Category Archives: Lovely Man
I know it’s been a while, and I’m not even going to apologise. Nope, not sorry!
The last month or so has been a really important recuperation time; it’s been so vital for me to take a break from stepmummery (or at least from writing about it…) and focus on reweaving the last few fraying threads of my normal self back together.
For those who’ve asked, my visit to Scotland was gorgeous. Short, yes, but filled with the generosity of friends, beautiful landscapes and cities, reconnecting with faraway cousins, exploring the history and the galleries, the parks and the tearooms (and the vintage clothing shops!) of London. I’m a hopeless history/vintage geek, and my much-younger cousin Rhys was enormously patient with my pokings and peerings around important Tudor-era landmarks and through the delights of every stinky vintage boutique in London….
(To be fair, he’s a very cool guy and *may* have enjoyed the vintage shopping even more than me. Clearly, I’m getting old!)
More importantly, I was able to stand beside my dear friend in the emotional lead-up to her wedding, tie what felt like a gazillion trios of ribbons onto napkins, administer spa treatments as required, get lost on the way to Sainsbury’s the day before her wedding and emerge five hours later with more boxes of grissini than three hundred of even the hungriest kilted Scotsmen could manage to devour. I got to be there to soothe her meltdowns and speak on her behalf as her family at her wedding dinner.
All of which turns out to have been unexpectedly good training, because….. the Lovely Man and I have recently gotten engaged and plan to get married late next year sometime! We’re both very happy and excited, and delighted by all the good wishes we’ve received.
I expected very mixed responses to our engagement news from the Boys, but on the first weekend the Lovely Man had the Boys after we became engaged he rang me from their city (it was his extra weekend with them, so I was at home in our main city) before getting on his plane to say that their initial responses were (mostly) fairly positive.
That was the Lovely Man’s take on it, anyway, eternal rose-spectacle-wearing optimist that he is. Reading between the lines I gather that “fairly positive” ranged from excitement and enthusiasm about the idea from Boy C, who is definitely mercurial but generally pitches his emotional tent in the “delighted with life” campground, to kind of neutral-ish pleasedness from Boy B, to less-than-overwhelming-jollity from Boy A.
And fair enough, because why would Boy A be pleased?
One thing I have learned about being in a stepfamily, though, is that initial reactions don’t mean much and it’s always, always a process. I’m sure that more stuff will come up for each of them. Maybe it already has.
I’m not sure whether it’s a Y chromosome thing, but rarely do the Boys display much in the way of fears or concerns about something when they first get information about it. Usually it seems to take a while to simmer their worries or upset to the surface, so we’ll be on the lookout. No doubt the fur will fly at some point.
I have never considered myself any less the Boys’ stepmum because the Lovely Man and I aren’t married, so it doesn’t feel like the “start of a family” or anything with regard to them. In practical terms I don’t imagine anything much will change about the day-to-day life of our household(s).
In non-practical terms, though, beneath all the fussing and planning and the congratulations of our friends and family, beneath the champagne and flowers, we are both simply and utterly overjoyed to be marrying each other.
The Boys have been in Our City for the holidays for nearly a week, and it’s past time for a shake up of their rules and responsibilities.
Some things they’re doing well; dishes are mostly getting put into the dishwasher with few and sometimes no reminders, and shoes are staying in one big pile near the door rather than being scattered across the deck.
In the lounge, though, comics, cushions, toys and food wrappers have collected to form a chaotic compost of boystuff that drives me to the edge of my tolerance.
The bathroom is likewise a scene of horror, with chunks of toothpaste adhered like lazy snails to the basin and toiletries, and toothbrushes, towels and discarded clothes strewn about randomly.
The “stupid” houserules have mysteriously disappeared from their place on the fridge.
The Lovely Man doesn’t seem bothered by all this, or even to notice it most of the time. In fact, he admitted when I asked that he had taken down the houserules after the Boys’ last visit. Whattha?!?!
We discussed the Boys’ contributions to the household last night. It wasn’t heated, but we weren’t wholly on the same page, either.
Unsurprisingly, he is less than keen to take on the resistance and conflict of making the Boys do more regular or more sustained chores. After all, given that he’s not bothered by the mess, why would he go to enormous efforts to change it?
The houserules are a puzzle. We went to a lot of trouble to draft them – a group discussion with the counsellor, a house meeting, input from the kids.
All I can think is that really, the Lovely Man is not that comfortable with structured rules, perhaps equating them with harshly authoritarian parenting styles.
(Whereas I see them as an essential framework for creating healthy boundaries and familiar expectations within which everyone in the house can – hopefully – flourish.)
Also, I think the Lovely Man tends to overestimate the Boys’ current contributions and underestimate their capacity for more meaningful contributions.
I said to him last night:
Do you really think that at 8, nearly 10 and nearly 12, the little they do now is all they are capable of doing?
He must have seen my point, because this morning he announced that the Boys will have three new chores to share between them each morning – picking up food from the floor beneath the dining table, tidying the bathroom and tidying the comics.
There was moaning and grizzling and general resistance, but not too much. As the Lovely Man pointed out, each task takes about three minutes – hardly an oppressive degree of exertion.
And the rules? I’ll be reprinting and reposting them tomorrow.
What could do with a shake up in your step household?
Does anyone else find it really, really difficult when your partner wants you to look through photos of his kids as babies that were taken when his first family was intact?
Mixed in are inevitably photos of the kids’ mum, posed with them and smiling, and I see them even though the Lovely Man doesn’t specifically show them to me.
Inevitable, too, are the accompanying stories beginning “This was when we had just had Boy A…” or “That was just after we had bought our house in X-ville.”
“Our” and “we” in these stories never means “him and me”, naturally.
The whole experience makes a sad little underline to my own childless outsider status.
Some days when the photos come out I can handle it, at least for a while. I don’t want the Lovely Man to feel that his Boys’ babyhoods are on lockdown and can’t be talked about or shown off.
Today, though, I’m not coping with it, and I think I need to find a way to tell him.
Does this kind of situation come up in your stepfamily, or am I being over-sensitive?
You know how maestro piano players are sometimes described as playing a piece of music “stormily”?
The Lovely Man is in the study at the moment, and I can tell he is writing his email response to the Boys’ Mum’s most recent sound-and-light-show communication because his typing is noticeably stormy in volume, tone and rhythm.
It’s a bit sad that the amount of conflict she orchestrates means that I have learned to distinguish between an email being typed to her and an email being typed to any other random person FROM ANOTHER ROOM!
What are the storm warnings that stepfamily drama is brewing in your home?
Monday was the first night of our regular week with the kids.
As usual, Boy A was fairly hostile towards me: he refused to respond to my hello, and every comment I made (not to him – I don’t waste time trying to make conversation with him directly) was met with a shrug or a smart remark.
For instance, I was talking to the other boys about making Crepes Suzette for dessert this week and describing how we would set fire to the crepes before serving them.
(Setting fire to foodstuffs has gigantic appeal to boys, in my experience.)
At this point, Boy A butted in to snidely suggest that he’d rather pour petrol than liqueur on the crepes. To which I replied that he was quite welcome to add petrol to his own serve.
Normally I wouldn’t have responded that way; that night had me teetering alarmingly close to the cliff edge of my self control.
“Yeah, that’s really funny.”
Oh, right, because it was all about me being funny at his expense.
Anyway, by 5pm I’d had it and retreated to the bedroom with my laptop for much of the rest of the evening, feeling besieged and frustrated but glad to be avoiding further hurtful comments and pointed exclusion.
Later, once the kids were finally in bed, I asked the Lovely Man how he felt the evening had gone and whether there was anything extra I could have done to support him with the kids.
I was expecting to talk about specific tasks, like me doing dinner so he could cover homework duty – that kind of mundane stuff.
Instead, I heard:
“I think it was good that you kind of made yourself scarce and kept a low profile in the bedroom, because Boy A finds it difficult when he thinks you’re too much in the foreground.”
Finally, I found my voice.
“I’m all in favour of keeping things low-key, especially in the first 24 hours we have the Boys, but I am NOT going to hide out in the bedroom or generally fade into the wallpaper because Boy A prefers it that way. His behaviour is the problem here, NOT MINE.”
Turns out that the Lovely Man hadn’t even noticed Boy A’s nastiness, and just thought I was relaxing in the bedroom because I wanted to.
I found it disturbing and a bit hurtful, though, that it’s considered preferable that I minimise my presence and role in the house to keep the peace and keep Boy A “happy”.
Ultimately, I think those kinds of accommodations devalue and disrespect me and enable Boy A to continue deferring his adjustment to our family situation.
I understand that the Lovely Man feels stuck in a lose/lose situation, juggling to keep everyone happy, but this incident has made me wonder – if my best contribution is made by downplaying my existence in what is meant to be my part-time home, why am I here at all?
As a stepmother, are you ever asked or expected to downplay yourself or fade into beige to keep others in your stepfamily “comfortable”?
And it’s not even late December back in ’63…
Normally the Boys read at every meal, and while it’s certainly a bit antisocial, breakfasts and dinners are peaceful enough, if punctuated only by grunts in reply to adult questions.
It’s worried me for a while that these silent reading meals are pretty much on par with the kids being lined up along the sofa staring glazedly over their TV trays in terms of the supposed vaccinatory effect of mealtime interaction against family dysfunction. Accordingly, I’ve gently tried to suggest to the Lovely Man that some of each week’s evening meals could be “conversation dinners”.
Anyway, we served up spag bol to the Boys for dinner tonight, and for reasons of sheer messiness, I asked the Lovely Man whether tonight was going to be a comic-reading extravaganza or not. He said not.
Immediately it became evident that he wasn’t going to be allowed to slurp spaghetti while staring fixedly at his current Simpsons comic, Boy A went on the warpath.
He put on the Ritz in terms of dramatically bad table manners, derailed every attempt at normal conversation and deliberately worked Boys B and C up into higher and ever higher fever pitches of hysteric silliness, culminating in attempting to bodily carry a protesting Boy C from the kitchen to the dining table, despite that Boy C was trying to balance a full bottle of juice and a glass.
One of Boy A’s special talents is to conjure up the most annoying combination of high-pitched whines, clicks, drum rolls, fart noises and stupid voices imaginable; I sat stoically ignoring him for the most part, although at one point I turned to him and calmly said:
Boy A, it seems to me that you are stirring everyone up on purpose because you didn’t get your way about reading comics at the table.
(Naturally, he disagreed heartily, but then he disagrees if I say that the carpet needs vacuuming, or leaves grow on trees, so that was hardly unexpected.)
Boy A was relishing using his Super Older Sibling powers for evil instead of good, the younger boys quickly lost all control of themselves in an impressively swift race to the bottom for poor dinnertime behaviour, and after several well-spaced warnings the Lovely Man ended up taxing everyone’s pocket-money and banning books at the table for at least two nights, during which period the Boys need to display good table behaviour or the ban will be extended.
Of course, fury and upset resulted; the Lovely Man is grumpy, Boys B and C have gone to bed angry and crying, I’ve bunkered down in the bedroom feeling that somehow it’s all become my fault and dreading the repeat broadcasts tomorrow and the next night, and everyone is utterly miserable.
Except Boy A, who is singing away, apparently as happy as a clam.
(I know he’s actually not, but Lordy, he does a fine impression….)
Over and over and over again, lately, I’ve been hearing women online and in person say that their husbands and partners get angry at them for not loving their stepkids enough. That they don’t know how to pretend they love their stepchildren when they don’t. Or that they just feel guilty for not loving or sometimes even liking their stepkids.
I’m very lucky that the Lovely Man doesn’t buy into this garbage, but it seems that many, many men do. I’d say it’s the single biggest criticism I hear of men directing at their stepmother wives and partners – that they “aren’t loving enough” or “you don’t love my kids like you love your own”.
My question is, do these men expect their kids to love the stepmum like the kids love their mother?
(This is a purely rhetorical exercise, by the way – the answer is guaranteed to be “Of course not!”)
Stepfamily writers and therapists agree that it is completely unreasonable for bio-parents to expect this love from their partners, and it just makes it harder for the stepparent to integrate into the family. There’s actually a psychological term for this problem: “The Myth of Instant Love”. Despite this, studies show that over half of men expected their wives to be “more maternal” with their stepkids than they turned out to be.
Not only is this expectation unreasonable – it’s misguided. Oftentimes kids in loyalty binds don’t want you to love them anyway! And the more loving, warm and appealing they find you, the more they will feel driven to reject you.
I experienced quite a breakthrough recently with Boy A on this issue.
It came about when we were all in the car together on the way out to dinner or something and Boy C announced, completely out of the blue (as he does):
You don’t love us like our mummy loves us!
I’ve always had an honesty bug when it comes to those moments of challenge, so without even thinking much, I replied:
No, I don’t love you like your parents love you, because parents love their kids in a different way from other people. I really care for you guys and want you to be happy, but I don’t love you the same way your mum and dad do. That’s their job.
There were no complaints or arguments from the backseat, just satisfied expressions. It made sense to them, and I suspect they actually liked hearing it – I think it reassured them that I wasn’t trying to take their mum’s place, if that makes sense. Boy A’s behaviour towards me improved dramatically from that point of the visit, and has continued to improve since. My stepmother instinct tells me that something about that conversation fell into place for him.
To his credit, the Lovely Man handled it well, too. I told him about the research that says that very loving, “mother-style” stepmothers are hard for kids to handle when there are loyalty demands placed on them. And the outcome kind of spoke for itself.
The thing is, I do have some quite loving feelings towards the Boys at times. But I am not going to pretend that those feelings are the same as a biological parent might feel. It’s just so obviously not true.
Nobody can wave a magic wand and make a stepfamily into a first family, however much some men wish it would happen. I think some of them expect their partners to love their kids mostly so they can feel like they’ve replaced the first family that “broke” and thereby “make up” to the kids for the divorce. Like so much else, it’s a guilt thing.
You may never love your stepkids (or you might love them differently from each other) and they may never love you. As long as you are fair and kind, that’s all anyone should expect. Hopefully you’ll eventually develop a relationship that feels ok for you and for them. And as Wednesday Martin says in “Stepmonster”, that’s probably a “good enough” relationship.
If you are copping pressure on the love question, a solution might be to do a stepfamily course together with your partner. The Lovely Man and I did one early on with Relationships Australia, and the group leaders really drilled it into us that demanding a stepparent love stepkids “like their own” is unrealistic, unhelpful and unnecessary.
And that was only one of the benefits – it certainly didn’t hurt for us to be told, over and over, that for the success of our stepfamily we needed to put our relationship first and have lots of one-on-one couple time…
Are you expected to love your stepkids, “like you own” or at all? Do you?
The Speak Up Week challenge continues.
Our last few days with the Boys were spent taking them interstate to visit the Lovely Man’s extended family. I find travelling with the kids a real “hot button” time when the biological force field is more in evidence than usual, and my outsider status tends to throb like a particularly bad bruise.
During our time away, I…
- expressed to the Lovely Man that I preferred Boy C not share the bedroom he and I had when we all stayed with relatives, given there was space for him to sleep comfortably elsewhere;
- explained how disposable I feel in the family when we’re all out somewhere and the Lovely Man and boys just cruise off without me while I’m in the bathroom, leaving me looking around for them in a panic; and
- spent a happy morning alone trawling the markets for vintage clothes while the Boys and the Lovely Man browsed Lego stalls, instead of tagging along because I “should” and feeling irritated the whole time.
The sense of freedom this honesty brings is wonderful. Yes, there’s a degree of fronting up for potential conflict in the process of speaking out, and that’s scary, but it’s so much less burdening than the internal conflicts that result from pasting on a smile and stewing inside.
What kinds of things do you try to speak up about?
Thanks for all your input – it’s really helpful to know that I’m not developing into some controlling psycho-Nazi with a penchant for making the Boys stand at attention while singing a family anthem of my own composition each morning.
Here is the version I whittled down from the original novel-length document. I’d appreciate any input before attempting to plaster this lot to the fridge:
We speak courteously and respectfully.
No running each other down – opinions, actions, creative acts, cooking, etc.
We call people only what they want to be called.
No swearing or violent language.
When somebody’s talking to us, we listen and don’t interrupt.
We say please and thank you, and appreciate what people do for us.
We don’t whinge – we express our feelings but not over and over.
If we feel sad or angry, we say so, which helps us and others.
If someone has annoyed or upset us, we talk about it with that person.
Adults and kids from this house do not hit, bully or hurt others.
Limit violent play and stop when asked. Play gun games only with people who are playing gun games with you.
We respect others’ things by asking permission.
We respect others’ privacy by knocking on closed doors before entering.
If you don’t agree with an adult, you can ask for an explanation, but once you’ve heard it you have to do what you’re asked without arguing.
What happens when we break the rules:
- mild warning
- firm warning
- “I’m getting angry”
- punishment – withholding of a privilege, or withdrawal from the group
Boy A – in bed by 9.30pm.
Boys B and C – in bed by 8.30.
- School bags and lunchboxes are put away as soon as we come home.
- We tidy away our rubbish – wrappers, apple cores etc – soon after making it.
- We put our plates, cups and cutlery in the dishwasher after meals.
- We keep the bathroom tidy – hanging towels, keeping toothbrushes tidy.
- We keep our bedrooms tidy – straighten beds, pick up clothes and toys.
- We flush the toilet and we turn the fan off.
- Our shoes live on the rack in the hall.
- We put toys, comics, books and stationery away before moving on to a new task.
- When the recycling bin is full we empty it into the big yellow-topped bin in the driveway.
We may need reminders to do the things on this list. If we remember without being asked, we will get Treat Points. And a lot of appreciation.
I’m not sure about the Treat Points idea in the last paragraph? The Lovely Man originally wrote:
Often we will need to be reminded to do the things in the job list, and that’s OK. If we can remember to do them without being asked, that’s best of all. If we are asked, we just do the chore. If we do this stuff as we go, chore cards [an occasional chore blitz we do where the Boys choose from a pile of face-down cards with short jobs written on them] are really easy.
Personally, I felt that this paragraph just gave the Boys a free ride not to even try to do the jobs on the list without being reminded. I’m not sure if the Treat Points idea will work, but still….
What is your take on this brand-new, first-time beginners house rules list?
Too long? Too short? Too woolly? Too complex? Or just right? What would you do differently?