In the version of the Wizard of Oz that lives inside my head, Dorothy and the Tin Man and the Scarecrow are waiting for an audience with the Wizard. They inadvertently see him when he’s not expected to be seen. He’s surprised and a little upset and covers up, or tries to cover up. But it’s too late, they realize he’s just a man. A human and not someone with super-duper extra powers that can hurt or help them. Dorothy learns she’ll have to get herself home on her own.
It’s that way with our stepchildren. They live more than a little behind the curtain. The loyalty bind that children of divorce live under, the push-me-pull-me from one parent to the other, is very well-documented. One parent doesn’t want the other to be the favored one and so goes the ages-long battle for the child to take a side.
Within that narrow path that a child walks, some days are simply too much. Some days that narrow path is battled against as if there were no tomorrow. Other days that narrow path welcomes the child and life is good. There’s no knowing how it will go on any given day because there are simply too many influences in a child’s life.
A stepmother has so many choices in her response to the behavior from the child, aka Wizard, not all of them healthy choices. She can attribute super human powers and hand over the keys to the castle, as if the child was the Wizard. She can try to make things okay to make up for what she perceives the child is going through. She can take all the burdens away from the child and not expect anything from him or her in terms of contributions to the household. She can fight and cajole and argue with her husband to get the child to contribute to the household.
Or, my favorite is to look behind the curtain. What looks like disdain one day is so very clearly a child who is unsure of where he stands in the push-me-pull-me parent game. What looks like insolence is a kid who comes home with a sad story about someone who treated him badly at school. What looks like anger is an internal conflict about what to do to make things better between parents so the child can freely love both parents.
So, the healthy stepmother can get about her workday, run a hot bath, turn to her novel, or go make a batch of popcorn. Somehow she can watch, wait, and witness. In the watching, she can do little things to let the child know she’s seen behind the curtain but she needs to be careful to not take the curtain away. She can wait and yet keep asking for the laundry to be brought down to the laundry room and for the dishes to go in the dishwasher and for the utensils to be used on the food instead of the fingers on the food. And, she can bear witness to this child. She can admit when things are hard for her, she can encourage her husband (the child’s father) to do the same, and she can sometimes voice out loud what the issue is that she sees.
Voicing feelings is the hardest part since a stepmother will want to speak so the witnessing doesn’t sound like an accusation. A well-timed joke, an association to a favorite movie or TV show, or an honest unveiling of the heart are all good ideas. In the end, the Wizard/child doesn’t know how to ask for help and the stepmother needs to use her knowledge of the child and of what hurt might lie in the child’s heart and speak to the child as if the child is not responsible. Certainly, until the child is an adult, he or she is doing the best she can to stay on that narrow path that has been delineated as an okay place to be.
And, like Dorothy, it may be that the stepmother needs to click her heels a few times and take herself back home to regroup and take stock of the situation. It’s a useful skill know how to get home from anywhere, in fact it helps the stepmother to keep her cool in times of uncertainty.
Unlike Dorothy, the child-Wizard doesn’t have the power to click his heels and go home. He is still bound by his dependence on his parents and vulnerable to their requirements for him. Sometimes, the best response from a stepmother when she’s aware she’s seen behind the curtain is to quietly let it fall back into place and walk on.