Katie Blackmer and her ex-husband Stephen Shepard once hated each other so much they barely spoke unless it was to do with their children.
Even then, relations were incredibly difficult and any interaction ended in terrible rows and bad feelings.
Yet incredibly, the pair have put aside their differences and they have taken co-parenting to a whole new level. Katie, 32, shares her home with her husband Ben, 41, as well as Stephen, 32, and his girlfriend Brandy Henderson, 31.
Together, the two couples raise Katie and Stephen’s kids Gracelyn, 11, Kaylynn, 10, and Colston, five, plus Ben’s son Hunter, 19, and Brandy’s kids Kayleigh, nine, and Jaxson, seven. ‘We call ourselves the ‘blended 10!’ Katie, an accounts manager, exclusively tells New Idea. ‘It might sound crazy but we love living together as a big family.
‘None of us would have it any other way.’
Katie and Stephen divorced in January 2016 after nine years of marriage. Things had started to go wrong for the young couple in 2014. ‘We were both very hot headed, we wouldn’t listen to the other,’ recalls Katie. ‘Our lives revolved around our small kids and we had forgotten what it was like to be a married couple.
‘We argued about everything. We both started dating other people quite quickly after we separated and that caused problems. Neither of us could stand the thought of our kids being around anyone else.’
In summer 2015, Katie fell for Ben Blackmer, a friend of Stephen’s. It did not go down well with her ex.
‘Stephen felt stabbed in the back by us both,’ she says. ‘He was angry, jealous and hurt. Ben and I married in June 2016 and
I was happy, although Stephen had a lot of animosity towards us.’ That same summer, Gracelyn and Kaylynn were playing travel softball and as Stephen was their coach, they saw each other all the time. For the first time, both saw that their behaviour was a problem.
‘We decided that we had to sort out our relationship,’ says Katie. ‘Some of the other parents had expressed their concern that we argued in front of the kids and we agreed we had to stop.
‘From that day everything changed. Stephen had a new girlfriend and we all spent that Christmas together. It worked out so well and I felt we had turned a massive corner.’
But in May 2017, tragedy struck. Stephen and his brother Michael were involved in a nasty collision with a truck. Michael died in the accident and Stephen suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Katie was the first one at the hospital after the accident.
‘He could speak but he had no memory and he was confused,’ she recalls. ‘When it came to him leaving hospital, I asked him where he wanted to go. He said he wanted to be with his kids.
‘I raced to ask Ben if he could live with us because he needed 24-hour care. Ben didn’t even hesitate – he told me to bring him home.
‘It was tough because it was like having a 200lb toddler – we had to help him walk, wash himself and eat, but we didn’t care. It was what we all wanted.’
In December 2017, Stephen started dating one of Katie’s old high school friends, single mum Brandy. They quickly became serious and started to look for a house nearby to Katie and Ben.
They couldn’t find a house big enough so Katie suggested Brandy and her kids Kayleigh, nine, and Jaxson, seven, move in with them in Tennessee, US.
‘It was the obvious thing to do,’ says Katie. ‘We all want what’s best for the kids and everyone was on board with it. So we adapted our five-bedroom house and moved in all together!’
The mechanics of this unique relationship are pretty simple.
Everything – groceries, cleaning stuff, mortgage – is split between the two couples. The chores are shared out equally and everyone has a night when they cook.
They live with the help of a calendar which is updated each week.
Each parent has at least one kid they are responsible for taking to after-school activities that week so they share the load.
‘People struggle to believe that this works for us,’ says Katie. ‘I tell people I have six kids! I am mummy to all of the children – they don’t have to be blood.’
Ben adds: ‘I couldn’t be happier. We have four adults who support each other and our kids – I think we’re lucky.’
Stephen and Brandy feel the same way. ‘The reason it works so well is that our children’s happiness comes above anything and we share that together – it’s pretty special,’ says Stephen.
‘Everybody has a ‘bonus’ mum and dad which is great because everyone has somebody they can talk to about anything. We are all parental figures,’ Brandy says.