by JULIE PROUDFOOT
School holidays are almost over and the children of our blended family, who have been away with their other parents, are coming home.
I know from previous end-of-school holidays that on their return I will hit bottom: my heart will sink, a dreaded malaise will take hold and an internal fight will begin.
They’ll return, my two teenage girls and my husband’s two teenage girls, all four milling in the kitchen and bedrooms, dropping bags in doorways, giggling, mimicking, sharing holiday notes, settling back into the routine like cats pawing at their beds.
Over the last couple of years our blended family has been like shifting bookshelves: coming and going. We have six children between us, three each. Our oldest two – my daughter and his son – have now left home making lives of their own, studying, working, beginning their own families, and not least of all making me a grandmother: putting a mirror scarily to my parental face.
The sight and sounds of my own children being home again will bring me a gut-felt mix of joy, relief and pleasure. In comparison, the happiness of having my step-kids home, pales. And this is what I dread. Why don’t I feel the same gut felt joy for my steps?
The guilt sends me into confusion and that heart sinking malaise. It’s a fight that goes on within my mind and body. Where are the feelings I should be having for them?
My own children will seek me out and we’ll give mutually firm hugs with not a crack of daylight between us. My steppies? If we hug at all, we‘ll hug with moats around us, both protecting and denying. Why is it like this?
I’ve attempted to write about it. But in this situation – the blended family where fairness in all things has to prevail – once the sense that I might care for my own children more than my husband’s rears its head, I’m so horrified and disgusted in myself that I delete every evidential word from the screen.
And this is how it’s been, a pattern of desire to put pen to page to find sense in the confusion followed by the horror and hasty deletion of any evidence of a ‘bad person’.
But here I am again today with the urge to put pen to paper trying to make sense. Why persist? Because I know there has to be more to the feelings than simply the ‘evil step-mother’. And why do I know this? Because I love my step children, I care about them deeply and it’s important to me that they know this.
So when placed side by side, child against child, feeling the difference, feeling a much stronger pull to mine than his, I want to know why I lack those feelings? Why am I filled with a guilt and dread that is amplified to the point of misery?
The traditional story lines that come to mind about step-mothers contain the words ‘evil’ and ‘alien’. These are the words in society’s heads; these are the words in my head. And as soon as I have a less than positive thought about my steps I recoil in horror at the thought of becoming these words. This is the part where I realise the stories we tell are who and what we become: in our media, in our fiction. We are what we read and write; we are what we say we are.
So I’m telling a story about step-parenting. After years of beating myself up I think I have my answer.
When the step-children come home from spending time with their other parents I’m happy to see them. I want to know all about their holidays. Have they had fun? Are they happy? Did they eat well? I have missed them. All of them. I think and feel the same for my own children but underneath all that is another layer, a deeper layer, a kind of yearning: I thank god (even though I’m not religious) that they have come home safely.
This is it. The bit I finally understand. The reason my heart drops. I feel so bad that I don’t have that same instinctual gut wrenching yearning for my step children. I hate myself for it. This, I finally realise, is what causes my meander into unhappiness. The guilt of the disparaging difference between how I feel about my children and how I feel about my husband’s children.
Add to this the intricacies the children face having to move between two homes where they grapple with the same scenarios which must add complex detail to the situation and slow down any bonding I’m naively hoping for.
My step-children’s absence from our home to their other parent’s homes comes irregularly, mostly only school holidays, due to distance. One child has a transient parent whose home is in a different place at every school holiday visit and the other child visits a home that is anxious with illness.
These children come back fractured and confused adjusting from a free range, unmonitored environment of Facebook at 3am and fast food meals to our environment of rules and homework and regular meal times that they then have to funnel themselves into.
My own children visit their father fortnightly and occasional extra days on holidays and enter a world of travel, clothing, prawns and sushi and come back to noisily pace the floors of our mundane hallway before collapsing calmly and laying their teenage lengths contemplatively on the couch.
All four children experience what I’ve heard other parents call the ‘Disneyland parent,’ a parent who through suffering the guilt of not being in their child’s life full time lavish permission in all areas. The worlds of emotion and behaviour we all bring collide in our home (as it probably does in their other homes) and it’s surprising we don’t all implode and explode on occasions.
It’s only natural that the children that have been with me since their entry into this world, that have had skin on skin contact with me, have cried deeply and laughed unreservedly like babies and young children do and have grown in my care with my values and hopes, are more deeply ingrained in my emotions than the children that have come into my care as young adults. Thinking, feeling people that I know nothing about and who know nothing of me. These children, little people, are strangers. And in my case, teenage strangers. They no more want to feel my stranger’s instincts and arms wrapping around them then I feel comfortable in doing so.
My children have learnt my ways from the time they began to grow inside me, so much more time to grow an instinctual bond. The bond with my steppies, I’ve come to realise, has grown since I first met them and will continue to grow. It’s simply about time; it’s a burden thankfully lifted once I realise this.
Julie is a writer based in Bendigo, Victoria. She specialises in psychology of relationships and psychological fiction. You can follow her blog and/or twitter: @Rye_Ting