It's now well over a year since I ceased to be a steppie. I thought I'd post a few reflections on how I feel about step-parenting now, as opposed to a year ago, and see how things have changed.
I feel like I've had some different perspectives thrown at me too, from working with young people, my now-partner's experience of his parents splitting when he was in his early 20's and his struggle to accept the man his mum is now living with, but most of all, the part time job I had whilst studying. I worked with families in crisis, as an advocate for the children and young people within those families, and brought them into a mediation process called Family Conference. A hell of a lot of the cases I worked on were custody disputes, and boy was that tough, given what I'd been through with my ex and SD.
A lot of these families had additional needs in addition to separation based conflicts, such as drug or alcohol dependency, and it was a way to get those families the help they needed. Often the conflicts were more related to those issues, particularly where one parent was not caring adequately for the children and knew it, and there was a tendency to lash out at the other parent, blame the other for their own failings, and try and make the other parent look bad because they didn't want their own issues exposed. What I felt the process did was take away the blame and animosity and look towards solutions, and also encouraged family members, including children, to take personal responsibility for their behaviour. This is something that litigation, courts and solicitors cannot do for a family. I became even more convinced that our adversarial system is wrong for families and wrong for children, and that all families should absolutely HAVE to try mediation and conferencing first, before they are allowed to apply to Court. Although of course, it would cost to provide this service free, and currently it is only being piloted in a few areas of the UK, so it will depend very much on whether this government decides to extend it or scrap it in 2012. Whatever the cost however, I cannot believe it would cost more than extensive court sessions, CAFCASS workers, court-appointed psychologists, and whatever costs there are, it is worth it so that fewer children have to go through what my SD did.
Would it have worked with my former SD's BM, I have asked myself. Months ago, I'd have said no. But I've now met parents of both sexes who came across initially every bit as irrational, unreasonable and hate-filled, who are now co-parenting perfectly adequately with hardly any arguments, because they were given the tools and strategies to do it. And crucially, there were child welfare professionals involved, TO WHOM THEY WOULD LISTEN. The professional "hat" carries more weight than we realise, and I was actually able to be fairly blunt with some of these families about some of the things they were doing without being given the finger back. However, crucially, it was put in their hands to find the solutions, not given to them. Again, the Court system cannot facilitate a reflective process that results in behaviour change. Solicitors make more money going back to Court time and time again, because they're making money off the clients sticking in their own trenches! My ex's ex wife milked the system, but it was because she was allowed to do so. Nobody ever suggested to her that she needed to do anything differently, and to be fair, nobody ever suggested it to my ex either. The solicitors working for them told them they were right, that they SHOULD have sole custody, that the other parent sucked - all they wanted to hear, to keep the chequebook open. Hello, misery and extensive debt. There are no winners except the lawyers.
My boyfriend experienced his family splitting up as an adult. From what he says, his childhood was pretty normal and happy, but when he was in his late teens, his oldest brother died - suicide, from a mental illness. He then found out, at the age of 17, that his brother was his half brother, and his mum had had a child with a previous partner - his dad had been a stepdad all these years. The impact on finding out that he had been, as he feels, lied to for 17 years, was devastating. 3 years later, his parents split up and his mum moved in with another man, which coincided with my boyfriend, the youngest, moving away to university. He hasn't coped with the split well at all, and believes his whole childhood was a big lie. So it really is no easier as an adult to cope with a divorce. In some ways, I think I adapted easier, as a child, and certainly as an adult, I just accept that this is the way my family is, but for my boyfriend whose parents were together all his childhood, adapting to a split family has been extremely difficult for him, and it's only now, nine years on, that he will engage with his mum's partner beyond hello, goodbye. He doesn't visit often. But I have a suspicion that with him, the problems and resentments lie in the untruths that he feels were presented to him during his childhood, rather than the separation itself. So I guess the morals for parents are pretty clear - be honest with your children, and don't present a situation differently than what it is. If you are a stepfamily, where half and stepsiblings and step-parents are present, explain the relationship clearly and truthfully, though obviously sensitively. I wonder if my boyfriend's parents somehow saw the idea of being a stepfamily as "less than ideal" and therefore tried to present a nuclear family image, but they never could have predicted that the eldest would develop schizophrenia and they would have to end up telling the younger two the truth. The reason it had to come out was because my boyfriend and his other brother were scared they might develop it, however the history of mental illness was on the side of their half brother's father. I watched the final episode of Brothers and Sisters recently, and saw the impact on Sarah when she found out that she was not, in fact, her father's biological child, and it reminded me of what my boyfriend had been through, and what a burden it also must have been for his brother, keeping silent and not telling his younger siblings. I also know through my steppie network, of friends' stepchildren who have half siblings and are forbidden by their BMs to tell them they have a different Dad. It's utterly wrong.
The big question: Would I do it all again?
Hmm. It's not a complete no. I prefer being with a man without children, it's far less complicated and much more enjoyable, but then I also don't have kids. If I do go on to be a mum (undecided about that too at this stage, but if it happens) and separated, then I guess it's got to be considered that if you have kids, you can't automatically reject a potential partner with children. While I'm childfree however, I would be very guarded, and give any relationship a LOT of time to develop, which is what me and my ex didn't do. I'd want to see what the relationship with the kids and BM is like and how they parent. I'd want to establish whether they had healthy boundaries with their ex and kids - that the ex wasn't still pulling strings, and that they were a parent to their kids, not a buddy. And I'd much prefer a situation where the mum was reasonable and pleasant, parented well, and not high conflict, so I didn't have to have a lot of involvement. With my ex-SD, her BM wasn't parenting, so I felt that some things did fall to me, because I wanted the best for her and didn't want to see her in scabby clothes or not eating properly or being bad mannered and having other people think ill of her through her not knowing how to behave in certain places. I wouldn't want a situation where I feel that I have to do parenting, and that the bio parents could handle it.
I also wouldn't get involved with a man with kids who didn't want/couldn't have any more, unless I was past childbearing age. Been there, done that, too emotionally difficult. I wanted kids so badly with my ex. I felt less valued because I didn't have his child, I wanted to share the parenting experience with him because being a Dad was so important to him. I also felt excluded, and thought that if we had kids together, somehow I'd be on an equal footing with his first family. But if we had a baby, the guilt could have got worse, not better, and I might have found myself coping more or less alone with a child and financing a child alone because all my ex's resources were directed towards SD. Unless he dealt with his guilt, that had resulted in the overindulgence and permissive parenting, that situation was not going to change. I don't think that my ex did value me less because I wasn't a mum, or because we didn't have children and he did with his ex, but that was my perception, seeing as to him, being a Dad was the be all and end all. He also criticized my childless twenty-something friends who liked to go out and party, saying they were selfish and immature, and he didn't have anything in common with them, so I guess I assumed he thought that about me too to some degree, and that he'd love me more and treat me with more importance if I had the maturity conveyed by parenthood. But maturity isn't something that is magically achieved when you become a parent, since I've met a lot of parents who are less mature than a lot of my so-called selfish, immature friends, who might not have kids, but they're smart, have good jobs, good relationships, degrees, salaries, cars, some own houses and pets, and some do voluntary and charity work - I have one friend who is a volunteer sports coach and another who is a Samaritan. I firmly believe that one should do one's maturing and growing up before inflicting oneself on a child that didn't ask to be born in the first place, but hey, that's just me and my crazy ideas huh.
I know that in some respects I didn't do so great at the step-parenting thing either. I fell into the trap of competing with the BM, and like Peggy Nolan said of her early step-parenting days, she "needed to be a better stepmom than she was a mom". I definitely felt like that. I also felt that my step-parenting "performance" if you like, was the key to my ex's love and respect, because he seemed to have so much more respect for parents than people without kids, so I felt I had something to prove, and that I wasn't good enough as I was. I could have done less. I could have shut out the drama and drawn my boundaries, and focused more on the relationship I was in. Put simply, I didn't need to do so much.