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.