Day 20

During dinner this evening, Little told me about something that happened at school:

Little: Hey, you know there was a bunch of guys who tried to pick a fight with me the other day and they won’t back off, so I told my friend to punish them for me but she didn’t. [bottom lip starts trembling]

Otter: Wait, hold on. So, you asked your friend to step in and punish these guys for you? First, I don’t think it’s great that you expect your friend to punish people on your behalf. But before you went to ask her what did you do? Did you tell them to stop?

L: Well, you know…yes, but they won’t stop so I cried.

O: Hey, I have heard you scream stop from the bottom of your lungs whenever I do something you don’t like. Just imagine them with my face and tell them to stop!

L: But what if they don’t speak English?

O: Lucky for you, French people also understand and use the word “stop”.

L: But what if I get in trouble?

O: Get in trouble for yelling stop? Then you explain to the adult what happened. Also, why are you the one who’s worried about getting into trouble? Don’t you think they should be the ones to worry about getting into trouble for bullying? Let’s practice!

[Little and Otter practice fighting back and Little ends up laughing]

Little: Wait, but what if I laugh at them?

Otter: Even better. Stand up for yourself in the face of your bullies, stand up tall and laugh. Show them that they cannot hurt you.

Sometimes I think I should take some the advice I give to my kids and put them into practice in my own life.

It is undeniable, having kids gives one courage.

Image: Suzi Eszterhas

Day 18

Yesterday I went through one of the greyest and darkest moments in my recent memory. It was so bad that I was actually proud of myself for having posted anything at all.

I felt like I lost my fight to win Big before the fight even started. I felt everything was pointless in raising my two stepchildren.

It started when I was sitting on the couch feeling completely devoid of energy. It was Sunday, we had just finished doing the housework and my partner had just finished helping Little with her homework and what should have been a good moment of doing absolutely nothing felt wrong. I remember wishing that I had the energy, even the tiniest bit of desire to do anything at all, but I had none. I remember feeling as if I had suddenly shuttled through time and turned sixty, except I am not. I am thirty something and I am exhausted.

I was so sick and tired of being sick and tired.

I felt completely depleted of the energy that I am meant to have for myself, for my partner and for my kids. What completely broke me was seeing my partner and where there was fire and desire was just “meh”. That realisation hit me hard and saddened me in a way that nothing has ever done.

I love the kids so much but like I wrote in my letter to Big, taking care of someone else’s biological children is difficult and heart-rending in a way that can feel almost insurmountable. To mix metaphors into a grotesque salad, it is like treading water through a dark tunnel with no light at the end of the tunnel in flip-flops.

I want to say that I am hopeful but right now I am just taking it day by day.

Image: The Greyness of Autumn

Day 17

A letter to my stepchild


Big, 

Today you had a conversation with your father about bringing up Little and your role in her education and I am not sure if you realise that I had overheard the entire thing, or if you did, whether you cared or not. The thing is that I did and I do. 

I have never been more hurt by you in the entire time that I have known you, Big. 

I made a decision when I started being with your father to dedicate my time and my life to this house, and to you and Little. It meant an indirect decision to put a pause in pursuing my career. I made a decision to be a constant presence in your and Little’s lives. I made a decision to wake up at any time in the night when Little calls for me. I made a decision to put up with the good, bad and ugly of the both of you and not just press “quit” and push either of you away when it gets too much, like children do with old dolls. That is what it means to be to be a parent. It means to be there constantly and to be stable and to be consistent in what is okay and what is not. 

They were all insanely difficult decisions to make that have all impacted my life irrevocably and forever. It meant spending differently. I meant handling my finances totally differently because now I am participating in a household budget that is HUGE. It meant giving up the concept of weekends. It meant giving up on regularly seeing my own parents back home. It meant that time and space that I used to have for myself is a luxury. It meant changing my entire schedule that I have kept for most of my adult life to revolving around your school days and hours. It meant redefining the entire concept of privacy. 

Do you know what that means, Big? I mean, do you actually know truly in your heart? 

But in the end I made that decision willingly and gladly because you and your family are worth it. It led to long discussions with your father about what that would mean and what my role would be. I was hesitant of accepting their invitation not only because of the obvious legal ramifications (which we were dealing with in court with your own mother), but also because both you and Little have your own biological mothers and your own set of rules that I have to contend with. 

I am telling you all of this because I feel like you deserve to know. I am not asking for your pity or for you to acknowledge my burden as these were all my decisions I made consciously. We all live with the consequences of our choices (as you once said so eloquently to me on the subject of your father). The way you use the relationship that I have with your father as a bargaining chip in your discussions with your father as a way to hurt him hurts me directly, Big. They hurt me and insult the way I have chosen to conduct my life. 

You are right that you never had a say in whether I can (and should) be in this household and whether I get to have a say in raising Little or not. You are absolutely right. Let’s leave aside the fact that I think that you forget that you are your father’s child and always will be, which means that you are not his equal nor are you mine. Let’s not forget that have an age difference that accounts for a vast gap in life experience, knowledge and accountability. Let’s leave aside the fact that I truly believe that if an older child were enlisted to participate in the household and in the education of a younger child, then his or her role would be to help enforce the existing rules in the family and not to start changing them or starting new ones. That is not the role of the child. It is also not the role of the child to sneakily or passive aggressively “ignore” or “change” the rules when they want to or when they think “it is right”. Running a family is not a democratic procedure. However, it is clear to me that you see things differently and I am not here to debate about that right now in this letter to you. 

I am formally asking you right now via this letter whether or not I am welcome in this household. This is a legitimate question and I expect an honest answer. If your answer is no, then I will talk to your father and talk about how I can continue being with him without 1) living in this house and 2) participating any longer in this household. If your answer is yes, then I would like you actually accept me as a figure in this household and to no longer bring up the polyamorous beginnings of my and your father’s relationship, or any part of our relationship, in your discussions with him ever again. 

Yours (if you will have me),

Otter

Day 14

I am on the edge of tears as I am writing this. I can almost cry but I know if I tried nothing would come out.

I feel lost with Big, our eldest kid.

Raising her has been like walking down a deep, long and dark tunnel with no end in sight. I keep walking, obviously, but feeling like I could do this forever and have no idea when it gets better.

She acts out, compares us constantly to her biological mother and her stepfather, makes us feel as if our company during the week that Little is not here is not enough, talks to us only to get help or to complain, and so on…

It feels like I am constantly being judged by some sort of standard that only she knows the ins and outs of and that if I fail, or if my partner fails, or if both of us fail, then we all get punished for it.

Parenthood is a thankless job, especially when we are talking about teens, but I didn’t expect it to be so punishing and exacting. Or maybe I am the one who’s being overdramatic?

I know deep down that she is probably hurting, that we can’t quit on her, that the best we can do is to be constant and that we should keep on trying to talk to her, but I am so very tired.

I am sorry for this short rambling post today. But being this sad has really sapped my creativity for the day. I wish there was more but I am all tapped out.

Checklist for the day:

  • Protein oatmeal with skyr
  • Shredded chicken lettuce and tomato sandwich
  • Soba in hot miso
  • Crispy beef and cauliflower rice

Day 7

Yesterday, Big came back home in tears. I was expecting her to tell me about something trivial, but after hearing about what she had been dealing with all day enraged me.

To keep a long story short and a private situation relatively private, she has an ex who is exhibiting psychopathic behaviour. This person is contacting people in her private life, spreading lies about her, and trying to exact revenge on Big for the end of a relationship that had already been terminated months prior. This person has said, in their own words, that they will turn everyone in Big’s life against her so that no one would ever believe her ever again.

Jesus Christ on a cob.

The thing that really did it for me was when Big told me she started questioning her own reality. She was accused of saying something horrifically mean to a friend, something that I immediately knew didn’t come from the mouth of my kid, but because of what’s happening, she just couldn’t be 100% sure.

Wait, hold the phones. This is something that I am dealing with in my own private life right now, as an adult. And I can barely handle it myself. There are days where I feel like I am actually going crazy, where I sort through screenshots and archives to try to piece together evidence that I am not actually insane, that I have actually lived the events that I claim to have lived. In my most vulnerable of times I have wished for someone to come in, take my word at face value and tell my psychopathic ex to shut the fuck up and leave me alone.

And then it hit me, this is the gift that I can give to my child. In the end, that’s what we did. My partner and I called the person up and told them to leave Big alone.

I want my kids to know that their home is a sanctuary for them, forever. That no matter what happens, no matter how big their fuck up is, that they can turn to me for unconditional support. That they can call me at 3am and know that I will be there, no questions asked, literally. That if they don’t feel good being somewhere, I will walk all day and all night if that’s what it takes, to take them away and bring them back to safety. And hopefully one day, if they ever decide to have their own children, to do the same for them.

Image: © Håkan Vargas/via WildSweden

Day 3

Fridays.

End of the work week, bevvies, date nights, house parties, Netflix and chill, me time.

Every other Friday is also the day I go with my partner to pick Little up as she will be staying the week with us. This has been relatively new. It has been three months, give or take, so far. Maybe one day I will have the guts (and clarity) to write about how this all came to be, but today is not one of those days. I have always loved picking her up. We built a ritual where I would hide her snacks in my pockets so that she can look for them. She would run over, pat me down and do a whole thing about how she wanted this snack or that. On our way home she would tell me about her day while doing a sort of kiddie parkour and I would rush her home because I would need to get dinner on the table for the family. It was new every single time. It was fun. It was great.

Since the separation a few months ago, however, we have been having some difficulty setting a rhythm for pick-up because of the summer holidays and so forth. But every time we go now, there is an immediate sense of anxiety and panic even before reaching the school or the meeting place. How is she going to be this time? Will she scream and cry for her mother? How long will it take before she calms down?

I have been close with Little since the first day I met her, when she was still in her nappies. The memory I have of her from that day is when she began to grimace at me while holding the edge of the coffee table. I was so confused and worried until I realise that she was looking at me while doing a poo. Standing up. In the living room. I remember playing horsey with her so much that she started calling me Horsey, instead of my name. I remember when she started developing the habit of asking me really deep questions about life and love at really weird moments (like when we were taking a shower). I remember when she started using drawings to describe how she felt when she would throw a fit. Our relationship is special in the sense that she is not my biological daughter, but we have a bond that goes beyond traditional understandings of family ties.

I love her more than life itself and seeing her in pain– knowing that she is suffering– rips my heart out. I know that when she cries when she sees me now is not personal, that when she screams for her mom now it’s not because of me. I know that, but that understanding has not made its way to my body yet.

The panic was well on its way of rushing through my body several hours before pick-up time, despite my telling myself the things that I know (that she loves me, that I love her, that she has fun with us, that we nurture her and that we just need time). I felt myself getting squirrelly walking with the traffic rushing past me and with people coming up behind me. I tried to steady my breath, but all I can think about is her little face and how she howled the last time I picked her up to start the weekend. I tried to counterbalance this with memories of last week, when she first started school and when she spent the week with us. How she asked me to draw something for her to leave in her backpack so that when she’s nervous, she could look at it. How she asked me to “forget” to put her afternoon snacks in her bag so that she could possibly see me when I drop them off at the gate during lunchtime. But to no avail. By the time we reached the gate, Little was nowhere to be seen. We asked after her and told her teacher that she is meant to go home with us at this time. Waiting for what seemed like hours with her tiny scooter in hand, with parents and kids crowding around us, I finally saw her and the look she had on her face.

Framed by a mess of sweaty hair was the look of pure disappointment.

At that moment I felt myself melting into the ground, leaving only my head sticking out of the ground, screaming but with no voice and to no one in particular.

I never ever, ever want her, or Big, to have the burden of managing my feelings, but this is the pain that I am feeling every other Friday and the only sane way of managing it is by letting myself feel it and ride through it.

The only way out is through.

Day 2

After writing yesterday, I felt my brain going almost manic. For the rest of the day, it fired a hundred ideas a minute for the next post: life as a stepmom, lists of books, life after trauma, life after academia, living in Paris as an ethnic Chinese who speaks French, English and Chinese, the intersectionality of racism and sexism here and elsewhere, pen recommendations, recipes and the list could go on for quite awhile, but I chose to stop listening.

Choosing was easy, but actually stopping was incredibly hard.

Instead, I made a promise to myself to write and to post just once a day. For a fixed period of time, I will sit down and write everything down for one post. I can go back to it, edit it, or change it up completely. But when the time is up, I will stop and call it a day.

The thing is that I am no stranger to this feeling of manic writing frenzy. I remember when I used to embrace the sudden burst of creativity and would let myself sit down and write paragraphs that turned into chapters overnight. I loved, and welcomed, these moments which (to nobody’s surprise) usually came in the beginning of a project. What would inevitably happen is that the “burst” would inevitably live up to its definition and fizzle. The outpouring of ideas that I had in the beginning would slowly taper off and I would feel incredibly guilty for no longer churning out several chapters a day and that would lead to a cycle of guilt, pressure and shame that would then transform into the infamous writer’s block.

This was more than five years ago.

I have come to realise that the best way to make this a steady and long-lasting habit, or ritual, even, is to go slow. Write a post a day, and then close it. Do not give in to write down all the ideas that tickle my brain just yet. Believe that if an idea is important enough, it will stay with me until the morning. Believe in the limitless possibilities that this writing medium offers.

As I got to thinking about nurturing habits, ny thoughts went to my teenaged stepdaughter, whom I love and of whom I am so immensely proud. She radiates light when I look at her. Whenever she talks to us about something that she is passionate, I see roads opening in front of her and I swear I would chop off an arm if it means she could get a chance to walk them. She is also brilliant at testing my patience and sanity. The prevailing issue with us concerns rules, how to set them, and how to enforce them.

She and I share the same size for most clothes. I enjoyed this from the start and loved loaning her pieces from my closet when she went out. It began to grow into a habit that I called her out on. The next time that she took clothes without permission, she also went into our bathroom and used my perfume and makeup without asking. I spoke to her again, writing her a very long letter explaining that I love sharing things with her but that asking me before using them is a bare minimum. It does not matter that each time I say “yes” to her. She cannot take that “yes” for granted and just assume that she can go ahead and do whatever she wants. Now that half a year has passed, she is doing it again. As they say, old habits die hard.

Included in these old habits of hers are the following:

  • Constantly asking for new clothes when she clearly has enough. I am aware that they are not the latest style, but that is not what she is saying as she obviously knows that if that is the reason she brings up, we would shoot it down right away.
  • Not taking care of her belongings and when called out either says that she needs to be taught it (instead of just going ahead and doing it) or that she does takes care of her things, just the things that she happens to care about.
  • Complaining that she looks to her parents for discipline. Problem being that firstly, I do not discipline teens, nor does my partner, and she knows that. There are rules that are understood in our household and they are to be followed. Secondly, the brand of discipline that she is looking for is that of her mother’s. I have no problem with that, it’s just that they are not mine nor do I share her values and therefore not mine to set. Thirdly, is the way she feels entitled to set the rules for us by passively aggressively letting things slide, ignoring rules that have been set and feigning ignorance when called out.

I am tired of going over the ground rules again and again with my kid, only to have them ignored all over again. I am exhausted to have to explain to her how her actions violate my privacy and trust, or to have to explain to her why her intentions do not matter when her actions indicate something grossly different. I am pained each time I do the mental dance of asking myself is she or is she not being manipulative. How do you deal with a person who maliciously ignores your requests, such as please return my belongings immediately after using them? At some point it is not about the person not knowing better and it becomes clearer that the person is blatantly ignoring what you have asked them. What to do then?

How can I teach my teen to be considerate? How do I nurture respect and selflessness in her? What does the world “belief” mean to someone of that age?

Checklist of the day, AKA my brain is registering all the sounds and nothing else:

  • My typing, or I am smashing ants on my keyboard
  • The dog barking next door
  • The light coming through the living room and kissing my basil
  • The low hum of the refrigerator
  • My kid’s half-eaten sandwich and thermos of coffee sitting on the kitchen counter (for which I woke up at 6 to prepare)
  • The bunny pushing around its dish