Last week I promised I’d have updates for January by the end of the week. It’s now Monday, everywhere on the planet.
Here’s the first part of a (hopefully) 4 part series to catch you all up on the end of December and January. The other three will cover home & local area and work & future direction, and things that happened that were not Christmas.
Obviously I need to resolve to either follow through on promises, or not make promises in the first place. Gentle self-awareness suggests that the second option is probably more realistic.
We spent the week before Christmas at Jed’s parents place in Devon with all the family, including his sister. Overall it was quite a pleasant week . As I’d spent Easter and another weekend in Devon I felt much more comfortable with the routine of the family, and I suspect they felt more comfortable with me.
It was a week off from the madness of life. A week to not think about house, work, future direction, immigration, fitting in, and to not freak out about the snow (which had fallen two days before we left).
There was good food, fun times shared, traditional danish christmas crafts made, games played, a 1000 piece puzzle completed, sleep-ins (until the tea brigade decided it was time to get up), a dog to throw sticks for, a walk on the beach on Christmas Eve (surprisingly not too cold), and generally enough time out to just be.
I had some rather interesting conversations with Jed’s parents about their history, and their experiences with Jed. One rather interesting chat with Asta (his mum) about her philosophy on life, and with Jed’s sister on the relationship with L and Jed’s reactions in the past year as he divested much of the guilt and anger from the divorce.
Christmas morning was lovely and gentle, I felt very welcome and a natural part of the festivities, rather than Jed’s odd girlfriend from Australia that had entered their lives only 9 months previously. Christmas lunch was yummy, with ample gravy (which I helped cook) too much turkey (of course), and Devon clotted cream to go with the pudding. The only traditional item lacking was ham, but that’s OK, we survived somehow.
It was my first Christmas as a step-parent, and I’d helped to buy things for L’s stocking, and so had a lot of fun watching her face as she showed us what she’d received in her stocking from Santa (frog shaped tiddlywinks for the win!)
However, it was also a somewhat confronting and stressful week .
I don’t deal very well with not being in my own domain, unless I am constantly shifting locales while travelling. I am especially bad at being in someone else’s domain. I generally don’t know how to behave, and in the absence of any direction will become quite passive. I’ll happily entertain myself, but I am very nervous about interfering, being a bother or getting in the way and so don’t do anything else unless asked or directed. At which point I will quite cheerfully help out. I can cope with passivity for about 4 days and then I go stir-crazy from lack of control over my life, from the loss of my routines and needing to conform to someone else’s routines and expectations.
Understandably, on the morning of day 4 I petulantly did not answer the plaintive “Tea?” yelled up the stairs which is code for: “time to wake up and get out of bed, the chickens have been up for hours!” and was rather harumphy when the door was opened and I was asked specifically about my tea and what I wanted for breakfast. By day 6 I was over sensitive, quite weepy and more needy than usual with Jed. It’s a demonstration of what we’ve both been through that we were able to work out that it was situational and that we’d be fine when we went home, the next day. Previously we’d have reacted very differently, with more fallout.
It was a challenging week in terms of my conceptions of parenting and L in general. The first night was a particular challenge, as I watched her revert to learned patterns of behaviour. Watched the happy, generous, cheerful girl I knew revert back to a nervous, pouty, acting out, attention-seeking child. That was very confronting. Very.
Over the past few months I’ve seen L change from a somewhat sulky child at dinner who used her eating habits as a tool for attention into someone who is generally happy to eat her food, providing you give her time and don’t make a song and dance about it (oh and it generally conforms to things she’s OK eating, which is fine, since I don’t like capsicum/peppers and won’t eat them). I’ve also watched her change from someone who expects adults to clean up after her and fetch things for her to someone who understands there are limits to this, and is a bit more thoughtful with things, such as clearing plates after dinner. Now we just need to work on getting her to say what she wants rather than skirting around the issue and it’ll be fantastic.
At the same time Jed has shifted from a father with unpredictable mood swings, who was distant at times and who frequently needed long afternoon naps to cope with it all. To someone who is more constant in his moods and expectations and who exhibits patience and happiness with L more often than not. He is a good Dad.
While these changes have happened for a variety of reasons, I had deliberately acted to create the space for some of these changes, so we could all have more steady, pleasant weekends together. Hence, watching L revert was personally confronting. Although, at the same time it confirmed my view that she is incredibly sensitive to the expectations and attitudes of those around her.
Jed’s parents had not seen these changes, and they were reacting to the child they remembered, as well as the image of their son which in some ways was based on the difficult teenager he was (and who remained through his twenties in some ways), so their techniques and attitudes compensated for this expected behaviour, but at the same time gave space for the behaviour to revert.
So we had a week of 4 adults responsible for one child; one who was happy to have a break from parenting where feasible, although still read bedtime stories, had fun and laid down rules where necessary; one who believed that L should be actively pressured to eat things and would fetch anything for her whenever she requested (even if they were ill and had been on their feet all day and had just sat down to watch a film), one who believed that L should eat better, but also understood her levels of sensitivity to being teased and pressured and who was very good at finding interesting crafty things for her to do; and me, who is really happy to spend time with L and do things together and be part of her chatter, but who also will not become a servant to someone still sitting around in her PJs at 3 in the afternoon, nor make a song and dance about how much she’s eaten.
I worried about this, my more stringent/strict attitude in this space, and there were occasions where I really felt like the Dragon Lady, especially compared to the general feeling of the family. However, after we got home, I was told that Jed’s mum had appreciated having someone in the house who was able to bring a different view of how to treat L and could vocalise this in a firm, non-confrontational way. Which I did on the night of the first melt-down.
Overall, I think I’m approved of on all sorts of levels. Which is a relief.
The other confronting aspect of the week was Christmas day itself and a non-phone call with my parents. That was just bad timing all round.
The previous evening I’d had a lovely conversation with my sister. Christmas eve in the UK, Christmas morning in Australia. Perfect. I was awake and chatty, she was not tired from the exhausting dislocating day that is Christmas (for everyone). The carefully planned idea of the best way for everyone to feel connected and happy worked.
However this didn’t happen with my parents. They mis-read the phone number I sent them and didn’t manage to get through until the next morning. This unfortunately co-incided with L showing us her christmas stocking, perched on the end of the bed, perhaps the first nice “us” time we’d had all week. I’d also not yet eaten or had any caffeine, never a particularly chatty time for me. And then, as it was the peak crossover period for Christmas between the UK and Australia, EVERYONE was talking to their relatives. It was the worst line I’ve ever experienced for long distance calls. I could only understand every 3rd line. So there were many requests for repetition and asking for clarification. Very, very frustrating.
I know my mum had been waiting all day for that call, that it was late in the evening for them, and they’d likely stayed up to chat, that we’d not spoken since August and that I’m such a bad correspondent in general that she gets most of her news through this website which is not the way she’d like things to be. My dad is a bad correspondent as well, so we’d not exchanged news since August, and I really enjoy chatting with my father about eclectic topics in a cynical manner, and casting aspersions upon social expectations.
Instead they were presented with a daughter on a bad phone line, who was un-chatty, and who had spent a week disconnecting from the stress of moving to the UK and so had no answers to “how are things going?”, beyond “OK”, and was not willing to delve inside herself to even glance at the knot that was the tangle of sad, stressed, depressed emotions from the previous few months. A knot she knew would be disappearing soon, and from which she’d had a blessed week’s break.
I finished the call feeling depressed and sad, thinking that for yet another Christmas I’d managed to disappoint my parents, to re-inforce their opinion of me as thoughtless, self-centred and shallow, and hating the expectations that people have about Christmas interactions. To be honest it still hurts, but then, this is an old complicated hurt, not likely to be fixed so quickly.