I have been promising this story for some time but it has taken a while to choke down the bile sufficiently to get to it. It has also been difficult to write because I want to be able to give you salient examples of the successful wielding of The Flaming Sword of Parenthood, and this story doesn't go like that.
My stepson, The Small Boy, and I fell out, big time, nearly 18 months ago. It was about September but it started much earlier.
During the January 2012 trip to Cronulla in Sydney, for the NS14 Nationals, I bought a T Shirt which made a tongue in cheek statement regarding my position within our family.
I was tired of being the Go-Between, the Mediator and the Bridge Builder. When The Small Boy railed against me for the lack of attention he had received from his father on the holiday, I cracked, stormed off and left them to their own devices for the evening. The next day we all acted as if nothing had happened (modus operandi for the male members of my family) but there was a deep and ugly reservoir of angst and unspoken hurt collecting just below the surface.
When we got back from the holiday, Small Boy started high school and things went downhill. He stopped coming around. First it was a party he had to attend, then a party his mother was throwing; but I knew it was more than that when he blocked me on facebook. In a way it made things easier; with the BA in her final year of school I didn't need to be distracted..
Initially, Himself seemed to take the whole thing in his stride, maintaining that he didn't want to force the SB to be here if he didn't want be. After a few weeks had passed, I felt we should bring The Small Boy over and sort out any problems there were here, together, not keep avoiding them. Himself kept promising me that 'very soon' he would 'do' something about it.
During the time he was 'absent', there were numerous texts and phone calls from the Small Boy to his father requesting a 'pick up', a 'drop off' or a 'make sure my pocket money is in the bank'. These were often the entire extent of his weekly communication to his father. I was appalled, but it was really difficult to broach the subject with Himself who was understandably defensive. No one likes to admit that their relationship with their child has deteriorated to such an extent. My position was still that we should have been enforcing his visits as I suspected he was pushing us away to see if we would come after him....
At the end of first term his report was atrocious. Himself and SB's mother were furious. Earlier in the year I had had a sudden revelation about The Small Boy's poor memory and lack of organisation. In a forehead slapping moment I realised that these problems might be indicative of a learning difficulty so I suggested to his parents that he be assessed by an educational psychologist. To their credit they immediately commenced the process and, lo and behold, it was determined that Small Boy had a working memory in the bottom 5th percentile and a 'well below average' speed of processing. In any other world he would have been diagnosed as dyslexic, except that his reading and spelling scores were within the average range, which just goes to show how clever he is!
All of this breached a barrier and, happily, Small Boy was staying with us again. There was a flurry of communication between school and home, very productive conversations with the psychologist about limiting the access to electronic devices on weeknights etc etc etc and an avowed declaration by parents x 2 that they would put more effort into supervising and supporting Small Boy. In the longer term, none of this went well and the Small Boy spent many a weeknight on the sofa with his laptop or iphone and a cry of 'I've got no homework' on his lips. This had the cumulative effect of winding up all the adults around him. Especially me. Even more irritating was the way they let him call the shots.
A classic example was the night Himself had been asked to pick up the Small Boy from a 'lock in disco' in the city. The arrangement was that Himself would pick the kids up from town, deliver the friend home and then take Small Boy back to his mother's. As the boys emerged from the disco at midnight, Small Boy informed his dad that he would be staying at the other boy's house. Himself, to his credit, demurred. Small Boy went ballistic!
"You are SUCH an embarrassment! You are embarrassing me in front of my friends! What's the BIG DEAL?? Why can't you be a Normal Dad?"
While for some of us, this rant would be swept deftly under the carpet of 'whatever', for Himself it was devastating. Nevertheless, he gathered himself together and delivered the other child home without letting Small Boy get out of the car and go inside. When they got back to Small Boy's Mum's house, the Small Boy marched inside, woke up his mother and asked HER if he could stay at the other child's house.
Yup, she said yes...and THEN, (in mistake number two), Himself caved in and took Small Boy to his friend's house. At this point it was well after midnight.
Have you ever heard anything more ridiculous?
But I'm rambling now.
Eventually Small Boy started staying at our place during the week in the hope that he would focus on his studies and ask us for help. Mostly he claimed he had no homework and played X Box. After a number of run-ins with Himself, I had to try and let this go. What particularly bugged me was the way everything got left. I mean, he has always had a problem with tidying up, putting things away and generally contributing around the house, but with the advent of testosterone things have escalated. Where he would previously ignore requests for order and hygiene, or devise amazing and impressive reasons as to why he had not put his towels in the laundry for washing, he now started to deliberately defy us as we asked for co-operation.
Nothing winds me up more...
So this brings me to the night in question. Small Boy had been at our place for two nights and was due to be there for another two. Himself had decided to cook a roast dinner and had made sure that everyone would be there on the Tuesday night to make the effort worthwhile. When I got home from work, WWIII was in progress.
Apparently Lancette (half sister by Small Boy's mother...see our family tree) needed to use Small Boy's laptop and as a result he was being picked up and going home early. Himself was rope-able and Small Boy sullen and resentful. After all it was not HIS fault his sister was coming to pick him up. Fortunately, it seemed that she would be arriving a little later so that Small Boy could eat dinner with us. During the meal I made a huge effort to include him in the conversation and smooth over the obvious tension between father and son, but it was pretty fraught. Himself toyed with his food and eventually left the table early (unheard of!) saying that he 'gave up'.
After dinner the other siblings announced that it was indeed Small Boy's turn to wash the dishes, a fact which, although true, augured badly for the rest of the evening. Knowing it was a roast and therefore ugly dishes, I offered to help. My offers fell on stony ground. He protested that his sister was coming to pick him up. When reminded that we didn't know the exact time he felt the need to phone and confirm. It was clear from the side of the conversation I could hear, that Lancette was in a noisy place and not really paying much attention to the phone call. I asked to speak to her. She was having dinner with friends and when asked what time she was coming to pick him up, breezily replied, 'Oh, I don't know, I guess around 9.30'. Excellent. Plenty of time to do the dishes.
"There you are," I smiled,"Plenty of time to do the dishes before she gets here." I had his phone in my hand from the call and he glared at me with venom.
"Give me back my phone," he snarled and my back went up immediately.
"You won't need your phone for a bit because you're going to be doing the dishes," I quipped lightly, and somewhat ill advisedly.
"I'm not doing the dishes until you give me back my phone. "
Now here is where I began to leave the safe Flaming Sword path. Rather than calmly maintaining my position and perhaps moving optimistically into the kitchen to prep the clean-up, I took umbrage and snapped at him.
"It doesn't work like that Small Boy. You're not in charge here. You do the dishes first and the phone will be back in your hot little hand before you know it." (I may be sugar coating this. It was a while ago. I may have been meaner than that.)
"Alright, I'll just use my laptop then," he announced angrily, moving to plug it in. I beat him to the plug and confiscated it.
"You won't need that either. You can have it back as soon as you've done the dishes."
He turned on the TV.
I unplugged it.
Now, this is all going very badly I must say and for those of you who tune in here to hear how standing your ground and wielding The Sword helps make happier, more civilised children and more effective parents, sorry. This is how wielding The Sword without love can lead to very nasty situations indeed.
Because that is just about where I am at this point. Without love.
I didn't see the tipping point coming. At dinner I had been feeling conciliatory and somewhat sympathetic towards The Small Boy, playing my usual role of Bridge Builder. As he challenged me on this simple thing and I allowed it to escalate, it was like that Red Beast in the picture book woke up in the pit of my stomach. Why should something as simple and fundamental to household cooperation as washing the dishes be a point of negotiation???? What gave him the right to think that he could opt out of something as basic as dishwashing whilst still expecting all the comforts that come with the territory. I totally lost it. Having confiscated all electrical devices, I marched back into the family room and confronted him as he lay sullenly on the couch.
(Click away now if you have a weak stomach or wish to continue viewing me in a positive light)
"Small Boy, you have got to be the most self-centred, selfish little twat I have ever had the misfortune to encounter! How dare you come around here expecting to be waited on hand and foot and have NO intention of contributing? Why are you different from everyone else in the world who has to work for what they have? You are a user and a taker and an ungrateful little ****! AND (and at this point I picked up a cheque, penned by my mother, which had been lying on the floor for some months. I could have picked it up sometime previously I suppose. I could have put it somewhere pointed or insisted it be acted upon, but I had left it where had been dropped to see how long it would take for something to happen.) ....AND......12000 miles away on the other side of the world, an old lady, who is not even related to you, thought enough of you to write you a cheque for your birthday and send you some money! And in all that time you have not acknowledged it, you have not cashed it, you have not even sent her an email to say thank you! You are spoiled, selfish little GIT!!!!" and with those words I threw the uncashed cheque at him. He burst into squally tears, unrolled from the foetal position he had assumed on the couch and ran to his room. His father, hearing the commotion came rushing in from his computer exclaiming,
"What on earth is going on here?"
The Small Boy had vanished so I drew myself up to my full 5 feet 2 inches and announced,
"Small Boy doesn't want to do the dishes."
Himself gallumphed off to Small Boy's room to see what the problem was, and promptly (and perhaps predictably) had his head bitten off. In the next few minutes of bellowing at each other that followed, I was overcome with remorse. Not for the sentiment of my outburst, but for the way I had delivered it. I came up behind Himself and called out to the Small Boy that I was 'sorry that I had yelled at him.' There was no response and eventually, after some frustrating attempts at communication, Himself gave up and came to the kitchen to do the dishes. As we washed and dried together in a defeated silence, Himself sighed deeply.
"I'm a terrible father. All my kids are useless. I'd give anything to have a great kid like The Baby Angel."
I refrained from mentioning that she didn't get that way by accident.
After the dishes, Himself got SB ready to be picked up by Lancette. From the raised voices I could hear this wasn't going well but I recognised that my own ability to deal with things was seriously compromised and I had best keep my head down. After a few minutes himself strode into the lounge and announced,
"He says you've stolen his phone and laptop."
Gathering all the self control I could muster, I replied tersely;
"I haven't stolen them, I confiscated them until he had done what he had been asked to do."
"Well, I need to pack them so he can go home!"
They were returned to him.
I tell you this part because the following morning I awoke to find that Lancette had not turned up to pick him up. The net result of all this was:
1) Small Boy did not have to do the dishes
2) He got all his technology back and there was no consequence.
And THAT was the big falling out. That morning I said to Himself, "You have completely undermined me and he is not welcome back here until he has apologised and this situation has been resolved."
We didn't see him at our place for another three months.