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?

 

 

 

Wicked Step-Mother

Splitting is a recipe for mental health that we learn before we can speak. It is a normal healthy strategy the human psyche employs before reason arrives. We imagine there’s a good mother that comes and feeds us and a bad mother who doesn’t come. We imagine there really are two separate people. The good mother is happy and smiling and loving. The bad mother is Mother on an off day, in a bad mood, grumpy, tired, fed up or maybe when she just needs five minutes to herself! It’s a convenient ‘pre-conscious’ behaviour which enables us to hold conflicting experiences in the same tiny heart and mind before we can ‘understand’ or rationalise what is happening. And before you tell me it wasn’t like this for you because your mother was always there, let me clarify. For an infant lying in its cot and feeling miserable, Mother feels hateful even though she’s just finished feeding you and fallen asleep next to your bed because she’s exhausted.

It is too confusing and produces bad feelings if we ‘think’ bad things about mother. (It is too difficult for many of my adult clients so no wonder the dependent infant has problems.) How will we love her again if we really feel these bad feelings about her? And how will we survive if we don’t love her? We need her.

Let me say this with flashing lights and siren accompaniment : this is about the normal infant with the more than adequate mother. All mothers fail their infants every day and they need to so in order that children can learn to handle anger, disappointment, fear without cracking up (or as we hygienically call it,trauma.)

By the age of about two we are ‘supposed’ to have developed what they call ‘object constancy’ which means you can just about tolerate knowing that wonderful Mother, whom you adore, has off days and is the self-same harridan that handles you roughly and burns the toast and yells or puts on her best dress and goes out for the evening leaving you with a babysitter. Trouble is most of us don’t seem to reach that integration by age two and some of us still don’t get it by age fifty-two. Some of us feel the only safe way forward is to hang on to that ideal mother in our heads and guess what happens to the horrible hateful feelings we’re not dealing with?

You’ve read the title to the post and you’re way ahead of me. Enter the wicked step-mother who is purpose built for all those negative feelings we can’t allow ourselves to feel about Mum. If you’ve ever read a fairytale you can’t help noticing that stepmothers get a bad press. They are murderous, greedy, manipulative and fatally attractive to innocent men. Snow White’s stepmother actually plots to have her killed, Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother sends them out to starve in the forest. These iconic monsters of children’s literature represent a safety valve for kids to hate their mothers in an entirely healthy unconscious way. But hey, if they’ve got a stepmother in their lives they can keep all their good cosy feelings for Mum and channel all those bad, ugly feelings towards That Horrible Lady Who Has Stolen Daddy. And Mum is superhuman if she doesn’t encourage this splitting. Who wants to be the villain? (As a mother and stepmother myself I have some experience of being the Good Cop and and the Bad Cop and I know which is nicer.)

But this naturally occurring splitting also points to an unhealthy split that many societies (yes, and religions) make between the good female (self-sacrificing, sex sanctified by reproduction or abstained from) and the bad female (autonomous, dangerous, sexual and unapologetic). Mixed feelings about sex lie right at the heart of this and the impossible question : how can my saintly, pure mother whom I love also be a powerful sex goddess? Many of us wall up the sex goddess in the garage the minute children arrive because we just don’t know how to combine those roles. The paradox of the Virgin Mother is one we are still wrestling with. Stepmothers embody all those unmotherly female attributes that the world finds just too powerful to feel comfortable with. The wicked stepmother is beautiful but not maidenly. She is sexual and autonomous. She is in touch with her own sexual desire but not as a means to procreation! She is in a mothering role without any of what we euphemistically call ‘mothering instincts’ (for which read ‘biological investment’). Wow! No wonder she’s hot stuff.

This is the first in a series of posts about parenting and step-parenting and in the next one I shall be addressing how as mothers and step-mothers we can cope with the horrible feelings coming up in ourselves and the horrible feelings coming towards us from our step-children. And don’t worry! We will be asking an all-too-unasked question, Where Does Dad Fit In With All This?

Happily this experience is not the same for everyone but I encounter many women for whom this is a really painful area and not much talked about with love. Look out for my next post but meanwhile there is support for stepmothers here and it looks really good.

Recipes are taking a back seat today but more soon.

 

Apple Poem

All along I was the apple after all.

I thought I was the label. Blemish full of information

That increases my appreciation of the apple

Not one jot.

 

Apple meanwhile,

Broad, beaming and generous,

Tolerates the sticky label

With sublime serenity

Like an elephant disregarding a tic.

 

Busy with narrative, the tic

Is hero in his own story.

The elephant, like the apple, is

Too absorbed in being itself

To make correction.

 

Realising my mistake

I feel full of goodness.

My mind, entirely at peace with my apple-i-ness,

Is no longer compelled by the words on the label,

Even though I still haven’t made all of them out.

 

Put away the magnifying glass

And the dictionary.

All the label does is point to the apple

Like that finger pointing at the moon.

Cooking the Fridge

One of the things I love about leaving England to drive back to Italy for a while is what I call Cooking the Fridge. Despite my careful planning, two days before leaving I find myself with a fridge full of things I don’t want to throw away. Follows an enforced cooking session as I empty the fridge and stash things in the freezer for when we return which leaves me feeling frugal and virtuous and stores up treats for later. Win, as they say, win.

This time my fridge yielded the stock from a beef casserole which happily went with a glut of carrots and onions (how many did I imagine I needed?) to make carrot and onion soup. The beef casserole was a proper daube with lardons flamed in Cognac before a long slow cook so the stock is pretty impressive. I’ve added water to make enough liquid for the soup but it still socks you in the mouth with its taste.

I’ve chopped the unending celery, onions and carrots  and all the herbs in the garden for a mirepoix ready for osso bucco or lentils in December. And the entire bag of shallots lurking in the salad drawer has made a single jar of caramelised onions for an onion and goats’ cheese tart in December. Just cook the slowly with a dribble of oil and a spoonful of dark brown sugar. Add a dash of salt at the end.

Then there’s some broccoli which has fallen through the net until today. I have whipped it into edibleness by roasting it with nuts and spices and covering in a rich cheese sauce. I find roasting it first really adds to the flavour.IMG_0817

 

Potatoes and eggs have succumbed to an ad hoc gratin with the remains of the cheese.

IMG_0815 Cooking apples have been stewed (in the microwave) against future porridge delights or Winter crumbles.

So why not look in your fridge now if you have a slow day and cook the lot. Let me know what unusual things you make!

Here is the happy outcome of the day.IMG_0818

The Mrs Tiggywinkle feel of putting things in jars is unbeatable. And that reminds me of the fermentation I promised a while ago. Sandor Katz is the god of fermentation and once I had heard him on the radio and seen him on youtube I just had to have a go. As you can see I have experimented with pickling French beans, tomatoes and cabbage and it had already begun to bubble before I left. I’m new to this so I don’t know what state they will be in in four weeks time but I shall report back.

If you would like to learn about fermentation you could do a lot worse than listen here and look here for instruction. Great news : fermented foods are now fashionable as health foods because they replenish the healthy bacteria in your gut, keeping your weight down and your digestion working well.

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.

 

 

Narziss and Goldmund. Two Lives.

images-2

Watercolour by Hermann Hesse

Here is a short story I wrote some years ago which I’d like to share with you on this Autumn morning. It is not difficult to see what the story is about and it is of course partly a tribute to Hermann Hesse’s work. His lovely water colour introduces the page.

 

When I was about ten there were brothers in school and privately I called them Narziss and Goldmund because they were so different from each other and yet somehow they belonged together. In the old story Narcissus can love no-one but his own reflection and his own reflection dissolves as he reaches out to grasp it. That is his suffering. But the Narziss that I knew was not like that. He had a handsome face and he wore his compassion on his open brow like a standard from the wars, like a young Hector. He worked hard, he was popular and he regularly came at the top of our class. Narziss and Goldmund loved each other but they did not understand each other.

Goldmund was subtle and his intellect glittered like a dagger with a jewelled handle. In class he was unpredictable. If only he could be more like his brother, the teachers said. He was musical and often the first you knew of Goldmund was his song coming ahead of him and the last was the music he left behind like perfume in the air. At the village dance after the harvest it was Goldmund that people watched and it was Goldmund who did not notice. The boy with the golden mouth was gregarious and attractive. But he was elusive and there was something about him which made me feel even then that he was a visitor in his own community. He was lent to us. I was not surprised when he was first to leave the village. We all turned out to see him off and all the girls swore to wait for him but he just smiled and struck out towards the first town with a small knapsack, a stick and a beautiful melody he invented himself.

There was talk of his going to Dortmund to continue his education. Some said music, others said he had gone into the church and been sent to Rome, that he was highly spoken of in the Vatican. There were even rumours that he had gone further afield, changed his name, given up everything to pursue an idea, to become an adept of the mystical practices of the East. In short, what happened to Goldmund became the stuff of local myth and in time we who had known him divided into two camps. Those whose pride he had hurt said he had burned himself out and come to nought. Others preferred to imagine him living the lives they would have liked for themselves – lives full of adventure, or of extraordinary asceticism and spiritual revelation, or perhaps of fame and adulation. In listening to this talk we learned much about each other but nothing of Goldmund.

Meanwhile Narziss had married and bought a plot of land. He built his modest house with wood from the tree of patience and turfed its roof with the flowers of honesty. He had sons who looked like him. He never spoke of Goldmund but a terrible endurance came into his eyes if you asked him about his brother. He would put his hand on his heart and he would say,

“My brother is in here and in here he can be free. That is enough.”

On Narziss’ land there ran a good stream which he used to water his crops and his animals. His wife brought water from the same stream to drink and to wash with. At the edge of his plot the stream went underground to reappear in the field beyond as a river. Narziss could see the field and the river over a gate in his hedge. The gate had been padlocked before his time and no-one now knew where the key was. In any case, the lock was thick with rust. In his heart when he was a young man, there was a yearning to enter the next field which looked so beautiful from his own land. When his family were out, Narziss had even searched the outbuildings for that key, thinking perhaps to find it in some hayloft or forgotten corner, but he never did. For a while there was a terrible conflict in his heart.

In time the yearning died down. Life became too busy for Narziss to worry much about anything but providing for his family and enjoying the prosperity that his labours brought him. By the time his sons left school to help him, he had extended his house with hard-earned stones of wisdom and he had built barns of prudence and charity against hard times. He gave work to six men and he was a person to whom others came in their need. He turned no-one away, although to each he gave from a different purse.

Years went by and his wife died; his sons did more of the hard labour on the land and Narziss had more time to look around him. In the evening, especially when the sun was setting, he liked to stand by the boundary gate and the yearning that he had known as a young man, grew in him again. Cut down like a thistle, it sprang up again more vigourous than before. His heart hankered after the field beyond where the wheat seemed always golden and waiting to be cut. With the evening sun in his eyes, Narziss sometimes thought he saw figures harvesting that wheat or resting in the stacks after their labours. Now and again it seemed, one or other of them might give him a friendly wave but they were never close enough to be sure. The river ran with milk and honey in the distance.

Narziss often looked wistfully at the rusty padlock and the tall hedge – again the conflict arose within. Why had he not dealt with these things when he was young and had his strength? His sons were busy enough now, he could not ask them to help him. Regretfully Narziss accepted that he had left it too late to strike out and find the key, too late to keep the brambles from the hedge. He had been too busy building his house, weeding his fields, providing for his family and giving charity to others. He had stilled his heart in a way that Goldmund did not know how to do and it made him sad. Perhaps after all, Goldmund had chosen the better path and he was ashamed of the judgments he had made those years ago.

He thought more often now of his brother. He remembered his laughing mouth, his bold countenance, his disregard for the everyday and his courage as he strode away from all he had ever known. He knew that in his position Goldmund would have let his land go to wrack and ruin, his children go hungry whilst he hunted for that key until he found it. He envied him a little. Why did Goldmund not suffer the same struggle as he? But I could not have been different, he told himself. It is in my nature to be steadfast and I could not abandon my duties to

follow my heart. Still I will do what I can for those who come after me, for my sons. I will bring a little piece of wire wool with me on my evening walk and I will remove the rust from the padlock though I will never be able to open it.

And that is what he did. Each evening that Summer after supper cooked by his daughter-in-law, he went down to the boundary hedge and sat by the gate. In the golden light he worked with his once skilful hands at the rust on the big, old padlock and all the while he soothed his heart with the beauty of the field nearby, the faint rushing of the river, the harmony of the figures in the distance. By the time his own crops were in the barn, the padlock was bright and well-oiled and that evening there was joy in his face as he went back to the house and to bed. It was as if, in polishing the padlock, Narziss burnished his own heart.

Autumn came and Narziss still took his walk each day. He needed a thick jacket now and a stick to help him and he leaned heavily on the gate when he got there to get his breath back before returning to the house for the night. As the months came and went it was by moonlight that he toiled down to the gate and each night it seemed further away. On such an evening with a full moon and a mackerel sky, Narziss was

rubbing his cold fingers and looking across to the river, black and silver in the moonlight, when something caught his eye. There was a figure moving towards him across the field. This he had never seen before. The people he had seen cutting wheat or making hay had always remained stationary like figures in the mind’s eye. This soul was different as it came – purposeful, deliberate and of course it was Goldmund moving easily, as lithe as when he left fifty years ago. He too had a stick, though he used it for cutting tall grass ahead with all the old energy that Narziss remembered. As he grew nearer Narziss could hear his song, a song he had heard in his dreams. As the notes settled into his old heart Narziss began to weep with love and with hope. His tears washed away the last grains of rust, the last traces of conflict within.

At length Goldmund was upon him, seemingly the same young man who had left, the same song on his lips, the same glitter in his eye. But no, now Narziss could see him close too. Goldmund too had aged. Leaner than Narziss and fitter it is true with a young man’s vigour about him, yet in his face were the lines of a life-time’s learning, the hollows of many hungry days and sleepless nights.

‘What have you learned on your travels, brother?” asked Narziss.

‘I have learned patience and fortitude’, replied Goldmund. ‘The very things you were born with. And tell me, what have you learned at home?’

‘I have learned joy,’ replied Narziss, ‘The gift you came into the world with I had to learn, and I learned it late’. They embraced across the gate and were silent a long time and then Narziss felt a movement in his heart like the spiral of the Milky Way.

‘What have you brought me, brother?’ asked Narziss.
Goldmund did not reply but put his hand deep into his shabby coat and pulled out a large key. At this Narziss was overcome and put his head on Goldmund’s shoulder for a good while.

‘Have I wasted my life, Goldmund, toiling after food and shelter? You have brought me my heart’s desire and I have nothing for you.’ He began to chastize himself but Goldmund touched his face and looked into his eyes. Narziss was quiet.

‘I am the key, brother, but you are the gate,’ said Goldmund.

When they found them next day the gate stood open, the old key in the shining lock.

Feel the love

brownie

‘When we arrive in the world after a taxing journey into the unknown, the comfort of another human being awaits each one of us. Warmth, holding, safety, love if we’re lucky, are accompanied by and communicated through food. This is our first act on earth. ‘

This is how my post called ‘Comfort Eating’ began nearly a year ago and I want to revisit this intimate connection between food and how we feel inside because it lies at the heart of our obsession with food. It is implicated in the psychological knots we tie ourselves in about what we eat and what we should look like. If things go well in our earliest days, eating and love and the comfort of contact with another become inextricably bound together in our brains as they grow. This becomes part of what we call reality and however bad your childhood was, if you’re reading this you somehow got enough food to get by and you likely got enough love to get by as well … and maybe more. We are very good at feeling wistful for the love we yearned for and didn’t get. It is often difficult to feel the love we did get because we are angry and sad about what was missing.

Early on babies do not distinguish between love and food and what we learn about love and food we mostly learn unconsciously when we are newborn babies. Small wonder then that when we need love many of us look around for something to put in our mouths. There is no right or wrong here, just observation. This is how being human works. If we can stop punishing ourselves for eating the ‘wrong thing’ or ‘too much’ and just notice how much love we really need, that can help. If we can pledge to provide it for ourselves we take a big step towards forgiving the person who didn’t give us enough.

Promise yourself right now that whatever else you do you will not shame yourself around food and weight. That is a huge step towards bringing love and self-control into the same room. Refusing to shame yourself can liberate you from the tyranny of food : what should I eat, how much, have I ‘earned’ it? We don’t eat because we ‘deserve’ to. We eat because we need to. The more we listen to our bodies with an open mind the easier it is to find out what we need to eat and when.

We are not here on earth very long but long enough to find out how to feed ourselves with kindness. Does that sound like a good plan?

Ultimate Chocolate Brownies (adapted from Gary Rhodes’ recipe)

10 ozs caster sugar

4 eggs

8 ozs unsalted butter

3 ozs cocoa

3 ozs plain flour

8 ozs plain chocolate

4 ozs hazelnuts or pecans, chopped

4 ozs white chocolate in chunks

Whisk eggs and sugar. Melt the butter and add. Then add flour and cocoa. Melt the plain chocolate and add that. Then the nuts and the white chocolate.

Grease a shallow tin and bake at 180 degrees for 25 minutes. Cool before cutting into very small rich cubes. Eat with creme fraiche and raspberries adjusting the ratio of cake to fruit according to your situation.