Thursday, 30 June 2011

Reflections on Steppiehood

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.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Whatever happened to Wicked Steppie?

Wow....I was browsing a friend's blog today and I found a link on her site to one of the stepmum blogs I used to check out. And there, on that blog, was a link to mine.

I've just spent the past half hour re-reading everything I posted on there. Remembering what my life was like back then, and thinking how different everything is now.

First of all, Wicked Steppie is no longer a steppie. Not long after I posted my last blog post, my ex and I split up. I honestly realised I couldn't do it any more, and I needed to quit, for my own sanity and wellbeing. I felt like my life was an endless round of self-analysis and navel-gazing, just trying to figure out the best way to bloody cope with it all. But I wanted to enjoy life, not just cope with it.

My ex is OK, now. He didn't cope with the split well, he quit his job in an attempt to get me back (you might remember he worked an 80 mile drive away and the commute was a real damper on our relationship) and then spent 6 months unemployed and ran up debts, including on our joint account. That has now only just been sorted out, and partly because the bank agreed to write a good portion of it off, because they had been completely incompetent in dealing with it and failed to respond to a complaint through the FSA within the designated timeframe. He is now working again, and finally contributing to payments on the personal loan that I took out in January 2010 to sort out his mortgage arrears, among other things. I had to play dirty and threaten to claim on his house, which I didn't want to do, because I'm not a money grubber like his ex, but I simply couldn't afford to be left with those debts alone. So this week, I finally get to close our joint account, and that will be the last tie gone. Things aren't acrimonious by any stretch, and my ex hasn't been malicious in any of this, I just think that in some ways, he is irresponsible, especially with money, and doesn't always think of the consequences. Looking back, I can see that he was irresponsible about a lot of things, despite being a person who was saddled with a lot of responsibility early on - caring for a disabled mother in his teens, becoming a father young. I don't know if he's learned from it, but hopefully he might have.

As for me, I did go back to university, and have just completed my Postgraduate Diploma. I'm now qualified in youth work, and next week, I start a new job as the manager of a project that works with unemployed young people, to try and get them back into work. It's been a big year of change for me, but for the most part, I've absolutely loved it. I spent 6 months last year living alone, which I had never done before, just me and my beloved Rottweiler, but I'm now living in a friend's house, because I needed to cut my costs while I studied. I did two placements during my course, both of which I loved, and went on a learning curve that was steep as hell, but I can honestly say that professionally I've never been happier and it's better than working in IT. I'm looking forward to transitioning to a managerial role and having more choice and control over my work. It's slightly scary at the same time though, because I'll also have the responsibility!

And the other thing that's happened to me since the split is that I have met someone else. He's the same age as me, and get this....DOESN'T HAVE ANY KIDS!!!

I guess I've spent the past year recapturing some lost youth really....we've been to festivals, which is something my ex would never have done, been out on epic nights out, been to lots of gigs, took a trip to Berlin for my birthday, and sometimes we just get up on the weekends and decide to go somewhere random for the day. I even put my piercings back in and got a tattoo! I'd forgotten what spontaneity was like, because most weekends with my ex were oriented round his daughter, and even if she wasn't there, the trauma of the Sunday night phone call that rarely happened (phone off, not answering) used to ruin the end of the kid-free weekend. I also have someone now who puts me first - I'm his number one girl, and it means that throughout this year I have been supported, emotionally and at times financially as well, if I've been skint and needed petrol, he's quietly taken the car off to the garage and put a tenner in. If there was a night out and I couldn't afford it, the drinks were on him. At every stage he's encouraged me to believe in myself and what I was doing. I feel loved, valued, and like this man cares about my happiness and wants to do things that will make me happy. Likewise, I want him to be happy, but I won't compromise myself in the same way that I did with my ex, and completely subdue my own needs in order to serve someone else's. We don't live together yet, but are planning to next year. The relationship feels like it's been allowed to develop organically, without any undue haste or pressure. I'm actually his first serious girlfriend, so I have wanted to make sure he isn't rushing into things, and that I'm not either, after having the experience with my ex where everything happened too quickly, and then I realised I'd let things happen to me instead of making them happen.

And what of my former SD?

I have only seen her once since the split. My ex told me she missed me, and in some ways, I missed her for a bit, but I did not miss the conflicts, the reminders of the ex, and the unpredictability of the weekends we had her - the capriciousness of children is somewhat amplified in a young girl who has those kinds of pressure placed on her. I also realise that I had a huge problem with the way she was being raised, both by BM and also by my ex. I think my ex was far too permissive, and also inconsistent - discipline happened when he could be bothered, not when it needed to happen for the child's own learning. A few months ago, I saw that SD had tagged me in some photos on Facebook, and there were nasty comments attached to the pictures, which were aimed at me. I told my ex about it, and asked them to get them removed from his daughter's profile, and it took him a month to get around to tackling it with her. In the meantime, I had blocked her of course, but holy hell, if that had been my child doing that, they would have been banned from Facebook altogether! I would never have dared call an adult names, let alone in a public arena like social media!

In photos I have seen of my former SD since the split, I see her wearing tight, short clothes far too old for her 12 years, with a face full of makeup, and I breathe sighs of relief that I don't have to tear my hair out over it. I don't know whether I managed to have any positive influence on my former SD, but for once, I'm not beating myself up over it. Her primary influences in life were a mother who made very dubious life choices and had questionable morals, and a father who didn't have enough confidence to question them and provide a consistent alternative. It was never my job to fix all that. I still hope to have a positive influence on young people in my professional life, but it's a different thing, you don't have to take it home with you, and you're not invested necessarily in these young people liking you or developing lasting bonds - you work with them for a set amount of time, usually with set goals, and then hopefully, they leave your project ready for the next phase of their lives, and even better, take something positive with them.

So...if anyone's still reading, I'm still out there, and happily in a much better place than 18 months ago. I'm aiming to start a new blogging project when I start my new professional venture, about working with young people in a difficult climate - we're in a recession with record high youth unemployment, so it's going to be a tough gig. Watch this space!

Hope everyone is doing well, and happy xx

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 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.

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.