Things to leave in 2015: half-assed parenting

I don’t believe in making new years resolutions because they tend to slip on the priority list by the time Valentines Day comes around. I usually make decisions about what to start, stop and continue long before the midnight hour. Topping the ‘start’ list for 2016 is being a more conscious parent. It’s one of those ‘continuous improvement’ things that always gets me thinking. Recently, I’ve really started worrying that I’m going to screw up my kid. A painting that Bunny did depicting her family triggered this particular round of this specific insecurity. The painting had mum, maternal grandparents, the nanny and the cat… but no dad.

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This really got me thinking about co-parenting and the relationship that Bunny and I individually have with her dad. Our agreement is crystal clear on access and the corresponding responsibilities so technically he should be in the picture she painted. Alas, humans get the feels, which complicate what should be a straightforward legal arrangement. This makes drama free interactions with the ex a proverbial unicorn. But I still think about it, and wonder if there is something that I should be doing differently so that Bunny is as well adjusted as possible.

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It’s tough having to change the way you relate to a co-parent once they become an ex, usually because the relationship is now so different from what it used to be. I’ve been told that my exes have it hard… I’m a cancerian with pretty low EQ. It manifests such that I really care until I don’t. When I care, I do so very deeply. My love is a real and tangible thing that will overwhelm you with its beauty. On the other hand, when I don’t care, it’s Siberia in January. You’re out in the freezing cold with your nose against the windowpane trying to get close to the fire. In short, I compartmentalise very well. In my opinion it’s a strength, but I can appreciate the difficulty someone would have adjusting to life on the outside. What I am struggling with is why this should matter. Is being friends with the ex a prerequisite for effective co-parenting? Should the feelings of estranged adults towards each other determine how well they co-parent?

 

I suppose part of the reason one would co-parent is because the relationship deteriorated, quite likely as a result of not seeing eye to eye. With that kind of background it’s probable that people would have difficulty reaching consensus on a vision about raising children. So no, we do not have to be friends. We just have to be effective co-parents. Effective, not good. Good is a subjective standard and yet another proverbial unicorn. Effective (in my mind) means that you are both considerate of your child’s needs and fulfilling your individual roles in making sure those are met.

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Look, I get it. Co-parenting with an ex is not easy. We’re human and likely to stuff things up every so often. Sure, there are prototypes that have managed to crack the code, but there are also a lot of others who haven’t gotten it right. Ultimately though, co-parenting is about making a conscious decision to come together in peace and partnership to raise children. Failure to partner leads to so many unintended consequences for children because things slip through the cracks as one parent tries to cover the distance of two. This is where we fail our children. This is where I’m failing Bunny, and I’m worried about it. I worry that by having to play such contrasting roles I’m screwing up my child. I am both nurturer and disciplinarian, I am bacon provider and fryer. I worry that the dichotomy of roles is schizophrenic and she won’t be able to reconcile them. I am  ‘sole person manning ship’, but I am also human. I get tired and I have needs. I have to take time to care for myself so I can be a present mother. I worry that I’m being selfish.

Effective co-parenting is as important to me as it is to Bunny.

When one whittles it down to what really matters, effective co-parenting does not require friendship or mutual like and admiration for one another. All that is required is a level of maturity that enables people to set aside their personal differences for the sake of the child. It’s not about you, or me. It’s about what’s best of that child and what is reasonable and practical. Does your ex need or want to know about your business or your struggles? You tell your friends what’s happening in your life, and they’ll tell theirs. All that’s required of you is to show up for your kid when you’re supposed to and pay what you’re supposed to so that your kid gets what they need. It sounds cold, but that’s the bare minimum of what you should be doing for your offspring.

 

Speaking of bare minimums, I’m going to Segway into rights & responsibilities here. These are two sides of the same coin. One counterbalances the other. Honouring or not honouring responsibilities is what separates fathers from sperm donors, and mothers from incubators. I’ll just leave that there to marinate…

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With my not so unique co-parenting arrangement and Bunny’s family portrait, it has occurred to me that we need to do better. Having a part time parent does more of a disservice to a kid than a completely absent one would. It’s a controversial opinion, but honestly, nothing hurts more than watching your offspring monitor the window all day waiting for dear mum/dad, who has had something come up and is no longer coming. Then to top that off, one has to field the “mummy/daddy doesn’t like me because she/he doesn’t visit me” statements. I have peers who have vivid memories of this. No one wants that for their offspring.

 

Here’s my proposal to derelict dads and mum’s alike: either show up consistently or don’t do so at all. If you don’t, we’ll even be gracious enough to preserve your memory by ‘killing’ you in some heroic way. Maybe you died fighting for human rights, or drowned while saving kids from a flood? Your choice, but know that it’s a tad difficult to bury you when you randomly pop up a handful of times a year… However, should you decide to show up, then do so in every way, shape and form. Be a super co-parent! If you do so, maybe the next time your offspring paints a family portrait you’ll be in the tree next to Lola the cat.

Think about it…

What I Wish You Knew About… Being In An Abusive Relationship

I was an ambitious little girl. Growing up, I wanted to be married to Michael Jackson in addition to being an actress or a lawyer. I’m now considered a grown-up, who unfortunately did not get to marry Michael. I do well in my career, I have a home and some pretty awesome trappings. I am also an abuse statistic.

I never thought it would be me. For the most part, finding myself a part of that kind of screwed up statistic was devastating. The ‘sisters with blisters’ club is not one you voluntarily sign up for. And yet there I was, an adult who for the most part adults quite well. A self-sufficient lady who was highly regarded by some and could hold her own out in the world. Looking at me, no one knew the weight of the shame I carried on my shoulders and the sadness I hid behind my bright smile. Did I deserve it? Did I have it coming? After all, I am a rational adult who should’ve known better than to have stayed. I signed up for this and gave up the right to be called a victim when I stayed after the first time. Right?

Here’s what you ought to know…

Leaving is not as simple as standing up and walking out of the door. If it was, no one would stay past the first time. The psychology of abuse is not black and white. The cycle is not that simple. From the outside looking in, I can see why you would think that. I used to as well, though I never imagined it would be me living through the experience. Abuse is for others, I used to think. Until it was for me. 4 years into a loving relationship, he hit me. By that time, I was already invested. Our lives were intertwined. Whilst we did not have any shared furniture, we had memories. Great ones. And we had plans.

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Even if your abuse isn’t served daily, it’s difficult to reconcile the beau you fell in love with, to his version of Mr Hyde – the one whose presence you dread. Maybe your beau is physically abusive, maybe emotionally, maybe verbally. I hit the tri-factor. I soon learnt that the saying about sticks and stones is absolute crap. No type of abuse is better. Fists, backhands and cables hurt. The wounds from those heal, sometimes leaving scars on your skin. Words hurt like a thousand paper cuts. Those wounds bleed eternally as your subconscious mind spits them out at random, a constant reminder that you are a failure.

Half the time, it’s almost as though you dreamt it. It happens fast, the apology is sincere, and you carry on. Wash, rinse and repeat. And whilst you aren’t looking, your self-esteem becomes eroded. And then the strangest thing happens. You start to feel shame. Shame that you, a grown person, who is rational and capable is in this terrible situation. Shame becomes your companion, an ever constant presence. Where shame resides, nothing rational grows. Hiding your shameful secret is the shackle that keeps you there, because once you leave the cats’ out of the bag. The questions come, hitting you like hailstones on a tin roof. “Why did you stay?”, “didn’t you know he was like this?”, “why did you marry him?”, “wasn’t there a sign?” Thank you for your morbid curiosity, but your questions are of no help. And so you stay because you have no rational answers to irrelevant questions and no strength to deal with the curious onlookers. You stay to put off facing the critics and the bystanders with their looks of pity.

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Then you start to change in tangible ways. The chemical balance of your brain readjusts as you try to cope. Death or prison are everyday options, much like chicken or beef served on a flight. You know that the way things are deteriorating, one of you will end up dead and the other in prison. You’ve come to terms with that. I was in fight mode for 3 years. I did not realise that I had become a shell of a person during that time. There was no light in my eyes and I had stopped laughing and smiling. I only noticed that in retrospect whilst looking at old photos. My flight response was triggered by the birth of my daughter. Only when I was entrusted with the life of another, did I realise the value of mine. I rediscovered my inner core of steel. But I was still in resting state, not ready to make any moves. Watching and waiting in the hope that he really was sorry and that he really would stop. But he hadn’t finished fixing me. I still wasn’t better. And so I learnt, they never stop. You do.

Enough’ is not a uniform standard. I remember years ago I was watching the movie Enough (the one starring J-Lo). My father was reading his paper on the couch, and would occasionally glance up at the TV. Then at one point where she was all bruised up from a beating, he looks up and says “she hasn’t had enough”. That was sadly prophetic, because fast forward a few years and I’m in the same situation. I stayed because I hadn’t had enough. I often tell this to people who talk about how they wish someone they know would just leave. Each person’s ‘enough’ is different, and you cannot impose your standards on anyone else. For some, it’s the first threat of violence, it’s when he bloods you up, when you lose your hearing or sight, or when you’re six feet under. We all leave when we’ve had enough. 

I love you. You can’t leave me. If you do, I’ll kill her”

Let’s say you’ve finally decided that you’d had enough, and you’re ready to come out and face the critics and onlookers. You want to get a protection order because you are afraid for your safety. All you’d have to do was relive the horror of your abuse by documenting it word for word on an affidavit. But only if it’s physical abuse. The verbal and emotional stuff is a tad difficult to document. No visible scars, you see. After that, you have to tell a Magistrate what happened. He gets to be there to deny everything. If you’re meticulous about taking photos and recording conversations, you’ll get your protection order. If not, the magistrate may just look at you and say “oh, he only hit you three times. That’s not enough. You also have no proof of the threats to your child”. When that’s over, you get the additional pleasure of him telling you how much of a failure you are, and how vindicated he feels because you didn’t get a protection order. Just because a Magistrate didn’t think it was enough, doesn’t absolve him of the abuse he inflicted. Pity he doesn’t realize that.

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Until I was ready to leave, I said nothing. I once had a bloodshot eye from a backhand and someone jokingly asked if he had hit me. I turned around and said yes. This was a good friend, who shuffled around awkwardly and immediately pretended as though I had said nothing. I did not speak of it again. Some things are just too heavy for friends and family. When I was ready to leave, I sought the help of a professional. I left all the drama on her couch, and by the time I walked out of my home with my bags and baby I had no weight on my shoulders. I was not angry, I was not depressed. I was hopeful. I was able to process the divorce from a place of rationality because I had processed the pain and had come to terms with my role in the demise of the relationship. I had walked my journey therefore no amount of in-law intervention could convince me to go back. Our African cultures tend to fail us in that regard. There are just some things that can’t be fixed with sorry.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is real. I will never be the same. Ever. I have healed and moved on. But lurking in the background of my psyche are memories of that time. Memories and intense feelings of inadequacy that can be triggered by an insensitive comment and leave my mind in foetal position for days. You’ll never know because I’ve perfected the veneer of normal. Well, new normal, that is. New normal smiles and is happiness personified. New normal trusts people, has intimate relationships and loves without limit or restraint. New normal no longer suffers fools. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice there is no twice, you don’t get a second chance at me.