A Healthy Stepmother . . . knows when to pause

Early in a second marriage with children, most of us likely found ourselves deeply committed to doing everything together, especially those of us without children of our own. We wanted to contribute to the family and tried hard to fit in because we’d signed on and by-gum we were going to live up to our promise. And, in our enthusiasm to help, to fit, to meld, to be together, we might have pushed on and pushed on and pushed on even after we were exhausted, with nothing left to give and no idea of what else to do.

What would a second marriage feel like if someone had told you that you didn’t need to push so hard in those first days, months, and years? Even now, years later, it’s helpful to have the reminder to pause . . . to wait, to see what the options in a situation might be.

And, let’s be honest, in our culture we women are conditioned to “see” things and our assessment leads us to naturally want to correct the course of what we can see will happen in the near future, especially if that things looks to be negative. We are adept at planning, implementing, and timing. It’s as if we can juggle and drink coffee at the same time, all without batting an eyelash.

Outfitted with all this discernment, we might find ourselves diving head-long into a situation that isn’t ours to be in. Not to say that every situation calls for us to sit back, but many of them do in a second marriage. Saying “I do” does not mean “I do everything that needs doing, in the second it needs doing.”

Enter the pause.

Pausing is an art in the world of public-speaking and we stepmothers might take note of what it does for a person. A well-timed pause adds emphasis. A pause adds a moment for the listener to take note of what the speaker has just said, to really understand the information in it’s fullest measure. A pause gives the speaker time to collect her thoughts. Most important, the pause is a physiological necessity, giving the speaker time to refill her lungs.

Pauses are sometimes thought of as silence and some researchers lump the pause and a moment of silence together, while others separate them in terms of the motivation of the speaker. Though they might seem the same, a well-timed pause looks and feels different from a stalk-from-the-room silence in terms of posture, tone, and tension.

To pause is to ponder your choices. What do you want to do in response to that event, action, situation? What is being asked of you? If you respond without the pause, you may find yourself halfway through a response and saying to yourself, “why am I doing this?”

Thus, every stepmother should make friends with “the pause.”

15 thoughts on “A Healthy Stepmother . . . knows when to pause

  1. Yup, I’m pretty sure the “I do” refers to . . . I agree to witness your life, I agree to be here when things are good, bad, ugly, happy, joyous, I agree to help. But no where does it say, “get it done, NOW.” Does it???

  2. I write about and live the pause. Breast cancer taught me all about the pause. Inside the pause, one creates space between what was done or said and the reaction to follow.

    Inside the pause, we create enough time to think about what was said or done and ask ourselves some serious questions. We also give ourselves enough time to take a few deep breaths and calm down.

    I love the pause.

    Happy New Year!

  3. Thanks, Peggy. I’m sure breast cancer has taught you so many things that I can’t even imagine, to pause being only one of them. I pause to make space to honor what you’ve been through . . .

    [ ]

    I’m planning to continue fleshing out how I see the pause fitting in to our options in our actions and reactions to the events in our lives. It’s a study worth diving deeply into and for me it fits into a larger umbrella of learning how to learn so that we can undo the compulsive nature of our behavior. Food for a future blog topic.

  4. Ahhh, the pause. What a great concept. I find myself running in a million directions as MOM is called thru the house and I try to meet all 4 kids’ requests. Would I be that selfless if they were not my bonus kids? Would it take less to make me snap? When I am able to take a “pause” it does wonders for my emotions and my heart and helps me be a better bonus mom. THanks for the great reminder!

  5. Dawnua, thanks for your comments. Great questions to ask yourself, or for any of us to ask ourselves.

    I am interested in the ways we are conditioned to respond, almost as if we have a reflex that is activated at the first sound or issue we sense, see, hear, or feel. And, bizarrely, we get rewarded for our quick responsiveness by the behaviors of our family/significant other, etc. It’s a mind-trip really.

    I wonder if the greatest gift we could give our daughters and granddaughters is to model the ability to take a moment, stop and breathe, stop and check in. Do this publicly sometimes. Do this so they know you are taking a “moment.” If we did this frequently enough, I wonder if we would get past the need to take a pause in an “emergency” sort of nature, and it would just be a part and parcel of how one processes life.

    I wonder lots of things . . . thanks for wondering with me!!

  6. Hi HealthyStepMother! After reading thru your blog I decided that you are a perfect candidate for my Bonus Mom Badge! Please visit my blog to see your award and feel free to pass it on to another great Bonus Mom. If you would link the badge back to my blog we can keep in touch and others will know the meaning behind the badge. Best Regards!

  7. I met a widower with a daughter, now 13, two and a half years ago, we married one year ago. I have no children of my own. This particular blog spoke to me because in the beginning I jumped right in. I know a deceased mother brings another spin on this, but the fact is I am still trying to help raise another’s child. My husband continually thanks me for my contribution and patience. My husband tells me I am making more of an impact than I know….it would be really nice to hear it from SD, even if indirectly. Your comment “And, let’s be honest, in our culture we women are conditioned to “see” things and our assessment leads us to naturally want to correct the course of what we can see will happen in the near future, especially if that things looks to be negative. We are adept at planning, implementing, and timing. It’s as if we can juggle and drink coffee at the same time, all without batting an eyelash” is so true. Now 13, she is in middle school, struggling with peers, homework, self-image, etc. I now have learned to mostly hold back and wait for her father to step up when issues arise, such as incompleted homework, wearing inappropriate clothes (in my opinion, of course), loose boundaries, no consistently designated chores…the list goes on. I worry because I am looking into the future when these behaviours happen and are allowed to continue and I see the path we are following. I’ve had conversations with my husband, so he does know my stance on every one of the aforementioned issues. He is very laid back, learn by one’s mistakes kind of guy, and this one…”I hope she will eventually just do these things on her own”. Aaaack!!. There is still no consistency, homework is suffering, she is running wild with her friends, and she knows from the times that I have voiced my opinion that I am the stricter parent, and so I am the bad guy when her dad happens to put his foot down. She thinks the “no’s” (not many!) and the consequences(again, not many!) come from me through her dad. Her dad has tried once to explain that it is not the case. I believe it is something that needs to be spoken about on a regular basis. I am reaching the point of “why should I care”? She is not my daughter, she will be out of the house in 5 or 6 years, she will never think of me as a “mother figure” anyway, blah, blah, blah. We do have a pretty civil relationship, and even touching moments, and I care deeply for her, but I have no confidence that we are parenting her in a way that is guiding her to her best self. I know realistically that even when she moves out on her own, we will still be parenting, money issues will still have to be dealt with, and other things I probably can’t even imagine. I want to start now to build a sturdy bridge for the future. What is it about fathers and daughters? Why the light touch? Why is the firmness missing that a mother provides? He knows I can’t do it, not regularly, it won’t work, but he struggles to take an unpopular stand. She told her aunt once “I can mold my dad to however I want” and it is mostly true. I mentioned this to him, but the effect was lost on him. Words of wisdom??

    • Hello Leah, and welcome here. I am honored that you’ve combed back through the archives and found a post from the very beginning. Wow, as I reread the original post, I realized…it’s still true today. I so often still need to pause. Not with the same urgency or negativity, if that’s of some comfort.

      Advice….not sure. Of course, I’m a broken record when I recommend StepMonster, by Wednesday Martin. It is the only book that isn’t condescending to stepmothers, not preachy, and completely realistic. It’s full of information that helped me feel normal, not okay emotionally because it IS disturbing to see the manipulation going on, etc, but I felt at least in the good company of thousands…yes, thousands, of stepmothers.

      Double-angst when the mother is dead. I know that sounds bizarre, it should be easier, but it’s not. The dead mother is a saint/martyr/JoanofArc character. My own mother died when I was 24, so this putting on the pedestal is a familiar thing. You can’t fight that. I would likely handle things differently if my step kids mother was dead. Advice about not posting pictures from before…I’d throw that out and put her photo front and center. I’m not telling you to do that, but I think I would. I’d honor her. I’d ask what she would have done in this or that situation, not constantly, but on special occasions, etc. I’d make her a familiar guest at the family gatherings. I’d find the way to make friends with her, in my heart, so I could not flinch when her name/subject came up.

      And…or but….the issues you’re mentioning are not about a deceased mother. They are about a teenage girl and her dad, as you pegged. Stepmonster has some beautiful examples of that and should help you enormously. For me, at first I swallowed the “permissive dad” label and it took me a few years to see past my husband’s actions and work my way through my reactions to his actions to get to a place of respect. I now see it differently and I wish there was a different word for it. In your case, your husband likely carries guilt every single day of the suffering his daughter has to go through because her mother isn’t there. In my case, my husband carried guilt that his kids had to go through the suffering of being kids of divorce. That part will never go away, again…my opinion.

      The most effective thing I ever did was turn the problems over to him. I taught myself to ignore things unless I couldn’t, and then I asked him how he wanted something handled. If we were hosting a party, I asked him who would be cleaning up and then I followed his lead. I did not take over the event. I am not the traditional mom in the house, I’m my husband’s wife. I focused on him. When the kids come to dinner, mostly he cooks. Not because I don’t want to, but because I’m less resentful when he cooks. When the kids leave and there are messes behind, I leave them and let him pick them up. If he doesn’t, I ask him if he will. “Honey, would you mind bussing up the TV room?’ That’s all I have to say. He knows. He does it. And I’m done feeling bad. Then, during times the kids are around, I focus on my husband. I don’t ignore the kids, but I focus on my connection to the person I’m there with. Your situation is very different from mine, however, and I hesitate to say anything I’m doing is advice. You are living under the same roof, so I think you’ve got some other leverages. I also wonder if you could find some humorous ways to let your stepdaughter know what role you’re playing. You could say, “Hey, let’s go have girl time and go to coffee.” Or, “Okay, now this is me, the worrying adult talking…have you got all your papers for school today?” Etc….different you for each situation. I wonder if that would open things up. And, when all else fails, drag out those connecting/touching moments you mentioned and relive them, as many times as it takes to keep a soft spot in your heart for her.

      • Kim, thank you for kindly responding so quickly. I have not read Stepmonster, and I probably should. The deceased mother (SD was 9) does make for a precarious situation. Most notably, in a divorce situation she would have a mother to go to. Your right, one might think I would have more of a place at the table, but sometimes it feels like even less because perhaps she (and he) do not want to somehow usurp or betray the deceased mother. It can be weird all the way around, and no way around it sometimes. I could embrace LW, and I don’t purposefully not talk about her, and I’ve never or ever will indicate that she is off limits, but in bringing LW into the middle of our family may also serve to bring her into my marriage, of which she has no place. That I am firm on. That my SD remember and cherish her is important, of course, but I think is best shared with aunts, grandmothers and cousins…and dad when I am not around, i have no issue with that at all. They knew her, and loved her, and SD will get history from them as well. It is confounding subject, this new into the marriage, and I don’t navigate it so well, probably. But, I do understand what you are saying. I believe the main issue is parent/child and the parent is not stepping up, and I can’t, in most intances. I, like you, have started leaving the laundry, the messy kitchen and bedroom from SD’s overnights, the homework and large part of the shuttleing for him. I think he is slowly coming to a realization, because I don’t believe he necessarily wants to do it all, I just think he believed there was no other option. I cringe when he forgets the “other” option is SD actually doing these things for herself. Maybe we will get there, maybe we won’t, but I know I will continue to struggle with holding my tongue, and stepping back. It is a work in progress. I’ve read many of your blogs, they have helped greatly. I should note they had SD later in life, my husband and I are both in our early 50’s, though we are no stick in the muds! I know this adds another wrinkle to raising a teenager when most of her peers’ parents are in their 30’s and 40’s. Your blog was a breath of fresh air, and gave me permission to breath a sigh of relief when I started letting go of some of the things that weren’t mine in the first place. I will continue reading, I hope you continue blogging.

      • Thanks, Leah. I’ll definitely keep blogging. It always comes from a place of the personal and I’ve tried (and mostly succeeded) to keep from airing the laundry in public. I come close enough, but hope to be always respectful. I get what you mean about not bringing your husband’s first wife into your marriage. Super important. And, he sounds like he is embracing you in every way so you don’t have anything to worry about with regard to that. The thing about backing away and letting your husband see and take care of things….he will get more personally involved and then begin to see there might be easier ways to do things. And, then one day you’ll realize he has become more involved. My guy told me…”I’m a two-step, three-step kind of guy.” And, he was/is. He would take 3 passes at things with ever-closer approximations. It took 3 times as long, or 30 times as long, as my abrupt, get-it-done-now style. We are there, where I had thought we might be. We are also in our 50s, and probably because of that our marriage is stronger. Neither of us is interested in playing games any more, we are at a stage we’ve worked hard our entire lives and would like to enjoy it. And, we want to support the kids and that will be a process. Have you talked to the aunts/grandmothers? What do they think?

      • I like the analogy about the 3 times as long vs the abrupt syle. So similar to my husband and I. Despite the different parenting styles, we have a wonderful relationship. We fell quickly head over heals, and it has been the best relationship of our lives, at this age! We never thought it could be. We know we are fortunate. I find much strength in my relationship with my husband, which is a completely separate relationship from my SD, and a completely separate relationship for him. It serves me well to remember that frequently. Aunts, grandmothers etc are all far away, though I have met them all, both sides, and all are quite lovely, caring people. I feel they all understand the complexity, and most certainly are there as sounding boards for SD. But, she is a teenager, and there is no adult at the moment who is more important than her friends, so communication with family is sporadic. I feel that dad could and should step in to ramp up communication, and again, I must leave that to him. I can’t allow myself to step too far into the deceased wife/mother arena, it feels uncomfortable, and another area I really don’t belong. Talk about conjuring up stress over a subject you really, truly can’t do anything about. Yes, my reluctance to delve into it is self-protective, perhaps selfish. I can’t allow myself to feel like I am the other woman. My husband makes me feel like number one, always, but because he didn’t choose to leave her or her him, and regardless of how happy and fortunate we know we are to have found each other, I can easily slip into that gray area that I don’t want to visit, ever. So I will deal with the delicate balance of keeping an arms-length watch on SD’s heart, and standing in the parenting shadow while we all navigate this step world together. You have blazed a trail that I have started to follow, and I find your experiences genuine and you observations sensible. Thank you, thank you for not taking a martyr role, or evil stepmother role, which is mostly what I find in my research on the subject. Again, a breath of fresh, empowering air.

      • So, Kim, I am not sure where this posting belongs, but I will just add it here. I read your latest blog about the holidays. This approach, of course, applies in so many circumstances. One that I dealt with recently, and frequently, is the homework/grades issue. If you recall, my SD is with us full time, her mother is deceased. So homework/school is fully on our plates. We have the ability to login to the grade/homework site for the middle school she attends. I’ve become the one that watches it, and I remind that homework is due, or missing, or that grades are slipping, etc. Dad jumps in only sometimes, and only if I raise a flag. SD does not care for school or homework, so she see’s my efforts as negative and intrusive. She consistently waits until the last minute to finish up homework, which puts the house in a frenzy. I’ve had many conversations with my husband, he will have a talk with her, then it goes back to the same old, same old. Like last night. It isn’t that he doesn’t care if she gets good grades, he is just not as proactive as he might be in this situation. I could step back (it would be sooo hard) and not say anything, ever again, but I fear that grades will plummet (they are already low), and her desire to go to college (and us to spend the dollars for her to do so) will be a wasteful thing if she does not buckle down now through high school. I know the experience is different when there is a bio mom still involved, but if you, or anyone out there, has words of wisdom for this situation, they would be greatly appreciated. I can step back from a room not being cleaned, and I am fine with it, but this has such long term consequences, I just can’t bear the thought of waiting in the wings and riding it out. Happy Holidays to you!

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