Separated Families at Christmas

For many Christmas is a time of relaxation, good food and good family company. Finally a chance to catch up with loved ones after a busy completed year. But for others it signals a logistical and emotional nightmare, as shared contact between separated families is managed. If a negotiated plan is not in place, disagreement and conflict between ex-partners can cause Christmas to be a time of anxiety and frustration, in which inevitably the child is caught in the middle of.

So how can this situation be managed and the stress minimised as much as possible? I can only share our experiences in managing this time with my eldest son’s biological family. When I first became his step-Mum, there was no formal plan in place for the care of him over the Christmas time. Furthermore, his birthday was two days after Christmas, which made it an even more concentrated time of anxiety, as it felt like we had to have a highly concentrated period of contact with his biological family than we would normally have. This said, initially, my husband would simply agree with his ex-partner to her requests, in order to keep the peace and avoid any unpleasantness for our son. But this also meant that our son did not experience Christmas with one half of his family, which was a significant loss for him in terms of his childhood. So, as many parents would try, we began to look for a middle ground……a way to carve up the day so that it had some air of fairness and so that our son could feel he was experiencing how both sides of his family celebrated the day. This was always a cause of great stress in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day. What was deemed ‘fair’ was always from varying perspectives, and when having to deal with an ex-partner with their own agenda, this made for a worrying time. It created conflict between myself and my husband, as we debated how to manage the communication around the time. And this was before we had even begun our holiday!

Despite plans being agreed to, the greatest source of stress was the inevitable contact with my sons biological family on the day. Where most of the year we tried to void any concentrated form of the family, suddenly we were having to collect our son from a place where the entire family had congregated! We all had to be nice and pleasant at the point of pick up……despite the preceding disagreements and arguments from throughout the year. It was all about ensuring our son didn’t cotton on to any animosity between his loved ones.

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What made the pick ups and drop offs even harder, however was dealing with the ex-partners inability to be on time. More often than not, we were spending much our Christmas Day waiting. Waiting to have lunch as we waited for our son to arrive and be apart of it…….or waiting for our son to get his things ready as we picked him up, despite knowing of the time we were due to arrive. Or waiting for a phone call to pick up our son which came an hour or two hours after the agreed time. A relaxing Christmas did not seem quite the same. Instead we always had one eye on the clock……and a knot in our stomach knowing we would need to be managing contact at some point in the day.

Another trickle-on effect in having to manage contact between two separated families over this time, is the limitation this puts in being able to travel away to visit other family out of town. In the initial years of becoming a step-parent, this meant if I wanted to spend time with my husband, son and young daughter, it meant my parents had to travel to us, and not vice versa. They lived a five hour drive away and we were not able to do what many families could by saying ‘we’re spending Christmas away’ this year. It became 3 families to juggle….not the usual two. And it was the third family that would have the most to say if they got to miss out on seeing their son/grandson over this holiday time. And while I tried hard for it not to bother me, it did. A family I would have nothing to do with, or nothing in common with, other than my love for their biological son/grandson, were dictating to me when I could see my own family at Christmas time. While I didn’t make this an issue to anyone on the outside, it certainly stewed and stirred on the inside!

The best thing we ever did as a family was create an agreement thought the Family Court. For most people this is a daunting thought – to go to court. But as someone who has come out the ‘other side’ I could, without a doubt, state I would do it again. This process resulted in a very transparent and fair agreement on the arrangements for both Christmas and birthday contact…..and went further to ensure other holidays, such as Easter, long weekends, Mothers Day and Father’s Day etc were explicitly understood. And there were inevitable consequences if one or the other party refused to follow the agreement. Yes, it was expensive, and yes, the stress was excruciating. But what followed was far less stress over the time that mattered.

A further preventative strategy we employed to avoid the anxiety at the point of picking up and dropping off our son was to ensure we were the one doing the transporting. We offered to drop off AND pick up. This meant we footed the bill for the petrol, and the time spent in a car on Christmas Day…….but it also meant we had control over the time. We were able to minimise down our ‘wait’ time, as we were not left wondering when our son was ever going to arrive. And when contact was particularly strained between my husband and his ex-partner, we employed the assistance of family members who were happy to do the drop and pick up for us. We chose family who we knew would not engage in conflict or would not be confrontational, and that would, at all times, be mindful of the ears and eyes watching the change-over. Someone that would ensure our son would continue to be protected from adult conflict. (This usually meant someone of whom the ex-partner was a little intimidated by). All we then waited on was a text to say he had been collected and was on his way. We could breathe easy and look forward to the remainder of our Christmas Day.

So if you find yourself having to manage these additional stresses at the holiday time, it is well worth looking into creating a more formalised and structured agreement between the parties involved. When it is clear and spelt out on paper, it is far less likely to be argued with. If you find yourself having to wait or be inconvenienced unduly, try to become proactive, offering to do the transporting yourself. And in a worst-case situation, look for support within your immediate family – have someone available to assist with the pick ups to minimise your stress, and ultimately any trickle-on effect to your children. These are just some ways we have found got us through potentially stressful moments over the holiday season when managing separated families.

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The Quiet Abuse of our Modern Children

In the grand scheme of things I have not been working in the education profession for long. I am not a ‘seasoned’ teacher with a significant number of years under my belt. In the time I have worked in education, however, I have worked primarily in an area where one would see the very worst in child behaviour and emotional well being. I have met children with lives outside of school filled with violence, neglect and poverty. Children who, as a direct result of their parents actions, have been traumatised to where their lives will never be the same again. This level of abuse against children has always captured the eye of the media, for its shock and stun factor with the general public. As a society, it is agreed without doubt that this is a completely unacceptable way in which children should experience their childhood years. And so the big sweeping statements from central government are made, the policies are created, the government agencies are sent out in troops and these offenders (where possible) are rounded up with children relocated…..often into equally unsuitable home settings.

But there is a quiet and subtle abuse that  appears to be significantly increasing yet to capture media (and therefore government) attention. Neglectful Parenting will also have life-long, and inter-generational impacts on society that we are yet to fully comprehend. But neglectful parenting does not seem to be understood in its entirety. Neglect comes to the attention of our government agency charged with child safety when children’s basic human needs are not being met. Primarily food, shelter and supervision from adults. What does not seem to be considered as neglectful within these categories is the inability of adults to love and give attention to the children they are responsible for. Yet, anecdotally, there would seem to be an ever increasing number of children walking through the school gates who are experiencing a level of neglect that is having a detrimental effect to their emotional and social well being. They come from a home where they have food, are clean, and have basic clothing requirements (mostly) met. But they do not have an emotional connection to a significant parent. As a teacher, this is by far the hardest level of neglect to address in a classroom.

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Children from these home environments typically struggle to manage themselves socially and emotionally on a daily basis. They are anxious, defensive, reactive and can display what seems to be an overreaction to minor issues. They do not have the resilience that a child from an emotionally-secure background would have. Simply, they are lost. Lost in a world in which adults are not there to provide calm and comfort, love and care. For some, they learn that when they demonstrate a need for comfort (such as crying, or raging) an adult is not there to respond to them and keep them emotionally safe. For others, they may have had this initially, but as they lose the ‘cute-factor’ of babyhood, they have to ‘toughen up’ and ‘harden up’ and so subsequently lose a model of appropriate emotional response to the trials and tribulations of life ahead. Some children are simply so tired because their lives outside of school are either rushed with parents juggling from one job/event/appointment to the next, or because parents are so unpredictable and have little routines at home to communicate a sense of order for their children. And there are a growing majority of children coping with the emotional burden of adult worries, particularly where relationships have broken down and separations have occurred. For these children, their childhood is not only impacted with the loss of their two-parent family structure, but they are then burdened with the care of their (usually) Mum and her emotional needs of company and companionship.

What is of most concern is that there would appear to be a generation of children growing up that simply do not have the skills to cope with the rigors of adult life. As a result of these types of neglectful parenting, they will enter adulthood without a secure emotional foundation on which to build positive and fulfilling relationships with others. They will have needs that will go unmet. And this will then begin to impact on their ability to appropriately parent the next generation. Thus the snow-ball effect will continue. Predictably there may be far reaching effects into areas such as adolescent and adult mental health, crime rates, rates of teenage pregnancy, divorce statistics and so on. If we do not meet the emotional needs of our young, the problem will become society’s as they reach adulthood.

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There does not appear to be an easy answer. It does appear that the snowball has already begun its alpine descent, and is quickly gathering momentum (and size). What would slow its pace somewhat would be a nationwide focus on preventative, rather than reactive care for parents and their families. Making it acceptable for parents to acknowledge that this job is horrendously complicated, complex and damn hard work. Allowing parents to share their struggles without judgment of their abilities. Having a government department not focused just on the bottom of the cliff, but getting in early and providing parents with education around the fundamental emotional needs of children in the first few years of their lives. Providing families in the midst of separation with education around how to not burden their children with the adult problems going on around them. In short, protecting children from adulthood and all that it comes with for just that little bit longer. Allowing children to experience a pure childhood……with a sense of emotional security that ultimately builds resilience and self-identity. All while modelling to children a pattern of responsive parenting that they can then adopt in adulthood as they become parents themselves.

It is time parents were given the opportunity to reflect on the quiet form of abuse that is neglectful parenting. Parenting is so much more than feeding, clothing and sheltering children. It is so much harder than that. It is about stepping outside of yourself and putting your children first. In every part of your day.

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Cheeky Kids on Parenting Informer

Cheeky Kids have begun contributing articles to The Parenting Informer website. This is a fantastic website for parents, covering a wide range of tips and advice for all sorts of parenting dilemmas. Have a look at the latest submission by Cheeky Kids. An insight into the roller coaster ride of being a Step Mum.

http://www.parentinginformer.com/wicked-step-mother-or-privileged-position.html

Astronaut Jumping

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There is numerous literature and research around the importance of a healthy attachment between mother and baby in the first few years of a child’s life. Publications and media in general consistently refer to ‘mother and child’ and the bond that is so very important in those crucial first few years. Anyone who learns about attachment theory, or understands the importance of a healthy attachment can attest to the research behind it, and the resultant problems that occur if this relationship is fractured in some way. However, what is not publicised of equal importance is the role Dads play in the healthy development of their children – and in particular their set of skills they can add to the mix in contrast to the skills offered by a competent mother. Too often, a father is seen as the second-best option in raising their children, rather than an equal, but different, option. Dad’s offer things to their children Mum’s cannot. Mum’s offer things that Dad’s cannot. Surely by having the best of both, the child is exposed to a cocktail of experiences and skills from which to form impressions of their world around them.

Today was our day to have everyone at home. I say this in almost a celebratory manner, as given the busy nature of our lives, Sundays are so precious in our household. Add to that a rainy day we found ourselves spending more time together in closer confines than we have done in the past few weeks. While this could sound nightmarish for some (children + rain + full household), it allowed me the opportunity to really appreciate the kind of father my children are privileged to have. Today we ‘tag-teamed’ so that the children had the best of us throughout the day. This is not to say it was a day filled with roses and butterflies. There were moments in the day when we all took our various corners for some individual ‘me’ time. But in the moments when we all came together, the laughter and relationship building that occurred was fantastic.

Typically, my role of Mum is to ensure everyone is fed, watered, cleaned and schooled. I ensure routines are in place and adhered to. I monitor intake of healthy foods. I remind of manners and walking in the house and tidying bedrooms. I do baking with, colouring alongside, singing and dancing in the lounge. I enforce homework and sign permission slips. I paint toenails and brush hair. I administer first aid, cheer on sidelines and give cuddles and kisses throughout the day. This role is hard-work and often a thankless job. It also demonstrates one side of life for my children. But not a completeness that is needed for their total well-being and development.

Today, after having their showers, my husband and I were drying the kids in the lounge by the fire. As usual, I was on drying and dressing duty. Dad was on transportation. This involved wrapping said child in four corners of the towel and ‘helicoptering’ the child to Mum, the dryer/dresser. Amidst squeals of delight, said child arrived ready for pyjamas. As one child was dressed, Dad was then on hand to facilitate the helicoptering of said child in flying circuits through the dining room and kitchen. As the second child was dressed, pleads to be included ensued. Muscles were starting to feel the strain, so the helicoptering was then changed to ‘astronaut jumping’. This involved Dad assisting the ‘astronaut’ to bounce high, as if they were walking on the moon, from floor to dining table (shock horror feigned by Mum), from dining table to wall……run along the middle of the wall to then ‘bounce’ through the kitchen……flip off the bench-top and land safely on the earth again. The laughter was simply contagious. Multiple requests to astronaut jump continued, until Mum had to intercept suggesting Dad really was pooped. Distraction into a clean-up before dinner was successful and the celestial activities were put to rest for the night.

What child would not want this experience with their father? And I happily admit, this is not something I could easily offer my children in their father’s absence. Watching this tonight made me consider the large number of solo-parent families who are not in a position to be able to offer these experiences for their children for various reasons. Yes, there are many Dad’s out there who do not take up their responsibilities at the point of conception and fail to appear in their children’s lives. That is a topic for an entirely different blog. There are many separated families existing, however, at the control of the mother. At the point of separation, for most, it is assumed that the children will continue to live in their mother’s care. What is up for negotiation is the amount and type of contact the father will have in the future with their children. There are many mothers who do not value the tremendous contribution their ex-partner can play in their children’s lives. They invariably get caught up in their own ‘stuff’ that they limit their children’s opportunity to experience the best of both their parents. The children become a commodity from which the mother can trade from. Children can’t exist on fortnightly weekend visits, or once-a-month arrangements. Furthermore, the relationship a child has with a step-father cannot, ever, be assumed to be the same than that of their relationship with their biological father (providing the relationship was a healthy, happy one prior to separation).

At the end of the day, a child needs to be able to feel secure in having a relationship with both their parents. If this means that, despite the relationship break-down between husband and wife, mother and father continue to work together on a daily or weekly basis to parent their children, then this is what needs to occur. From a child’s perspective, they need both parents in their lives in order to have all their developmental needs met. Children need a cleaner, cook, taxi-driver, homework enforcer and nurse offering cuddles when (and sometimes when not) required. But they also need an ally in war games, pilot in flying, muscle to be lifted up high and above all else……..the experience of astronaut jumping. Feeling the lack of gravity while held firmly in their daddy’s arms. Childhood at its best.

 

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