When Ben Snell had groceries delivered to Zandy's home while she was sick in bed, before they'd even met, she knew he was a keeper. Less than a year later they'd married and had eight children between them.
The swift family extension entailed a housing up-size so the couple moved into a huge home in Whangarei and, while it's chaos, it's a fulfilling chaos, describes Zandy.
"Ben and I started talking on June 25, 2017 after we matched on Tinder of all places," tells Zandy, 35. "We talked online just as friends for a while. Ben was sweet and sent me groceries when I was in bed with the flu for a week without even meeting first. We talked a lot and then he convinced me to meet him two months later, which took a lot of courage from me."
The couple organised a hiking trip the weekend they met and Zandy remembers Ben driving all the way to Auckland to pick her up.
"When he turned up, I got butterflies and, as two of my teens ended up coming because their dad was going away that weekend, the whole drive back to Whangarei that night, just watching the way he was with my kids and also seeing how nervous he was but how kind he was, made me get those warm fuzzies.
"When we got back to his place we stood out on his deck and he was telling me about the stars - he is a massive space nerd - it was quite romantic and we shared our first kiss. I think it was better that we had become friends first and we let nature take its course."
With Zandy living in Auckland and Ben, Whangarei, weekends were the only chance to grab time together. However, both had children of their own with Ben, 35, having three girls – (now) seven—year-old twins and a nine-year-old, and Zandy four girls, now aged 17, 13, seven and five, plus a 15-year-old boy. So, it was inevitable the two families should meet fairly early.
Zandy recalls: "It was only after a couple of weeks, I brought my kids up to Whangarei to meet Ben's kids. We turned up quite late at night, so they didn't get to meet until the morning but, when we got up, all the kids had already found each other and they were all playing together in the bedrooms like they had known each other for years."
Every other weekend, the couple were kid-free so Zandy would travel up alone. However, it wasn't long before the travel got too much and the decision was made to move north and blend the families.
"Our kids had all got along and were best friends from day one so we weren't really daunted by it. They were super-excited to have new siblings and being able to share their lives together.
"We moved into a huge house – with eight kids in a blended family we needed the room."
When the couple got engaged, family and friends were supportive and Ben and Zandy married June 2018 at Pataua North, where his family hail, with their kids having their own roles in the wedding. It was Zandy's second marriage and Ben's first.
"I think we knew straight away we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. After failed relationships in the past, we had learnt from mistakes and knew what we wanted. The wedding was just 'us'. We winged most of it, and just had the people we cared about a lot there. It was about merging our two families together and we did just that in the rain and all."
At home, they soon fell into a routine naturally, although, as predicted, mornings are chaotic with Zandy and Ben both having fulltime jobs – Zandy as a legal assistant and photographer and Ben, a contractor flooring installer. However, both have their roles.
"It's a mad-rush to get everyone organised. It is a little easier now Paige, my eldest, has moved back home as she now drops the younger ones at school so I can be at work on time. Ben will take one or two and drop them off and then go to work. Paige will pick them up from school and watch them until we get home, generally around 4:30/5ish. Then I usually take the lead with laundry, homework and bathing kids while Ben cooks and does a bit of cleaning. We always have dinner together at the table, we think it is important for everyone to be together at that time. Then we get them into bed and we can have the evenings to ourselves, usually watching a movie or going over Ben's work admin. I'll do a bit of photo editing as well."
The couple have three of the girls fulltime, apart from every second weekend, and Ben's girls every second week. All the kids are together under the one roof that weekend which leaves every other weekend kid-free, apart from the eldest teen.
"We have that weekend as our 'bubble weekend' – no kids, apart from Paige, who goes and does her own thing."
'Bubble weekends' are spent having adventures, where possible, including hiking, snorkelling or road trips. "Sometimes if we don't want to go anywhere we kind of just go into a bubble where it is just us and we'll generally watch movies, eat good food and spoil ourselves. We work hard and Ben is slowly teaching me that it is ok to treat ourselves sometimes."
Zandy admits being a step-mum can be very hard and, like most, she struggles at times.
"I think the one thing I struggle with the most is discipline. I feel like there is a boundary there, even though I have no problem with Ben disciplining my kids when they need it. He tells me to do the same with his but it can be hard sometimes as usually step-mums just want to be loved as well but I know that I am and I know I do so much for his girls and help keep them on the right path."
An added challenge is Zandy's seven-year-old daughter's high-functioning Asperger's Syndrome.
"At first it was a struggle as we hadn't quite got the diagnosis, so it was tough for Ben's girls to fathom why Maddie would say some sometimes 'mean', straight-up things. But they have grown to know Maddie and that she is different and has different needs to them and they know when to leave her alone. With my kids, they have grown up with her the way she is and have always known she was different and know when it's ok to talk to her or play with her and when to just leave her be.
"Life can be interesting with so many different dynamics, especially with an Asperger's in the family, but we make it work and the kids all love each other to pieces like blood siblings. They do have their moments like any other siblings; a couple of the kids will be best friends one day and enemies the next but they are close and they always look out for each other, especially at school. They are very protective of each other. Other days they argue like cats and dogs and blame things on each other. Very normal siblings," Zandy laughs, adding that a new addition is definitely off the cards.
Having a large family was never her plan and people are generally shocked by the number of children. "There are often the old comments like: 'Do you not own a tv?' We own several actually," she laughs.
She believes the key to making their large family tick along soundly is taking one day at a time and letting things flow.
"Ben and I always try and have each other's backs and support each other, especially when it comes to the kids. We have to stay on the same page so that we can keep things ticking along.
"I think it is just best for blended families and all families really to take this approach and think about the bigger picture. Think about how you want what you do to impact your kids' lives, especially when they are grown. Support each other and always be kind to each other. You're in their lives for the rest of yours so make the most of everything and don't sweat the small stuff because most of it is small."
And she attributes a lot of the success of their blended family to her husband: "He is loving and kind and compassionate and has welcomed my kids with open arms and is always there for them. He is always there for me as well and so supportive. He truly is the best thing that has ever happened to me and I love him immensely. I am forever grateful for him and couldn't imagine life without him."
So, what does Zandy love about being a mother?
"I love being able to watch all these little people grow and learn and being one of the influences in their lives. I'm hoping I'm a good influence… I honestly can't wait to see how they all turn out as adults. We usually have our little conversations about what we think the kids will be and how they will be and where. They turn into funny stories but I really can't wait."
And how is she spending Mother's Day?
"I don't think we have the kids that weekend so it will be a 'bubble weekend' for us," she smiles.