Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Let the truth be told....and the healing begin

Today, I want to talk about the Gospel of John 8:32.

I am not religious, that is to say I do not follow organised religion. But, I do admire and revere Jesus Christ, as many other figures in the great history of our world, who had a mission to make the world a better place for others. Today it is his words that ring in my head, after reading this post from DragonflyMama

Jesus said "You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free".

I've always admired Dragonflymama's tenacity in the face of complete and utter hostility and contempt from her stepdaughter's mom. She has resolutely tried to do the right thing, to shield the child from any hurt or conflict, and to love Buttercup despite the obstacles in the way. It is how so many of us try to be as stepmothers, because we DO want the best for those kids. Especially if we have grown up in the blender ourselves and experienced family conflict as children. We continually put our own feelings aside, time and time again, and put ourselves in the firing line, sacrifice ourselves rather than let the children suffer. We smooth things over when there is conflict. We back down rather than make a scene. We let the mothers walk over us and our families time and time again, and still we try to put on a brave face, treat them as we wish they'd treat us. And to love the kids, even when, in Dragonfly's words "she feels saddened by her love for me".

My SD does not get much joy from her relationship with me, because she is not free in it. The loyalty bind her mother has put her in leaves her wary to discuss things we have done together, admit that things she has gone home with have been bought by me, and means that as soon as she leaves our house, she is self editing constantly lest something slip out that BM may fly into a rage over. She does love me, I think, but I don't think loving me makes her very happy, because she has been told that to love me is to love her mother less.

I was very moved by both of Dragonfly's recent posts, because I have got to the same point myself with the step game. The point where I am no longer willing to pussyfoot around BM or appease her in the hope that one day she might see that DF and I are not bad people, that we don't want to "steal" SD from her, that all we want is peaceful co-existence and for SD to be able to enjoy and love both families equally. I have never had a lot of communication with BM, so I wouldn't write to her telling the truth about what I think of her and what I think of what she's doing to her daughter, but I can see how cathartic this experience must have been, and how much stronger you sometimes feel for just admitting the truth instead of trying to play the game by the unspoken rules that we feel we "should" play it by. Why on earth should we put up and shut up and keep going back for more? If you put your hand in a fire, it burns your skin and it hurts, doesn't it? Would any sane person, once they had realised what fire does to the skin, go back and do it again?

I too am done respecting BM and her precious role as mother, because she does not respect DF as SD's father and she does not respect me either. She does not respect our home, our rules, or the fact that we care for and love her child. To her, SD is a possession and weapon, wielded as leverage and power over her ex husband. She thinks she is fighting some kind of war - well, BM, you can only fight a battle if you have an opponent who is willing to engage you, and if you don't, you'll be standing on the battlefield alone looking pretty damn silly with all your armour on while your hated enemies are off enjoying themselves and getting on with their lives.

Like my fellow steppie warrior Dragonfly, I am done shielding my SD from her mother's actions. I am done trying to fight for extra time with SD, to take her on holidays, to do the things that kids should be able to do with their families. From now on, we are simply going to say "sorry, we can't take you on holiday, your mum won't let us have you" and she can take it up with her mother why she's missing out. I am done bending over backwards to provide the kind of life for SD that I think she SHOULD have and her mother isn't providing, and trying to cram all that into 7 days a month. I actually have my own life to get on with. There, I said it. I'm done fighting.

Sometimes you have to do this in order to let the battle wounds heal. When you no longer know WHY you are fighting this war, what the outcome of it is meant to be, and whether it is even a just war any more, you have to put down the weapons and actually figure out if the reasons you are still there are the same as when you entered it. None of this means that I will stop loving or caring for my SD of course, but it does mean that I'm going to do the one thing you're not supposed to in Steppiesville and put myself first. Because if I don't, I've realised that nobody else in this game will if they're too busy on the battlefield to see that there's life beyond hiding in the woods in your camo gear waiting for the next attack.

The uncomfortable truth for so many steppies is that we have little control over how the step-life pans out for us. We can be Mother Theresa-like beings who never say a cross word to the kids, but that won't help if the kids are in a loyalty conflict, in fact as Wednesday Martin has pointed out on numerous occasions, it may actually make it worse. We can set the best example to the kids, but that won't help much if the kids are spoiled and indulged by guilty post-divorce parents. We can insist on respect from the kids, but if kids are being told by their other parent that they don't have to respect you and the parent you live with isn't challenging it, you're the lone voice.

So here's the better truth, and this is, in those immortal words, the truth that will set you free. We still have control over OUR lives, and there's no rule book that says you have to keep putting your hand in that fire. Sometimes, we need to be reminded of that truth when we're deep in our steppie trenches, that actually, we do have the choice to let it set us free.

Monday, 21 December 2009

The Presence of Presents

I had hesitated about posting this, but I have noticed that a few of my fellow stepmum bloggers have posted about how difficult they find the materialism of Christmas, so I thought I'd add my own "Bah Humbug" to the chorus.

I've said before that it worries me how materialistic SD is becoming. Despite the fact that the BM is always pleading poverty, she seems to have no trouble buying SD the latest laptops, gadgets and toys, which often make our offerings seem like not much. In the past, DF has vastly overcompensated by buying a ton of stuff that she neither wants nor needs, and has often remained unused. We had a blazing row last year about the amount of money he spent, and this year, to avoid a repetition he agreed to me setting the budget and buying the gifts for her. I have stuck largely to things I know she needs and will use. A new fleece blanket for her bed in the cold weather with her current favourite Hello Kitty on it. Some nice new clothes, some funky socks and underwear, the fluffy slipper socks she likes, and a book on recycled crafts seeing as she loves to make things.

We had also talked about buying SD a bike. She has a bike, but it's not a very good one, the brakes aren't brilliant, she finds the twist-and-click gears hard to use, and of course as she's shooting up at a rate of knots it will soon be a bit small. We'd said we'd get her one if we could afford it.

At the moment, we can't afford it. I have been doing some selling on Ebay to try and get some cash coming in, because neither of us have had pay rises this year due to the recession. I'd originally planned to save some of that money from selling to get her a new bike. However, a few things have changed. Firstly, I got into my university course so all being well, I'll be starting it in September next year. Which means our income is going to drop considerably, and we really could do with throwing extra cash at our debts in order to try and get outgoings as low as possible for next year. And secondly, given our financial situation, I don't think we should be spending £200+ on a new bike for a child who spends 7 days a month at our house. We can't let her take it back and forth to BM's, as we can't trust that it will not get damaged or "lost" aka sold, at BM's. So what it will largely do at ours is sit in the shed, certainly during the winter months. I'll admit I am also a little influenced by the fact that SD has chosen not to see us on Christmas Day, but has nevertheless expressed a keen expectation of presents when she does choose to come, which has more than a little ring of spoiled child to it. It transpires she wants to stay with her Mum's family on Christmas Day because they are having a party, it's more fun, and there will be of course lots of presents from all the relatives.

I have tried over the last year or so to instil in SD a realisation that she (and other children like her) are actually lucky to have what they have and get what they get at Christmas and birthdays etc. I sponsored a child with SOS Children's Villages, a child the same age as her, who is orphaned and growing up in a foster family in Tanzania, in the hope that this might help, but she has expressed no interest in the sponsored child or writing to her or anything like that. To be fair, DF predicted she wouldn't be interested, he says kids these days just aren't interested in "that sort of thing" and he was right, she is far more interested in cute baby animals and sponsoring a dog through Dogs Trust than she is in the human cause. OK, so maybe it's an age thing, but surely parents have a responsibility to teach their children about the less fortunate and about doing things for others? I can forgive SD for being 11 years old and not interested in kids less fortunate than herself, but I can't forgive DF for thinking it's perfectly OK to allow his child to grow up materialistic and self-centred and not challenge it.

On one of my stepmum boards recently I came across another steppie whose teenage SD has a boyfriend whose family are not at all well off, and he goes without a lot of things. Said lovely steppie and her partner had bought the BF a winter coat and some decent warm stuff for the cold weather, which I thought was just lovely. She said how appreciative the BF was of anything that was done or bought for him, in comparison to most kids who think it's their right to get what they want. She also commented on how seeing her boyfriend's underprivileged upbringing had also started to make the SD a little more grateful for what she had. So maybe it just needs to be a little closer to home than Tanzania to make an impression?

I don't really know what the outcome of the bike dilemma will be. No doubt DF will want to buy her one regardless of whether the money could be better used elsewhere, but I wonder if we might be able to reach some kind of compromise on it, such as waiting until the better weather when she will actually be able to make use of it, or even finding a decent second hand one. I'm a mountain bike nut, so I know plenty of good sources, and people who will check a bike over for me for safety and durability. When I was a student, I bought a secondhand mountain bike for £50 and it lasted 3 years of cycling round Edinburgh nearly every day, so surely it would be acceptable for an 11 year old to use a few days a month? One thing I do know from bitter experience is that buying things you can't really afford is a recipe for misery, and from a selfish perspective, my eye is more on how we are going to manage in a few months time when I'm a fulltime student and only earning a fraction of what I do now. I just don't think DF will see it that way, and will think I am the epitome of steppie Scroogedom!

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Christmas sucks in blended families

I know DF and I won't be the only ones in this situation this Christmas. Because, as the title suggests, Christmas in stepfamilies just aint fun. Especially when you have a BM in the mix hell bent on making sure that her child doesn't see her father at Christmas.

There is supposed to be, by court order, an arrangement that Christmas Day is split. Last year we had SD from Christmas Eve into Christmas Day and took her back on Christmas Day. We had pantomime tickets booked for Christmas Eve so SD wanted to come, and BM agreed to having her back by 4pm. So this year, DF suggested he collected her at 4pm on Christmas Day.

Not happening, apparently. SD has allegedly made the decision herself (but did not want to tell DF this herself so BM's hag of a mother did it, and took great pleasure in doing so) that she does not want to see us on Christmas Day and doesn't want to come until Boxing Day. We know full well that if SD had the choice, she'd see both parents, so this is undoubtedly the result of pressure, manipulation and guilt trips on the poor child. We can't get her until 10am on Boxing Day.

I don't get how this woman can stoop so low as to keep her child from seeing her father on Christmas Day. I KNEW they had been working on her for weeks - I could see it in her eyes, and when I said to her last weekend when she went home "See you at Christmas" she looked away. I knew then we would not be seeing her, but I hoped against hope I was wrong, for DF's sake. But BM's family make a big deal of having a huge family party at Christmas and I knew there was no way they'd agree to her leaving half way through the day. Their view is that their family is SD's main family, therefore they are the most important - as far as they are concerned, DF can go hang, he's nobody.

It's hard not to get frustrated on his behalf - and I get upset that SD can treat her dad with such disregard as well, even though logically, I know she is just a child, and faced with the kind of pressure BM and her family are probably putting on her, most children older and more mature than SD would cave. SD knows that though DF will be disappointed, he won't unleash the kind of hell that BM would if she stood her ground and said no, I want to see my Dad on Christmas Day. She knows DF will never withdraw love from her. But it's hard to see that the unshakeable confidence she has in DF never turning his back on her results in her treating him badly - because she isn't afraid of losing his love. It's hard for me to see it because I was once in the exact same position - I know how it is being between a rock and a hard place, you always end up hurting someone, because you cannot make any choices without disappointing one of the people you love. And it is one of the things that SD will have to live with as she grows up and becomes more aware of the impact her choices have. Sadly, this is the lot of children growing up in split families, I know this all too well.

There is no solution to it either, but next year I am seriously tempted just to book tickets for DF and I to the Caribbean, let BM and her cohort have their family Christmas that's so important to them they are happy to ruin ours, and we won't even show up for the battle, which would spare SD from being piggy in the middle. Of course, if we did that, they'd say we don't care about her and don't want to see her, so we can't win....but at least WE would have a peaceful Christmas knowing we won't get a phone call a few days before saying SD doesn't want to come, and having to rearrange all our plans around when BM and GrannyHag will release her to come and see her own father. Yes, the Caribbean sounds tempting. Travel brochures for 2010 anyone?

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Things I wish I'd known

Inspired by Stepmum of the Year and Nine Kinds of Crazy, I decided to put together my own "If Only I'd Known" list.

This is probably going to be particularly apt, since it was revealed last night that a friend of mine has just started dating a 38 year old divorced man with a 5 year old daughter. I remember having a somewhat inebriated conversation with this same friend at a party a few months back, just about the general hazards of dating warfare, and the subject of men with kids came up. During this time, things were rather difficult, it was when BM was kicking off to the max over the summer, and I counseled her to run as fast as she could if approached by a man with kids. As mentioned, the conversation was slightly inebriated so I don't remember the finer details, but I definitely gave her no illusions about the possibility of happy endings when taking on a man with kids - they are few and far between.

Obviously the advice didn't rub off, because I saw her last night and she told me about her new flame. I guess I didn't really take my own advice either, because I showed up a few months later with a ring, and on my way to "official" stepparent-dom, rather than doing what I advised her at the time and getting the hell out. To be honest, had it been a man less special than DF, there is no way I'd still be here now. One thing you've got to be sure of if you're going to put yourself through the steppie mill is that the guy (and the rewards) are going to be worth it.

So, for my friend, and all the other newbie and potential Wicked Steppies out there, here's the list of Things I Wish I'd Known When I Started. And I hope this advice helps a little more than "run as fast as you can in the opposite direction".

Remember your own life.
This may seem like a no brainer, but when you're in the first flush of love, on the honeymoon period where you want to be with your new love ALL THE TIME, not to mention keen to get to know the kids and be accepted into the unit, don't let your identity get swallowed up by it. Retaining your own life, interests, hobbies and most importantly friends will help you to stay sane through rockier waters. Stepmum of the Year wrote in her list "your non-step friends will struggle to understand why you seem so obsessed". When things get overwhelming, it can become quite all consuming, and it's easy to get a little one-track minded when wading through miles of step-shit, but sometimes, what you need is not to talk step. Much the same as if work is bothering you, distraction is a better tactic than talking shop outside work and keeping your focus on the things that are pissing you off!

It's OK NOT to join in with every single kid-activity. Even if the kids seem keen to have you around, they still need time with their Dad and to know their Dad still values their company and there are special things that they do together. By the same token, as your relationship progresses, I can honestly say that my SD and I have benefited from having some time alone together as well.

Discuss how things are going to work BEFORE you think about moving in.
Especially if you're not buying/renting a new place together and you're going to be moving in with him. The child will see the house as theirs and Dad's, and the dynamics will change for everyone when you live together. Do the kids come in the bedroom at night? Do they knock? One of the things I have seen many steppies struggle with is the lack of privacy in their own homes, but by the same token I'm sure a lot of stepkids feel resentful when suddenly they can't go in Dad's room any more without permission. Open dialogue prior to combining lives is extremely important to help avoid these situations.

Take a genuine interest in the kids and try to see them as individuals.
I guess this comes as much from my experience as a stepchild as it does from being a step-parent, because it was something I felt my stepmum did extremely well. She was interested in me, what I thought, what I did, who my friends were and who I was as a person. Especially if there is a high conflict situation, it's an easy trap to fall into to align the kids with the other parent, particularly if that's where they spend the most time, and even more so if there is alienation going on, and just see them as components of the former life with the pain in the ass ex. But they are individuals, people in their own right. Think about yourself in relation to your parents. How like them are you? Do people in your life and family treat you exactly the same as they treat your parents, or do they treat you like you? I have traits of both my parents, I'm sure, but there are a lot of things about me that are very different and not like either of them. It will mean a lot to your stepkids, not to mention helping your relationship with them, if you're prepared to see them as John and Lucy (or whatever their names are), not "My partner's kids from his previous marriage".

Kid Free Time is important!

I apologise to both aforementioned stepmum bloggers for stealing this one a little....but, it's a point so important it merits repetition, so I hope they won't mind.
Keep in mind that your partner is likely to be at his happiest when he has all his favourite people around him - ie, his partner and his kids. For you, you're likely to be happiest when it's just the two of you together. Don't feel guilty about that - you're in the relationship with and for him, not the kids. Let's not forget that even in first families, parents need time out. And we're not talking about collapsing in front of the telly after a full day at work and getting the kids to bed, we're talking about planned activities, dates, time to talk non-shop and non-step. And make that time where you don't discuss the kids, the ex-wife, the holiday contact arrangements, the state the kids' bedrooms were left in on their last visit. This is time for you as a couple, to reconnect, and I couldn't have put it better than Nine Kinds of Crazy did in her list "You need to remember why you did this in the first place".

Which brings me back to one of my first points - the guy HAS to be worth it!

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Has it really been that long?

My God, it has! I can't believe I haven't been here since October 27th! Bad Blogger!

In my defence, I had to rebuild my laptop, because it was running so dog slow that I couldn't do anything on it, and kept losing all my work when it crashed. But, since I do IT all day, I did the ultimate procrastination on it and kept putting it off, because the absolute LAST thing I feel like doing when I get home is fixing a computer! Some days I even feel like banning them from the house!

Well, all is relatively well in Steppiesville. I am trying to ignore the fact that we are in the run up to Christmas, which is often a stressful time in the steposphere. Peace reigns in our household right now, so I'm enjoying that and trying not to think about what potential havoc Ye Psychotic One may have planned for us for the festive season! I find it best not to dwell on such things, as it is a waste of valuable thoughts. She will do what she will do, whether I think about it or not....

And I guess I just have more in my life to think about these days. I applied for my university course in Youth and Community Development Studies, and have an interview on the 17th December. I've applied to join a community volunteer programme, and am just waiting for my criminal records check to come through before I can start working with them. I'll be helping to run a young people's peer development programme, which aims to give young people a voice in the local community and the services that are provided for them.

AND......DP and I got engaged!

So DP is now DF....and I am now wearing a lovely titanium ring in a modern design which I love. The proposal, it must be said, was not exactly romantic, Yorkshiremen are not known for their romance skills, but they sure do know how to fix brakes on a car and fix radiators and boilers and those kinda things, and I know that doing those things is my OH's way of showing his love, as opposed to poems and roses. The only time a guy wrote me a poem I laughed. Maybe I'm not a poems and roses girl....or maybe that was just because the poem was crap.

To mark our engagement and part early Christmas present, DF also agreed to redecorate our bedroom. The leap for joy I did nearly put a hole in the roof, do you have ANY idea, seriously how long I have wanted to strip that room down? Men, unless of the homosexual variety, should NEVER be let loose on interior design, and Yorkshiremen should DEFINITELY stick to cars and boilers. Yellow and green in a bedroom? Bogies and vomit anyone? And I'll say NOTHING about the horrendous curtains. If in doubt, paint it magnolia, for the love of God! But now the room is purple, and very gorgeous, and we've finally got a fabulous orthopaedic mattress with memory foam. I felt like the bloody Princess and the Pea, DF was so attached to that damn mattress, he thought it was the comfiest thing in the world, but for me it was awful! It was pretty much moulded to DF's shape, so much so there was a concave part where he lay on it, and he's nearly twice the weight of me, so when he lay on it it would sink down in that part, and all the springs would be taut against the top, meaning they stuck in places you just don't want springs to be. He overlaid it with a duvet in an attempt to make it softer, but it just didn't cut it.

Being engaged has actually helped things. And I'm kinda ashamed to admit it, being a modern gal and all....I was brought up to think of marriage as an outdated and silly concept, that rarely works for anyone (yes, my parents did get divorced, and yes, it was messy). So...it's not really the done thing among some members of my family to get married. DF has of course gone through quite possibly one of the worst marriage FAILs ever, so he wasn't actually that keen to go there again, until recently that is. But psychologically....it HAS made a difference. I'm no longer just girlfriend - I'm future wife, and I think that's made a difference to how DF considers me within our family unit. I definitely feel I have equal status to kiddo now, whereas before he would tell me til he was blue in the face that we were equal, but at times behave very much the opposite. Kiddo was fine with it, well I've been around a fair while now, so I guess she knew I wasn't going anywhere anyway, but I'd say "Can I be bridesmaid" is a good reaction from a potential stepkid, as opposed to some of the horror stories I've heard about kids bursting into floods of tears, locking themselves in bedrooms etc. I guess I'm not too much of a wicked witch after all!