Abandonment, separation, insecurity and isolation. These are experiences that we as a global community are facing. But most sadly it is affecting our children. Gone is their innocence so early, their trust in humanity, and their trust in adults to safeguard and guide the way forward, unless we open our hearts to a new kind of family.
I began writing this piece to accompany my photographs analysing the crisis modern families are facing, hypothosising as to why relationship breakdown is occurring, how to resolve these issues and what the new family paradigm looks like. The more I wrote the more I thought, the further away from the heart of my story I became.
In truth I can only write through the lens of my own personal experience and the understanding gained from our family’s journey. By no means are we unique in attempting a ‘post-modern’ or ‘blended’ family, though us like many others are embarking on an uncharted course that entails much trial and error with limited support or framework to guide us.
A blended family is borne of loss, pain and separation. The crisis affects each person involved and the impact and ensuing issues differ for each. There is a deconstruction of the traditional ‘nuclear’ family paradigm through divorce and statistics are showing more children are living in single or blended families than with their biological parents.
It seems with the modern age we are losing our connection to the importance of a close family and community for support. Between deadlines and schedules, competition in the workplace and the devaluation of parenthood, the demands of modern life leave little time or energy for developing intimate relationships with our partner, children or friends. Many day care workers have a closer bond with our toddlers than the mothers, with children as young as 6 weeks old in fulltime care. Adults’ and leaders’ inability to compromise, loss of clear gender role definitions, fear of responsibility and socio-economic pressures are some of the reasons leading to separation.
With the media fuelling our desire for independence, superficial beauty and material gratification, we simply exchange our current car, house, partner for a new improved version. This is the sad consequence of our disposable modern age. With more women opting out of motherhood and family life I found that the government and the media has devalued motherhood to the extent that many women I have talked to just don’t want the encumbrance of children. Success in the corporate race is the package bought at the expense of raising our children.
What’s worse is the Western world continuing to treat the symptoms of children’s stress and behavioural symptoms with more drugs to pacify their pain, with America recently legalising the dispensing of anti-depressants to children as young as seven years old.
Will this need to consume and never feel satiated lead us to the realisation we have lost our connection to our heart, all else ultimately rendered meaningless?
When a family relationship breaks apart the results for each person are devastating. Divorce is not unlike death, as it is the end of life, as you knew it, and as the old saying goes you must let go of the old to embrace the new. The process of letting go requires moving through the stages of shock, denial, anger/ blame, grief and loss.
Parents who are experiencing depression, anger, guilt and insecurity in the wake of a relationship failure are commonly unsure of their own ability to deal with the demands emotionally and financially of being a sole parent.
Unfortunately, many parents become so wrapped up in their own grief and pain that they are incapable of providing the sustenance and stability that children need to feel secure in this time of change and uncertainty.
It takes a deep commitment to years of work for a broken family to reach a place of compassion, forgiveness and healing and is largely dependent on support, therapy and openness to new experiences.
Balance in life returns little by little, much like healing from a severe physical wound. There are no set timeframes for healing. Each individual is different.
A personal journey
On reflection the choice I made to become a parent, the reasons why and the relationship I have with our children is inextricably linked to my own experience of parents and societal values. I had a difficult childhood, under the pressure to perform, conform and live up to the expectations of my parents and the regimented and dogmatic education system—living under the past generations’ ideology that children were extensions of you, property to be managed, not individualised souls with their own path. I had a deep sense of ‘different ness’ from a young age and that I did not subscribe to this belief system resulted in an intolerable feeling of unworthiness and shame that I did not fit in. There must be something wrong with me.
At 15 I came across the book The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran and was profoundly soothed that someone could put to words what I myself had needed:
And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, “Speak to us of Children”.
And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
The gift I received from my childhood experience prepared me for parenting with the ability to appreciate and understand a person for their special unique self. I believe it is our responsibility to nurture individuality and self-confidence and mentor, guide and educate young minds so they can live under their own consciousness. As fate would have it I have been offered the perfect life experience to live this truth in becoming a step-parent.
The most unusual facet of my journey is not that of being a stepmother, rather that I arrived in the lives of a family in the process of disintegration. I therefore had an integral part in the rebuilding of relationships that may have otherwise severed without mediation and support.
I met my beloved within a few months of his separation from his family. There was an immediate and fated knowing that we would be together.
So beginning with dinner, the story of his past relationship unfolded; his ex girlfriend of six years had decided to leave and take their two daughters interstate, leaving him with his fledgling business, the legacy of a home and credit card debt to clear up and a broken heart. He assured me that the relationship was beyond mediation or repair and prepared me for the likelihood that the girls may come back to stay with him as their mother was not coping with the responsibility of sole parenting.
Three months into the consummation of our relationship when Ebony-Rose and Savanah came home to live with him, they were only two and a half and four years old, frightened and confused with their hearts torn in two. We consoled them explaining that they would see their mum soon as this was initially only to be for a respite period so their mother could get back on her feet. Weeks turned into months and unbelievably, years. With spirituality and love as my guiding principals there was only the choice to embrace what had come into my life.
Like everyone who is ill-prepared for parenthood I struggled with issues of loss of identity, as the old single independent self was removed. Fear that I would no longer have the time required to devote to or pursue my own ‘career’ or interests. I felt a personal inadequacy as to my ability to raise these children and meet their needs. The most challenging issue was the lack of support of my becoming a mother from my friends and family who found it difficult to embrace the children as my family or to accept the ’new-look Lisa’ (in particular my radical feminist inspired friends who felt I was regressing to the 50s stereotype of a mother, with no life outside cleaning and cooking and waiting on my husband).
I felt like we were embarking on an uncharted and uncertain course as I searched for reading material, support groups or information about the issues involved in being a step mother, making a blended family work, what to expect etc. I initially found it quite hard to break into the social circle of mothers at school stemming from my own insecurity and also the ‘Oh, so you’re not their real mother’ response which I had to learn not to take personally. Over time I discovered that people were sincerely surprised and interested. I found that after putting the biological vs. step-parent differences aside many of the difficulties I was experiencing are quite normal in the context of becoming a parent.
As a stepmum I had to accept that I would have to share my beloved with instant children and the ex-spouse. I recognised the internal battles of resentment and jealousy associated with the ‘Evil Stepmother’ archetype as real and almost justifiable difficulties that are associated with this role. Most children would resent their stepmother even if she were an angel sent straight from heaven, viewing the stepmother as the final confirmation that mum and dad are not getting back together. While they reached out to me on one hand they were pulling away with the other.
My partner was very supportive of my ability to make decisions and co-discipline the girls. This was crucial in establishing my sense of self within the family and the cornerstone in building respect with the children. Trust is the major issue in accepting new authority figures and for some time they would often act rudely or indifferent. It took me quite a while to not take this personally and realise that their behaviour was a normal reaction to the situation the children found themselves in.
I found that upholding the health and happiness of the children through this process to be the way to sublimate my own frustrations. We pursued and established regular visitations with their mother that the children could depend upon. This was an important factor in ensuring the stability and recovery of our children’s security.
During conflict between separated parents and the process of creating a blended family, children need frequent reassurance that they are OK, that they are not to blame and they are allowed to love everyone (including their step-parents!). I don’t believe it is our job to make a child who we want them to be or claim them as ours. Too many children are pulled apart in the war that is divorce, used as ammunition in exacting revenge on the ‘wrongdoing’ parent. It is only through the erroneous belief that these children are ours that we could abuse them in this way. Unless there is the danger of harm, children have a divine right to experience a relationship with both of their parents’ families, and to know them directly without the coloured lenses we may want them to wear.
The most detrimental harm we can inflict on our children is to make them ‘choose’ whom they should love, leaving them with a legacy of guilt and fear of further loss. There are too many aimless, lonely parents who lost the custody battle, and as many children suffering the disappearance of that parent from their life.
We realised that the children needed a stable environment and that we must establish it for them by frequent, repeated and solid explanations about ‘what is going to happen to them’, ‘who will and how they will be cared for’ and reassurance that their mother will never be replaced, and that they now have a larger family who loves them enabling them to get focused on a new reality.
We found creative ways for the girls to express and release their feelings, as their ability to put into words what they were experiencing was difficult because of their age and the confusion of conflicting emotions.
We compiled personal photo albums that contained everyone in their family, drew pictures of how they were feeling, made up stories to deepen their understanding of change and sung songs a little like mantras to lift their spirits. ’I’m allowed to be happy’ and ’Move on Get over it!’ marked an important shift in recognising their right to emotional freedom.
Effects of separation on children
Children need to be shielded from their parents’ pain as their growth may be stunted when they are exposed to and take on their parents’ worry, guilt and blame. Our children’s behavioural reactions were most obvious in the days following weekend visitation with their mother, the dreaded ‘adjustment’ period, as they negotiated the differences in parenting styles and conflicting loyalties, initially displaying, sibling rivalry, withdrawal, an inability to concentrate, nightmares and food and sleep disorders.
Not only does separation and divorce cause difficulty for children, but also their move to new neighbourhoods, schools, and being placed in new social environments. These disruptions to a child’s foundation cause difficulties in integrating and a decline in school performance because they are not focused on learning but are always wishing for their parents to reunite and the missing parent to return.
Our oldest daughter Savanah was school age when she came to live with us. The only available placement in time for the school year was in the public primary system.
It became apparent very quickly that she was not coping with the pace of the class curriculum, and was lost amongst the size of the class. She was ostracised from her peers because of her exaggerated behaviours. Her overall health was declining and I knew we had to find her somewhere she could relax and learn at her own rate. Fortunately we found her a smaller school that provided an individual and holistic approach. This marked an important signpost on the road to recovery for our family. Savanah’s growth, happiness and recovery was rapid due to the care, attention and importance the teachers of this school place on prioritising the emotional health and wellbeing of the children. Her reading increased from level 2 to level 13 in a matter of weeks.
The community values of the school opened up a genuine and caring support network for our family, and we cannot thank them enough for what they have done. Our youngest daughter Ebony is now in her second year at the school, enjoying the company of many friends, teachers she adores and the joy of learning. Her adjustment has been a somewhat smoother process, maybe because she was so young, though more likely it’s because of her sunny disposition. Ebony’s ability to love everyone equally and unconditionally has been an inspiration and guiding light for us all.
Nothing compares with the challenge of children to bring out your self-worth and reconnect you to your heart. When the girls arrived home from Christmas holidays with their mother Ebony yelled ‘Mummy’, threw her arms around me, looked me in the eyes and said ‘I love you, Mum…You make me feel like I have a real family’. I am so blessed to have had the opportunity to know true love, I thank providence for knowing better than me what I needed and my partner Nicholas for without his strength, confidence and unwavering love these blessed beings would not be here.
A new family paradigm?
I can only trust that the redefinition of what it means to have a family will have positive benefits for our children’s future relationships and be a step forward in the evolution of human relationships. Our children are learning to be more flexible and open-minded with the exposure to a wider range of influences through telecommunications, cultural and spiritual teachings and parenting styles.
If we define the current ongoing effort to remake contemporary family life as the post-modern family, such a definition carries with it overtones from the definition of post-modern art and literature. In these fields the term post-modern signals the end of a familiar pattern of activity and emergence of new areas of endeavour whose activities are unclear and whose meanings and implications are not yet well understood. Thus, the post-modern is characterised by uncertainty, insecurity, and doubt. Stacey 1990
Like all preceeding generations they will redefine what it means to have a relationship, maybe based on true feelings and emotional maturity from experiencing the rite of passage through the crisis of their parents, experience.
By Tennyson Brown
As a child
Abandonment found haven
Right here in my tummy
So I sat
All night all day
Screaming out for my mummy
Dark seeped in tickling my toes
Will it cease?
Does my god know?
From grave depths dark and grey
So lonely I’ve begun to pray
I long for sun
To burst through
Peeling away bruises and scorn
Revealing dried blood
Picked at by scavenger birds
One eye wilted and weeping
Lips swollen and numb
Licked by only half a tongue
Fountains of water will not repair
Usually glowing in my hair
Muscles twisted forced to bow in humility for a being
I see as much less now
Depleted and crest fallen
Rocking myself to peace
Quiet moans and low snuffles
Are all I repeat
Perhaps all will be well
If I keep my shame
Now that I understand
I have no one left to blame
Published in byronchild/Kindred, Issue 5, March 03