Category Archives: Me
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.
I’m far, far away for a couple of weeks catching up with my lovely friend S, who is getting married.
It feels very indulgent to head halfway across the world like this; in fact, I owe the chance to wish S well at her wedding to her fiancé, P, who cemented his status as all-round great guy forever by flying me over for the wedding on his points as a wedding present to S.
So that’s three very lucky people right there!
Anyway, until I get back posts are likely to be curtailed or non-existent – I’ll be busy helping S get ready for her big day and also probably won’t have a lot of connectivity.
It was so GOOD to arrive back in our city after the last five days with the Boys. As one commenter suggested, it was definitely a relief to see tail lights at the end of this particular trip!
Interestingly, Boy A’s behaviour towards me got markedly better three-odd days into our time together, as sometimes happens.
Problem is, often the first three days pass and the hostile behaviour doesn’t abate at all, so this improvement isn’t something we can ever count on.
I really notice that pattern of ongoing hostility and anger from Boy A when the Boys’ Mum has had a flare-up about something in the time between our visits. I suspect there’s way too much emotional and information leakage from her to the Boys… it’s obviously very hard on them.
Nonetheless, the whole emotional switcheroo of angry kid/ok kid/enraged kid/happy kid totally does my head in. Talk about walking on eggshells!
So anyway, it’s a fine thing to be on my home ground, spending time with my friends and living the life of a single girl with no responsibilities for the next couple of days until the Lovely Man gets home. (He has stayed on in the Boys’ city for a Monday school-based handover.)
Happy weekend, everyone!
I did the school run for the Boys by myself today and will be again tomorrow, since the Lovely Man has two early starts at work.
By “school run” I don’t just mean the drive in to school but the entire early-morning-drill-sergeant-get-boys-up-and-ready routine.
It only lasts about ninety minutes, but it’s quite an intense process, especially since stepmother authority to compel obedience/listening/quick responses is often fairly limited.
I sometimes dread the prospect of school run days, but today went fairly smoothly, on the whole. (Three boys of various sizes invariably = a range of at least minor hiccups, but that’s parenting, I guess.)
There was one lovely moment, though – I had made umpteen slices of toast with strawberry jam, which had been delivered to the table and duly devoured, and was standing at the sink trying to get the post-breakfast fallout cleared away.
Suddenly, a little pair of arms wrapped around my waist from behind and hugged me, and Boy C said:
Thankyou, B. You’re *really* nice to us!
He’s such a sweetie, and my smile persisted even after I looked down at where his hands had been and saw his little jam-sticky paw prints on the front of my cream dress.
That’s the other side of parenting, I guess, and I like it, jam and all.
Ride in a hot air balloon | Finish my circumnavigation | Plant jasmine in my garden | Learn to surf (doing it, 2010-2011!) | Walk in Tasmania | Collect a wall of framed family photographs | Make pâté | Go to Bruny Island | Find a craft, fashion or decorating use for vintage silk scarves | Go to Afghanistan | Run 5km without stopping | Go to Varanasi | Display all my artwork | Work as a mediator | Ride a horse along the beach | Volunteer with a community organisation | Save $10,000 for a rainy day (did it, August 2010 and put it on the mortgage – felt great!)| Grow my hair down to the middle of my back | Go to Kolkata | Create artwork and display it in my house | Get married | Go heli-skiing | Do a five-day retreat | Make a rag rug | Have a magazine article published | Have high tea at a classic English hotel | See the painted havelis of Shekhawati | Do a course in digital SLR photography | Visit the Sedlec Ossuary | Get up to date with my tax | Go vintage shopping at the Portobello Road markets in London | Have a copy made of my great-grandmother’s wedding portrait | Have a copy made of the photograph of my great-great Aunt | Make macaroons in five flavours | Teach my nephew to ski | Design a house and have it built | Learn to snowboard to an intermediate standard | Spend a week’s holiday with my brother | Do another offshore sailing passage with my Dad | Plant a gardenia bush in my garden (Spring 2010 – I discovered that the hedge across the front fence of my garden is actually gardenias. They rock!) | Serve Christmas lunch to homeless people | Go on a classic train journey | Light an open fire in our study on a cold winter’s afternoon | Hear a nightingale sing | Attend a historically themed event in authentic period costume | Visit Zanzibar | Design and sew a dress from scratch | Have a white Christmas | Skydive (did it, June 2010)| Spend a week in a houseboat | Complete a 10km running race | Visit Iran | Find and explore five cool areas in my city that I didn’t know about before | Make five different jams and preserves with seasonal produce | Embroider a baby pillow | Plant and maintain a garden | Invent five new ice cream flavours (1. Lemon pepper sherbert) | Go sailing on the Clarence River with people I love | Have children of my own | Learn Hindi to conversational standard | Listen to every known Billie Holiday recording | Take piano lessons | Read the Bible, Koran and Torah cover to cover | Make chocolate truffles in five different flavours (1. Lime & pistachio) | Attend a midnight mass on Christmas Eve | Swim 500 metres confidently | Plant a lemon tree in my garden | Ski in Kashmir | Climb Mount Fuji | Sail down the Nile in Egypt | Write and complete a novel for publication | Write thankyou letters to five important people in my life | Sew a crazy quilt | Learn to DJ | Take my sister away for an indulgent weekend | Ski moguls confidently | Read every published Agatha Christie novel | Visit 100 different countries (Last count – 78) | Attend an antique furniture auction and bid on a special piece | Complete my family genealogy | See big cats in the wild | Grow roses | Visit the Maldives | Take cooking lessons in India | Feel that I have improved other people’s lives through my work | Build a swing in my garden | Own a classic mid 20th century chair | Have a weekend house party in the country with my friends | Be the best stepmother I can be | Organise our book collection | Make Nigella Lawson’s Danish pastry recipe (did it, September 2010) | Visit the Scottish highlands (did it, October 2010) | Complete the Apartment Therapy Home Cure | Learn Italian to a conversational standard | Have a happy marriage | Visit the family graveyard in Ireland | Buy my mother a beautiful handbag | Read one book per week for a year from 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die | Spend a month in a villa in the Italian or French countryside | Do five great craft projects with the Boys (1. Dream catchers 2. Gingerbread Christmas decorations)| Hold a home-based film festival | Take the Lovely Man to India | Send money anonymously to a hard-up friend | Learn to sing | Write a cookbook | Shop a Paris flea market | Climb Mount Warning, NSW | Drive the Great Ocean Road | Blog for 100 days in a row | Walk through the catacombs in Rome | Own a KitchenAid mixer | Choose a new colour for my kitchen and have it repainted | Take the Boys to outdoor Christmas carols | Go to Cuba | Live in the country or next to the sea | Organise my recipe collection | Go on a road trip in the United States | Listen to new music every day for a month | Make a reading nook in my house
This list grew and grew. Even compiling it was inspiring.
I’d love to hear what’s on yours.
For people who haven’t encountered the term, life listing is, predictably enough, the process of writing down the goals you wish to experience or achieve over the course of your life.
A different perspective on it might be to ask yourself:
At the end of my life, as I lie on my deathbed, what would I be disappointed not to have done?
What has this got to do with stepmothering, though?
I don’t know about you ladies, but one of the challenges I face in my stepmother role is not letting it descend like a gigantic sticky cloud, obliterating life as I know it and obscuring the person I am outside of supporting the Lovely Man through property settlement negotiations, planning handover schedules and doing the school run.
As women, we have a tendency to dive right in up to our corneas, trying-trying-trying, supporting-supporting-supporting, and while it might give us a sense of purpose, we can easily loosen our grips on the woman beneath who is not solely a stepmother/partner to a man with kids.
And when the kids and/or ex-wives hurt or reject us, if we’ve lost that grip, then who are we left to be?
Thinking about my life list reminded me that so many of the experiences I want to add to my life have nothing whatever to do with being stepmum of the year, in any sense. Some do, and this step-parenting gig has certainly added a lot of richness to my life. But the vast majority of items I’ve listed are about the separate me, the me I was before I met the Lovely Man and still am, underneath.
Looking through other people’s life lists, too, reminded me of all the amazing things I have done already, of how lucky I am to have been able to drink hot chocolate on the top of the Alps, snorkel with sea lions off the Galápagos Islands, watch tiny emerald kingfishers hover over Lake Srinagar in Kashmir, stand inside the Taj Mahal, and steer a yacht across oceans, watching the Southern Cross draw nearer night by night. Even with nothing added to my life lift, I am already so, so blessed.
That I’ve been able to do some of these things with the Lovely Man, my dear love and adventure partner, is itself a wonderful blessing. That some of them I did with my close friend and ex-partner, and that we can still exchange do-you-remembers together about the experiences we shared is also a rare privilege.
All those are very helpful things to remember when sometimes it feels like every conscious thought is in danger of being hijacked by stepfamily life. Think of it as the perfect antidote to stepmother rumination.
I haven’t yet finished my life list, but I’ll post it tomorrow shortly.
What would be on your life list?
Reading this post from stepmama metamorphoses (who has been so inspiring as she works through the process of stepping back from her husband’s ex’s dramas) as well as Sherri’s weekly affirmations at Too Many Toasters, I got thinking about the unspoken mantras that help me cope with the Boys and their Mum when things aren’t going so well.
The first is something I remind myself before every visit to or from the children.
How this goes is up to me.
Obviously, I can’t control what happens during our time with the kids. But I find that my sense of satisfaction is almost entirely linked to how well I feel I respond when challenges come up (and there are always challenges!).
So, for me, it works to remind myself that success, in these terms, is actually something I can control.
Boy A can be as sullen or even as actively rejecting as he likes, the other Boys can be behaving like orangutans on stimulants, the Lovely Man can be grumpy or tired or shut in the office, but if I manage my responses/reactions in a way I’m happy with I can still feel like I’ve done well.
What this involves has varied over time; it used to be that my benchmark was “keep your mouth shut and keep smiling” but increasingly, and with the help of our counsellor, I’m recognising that it’s more important to be authentic and voice my concerns and boundaries than to be a perfect Stepford Stepmum.
The second and third mantras are questions I ask myself.
What is this person really saying here?
This helps me to listen for the true interests and concerns buried in another persons’ words or actions, and hopefully to address those directly rather than get distracted by the emotions or information that we all sometimes use to “top-dress” our communications, for whatever reason.
What is my truth here and how can I speak it?
This has been a big barrier for me. As much as I say I believe I matter in this family, I have tended to not speak up about things that bother me or assert my boundaries, mostly through not wanting to burden the Lovely Man or create extra drama, or through fear of nagging and criticising.
What I’ve found, though, is that one way or another the stress comes out.
And it’s better for me to clearly say how things are for me as they arise and ask for what I need than to have a sobbing conniption at 10pm ostensibly because the Lovely Man is late home from work.
So, when Boy A next tells me or says in front of me, for what feels like the eleventy-billionth time, that his Mum is very intelligent, instead of just repeating “Yes, I know” like an automaton I can hopefully say something like:
Yes, I know she is, Boy A. You’ve said that before. It’s great that you’re proud of your mum, but I’m not sure why you think it’s important to be telling me this?
(As suggested by our counsellor, who says it’s time to for me to start insisting on respectful boundaries in these situations, as opposed to my previous style of just putting up with any old shit in the name of being positive about the Boys’ Mum.)
And while it’s not exactly a mantra, I’ve found in general that waiting to respond to something that is upsetting until I’ve taken time to think about it from the perspective of the other people involved makes me a lot less likely to react in anger or out of pain.
As well, I’ve learned to be watchful about getting dragged down into a spiral of negativity. When I find myself making negative comments or statements about the Lovely Man’s ex or the situation generally to people, then feeling bad or disloyal about what I’ve said, it’s a cue that I need to address my underlying unhappiness, and usually, that there’s something I’m not speaking up about.
What mantras and reminders do you use to get through?
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?
…but for pity’s sake don’t even think of calling them “family rules”! I can almost hear the reaction now, echoed back from eleventy million step households: “You’re not my family and you don’t make rules for me!”
[Sarcasm switches off]
Anyway, the Boys arrive tomorrow and I’ve been attempting to negotiate our first formalised set of house rules with the Lovely Man.
Rules and boundaries generally seem to be touchy topics and getting to this point has taken ages; the first time I raised the idea of house rules was nearly eighteen months ago! Even talking about it has been delicate, particularly the bit about introducing set bedtimes.
I gather that lots of separated parents, and especially dads, really struggle with firming up on boundaries for their kids. One blog I particularly remember described a dad saying to his wife, the stepmother of his two children, that he was “OK with having rules but not comfortable with there being consequences”.
And doesn’t THAT sounds like a hiding to nothing and nowhere for the unfortunate stepmother trying to get some kind of grip on the behaviour of the kids in her house?
The more superficial stepparenting books suggest that it’s a bad idea to “assume” an authority figure role with your stepkids, but I’m convinced those authors must have full-time nannies at their disposal. If not, there will be situations when the stepparent is forced to be the adult in charge and needs to direct the kids in some way. I try to minimise it, but basically, if the Lovely Man wants to work while we have the Boys, it’s inevitable that I have to step up from Wingman to Maverick status sometimes.
I described being an adult in charge in our hitherto (mostly) “rule-free” house to the Lovely Man as “a bit like trying to herd lobsters underwater”. That’s right, I think it’s harder than herding cats.
Not being one of the Boys’ parents, I don’t have natural authority with them, other than a little with Boy C perhaps. And yet there are many times when I need them to do what I ask, like when I’m doing the school run, when they’re hurting each other, or when I can’t in good conscience do one more speck of cleaning up without them contributing.
And those times are when I hit a brick wall, because without either (a) the natural authority that blood parents take so much for granted OR (b) clear house rules fully backed by the Lovely Man, I often may as well sing to whales as expect the Boys to obey me.
So, rules are good. Ultimately, of course, they’re at least as necessary to our stepkids as they are to us. Our stepfamily psychologist reminds me that rules help stepkids feel that they actually live a normal life with their other parent, rather than just being occasional visitors. And that despite the whingeing, that sense of normality, of having a place and a role, is something children of divorce crave.
Whether it’s about Dads wanting to avoid being the bad guy, feeling afraid of losing the “popularity contest” to a more permissive mother or just wanting their limited time with the kids to be all fun-fun-fun, it seems that setting and enforcing even simple rules is a fraught process in many stepfamilies.
So far the Lovely Man’s and my rules list is running to about four pages and is full of fluffy abstract concepts. Not exactly a collection of snappy ideas that I’d choose to post on the fridge, then.
It needs whittling big time. Like with a chainsaw.
So I’m wondering:
Do you have specific house rules in your stepfamily?
If so, what are they?
And how did they get put in place?