A Healthy Stepmother . . . unpacks.

After 5 years of living in the home I share with my husband and his kids, I finally unpacked the boxes of dishes I inherited from my mother, aunt, and grandmothers. Why I didn’t unpack them until now, I have no idea. All I know is that they sat in a corner of the basement, quiet, out of the way, minding their own business, and not making waves.

It was no small irony to observe that for the first few years of my marriage to a man with children from a previous marriage that I also tried to be quiet, stay out of the way, mind my own business and not make waves. Sure, I had a few moments over the years when I erupted because the enormity of the feelings inside was so great I couldn’t contain them any longer. But mostly, largely, I’ve remained supportive of my husband, advocated for what seemed best for the kids even when they didn’t know they had an advocate, and been a huge champion for community-building and sharing. You know, all that stuff they teach in kindergarten.

First, I hauled the 4 small boxes from their place in the basement, blew off the dust and removed the delicate contents, much of it from the depression-era. These pieces I’d gathered over the years, shards of my maternal ancestry,  were mismatched and chipped and incomplete sets of Franciscan glasses, delicate dessert cups, pink-ish wine goblets, and my favorite, a set of 50’s plastic-coated tumblers. I remembered them all from my grandmother’s house when we went there for family dinners.

Now, I wonder. Did I leave them in the boxes because they weren’t complete sets, because they weren’t functional? Did I leave them in the boxes so they wouldn’t be broken, nevermind that we have some beautiful built in cabinets in our 1921 bungalow that would have kept them safe. Or worse, did I leave them in the boxes because I didn’t think they would measure up?

By now, the metaphor may be obvious, but it took me 5 years to figure it out. Now, I want to shout it out to all newly married women who’ve got new husbands complete with children from another marriage . . . unpack the glassware! Don’t wait. Don’t apologize. Don’t let your life mean less than the ones that you live with. Work together with your husband and make room in the cabinets for the things that matter to you both.

My husband is thrilled, he’s excited to see these things from my mother and her family. Despite my initial shyness in bringing them out, it makes complete sense. When his grandmother (his stepmother’s mother) died, he inherited several antiques including the dining room table we use today. Every year on the holidays we put all the leaves in the table and stretch it out to completely fill our dining room. If we use chairs without arms, we can squeeze 12 around the table and we’ve done that plenty of times.

One year over the turkey dinner, my husband’s stepmother confessed that her mother used to fill this very same table every night at the boarding house where she worked as the cook. My mother-in-law was thrilled to see that we also regularly bring a community together around the table and it means a lot to her that we enjoy the beauty of the table.

I got up this morning and felt somehow different walking through the dining room past the glass-fronted cabinets. There are things in there that belong to me, that have a history marked by my relatives. My female ancestors drank from these glasses and washed and dried and stored them away in their cabinets. I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer to have them in my daily life.

23 thoughts on “A Healthy Stepmother . . . unpacks.

  1. Ahhhh, NuttyMama. Though you weren’t a stepchild yourself and though you’re not a stepmother, if your husband is a part of a stepfamily that means you’re “in one” too. Hmmm, a somewhat dubious honor since most stepfamilies are fraught with sadness and hurt for at least some number of years. But welcome and thanks for reading. It means a lot to me that those reading see that I’m focusing on the long-range picture and what it means for everyone in the equation to have a place and sense of being seen. Just how one would hope each person in any family feels.

    And, I have a certain identification with my husband’s stepmother so there’s some poetry in my mother’s glassware sharing the holidays with her mother’s table. Call me sentimental, but I am really enjoying that image.

  2. This is a lovely post. Funny that in rediscovering the boxes and their contents, you seem to have discovered a bit of yourself and your history as well. Lovely isn’t it?

    Life seems to reveal itself in its’ own time…

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Welcome, Ohio. Yes…..absolutely. I’ve always thought going “home” was that process of rediscovering parts of yourself that you might have set aside for a time and that you then have the opportunity to reacquaint yourself with them or continue to leave them “in boxes.” You don’t mention whether you are a stepmother, but if you are then you well know the feeling of “setting aside” your life while you assimilate to the life that was going on before you arrived on the scene. Thanks for reading. Many of my posts are more a conglomeration or synthesis of the “stepmother experience” filtered through my friends and colleagues. This one, though personal, seems a vital piece for every stepmother. One I imagine is even trickier if the mother of the children has died. I suppose that’s why the experts say it is vital that you don’t make your marriage home in the same home the family lived in before. Thanks again for commenting.

  3. Yes, I am a stepmother and can relate to the “setting aside” of my life especially because my girls are in College, while my steps are still in school. Very tricky waters to navigate and sadly, not going well.

    I always thought that when my girls went to College it would finally be “me” time. Not so! Truthfully, at times I am resentful of the invasion (yes, it feels like an invasion when we have his kids, but that is another story).

    While the mother of my stepchildren is very much alive, my girls father has passed away. I think it is easier for my husband as he doesn’t have to deal with another parent. (understanding of course, that each situation is different) When we got married we started new – by that I mean, we bought a house that was ours. A very smart decision indeed.

    Life as a stepmother is challenging and frankly, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. (and I raised two girls alone working 2 jobs @ 60+ hours a week). I enjoy reading your blog and can certainly relate to your experiences.

  4. Oh Ohio…..again I find myself agreeing. Being a stepmother is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I want to clarify . . . I don’t parent them in the way that a parent does, so I should really say that being married to a man with children from a previous marriage (to borrow a Wednesday Martin, Stepmonster phrase) is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I grew up in a crazy, chaotic and unhealthy environment.

    I was overwhelmed with the level of grief that was present in the family I married into and it didn’t come out as grief. It came out as anger and lashing out at other people. Not from any one person, from everyone, even people not living in our home. I really just wanted to run, but am glad I did not. I love my husband and want to be with him for a long time. So, here we are.

    Hope you can find a place to rest and settle and be in yourself. I have found the chapter on Self-Preservation in Women Who Run with the Wolves (an old book by today’s standards, but priceless), Clarissa Pinkola Estes, to be a blessing. She says every woman needs a place of her own. A place to retreat into herself and replenish. That we can get bitter and resentful when we’ve been depleted and all around us just want more, more, more. Of course, I read that and thought, well that makes perfect sense. My grandmother had her retreats. She used to go into the closet and smoke a cigarette. I had NO idea she was a smoker until she was nearly 85 and it came out on one of her hospital check-ins. Ha, I don’t smoke, but the closet doesn’t sound too bad some days.

  5. I love what you wrote. I too, don’t parent his children like I did my own. They have two parents and certainly don’t need me to assist. (or so I have been told) I do love my husband and plan to be with him until I am old and gray. So, I wait…

    I am learning to find a place. I have to remove the “I am evil and wicked” thoughts from my mind and look to replace them with, “I am okay. A work in progress” Funny isn’t it, how two people I’ve known for such a short time can make me rethink who I thought I was. Ahhh, growth is challenging. I find solace in reading blogs where others such as yourself, share your stories. I also retreat to my room and journal or read. It brings me a sense of peace.

    Love the story of your Grandma. I also love that she had something that was all hers. We could learn a little something from her…

    • Hey Wicked…..thanks for the link to your blog, and I’m glad you got some “omg, me too!!” That’s exactly what we stepmothers can do for one another. Let me know how the thinking goes.

  6. Pingback: A Healthy Stepmother . . . unpacks. (via A Healthy Stepmother) « Confessionsofawickedstepmother's Blog

  7. I have now had some time to process your blog posting and am feeling strangely hopeful. Without reposting my entire blog, suffice to say my current living situation, with my husband , our toddler and my 24 year old stepson, is horrendous. I so much want to be a good stepmother, a guiding hand – especially for my stepson who has none of that from his own parents (that sounds very harsh, but it is unfortunatly also true). I have tried everything I can think of with this kid – being the ‘fun’ parent, the disciplinarian, the advice giver and finally, totally ignoring the kid (which also sounds horrible, but it is the only defense mechanism I have). Unlike you, I unpack everything I owned as soon as I moved in – O and his son had been baching it for quite awhile and had not made a home out of their house. What I never did unpack was my personality. I am a fun, kinda crazy in a good way, practicle joker. In part because I was pregnant when I moved in and in part because I firmly beleived the kids had to come to me and form their own opinion, I originally adopted a friendly, outgoing but non-intrusive stance with them. For example, I would answer any question put to me but would not just sit down and start a history lesson of me with them.

    Anyway after 3 years of this, I am hurt, angry, alone and simply at the end of my rope. I started blogging in part to relieve my frustration, in part to find stepmoms like me and those that had found a way to navigate these murky waters. I think you and are in slightly different places and have different styles, but I do believe, at least on my part, that I can learn something from you.

    Hopefully, I will come to a placw where I am less angry and more happy…..

    The Hoping Not To Be Wicked Stepmother

    • Sooooo, notsowicked ;-), finding other stepmothers and understanding that this is a path not tread by the meek-at-heart and that any and all efforts you’ve made have likely come from your heart….well, that’s the witnessing we can do for one another. I can completely relate to everything you’ve written. We try so hard. We care so deeply. We feel like we’re being asked to not care. To mind our own business. And we see things our spouse doesn’t see. We feel things our spouse doesn’t feel.

      It doesn’t matter where you are in the process, it matters where you want to go. I’m not a counselor and I don’t profess to know a single thing about anything, except that I’m listening to my gut, reading like CRAZY, and learning to be guided by my intuition in a way I’ve never allowed myself to. I am older and I wonder how much that influences some of the choices I’ve made or the insights I’ve gained for my own situation.

      Likely, you’ve read these ideas elsewhere and I’ll try to keep them brief, and I’ll hope we can continue the dialogue over time and other blog postings. I’ll also get over to your blog and read more. Thanks for the link.

      First, the day I realized I didn’t need to “save” my stepkids from anything or anyone was the day I became joyful. They have the life they have, I didn’t cause it. Fact. So, I have no responsibility to save them or help things be better. My husband and I have decided how we’d like to structure our home and we work to keep that consistent and our interactions focused on respect and honesty with the kids.

      Second most important day was when I realized that women try too hard and do too much and we want to fix everything. Maybe we don’t really want to do that, but we’ve been conditioned to. So, I have trained myself to walk past messes, remain silent when dishes get thrown in the sink instead of the dishwasher, and not always go to dinner when my husband goes out with the kids. These are just the little things that are fit to print. You know the others.

      The third most important day was when I learned to let go of guilt and apology. Again, printable example, I did not need to feel guilty if I didn’t think of the just-perfect present for my s-kids. Trust me, I used to and I’ve contributed to some kickin’ ideas. But not so much any more. It was draining me. I wasn’t feeling the return of anything. When I first quit, I felt guilty, but it gradually faded and the pattern of knee-jerk jumping to help someone is beginning to fade.

      What sounds healthy is that you’ve found some great ideas for taking less responsibility and that you have backed off. I so get that. I was also very enthusiastic and that’s just a lot of pressure for everyone. It’s not enough to be our fabulous selves, no one wants to see that, be with us. We’re the reminder that everything is moving forward, the grief needs to be processed. There are tons of volumes written, my favorite is Stepmonster by Wednesday Martin.

      But, the reality is……no one can tell you in words how it REALLY feels. They just can’t. I read those words and they seem reasonable and then feelings come and things happen and it’s a mess. That’s the polite version, lol….

      You sound like a friend of mine with young child of her own and older s-kids…..she says, “When I get frustrated, I just pack up the kids and we go to the playground and have a nice time outside the house.” And, sometimes she plans a vacation with her girlfriends and other times she has hubby take the baby to the soccer game for the older s-kid while she does something like go to the pool with her two others who can swim. We see each other briefly and we talk like mad women for 30 minutes and it sustains us until our next encounter.

      And the fourth most important day is when you get a stepmom girlfriend?

  8. OMG! Kim, you are living the same life as me. I can relate 100% to every single thing you just wrote.

    From the bottom of my heart — THANK YOU!

  9. Again, great information! My situation is a bit unique in that I currently live in a town where I literally know no one except my husbands immediate family. I also don’t have a car – our decision for me to stay home with our son for two years meant giving one of them up…so here I sit, everyday, by myself…..

    I am having trouble with the ‘saviour’ problem. No matter how mad my stepson makes me, I do feel bad for him. His parents literally have no ambition for him, no hopes for him. When I hear things like ‘he will do what ever he will do, I’m tired of fighting with him.’ it makes me angry on his behalf. Still, I can’t fix everything – right??

    Currently I am working on getting him in school and if that doesn’t work, I will have to find healthy consequences for him and somehow get my hubby to support them. We are doing the kid no favors letting him live rent free and without responsibilities.

    As far as your last point, ‘when do you get a stepmom girlfriend?’ I am hoping on headed in that direction right now, a group of women with this one huge thing in common.

    thanks again!

    • Nope, you can’t fix everything. In fact, it might be that you can’t “fix” anything. I know that’s hard to hear. But, I think it’s true.

      The stepmom girlfriend thing . . . I was reading the blogs one day and saw a woman making a comment that was completely what I thought but I had never had the courage to say it out loud. I discovered that the link on her name was “live” and found her blog and sent her an email and we have an online chat session regularly. It’s hugely helpful. In fact, some weeks, I’ve thought “oh wow, can’t wait to chat…..” It has helped me keep my sanity. That and my neighbor, but she has very young children and can only get away sporadically.

  10. Ohio, I’m chuckling at your 100% but mostly I’m breathing a huge sigh of “thank you.” It is what we need to know from another stepmother, that I see you, I know your situation, I have walked that path, I understand the hurt in your heart as well as the hope you have for the future. And, this blog began because I wanted to find the community of women who wanted to find the respectful way to talk about our family situations and be in relationship with our husbands in a way that fed the future, not broke it down. I chose to not carry the anger any longer. I am a peace-loving individual and I want to live that way. Sooooo glad you are reading and commenting.

    Confessionsofawickedstepmother, I urge you to talk with a counselor for support for you. Not because there aren’t issues you and your husband might benefit from and NOT because you have “all the problems,” oh don’t even get me started on that. I would deeply consider backing away and letting your husband worry about his son. A counselor may give you some help and support in that effort. Your stepson is your husband’s concern and while you are certainly justified in being angry and very very concerned with his future, it sounds like you are spending a great deal of time worrying about him and what he is doing. All that energy could be spent with your two year old doing fun stuff and helping him have the great life he also deserves. IF you made some space for your feelings to settle and took a month off (even as an experiment), I wonder if the situation would cool off and your husband could have a different conversation with you about your concerns. As long as s-son’s mess and his habits stay on his side of the door of your main home area, maybe they are your husband’s to worry about. Haha, if it were me, I’d install a lock on the inside of the door so that I could control “visiting hours” to the family home, i.e. door locked when I went to bed. How convenient that you have a separate entrance for him…….

  11. Totally willing to completely back off for a month….if y’all can help me with two small issues:

    1. When step kid does something that directly impacts my life or is harmful to someone in our home – like leaving broken beer bottles on our car port – how do I handle it?
    2. In the past when I have tried the back off approach, my hubby, other stepchild and the ex wife have all approached me about why I am not ‘engaging’ and why I’m being ‘mean’ to R

    If y’all can help me with some productive strategies about handling these two items, I am all about this experiement. AFter all, I am not foolish enough to think I know it all – there are those that are wiser and have more experience than I…I’m an empty pitcher Yoda, fill me up!

    As far as the counselor…I’m not in disagreement about that, just have a minor time/transportation/insurance issue 😦 I’d love to go with my hubby though

    • Well………I don’t think I have all the answers for you. Whatever you do has to feel like it’s getting to what you want. Do you want to fix your stepson’s life or do you want to work on building the relationship with your husband? Once you have the answers to that, then you’ll know what to do. It sounds like you have some huge barriers to overcome but it also sounds like you are a creative, energetic and resourceful person. Right? And the backing off has to be without silence and complete detachment. I think there are some really good examples on the National Stepfamily Resource Center, link on my blogroll. It’s a tricky line, but honestly, it sounds like you’re being manipulated by your stepson to me. And, honestly he’s always going to disagree with you no matter what angle you take. Ugh……..I bow to your patience to this point. Hang in there.

      Maybe someone else wants to chime in?

    • If a step kid — or any kid! — does something like leave broken beer bottles in my carport, I’d be inclined to yell at him or her a little — not abusively, but scoldingly. Whether he wants to think of you as his parent or not, you’re still an adult in your own home where someone is leaving broken beer bottles lying around. Not okay!

      It sounds like your stepson has graduated from high school, but is not working full time or going to school full time. Do you ever feel like you wish he did not live in your home? I would probably feel that way under those circumstances. On my planet 🙂 it’s fine if a kid wants to live at home and either go to school full time or else work full time and help out around the house like any other adult in the house but if they’re just passing time after high school without pursuing a major life goal or helping out around the house, it might be worth thinking about whether allowing that is actually helping the kid — AND whether it’s good for you and your other small child or children.

      • Jill – He has graduated high school….and is working part time at Taco Bell. Education is HUGE for me and I’ve been trying for years to get him to go. It is actually the ‘goal’ I am working on with him right now.

        At the end of the day his father and I agreed that it was either school and part time employment or a full time job or find another place to live. Kinda a tough love stance. I, however, cannot simply let the lad make or break it – I’m trying to give him the tools and skills he needs to get registered for class this semester. What he does with them is his choice. I will stand by my bottom line. School, real work or go live with mamma.

        Didn’t see you had a blog – if you do I’d love to check it out!

  12. I certainly appreciate your input – and that of anyone else’s. I have opted to continue trying to help my stepson get motivated and registered for school but to ‘ignore’ common annoyance, manipulations and the like. I’m going to try the old belief that if you thank the powers that be every day for your aggrevation it some times turns into a blessing. I’m very sure, however, that I will continue to use my blog to vent 🙂

    I will also check out the resources you suggested.

    Thanks again

  13. Hey Fellow StepMoms!!!

    I jumped over from Wicked’s blog and absolutely LOVED this post!

    In my situation, I have to be the primary parent to kids that aren’t mine ( I don’t have my own ).. they have zero respect for me.. use their biological mother as an “out”.. and have a father who is so guilt ridden that their mother that honestly, I don’t think he knows what being a “father” takes.. he also had an abuse childhood so he equates discipline with abuse.

    But I chose this (well, actually, I didn’t know just how bad things were when we got married ) so do I become another women in their lives that walks out? Do I fight the good fight.. or do I accept that I am just the maid / housekeeper / chef with benefits??

    the answers change daily!! LOL!!

    • Hey Leese,
      Wow…..you have a lot to juggle. Welcome!!!
      Maybe none of us have the just-right answer for each other because every single one of us is in a unique situation. You can’t say that one stepfamily is the same as the next and you can’t know how anyone will react to the actions you might choose to take. That’s why, in some ways, even though I can look back and wish some things had been a little different, I know in my heart that I was waiting to listen inside myself for the thing that felt right to ME. And, that’s what each of us has to do. Hopefully with loads of support from other women who know the hurt of the heart that comes from this role. Thanks for commenting.

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