How to be a Dad when you only see your children at weekends.

And where is Dad in all this? I see a lot of step-family members in the work I do, sometimes as couples, sometimes as adult survivors, most often as stepmothers blaming themselves. So let’s take a common situation and just for today let’s concentrate on Dad. We’ll call him Geoff. Let’s say Geoff’s marriage to Lorna was rocky. Geoff meets Babs and falls in love. The rocky marriage becomes a shipwreck. Geoff leaves and lives with Babs. He has been honest. He pays proper maintenance. He has ceded the family home to Lorna and his children and now lives in reduced circumstances. Geoff should be able to look himself in the eye, shouldn’t he? So why isn’t everything okay at least for Geoff?

Geoff is not okay because he is trying to leap over the stage where he feels a lot of pain in response to the pain he has cause his children (and yes, even Lorna). He knows his children are hurting and angry with him. Why does he choose this moment of all moments to step down from doing some proper fathering just when his children need it more than ever? I’ll tell you.

Geoff is not doing much fathering because fathering includes being the bad guy and saying no and have you done your homework and you can’t speak to your teachers like that and I’m not buying new trainers today and of course you can’t smoke in the house and on and on and on telling them all the stuff they don’t want to hear. Parenting involves being super unpopular and Geoff can’t afford to make himself even more unpopular because he’s already the bad guy.

Geoff sees less of his children than he used to, less than he would like. The children do not like his new flat with no garden. They tell him so. Their weekends with him are boring and yet they have to be ‘special’ because their time together is limited. How can Geoff risk his children sulking during their one weekend a fortnight with him by denying them what they think they want? The last thing he wants is for them to go back to Lorna and say they don’t want to visit Dad again. So he capitulates and buys them stuff, takes them to MacDonald’s, let’s them stay up and watch unsuitable TV. In fact Geoff begins to behave like a mate and not a Dad. Lorna feels he tries to buy his children’s love and that she doesn’t have the funds to compete. In addition Lorna now feels like the only parent because Geoff is taking a break from parenting. A bad situation has become truly horrible. And children with a living breathing father are trying to parent themselves because their Geoff feels too bad to do it.

You see Geoff isn’t trying to make his kids feel better by indulging them. He is trying to make his own horrible feelings go away, the horrible feelings he has when he sees his children in pain. (The only person who can see this clearly is the luckless Babs and of reasons we will come to, she is not a good person to tell him.)

What does Geoff need to do? What can Geoff do? It’s really simple. No, not easy, but simple. Geoff needs to be honest. Starting with himself he has to admit that his new life and his new love are happening alongside the terrible pain he feels in seeing his children in pain.When Geoff sees his children showing him how hurt and angry they are – fighting, demanding stuff, treating him like dirt – he needs to remember that what they are telling him is how hurt and angry they are. He can safely ignore the content of the demands. Instead, Geoff can explain to them in simple words that he feels terrible that he has hurt them and he knows they feel terrible and he is sorry. He can normalise their anger and hurt. He can demonstrate that he accepts that this is how they feel. This means  that they can accept that this is how they feel. This acceptance is a process not an event. It may take 12 months. Geoff may encounter a lot more hurt and anger in the shape of bad behaviour before the children settle down again. Children recognise the truth immediately as we all do. Although they may be hurting and angry at least they are not utterly bewildered by their feelings. Dad has made sense of them and honoured their bad feelings. He hasn’t tried to lie to them and make the bad feelings go away.

They may kick off but they have’t lost their Dad. He is still recognisable as a father and for this they are relieved. If Lorna still has a charitable heart, she will also know that Geoff is doing his bit and not leaving her to be the only parent.

Next time I promise we will address the step-mother caught up in this maelstrom. What can the unfortunate Babs contribute to this situation and what is she going through?

 

 

 

Making Friends

Making friends is what we first learn to do when we go to school or kindergarten. Anxious mothers ask that first question when we come home, ‘Did you make friends?’ Friends make the strangeness less strange, the frightening less frightening. New experiences with friends are an adventure, exciting rather than daunting. Eating, shopping, travelling, going to visit a garden or a museum – these things take on a much greater significance when we do it with friends. Friends make a little ceremony possible over a cup of coffee where on our own there was only the humdrum. Friends support us in our celebrations and our grieving. The lovely photo of the two friends above is by Survival International which works for tribal people around the globe. You can buy it as a Thank You card which feels especially appropriate since gratitude is an emotion closely allied with friendship.

Friendship seems to be an important part of being human and much of what I observe and write about concerns making friends with ourselves, treating ourselves as we would a much loved friend. Instead of chastising us for failing, a good friend would feel for us, might encourage us to try again, would honour the hard work and courage involved, the good already achieved. Focussing on what is not yet within our grasp and what we cannot yet achieve is not friendly. When positivity is needed a friend knows what to do. When a few home truths are what is required a friend will find a way of sharing them without shaming or humiliating us. This ideal friend is just the friend we need to be to ourselves!

And here’s a strange thing I have marvelled at over the years I have worked with clients : the more like that ideal friend we can be to ourselves, the more our friends will also be like that in the outside world. It seems unfair but inevitable that the world treats us like we treat ourselves. I have lost count of the delightful people who have sat in my room and told me, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, how mean they are to themselves. Very frequently those people have ‘friends’ and relatives close to them who are also mean to them. For some reason not clear to me, when our internal world is full of shame and punishment we find it out there too, in our jobs, in our yoga class, our choir, our team and in our intimate relationships. When people are being mean to you you don’t want to hear that the remedy might begin with how you treat yourself in the privacy of your own head. I say, ‘Try it and see.’

But what if you can’t shake off that chastising voice in your head? What if it’s there as soon as you wake up or even in your dreams. Some of us feel inadequate all the time and agree with the voice that we never live up to our own expectations. Then we have to make friends in a different way. We have to make friends with our experience even if that experience includes a mean, judging voice. Imagine you are minding a group of children in a playground. They are all playing nicely and being no trouble except for one who’s upsetting everyone else by taking their toys and acting mean. You have to include her in your care for the group because exclusion only leads to more trouble and more work. (Yes, a pity schools don’t take this line but exclude everyone they find difficult …)

The more we include the mean side of ourselves in our care for ourselves the quicker it ceases to make trouble. The important thing to remember is that you are bigger than that mean little person inside who needs taking care of just the same as the rest.

No recipe today, I’m afraid but stand by for a post about fermentation which I am completely new to. It looks like a fabulous way to introduce more healthy bacteria into my gut as well as using up the remaining vegetables from the garden before winter.

 

 

The Search for Honey

This is another story that tells of turning away from our habitual defences and the courage of trying something new. See what happens when we tread a different path : this is really the whole of psychotherapy.

 

At last I can wait no longer and I put on layers of clothing and open the door. I have to take off my gloves again to force the door which sticks and I hurt my hand getting it open. The wind near tears the door off and outside the bleak landscape is uninviting. My mouth is full of yearning and cursing; the hunger is insatiable now. My house was built long ago with wood from the tree of wilfulness and I leave it as little as I can. The tree still grows outside my door. Its fruits are bitter but I use the wood for the fire. It makes a poor fire but the wood is plentiful.

I venture out onto the hard beauty of the tundra and after a wearisome walk of some hours, encumbered by the thick clothes woven from pride, I find a small parcel of honey in a ruined building. I hurry back to the safety of my mean home where I give the honey to the children of my need and take some myself. The sweetness of giving the little ones honey gives way, when they are asleep, to the relief of filling my own mouth with what is left. The small fire has gone out. I fall asleep in the cold, bundled in most of the clothes I own, with sugar on my lips.

But sooner or later pride and wilfulness are not enough to keep the need at bay and I must brave the journey once more. Each time I must go further. Each time there is the fear that all the honey is gone. Each time the children cry harder.

And then, after years of such journeys a different thing happens. One day the needing takes me further from home, further into the cold than I have ever been before. The fear is great. I may freeze before I get home again to the cold comfort of the drafty hut and the smokey fire. I worry even more about the children.

My steps are heavy in my old boots and I pass the many ruined buildings where I have found sweetness in the past. These ruins are my friends and lovers of old and I pass them quickly for they hold nothing for me now. Their sweetness is exhausted.

After miles of slowgoing I can see another barn or such like ahead. Out here I am so far from the settlement that it is unlikely already to have been raided and my spirits lift with unbearable hope. My breath is short and my steps quicken. I do not feel the cold; I can see already the smiles of my children as I hand them the honeycomb later tonight; I can feel the stickiness on my tongue, the fullness in my mouth, the brief orgasm as I swallow. Don’t think about that.

And I am in luck. In a forgotten corner of this hay-barn is a jar of the sweetness I so badly need, the sweetness I do not know how to make. There is a relaxation within as I know that the need will shortly be assuaged, that my mouth will be full. I secure the jar in my top coat, tighten my scarves around my face, put on my gloves and step outside once more.

This way lies home. But see, the other way, the snows of make-believe autonomy and wilfulness run out and the bare earth is showing. I have never seen the earth before lying naked and unprotected by the snow. Here it is not frozen to stone as it is where I struggle every year to plant the terrible vegetables we must live on. Here there is mud instead. I am fascinated and I walk a little further away from home to see what I can find.

But the mud turns to mire. A man-made hell of unwanted rubble and shit emerges. Junk lies in dark oily puddles and there is scarcely anywhere to put one foot after another. I will never get my boots clean again. This is where I keep my blackest thoughts, thoughts of shame and murder and revenge and hope and self-harm. It is ugly here beyond imagination. This is why I live in the pristine snow where the suffering is less. 

I am pondering this long-forgotten decision when, beyond the mud, I see a fence. It has no doors or gates in it but it is a temporary fence such as builders erect around their work to keep out trespassers. The panels of the fence are not solid, nor are they heavy but every metre or so they are held in place by metal blocks of unimaginable weight. Each panel bears a picture of me and in every weight I see a refusal to forgive. I stand in the black mud and worse and contemplate the fence. Each weight had to be forged from the metal of unforgiveness and dragged into position. I remember each instance with an effort, each instance where I closed my heart with deliberation and turned away from forgiveness, away from the awful suffering of compassion. 

The sad work of erecting that fence took years and I called it growing up. 

Eventually I think to lift my eyes from the ground at last and I am overwhelmed to see, above the fence, the pink and gold domes of San Marco. The warmth, the pleasure, the plenty of Venice awaits there, within sight. I can hear music and laughter, like a party. Venice is like a party and I recognise that this is my heart, my journey’s end. The pink and gold domes sparkle in the sunlight with an inexhaustible supply of honey and I remember that within it is dark and private. Inside the cathedral there is the glimmer of the everlasting flame reflected in the ancient, gold mosaics which celebrate the deeds of the saints. There is the jewelled altar screen and an eternal holy singing and the smell of incense as the Blessed Sacrament is offered for adoration.

I begin to pick my way through the mire towards the singing. 

Damsons and Foregiveness

A few days ago Summer was fondly kissing us goodbye. Today a powerful wind and the threat of rain are thrusting towards me like Autumn with an outstretched hand and I rush down the garden to pick the wild plums or damsons before they are lost. Here they are having a wash in my sink and when they were clean I rustled up some damson jam which is my favourite. There’s no easy way to stone damsons but they are worth it.

damsons 2

Here’s the lovely syrupy mess they become after a short while in a pan with two thirds their own weight in sugar. For me the stones never float to the top so I resort to ladling the jam from one pan to another via a shallow dish where I can scrutinise each spoonful and fish out the stones. With ordinary plums it helps to count the plums first and then you have a target for the number of stone. With damsons I usually have over 400 and invariably lose count at some point.

This ended up in seven lovely pots and in time would all disappear onto people’s toast but good damson jam is such a great treat IMO that I decided it should furnish an old fashioned jam tart for supper.

My mother was a Pastry Queen and I resolutely did not learn to make pastry for the first thirty five years of my life because I wanted to be different from her. In fact I was in a giant sulk or tantrum, truth be told, which I should probably have chucked in when I was about seven but I dug my heels in because I had been hurt and because my will power (or wilfulness as she called it) was second to none. Of course I achieved my purpose of hurting her but I see now I hurt myself much more. Since then there has been reconciliation and forgiveness although much of it only after she died. Death is never an obstacle to forgiveness luckily but if you have an opportunity, dive in and do it sooner.

Anyway … my mother used to make wonderful individual jam tarts, lemon curd tarts, treacle tarts, all in miniature so that they appeared out of the oven in all their colourful loveliness and I didn’t know which to eat first. (My tantrum extended to not making pastry but it didn’t stop me eating hers!)

So here is the recipe for Damson Jam Tart but I guess you could use any really delicious jam and needless to say the finished article is good with Ice-cream, cream, fromage frais or any other unsweetened dairy. damson tart

Sadly I am not a pastry queen but I can at last do an acceptable shortcrust. It is heavy on the fat which means it remains very soft and breaks easily when you pick it up to line the tin. But it also means you can just squidge it in in pieces with your fingers and it all sticks together well.

I get my best results with Stork margarine rather than butter but others disagree. So this tart was simply

115 g Stork soft margarine

165 g plain flour

a pinch of salt and enough cold water to bring everything together.

Roll out as far as possible and line a greased loose-bottomed tart tin approx. 15 inches or 40 cms in diameter. Heat the oven to 180 degrees and do actually wait until it is hot! Put a circle of baking parchment inside the raw pastry and up the sides and fill with baking beans (porcelain or just dried beans). Give it 15 minutes in the oven and then remove the paper and beans.

Fill about half way up with really good jam and return to the oven until the jam is bubbling – about 20 minutes or so.