Camping. Another stepfamily adventure

Recently I chalked up another chapter in the #dontrecognisemylife story of my new blended family.

Camping.

Before every person that knows me rejects this as an elaborate and completely preposterous fabrication dreamed up to plug a rather large void between blog posts, let me clarify that it was GLAMPING. A spacious tent, erected by those who actually possess the required expertise. Quality manchester. Soft furnishings. Carefully curated decorative touches. Hot water bottles snugly encased in something hand-knitted. Sufficient power to support hair appliances, multi-device charging, bedside lamps and HEATING!

It’s taken a long time for creative entrepreneurs to carve out a niche variation on standard canvas-based hospitality that is sufficiently evolved to tempt me back into camping life. My last foray into this world was three decades ago, where I joined like-minded 18 year old friends, newly emancipated from our parents by virtue of freshly-issued drivers licences and ready to spend supermarket-checkout-wages on a cheap campsite. The concept of a share-economy was decades away from becoming a thing, but we were all well aware of the outrageous value represented by a flagon of Para Port when divided between a gaggle of inexperienced drinkers. Fueled by abundant, cheap fortified spirits and Midnight Oil albums on repeat, memories were made.

And now we have glamping.

Just as I learned in the 80s the limitations of an inexperienced liver at the hands of an unconstrained flow of cheap booze, I’ve now learned that communing with nature protected by only a thin veneer of canvas can continue to be a source  of life-lessons. Throw an energetic twelve year old stepchild into your tent and there’s an unexpected layer of nuance in the learnings. Here are a few of those lessons.

I am unsuited to confined spaces

I have a fairly lengthy list of life-skill limitations. These have compounded as I’ve matured. It began with a lack of control of my intestinal contents on fairground spinny rides and the inevitability of fairy floss attaching to my hair. Early career limitations involved an inability to speak to superiors without blushing, becoming unpredictably inarticulate or spraying them with incidental spittle.  For all the investment and earnest advice from Australia’s finest hardware stores I’ve remained inept at the most basic of DIY home-maintenance tasks. There were lessons gleaned from an emergency room visit and eight weeks in plaster  after I fell on the basketball court, not at the hands of a hard-tackling opponent, but by inexplicably falling while running down the sidelines without the ball or another human within twenty metres. The purchase of a wooden-based bed with merciless corners six years ago has still not trained me in the agility to avoid, on average, a bi-weekly new shin bruise.

Spending time in a tent, however,  has reaffirmed that in a confined space I operate with all the finesse of a graceless yak.

My first act, crushing a wineglass stem into forlorn shards with an errant ugg boot was something anyone could have done. I’m convinced glass breakage is something that the glamping purveyors fully expect and routinely budget for.

Something a little more advanced on the scale of camping carnage was my careless hand gesture that emptied a flower vase of water into the central powerboard and shut down the entire tent’s electricals.

You need low-fi games

I can’t explain how many different ways I tried to contingency-plan my way through the lack of wi-fi in a tent. Step-parenthood is similar to parenthood in that it teaches you the sheer horror that can result from a bored tween who is severed from their technology.

I did explain that tents don’t have wi-fi. That the people around you are rarely likely to offer up hackable private wi-fi. That even the combined efforts of our family mobile data usage plans would wither under the weight of what is required for a pre-teen to compete in whatever it is that they do in a bout of Fortnite. And also, there was no TV.

Having managed all expectations, we employed the best of low-data-usage apps to navigate those literally dark hours between sunset and a reasonable bedtime.

Strangely enough, entertainment can still ensue from traditional games like charades, even if the charade topic is now delivered by a $0.99 app rather than a cheeky little box of cards.

My skill level at such games is still entry-level. I was halfway to the answer –  knowing that the back end of the answer was ‘shark’. I regarded closely the stepchild vigorously pointing to a white chrysanthemum (now laying parched in its jar after all the water was drained in the powerboard spillage incident).

He was subtly trying to convey that the full answer was the Great White.

I responded confidently with that slightly less ubiquitous, yet equally fearsome creature of the sea – the Flower Shark.

Catering works differently

If you were embarking on a lengthy glamping stay, you’d either need a fairly limitless eating-out budget or some serious planning around camping-compatible meals.

For the sake of one night, I felt disinclined to invest in keeping Esky ice up to anything more perishable than a bottle of Rose. Given our proximity to Melbourne winter, I was also naturally averse to committing time in an outdoor BBQ and camp kitchen to conjure up dinner. Instead I determined that all meals would be outsourced. Whilst husband and stepchild huddled over an iPhone, trying to watch a soccer league final that I’d failed to factor into the entertainment contingency planning, I was relegated to hunter/gatherer status when it came to the evening meal.

My life skills failed me when it came to home delivery in the context of a specific camp site. I valiantly pushed past my menu app’s failure to recognise my current location and apply very persistent efforts to deliver me pizza from my regular local outlet some 150km away. I pondered whether the caravan park would enforce the rigorous algorithms I was used to in my CBD carparking world and fail to deal with letting another vehicle in with our access pin without our vehicle with that same access pin having exited and leaving us trapped with the delivery guy, huddled collectively around shared pizza on campsite 180 until daybreak.

So I stood, nonchalantly leaning against the caravan park reception veranda pillar, clad in camping-appropriate  hoodie and inside-tent Uggs, awaiting the pizza delivery guy. I was  on the verge of holding up an airport style sign saying ‘La Porchetta’ lest I be mistaken for a shoddily clad lady of the night trawling for camper rough trade.

Boys in tents

My last learning, which is not news to anyone who cohabitates closely with near-teen boys, is their prolific ability to transform pizza and Pepsi into toxic gaseous fumes that can easily engulf an unaccustomed stepmother. Having been blessed with a house with adequate ventilation and only populated by a child on an every-other-weekend basis, I was not accustomed to such concentrated fumes.

Having now been indoctrinated, I feel compelled to defend every methane-emitting bovine accused of being at the heart of global warming and advise them that they should lawyer up and start singing like a canary about their human teenage toxin-emitting accomplices.

Glamping. Just another source of (overly fragrant) blended family experiences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mother’s Day Survival Tips for the Childless Stepmother

If your ovaries have never fired up, not even when Ryan Gosling was looking to spawn offspring, then Mother’s Day means nothing other than a day to avoid eating out and being financially slaughtered by a sentimentally festive mark-up.

For the first year or two of being a step-parent, given your complete lack of parenting awareness, you won’t register anything on Mother’s Day other than the already-well-ingrained desire to honour your own mother.

After a while though, the cumulative effort you’ve invested in cooking, cleaning, driving your step-child to a million things, finding band-aids in emergencies and dealing with relentless laundry may trigger a prickle of annoyance at not receiving any skerrick of recognition on Mother’s Day.  It’s possible that you may feel a teensy bit overlooked (notwithstanding your immense gratitude at not having been through that whole childbirth process).

Here are some of the insights into Mother’s Day from actual Mamas to help you understand what you are really missing out on (or not).

The Breakfast

If you wanted cold toast, undrinkable coffee and eggs more rubbery than politician campaign promises, there is no need to yearn for a Mother’s day breakfast, you might simply take the Monday 6am on a domestic airline.

Every biological mother knows that, good intentions aside, the domestic ineptitude of a small child knows no bounds and that the chaos wrought in the kitchen on Mother’s Day is no way compensated by the delivery of a lukewarm meal to your bedside. Someone will undoubtedly fail to turn off the gas underneath the frypan after use, rendering egg-remnants into industrial grade concrete which can never be removed. You can only hope they didn’t use your Le Creuset.

The lack of fine motor skills renders most youngsters unable to control a two litre bottle of OJ, leaving a sticky lake on the kitchen bench.

The void of observational skill or general interest in your wellbeing on the part of a child means they won’t realise you gave up all caffeinated drinks five years ago and will result in your being served up dodgy Earl Grey tea from bags encrusted with pantry-crud and long past any reasonable expiry date.

The gifts

Mother’s Day gifts are a domestic version of the office Kris Kringle, in that they seem to be gifts chosen by someone who does not really know you.

When the children are at an age where they can only source their gifts from the school mother’s day stall, the haul is going to be constrained to cheap $2 gifts that have arrived in container-loads from mainland China.  But then, who doesn’t want:

  • A fridge-magnet-enabled shopping list so that you can be reminded of your overwhelming domestic responsibilities every time you do some hopeful foraging for wine or cheese
  • A miniature sewing kit which is just like every version that comes free in any reputable hotel room. Given busy women are likely to have a tendency to deal with fallen hems with double sided sticky tape or the application of a snappy little staple, they already know that life is too short to actually do mending.
  • A torch for your handbag
  • Tea-towels as substantial as filo pastry
  • Lavender sachets to place in your sock drawer to ensure your feet smell like Nana.

No Day off from being a mother

Notwithstanding the potential for breakfast in bed, there is no get-out-of-jail-free card for women on Mother’s Day.  Mothers know they are still going to be surrounded by humans and pets that need to be fed. If you are a working woman, Sunday remains one of the few days where there is a chance to make inroads into laundry or ironing.

Notwithstanding the event, Baby Mamas gain no relief from the Sunday night ritual of trying to find school clothes for the next day and dealing with Friday’s forgotten lunchbox remnants.

So, even though you might feel the stirrings of annoyance at doing a lot of the work of being a mother without all the Mother’s day glory, be reassured that you are not necessarily missing out on anything.

Survival tips

If, as a Stepmother with no kids of your own, you are feeling vaguely slighted by lack of recognition on Mother’s Day, here are some tips:

  1. By definition, the stepchildren are likely to be at their mother’s house, so pour yourself a glass of wine, rejoice in the absence of any school week prep and watch all the reality TV shows without having to share the remote.
  2. Eat whatever you want for breakfast, in bed, without the risk of stray egg yolk on your Egyptian cotton.

Should You Accept Your Partner’s Ex’s Friend Request?

If you haven’t learned about the power that social media yields, for both good and evil, then take a moment to consider the following:

  • Has the combo of margaritas and tweeting ever served you well?
  • Do you ever feel anything other than a little bit creepy (and terribly fearful about accidently clicking ‘like’) when stalking your ex’s new girlfriend?
  • Have you ever woken up after a big night out without being just a bit nervous as you check FB for an account of what went down?

If you are answering no to any of these questions, and are in the early period of blending a family, now is probably not the right time to say yes to a Facebook friend request from your partner’s ex and mother of his children.  Here are some reasons why:

There are plenty of other ways to keep in touch

You may feel that this is a heart-warming way to share snippets of your blended family life, to ensure that no one misses out of those fleeting moments of family blessedness that occur at random and pretty much don’t exist unless they are captured on social media. However there are many other ways to preserve these moments rather than opening the current status and entire back catalogue of your life up to someone whose only tenuous connection to you is that they bore your partner’s child.

By all means capture the pics on your phone, but a perfectly legit alternative method of transmission is old-fashioned email or text message. Preferably originating from your husband.

You may be poking the bear of jealousy

Nothing will tear at a bio-mama’s heartstrings like their flesh and blood child cavorting happily through Disney-esque experiences with someone that they might consider masquerading as an alternative female parent. Regardless of the fact that you are very unlikely to have had any input into any boundary-setting, you will become automatically complicit in allowing their child to scarf down fairy floss, get involved in spinny rides and cart home showbags which will only serve to perpetuate their intake of trans-fats for days to come.

These are things that the bio-mama  would perhaps never personally allow. If so, this will engender an immediate conspiracy theory that you are slowly drawing their child over to a place where they would rather your company than hers.

You probably don’t need to invite a critique of your lifestyle

Your current lifestyle might be terribly bland by comparison to your 20s (and you might just be terribly relieved that social media wasn’t around then to capture it for posterity) but there will still be fodder that you wouldn’t want set forth as evidence of any shortcomings of yours as a parent.

For example, there is tremendous potential for an otherwise innocuous gathering of your besties over sparkling wine, tiaras and customised cupcakes at a live screening of a royal wedding to be misconstrued as a gathering of a coven of closet alcoholics using a monarchist rite of passage as cover for hedonistic overindulgence and immature disregard for healthy liver function.

As unlikely as it may seem, your stepchild’s mother may be a staunch Republican who believes that NO GOOD can come from you fully believing in, and potentially instilling princessy happy-every-afters into her daughter’s malleable psyche.

You may also think that you were lightning-swift in deleting that post of you and your posse indulging in what you all now agree were regrettable end-of-evening Tequila shots to mark the liberation of your pal from a lengthy and complicated divorce. What you must know is that these pics will land in the hands of the family court as legally discoverable proof of your inability to be appropriately respectful at the dissolution of a marriage and mature in your approach to consumption of concentrated white spirits. Neither of these matters bode well if you find yourself a party to the pursuit of a more aggressive custody arrangement.

There’s no easy way to backtrack

We’ve all been in those situations where an overly hasty acceptance of a friend request has proved to be a mistake. Given that online dating gifted us with the concept of ghosting, it is now ridiculously simple and socially acceptable to unfriend, block, delete and ignore all forms of digital communication without even resorting to an apprehended violence order. This is perfectly fine when it comes to someone with whom you were a little swipe-right-happy and in the cold light of day is revealed to be a bad choice. You can disappear into the interwebs like you never existed. They can open up Tinder again and move right along. Everybody wins.

It’s exponentially harder to apply ghosting principles to someone who is sharing a child with your significant other and will continue doing so. Pretty much forever. There are far too many clicks involved to claim you did it accidently and far too many shared drop-off events for you to try to explain it away.

Far easier to ignore the friend request, whilst airily claiming that you simply ‘don’t do social media’ – whilst immediately doing a serious double-check of your privacy settings.

From Sex And The City to Stepmother

There’s a pivotal moment in your online dating experience where your cursor hovers over the ‘children’ question.  To click the ‘no’ option is to exclude any male with a child, and if you are in your 40s, probably reduce the pool of matches to something like the number of people you’ll see in a lineup at your local takeaway food shop when you are picking up your Friday night noodles for one.

Flippantly clicking the ‘I don’t want any, but yours are ok’ doesn’t seem like a big deal.  Statistically, the male is unlikely to be a solo parent with full custody, which means kid-free windows, and if they spawned whilst very young, the offspring may be a well adjusted 20-something, who might turn out to be like a cool younger brother. So you click it, and then wait for your laptop to instinctively shriek an alarm greater in decibels than the combined female audience at a One Direction concert.  It doesn’t. You wait to see if it triggers a pop-up box offering up the latest iteration of Crocs as a sign that you are on a path that is incongruous with every molecule of your being.  It doesn’t.   You log off leaving a rather large floodgate wedged right open and head off for a glass of something sparkling.

Something happens.  You meet a dad,  things go riotously well, and nary a thought is given to the prospect of the miniature humans lurking in the shadows.  Next minute, you are on track for a whole new universe of life lessons, even after you thought that grasping the perils of drinking and tweeting meant you already knew everything you needed to know.  Here are three key truths that will shortly become devastatingly obvious.

Its not about you anymore

Biological mothers  know this.  They aren’t born with this insight, but that’s the reason why Mother Nature invokes a nine month pregnancy window, where suddenly something that feels vaguely parasitic takes up residence inside you, jostling your internal organs, controlling everything about what you eat, how you sleep, denying you the consumption  of soft cheeses, causing involuntary daily expulsion of your stomach contents and dictating the wearing of flat shoes.  If you didn’t understand that your life was no longer your own, once this period is up your body will literally turn itself inside out trying to expel the small being and nothing will ever quite go back in its rightful place again.  This is followed by a period of sleep deprivation so insidious that Guantanamo Bay is trying to clone the process. Eventually this just eases back to a general loss of every element of freedom and spontaneity you once had.

If you acquire a small human late in life, without going through this rite of passage to get there, you have no framework available to deal with it.   You will realise very quickly that you are no longer the princess, the focal point for all attention and the consensus is that it’s a little like being left on the side of the road while the family drive off in the car.

It appears that this is why, universally, if you hadn’t already, you will take up drinking wine.

You will need to come to grips with the S-word

Take a moment, have a cup of tea or a glass of something chilled and try to cite a positive example of a stepmother. Trawl the depths of your Disney experience and your entire back-catalog of fairy tales and you will not find one instance of a glamorous, fabulous and much-revered stepmother.  Not a one.

If you’ve shacked up with a rockstar some twenty years your senior, you can try to pass yourself off as a sibling of the child, but if you can’t pull this one off, at some point someone in the street is going to pass comment on the child you are with and you are going to stumble when trying to describe that you are not their mother.  It hardly trips off the tongue to describe yourself as ‘little Robbie’s dad’s girlfriend’ or even worse ‘partner’.  If you don’t elaborate that you are not the child’s mother, the laws of early childhood karma will kick in. He/she will pick that moment to pull a full scale tantrum and you’ll want to step back and point out that you share NO genetic material and had NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with the upbringing of this child, save for plying them with a few Freddo frogs and Chicken nuggets over the last couple of months.

Even if you think you will never feel comfortable referring to yourself in this way, you are going to have to use the word stepmother at least descriptively. My recommendation? Embrace the term and make it your life’s mission to band together with others to create a critical mass of glamorous, kind and supremely fabulous stepmothers so that in several hundred years the Disney version becomes urban myth.

You have a whole new level of ineptitude

You know nothing about this caper.  You may have sued corporations, saved lives and run multi million dollar deals, but you don’t know anything about raising children and even if you did, you have no role to play as you are not a parent.

What you will inevitably do is overcompensate, spoil the kiddie rotten, indulge a little in all the things you liked as a kid and eventually assemble some degree of life skill.

If you don’t, Google can tell you pretty much all you need to know.

 

Just when you think you are not cut out for this craziness,  there is a moment when it all turns around.  It could be something as simple as you nailing a skerrick of respect as the Uno Queen of the household. It might be the day that you actually appear in one of the fridge-paintings, albeit trailing a sorry last behind the pet dog, the next door neighbour’s turtle and the kitchen windowsill Venus flytrap plant …and the kid has drawn you in a manner that adds a few kgs.

 

But hey….you made it……

 

Prepping for NaNoWriMo

I’m prepping for NaNoWriMo, a frenetic month of non-stop writing aimed at producing no less than 50,000 words within the month of November. Having had a crack at this about ten years ago and being rewarded with caffeine shakes, a manuscript that has remained a bottom-drawer artefact and a vague sense of satisfaction, I’m up for it again.  There are several reasons why this appeals:

It justifies an investment in stationery and procrastination

Given November is all about writing at a pace of 1,667 words per day, clearly I need to hold all of my actual writing until then, leaving these last few days of October filled with delightful procrastination  planning. I’ve been drawn into the new era of the Bullet Journal, having invested in a nice notebook and vast amounts of time on Pinterest and Instagram perusing how others fill nice notebooks with plans, ‘spreads’ and charming calligraphy.  My long-held respect for nice notebooks has seen me amass many and use very few given the impossibly high bar set for the quality of ideas and notes before I would allow them to mark the pages of a nice notebook. So I’m working with a second-tier notebook and only when I’m really comfortable do I write anything in the nice notebook. Very similar to the sentiment that rendered ‘formal dining rooms’ redundant as we all chowed down on meals that were only worth of the kitchen table rather than the ‘good room’.

There’s self-imposed stress

My academic and career life has consistently demonstrated the need for stress and deadlines in order for me to work hard. Given a deadline that feels achievable, I will somehow work very hard to avoid nailing it with time to spare and instead invest time in unrelated activities until the deadline becomes near-unachievable. The stress hormone cortisol appears to be my go-to chemical and my indulgence in stress-generating practices have kept the hypertension department of Big Pharma well-funded. So something about trying to triple the word count that I’ve accumulated over a period of about 6 months in a period of 30 days appears to be a challenge that was created with exactly my psyche in mind.

There are tools

When I first did NaNoWriMo I recall there was a simply internet-based check in that you could complete to log your word count. Now there are forums, hashtags, write-ins and all manner of new distractions from the task of actually getting the work done. I stand ready to indulge in all of these.

I’ve pre-joined Facebook groups. I have a sticker that hails me as a participant which will add to my stress levels via the fear of failure to achieve a publicly declared goal.

It’s the right month for it

I have a seven day jaunt to a health retreat booked, planned well prior to the notion of being involved in NaNoWriMo. Without needing to feed myself or anyone else and absolved of my fulltime job and all household chores I feel confident of using the time between Tai Chi and Tricep dips to churn out words. Melbourne also has our annual November holiday in our worship of a horse race, which falls on a Tuesday. This means virtually every self-respecting Aussie will take the Monday off to craft a four day weekend.

As will I.

So only half of November will involve actual working days which feels like it might be easier to nail this thing.

Given the guiding principles of quality over quantity during the phase, and armed with a second tier notebook crammed with ideas, I will give it a crack.

Stay tuned.

The Gems in the Suburban Showbag

My parents, now comfortably ensconced in retirement, are gradually acquiring new hobbies. One admirable pastime is decluttering. The sheer volume of possessions inside the walls of the family home where they’ve spent their entire married life suggests that this will be a long term quest. A by-product of this decluttering is that every time I drop over for a visit, I leave with a mandatory bag or box stuffed with paraphernalia. This began boldly with the request that I re-house my childhood piano, which had been left forlornly unused since that moment in the 80s where it became very obvious that I had no natural musical talent and that all the private tutoring available would be useless in exposing even a glimmer of skill. There were bags of childhood dolls, photo albums, school reports and ribbons – awarded back in the days where there was some element of victory rather than simply participation.  Given the lack of spare room in a modest suburban home that is already at capacity given a rampant obsession with shoes, books and clothes, many of these keepsakes are now permanent residents of the boot of my car and ride aimlessly around with me year upon year.

A recent find in what I have begun to refer to as the surbuban showbag pressed upon me in the driveway upon departure is an early attempt on my part at expressing literary creativity. A faded cardboard cover, bound by string and self-illustrated with worn-out markers, it was titled ‘The Family’.  The children appear front and centre. Tom and Harry are dark-haired scamps, clad in high-neck skivvies some thirty years before the Wiggles made it a thing. Jane and Suzanne sport lush blonde hair, matching pink dresses and stick legs of a kind only found on a current era catwalk.

The production quality is a little sketchy despite what appears to have been tremendous effort devoted to illustrations that are a whimsical mix of cut-and-pasted coloured paper and marker drawings. It likely now remains one of the few artifacts typed up on a manual typewriter in some ancestor of Courier and for that reason alone appeared worthy of the transition from my car to a bedside drawer. Without the re-drafting capability of modern day word processing, typing errors have been simply corrected in pen.  The writing style is flagrant Enid Blyton mimicry with phrases such as ‘Mother was very angry’, ‘they got an awful fright.’  The text carbon dates itself as something only slightly post-Jurassic with its description of ‘spilt ink’.

 

Tom and Harry bear all the textbook hallmarks of serial-killers in the making. Their casual vandalism, injury of household pets and dismembering of their siblings’ dolls would make it straight into episode one of any modern-day true crime podcast. In the face of ongoing damage and wilful violence and pre the days of widespread administration of Ritalin or availability of self-help literature, the parents resorted to grounding the twins, experiencing repeat behaviour and grounding them again.  A shockingly taboo use of smacking also failed the tame the twins. At this point, although a scant missive at a mere seven pages, the plot becomes bogged down and could do with a savage structural edit. Eventually, previously conspicuously absent grandparents write to the family, offering to house and rehabilitate the twins for an undefined period ‘to make them good again’.  The tome ends on a cliffhanger hope of rehabilitation and screams out for a sequel.

We wait to see if volume two appears in a future suburban showbag.