Category Archives: The Ex
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?
On Thursday night I made four dozen cupcakes.
Boy C wanted to take treats to school to share with his whole class; while I didn’t have the energy to churn out enough cupcakes from our somewhat makeshift kitchen in the Boys’ City to feed all the kids in Boy A’s and Boy B’s classes as well, I sent them each off with enough cakey goodness for themselves and their teacher and four friends, and promised to bake for their classes next visit. They were fine with that.
Some of my most enduring memories of childhood are of my mother’s wonderful baking; there was very little money to spare in our house but always an abundance of biscuits, lamingtons and patty cakes. She even baked cakes to sell to local cafes using the tiny gas stove in the bus we lived in while my dad was building our house.
While I bake well myself, my focus has long been on producing fancypants grownup desserts rather than bulk kid-friendly treats. I made Nigella Lawson’s vanilla cupcakes (modded by pushing a square of milk chocolate into each one) for the Boys, and while they certainly elicited no complaints, they just didn’t have the moist, dense-but-light deliciousness of my own mum’s recipe.
I would love to think that my cooking could become part of the tapestry of the Boys’ childhood memories, similar to my remembrances of my grandmother’s Neenish tarts and my mother’s amazing cakes. Not in a “motherly” way, obviously, but Boy C greatly enjoys cooking with me and often thanks me for cooking “such yummy things” for them. I really hope we can hold on to cooking as a shared pleasure as he gets older.
Interestingly, I often notice that when I’ve had successes with dishes for the Boys, next visit it will transpire that their Mum has *coincidentally* cooked pancakes or chocolate self-saucing pudding or whatever it is a few times since then herself, and – of course – that hers is HEAPS better than mine, her recipe is the only “right” recipe and my (previously appreciated) way of cooking the dish is now suddenly “wrong”. And suddenly it can feel like I’ve got three little food police watching, critiquing and sometimes rejecting my meals….
I’m never competetive about the cooking thing, but I do work hard to find a niche where I can contribute to the Boys’ lives in ways they can accept, so it stings a bit when their Mum seems to be trying to undermine me on this level. Still, if that is what’s happening (and it may not be!), it can only be because she feels threatened in her role. Strange, because there’s no question in the Boys’ minds or in my mind as to whether I’m a rival mummy figure – it just isn’t that way at all, even with Boy C who has a close and affectionate relationship with me.
For instance, if we’re out and anyone mistakes us for a mum with her kids, the Boys are so quick to discount the idea that it can leave the hapless commenter looking a bit stunned. Recently we were all boarding a plane and the flight attendant on welcome duty made a comment about how much “my boys” look like me. My instant response was “No, they’re not mine, they’re my partner’s boys.” She was a little taken aback, so I added “Sorry, but if I hadn’t told you straightaway then they would have, and that could get noisy!”
So, since there’s no question that the Boys would ever see me as a mother, think of me as a mother or get mixed up about who is their mother, and I’m not in any danger of doing that either, plus I’ve tried to communicate these things to the Boys’ Mum by mentioning how proud they are of her and how loyally they speak about her to us, I wish I could just be left in peace to cook pancakes or meatballs or chocolate pudding for them without being undermined!
How do food and cooking work in your stepfamily?
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?
And if you believe that you’d swallow anything.
So, I met the Boys’ Mum yesterday.
It was fine, in a way. Uncomfortable? You bet. I had to grip my cup tightly to stop my hands from shaking. She was obviously nervous too.
On many levels she made an effort, and acknowledged that I do a lot for the Boys, which was… acknowledging, I guess.
But I still left feeling slightly manipulated.
Because it became clear to me that the whole ordeal wasn’t much about meeting me at all.
It felt more about showing the Lovely Man how thoroughly, completely and utterly she had moved on, and maybe getting herself some “doing the co-parenting thing right” high ground.
She quickly took control of the conversation. What were my interests? How did I find living part-time in the Boys’ city? What was my work? How was I finding life with three kids? Where had I grown up?
Whoa, hold up with the cross-examination there!
Each answer from me was greeted by a kind of taken-aback blinking, as though I had chosen to respond in High Aramaic.
There was some nice stuff. We spoke about each of the Boys, I got my No-Threat Message across by describing how loyal Boy A is to her and talking about all the great things the Boys say about her, and in turn she said that Boy C had told her how much he enjoyed making his dreamcatcher with me.
I think she tried to be friendly, sort of. And I give us both kudos for making the effort.
But she was brittle as old china, recoiled from physical contact with me as though I was covered in scales and managed to end the meeting on an entirely nasty note, by describing how she had wanted to hit us with garden gnomes on an earlier occasion when we ran into her unexpectedly in her driveway while dropping off the children’s belongings.
Overall, the message I took was that it was a big deal for her to step down from her pedestal into the muck to meet me, and that we weren’t to think that just because she had decided to be gracious her opinion of us had changed.
Moved on? I don’t think so. There was too much anger showing through the cracks.
I don’t know what, if anything, I expected. I’m certainly not looking to her for a new friendship. I have actual friends for that. I don’t want to meet for coffee or invite her around for a drink, whatever the Lovely Man thinks. God forbid!
All I wanted was to clear the way for civil exchanges of the kids if required, or for occasional communications about practical matters. I wanted for the Lovely Man not to feel he needs to hide me at handover time.
(On that point, the Lovely Man felt so obviously constrained from showing me any affection whatsoever during the meeting. I can understand why, but even a reassuring pat on the knee would have helped. Maybe I’d developed temporary leprosy?)
Anyway, whatever my and her thoughts and feelings about it, it’s done, and we don’t have to do it again. So now hopefully something approaching normal life can commence.
A new and exciting search string showed up in my blog stats today:
ex-wife refuses “meet my new partner”
I’m guessing they found me via my series on The Mother Question.
Ironic, really, that this should show up today of all days.
Because today is the day that I’m finally meeting the Lovely Man’s ex-wife.
Wish me luck.
(Oh, yeah – and the reason this post has a pre-dawn publication timestamp? Is because I can’t sleep. Nervous, much?)
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.