Tuesday, 2 March 2010

My new experiment

There are big changes afoot in the Wicked Steposphere.

As regulars will know from my recent postings, 2010 is the year of change for me. It's also the time that I decide to stop putting myself last, and go out there and be responsible for my own destiny and happiness.

I've been finding myself getting increasingly angry and wound up lately. BM up to her usual shenanigans of course....she can't seem to leave us to get on with things. She still seems to think that she has a right to tell DF what to do, but in my mind that ended with the decree absolute. And I've become really, REALLY angry about it. I can't let it go, to the point where it's eating me up from the inside.

I am also pushing SD away because of BM's behaviour. Because of the loyalty bind I know she is putting the poor girl in. I feel it would be easier for her if she didn't have to deal with me much, because then she won't feel so conflicted and won't have to go home to BM and answer lots of questions about what I've said and done this weekend. All she has to do is say "Wicked Steppie wasn't home much" and surely that's easier on her - not having to dish the dirt to BM for a quiet life and approval. The last thing this poor child needs is another person pushing her away because of her mother, but I fear I am doing it, because BM and SD have become so enmeshed for me now, I feel as if BM walks into my house 2 weekends out of 3. I feel as though it is BM's eyes staring at how I do things, listening to what I say. SD cannot seem to stop talking about BM and her family these days either, and I simply don't want to hear it, but how do you tell an 11 year old child to stop talking about her mother? So it's easier for all I figure if Wicked Steppie just kinda vanishes on those days.

So no wonder I feel so damn resentful, because I am allowing BM to dictate how I live my life and run my home, where she has no place in it!

So, I'm on a mission to take back my life. And on a mission to take back my identity. I feel as though becoming a step-parent sort of stole it, actually. But only because I let it.

Thankfully, there is a wealth of support out there these days for step parents, and it seems a burgeoning community of online support for stepmums. I have been part of one such community for 2 years now and am extremely grateful I found it. I have made some lifelong friends in that place, who are not just fellow stepmums but also lovely human beings.

However, there is a danger with any community that you can get a little too sucked in to it all and base your identity too much around it. This is why I have decided to take a break from all things steppie related for a month, and actually blog and write about being me, not just a stepmother in waiting.

My experiment is called The Grateful Diaries and you can find it here if you want to have a look. For the next month, that's where you'll find me. My experiment is, to find three things, every single day, that have made me feel happy and/or grateful, and write about them, and do this for a month. The aim? Make me whole again, and try and bring the fragmented parts of my life and identity together once more. And perhaps to cultivate more of a sense of perspective, as well as looking at the positive side of life a little more. We Brits do have a tendency to get a bit glass half empty about everything. It's how we feel safe - don't be optimistic, you might get disappointed. Better to be pleasantly surprised when something goes well....

Feel free to follow the experimental blog and feed back to me what you think.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Ushering in the winds of change

The latest from Wicked Steppiesville is that I am to be an ex-IT support engineer sooner than I had anticipated!

I finally hit the wall with the job that has been doing my head in now for more than half the time I have been there, cracked in spectacular style in fact, involving a diatribe that turned the air blue within the earshot of at least 2 senior managers. I then proceeded to write my resignation (in slightly less profane, more articulate fashion) the following weekend. It was accepted, but of course, they want to "talk about it". Erm, the point of me resigning was that I don't want to work for you any more. What exactly is there to talk about? This isn't a relationship, we don't have kids, we don't need mediation or ongoing contact. I.Want.To.Leave. Simple. The only thing I would like to talk to them about is their ridiculous notice period. 3 months, for an IT support monkey? Come on.

I am of course off back to university in September. I am now working for 2 hours a week for a local youth organisation, setting up and running (from March) a youth club/drop in centre in one of the most, um, charming areas of this fair city, shall we say. Tonight we had to meet with the local Neighbourhood Watch and the Police Community Support officers to assure them that we were not going to be running some kind of crack den and that we had the ability to deal with any incidents that might arise. I did have a brief moment of "what am I doing" when one of the other youth workers told me about the resident pyromaniac - a diminutive 13 year old who prides himself on his ability to, well, burn just about anything. But the local residents are apparently not that bothered so long as it's the youth service's stuff that's going up in flames, not theirs. Oh and did I mention the ADD kid who needs to be frisked for spray paints at the door otherwise literally, the whole building will be covered in graffiti tags. So far, so good then. I thought dealing with stroppy managers whose computers didn't work was tough.

Maybe I have this weird kind of masochism going on somewhere in my head, I don't know. It was pointed out to me recently by a friend "so you have a pre-teen stepdaughter at home, and you want to spend your working life....working with teenagers" and suddenly I saw how that would probably look to others. I am never backwards in coming forwards about my Issues With Step-Parenting, and in fact, my rantings often extend to "Kids These Days" (are ungrateful/lazy/rude/materialistic, insert adjective here). So why on earth would I want to surround myself with.....kids? I clearly sound most of the time like someone who doesn't really like kids! But I know from previous experience that working with kids and young people professionally is a whole different ball game to having them at home with you. It sounds lame, but you have a chance to make a difference, but with the benefit of a bit of distance and perspective that parents and even step-parents don't have, because they're too close to the situation.

Oh and did I mention you get to give them back at the end of the session?

So this is kind of a scary but good time. I'm not quite sure after the end of April how I will be earning a crust, but I do know that I'm not going back to corporate office life if I can help it. So long as the bills get paid and we have food in the house, even if it's beans and toast, we'll be fine. I've been offered some work football coaching at my club, and the youth organisation where I work part time is hoping to have more work for me by the time I finish up in the madhouse. So we're not going to starve or be homeless.

I've talked before on this blog about Steppie Guilt. I actually think that I'm leaving that behind now. I need to do what's best for me, and so long as that doesn't involve a £50 a day coke habit or becoming a hitman, I think it's legitimate for me to act on what's best for little old me. Why should I be last in the family pecking order, and more importantly, why should I put myself last? I actually don't think that anyone ever said I should be last on the list, I put myself down there, because I had this idea that somehow, as neither parent nor child, I somehow mattered less, and my happiness and fulfilment was not as important as theirs. Worse, I had the idea that my job was to facilitate their happiness and comfort rather than look after my own. That way lies madness! I and I alone am responsible for my own happiness in this world, and if I don't look after it, nobody else will - because they are far too busy looking after their own, having worked out a long time ago what I've only just worked out recently. Something else that made me even less comfortable was the thought that the BM has spent her life waiting for others to fulfil her needs and not doing it herself, and though she is doing this less through misguided altruism than pure selfishness and entitlement, the net effect is the same. When we have no agency over our own lives and allow ourselves to be driven by the agendas of others, we become helpless, and helplessness breeds anger and resentment. I don't want to be that person. So I've made the decision to stop bobbing along with the tide and actually take the helm and steer the craft in some kind of a direction. I hope that my family see that taking ownership of my own happiness in this way doesn't mean I don't care for theirs. It's just that I am much better able to look after theirs, that is, in the parts of it that I have influence over, if I am actually happy and whole myself. I would very much like to be happy and whole. It sounds like a nice place to be.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Sometimes you just have to enjoy being smug

The start to the New Year had been a slightly fraught time in the Wicked Steppie household. We were definitely all suffering from the disorder I explored in my last blog post, Post Christmastic Stress Disorder. The BM had been up to her usual tricks, and Christmas for us had been beset by illness, too much racing around trying to please everyone and a stressed and unhappy SD (thanks to the pre-Christmas BM shenanigans). I had to have a minor gynaecological operation right after New Year, and I just wasn't in the zone.

It's funny how things can change in the matter of a couple of weeks. After doing pretty well in the latter months of last year, Christmas sent me into a steppie spiral of doom - and by the time SD went home after we had her over New Year I was back dreading the next visit. Christmas these days just seems to make kids act more spoiled, and the more they get the worse it seems to be. Every Christmas BM goes into full on "lets compete with Dad and Wicked Steppie" mode, and SD invariably comes over full of the mountains of things she got from that side of the family. How on earth she affords it all on welfare I don't know, but that's a whole different story, and one that raises my blood pressure far more than I need today - I don't need to think about how my taxes bought her 42 inch plasma. This year she got a netbook, after getting a laptop last year. Funny, since she also got a Nintendo DS Lite last year, after getting a DS the year before! It seems BM's idea of a good present is just one that's the latest model of the last one. Yes, she has imagination in spades, this lady. Is it electronic? Check. Is it shiny? Check. I swear, she's as discerning when shopping as a magpie in a jewellery store.

We just had SD for the weekend, and in my PCSD-induced state, I approached it with dread. I am afraid to say I'd had a major steppie meltdown over the Ipod Affair just after Christmas. After getting the netbook, a new bike from us (I did find a reasonably priced one in the end) and a whole load of other stuff, SD decided she also wanted an Ipod Touch. Now, why on earth she needed that is beyond me - she already has a mobile phone that does everything bar wipe your bum for you, a netbook for the internet and her beloved MSN, the DS to play games on, but she wanted this Ipod. So, she counted up her Christmas money, and was £40 short. DF and I drew the line - we'd spent enough on her over Christmas and she'd just had all this new stuff, so we said we were not stumping up the extra cash, and it would have to be saved pocket money and paid chores if she wanted it. She was a little disappointed, but seemed to understand. The next minute however, she was telling us once she was home at BM's that BM had bought it for her! Funnily enough, the day after her monthly maintenance goes in. I was livid, for many reasons. BM's cheap attempts to buy her daughter's love after traumatising her over Christmas. SD not being taught the value of money. Undermining us and our attempts to NOT spoil SD completely "oh, nasty daddy and Wicked said no, never mind darling mummy will buy it for you". DF did actually tell her this weekend that it actually WAS us that bought it, in a roundabout way. I find it hard to see SD going round in ripped school trousers and with scratty trainers that have been chewed up by BM's latest pack of scraggy mutts while carrying a brand new Ipod and mobile phone. It really does seem incongruous, and it makes me resent the money DF has to pay her each month even more. What is this child learning about what's important in life?

But the weekend brought new revelations, and proved to me once again that while BM might triumph in the skirmishes, there's a long way to go yet in this game.

It's taken us some time to build up a relationship with the parents of SD's best friend. They were friendly with BM, and therefore were very wary of us, having been told God knows what by BM. It has taken us a LOT of effort to show these people that we are not monsters, and that their child is safe in our care, and I'll give them the nod for giving us a chance - some of the things BM told them were pretty awful (and very untrue). We never said a word about BM to them - not our place or our business to, and whether we think it's right or wrong BM is SD's main carer so their main relationship would be with her since she has SD more. But they brought up the subject of BM this time when they were over. It seems that their little one doesn't want to go over there any more, because last time she was there, BM and her partner were blind drunk and she was scared and upset by what she saw. They don't really associate with her any more, aside from dropping SD home when she visits them. So we never needed to say a word - BM's true colours showed through. Sometimes, the best thing you can do or say is nothing, and let things unravel.

For the first time this week, we were also allowed to see SD during the week. SD asked BM if she could come over, purely of her own volition. She said no to staying over, which was expected because she is neurotic about losing a penny of child maintenance, but, let's take the positives - she agreed to SD spending more time here. I don't know if she senses that now SD is getting older, it will be harder to justify why she can't see Dad, and also harder to contain her if she does decide she wants to and she can't give her a valid reason why not. It was nice to see her and chat about her day, and hear about all the silly things that happened at school and what happened on the instalment of the Diary of Anne Frank they watched. These are all the things DF has missed out on for so long, that everyday normality.

So despite feeling over Christmas that SD was becoming ever more BM's creature, it seems that 2010 has brought a breeze of change with it after all. BM's total power seems to be on the wane. She no longer has her exclusive friendship with SD's best friend's parents as a bargaining chip, because SD's friend can come to ours now. She would frequently offer SD sleepovers with her friend on DF's weekend to tempt her away from coming here, but that can't happen any more thanks to her own vile behaviour. And SD finally has the confidence to ask BM to spend more time with us, even if at the moment it's but a few hours a week, it matters. I'm also sad (but not surprised) to say the charm bracelet SD came with on Boxing Day that was the best thing she'd ever had and she would never take off got broken 2 days after Christmas, and BM never took it back to get it fixed or changed, so it remains broken in SD's jewellery box.

BM doesn't, and never has looked at the bigger picture. She thinks only about the small triumphs, those that are cheap and easy to gain. It's easy to throw money at a problem, but much harder to solve it, and harder still to admit you were wrong in the process, and that's what BM will never do in a zillion years. So I'm kinda enjoying this moment of feeling a shift in the tide for the first time in the whole time I've known DF, and dare I say it, allowing myself a teensy touch of smugness!

Saturday, 2 January 2010

PCSD - the new disorder on the block. A Study, Part 1.

You've heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, right? Well, I'd like to introduce you to Post Christmastic Stress Disorder.

This is a relatively new phenomenon, usually seen early in the month of January each year. From the studies we have done, it appears that women tend to suffer more than men, being more susceptible to social and familial pressure to creat the "perfect" Christmas. The explosion over the last 10 years or so of Christmas as a commercial, rather than religious or cultural event, can be said to have contributed to the prevalence of this new disease. In this first issue, we will explore the symptoms and contributing factors to this illness as well as identify the demographics most likely to suffer.

The symptoms of the disease often present themselves physically, in the form of reduced immunity or a bug that the patient cannot "shake off". Of course, under normal circumstances, the patient may take a few quiet days at home to rest if they are ill with a cold or tonsilitis, for example, but at Christmas not partaking in the perpetual rounds of either entertaining or visiting would be unheard of. Hence, the patient will often push themselves to join in with everything and not give themselves any chance to recover, resulting in a persistent illness that may last well into the first weeks of the New Year.

Other symptoms of PCSD may be less obvious, that is to say more psychological and emotional. Trouble sleeping, or disturbed sleep patterns have been reported, due to anxiety, relating to seasonal worries such as whether all purchases have been made for the ever burgeoning present pile under the tree, or indeed whether the festive meat is properly defrosted, lest Aunt Ophelia be struck down with a dose of salmonella from undercooked turkey. Concerns occur as to how to keep children entertained during visits to relatives, and indeed which relatives to visit and when can be a source of strain.

I wish to examine a particular demographic which seems to suffer from PCSD more than others, and that is those in blended or stepfamilies. The normal stresses and strains of the holiday season seems to be exacerbated in these circumstances. If we examine why that is, it may be attributed to the additional concerns that these families have around their holidays. Where the children in the family will spend their time and how this should be divided. If this cannot be agreed between the children's biological parents, this places additional stress on all concerned, particularly when arrangements are changed last minute. Step-parents in these families, particularly those without children of their own, frequently report pressure to prioritise their partner's family over their own at Christmas, because of the need of their partner's family to spend time with the children, particularly when their partner is a non resident parent. The effects of stress are also notably seen in the children in such families, who may be getting pressure from one or both parents to prioritise one side of the family over the other at Christmas, and may feel stuck in the middle or unable to please anybody, as of course they cannot divide themselves in half. In such families where high conflict exists between the former partners, stress is likely to be exerted in many different ways on all members of the family. Children can be caught in bigger loyalty binds at Christmas than at other times, because of the social pressure mentioned at the start of this study to have the "perfect" Christmas, and of course how can it be perfect when the child is missing for some or all of the time? High conflict exes can be resentful of any time spent with the other parent, and incidences have been seen of these high conflict exes actively trying to ruin the time the child spends with the other parent, often with incessant communication and "guilt trips" or frequent calls to remind the child what they are missing at the other home. This is most stressful for the child, but also creates unnecessary dramas and interruptions on top of the usual tasks of cooking, cleaning, entertaining guests and visits.

The other contributing factor to PCSD is also the financial strain of Christmas. It seems to get bigger every year, and as children get older, the expense of the presents they wish for gets greater. It has been noted by our experts that in split families, the pressure is greater, as competition may exist between the two households for where the child has the "best" time (which of course in modern terms is defined by how materially spoilt they get). There may be a certain self-exerted pressure on non resident parents to spoil the kids more at Christmas time as a compensation for seeing them less during the year. The temptation to do this is great, but overspending can lead to relationship conflict when budgets are exceeded and cuts must be made in other areas to accommodate it. As a society, we appear to have become very preoccupied with measuring quality in terms of quantity of money spent, and feel guilty or stingy when we do not splurge for the festive season. But the consequences of such splurging, where families cannot really afford it, are a major contributor to PCSD. It is worth noting that it does not just occur in stepfamilies, but I mention them specifically because of the added pressures on those families that make this more likely.

In our next issue we will explore how we can treat existing PCSD, identify the warning signs and stop it developing further, and even prevent it completely.