very lucky, however, in that I had a strong family support unit and know that the experience would have been a lot tougher had it not been for my parents and extended family.
When I was ready to start tentatively dating again I thought I would never find a man willing to take on a ready-made family.
Going out for the night would be an adventure as the reactions of potential boyfriends would range from a cloud of dust as they galloped for the hills shouting that they weren't Daddy material, to receiving obvious attention from those sleazy types who thought single mother was code for ‘desperate to be bedded'.
I watched as my friends all gradually began to settle down and came to positively loathe weddings where I sat on my own and jived badly and yearned for someone who would accept not only me but my children also and then I met Philip ...
I enrolled as a student in Loughry College in Cookstown in the summer of 2000 to undertake a post graduate diploma in communication after completing several managerial courses.
However I not only got a qualification but a man as well, which I can assure you wasn't advertised in the prospectus!
Philip was the audio visual technician and college photographer and came to lecture my class one memorable evening about the benefits of having good presentation skills and presented himself very well indeed! I had to meet him a few weeks later on the suggestion of another lecturer to get some advice for a project I was undertaking at work and that, as they say, was that.
I went to his office and within half an hour we were talking and taking out purses and wallets to show off dog-eared photos of our children.
We discovered that we had a lot in common, held a lot of the same principles and beliefs and quite fancied each other to boot.
I prayed that we would see each other again and when he asked if he could ring me that weekend it would seem that Cupid heard my prayer and Walton’s Mountain was soon to be created.
Our house can fluctuate from five to seven on a regular basis to accommodate Philips's children, Catríona and Ciarán, as he shares care of them with his ex-wife.
My children, Colm and Una, also have contact with their birth father, his wife and their half-siblings.
Our children, who are now 14, 12, 12 and 11 were all very small when we initially got together which I suppose made life easier as it's only as they've grown up and developed their own views and personalities that I can see how much harder it would have been to embark on a relationship at a later stage when they mightn't have been as receptive to it.
I suppose you could say that this was the idea behind Anyone for Seconds? which as the title suggests humorously explores the idea of giving love a second chance along with some added extras in the shape of children who aren't yours.
I often wondered what way things would have worked out had the children been older when we first began going out together and thought it would be fun to explore that situation as I could see the scope for lots of humour and entertainment while tackling an issue which seems prevalent in our society with the disappearance of the ‘nuclear 2.4 kids' family.”
Philip and I didn't introduce the children to each other until we had been together for a period of time and established that our relationship was actually going somewhere.
When we did eventually let them all get together it was mayhem but lovely all the same.
One of my fondest memories of the time is that Philip's son Ciarán, who was only a toddler used to hide my bag so that we couldn't leave the house, which used to fill me with delight.
He and my son Colm are the best of friends and always have been except when there's only one Xbox controller and then a national disaster must be declared.
Girls tend to be very serious and analyse more so it took them longer to accept the situation.
There is only two weeks between their birthdays so they can be quite competitive sometimes but generally get on well together.
We tend to leave outings and trips away until we have all the children in our care and ensure that when one gets a treat that they all get something so that jealousies and conversations about who's more important than who will be kept at bay.
With regards to discipline (which doesn't need enforced too often) we usually refer back to the ‘mine' and ‘his' situation to determine who deals with the relevant offender although we do support and stand by each other's decisions as rules and routines in our house are there for everyone regardless of whether or not you live with us on a full time basis!
The birth of Áine Rose, whom Philip and I refer to as “our joint effort” in 2006 cemented the idea in my head as I could see how she provided an integral link between all the children and made our family complete — she is the one person in the house who can proudly declare that she is related to everyone else.
We thought that we would have found it more difficult to cope with a baby given the large age gap but we took the nappies and night feeds in our stride and had lots of help from the older children who were all keen to be involved.
We frequently heard comments such as “Are you mad?” or “Is your head cut?” from others who thought we should have been content with our family as it was. But we knew that we wanted a child of our own to ‘seal the deal' as it were.
We were actually expecting another baby last year as we reasoned that Aine would need company her own age in years to come but unfortunately a scan at 12 weeks at the start of February revealed that the heartbeat that had been there earlier had stopped and we suffered what they refer to as a missed miscarriage which was a painful experience for us both.
We will always treasure our scan photo which showed a heart beat at seven weeks and I wear an angel around my neck to symbolise the one I know I have in heaven.
A typical morning in our home is manic and usually starts with a wake-up call from the three-year-old alarm clock who is particularly loud and buoyant at 7am.
Some residents (who shall remain nameless) can be quite
grumpy so it's a good job I can count to 100 pretty quickly.
Others (who shall also remain nameless) would need sticks of dynamite put between their toes to make them move quicker as last-minute trips to school can occur due to a missed bus and that's all before I even think about leaving Áine to her crèche or getting myself to work.
Ironically Philip and I now both work within the grounds of Loughry College where we met almost nine years ago. I recently started a new job as outreach and promotions officer with a rural charity while Philip has had the same role within the campus for the last 15 years.
Days out and holidays with the family are a lot of fun although I wish that Mary Poppins magic carpet bags were available as I would make good use of them.
I tend to pack everything but the kitchen sink when we go away. I always cover every eventuality as when you have so many someone is bound to get sick or have an accident — when they made the Calpol advert I think they based it on our brood.
Our family is generally a happy and fun-loving one and we're extremely proud of our children.
But be under no illusion, its extremely hard work and a constant juggling act to ensure that everyone's needs are being met.
We are not without our frustrations as our older children are all at difficult ages so the house can literally be static with hormones and tension.
It can also be hard for them to go from one parent to the other and vice versa but we do the best we can under the circumstances and are lucky that all arrangements are amicable.
As far as Anyone for Seconds? is concerned the children have all shown great interest and excitement and are looking forward to the impending book launch.
I've had to reassure my girls that the horrendous misnamed teenager Angelica, who plays a lead role in my book, is not based on either of them and is just a fictional character from my very fertile imagination.
The book is entirely fictional and none of the characters are based on anyone apart from maybe one the leading male just happens to be a glasses wearing lecturer who works in a college and is a fantastic father and a wonderful man.
So I suppose if the cap fits Philip can most certainly wear it and as his partner I can always be overjoyed that I met him when I did.
Anyone for Seconds? by Fiona Cassidy, Poolbeg, £6.99