The Stepmum rules

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 15.27.03

Archetypes and attitude

My ex husband recently remarried and with that our children acquired a brand new Stepmum. That’s in title only, however, because, she has been in their lives for almost four years.  Similarly, I’ve been in ‘my’ stepchildren’s lives for about the same time. There are three ‘mums’ therefore in this story; so no wonder it gets a bit claustrophobic and emotional at times. I do wonder if ‘mum-strops’ have a specific wavelength — like the known phenomenon of females in the same vicinity menstruating in synch. The problems however aren’t that we are combining positive energies to generate a brilliant environment for all the children — the power of resonance — but that our differing attitudes are dampening one another out and the result is just destruction and damage.

 

Girl-code; amplified

During the past four years oscillating between:

— a mum helping my kids deal with a stepmum;

— and a stepmum learning how to help stepchildren deal with me

it is fair to say I’ve probably gotten it wrong more times than I’ve gotten it right.

There are no NCT classes to prepare you for step parenting. Although I do wonder if it would help everyone — especially the children — if there was a mandatory set of classes in grief counselling, shame and anger management that all parents had to attend when they enter into a second marriage with children in the centre.

In acrimonious family court cases there is something called a ‘Separated Parents Information Course’ that battling parents can be made to attend. But that’s not the same as the reality of learning how to be a decent Step-parent when your new partner and his ex are in a persistent state of discord and you’re left to try to be a nice person to their children or reciprocally, you’re trying to persuade the new stepmum to your kids that whatever your dislike of your ex or their version of you from your ex — you only want your children to be liked and treated kindly when they’re with the ‘stand in mum’.

When I divorced, my solicitor went to great lengths to ensure that the time my children spent with their Dad and me and the finances needed to look after the children’s best interests were firmly laid out and watertight for their benefit. At the time I challenged him, naive in the belief that ‘he will never let our children down; he’s a good Dad’. To which said solicitor replied; “this isn’t about you or Dad; this is to protect the children from the maturity or immaturity of the next wife”. At the time I found this to be a deeply cynical reflection and dismissed it as something that would never be necessary for our children. Sadly, his words have proved to be entirely true. In both ex-wife and new-wife, Mum and Stepmum role — I’ve been subjected to, possibly contributed to, some almost comedic acts of immaturity. At times I’ve had to question what I’m actually reading when a perfunctory reminder about a rugby match or a play rehearsal has been responded to with hyperbole, hubris and hysteria — of the playground variety; “he never found you sexy!”, “you’re a slut”, “you’re old”, ‘you’re ruined’, and the mesmerisingly juvenile “you’ve only got a 2:1 degree but you think you’re so clever; all you actually do is regurgitate other people’s work.” Urm — thanks for that, could you please just get my kids to practice on time tho? Cheers’.

 

Are all Stepmums wicked?

Whatever the reasons for these kind of outbursts — there are lots of archetypes of the ‘Wicked Stepmother’ in literature to reach to. They all illuminate women under the most hideous of lights.  Snow White’s Stepmum needed to be the fairest of them all; Cinderella’s Stepmum turned her into a servant in her own home and sanctioned constant bullying by the stepsiblings. It is a struggle to find any positive Stepmum role models. It is also difficult to find any descriptions of how hard it is to be a mum and relinquishing control of the care of your most treasured and precious children into the maternal space of another. I’m not undermining Dads by expressing that; but there is a certain kind of expectation, mother-to-mother, about how someone else’s children should be treated when they’re in your care. Its ‘girl-code’, amplified.

I asked my stepson about this recently; what is it like to have a mum and a Stepmum? He described it as like being on a really long playdate with someone else’s mum who will make sure that you’re ok and be nice to you. I thought that was a remarkably insightful response from a 10 year old. What struck me was the omission of the sense that a Stepmum might also love you. For me, I never want to put my stepchildren in the middle of a woman to woman competition. Their love and loyalty should be for their Mum and that’s natural and fair. The best I can hope for from them is that I might earn their trust and respect for trying to help them. Why should they love me, anyway? I will always be the person married to their Dad who is not their Mum? When you’re a Stepmum its like being on a 1-month work notice period ‘zero hours contract’ where you’re only ever as good as your last project or behaviour because they can terminate any relationship with you whenever they want to. They don’t need you; they’ve already got a perfectly good mum to love them to the moon and back. On reflection; I quite like living by the step kids rules not mine — they keep me on my toes.

Perhaps then, any training course on how to be a Stepmum shouldn’t be written or run by the adults but directly from the children? I’ll ask them to compile some rules and blog them soon. If we take that as a sensible way forward however, what scope will there be for my kids’ ‘new stepmum’ to continue with playground antics? I guess we will see and ultimately it is the children who will make their minds up. Not me.

 

 

 

The best of times

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 07.25.22

It is a year today since we buried my Father.

I’ve been sad, of course, but mostly during the past 12 months my main feeling has been one of gratitude — we shared a truly wonderful relationship, underpinned by trust, positivity and the deep knowing that you are very, very loved for everything that you are and are not. Such a sense of faith in your Dad is one of the fundamental relationships in your life that sets the scene for many others. And so I have in equal measure found myself worrying about the state of my daughter’s relationship with her dad — my ex. As I have had an emotional year missing my Dad’s omnipotent love, my daughter has an an emotional year longing for that absence to be filled. Despite my concerns at how she has been treated, I’m aware that she will form her boundaries on what a strong relationship is with her future loves based on the enduring love that her Father bestows. It hasn’t been a good time for them.

Which is why I will never alienate my daughter from her Father. The claims that I do are ludicrous and it is evident that is the case. Because I would never undermine my daughter’s self-esteem by making her doubt her Father’s love for her.

I held my Father’s hand when he died; I had my hand on his heart as he breathed his last. My mother was on the other side. The three of us said our goodbyes and he died knowing he was loved and our time together was the best.

I want my daughter to have that same knowing. She deserves that.

So good times, bad times will pass — and below is the Eulogy I was proud to make at my Dad’s Funeral. It reminds me that these times are our best. I hope my children will always have the best of times with their Dad.

————————————————————————————————————————————–

Lawrence Arthur Upton

The best of times

 

There’s a card on a notice board at home that reads; ‘A Father is someone who lifts you up, and holds you there forever’. Of course, that’s what a Father is destined to do, and in my Dad’s case he literally did lift my Mum, Annemarie, up from the floor – coming to her aid when he was a Paramedic, not then sweeping her off her feet in the conventional way but looking after her and taking care of her and a three year old me – courting us by bringing her bags of vegetables and me bags of sweets. My mum has always lamented that the flowers he sent her were cauliflowers and it was me who got the good stuff. But that describes Dad perfectly – a mixture of down-to-earth practicality with a cheeky bit of fun. People always talk about his defining, warmth-inducing smile and his bright blue eyes – he made everyone feel welcome and saw everything that was good about other people. Which is why I would broaden the reading on that card to say: ‘Lawrence Arthur Upton was someone who lifted the spirits of all he met and would listen to you, forever’.

 

He could talk for England too; even a 10 minute walk around the corner to come and see us would likely take an hour because he would stop and chat to so many people along the way. Of all the things I’ve learned are important from my Dad – hardwork, honesty, humility – what resonates and what defined him was that it is always worth taking just that extra minute in your day to talk to someone. Eulogies are meant to contain a few references and stories that typify a person’s character; and as expected, therefore, it has taken an absolute age to try to filter those stories down into a reasonable time. Because so many people have wanted to tell me about the great times they shared with my Dad or the everyday small acts of kindness that he made time in his day to do for them. I’ve been reminded of just how many people Dad made time for. This is probably one of the reasons that he seemed to be known by so many different names:

 

  • ‘Lollipop’ to Corrie; a daughter of a family friend, who he walked down the aisle as her dad on her big day
  • ‘Loz’ to Tony, a neighbour who said ‘He was more of a Dad to me than my own, and when I told him that he said, ‘that’s all right then, Son’ and that’s how they went forward. Thank you Tony for helping us let Dad go with dignity.
  • ‘Laurie’ to many friends who filled his life
  • But Larry to his most special of friends — Gill, a late bromance which included a trip to Spain last year amongst many age-inappropriate adventures! Thank you Gill for all you did and we know you will continue to do for us.
  • ‘The Naked Chef’ to my Mum’s family – not because he actually cooked with out his clothes on (well perhaps that once) but he was renowned for his ‘full English fry up’ hospitality, he loved his food … a daily question to my Mum would be ‘what do you want for tea then’ and she would despair back, ‘you’ve just had your breakfast!’
  • ‘Sport’ to his beloved brother, Chris, which was a shared love of theirs – there wasn’t a single sport that he didn’t enjoy although he was determined of course that he would buy my son, Atty, his first Liverpool kit and take him to his first match at Anfield.

 

It used to make me smile how many different names people knew him by. Because that typified how many close and warm relationships he had. My Dad was one of those magicians who knew the value of time and how to make the most of it.

 

Time to listen, time to talk, time to care. Good times, difficult times, times when he was usually the first to take action and times when he would sacrifice his own needs in the service of others. Dad was the oldest of three boys, Lawrence, Chris and Alan and they grew up in post-war Doncaster with Mum, Effie Mae as a Hospital Matron and Dad, Arthur as a railwayguard. Little surprise then that Dad became a paramedic and then a fireman and then worked with his brother in the family’s haulage business. Dad always knew in those roles that time was one of the most precious commodities – whether that was delivering a baby, pulling people out of fires or getting a delivery of goods where they needed to be. He was a man who never wasted time but also knew the importance of pressing the pause button when someone needed his help or simply to enjoy the experience in front of him. In his youth he ran to rescue others; in his later years he watched as we ran in races, in matches, in fear to him. The last walk he took was holding Atty’s hand around the park. The last conversation we had was about Delilah’s school report and her acing her drama exam with a life on the stage predicted. He gave that the thumbs up. And his final word to me was ‘Home’.

 

Which is why, when one of my school friends sent me a message this week, it was as though Dad was taking time again, even from another place to lift my spirits. The friend said: ‘It’s funny, one of the earliest memories of my childhood is being with you and your mum and dad, driving a caravan up to Scarborough and all of us singing, ‘take me home country roads’.

 

And I recall such great times with my dad too. As a kid he would ‘chuck me in the back of his lorry ‘Laurie’ cab’ during long school holidays – and we had hours on the road together where he always let me take over the radio station. He had a catering unit for a while which he seemed to run mostly to enable good times with people rather than as a viable business venture – because he would pitch at music festivals and formula 1 grand prixes and invite people along to ‘work’ whereas we actually just watched the concerts or the racing – good times were more important than money! He drove me to numerous music, dance and drama festivals around the country when I was young and as a teenager was always the one me and my friends would pester for a ‘dadcab’ taxi into town and then not complain when we spent all our money and needed to get home after the nightclub closed. One of my favourite regular times with him was when he’d drive my mum to the local car boot and I would eyeroll and sigh how lame it was for a teenager to have to be dragged around with their parents on a Sunday morning – there was always a specific roundabout where the road would lead to Leicester and he would quietly say; ‘that’s the road you’ll be taking when you go to university’. His was a gentle encouragement, behind the scenes, no flummery nor pressure – but a knowing sense of what time would offer me and what he would do to make that happen. And we then spent much time when I was older where the reverse happened and he accompanied me on business trips – to New York for example. I would go off to meetings and he would simply busy himself and we would meet later – inevitably he would have made new friends chatting with people during the day. Many a time he would drive me to a meeting with some super important medical leader because I would be too nervy to drive and I’d come out of the conference at the end of the session to find Dad chatting away merrily to a world leader in neuroscience or some such … he made time for everyone.

 

These are my memories of times with him of course. And for every story I have, there are many more of all the times he had with others, with you.

 

As rose petals are confetti at a wedding thrown to wish good times ahead, memories are the mind petals that we scatter at a funeral to remind us of the great times we had.

 

Dad therefore, was a straightforward man who demanded little from those around him, but expected only the best for his wife, his friends, his children and his grandchildren. And he would always give them his best, without complaint and without concern for the time it took. He didn’t question the merit of driving to Leicester to rescue me from a giant spider when I was a student and trapped in fear in my bedroom – and he brought me a Sunday Lunch to microwave at the same time – nor the time to drive his grandchildren to school every day for years, the time to take us to matches, meetings, trains, airports, hospitals, the time needed to keep pulling pints at the rec long after the match had finished and he really should’ve been off his feet, the time taken to paint the fence of the ‘old lady next door but one who hasn’t got anyone to help her’. He gave us his time, his attention, his care – he lifted the spirits of all he met and would listen to you, forever.

 

It should be difficult, therefore, to not be able to call upon him to help, to rescue, to support, to listen. And it is strange to think that I can’t just call him or have him pop around to fix the gate or watch the footy with Atticus or listen to Delilah perform the latest lines of a play she’s in. Dad lived a long and happy life, and only succumbed to ill health right at the very end. His body ran out of time but his presence never will.

 

We gather here today to remember and commemorate his life and so many great times and that, therefore, is his legacy – to make and spend our time with the ones we love, never to waste any time harbouring ill feelings or letting the opportunity to smile, to chat, to show that we care pass us by.

 

We love you Lollipop, Loz. Lol, Laurie, Larry, Sport, Dad – and we close this moment in time with your favourite piece of advice and how you lived your life – ‘Let’s just get on with it…’

Moving swiftly on

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 22.56.19.png

If in doubt chuck it out!

There are many measures of middle age — the bulging midriff spread, the pain on sitting down (and standing up), the preferences for a boxset binge rather than a night out, wondering if you’ve got decent funeral insurance policy (!).  I’ve discovered a new, deeply-satisfying segue to senility which is. — the skip. There have been three proudly parked in our courtyard for three weeks in a row and I’ve assumed a Proust-like philosophy on the profoundly soul-cleansing act of chucking everything that doesn’t make me happy, serve a useful purpose or is a mess out. No messing. It is though all the clutter in the eaves, the broken plastic toys, the old clothes that are too tight, too short, too young (or all three) have suddenly become unbearable. Metaphorically, my skip frenzy has cleaned out mental closets, dusted off past failures and left my head open, free and ready for a hoover.

 

Too woke to weep

We are moving house imminently hence the momentum to sort and skip. This triggered quite different responses from the kids. One shrugged his shoulders, thought about all he had enjoyed in our home of a decade and then started thinking about how close the next house would be to be able to walk to school, to his mates, to the sports pitches. The other one went into a mini-meltdown where she tagged another mark on the ‘measuring way’ labelling it ‘Leaving Day’ in stark contrast to the previous, ‘birthday aged 10″ and proceeded to mope around in only her dressing gown (with the hood up) in declarative, dramatic fashion. It triggered the awful memory of the day my ex and I told the children that we would be divorcing and they would still live with each of us, separately. My son stoically wrote a quick list; “Things to take to Dad’s House” whereas his sister ran off to hide under her brother’s bed. He found her. He told her it would be ok. And we all moved on.

This time we are all a little bit older and wiser and so we were able to work on being sad about good times we had shared in the house whilst allowing ourselves to be excited about the next place. Labelling a packing box ‘Under the bed mess’ that will be unpacked in the next place and chucked straight back under the very same bed worked a treat in brining that perspective to life. And we all managed to chuckle.

 

No more mortgage, no more manipulation

For me personally, selling the big family home with the big garden and the big drive to school, work, anywhere has been a tremendous burden lifted. Because no more massive mortgage means no more manipulation by the ex for fear that he will pull the plug on maintenance and I’ll be left scrambling about to keep a roof over the kid’s heads and give them all the things we convince ourselves that they need.

 

It’s been qualified in many studies that women struggle much more than men when they divorce; they accept less than they should because they place more equity in emotional stability and want to get the kids to a stable place having uprooted their equilibrium, The stories of rich divorcees who lunch on the ex’s maintenance via having children is wildly exaggerated. Over and again, men hide their wealth, earnings and then play that classic card of ‘oh I’m not going to buy you any new clothes — that’s what I give money to you Mother for’ — they play out their bitterness in pounds and pence. I was entirely misled during my financial settlement; my marriage of 16y where I had taken maternity leave twice (although was actually working within weeks, typing medical scripts with one hand whilst nursing the baby in the nook of my other arm) and contributed hugely to my ex’s very lucrative career was met with a maintenance for the children that still is less than 10 percent of his income. And sadly, he does buy brand new range rovers with his cash bonus but refuse to shout our daughter for a school cardigan, or indeed any school items — even tights — when she stays with him. We have long since come to terms with that. Being mortgage free four years after divorce is the ultimate f-you and we are going to relish not having the big house, garden or commute anymore.

 

Because we’ve gained the most valuable asset a parent could have and the most frequently requested ‘thing’ a child asks for — time, together,

 

For that we are ‘skipping’ — with joy.

The finishing line

Screen Shot 2018-07-09 at 13.49.56

The end is in sight

It has been an interesting month in the land of (un)cooperative parenting. The final four weeks of the academic year are always awash with the children’s schedule almost spiralling out of any semblance of control. There are exams, trips, sports days, theatrical performances, musical concerts, reports and the climax of the year — Speech Day. Here’s where parents are invited to the school to celebrate all that’s wonderful about their children and the progress though the past 12 months. I spent most of the past 4 weeks in ‘Mum Weeping’ mode as it all seemed to come together spectacularly for my kids. There were lead roles, first solo sings, victory runs, drama distinctions and at Speech Day itself, my daughter was picked to be one of the two children in the year who literally hold their own with the adults — she had to write and deliver the scripts around the actual prize giving part of the ceremony. It is no mean feat to keep your nerve in front of the entire school, the teaching faculty, parents, visiting alumni and distinguished guests. But just as her brother kept everything going to concentrate and win the 100m sprint at Sports Day, so too did she focus entirely on what she had to do during her 20 min ‘in charge’ of events.

Somebody wrote to me during this period and said if my daughter had a superpower it would be resilience. Indeed, this has proved the case over and again as she has come through a year in which she has been harshly treated, ignored and criticised by the man who is supposed to love her the most — her Dad.

 

Absence does not make the heart grow fonder

Dad was notably absent at all these triumphs — excepting Speech Day. — where he could not fail to be delighted by the amazing children that we share responsibility for. I thought I would find this to be a ‘victory’ of my own; a smug sense that despite what the children report is an absolute ambivalence or lack of encouragement of anything that they need help with or are good at then surely such public accomplishments would evidently be the result of contrasting Mum and Stepdad efforts. We are ‘ground support’, happily covering every homework, every schlep to training, every bit of lost kit, lost confidence, lost temper to keep up momentum and morale. After sports day, my son most sincerely thanked his StepDad “for all you have done for me” (he has a habit of looking around at others and losing vital sprint advantage and his Stepdad diligently worked with him on looking straight at him instead, waiting at the end of the lane — ‘run straight towards me’).  After the school play, we were inundated with good wishes about how compelling my daughter is when she acts — she made it look effortless when in fact she had run her lines over and again during every school run. Accordingly, as the successes rolled in and the praise flooded through, I thought that Stepdad and I would feel we could step back and bask in reflected glory and ‘win’ the parenting cup — that we would effectively ‘take the tape’ leaving absent Dad lagging behind, looking on as his own children’s tenacity out ran him.

But there was no such finishing line joy.

For later that week, my daughter was talking to a stranger about how she felt about the absences in her life and she soberly reflected, “I wish Dad would see me. I wish he would come and watch me. Because then he would know I’m not the stupid girl that he calls me.” Children need and deserve guiding hands and pats on the back from both parents.

 

It is not the beginning of the end; it is the end of the beginning

She recovered her composure as quickly as she always does given that her superpower is resilience. I was ‘Mum Weeping’ again, however, because it seems to me that she crossed the finishing line in terms of that childlike belief in her Father ‘being there’. And I didn’t see that coming. That said, both children are strong, are courageous, are capable. I am sad that they finished the year on such a high that wasn’t celebrated by both their parents being co-operative and cheering them on together. But this is the beginning of their progression into adolescence and by the looks of it, they have a whole raft of Father figures who will be present to see them shine.

 

You can do it. You did it.

These are parenting mantras that should be delivered in duplicate.  Divorce is no excuse for absence, echoes or shouting after the event. You take the parenting tape once but the children race into adulthood knowing who was with them when it counted.

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2018-06-08 at 12.28.25

It has been an interesting week.

Which reminds me of the Chinese curse — ‘May you live in interesting times.’

Which reminds me of the brilliant quote from Joan D’Arc — ‘I am not afraid. I was born for this.’

Which makes me think it may be time for a blog re-title — ‘How to be a happy activist’

It may well be time.

I’ll just leave this here …

Parlez-vous l’amour?

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 18.02.01

My name is Emma and I’m a bookaholic

I’m fortunate to have fallen in love seven times in my adult life. Twice with my children, twice with my lovers and twice with my husbands. That’s a whole lotta love. And the seventh — books. I am infatuated, never satisfied, intoxicated by books. I’ve already started lobbying that for my 50th birthday I want to be ‘let loose’ in the flagship Waterstones (after a Wolsely champagne breakfast of course) to go on a literature rampage. I want at least 50 books. Which given that I read a minimum of two, usually three books a week is really rather restrained if you ask me. Like an alcoholic hiding the gin bottles in the desk drawer or behind the curtain, if you follow me around during the day you will likely catch me having a secret read. I’m always sneaking new books into my life. And when I run out of hidden places (I gave up on having adequate shelving years ago) then, and only then will I temporarily default to an e-book. But it’s just not the same experience as a fresh, new, book that smells, looks and feels divine. I get pretty overwhelmed in book shops; it’s like being high on word cocaine … I sniff the blighters up into a state of euphoric bliss. Yeah … I’m that weirdo in WhSmiths! Books are my lovers — caressed, adored, enduring. One of my favourite books is ‘Enduring Love’ (Ian McEwan) which makes perfect sense.

 

A childhood riddled with books

It’s always been like that for me. As a kid I would get my £3 pocket money and head straight to get another ‘Famous Five’ or ‘Secret 7’, then there were the Malory Towers, The St Claires, The Sweet Valley Highs … these were just my Saturday afternoon reads, I would go cover to cover in 90min. And then be cross with myself for speeding through as there would be a whole 7 days to wait until the next one. There were the immense pre-teen works too. I can still remember where I was when I was enthralled by ‘What Katy Did’ or which house we lived in when it was all about ‘Anne of Green Gables’ (with an e!). As a teenager I definitely threw away some better exam grades because I preferred to obsess over Authors than nail covalent bonds. Really I should’ve protested to ‘do’ English Literature as well as the BIG sciences (yup, biology chemistry and the gulp-inducing Nuffield A-level physics course … that’s a shudder and a half). When I found Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Hardy I was ruined for weeks at a time. My then boyfriend, who became my first husband would complain that I was lost, unreachable, engrossed. During my first degree course, I was appalled that as he was studying English he legitimately had the right to read all bloody day while I was in the medical faculty being forced to learn about Mendelian genetics by staring down a microscope at drosophila — but what did he do instead — played ‘Hallway Cricket’ with his housemates. GAH! As his final exams approached and he had failed magnificently to get through his ‘preferred authors’ (Defoe and Hardy) I had no choice but to intervene and try and elevate an inevitable third to at least a respectable 2:2. We were engaged by then so ‘family pride’ (and prejudice?) was at stake. I read every page of ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ to him to try to galvanise his revision plan because he claimed reading sent him to sleep (dubious choice to do an English degree then!). I bought him a stop watch to ensure he did actually do the requisite reading rather than wandering around the Uni library. I couldn’t believe it when he was able to just cut away from the moment when Tess D’Uberville was — well — I won’t spoilt it for you if you’ve yet to read it. But maybe that’s when I should’ve realised The Relationship Was Doomed!

Love me, love my authors

People not reading shocks me.

There, I admit it; I’m a total book snob. I really don’t care about the car someone drives, the size of their bank balance, how many fancy hotel beds they’ve slept in nor or if they are a gogo-dancer or nuclear physicist. I care about the state of your shelves. If I walk into a house and — horror — there are no books, I’m immediately looking to leave. I was once in a heated argument with a colleague and trying really hard to convince them of my perspective. I don’t remember why now but as part of my debate I declared, “This is not The Bell Jar!” to be met by a vacant stare. On realising she had zero idea who Sylvia Plath was, I confess, I literally dismissed her as someone not worth arguing with. That was awful of me, I know. Still is, because I still dismiss poorly-read people naturally. Bad. Yup.

When I first started dating after I divorced, I genuinely struggled if someone didn’t read. Driving home after one date I upbraided myself about such uppity generalisations. But I knew it wouldn’t work out. There were no other dates. When I met my wonderful, now second husband I was surprised to learn that he doesn’t read as I do; he is extremely intelligent and has a brilliant vocabulary and wait for it — is a better writer than me and I make a living via my keyboard. So he completely and utterly threw me. There go all my stereotypes about ‘people who don’t read’. That’ll teach me.

But I didn’t walk away from him because what he has is the same love of language which is what I find engrossing about reading. He just acquires it in a different way. So too is the language by which we express our love for one another different.

 

The language of love

My psychotherapist recommended I read ‘The Five Love Languages’ by Gary Chapman as ‘homework’ this week. There can be no better instruction than that — praise a plenty that she knows me so thoroughly! We’ve already done the quick test to see what kind of language Hubby and I speak … I’m ‘Acts of Service’ as a preference whereas he is ‘Time Spent Together’. I’m looking forward to reading, learning and applying more as I plough through the trilogy. What’s stuck me so far however is that we both are exactly the same in the love language we both don’t use at all — ‘gifts and presents’. Nope. not us. Not bothered about stuff; are bothered about serving each other with acts of kindness and the present of presence instead. Which reminds me of my favourite book of all — ‘I’m sorry I can’t stay long’ (Laurie Lee) which I read on a Carribean beach and cried about because the description of what love should be was so far removed from the marriage I was in at the time that I was sad for both the first husband and me. I even quoted ‘On Cheshil Beach’ to by-now exHusband’s girlfriend a few years ago as an explanation of why I wasn’t still in love with him as she seemed to constantly feel insecure about and try to claim in school playground outbursts (at least it was the right location to be childish!). I explained that the book was the perfect description of my first marriage — repressed cold, some sort of passion-less 50s formality. I tried to reassure her that I was not obsessed with him, far from it — I was however, at last, utterly besotted with my second husband who is indeed that soulmate. And fortunately he and I share that beautiful language of love so exquisitely described in that Laurie Lee book:

“At best, love is simply the slipping of a hand in another’s, of knowing you are where you belong at last, and of exchanging through the eyes that all-consuming regard which ignores everybody else on earth.”

We might not read the same books; but when it comes to our relationship we are on the same page.

 

Pillow talk

Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 12.40.57

Loose lips sink ships!

It is easy to get caught up in competitive co-parenting and miss the comedy in the everyday chit chat. Children transact so innocently that they ‘give away’ a lot about what happens in The Other Parent’s House. Which of course means they must also give away stuff about chezUs too! Gulp.

I literally snorted out my tea in a guffaw when I heard my stepdaughter talk about the size of her Nana’s — ahem — bits and bobs during a casual conversation between her and my daughter about pre-teeny stuff. And I frequently get a running commentary on all the things that my ex and his nearly-Missus get narky with each other about. We’ve been treated to tales of furious fights about pillows (not enough apparently just before a guest came to stay — at least I know what to get them for a wedding present), bacon rind being tantamount to a criminal offence, how to fold clothes properly and people returning from nights out worse for wear and being gobby. It is quite hard at times to resist joining in — in empathy for the Nearly-Missus. I too used to get cross about the ex arriving back from a business trip and expecting ‘hotel-service’ at home because I wasn’t busy all day! Don’t get me started on that time the boiler went kaput and I was yelled at for daring to interrupt a Very. Important. Business. Meeting. to ask for help because our babies (at the time) and I were shivering in one room under a sea of duvets.

Oh I know that he doesn’t do detail, darling … is what I want to chat to the incoming about. Get used to it!

 

The Ex-Wives Club

What too then is likely being said about events in Mum’s House, I wonder? I’m sure my step kids cannot fathom of my ‘cushions are for decor only’ obsession and the eye rolling about my insistence on napkins and table manners is probably not relayed in the friendliest of fashion.  We once read a report about us where the kids dobbed us in for ‘spending too much time in the kitchen, singing loudly’. And thanks stepson for revealing that “Dad and Emma spend ages in bed on Saturday mornings — till nine o’clock.” Its a fair cop that one! My daughter very kindly explained that “Mum doesn’t really get angry — except when she’s having a bad hair day or something!” True dat.

Similarly, I also have *some* empathy with what Hubby Dearest does that I rather suspect used to drive his first wife to distraction. Whilst none of us will ever agree about how our previous relationships transacted. My ex’s partner will never accept that I found some of her nearly-husband’s behaviours abusive, just as I will never accept that my hubby’s ex was unhappy with parts of their relationship. We are all in different relationships now after all. But as I find myself increasingly saying ‘too loud!” when hubby bellows out teacher-voice-style and then thinking, ‘I bet his first wife wanted quiet too) … I’m sure that things will be said about me that are perfectly fair within the four walls of my ex’s; yes I can be pious, yes I can be patronising, yes I can be exacting. When pushed.

 

Paradise lost

One of the many hilarious things about having to co-parent after divorce is that you have to acknowledge that you were once very intimate with the person who now loathes you and their partner knows that. You absolutely will have shared some exquisite times — even if that was the quixotic early days that soon dissolved into resentment and divorce. It genuinely doesn’t bother me that my husband was once in love with someone else; nor does it irk me that my ex husband is now in love with someone else. It’s just not me to be green-eyed in that way. It does make me think when intimate habits are revealed about exes however as of course they are likely revealing just as many intimate things about me. We’ve all had children with our exes; we have seen bits bleeding, bruised and beautiful because, surprise, surprise, we had children together so we must have made them together too. Having worked for many years in the field of sexual health, I’m extraordinarily broad-minded — it takes A LOT to flummox me. So I have no issues learning about someone’s mole in a delicate place, or someone’s peccadilloes — nor of them knowing mine. We were (and theoretically still are) adults after all.

The challenge with exes who you share children with is that unlike when people without children divorce and never have to see one another again — when there are kids, and kids who make comments, you can’t really get away from acknowledging that your intimacy will sometimes be front and centre and sometimes fleetingly appear with a shiver. It is probably harder for the new partners than the exes themselves to accept that there was love there once. I’m a bit ‘oh well’ but maybe it is harder for others to shrug that off.

I’m re-tuning my ears to the humour frequency rather than the complaints frequency. Sure, kids will moan. But in recognising there’s little I can do about their lives in The Other House(s) as people parent differently, there’s a liberation.

Keep talking kids — it makes me chuckle. I’ll keep listening. But please, daughter dearest, stop giving away my occasional temper about my hair! Some things are sacrosanct.

Are you prepared to stop writing this?

Screen Shot 2018-05-28 at 20.25.47

I’m prepared to stop writing this when I’m no longer subjected to abuse.

I was asked this question today by a police officer, who to be fair was simply doing their job — responding to another complaint and ‘investigating’ the most recent of the ongoing ludicrous allegations that I am racist. No. Describing the psychological behaviours of ‘flying monkeys’ is and always has been a classic psych reference to how abusers coerce helpers to do their bidding. Twisting something to turn the spotlight onto the victim and away from what you’re actually doing, however, is a ‘Top 10’ tactic by the Coercive Controller. Alongside ‘gas lighting’ which at long last is featuring in many articles in mainstream media to highlight the pervasive increase in coercive control in our society. I’m delighted that the UK Prime Minister has been completing an audit of the Coercive Control Act 2015 to update and strengthen it. PM May wants to know by the end of May! This then is my right and my opportunity to speak up. If I don’t say what is happening to me then that is inviting the person who abuses me to continue.

Screen Shot 2018-05-28 at 21.07.48.png

I was also asked the question: “why do you think he does this?” relating to why the abuse has been ongoing for four years now. I can’t say I know why an abuser abuses; much the same as I can’t say I know why a fish swims or a horse gallops. Because they can? Certainly the Domestic Violence Abuse Programme that I’ve just been referred onto for the second time in four years teaches you that people who are coercively controlling feel it is their right and they are entitled to seek to control their victim. I can’t answer why I’m the chosen one although I have my theories — all I want is for the abuse and coercive control to stop. I didn’t ask for this. I don’t deserve it. I don’t want to live my life in fear of the next game, trick, attack or malicious event. What options, therefore do I logically have?

Don’t abuse me and I won’t write about the abuse of me by you.

This blog originated as a comedic commentary on divorce and life after divorce; the majority of the content is exactly that. The content can be entirely that if, indeed, my life after divorce stops being polluted with acts of coercive control.

The most intriguing question today was “why do I write this blog when I know it might upset people to read it and read what is written about them?”

I think, technically, that’s called ‘victim blaming’. Which solves nothing and again, convinces the perpetrator that they are entitled to play havoc with another person’s life without consequence or correction. Apparently I could write this to help myself but then not actually publish it. This is not ‘The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 and 3/4’. My life being abused is not a work of fiction but a quotidian and cruel environment of emotional terrorism. I’m sure it is upsetting to learn that someone is ‘telling on you’; every school playground bully pleads, “it wan’t me, it was them!” when finally someone has the courage to stand up to them. This blog is me afraid, but courageous.

I will stop when it stops. I would far rather discuss the things that make me happy and there are many — my children, my husband, my family, my friends, my work, reading, running, gardening. And politics. I’ve recently joined the ‘Women’s Equality’ Party and I intend to put my passion for fairness and the rights of women front and centre. That includes advocating for women who are in or have been in coercively controlling relationships. It is illegal after all — there are laws in place to protect women like me from continuing domestic violence.

Why do I write my blog about #coercivecontrol? Well three reasons:
1. Therapy; it helps me recover and cope
2. Protection; these things are happening, the law is changing but the abuse should be documented and writing it makes me feel safer. I have a right to feel safe in my own life.
3. Advocacy; as frightening as I find my abuser … when I get private messages like this …

“I read your blogs and posts. Inspiration that you speak out… I’m sorry you have experienced such a situation and continue to face these trials.
You speaking out makes others feel less alone or indeed “crazy”.

I know how difficult it is …”

Then all I can say is — thank you for reading, and thank you for believing. I’m sorry that you also feel alone and I’m glad my words can help even in some small way.

 

Officially, of course, I would never want to write anything that would upset another person, nor would I deliberately use my knowledge to intimidate another person if they don’t understand the terms I have used. I am sincerely sorry that my choice of term has been misinterpreted. However, I cannot be held accountable for someone else’s ignorance and I will not accept responsibility for something that I have not done as blameshifting is attempted.

It is very clearly not my intention to cause any offence, but intimidating me into silence with false allegations is an offence.

So there are two ways forward; stop subjecting me to abuse, stop reading this and stalking me such that I feel I have to write to protect myself.

And I’ll contentedly return to my preferred content — being a happy divorcee.

What does coercive control look like?

midsection of woman making heart shape with hands

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I don’t seem like a victim

When I started writing this blog I didn’t expect that it would turn into a living timeline documenting domestic abuse. I don’t identify as a victim. I don’t have visible bruises, I don’t hide myself away for fear of attack. However, I have been under siege for four years and I live in a persistent state of anxiety and dread. I’m posting this from my bed because I’ve been physically incapacitated once again following another onslaught. I have to get up soon, get to work in an industry where I’m highly respected and a leader in my field. Today I will discuss new medicines for people with rare diseases and how to communicate complex science to patients who may have just received a devastating diagnosis. I will then come home and have a great evening with my wonderful husband and his children before rolling into a bank holiday weekend which promises to be full of fun, sunshine and probably a bit of happy middle-aged kitchen disco dancing.

This is not, therefore, what people think coercive control looks like.

Because I’ve been frightened and shamed into ‘not telling’ about the domestic violence that is the other permanent part of my life. That’s the leitmotif of the bully; isolate, intimidate and ostracise their prey. And threaten them — you tell the truth about what I do to you and I will cause you more pain next time.

 

He doesn’t seem like a perpetrator

Coercive control is the fine-wine drinking, well-dressed, powerfully networked and markedly wealthier relative of the beer-swilling, fists-flying domestic abuser. But he is just as vicious, just as scary, just as adept at covering up his tracks.

The coercive controller is very clever. Just as a physical bully will know exactly which parts of your body hurt the most when he attacks you, the coercive controller knows how to bruise your brain by attacking the foundations of your life and the people that you care about the most. In my case, my parents, my friends, my husband and my children have been hurt as part of the campaign to keep causing psychological injury to me. Personally attacking me is the smallest part of the process; or perhaps it is just that I have become used to being hurt that I don’t notice it or give it the same significance anymore. Scarred tissue is tougher to damage.

The wounds I wear from coercive control include:

— Telling my children that I am a bad person and can’t be trusted

— Writing lies to court officials accusing me of illnesses I don’t have

— Forcing court officials to take me to court about the care of my children based on lies about my conduct

— Calling my daughter’s medicine delivery company and nurse and having her treatment delivery redirected away from our home

— Writing to my male friends and warning them to stay away from me incase I sought a relationship with them (post me asking for a divorce)

— Violating my bank accounts setting up payments to other organisations that were timed to coincide with paying my mortgage and utilities and meant I would be unable to pay my bills and receive fines and damage my credit rating

— Yelling at my children and calling them stupid because they sent me messages asking for my help

— Making a relative contact the local housing authority to try to enforce an eviction of my  elderly parents from living in the annexe of my home

— Reporting my husband to the police for ‘kidnapping’ when he walked my daughter from the school office the the school football pitch

— Systematically checking my children’s phones to make sure they aren’t communicating with me and frightening them so they only contact me when they feel they won’t be overheard

— Forcing me to spend £35,000 in two years to attend 20 court hearings to defend my parenting and secure the continuing care that my children both wanted and deserved

— Telling parents of my children’s school friends lies about me and encouraging them to undermine me and assist with the alienation of the children towards me

— Allowing my daughter to be refused water during meals, to have her hands held as she tries to eat and describing this as ‘necessary training’ when I try to intervene to appeal for her rights to be respected

— Never attending medical appointments for the children but asserting that any adult can administer the injection that my daughter needs daily without her consent and when she has specifically asked for it to only be done by her Mum or her Gran.

These are the broad brush events; there have been insidious everyday acts, the nasty comments made to my children, the snidey aside to acquaintances, the making me beg the court to have my children join me at my Father’s funeral. They happened AFTER my divorce. This is a common pattern; the domestic abuse inflicted by a coercive controller often worsens when you leave. Because they think that the domestic abuse laws not longer apply to them.

This is not a black eye — it is setting fire to someone’s soul, But you can’t see a burnt psyche.

 

We only seem to see what we want to see

What happens next is what is intriguing. Our kitchen has ‘that detritus pile’ …. the odds and ends of family life that assembles in the corner. There are old newspaper articles, unsigned school forms, theatre fliers, bloody endless football cards. And in the pile is another letter from the police inviting me to access their sources for domestic abuse victims. I’ve already been on the course. I’ve already got a support worker.

But still it continues.

Until we recognise that the wife-beater doesn’t actually wear a ‘wife-beater’ and doesn’t actually lay a hand on his victim and that she likely is an ‘ex-wife’ … then we will never know what coercive control looks like. Until we train our officials to recognise when someone is playing the system to cause another person harm then we will see women continuously being dragged through the family court systems and labelled as histrionic rather than afraid. Until we step up and defend our ‘friends’ who are being slandered, attacked and criticised then we will never have immunity from the belief that a man being bullying is something to be admired as ‘powerful’.

It is happening right now, however, to lots of Mums. To a Mum like me,  — who is just trying to be a Happy Divorcee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once upon a time …

Screen Shot 2018-05-22 at 23.03.50

A trusting young maiden met a man with many charming words

It is said that everyone has a novel in them. But what if someone has a story about you in them that they are determined to tell — irregardless of whether or not the details are true, they just want to portray you as the bad guy in their fairy tale? I’m not so bothered about someone’s opinion of me; but it does irk me when people tell big fat lies. I have a cup that says, ‘I’m not argumentative, I’m fucking factual’. That’s accuracy in just six words. Perhaps it’s a novella that’s in me then or a Haiku?

I’m pretty accomplished at taking criticism and negative commentary on board. As a Medical Writer with a 20 year pedigree of working with world experts who are used to telling it straight, I’ve had all sorts of feedback — from correcting grammar (“that’s tautology” was on the first script I wrote for a video about breast cancer and sent me straight for a dictionary) to an outright, “this is completely unreadable” (ok, you try explaining surrogate markers for HIV efficacy to a lay audience then). I’ve even been able to categorise which kind of medical professionals will give which kind of review comments. Let’s just say I thought Cardiologists had a God-complex, but I recently experienced the public wrath of a plastic surgeon about the drawbacks of communicating by Twitter. I didn’t invent the platform, I’m just trying to make it work for as many people as possible and do my little bit for accuracy in science reporting! It seems surgeons, especially, rarely have time to sugar-coat (they leave that to the pharmaceutical developers, which is handy as that is actually a part of their job.).

I’m not shy of making content corrections in my work, nor do the copy corrections of an experienced Editor unnerve me. In my trainee days, transitioning from Lab to Keyboard, I tried to joke about the volume of ‘red pen’ all over a clinical trial report to have the reviewer reassure me “criticising is the easier job, I couldn’t get the right words in the right order on the page in the first place”. That’s always stuck with me when in the face of ferocious feedback.

 

When Prince Charming is actually Pinocchio

On a personal happiness scale, however, when someone decides to transact in fiction not fact what can be done to set the record straight without being perceived to be the dull one? And what happens when a narration of nastiness becomes so normal and frequent that people start to believe it? Perhaps you even start to believe the peddling and meddling yourself — I endured years of being told I was unattractive, insignificant, unworthy of the loving relationship I was supposed to be in. And whilst I’m not a Disney-perfect princess, I’m certainly not any ‘un’ or ‘in’ word.

What’s the pH litmus reading on pernicious storytelling? Somebody has to be the grown up around here after all and neutralise the acid or the alkali. Both are corrosive in concentrated form: ‘Alka-lies’ leave a nasty burn, especially on a child’s psyche if they comprise toxic concoctions about their Mum. In crafting ever-more absurd stories about me I’m always shocked that some people genuinely want to believe the lies, especially the storyteller themselves. The Prince Charming mask slips and that Pinocchio nose gets bigger and bigger. Chuck in an Ugly Sister or three (actually I’m getting confused with Macbeth now) heckling in the background whilst trying to fit their size 9s into your old shoes and maybe a crowd of onlookers wanting to be dazzled by faux adornment when the naked truth is evident — and … tada … there’s a veritable plethora of Grimm Tales to wade through. All far more entertaining than focusing on your own story, writing a new chapter or simply telling the truth.

I’ve been treated to all sorts of personality rewrites and character cat-calling since I divorced. To be fair, this wasn’t entirely unexpected as there were quite a lot of incidents during my first marriage where I felt like I was in Enid Blyton’s ‘Magic Faraway Tree’. I would find peculiar things being said about me and even to me which wasn’t constructive criticism but straightforward lies or — in the case of the more accomplished liar (technically known as ‘The Coercive Controller’) bizarre elaborations which was like living in ‘That-Never-Happened-Land’ at the top of tree … waiting for the whirling to stop and “Land of Truth” to appear. Psychologists and abuse counsellors call this ‘gas lighting’ where a perpetrator purposefully manufactures events and falsifications about you and involves your entire support network to try to portray you as ‘being a bit ill’ when you start to say, ‘that’s untrue. For sure it takes considerable effort to spin such a web and it never leads to a happy ending.

The best kind of lies, of course, are those which have a scion of plausibility that can be whipped up into a frothy-topped truth — if you are frothy-topped cerebrally or far under the spell of the Magical Manipulator. None of my family thought for a second, for example, that when my Father died, ‘I couldn’t really understand what a Father-Daughter relationship is because [I] only had a Stepdad’. Nor for a New York Minute would anyone consider me cruel enough (or indeed, ignorant) to make racist comments; it is just not in any part of me (from DNA to epidermis). However, the seed of suspicion is planted because — yes, my Dad was my Stepdad and yes I did once refer to people as behaving as ‘flying monkeys’ (as in The Wizard of Oz) — which in the heads of people determined to let fertile imagination eclipse facts will always mean someone, somewhere wants to believe a lie about you because they want to believe in the person telling it. Maybe they have no choice but to believe them — because their lives now depend on it, they’ve been manipulated into joining in before they realised what was happening or, perish the thought they might have to concede that they were easily duped! It takes courage to say that someone fooled you. It takes strength to apologise.*

Thing is, if they are lying about someone to you then they are probably also lying about you to someone. Shudder now. Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf — in grandma’s clothing?

 

I’m no Fairy Princess

Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel had more than one thing in common; I’m not talking about appearance as, like any woman, I’m easily seduced by a pair of heels, I’ve had my fair share of pricks send me to sleep, and I do think it is important to have a decent haircut. No. They were all trapped into relying on their looks to get them out of a pickle. Fortunately, I’m no Fairy Princess because I refuse to be bit-part player in my own story where some gallant man rescues me and then I succumb to spending the rest of my days in gratitude as he loses his charm at the same rate that he loses his hair. No thanks. I’d rather be Dame Washalot — and wash that man right out of my hair.

I’ll stick to science, thanks. And I’ll rely on my brain and the power of the pen to write stories about patients, doctors and medicines. It’s safer, more rewarding, and means I always have the ability to rescue myself. As for the Pinocchios masquerading as Prince Charming, selling their unique brand of gas lighting and lies — their own story is as wooden as their hearts and by logic therefore, so too must be their lives and their loves. I’ll stay bright in truth, transparency and trust; you languish in the shadows fearing exposure. Evidence is undeniable, eventually, and there’s a rap sheet as long as the nose. The lies are being heard by many — by the people who count, they long stopped being believed.

 

*Those reading this who have been fooled: don’t worry, I accept the apology that you won’t be able to give. I had the wool pulled over my eyes too — you’re in good company.