Stepfather Challenge

Why would anyone want to have children?!

Sometimes I feel like a failure as a step-parent. Then again, I often feel like a failure as an artist. I’m trying to claim (to “claw”, I almost wrote) my life back, but it’s hard to pull away from my family. Every time I do — when, say, I stay out working in a library and return home at 7–8pm — the rules lapse a little; my wife either forgets them or can’t be bothered enforcing them, and my first words upon returning are skewed by the chaos that greets me. Sometimes I’m the only enforcer of rules which, in many cases, my wife invented. So I rarely take pleasure in my homecoming, or in the presence of the children.

Today, for eg, my wife has gone out. A rare occasion: for most of today, I’m alone with the boys. It’s half-term break, also a bank holiday — which, to me, renders tourist sights infeasible, since I presume they’ll be excessively crowded. But even if that weren’t the case I’d have a hard time motivating the kids to go anywhere, since I came across so unenthusiastic when my wife broke the news to them this morning. I’d been out food-shopping, and trying to collect my thoughts in a café before the onslaught, and I’d returned home, as so often, to chaos — the one-hour “screen” rule broken along with the rule that they eat a decent breakfast; hence the same old infuriating argument over food (“But I don’t like [eggs, French toast, baked beans, pancakes, what have you]”) when really they’re just lazy, and resent having to make their own breakfasts (another of my wife’s rules which she’s apt to bend). So one of the 11-year-old twins got defiant, and because I’m so sick of this same old argument (and because, despite my best efforts to relax this morning, I haven’t defecated), I snapped and told him, “I’m not looking forward to today any more than you are!” Then my wife and I had a (rare) argument (regarding rules and how often she bends them) before she left.

I’m sick of parenting, and sad about that fact, since in Japan on our way here I enjoyed the children’s company. But since we arrived in England two things have changed: they (the children) have lost interest in their surroundings (London, evidently, does not intrigue them as Japan did) and I’ve transferred the bulk of my energy to my work. Basically, we’re no longer tourists. The children go to school, I try to work, and my wife, slowly, tries to do the same, in between giving over what seems to me a huge amount of energy to pacifying the children.

Who would want to have children? Who would invite that parasitical force to latch onto them?! It’s beyond me, and ultimately — since I did nothing to bring these boys into being; since, seen from afar, my only responsibility to them is the same responsibility I feel for all living beings: to help if and when I can — it’s not my problem. Or so I tell myself. In reality, sure it’s my problem, since I love my wife and I don’t want her to suffer. And then again, when do I help anyone except my wife or stepchildren, or the rest of my family? When do I help strangers? Occasionally, at best. So maybe — as I’ve often thought — these boys are my “community service”.

A funny thing: just now I thought, “It’s too quiet, what are they up to?” and snuck down the stairs to the kitchen expecting the worst (that they were hunkered over a screen, for eg — the same screen with which the more conscientious of them was supposedly researching his school project), but both were engaged in harmless, parent-sanctioned activities, not fighting yet not jacked into the Matrix, and silent, a state which they rarely experience when their mother’s at home. (This accounts for the twins; as to the eldest — he’s 14 — I’m not so reassured: he’s vanished to his room as usual, without a word.) What’s the deal here? If their mother were present, no way would they be so quiet and self-sufficient: they’d be clambering all over her, fighting for her attention, pouring streams of (to anyone but themselves) insignificant facts and opinions from their mouths, complaining of boredom, fighting, shouting… Is it just — as I’ve often theorised — that she humours them a bit too much? I mean, I’m sad that I had to act so loveless to achieve the effect, but if when I’m alone with them they finally put some practise into learning self-sufficiency, can my parenting style really be so lacking?

Of course, no-one but me is suggesting my parenting is lacking. Even their father, when we saw him recently in Germany (and he took charge of the boys for a blessed week — our first week, or entire day for that matter, alone in over a year), thanked me for my efforts and acknowledged, for the first time, how difficult it must be for me. What a Godsend that was, his few seconds of kindness, his acknowledgement, his seeing that! Or when my wife’s best friend thanked me warmly, before the collected guests at our wedding, for my positive impact on the boys’ lives — I actually wept; it touched me deeply, just to feel that she rated my influence as positive, not destructive, as I fear it may be every time I shout at them, or forget to show them love, or fail (as a psychologist advised me) to “fake it till I make it”. After all, if there’s one thing their real dad does offer them it’s enthusiasm: he loves them with a hot love, with a passion, with the opposite of my lukewarm, learned love — the love of an arranged marriage, of convenience. Not for me any fascination, really, in anything they do. Rather, I learn from them. I take it in. If nothing else, my grasp of human nature has improved in their company. (They’re so uncensored, so transparent. There’s little need to guess what motivates them.)

Later…

I gave up writing the above when I heard them on the stairs banging about, threatening (if distantly) to start trouble. A little delicate pressure convinced the twins (but not the eldest — with him I barely bothered) to accompany me on a bicycle ride. So we rode along the canal towards Hackney. I checked on a café I thought might serve a cheap lunch; it was closed. On a whim I followed the so-called “Cycle Superhighway” north to Kingsland High Street, where thankfully the boys’ fascination with cheap trash carried us through: pound-shops, phone-repair shops, fidget-spinners (the latest craze) everywhere, and a strip of cheap meat- and produce-stalls along Ridley Road that both boys swore reminded them of (their father’s current adopted home) Thailand. A cultural experience, followed by a semi-healthy lunch of “fried balls” AKA arancini. It doesn’t take much, really, to satisfy them, though some days nothing seems to do it. “What are we doing today?” they’ll beg. “Why don’t we do something?” But in the end they know less than we do about what it is they’re really seeking. (A common problem, I guess: I remember days just like that in my twenties, when I floated across Melbourne or Vancouver in search of inspiration, in search of a sign that would clarify my next move. On such days, just to ride or wander through unfamiliar neighbourhoods was enough.)

So we returned home full and sated, the twins with stories to tell their older brother (their greatest joy: to be the ones with stories to tell) and I having averted disaster (that is, not having exploded) for another day.

As stepfathers go, I have my moments, but I wish I could approach the task with less resentment. I tell myself if they only obeyed the rules I could change my attitude, but obviously they’d be more inclined to listen if I approached them with kindness. What I can’t take — what galls me — is when we (my wife, I, or both of us) make rules and then bend them, and the boys think they’ve put one over on us. That wilful laziness, that delight in “getting away with it”, that sense of entitlement. Worse still if they treat their mother like a slave — that, to me, is poisonous. It’s hard to react to it other than with contempt.

(Handwritten Monday May 29th)

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