The Crazy Stepmother from Hell

There are so many changes to adapt to when you move to another country that sometimes it is hard to know where or who you are.
But for me the most challenging thing has been without doubt the change from childless independent woman to evil step-mother.
I had to create another blog to write about that as it has been a steep learning curve and I needed to create a safe place to explore many difficult feelings and experiences.  I was trying so hard to be nice – yet getting in touch with terrible anger and even hatred. If you want to read about people facing difficult emotions then go and read online Stepparent Forums. Noone prepares you for what it is like in reality and there are a lot of people suffering out there and often blaming themselves.

I went through an interesting process today, out walking Bonnie in the park and mulling things over as usual.  I felt myself shift from tired beaten down victim who wants to run away……. to someone who could stand up for herself and fight her corner. I don’t like fighting – surely people can just be nice to each other?  Can’t they?  Well, sometimes that just isn’t going to happen.

Here’s the story.

Don’t Judge
If you have never been a stepparent please don’t judge what I tell you. It is nothing like being a parent – it is much more complicated and in my opinion, harder. And being a stepmother is not the same as being a stepfather. Those fairy tales weren’t joking – stepmothers have a raw deal and it’s no wonder they can get murderous.
In the beginning
I came onto the scene when the boy was 14 – entering adolescence. I have never known him as a normal child.  Never seen him being loving or entertaining or cuddly like small boys can be.  I have no memories of his eyes lighting up when he sees me, nor of him running to me for a hug when he is hurt. I arrived for the worst bit without any shared happy history.  We haven’t been through a bonding experience like mothers and babies do from the beginning
He hates me
I didn’t expect that.
I probably arrived with absurd notions about parenting.  I don’t have my own children and I had no experience at all of what is involved in being a step-parent.  None of my friends had step children and I have never had a step family myself.  I now know that of course a child will hate the person who intrudes into their home and takes away attention from them.
Whatever the original parental relationship was like, it had one strong common bond – The Child.
I arrived and although I wanted to make a relationship with The Child, he didn’t want one with me. His survival does not depend on me and in fact I am an obstacle in his life. I come between him and his father.
He is a boy so doesn’t express his emotions.  He tolerates me so long as I don’t get in his way. But if I come between him and his desires then it becomes obvious. He hates me.
Obviously we have an added difficulty in that we don’t share the same language. Luckily for me he speaks quite good English and I quickly decided to only speak that with him. If I struggle to talk in Spanish or even worse Catalan, it puts me in a very inferior position and he has even less respect for me than he does already.  He is an expert at the raised eyebrow, the silent putdown.
For the first year our main meeting point was the dinner table where he and his father spoke in Catalan and I sat in grumpy silence, trying to understand what was going on.
I actually learnt a lot of Catalan in those days as the conversations were fairly repetitive. Food. School. Homework. That sort of thing.
There were many times when I was totally lost about what was happening as he spoke with his father about plans or trips or events or, more often than not, things that he wanted to have.  Of course he used to turn on me if I intervened and sneer ‘you don’t know what we are talking about so mind your own business’.
Language also affects how I relate to his friends. It is awkward enough talking with monosyllabic teenagers but I am at a great disadvantage as I can’t be natural and chat and joke in a light manner. Usually they ignore me and talk with his father. If I say something I see terror in their eyes –  I might suddenly burst into English and they might have to answer.
I am told he is a normal adolescent. If that means lying, being rude, swearing a lot, missing school, not doing any homework, refusing to help in the house, stealing money and using our credit cards, playing online poker, looking at food on his plate and saying he won’t eat that shit, not showering without being paid, never cleaning his teeth and spending ALL his awake home time on the computer or mobile phone, then yes, he is a normal adolescent.
If mothers always get the blame then what about stepmothers?
My partner’s family complained that I wasn’t playing the mother role in the house. Perhaps it was a compliment that they thought me capable of mothering someone who had so little desire to be mothered.  And in what way was I qualified for this important job?  Just because I am a woman?
Did they think I could make everything better?    This was actually quite an interesting introduction into mother-blame.  Never having been a mother before I hadn’t understood quite how crazy with rage this sort of thoughtless stupid remark can make you.

So, this morning I was walking, mumbling to myself about how I can’t live one more moment with someone who doesn’t want me in their life, who doesn’t like me and who sometimes actively hates me when ……..

….suddenly I received some help from the ethers.
I realised that I am much stronger than I believe.
How can I be so scared of a 17 year old baby who has no money, inadequate social skills, not very good job prospects and at the moment, no qualifications?
I have a bad habit of feeling small and vulnerable and getting stuck in despair but of course there is a part of me that is tough as boots. I just need to remember it!
Years ago I  took an intensive five year survival course in character building at the school of bad relationships when I was in love with someone with borderline personality syndrome.  After that brush with madness (and I am talking about my own there), surely a stroppy, selfish, lazy, rude and spoilt adolescent should be a doddle in the park?

PS I can’t say often enough that if you have never been in this situation then you can’t know what it is like. I used to believe that stepmothers should be patient and understanding and loving and mature. Stepchildren have often been through horrible family breakups and need help not negativity. 

But that was before I actually lived this situation.  We are only human and adolescents can be bitingly cruel and cleverly manipulative.  And deep down, they don’t want you there.  Yes they may be wonderful people underneath but sometimes it takes a saint or a doormat to stay loving and open.  Birth parents find it hard enough but they have a magic potion called unconditional love flowing in their veins. We are expected to be good parents without any help – magical or from society.  Add to this the language and cultural differences and perhaps you can see what I am talking about.

Family Life

A little change of subject.
One of the hardest things about The Catalan Way for me – in fact THE hardest thing – is having to cope with life in the same house as an adolescent who isn’t my own one. I am trying to act as though he is but of course the reality is different. We don’t have the shared history that would make me feel secure in myself. I am the intruder.

Right now, in the kitchen, he and two friends eating toasted sandwiches and drinking milk/juice.
Harmless of course – and nothing bad is happening. None of them are rude or bad mannered.
But I feel awkward and ill at ease. I go in there and the room goes silent. I come out and they start talking and laughing. Am I sure they aren’t laughing at me?  They close the door so I know I am not welcome

I know I know. Everyone finds this age quite difficult to deal with.
 But when it is in another language, in a house that is more his than mine, in a family that I only joined three years ago, it makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable.  I am always walking a thin line anyway, trying my best to feel a part of this world but this situation, and of course this is not the first time, always makes me feel sick with nerves. I do not feel confident and who better to reveal this in its nakedness than a group of 17 year olds.

I tried to chat – but what language do I use?  Do I fumble around in Castellano or Catalan?  Do I just speak English and know that they don’t really understand me or they feel I am ‘that weird British woman’?   Do I ignore them and make my tea in silence while they wait for me to go? 

I feel my body tighten up. I struggle anyway to communicate but this situation really puts me to the test and, as so often, today I fail.

The battle with fear

I had a friend in Edinburgh many years ago and we used to talk about our anxieties of which there were many. We called them General Fears and imagined a character, a military man who was in charge of all frightening experiences and who doled them out as necessary for character building.

Fear – where does it come from?  Why is one person more prone to it that another?

When fear has been a major part of your life you have various options.
-You can live with it and adjust your life accordingly ‘no I never go there/do that/speak to those people’ etc etc. You put safety first. Life may be narrower and less exciting but it feels more secure.
-You can challenge your fears and Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. This works and in theory fear should get weaker and you become more confident. Over years this can sometimes be exhausting as in my experience General Fears does not accept defeat so easily.
– So usually we do a mixture of both the above, depending on how important it is and how strong we are feeling

Two days ago I planned to drive to the coast, taking in a little village called Saus on the way. I am not very confident driving here but it is much better than around Granollers so I wasn’t having to struggle too hard with fear. I set off early and got slightly lost, ending up on a very narrow road. A large van was coming in the opposite direction and although I pulled right into the right side, he knocked me as he went past very fast. It took a couple of moments before I realised the wing mirror was smashed and unusable.
Aha – an opening for General Fears to come in!
I drove to the village of Saus, thinking of having a coffee and a chance to think. But the streets were narrow, my van felt huge and hard to manoevre without the side mirror.  I faffed around for a while indecisively then drove on to Escala. So far driving wasn’t too bad but I was on automatic pilot.
Breakfast in a beautiful seaside town. Thank goodness speaking Catalan is no longer a problem. I asked for a VW garage and was told the nearest was in Figueres.
At this point fear threatened to take over. I felt totally alone in a foreign county.

Alone alone all all alone. Alone on a wide wide sea.
‘Why did I come here?’  ‘Why am I not back in Cornwall where I would know what to do?’

But something had to be done and so I drove back to Figueres. I already had been there twice and not enjoyed the drive. Going back without my side mirror made it extra interesting.
But what amazed me was that while I had battled my fear and won, it still continued to fight back. I was driving on a busy road, with a lot of faster traffic. My body went into panic mode while my mind looked on in amazement. I was sweating, waves of fear swept up from my feet to my head, I felt sick and dizzy, I would have stopped and waited till it passed except that there were no places to stop.

-Is this fear something from childhood?
-Is it something from our ancestral past that once was useful for survival but now is unnecessary?   -Why do some people not have this level of fear?  They are the ones who look at you with disbelief or say things like ‘pull yourself together’ How come they were so lucky – is it genes?

Anyway, I did manage to find the garage.  I was able to ask directions in Figueres (thank you Catalan lessons) and when I arrived they  did the repair immediately which cost 50 euros. In 20 minutes I was out again with a new mirror and I set off again for the coast, refusing to allow myself to go ‘home’ rather than face those roads another time.

E.T. go home!

It is almost three years since I decided to start up a new life in Catalunya.

I left Cornwall – a place that had always felt like the perfect home with it’s beautiful scenery, relaxed lifestyle, friendly and interesting people and perfect atmosphere for creativity.
I left my home, my work, my friends and for two years I left my dogs and cats as well. It meant giving up a lot of security and of feeling ‘at home’.
Since I have been here in Catalunya I have lived in three places and now again I am thinking of changing house. It has almost become an obsession – Where is Home?  Where is the best place?  Mountains or coast? Town or Countryside?  Where can I find a place to settle my things into their places, somewhere when I can work, a place to make sculptures, to garden and plant vegetables?  Somewhere my dogs can be happy, a place to relax and get to work.

I was walking with Bonnie a few days ago and thinking again about these questions, feeling the painful longing in my stomach that usually makes me head for the computer to search through the houses for rent pages. I often blame myself for this pain – that I chose to leave my own home, that I am not able to feel totally at home in my partners house, that I have not worked hard enough to find a new place to put down my roots.
Into my head came the phrase ‘setting off to seek your fortune in far-off lands’.  I thought of those stories of the traveller who leaves all that is familiar to go on a quest – normally a spiritual one.
It sounds obvious but I hadn’t thought of it like this before. Perhaps I am still journeying, still travelling with my knapsack on my back? I thought I had settled down here but what if the journey is not over?  Perhaps this is not yet the moment to find a new home where I can find a new comfortable security?

Of course I want desperately to be at home, to be safe and settled but, what is it I need to learn before I can go there?
I come back again and again to the need to feel comfortable in myself, to have a strong central axis that keeps me steady no matter where I am.  It is simplistic to just say ‘you need to feel at home in yourself’ as if it were just a decision you can make and …boom…you are at home.

Perhaps The Wizard of Oz is the best example of this process.

To get back home you need to find your brains, your heart, and your courage. And if you can’t find them in the place where you are then you need to go off and look for them.  And this journey can be scary and lonely as well as exciting and fulfilling.
So how am I doing with all this?

Here in Catalonia I feel my heart pulsing with both joy and pain, my brain is working overtime as it copes with language problems and life issues.  That leaves courage. This I think is a work in progress.  While others say I am brave, I feel every day that the battle with fear is not over.
I look forward to the day I can  click my heels and repeat ‘there’s no place like home’.
But I’m not there yet.

A red dress on Market Day

I went to the market today, wearing something a bit more cheerful than usual and it’s amazing how this can affect your mood. People stared at me but at least I could imagine this time it was because red attracts attention and not because I look like a weird foreigner

While waiting at one of my favourite stalls I filmed a little so I could see how it felt doing it in public.
Answer – it felt awkward!  Here I am – don’t know why my voice is so squeaky!
It will be another challenge to get comfortable doing this but I’d like to be able to film local sights and it helps if I can talk at the same time.
In the end I did my shopping in Catalan as usual as it doesn’t feel ok speaking in Castellano with people I normally talk to in Catalan. Unless I explain every time what I am doing which sometimes I do, but more often not.

So exciting that the cherries have arrived!
As I was waiting an older woman arrived at the stall and instead of asking ‘la ultima?’ she started buying her stuff although it was obvious I was there first. I really had to squash down the urge to turn away and buy things somewhere else. The guy knew it had happened and was friendly when he came to me so I commented how often this happens to foreigners, that you can end up feeling you are invisible. He listened but didn’t really reply – sometimes I wonder if it is because I haven’t explained it correctly or if it’s just that people here don’t say things like that.
Wondering if my red dress makes me stroppier?  Or perhaps it’s being a year older so I am beginning to feel like the old woman who wears purple and doesn’t care. I also had my toenails painted this week which is another amazing magical way of gaining confidence

Then I went to the olive stall where the man is not very friendly – nothing personal I know as he was the same with Pep one day. After buying three bags of olives and he seemed as grumpy as ever and I couldn’t keep quiet any more. I said – in English with a smile – ‘you are very scary’.  He ignored me totally but as I was just on the point of paying he couldn’t go away so I said it again then translated into Castellano and Catalan…….’tengo miedo de ti’…… ‘tinc por de tu’
All the waiting women in the queue started laughing and said – ‘yes, you are very serious today’ and he laughed too and suddenly the atmosphere was so much better

Funny how you can change things with just a few words.
I wonder if I am changing into someone who says what she thinks – in three different languages?

Warning – When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple

By Jenny Joseph

When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple
with a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
and satin candles, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired
and gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
and run my stick along the public railings
and make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
and pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
and learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
and eat three pounds of sausages at a go
or only bread and pickles for a week
and hoard pens and pencils and beer nuts and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
and pay our rent and not swear in the street
and set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.