A Healthy Stepmother . . . understands when guilt gets in the way.

Sometimes you just have to laugh at the way we humans behave. We do so many things that get in our way, without even knowing it, without even feeling it. But, we’re conditioned and taught from our very early age to jump in there and get things done. We encourage our young to read, even before they are ready. We encourage them to walk, even before they have all the brain development to support other later, more sophisticated development.

So, take any 14-old-girl, and go forward with her in time, say 30 years. She’s 44 now, a new stepmother and what she knows is to try, try, try with all her might. Think back, what was that about when she was a kid? She got kudos and pats on the back, and (my favorite) “good girl.” She learned in so very many, deeply insidious ways, to be a “good girl.”

Being a “good girl” as a stepmother doesn’t get one very far. You’ve been there, haven’t you? You tried really hard. You bent over backwards. You did things you’d never have thought possible, all in the sake of trying to keep the peace. Then, one day it happened.

One day, you found yourself face to face with your husband who was gently urging you to not take the last incident so personally and to let things go. You stood there, listening to the man you loved telling you why the what-you’d-said or done, or should-have-said and done weren’t enough and how it caused a problem.

It is in moments such as those that you have an opportunity to let go of guilt. Guilt for not being “enough.” Guilt for not knowing the just exactly right thing to say that will help everyone get on with their next project. Most of all, guilt for trying too hard.

For . . . let me pause here . . . [pause] . . . you will never get this life exactly right.

I’ll say it again.

You will never get this life exactly right. Yep, you will fall down, you will belch, you will start, you will eye roll, you will snort, you will guffaw, you will muffle a scream, you will look wildly around for the nearest exit. But 89.99999999% of the time, you’ll do what you do best and that’s be you.

So, what’s a healthy stepmother to do? First step, repeat a zillion, trillion, million times until your husband gets it . . . “So, don’t defend me.” When he tells you that the kids didn’t like something you did, say it again, “So, don’t defend me.” He’ll get it, eventually. If he can let go of the guilt that he married a person who isn’t “perfect” or exactly like their mother, then two of you can then begin your happily-ever-after chapter. He can simply say, “Fine, don’t like her, but she’s my wife and you need to show her respect.” (I copied this last phrase from several books, my favorite of which is Stepmonster, Wednesday Martin). I think I said it a slightly different way here, but you get the point. I’m betting big money he will feel some serious emotional relief and the two of you will be able to get on with being the two fabulous people who married one another before you got all worried about what the kids thought. But, seriously, you may need to say it a thousand times, don’t defend me.

Guilty-skillty, just go be your non-perfect human, womanly self.

5 thoughts on “A Healthy Stepmother . . . understands when guilt gets in the way.

  1. Thank you for this post. I haven’t quite encountered this yet, as his son is only 2.5 years old, and doesn’t really have much of an opinion yet, but it’s a good thing to start now.

  2. Hi Snow White, I’m not sure it matters how old the children are, though certainly as they get past 13, they have their own special way of cranking up the guilt factor. No, there’s plenty of it early on. Guilty for feeling put out, feeling left out, on and on. I think we women are just such experts at stuffing it down that we sort of forget that guilt is the active element in the underlying “stuff” that comes up between us and our spouse. Welcome and thanks for posting.

    Jill, always value your opinion because I know you come from a place of compassion for the kids and your husband and that we ALL need a space on the bus. Your seat is well-deserved. Thanks.

  3. Hi Kim,

    What I’m learning to do is experience making mistakes in a new way. Instead of wrapping all kinds of emotions into my mistake, I look at it from a dispassionate point of view. Like “mmm…next time I’ll do this a bit differntly or say this another way…or press pause a longer.” Mistakes teach us new things about others and about ourselves. Often, a mistake will teach me something about me I didn’t know before.

    When faced with a new experience in remarried life (I recently had one of those, http://thestepmomstoolbox.com on Boundaries) I find great support and sponsorship from my husband. We’ll talk it through, explore options, and at the end of the day, do what feels right and true.

    Mistakes happen…beating yourself up is optional 🙂

    • Thanks, Peggy, for the comments. From my world view, of change and human compulsions, we don’t make “mistakes.” We are conditioned to do things a certain way. There is a dance and a process of loosening the binds of that conditioning and allowing other options to seep in. Even, possibly, for those new options to be a new way of behaving. I’m hoping to address in this post the feelings that come up, that are often ignored. Feelings that are there and flavor the interaction and influence our motivations and get in the way.

      You can read more specifically about what I’m referring to in The Potent Self: A Study of Spontaneity and Compulsion , where Dr. Feldenkrais talks about the compulsions we are taught as a child and how we need our adult lifetime to unlearn them.

      I’d be curious what you think. And, to be honest, I haven’t read your blog yet. In many ways, that’s a good thing, since what I’m trying to do is develop my own languaging and idea about how to use my work to intersect with how we stepmothers can behave with integrity and peace in our own lives. But, now that I feel I’ve “launched” myself and this blog, I’ll get on over there and check it out. Thanks for commenting.

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