Kristina Chetcuti and Marielouise Caruana Galea talk openly about their respective second chances at love and the building of their big, blended families. 

Publishing editor and columnist Kristina Chetcuti's partner is Opposition leader Simon Busuttil. Together they share three children: Simon's Greg, 19, and Zak, 16, and Kristina's Pippa, 10 - and a dog called Jipsie.

After your first marriage broke down, did you ever see yourself starting another serious relationship, settling down with someone else – and adopting a whole ready-made family, dog included?

Not at all! In fact, it took seven years for someone rather special to come along and convince me otherwise; and I was lucky because he got the thumbs up from my daughter too.

When it did happen, how sceptical were you to trust and take the plunge? What made you get over the idea that, once bitten, twice shy?

It was delightfully uncomplicated. I hate being cheesy about these things, so let me be factual: we were both attracted to each other, we made each other laugh a lot, so we both tried to find the time to meet amid the juggling of work and children. From then on, it sort of unfolded slowly; but it felt right from the beginning.

In your case, both parties had a broken marriage in their past – and all the baggage that comes with it. Did the fact that you share similar experiences make things easier, or did it complicate matters? Do you think your past experiences made you more cautious about every move, or did you dive headfirst into a second chance at love?

Our past experience was surreally similar… down to the detail that both our children’s other parents live in Brussels! This, I think, is an advantage, because we understand each other’s complex dynamics. But of course, a painful broken marriage always leaves you scarred and more cautious, and deep down, you always do those little checks and ask yourself: right, what if the relationship doesn't work out in the end, how much would it hurt? Which is why we were not the type to move in together after two months that we’d met. And which is why we also took our time to introduce the kids into the equation – we were
very protective.

In your case, both parties also have children. What effect did the kids have on the development of the relationship and how was getting to know each other’s tackled? How much thought and planning went into getting it right and not upsetting anyone, and what did you most fear in this scenario, for yourself, for Simon and for the individual kids?

As a single parent, you end up watching movies that your children want to watch. So cinema for me meant fairies, talking dogs, talking cars, talking toys and feisty princesses. For Simon, it meant superheroes and Marvel action movies. Oh, the joy of going to the cinema and watching a proper grown-up movie! For the first few months, we just did that: dating stuff and getting to know each other. The kids on both sides were aware we were dating [amid giggling and sniggering], but it was more or less after six months that we introduced them.

Pip met Simon at the beach – we took Jipsie swimming; I met Greg at a barbeque and Zak on a boat trip. Each time, it was casually informal – no great ta-da announcements. It was just: “Oh, and this is Simon/Kristina.” And of course, we were all shy. Of course, it was also nerve-racking. What if they dislike me? What if they think I’m out to replace the other parent? What if we won’t get along? Argh! Over that summer, we also introduced the kids to each other. Greg was 16, Zak 13, and Pip was seven. That was easy: they eyed each other curiously, muttered hello, and each went back to what they were doing.

Moving in with someone is a big step and a sign of commitment. It’s even bigger when the person you are moving in with is the head of a political party, and even more so when two families are joining up. How did you know that the time was right and ensure that the transition would be smooth?

It is always a huge commitment, and for the both of us, scarred as we are by the past, it is even huger. And then of course there’s the little matter that it’s not just two people who need to adjust to each other, but five – each with different characters – and a dog. When Simon asked me to move in, we also had to ask ‘the permission’ of the kids. The boys were on board – my cooking helped a bit there I think; and Pip was very enthusiastic because she was going to have Jipsie with her all day long. After that, we started moving in gradually.

It may also have been a logistical headache, involving decisions about where to live, who to uproot and actual changes to the house. What did your big move entail? Tell us about the hassles… and the fun.

Where to live was never even debated: we all had to be in Jipsie’s territory. She’s a Golden Retriever and needs her own little garden space to roam around in during the day when both of us are at work. So Simon’s house it was.

Of course, the move meant that we had to change the function of the rooms to add another bedroom. It’s a charming 200-year-old house, which needed some tender loving care and some, how shall I put it… brightening up. I had some, err, ideas to, err, perk the place up, and Simon said: “Sure, go ahead.” So, when we moved in, the painters, with their tanks of white paint, moved in as well, and so did the guys who installed a couple of skylights here and there, and the furniture painters… and well, it was rather, um, busy. Each time Simon opened the door in the evening, I’m certain that somewhere deep, deep down he was kicking himself for that “sure”. The workmen have gone now and we’re all enjoying a cosier and brighter home.

How did you spend that first day all together at home? Or was it just a natural progression and you can’t remember that defining moment?

I cannot for the life of me remember. It was all very normal; no official ceremony; no Simon lifting me over the threshold and stuff like that.

From an all-female household, you entered one inhabited by three men. That must have been a culture shock of sorts. What were the hardest/funniest things to adapt to?

When we were clearing up, pre-workmen, I kept opening cupboards, wardrobes, wooden chests, laundry baskets, and a flood of footballs would tumble out. “Ah, yes. Welcome to a house of boys,” Simon would say.

You can, therefore, imagine how the men in the house were overwhelmed by the bursts of pink suddenly lying around the house: jackets, clothes, dolls’ outfits, tutus. Pip’s room is the only one in the house where there’s no Juventus memorabilia and it’s properly girly girl. I think the boys’ eyes go all squinty when they have to go in.

On the whole, I suppose the biggest change today is the fridge. Before it was a Man Fridge, if you know what I mean. Think survival: only the straightforward food. The contents of the Busuttil Man Fridge usually consisted of a tin of dog food, milk, wine and beer, a tub of margarine, a tin of kunserva, a jar of pesto, another jar of pesto, a jar of pesto with artichokes, an old ice-cream container with leftovers of a rice salad and half the cheese counter of Smart Supermarket. The fridge has now opened its doors to spinach, kale, carrots, broccoli, parsley, celery, butter, organic yoghurt…

What has been your own impact in a household of men – and how do they need to adapt to you?

Simon’s answering this question: “Fiona… we’re still getting our heads around it.”

Walking into a ‘ready-made’ family and making sure the two gel probably means it’s never really just about you. You’d need some sort of ‘consent’ from every family member in most things you do [whereas you’d probably just impose these on your own]. How do you cope with that?

I would say it’s more the fine art of compromise. But this has nothing to do with ‘ready-made’ families – it’s how every single family, modern, or traditional, functions.

In the case of blended families, do you feel that a lot energy is spent on the bigger picture, making sure everyone is comfortable with the new arrangements, and less on quality time between the couples? What and who are your priorities and how do you manage to strike a balance and keep everyone – partner, his kids, yours, the dog – content?

Not really… I don’t think we spend more time on the bigger picture than traditional families. More or less, we function the same. The priorities are the logistics of running the ship: food, cleaning, laundry, school, studies, work and so on.

In our case, the quality time is more of an issue because Simon’s job keeps him away for long hours. For this reason, every now and then, we have date nights. And once in winter and in autumn, we try to go away for three days and we do things we would not do with kids, such as exploring cities on foot, spending lots of time in bookshops and visiting museums. We’re fervent history buffs. Last Christmas in Paris, we spent a whole day at the Musée de l’Armée, only stopping for coffees – it was dark by the time we came out and we headed straight to Shakespeare and Co. on the Rive Gauche, our favourite bookshop in the whole wide world, and spent the rest of the evening browsing.

When we travel with kids, it’s more adventurous. Last summer, we rented quads to drive round a remote Greek island. Pip was my pillion passenger and we just chugged along, happily admiring the scenes. We barely saw the Busuttils: they were busy speeding about, the three of them competing with each other to lead the caravan.

Both your former spouses live abroad, and incidentally, in the same country. What impact does that have on sharing custody? And does it mean that, in reality, you are rarely ever all together and may find it complicated to be?

We are somehow tied to Brussels. It always has to be a stopover in our travels. So of course, last March, the bombing of Zaventem airport really shook us to the core. The boys were in Brussels and were meant to be travelling back to Malta the next day.

This also means that we are not together all the time. Zak lives in Brussels with his mother and comes down to Malta for the holidays; but that’s when Pip often goes to Brussels to her father’s, and her family there. So it can get very complicated: this Christmas, when Greg went up to Brussels, Pip and Zak were in Malta; when they went up, Greg came down.

I suppose by now readers are finding it difficult to keep up. I know; it can be very, very complicated. Can you imagine what’s it like planning family events? But on the whole, I would say that the best moments are Sunday afternoons and evenings – that’s when whoever is at home gathers in the living room and we just laze on the sofa, chat, watch football, or Netflix, or read the papers, with Jipsie walking from one to another, nudging us for cuddles and treats.

Given all the above, describing your family situation as complicated could be an understatement. But you wouldn’t have it any other way…

I always wanted a big family. And Simon always wanted a girl. So it’s a complete jigsaw. The thing is, when your marriage breaks down, you grieve not just for the marriage, but also for the what-could-have-been, and in my case, it was the big family that I was never going to be able to have. Now the big family is here, and I would absolutely not have it any other way! There’s never a dull moment; it’s not just the kids, but a whole host of their friends. Sometimes, we wake up to find a cousin sleeping on the sofa. Greg’s friends are coming and going, and my daughter and her friends are simply in awe of these ‘cool teenagers’.

Would you ever have imagined that things would turn out like this, including the fact that Simon is the leader of the Opposition and politics is yet another member of the family?

Goodness me, no, politics is not a member of the family! It’s just part of our way of life. Although it’s a 24/7 job for Simon, we do have a life beyond politics; we just work it around Simon’s role. The truth is that I have been following politics all my life, so it’s not like I was plunged into this obscure world all of a sudden. In fact, I’m sure the common friends who concocted our match were very much aware of this…

These situations are clearly touch-and-go. For some, they work out, and for others, it’s a disaster, especially if there are dissenting members of the family. What do you think is the reason why you managed to create a ‘new’ and happy unit, and what is your advice to anyone who is about to, or struggling to do so?

Good lord, I’m the one who needs advice! It’s very much a trial-and-error situation. And please don’t get the impression that it’s all rosy each and every day – we have our ups and downs, as is the norm. But I think it helped that we did not rush things and we all got used to each other slowly. The only tip, if I may, is to always keep the well-being of the kids as a priority, and to always make sure that you respect your child’s other parent as someone who is precious to your child.

Blended families are becoming more and more common. But do they still face some sort of stigma?

I would tend to say no, although that’s probably because I am not really into other people’s gossip. The realities of today are not what they were 20 or even 10 years ago, but I suppose some people tend to judge a situation which they can’t identify with. The truth is that you never know what it’s like until it happens to you, or to someone close to you.

What do you believe should be the role of the couple vis-à-vis their partner’s children? Second mother/father, friend… something in between? And how do you protect your own?

I think about this a lot, because of course, I consider and treat Simon’s boys as my own – but I am all the time aware that I am not, and am constantly on guard not to overstep the line and to step back in situations that are directly parent-child. I dislike the idea of being ‘best friends’ with your children, so for each other’s kids, I would say we think of ourselves as the other grown-up in the house, with a sort of ‘guardian’ role.

What do you think would be the impact on an already colourful family life if the new couple ever decided to have their own child?

Oh, I can see where this is going. OK, if we have a baby, we’ll call it Talisker Busuttil. What do you think?

What’s the best part of two families uniting and how can someone really make the most of a second chance in love?

Carpe diem and being appreciative of every single moment.

-----

Daniel, Marielouise, Mia Bella, Bibiana Rose, Theadora and Michela.Daniel, Marielouise, Mia Bella, Bibiana Rose, Theadora and Michela.

Architect Mariolouise Caruana Galea is married to Daniel. They share five children: together they have a one-month-old baby called Max; then there's Daniel's Mia Bella, 13, Bibiana Rose, eight; and two 10-year-olds, Theadora Josephine and Michela, husband's and wife's respectively. 

After your first marriage broke down, would you ever have imagined walking down the aisle again – and adopting a whole ready-made family – or had you lost complete faith and believed you and your daughter would be better off alone?

Yes… and no… I never really closed the doors and, somehow, I felt I would have another chance. In fact, I never got rid of Michela’s things and Max is now using them. Somehow, I had subconsciously stored them away for a reason. I always wanted more children, but I couldn’t see it happening – there is a difference between reality and what you feel and think. While my frame of mind was such that I would have liked it to happen, my friends would tell me I was crazy after all that I had been through.

How did it happen, and when it did, how sceptical were you to trust and take the plunge? What made you get over the idea that, once bitten, twice shy?

My first marriage lasted four-and-a-half years after a 10-year relationship, breaking down in 2007. I met Daniel in 2013 and we got married in 2015. I was 40 years old, and at my wedding, I said that life begins at 40. I was in a good position to move on six years after the breakup, and I definitely recommend that some time passes before moving into another serious relationship.

I have always believed that a person has a second chance in everything. Having passed through what I did, I knew exactly what I wanted and what I did not want. At that point, a serious self-analysis has been carried out and you don’t walk blindly into a marriage for the sake of it.

I got to know Daniel when he was already separated. He used to invite my daughter to his daughter’s parties because they are best friends. Occasionally, we would go to a wine bar and pour out our problems to each other. It was the year I got to know my mother had cancer [she has since passed away and so did Daniel lose his mother some 12 years ago] and I found a rock in him, a shoulder to cry on. It wasn’t an easy year for me and he would urge me to go out because he could see I wasn’t in the mood. We would have good friendly chats and that lasted a whole year. Then, one thing led to the other…



When I came to my senses and got out of my worries and troubles – I had been blocked for a whole year – I started to see him in a different light. I remember clearly the day it happened. I attended a Christmas do at school, and when I spotted him at the other end of the classroom, something clicked. Was this the same person? That day, I left for London and, somehow, I was struck by the reality that my feelings towards him were changing. On my return, he noticed this and went for it.

After a reasonable amount of time passed, he moved in – I believe you should live with a person before you tie the knot – and we got married one-and-a-half years later.

In your case, both parties had baggage. Did this make things easier, or complicate matters? Do you think your past experiences made you more cautious about every move you made, or did you dive headfirst into a second chance at love?

It definitely allowed us to understand each other more. Being with someone who doesn’t have kids is a different story altogether. They don’t necessarily get it. I’ve experienced that too and the priorities were never the same. In our case, the children are the priority. Kids are ’satisfying hard work’ and someone who doesn’t have them cannot understand this.

What effect did the kids have on the development of the relationship and how was getting to know each other’s tackled? How much thought and planning went into getting it right and not upsetting anyone, and what did you most fear in this scenario, for yourself, for Daniel and for the individual children?

Our situation was the reverse. Daniel and I got to know each other thanks to the kids. Michela and Theadora, his middle one, have always been best friends. In fact, she jokes that she should be my favourite stepdaughter as I met her father thanks to her. The fact that we all knew each other before made life easier.

Moving in with someone is already a big step and a sign of commitment. Let alone marriage… It’s even bigger when two families are joining up. How did you know that the time was right and ensure that these transitions would be smooth?

Before Daniel moved in, I asked Michela if she was OK with it and she said she wanted “two days to think about it”. She also resisted the marriage at first, pointing out that it would “no longer be about the two of us”. Neither was she exactly over the moon when I told her I was having a baby because she was not going to be the only child anymore. But she adores Max now, and Daniel and his kids. They all get on; they really look out for each other. I don’t think she would have accepted this situation as easily had she not known them before.

Yes, we could have just lived together. But I felt he was the right one, and I am also a bit old school. The main reason for getting married is that I was convinced he was the one – otherwise, we would have lived separately and I would have kept the relationship between us – but I also did it to set an example for my daughter.

The wedding was held at home, with around 230 guests. Daniel was never married and I had an annulment, so we could get married in the Church.

Moving in, when it involves two families and not just two people, could also be a logistical headache, involving decisions about where to live, who to uproot and actual changes to the house. What did your big move entail? Tell us about the hassles… and the fun.

At home, the space was there and I had extra rooms, but since Max’s arrival, I have shifted things around to create a room for him and another for my stepdaughters, who used to sleep in Michela’s before. I had a large room – the largest in the house – which I used for storage, and in the last weeks of my pregnancy, weighing 20kg, I brought in the workmen to turn it into a bedroom. I also transformed the washroom into a chill-out space for when the kids bring over friends.

When was the first time you were all together at home? Or was it just a natural progression and you can’t remember that defining moment?

I can’t say there was a defining moment, given our circumstances. In the year that Daniel and I became friends, I got to know the kids well. When we broke the news that we were a couple, they were very happy.

In the case of blended families, do you feel that a lot energy is spent on the bigger picture, making sure everyone is comfortable with the new arrangements, and less on quality time between the couples? What and who are your priorities and how do you manage to strike a balance and keep everyone – husband, his kids, yours, and the one in common – content?

The focus is definitely on sorting out the big picture and you have to fight to get some time alone. Yes, in that respect, it becomes more complicated. Our time together is definitely limited.

What about custody? Does it mean that, in reality, you are rarely ever all together and may find it complicated to be?

In our case, Daniel’s children come over at the weekend and for a few hours twice a week. The legal side of custody is not easy in any instance, but we adapt according to his access.

Given all the above, describing your family situation as complicated could be an understatement. But you wouldn’t have it any other way…

It’s quite a farce! When our kids are asked to tell the class something about their family, their teachers almost don’t believe them! Daniel’s daughters also have two half-brothers, apart from Max, but these have nothing to do with their stepsister, of course, who shares one half-brother with them… And the plot could continue to thicken. Yes, it’s complicated, so I joke with them not to bother trying to explain it when they are asked… Forget it! It’s crazy!

Having said that, I do realise that it could have been even more complicated. The fact that the kids were friends beforehand made it much easier and I can really say the girls are like sisters. Imagine your best friend becomes your sister at the age of 10!

Fortunately, I also have a civil relationship with my ex-husband. It’s all about our daughter Michela, and we don’t argue.

These situations are clearly touch-and-go. For some, they work out, and for others, it’s a disaster, especially if there are dissenting members of the family. What do you think is the reason why you managed to create a ‘new’ and happy unit, and what is your advice to anyone who is about to, or struggling to do so?

It helped that Michela knew Daniel before we got together; and also the fact that he is very good with kids so she always liked him. He won her over that year we became friends. Actually, he had a lot on his plate back then – winning over both of us. It wasn’t a matter of introducing her to a new man. He worked at it and was intelligent about it.

The crux of it all is that Daniel and I were such good friends before. I believe in a slow process and I think it all boils down to that. I would say, don’t walk into a relationship and then discover if the person is right for you as you get to know him; do your homework before, test the waters, have mature discussions about how you look at things… You’re never going to be 100-per-cent sure, but at least, you’d have done your analysis. Follow your mind and your heart – not just your heart.

Blended families are becoming more and more common. But do they still face some sort of stigma?

I faced more stigma as a single parent. The norm is still considered to be one family unit as we know it, with the married couple remaining together forever. In certain environments, I could tell that I was looked at in a particular way – and even as a threat. Unfortunately, this remains society’s view of single parents and I am completely against it. It is actually an admirable status as one parent manages to do everything single-handedly.

What do you believe should be the role of the couple vis-à-vis their partner’s children? Second mother/father, friend… something in between? And how do you protect your own?

I definitely made it clear from the start that I am not a replacement of their mother and I’m very cautious about that. I realise my way of disciplining my daughter is different from Daniel’s, so I keep a step back when it comes to his children and do not interfere in the way he brings them up. I do give my opinion, but I respect their ways even though I may not necessarily agree.

Daniel and I, for example, have different ways of looking at studying. His approach is more relaxed than mine. He and his children are also vegetarian, so he cooks for them, and we eat our own food. It’s another battle, but we take it in our stride. Max, on the other hand, will be the problem! So where we have a different approach, we’ll have to take a decision and I suppose we will each have to give in a bit.

I guess you could say I am more of a friend and I am not authoritative over them – I leave that to their dad. And of course, Michela does notice the difference, but I tell her she is my daughter and I think differently, so she shouldn’t compare.
Michela isn’t influenced on the food front, but she is by Daniel’s eldest when it comes to image, dress sense and looking cool. They are similar – both strong characters and impulsive. At first, for this reason, they clashed and we were worried about them. But now, they really get along well too.

What do you think has been the impact of having another child together on an already colourful family life?

Having a baby was a conscious decision we took together; it didn’t just happen. And it wasn’t an easy one either. We were already settled in our own ways and were at the point where we could start living, travelling with the children, who are at the right age now, and enjoying going out on the boat, for example – all things we won’t be doing for a while with Max. So beginning all over again was not a simple choice and we knew there would be difficulties, starting from his routine interfering with that of the girls. Nevertheless, it was something we both wanted.

What’s the best part of two families uniting and how can someone really make the most of a second chance in love?

I like family life and having such a big family – without having had to give birth to all those children! When we are all together, it is… noisy and chaotic. But I like it!
To make the best of it, you first have to believe you can have a second chance and then you also have to learn from your mistakes and not repeat them. I believe that both partners would have made mistakes. Keep an open mind, set your priorities and be patient. It’s not always a bed of roses, but as long as there is love and respect.

The article appeared in last weekend's edition of Pink magazine. 

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us