I ran a regional press office for a conservation charity and lived in a gorgeous flat in a quiet part of the city centre. Most weekends I'd visit friends, or they would come to me. Some evenings I'd relax at home in front of the TV or read in the bath, or else I'd be out with colleagues making the most of office gossip.
Give or take a few money worries it was a carefree life with only myself to think of.
Fast forward a few years and I'm a suburban seaside stepmum of two grappling with kids, dogs, chickens and ex-wives and trying to fit them round working from home – and it's not just at weekends.
My stepdaughters live with us full time, spending only a couple of nights a week with their mum.
I used to sometimes feel bored with a whole evening to fill by myself, now I'm just relieved to be able to flop in front of the telly by 9pm.
I met my partner, let's call him The Man, through a dating website. We seemed to have a lot in common, including a background in broadcast journalism and PR, and we really hit it off when we met up in a riverside pub garden one late summer day.
I think he mentioned he had kids, but I didn't realise they lived with him full time. He also had a dog. Kids and dogs used to be an absolute no-no to me when I read people's ads on the dating website.
I'm surprised I didn't run a mile, but this is what happens when you fall for someone.
I managed to avoid meeting his daughters, then aged eight and six, for nearly two months.
I don't like children so I was in no rush to spoil a perfectly good relationship by hating his kids.
I needn't have worried. Once their shyness wore off and The Man won me some early brownie points by telling them I was a journalist, 'just like Sarah Jane' (of Dr Who assistant fame) we got on famously.
They seemed to be quite well behaved, or at least they were on the nights I stayed over. But I was just the visiting girlfriend then and my relationship with them didn't go much beyond that.
When I'd been seeing their Dad for just over a year though, my parents both suddenly died in the space of a weekend. I fell apart and The Man stepped in to pick up the pieces. I couldn't stand to be alone, so I stayed with him and the girls.
Six months later I was still there. I was off work all that time and felt the need both to have something to do and to pay The Man's kindness back, so I threw myself into domesticity and that included helping with the kids.
Eventually we decided I should give up my flat and officially move in and that's how I accidentally became a stepmum.
Initially, having just lost my own parents, stepping into the shoes of a parent was somehow therapeutic. I was able to share all the things they did for me, with these two girls who – actually very charitably – hadn't batted an eyelid when I suddenly became a permanent fixture in their home.
Because of the way I'd been brought up, I tried to treat my stepdaughters the same way: fairly but firmly. Encouraging them, but not being afraid to set boundaries.
There were some confrontations to begin with, as I demanded that clothes were not left on sofas or floors and insisted on vegetables at every meal but they seemed to respect me and accept me as a parental authority – maybe because of how I went about things, or perhaps because it's hard not to when someone is unflinchingly clearing up your sick and tucking you back into bed afterwards.
Either way, it wasn't only their acceptance and respect for me that grew but their love too.
Neither of my stepdaughters, now aged 11 and nine, goes off to bed without giving both their dad and me a huge hug. It's hard not to be touched by that and I'm sure the affection they've shown for me has made my love for them grow in return.
I'm not sure when I went from being 'dad's girlfriend who lives with us' to 'stepmum'. It's not as if they call me mum; they already have a mum, but something that has definitely made us feel like a family is regularly eating together.
Whether it's Sunday roast, paella or even a take away, it's more than just sharing a meal. Especially for the girls who seem to truly relish family meal time and complain if their father and I don't eat with them.
Not having any children of my own I can't compare being a stepmum with how it feels to be a biological parent. I don't know how 'normal' it is to sometimes wish they would go away and leave me alone!
But I imagine that even natural parents get angry and frustrated when their kids won't do as they are told and feel a mix of pleasure and pride when they do something well.
So despite becoming a stepmum by accident, I think we're as normal as the next family – whatever that means.
Written by: Sophie Atherton
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