By last October, Christmas 2009 was shaping up to be fairly horrific.
In the end, it was and it wasn’t, I suppose. Like most adventures in stepfamily life, there were good as well as bad bits; in fact the good outweighed the bad to an unexpected extent.
On the whole, though, the giant endeavour of managing the parental-alienation-studded negotiations in the lead-up to December, the descent of the Boys on our (small) home for the holidays and orchestrating the twenty-plus-guest Christmas Day itself was so traumatising that I wanted to get into bed afterwards and stay there until, oh say, Valentine’s Day.
But without one key ingredient it could have been So Much Worse…
The boys arrived a couple of days before The Day – I told the Lovely Man that dealing with Handover Syndrome on Christmas Day itself was NOT on my list of fun ways to spend the celebration.
They were, quite frankly, pissed.
Despite signing off to this arrangement in a parenting plan only months earlier, their Mum didn’t want them to be with us, in our city, for Christmas.
So, naturally, they didn’t want to be with us, in our city, for Christmas.
They wanted to be with their real family. (Their words, and despite the Lovely Man’s mother and brother being in attendance, and one of his sisters visiting as well.)
And they certainly didn’t want to attend the family therapy sessions we’d organised in an attempt to change the disastrously ugly and conflict-ridden direction this holiday period was taking.
The Lovely Man and I went for the first session by ourselves, leaving my heavily pregnant sister to care for the boys. Not a popular move, although they behaved well enough for her.
I went in with fairly modest hopes – just getting a chance to release some of the roiling internal turmoil over the situation would have made it worth while.
Surprisingly, though, the session was a real turnaround moment for the Lovely Man and me.
I had read about emotion coaching in Ron L. Deal & Laura Petherbridge’s fantastic book The Smart Stepmom, and had tried tentatively to put it into practice, but without the Lovely Man onboard it was hard to have confidence to use the techniques.
And while the concepts are simple enough, we benefitted a lot from doing some role playing with the psychologist and without the kids present.
Ugggh. Role playing.
It worked, though.
So for instance, I told the psychologist about an especially nasty and hostile interaction I’d had with Boy A on my last visit to their city.
I had asked for the boys’ input on choosing a new paint colour for the kitchen in our city. My intention was to involve them, to show interest in their tastes. I asked them which of a couple of mock-up photos showing different colours they preferred.
Boy A’s response was angry, and to me, shocking
He almost screamed:
Why are you wasting all this money on that stupid house? You should be sending that money to my Mummy so she can buy a house!
I was so stunned that I reacted, rather than responding.
That’s ridiculous, Boy A.
And, of course, there came an angry chorus in reply.
It is NOT ridiculous. You SHOULD SO be buying our Mum a house!
By then I had taken a moment to compose myself, so I said, more gently.
I don’t mean that it’s ridiculous that your Mum wants her own house. But that is something between your Mum and Dad. They are talking about it at the moment, and it has NOTHING to do with me.
Well, it’s our Dad’s money you’re spending.
Having related all this, the psychologist said to us that the emotion coaching approach is to listen to the words and try to hear what the fear or discomfort is underneath.
So here, for instance, a better response would have been:
It sounds like you’re worried about where you’ll be living when you’re with Mum, Boy A. Is that right? Are you worried about having somewhere to live?
Are you saying that you’re trying to keep things fair between your Mum and Dad, Boy A? That must feel like a lot of pressure on you, trying to be in charge of that.
So we went home, and tried it.
Incredibly, it seemed to work.
The snarky comments that took so much strained effort for me to ignore or defuse turned into a chance for Boy A to say what was on his mind.
In turn, I felt as though I had a tool to use when these troubling moments arose.
Things improved dramatically. I stopped locking myself in my room so much.
The dreaded Christmas Day itself, which over and over Boy A insisted was going to be miserable throughout, went much more smoothly than we could have imagined.
When the Boys were upset or troubled, we listened to them, helping them name their feelings rather than telling them what they should be feeling. We followed through on the things they had said would make the day easier for them, like organising an iChat for them with their Mum.
Incredibly, ALL the Boys had fun. They freely said they had fun. Even Boy A.
And the Christmas that had felt like a hole in my heart became a celebration again.
If you’re interested in learning about emotion coaching, I heartily recommend Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart Of Parenting by Dr John Gottman. Otherwise, there’s a brief downloadable overview of the techniques here. Specifically for stepmothers wanting to learn about emotion coaching and much more, I love The Smart Stepmom; although it has a strong Christian focus and I am resolutely secular in outlook it was still incredibly useful.