10 Essentials* for A Healthy Stepmother

Regardless of whether you’re preparing for your trip into the Stepmother Wilderness or you have already been, you need some essentials. Being a stepmother is a process. First, you learn the basics, then you gain skill and strength for longer trips, and finally, you become an experienced stepmother, knowing how to handle emergencies and traumas out on the wilderness trail. Ideally,  we would have time to absorb each stage of the journey, but honestly, life often thrusts us full-on into the long-distance hike with little to sustain us except our caring for the man to whom we said “I do.”

So, no matter where you are on the path. Whether you are an experienced stepmother (let’s say 3+ years) or a beginner (recently married, living with someone, contemplating marriage), it would behoove you to take stock in the 10 Essentials.

1. Navigation (map and compass)

Regardless of where your stepmother journey takes you, do not leave home without a map of your direction and a compass to track your coordinates. Time and again, stepmothers are stranded, lost and confused, dehydrated, or overexposed to freezing temperatures that caught them unprepared. Had they known exactly where they were and which path to take, they might have returned to safety quickly and without much ado.

Take out your compass, get your map . . . plot your course. Include your husband in the planning. Even if he’s not as enthusiastic as you, if he understands your coordinates, he’ll be able to find you when you need help or get lost. If you get mad and don’t let him know where you’re going, you’ll have a long wait to be found.

2. Sun protection

Prevention is an interesting aspect of protection. Rubbing that thin, invisible layer of moisture on one’s skin keeps the invisible bad rays of the sun from harming the outer layer of the skin. But, a full day of sun . . . even though the skin might tolerate that when given protection, the eyes burn, the feet sweat, the body lags and the brain slows.

In our day-to-day lives, the sunscreen of choice might actually be the detachment that many experts suggest. Prevention might come in the form of doing less, taking care to not get over-exposed and worn out. Even when you detach, you can always “up” your stepmother involvement as time goes on and the flow of connection feels mutual and comfortable. But, once there has been too much exposure, it’s pretty hard to counteract it any other way than to wait until the burn has healed.

3. Insulation (extra clothing)

Insulation means a warm layer, a dry layer, a wicking layer, and at the very least, a softness next to the skin to reduce chafing. The hike through the wilderness is long and exposed to the elements. But, with the right protection, you can go out in almost any weather. And, when the sun comes out and everything glows, those are the moments in a stepfamily that stay in our memories.

Take insulation no matter where and what season you venture out. Early in our marriage, my husband offered me some insulation . . . don’t leave yourself vulnerable . . . and, be sure to take care of yourself. My enthusiastic, brave front did little to insulate me from his kids and my feelings ended up trampled and bruised. He knew how to manage those family dynamics, but my anxiety-motivated efforts to join in took me feet first, in over my head, no insulation to protect me from the weather.

4. Illumination (flashlight/headlamp)

If you can’t see where you’re going, you can’t get where you want to go. So, take a flashlight. If the weather changes and you get caught out, you might need to signal for rescue. You might need a beacon that lets you follow the light back to your campsite. You might need the light to guide you out of the forest if your family gets hurt and you have to go for help.

And, headlamps are handy, they leave your hands free. This gives you versatility, flexibility, and the ability to have light when you need it. Sometimes you need an extra light to shine on a problem, bring out the issues so you can find a solution. Knowing when to use the light comes with experience and a healthy stepmother knows when to not shine the light.

5. First-aid supplies

When you get hurt, you need help. Your stepmother first-aid kit should include a range of supplies. A pedicure might qualify as an emergency aid, maybe even a new hairstyle, or a beach retreat with your girlfriends. And, a long walk is a good remedy for a headache and petting the dogs soothes and comforts.

You should build up a strong library of ideas for how you can nurture yourself and take care of the scuffed and bruised feelings you have after your stepkids have visited. Even when they don’t mean to brush you aside, they do. Even when they want to like you, their mother stands between them and you and she may or may not let them have the freedom to approach you with an open heart. In those cases, get out the first aid kit. Patch up the cuts, blisters, and bruises and move on. Unless you have a broken bone or a broken heart, there is a lot that a good long walk will do for you.

6. Fire

The fire necessary for hiking into the woods is used to heat food, keep warm, and provide protection. A stepmother-fire serves to fuel your creativity, shore up your spirit, and solidify the love you hold for your husband. Without that fire, the stepmother wilderness gets dark, cold, and more than a little scary. You need fire as a vital aspect of your relationship with your husband so that you can continue to build up your history of successful interactions, memories, and stories. The fire will protect you from the inevitable challenges to your union that you will encounter. You are building a web of connectedness that needs to be strong and the fire is the central element.

7. Repair kit and tools

Taking care of oneself outdoors means that sometimes you have to dig a hole to properly dispose of the waste. Sometimes you have to chop wood or haul water or build a temporary shelter. Gather up your personal stepmother repair kit and be sure to include the following items . . . you should have a cozy blanket to wrap up in when you need some nurturing, a room to escape to where you can shut the door and have some alone time, bath beads and bubble bath for a nice long soak when you can’t even imagine talking to someone, a computer so you can go online and chat with other stepmothers or weigh in on a forum even in the wee hours of the night (so you can do something besides lie there and ruminate), and a Mardi Gras mask to wear when your own smile just won’t do.

And books. There are many guidebooks. You’ll soon find out that you are not alone, find out that others share the same concerns. There is a growing supply of books that give ideas for how to approach the stepmother role and it’s no secret that there are many different philosophies growing out there. Read carefully and choose the one that’s right for you. What works for your best friend might not work for your family situation.

8. Nutrition (extra food)

Meals are a vulnerable time for a stepmother because everyone is face-to-face, struggling with what to say or do. One nutritive strategy is to let your husband cook meals for the children. This gift takes you out of the position of being judged for what you cook or don’t cook, and whether they like it or don’t like it. If you are the custodial stepmother, let the kids sign up for a night of the week to fix dinner. Independently, if they are old enough, or in teams with a parent if they are too young. Let them be in charge of food choices, preparation, and clean-up. Let them build the fire sometimes.

Nutrition also comes in the form of you and your husband getting time alone and you taking time with close friends and your own family. This could be the most neglected aspect of being a stepmother, burdening you with the guilt that you are taking the easy way out. Emergency rations include instructions to dig a hole and bury the guilt right beside the waste. Then, without further ado, resume your hike.

9. Hydration (extra water)

Water, coffee, tea, juice, or cocktails. Any experienced stepmother-hiker knows that she needs to pick and choose how she hydrates. She acknowledges that she and her friends like to blow off some steam and she chooses her time to “let loose” by making sure she’s in a safe and appropriate environment when she’s drinking. She doesn’t want to end up like the guy who was drinking and fought with his fiancé and then took a swim in the Colorado River and drowned. To summarize: drinking and the stepmother wilderness don’t mix. Use your good navigation skills and knowledge of the terrain to plan for the next day, and then behave accordingly. No prudish lectures here, just common sense and good wishes for the long haul.

10. Emergency shelter

Sometimes, regardless of your abilities as an experienced wilderness stepmother, the situation can fall apart. When a sudden storm comes up, grab your emergency supplies and get busy building a shelter to wait out the storm. This might consist of building an invisible structure to withstand the hurricane of feelings being hurled in your direction. Hurricanes come up following many significant events for the kids and can be brought into your home without warning. Practice when the winds are less intense and soon you’ll be able to quickly assemble the shelter around you so you can breathe and watch and interact, without feeling assaulted by the storm going on around you.

With these essentials in your pack and a knowledge of how to use them, over time you’ll learn to use them in a preventive way. Please . . . don’t venture into the Stepmother Wilderness without these 10 Essentials.

*Adapted from the 10 Essentials, The Mountaineers, Seattle.

11 thoughts on “10 Essentials* for A Healthy Stepmother

  1. Have your Step-kids seen this blog?? Won’t you need a repair kit after they do? It’s a little insensitive don’t you think? I have a step mother and wouldn’t appreciate if she posted this….

    • If my stepchildren read this blog, I hope they will quickly take note of the fact that it isn’t about them personally. The comments I make and the ideas I’m putting out aren’t about them. I am taking a “snapshot” of what I learned as a stepdaughter, as a stepmother, from many, many of my friends who are stepmothers, and even from the perspective of my husband and the mothers I know whose husbands are remarried. We are all struggling in the stepfamily-exfamily situation and everyone is hurting. I began this blog because I am becoming increasingly alarmed that there is not more support for families, and particularly stepmothers, out there.

      You sound like you care about your stepmother and her feelings and you might be hurt to think that she struggled with something you had done. I wonder if you have read Stepmonster, by Wednesday Martin. Stepmonster is the most comprehensive review of the stepmother role in a family that I have found. Dr. Martin did an excellent job of examining the literature and analyzing what she found there and she reviewed the research on animals that relates to raising an non-biological offspring. She points out that stepmothers have far higher rates of anxiety and depression, a fact that I found worrisome.

      Another startling piece of data is that 72% of second marriages end in divorce. What I’m hoping to offer up are a few ideas for a stepmother to consider so she can self-soothe, keep perspective, find balance and emotional support, and remain committed to her marriage. All too often, I’m witness to so many women who are unseen, unheard, and uncared for. My idealistic dream is that every person in a stepfamily and ex-family will be recognized, respected, seen and heard.

      I’m glad you wrote in. At first, I had to really ask myself the question: “Do I somehow have an ulterior motive other than what I’ve stated above?” I feel satisfied that I am attempting to make peace, not war. I have really just begun this blog and what I take away from your question is that I need to be more clear that I am not talking about my personal situation and what my motives are in starting this blog.

      Thanks again, Jessica. I wish you many warm connections with your stepmother.

  2. Hi Kim,

    I like your survival tips! I created The Stepmom’s Toolbox so that every stepmom could learn about all the resources available to help her navigate the rugged terrain of remarried life.

    Your quick reference guide is an awesome awesome tool!


  3. I love this. Being a step-mom is soo totally different from a mom. I think you did an excellent job. Kids, whether they are natural born or not, sometimes do not realize how much they can hurt adults. Blending families is tough and kids can, literally, make or break a marriage which is sad.
    I think you have done an excellent job on this post. (I have been a step mom so I know what you are talking about)

  4. Hi Peggy, Hi Eyes Wide Open,
    Thanks for reading and commenting and welcoming me so graciously. I am really excited about the potential to shift the relationships within a stepfamily to something more healthy and positive and nurturing for everyone. I see so many others have started along that path and I am thrilled to chime in.

    I think our larger culture needs to have an increased awareness so we can stop denying the issues and improve mental health for everyone. We’ll see where this goes.

    Thanks again!

  5. KaLynn,
    You are so right, children . . . even adult children, do not know what they do sometimes. It is difficult in the midst of their own pain to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and take a look at what it might feel like. Even “good” stepchildren do things that sting, not intentionally, but in reaction to the “system” we all belong to.

    I am thrilled to see that others understand that if each person in the equation feels entitled to take care of herself, is encouraged to take care of herself, and nurture her health and well-being, that everyone will be better off. The marriage will be better off, the adults will be happier, the children will be living in a more positive environment with less stress. And, I think that’s what we all want, a more positive, less stressful life. Thanks again!

  6. Hi everyone,
    I wonder how the “building a shelter” went over the holidays for people. I know we needed a couple at my house and I was able to get them up in time before the storm got really bad.

    One thing to remember about being in a storm, even if you’re hunkered down and safe and cozy inside . . . when you go outside again, there is often some destruction. There are often limbs that have broken off of trees and objects blown about that might have damaged other things. It’s good to remember that there will be an “aftermath” with you and your spouse after a “storm,” even when it’s not of your making. And, hopefully, you’ll have patience with yourself and wait for that part to calm as well.

    Thanks everyone, and Happy New Year!

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