Sometimes you can just foresee an upcoming argument; you can even hear in your mind the exact wording of the first enunciate; and even taste the anger, the frustration or the disappointment you’ll feel at that precise moment. In fact, you can also foresee that there’s no reasoning capable of bring calm to the waters the counterpart will raise. Why is that? Because you know the inner you and you know what matters to you. Besides, you also know the behavior, habit or mind setting of your counterpart. Therefore, you know it’s coming and since there has been no way to discuss the issue and reach a clear understanding and agreement…it’s a proven fact.
So what do you do? You procure to avoid the potential triggers; you find a practical solution elude potential hazards, until you can achieve a final solution, if possible. Let’s say you need to cross the river, you know you can’t swim and there’s no material available to construct a solid durable bridge… so you buy a Bailey’s bridge structure to be placed until both of you can finally build the real permanent structure. I know it is a weird way to put it, but almost nothing is a piece of cake regarding conflicts in stepfamily connivance.
I’ll put in writing some “funny” stories to exemplify my thoughts; I’ll start with some ridiculous one and progressively will bring up more complexity.
Case 1: Fine China vs disposable dinnerware.
I found myself enervate with the habits (or manners) I was observing in the members of my stepfamily regarding mealtimes. Why? It’s simple: no one ever picked up his own plate from the table nor placed it in the sink, no one ever has disposition to even wash his own plate. When asked to do it, the plate’s will be placed with all leftovers in it, and then some water will be added to make that a gross scene. If five times someone drinks something, five glasses will be left there. Furthermore, there was one with a curious habit, he will serve himself three glasses of milk or juice at the time (yes three glasses for me to wash, and no, he will not drink all that)
When dinner was finished, everyone will return to the respective couch or video game or TV, and like a movie scene of one of those movies narrating when humanity just disappears leaving everything behind, every single utensil will be left there… so I could delight myself picking it up and cleaning until bedtime. No, I’m not talking about young children here and even if that was the case…. No no no….
Why didn’t I just ask for help? Because that would have been excessive, those poor kids … they were there only for the weekend or for a week at a time during the summer… they just needed to be attended, and have a pleasant stay… Why daddy wasn’t helping? Dad is too tired after work and wants to come home to have some rest and try to get off of all that stress.
Why was it a big deal? Because NEVER in my life had I had to deal with something like that. Even men in my family showed the courtesy to pick things up. Kids of families I knew were taught about cooperation and even when not happy about it, they did the job in a good manner; even when we had maids helping at home, we threw leftovers and put the dishes in the sink. The bottom line in my mind: I had never felt that anger before, I have never felt treated like a maid… and thinking about it, maids at my house were treated with courtesy and consideration.
What was I facing? Bad humor, angry faces… plus the misunderstanding about the cause of my bad humor, placing me as the ogre who hated those kids. I’m sorry thinks turned that way. In fact, what I hated was the lack of respect I felt from my husband by not helping me or trying to make everyone to collaborate and making me feel guilty.
One day, sure we were not going to find light soon… I had an idea for that week: disposable dinnerware!!! What’s so hard about putting that in the trash, isn’t it? Well… let’s say things didn’t result as fine as I could have expected. The good thing… I didn’t have to spend 2-3 hours cleaning and organizing the kitchen. But… I had to picked that up and throw it in the trash…because it seemed to be too much work for some people. But I went from 10 on the scale of bad humor to a reasonable 6.5.
Later on I had to hear those ironic comments like: “my kids are not worthy as to be served and eat in regular china”, or “ take a disposable cup because we have no right to use peoples’ drink ware”. So I clearly explained my reasoning: there are two choices out there, the first one, we serve on our china, each one of us takes whatever we used to the sink after throwing left overs to the trash, and we all alternatively participate in the cleaning. The second one, if you considered that there should not be such a burden, then you can take the disposable one throw it and end of the story, it’s a decision you can make. I’m sure my reasoning was never actually heard.
The ironic comments remained, but no one ever tried to use the regular china or help. My bad humor improved to a nice 5, since I still had to be picking up from everywhere plates and half full cups (but I didn’t have to wash or organize). Later on they became to put most of those dishes in the trash The outraged daddy deeply believed –I think- that was an example of how much I despised his adorable teenagers.
Recently, one of the kids happened to stay with us for the entire summer (subject of another writing). My ears gladly heard when dad told him they were going to take turns in washing the dishes and organizing the dishes after dinner. My eyes saw light. Today, he said (and I heard as a symphony to my ears), I’ll wash them, you’ll put them on the cabinet, tomorrow, we’ll switch, it will be your turn to wash. And they had a happy dinner. Next day, son finished and went to continue watching TV; dad, finding no way to call him down and probably trying to make him feel comfortable at home, did the job. Personally, I had a lot of saying about that parenting issue, but… I shut my mouth. The kitchen was spotless and… I’ll address that issue differently with my own son. After a week or so of dad doing the job to not create discomfort upstairs… by their will, they grabbed disposable plates because…” it is too much work and we’re tired” (seems it is not too much work if the job is mine and I am seemingly not tired ever), I just smiled and explained the menu.
I don’t know if those soon young adults –because the two decades birthdays are around the corner- will ever gain those good habits (I certainly hope so, for their own good…and some white flag at home), I don’t know if will be able at some point to ask for something without being judged, but the ironic comments are gone…my bad humor came down to 4.5 during the past two months (still have to go around kitchen and house finding things to be picked and disposed, or cleaned), but just by eradicating that misunderstanding and those hurtful comments… most of the practical solution worked.
No. I know my husband will never say I was right… but I don’t need it, I found a practical solution to avoiding a big fight had my anger continued accumulating.
Case 2: The menu
I love to cook (at least I loved to), and I’m a good cook I’ve been told. I personally do not like certain foods, so everyone has the right to have his own likes or dislikes… but there’s a limit. After a while preparing food for the stepfamily table… things got…mmm… let’s say I was not enjoying cooking as normally.
One of the members claimed to be a vegetarian, even though in front of everyone will eat BIG burgers, lots of wings, fairly amount of hot dogs…etc. Yet dad reminded me every other weekend that I was not considering his vegetarian son. The other one would eat lines of hot dogs in days out, but would remind us that he doesn’t like them when served at home… Of course, this apparently was a product of my imagination, dad would strictly deny all my allegations
They would serve themselves until the plates were FULL and sometimes falling from the borders, but will eat a small portion after moving around and melting the food, to finally being the trash the happy eater of 1/2 of what I cooked.
I simply cannot accept waste. There is a huge part of the globe dying because of starvation and we are so privileged to even be picky when eating… but waste… that’s a shame. I was also frustrated, I cook really well, and even when I know everyone has the right to dislike something… that was beyond my understanding. I thought this was a personal thing… you know, maybe it is just me in the world feeling so disgusted with waste and finding that parents should not allow and guide kids to minimize this kind of behaviors… As of today, I’ve been the weird… at least I’ve been told so.. So, let’s find a way to avoid the upcoming discussions.
I changed my ways and traditional cooking during the summer (when they were at home more often). Lunch will offer a variety of one dish meals like fajitas, quesadillas, pot pies, pasta (keeping it simple), rices (prepared with different meats as one dish), etc. I kept dinner simple, trying to stay in their comfort zone. I chose a rich variety of cold meats, different kinds of cheese and dressing and the most common vegetables… so I prepared a kind of gourmet sandwiches, sometimes pita pockets, and some deli burgers. No, it wasn’t bread/ham/cheese/mayo/bread like things, I put some effort on those (remember… I like to cook and see it as an art). I don’t know what happened with lunch because I wasn’t around, but I didn’t hear complains. During dinner time I dealt with some of those exquisite behaviors but not a major thing. In fact, to make it a bit interactive and avoid the stress of seeing people opening sandwich and diving in food like trying to find an infected bug… I serve a palette of possible ingredients and they could build their own creation with nothing they wouldn’t eat. It seemed to work, and I reduced by far the stress that wasn’t impeding me to continue enjoying one of my favorite things: to cook.
I kept preparing some regular stuff for the two of us in case my husband… as an adult and a good eater… would like something else, but in small portions so no waste would occur. In a few weeks he told me he would take exactly the same thing they were having (I wondered if that was ironic, but I thought he was being considered). Perfect for me because I wouldn’t have to work the double, we all, including me would have the same, it was fine with me. Problem temporarily solved!!!!
…I thought. Life threw me one of those unpredictable curved balls. Months after that summer when I don’t know what but probably nothing triggered dad’s defensive mode… I hear it: “I know you don’t like to attend them… that’s why when they’re here we only eat trash. You had me eating junk food during the whole summer”.
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting that, and I swear I was simply speechless…you know there are people who would crave to have what we can have on the table???, do you know sometimes you pay a lot of money for a “gourmet sandwich” half of the quality and variety of ingredients I used. I still believe that one was a joke of life; and I DO NOT HAVE THE REQUIRED SENSE OF HUMOR TO DEAL WITH IT.
Next year, just to try to figure the ironies of life, dear husband told me to go to the grocery store to prepare for their kids’ staying during the summer. I was going to be out of time for approximately 18 days. So I would be at home around three weeks and then I would leave. “I need to buy food for my kids since they’re coming” he said. We went to one of those wholesale stores, with me saying no word or comment (you know, whatever you say can be used against you…a constitutional warning…). That shopping cart was full and overflowing of hot dogs, ham, frozen waffles, frozen pizza pockets, frozen…everything…., ice cream (lots of it) cheese singles, white bread, and loooooooots of “snacks” (chips, cookies, etc,)… you know… everything you may categorized as “junk food” according to agreed social standards. With nothing more to say, I rest my case. Fortunately, it was not me shopping or deciding the menu, because there could be a different conclusion.
Thus, we had not have a major argument on the matter since then, and regularly my bad humor on the matter stays on low profile, unless something out of scheme occurs, but I’m close to overcoming that one.
CASE 3: Domestic tasks.
I would say that it is not crazy (because of what I’ve seen I went back to my original idea of that being the standard rule) to procure cooperation among family members. I mean, normally, sorry, I mean, sometimes parents delegate some domestic task in pursue of inculcating the values of cooperation and help inside the house. That’s why also, husband and wife, according to their possibilities and schedules help each other.
Hahahaha… now it sounds like a fairy tale story… that I certainly don’t know if I want to cry or laugh. Well, the story goes this way… Dear husband comes around 7 pm from work completely exhausted. I would be an insensitive action to ask for help, after all, I came from work between 5 and 6, so I should be more rested to prepare dinner, pick up things, do the dishes, etc etc etc, and since I’m the one not working Saturdays, there’s no reason why I would need help with the cleaning thing or the laundry. That is truly hilarious.
Let’s keep this short: I just found unfair to expend every minute of my free time and not entirely free time cleaning up messes… and I simply believe after a certain age, EVERYONE should know how to use the toilet. And No, keep kids away from domestic tasks is not a healthy way to comfort them and a retributive action to say sorry for the harsh of a divorce and make them feel happy when visiting dad. Period. But the truth is I would have never said that… It would have cost me a lot.
Practical solutions implemented: Ok dear dad, you do nothing at home because you work all day and and are truly tired when you come home. Ok, let’s say the help you will provide me is to take care of your kid’s clothes, bedroom and bathroom when they’re here, and I do all the domestic things as regularly. Why? I would rather believe he was helping me that way than the feeling of being treated as a maid and without being paid. So I could say socially that dear husband does help at home. Can you follow the emotional logic here? I hope so.
I also try to involve the kids in such tasks, with more damaging results than positive results, reason why I refuse to talk about it for now.
How it went weird? “ I know you don’t want to do anything for them, I’m the one who has to take care of their laundry, you have nothing to complain about because you do nothing for them” I had to hear that a couple of times, despite the fact I was still picking up clothes from the floor, wet towels from the bath floor, and flushing and cleaning toilets which had been like that for days until I discover it. But sure, I had nothing to complain about.
Then I got pregnant and it was a high risk pregnancy. The last trimester I stayed in bed rest, so we had to hire a cleaning service that is still going on to ease my sharp thoughts. I simply quit from trying to help him in involving those guys in domestic tasks since he seems not interested in keeping up with it and most of the time prefer to do their things. I found it healthier to step back in any effort tending to introduce my convictions on how family members should cooperate and reserve my energy to deal with that with my own son. Anything on that sense will be misunderstood by loving defensive dad, and I would not bring conflict up if I can avoid it.
So he keeps doing their laundry, he tells them to do things but not necessarily enforce his directions. They do things one week, nothing for a couple of months then something one day…The cleaning service helps me a lot and my bad humor has come down to a proud 3.5 regularly, and 5 to 5.5 every other weekend and summers. It began at 11 don’t forget that.
CASE 4: The weekend mealtimes.
I reserved this for the last because of the funny twists the human nature can offer.
Ever since we met and were living together, we go out to eat during the weekends, and normally we go on a night date on Fridays (that was normal before me getting pregnant and before my son’s birth). So, here was a typical weekend: Friday night… go out. Saturday night… go out for a drink or have something quick. Sunday: dear husband does not take breakfast, so he will eat nothing until really late (around 1-2 pm), so I will prepare his mandatory mug of coffee and I will take some fruit or cereal (I DO NEED to have breakfast) to resist until we went out to eat.
Invariably that was our routine and at some point I said fine, kitchen is close during the weekends. I do deserve some rest. If necessary I would prepare something fast in the afternoon if necessary but will not formally cook… you know four course meals.
It has been like that ever since. In fact, when my mom visited me for the first time she insisted on cooking (she takes over that domestic duty when she’s visiting…and some other tasks…) during the weekend I told her to rest, that we would go out to get some air and eat something.
Now that we have my son, we do not have the same freedom to go out so most of the Fridays we stay but take something light in the afternoon, nothing too elaborated, something practical and fast.
That turned out to be practical for me, since I was losing my love to the kitchen due to the fact of a dear husband making me cook twice a day because he will not repeat nor will he take something that has been in the refrigerator (please keep in mind that, according to my understanding, he was never served or kindly attended to during his previous marriage, reason why I think either I created a monster that has bitten me, or he became engrossed with my loving ways of attending him that he quickly lost contact with reality). So by Monday, I had recharged my energy and had the best disposition to cook again full of love.
After years of doing the same, randomly my husband takes a look on the stove and oven, and the refrigerator on a Friday night or Saturday and says: You haven’t prepare dinner? Then I remind him… and tell him that I can prepare us something quick if he’s not in a mood to go out or too hungry. Nothing further has to be said, we go back to normal. I gave him a few alternatives, he chooses the one he likes the most, I quickly prepare that and we eat while chatting or watching TV. I still don’t know why he still does that, but I consider that a curiosity of his existence.
But, please…stay with me…: at least once a month during a weekend his sons are with him, he will make the respective search in the kitchen and ask if there’s nothing for dinner. I just look at him like reading his mind and before I can say the same answer I’ve been giving for years, the fast ball hit again… Why? Because they are here, I know you don’t like to do nothing for them… or a variation of the same thought, or the look full of irony like wanting to say it but pulling his horses back with a huge amount of pride that makes him tell them… “we are going to order pizza in a while, just wait for it upstairs”, or “we are going out to eat something in a while”.
It used to enervate me. Some crazy weekends I wondered…How someone can be so… is there a right word to use here? …blind and full of irrational defensiveness and insensitiveness and… insane. Those times are almost gone. I now expect the suspect comment or eye look as a regular thing at least once a month and get over it… there would not be another one in around 30 more days. Some Saturdays when I know it could come I just go out by myself to have some time by myself and relax and come back when everyone has overcome dinner time questions and I’m received with the solution instead of the question mark. This one does make me laugh now. It is funny to see how sometimes the rationalism of common sense plays tricks with humans or simply plays to abandon them for a few minutes to see how we can deal with it.
Therefore, when the defensive dad bug has not bitten, you can hear him asking me to go out for a drink, or to have something he’s craving, or will ask me to prepare some quick thing, some fast food “the way he likes it”, like his preferred hot dogs with his preferred ingredients, or some of my country quick dishes…with no major conflict.
Funny isn’t it?
I would like to tell you, from the bottom of my heart, that even though, I’m not clapping like a seal and laughing as a clown about the fact my husband having a previous marriage and kids, I had never had bad feelings towards those kids, and all the “solutions” I thought about, even if they were inadequate, were taken without bad faith and with the best of the intentions (I only was trying to eradicate potential sources of conflict), reason why I never expected the rudeness I received back or the low concept of my intentions as it was misunderstood. Every time I received one of these comments, reactions, questions or answers, it was like a bath with artic water while having a cold, and I could never understand how anger, guilt and defensiveness could lead my dear husband to such a low concept about me. It took me a lot of time, patience and analysis to try to find the reasons why he was reacting like that, and to find deep inside that his real feelings towards me were kind.
Next time I’ll talk about other practical solutions… the more complex ones.