A Healthy Stepmother . . . chooses her footing.

Not so long ago, my husband and I hiked Wind Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge. It was a short hike, but it gained enough elevation that is was quite steep in some places. In other places, it was clear there’d been a slide and the trail was narrow. Not so many people hiked this way and we enjoyed the solitude and silence to slowly work our way up the ridge.

We meandered along and shared the thrill of working for the view, letting life unravel and loosen the worry lines of our faces. The dogs were a big help. They happily scrambled along wishing we’d go faster. They sniffed, wagged, and wiggled their way to the top of the mountain. The view from the top that day was stellar, overheated valley cooled by a strong breeze, sun reflecting off the Columbia River and the glaciers of Mt. Hood. Glorious really, and so we drank it in.

On the way down the mountain, it occurred to me that being married to a man with children is a lot like hiking. There are a few things about stepping with each foot that you either learn from experience or you’re lucky enough to find an experienced hiking partner who tells you of the pitfalls to look out for.

First and foremost, watch out for the banana peel effect. There are some things that make the trail extremely slick. If it’s wet the trail will be slick, most especially the rocks and roots that stick up out of the trail so avoid stepping on those rocks and roots. Go around them. Loose pine needles will also make the trail slick, especially when there is elevation. If they are dense, you can keep your footing best by not lifting your foot very high. Get into a shuffling gait and slide your foot forward.

When it’s very dry, even bare dirt is slick, so use the exact opposite strategy you would use when it’s wet. Use the tops of the rocks and roots that stick out of the ground to break your fall. When dry, they are the grippiest parts of the trail and offer the chance for solid footing.

Balance is a big issue when hiking. And, the laws of physics that apply to skiing also apply to hiking. If you sit back on your heels, you’re going to fall. True in skiing and true in hiking. You want to balance the weight on the front and back of your feet, sometimes even leaning more forward.

Finding balance means that you step with one foot in a way that allows you to maintain the stability of your footing. If the place you step doesn’t feeling stable, you can easily reverse and take your foot off that place and reset to get better footing. The best way to keep your balance is to focus on the foot you’re standing on when you take each step. When you can perceive that foot is solidly placed, you can step with the leading leg easily and thoughtfully. This way, you can go forward or backward and keep your balance.

Moral of this story: resist the urge to throw yourself headlong into anything, whether it’s hiking down a hill or marrying a man with children. Take your time to keep your footing. Consider the terrain and use the elements you find within the environment as your tools. Remember that what is good footing when the trail is wet is completely different when it’s dry. Consider reversibility and the fact that you can, if you’re watching closely, decide on one course of action and then change your mind, without losing your balance and without getting hurt.

11 thoughts on “A Healthy Stepmother . . . chooses her footing.

  1. And yet another wonderfully insightful post!

    As I read, I couldn’t help but think of the things I dance around. Behaviors, attitudes, tone of voice, lies…. anyway, each of these causes me to maintain balance. I’ve learned to pick my battles, so to speak, with my husband. Most times, I keep my mouth shut and allow him to parent his children. While not always easy, at least we argue less.

    I agree — take your time choosing what it is in life you want. I have chosen to spend time on me again and those who want me in their lives. I spend the energy that I once did on my steps, on things and people who are important to me. I am much more content.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and wisdom!

  2. Sounds like you’ve made some good choices to support yourself, Ohio. How many years have you been married? I’m always curious because it takes time and it’s a process to move from a place of rushing madly around like chickens do when they are startled, to a more thoughtful skipping and dancing that might be like a waltz or a rumba. I’d way, way, way rather do the rumba, eh?

    Your sentence, “Most times, I keep my mouth shut and allow him to parent his children. While not always easy, at least we argue less.” feels like a blogpost that’s currently percolating in my mind and is only part-way on paper. In it, I’m considering the options: for me, for him, for anyone in the equation. Perhaps they aren’t as endless as we think and that the choice to remain silent isn’t copping out. Maybe it’s supportive and can even be comforting.

    So, stay tuned…….and thanks for bringing that up.

  3. I have been married for three years. Honestly, I thought by this point it would be easier and we’d have a much better grasp on this blended family thing, but sadly, not.

    I don’t feel that keeping my mouth shut is copping out as much as detachment. My SD has done some pretty terrible things and I honestly don’t want much to do with her. I felt it is in my best interest to detach myself from her and from the situation. I wish I could tell you it hasn’t affected me, but my self-esteem has taken a hit and a I often feel like a ‘bad’ person. A work in progress?

    That said, I have found that exercising, spending time with my friends, reading and alone time has been a blessing.

    One day at a time…

  4. Weeeelllllll, I am not the expert with all the statistics, but it sure sounds like you’re right on track. Maybe you’re even ahead of the game. When I was first married, I needed to know the “lay of the land,” so I googled stepfamilies and found a chart that gave the developmental phases of stepfamily integration. As I recall, the average time of integration was 7-12 years depending on a huge list of variables.

    Seven to twelve years. That’s a long time. And yet, even back at the beginning I knew it was probably right.

    So, three years and you’ve ALREADY figured out to take time for you and make space for your husband to parent his kids. Just those two things are huge. Bravo, and hope you can continue to live in the space that is yours and yours alone to occupy in the home you share with your husband.

  5. Wow. Kim, Ohio, and Jill, you have really helped me out so much today. I have been subscribed to this site for awhile now but your comments really hit me today. I am new to sharing about this step-girlfriend arena, so bare with me because I have a lot to purge.

    I am currently in uncharted territory as a step-girlfriend to two great kiddos and seeing where you both are at in your lives really offers a lot of hope. I could really relate to you, Ohio. I don’t have any contact with the mother of my boyfriend’s children, mostly because she is just too difficult and I suspect, mentally ill. My boyfriend and I have been together approximately 2 and a 1/2 years. I have met mom and although the exchange was cordial, I found her pleasantries to be quite phony. It was a start though and I maintained the hope that she and I could forge an amicable relationship, (not a friendship) mostly for my own selfish reasons. I wanted to put an end to the awkward sightings of her at baseball games, during exchanges of the kids, school events, etc. Much to my chagrin, this didn’t happen after we met. My attempts to maintain the friendly rapport were futile as it became quite clear that her intentions were not the same. After several cold snubs and out-of-the blue snotty remarks made to my ex about me, I realized that forging any kind of peaceful unity around raising the kids was not gonna happen. We then learned from family that she had written blatant lies about my ex and I on her Facebook page, which was hurtful, humiliating and completely shocking. I am not a creature of controversy with friends/family/boyfriends so I felt incredibly violated, particularly because the claims were so outrageous. Over time, I have learned that it really isn’t any of my business what others think of me, and certainly not her friends/associates. I know my own truth and so does my boyfriend. Those who love me know who I am. This took some time to accept, especially after more allegations were made publicly, but I never said a word to her. My boyfriend’s daughter that he had with the ex is able to read all of this on her mother’s facebook. Although I can’t honestly say I don’t have a strong urge to denigrate Mom’s character in front of her kids, or at least defend myself in all the BS she tells them about their father and I, but I DON’T. It is so hurtful to a child who is told there is something wrong with their parent. They are made of this parent so if you say negative things about the parent than you are fundamentally saying negative things about the kid. It is almost on a regular basis that the kids regurgitate BS about their father and I that their mother tells them. It is so obvious because they use adult information that they would never know otherwise. They are adults issues that Mom has major difficulty processing on her own or with adult support. Mom does not have any close friends. She never did in the 10 years she was married to my ex. Mom cheated on my boyfriend, is now living with the man she was unfaithful with, but implies in certain non-direct ways, that my boyfriend broke up the marriage. Now, I am not asserting that my boyfriend didn’t play a role in the marriage’s demise. Of course he did. However, the relationship was ultimately unsalvageable when Mom decided to start drinking and partying on a regular basis and having an affair. Mom refused to try to to work things out in counseling despite my boyfriend being willing to try. (Thank God she wasn’t willing!!!) But she wants to tell the kids that their father is a liar or not there for them? He has 1/2 custody of them and spends more time with his kids than most fathers I know. It’s completely baffling what kind of nerve she has, I just don’t understand people like her.

    Okay, I obviously have a lot to spew. I know that I can’t control what she tells her kids. I used to feel superior over her because her behaviors were so grotesque, which is sick, I know. Admittedly I felt more threatened by her in the earlier parts of my boyfriend and I’s relationship. Now I mostly just feel sad with how her behaviors affect the kids. When they return from being with her for several days, they have to de-program from her borderline personalityentrenched-environment. And on a good day, when I am spiritually blessed, I feel compassion for her. She seems miserable more often than not, and any periods of sanity she has are abruptly replaced with vicious barbs and lashings when my ex does not grant her every demand. My ex refuses to talk on the phone with her because she just wants to argue about trivial drivel.

    So, here’s my question. The only thing that I feel there is left to do is try to help support the kids in their journey with a mentally ill parent. I never say negative things about their mother, don’t even imply them. We told them a long time ago that we would do everything we could not to put them in the middle of adult disagreements between their mom and dad. The 12-yr-old came to us one day and said that she had gone to her mother saying that she did not want mom to talk poorly about her dad anymore or bring her into the middle of mom and dad’s conflicts. Her mother did not talk to her for 2 days out of disgust for her request. Isn’t that abuse? In my book it is just so harmful and pathetic. I just said I was sorry that that had happened and I was hear to listen. I told her that I was sure her mother loved her very much.

    Ok, I guess I have vented enough. Just so tired of seeing the kids seem so anxious and BIZARRE when there is any discussion of arrangements with their mother. Any suggestions? I can’t say anything negative about their mother to them and I won’t. I just don’t know how to support them sometimes. Even when they say things like, “Mom won’t buy that for me…” I say, “She has every right to buy you what she does and does not want to.” I support her as a parent because I don’t want to fall into the trap of the kids playing one parent against another to get what they want.

    Thanks for listening and any feedback is appreciated.

  6. Hello Ann,
    Well, sounds like you needed a place to be “seen,” so I hope you’ll feel that way!!! Welcome.

    I’m not sure you need any suggestions. I think the strategies you’ve described . . . both the way you and your boyfriend want to have your home feel/be/seem for the kids and the ways you are committed to supporting them, sound very appropriate and clean. It seems you are wanting to support them in being in a healthy relationship with their mother. Kudos to you for that. And, having a thought about something is not the same as acting on it. You are also describing holding your tongue and there’s another bravo.

    The only “red flag” that comes into my awareness revolves around your description of their mother. And, please know that my comments are to support YOU. Whether or not she is mentally ill, I’d suggest you keep up the strategy you described and focus on not judging her (you said on your good days you feel compassion). Another blog entry of mine
    describes why I feel so strongly about that. Practice letting it go. Practice by telling yourself that the kids will be okay. They will. And, sounds like you’re doing a great job of telling yourself those things.

    I’m learning what a spiritual journey this is to be a married to a man with children. I don’t mean spiritual because of the connection with the kids, but that can be one aspect of it. I mean spiritual because there are so many deep and serious issues and my role is not to solve them or change them. It is to witness them and stay inside my own skin. That’s my sense of it.

    For your husband, I’d suggest he read Divorce Poison, Dr. Warshak. Worth a look-see for sure. Lies are hard to take. Hope you’ll know you’re in good company. I’ll bet there isn’t a stepmother on the planet who hasn’t had a lie told about her or a divorced father who wasn’t misrepresented. Okay, so I’m exaggerating.

    Can I just witness that you’re doing a great job!!!?????

  7. Thank you so much Kim, I really can’t say how helpful this experience has been already. I agree with your suggestions, particularly in watching my judgment of the ex. It doesn’t feel good to have this much resentment and angst towards her, and I am so glad you said this. She is allowed to be exactly how she is at this time, imperfect, just like me. We all have a purpose here on this earth and who am I to play judge and jury? I forgot that this is truly something I believe. A lesson I am sure to revisit over and over I suppose.

    You also have reminded me that I have such a hard time stepping back and letting things unfold as they will. My typical reaction is to step in and try to control. It is really a relief to step back and think, wait, I am not responsible for this mess, and I don’t have to fix it. Not only do I not have to fix it, but it truly isn’t my role, and no one really wants me to fix it. Except for me. lol. Thank you for reminding me of that. Thank God for people like you who are walking ahead on this path. I needed that today. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. oh and I will definitely suggest that book to my boyfriend, he was just saying that he wanted to check into some literature on this very stuff. I will tell him about it and he can decide if it works for him. 🙂

  8. Ann, isn’t it awesome how just writing some of these things and saying them out loud can shift us into our truer selves?

    Sounds like you know yourself well. I love that you can discern that you don’t want to carry around the burden of resentment and irritation. And, I’m not talking about just burying it. That doesn’t work. I’m talking about the practice of learning to let things go. Indeed, it’s a practice and that means you don’t have to be perfect at it because you’re “practicing.” Some days will flow and you’ll let go. Other days, you’ll be obsessed with it, like my dog who follows everyone to the kitchen in hopes of a morsel.

    Can’t wait to hear more about how things unfold for you.

  9. Wow – Looks like we have a stepmommy in the making maybe!

    Great post today – I cannot tell you how many times I have laid awake at night trying to determine the best next ‘step.’ Trying to find the balance between doing the right thing for me, not stepping on bio-mom’s toes, not forcing anyone’s hands, trying to guide the steppies and not going crazy in the process is often difficult at best.

    I have found that, at least for me, figuring out how to approach issues in a calm and collected manner seems to help. Since I have started blogging and found other very helpful step’s to talk with (and Yes Healthy Stepmom – you are the Zen master to my angry tirads), I learned to Tweek my attitude just a bit.

    Ann – I only really have a bit of advice for you. the first is that they will figure it out. It is a hard line to tote – not enganging in negative behavior re the bio-mom. I have been very sucessful with never talking trash about her to the children and not allowing them to either. I also very loudly proclaimed I didn’t want to be their mommy. These two steps went a long way with the Ex. As for the kids? No matter how difficult, crazy or just odd their bio-mom is, always remember that everyone has the right to love their parents – so, even when it is hard, support it.

    One last thing, in my case, Mrs. X is a fighter – a backstabber. She likes to engage in little disagreements, or tell the kids or other relatives lies in order to start a problem. I have a strategy that works in this case. Whenever she tries it, I just reply “OK” and move on. For example when she and my hubba’s son got mad at me for not allowing him to have girls spend the night, Mrs. X called me. She went on a 5 minute tirade about how hubba and I really couldn’t talk – morally we were just as bad, blah, blah, blah…” She finished and I said “OK” and moved on. I later learned that it drives her crazy I won’t fight back! I get to avoid the fight and still feel like I won!!

    Never be afraid to ask for help or even just vent. If you are worried about a blog being ‘discovered’ by a family memeber, I’d be happy to let you guest author on mine 🙂

    Hugs to all my fellow Step-monsters!

  10. Ann,

    As I read your post, I thought WOW! This woman is in a situation so very much like mine! Everything you described is so very similar to my experiences — from sitting at games, the no friends part, the affair, to my friends who know me love me…all.the.same. I felt as though I was reading a page from my diary.

    I have learned that his children are not my problem. Peggy at stepmom’s toolbox said it beautifully when she said you did not break them therefore, it is not your job to fix them (she said it much more eloquently, but you get the idea).
    They are not my children. All involved make sure I know that and in the off chance I forget, they are quick to remind me. Stupid I am not – I get it! AND! Here’s the best part — they are right! It is very freeing to let go and go on with my life. I have energy I didn’t know existed and friends and family to share it with and on!

    Thank you for your comments. I am looking forward to hearing from you again. Bookmark this site — it is a keeper and Kim does an incredible job of talking me off the ledge! 🙂

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