A Healthy Stepmother . . . leaves the big stuff on the table. (Self-Soothing series, #6)

I struggled a long time to write this blog post because we’re headed into discussions of the big stuff and how to self-soothe. The big stuff stirs up our internal stuff. Self-soothing is all about how we manage our emotions and what we do with our actions in the face of the big stuff in our stepfamily. Remember, I’m not a psychologist or a counselor or a stepmother coach. I am a stepmother who has studied human behavior for many decades and is now shining the “patterns of behavior” light on this issue of being a stepmother.

The last few weeks, when you were practicing making space, taking inventory, paying attention to your patterns, all of those studies were to lay the groundwork upon which to process your big stuff. The stronger your groundwork practice, the stronger your self-soothing in the internal stuff.

One of the simplest ways to self-soothe is to leave the big stuff where it belongs. That’s it . . . leave it sitting there on the sofa or the table. Don’t even pick it up. You can walk all around it. You can look at it. You can even touch it, but it’s best if you can leave it lying there while you do.

I’ve thought we need those intermittent warnings that you hear at the airport . . . “please do not leave your luggage unattended, any luggage left unattended will be destroyed.” Our stepmother version could be . . . “please do not take on the big stuff that isn’t yours, any big stuff you take on that doesn’t belong to you could explode at any moment.”

If you have picked up a big stuff issue, you’ve noticed how hot it gets. The three really big stuff issues that come up for most stepmothers? One is the pursuing of the child’s love. Another is the judging of the mother. And the third is the rescuing of the child. Any one of these can burn you, all three together and you’ve got a bonfire.

To be fair, in our natural urge to go towards and connect as humans do, a stepmother will often find herself doing things to gain a child’s love. She might not consciously set out to win the child over, but it can happen. It can happen even when a woman is very conscious and attempting to avoid that very thing.

And, if we’ve seen and felt a child’s love, even in glimpses, to then watch the child withdraw for fear of being censored or ridiculed for caring about us can be a heart-breaking experience. As difficult as it seems, you will find it easier to stay on the self-soothing wagon if you let go of the pursuit of the child’s love. Leave the pursuing on the table and continue to partner with your husband to provide support and consistency for that child. If you can remain soothed and behave as you’d like to behave, there is a greater chance for your connections within the family to become stronger. (I’m going to post about belonging, but for now please hold the thought that the big stuff isn’t about you.)

The same holds true of the pattern of judging of the stepchild’s mother. I’ve found no peace or self-soothing in judging. I also know this is one of the hardest things to not do. You feel judged by her, so why not indulge in judging her? After all, the irresistible feeling of okay-ness you gain when judging her as lacking or incompetent is a potent and intoxicating elixir. For me, I’ve not liked the feelings that come up inside when I engage in judging and one of the best things I’ve done to self-soothe is to leave the comparisons on the table and walk away.

While you’re at it, we might as well get the big stuff over all at once, you might also dig down to see whether you have any, any, any–little or big, seedling or sapling, crack or crevasse–indication that you are attempting to rescue your stepchild. Trying to rescue a child might be accompanied by feelings of better-than. You’ll know if that’s your case. Rescuing someone, anyone, isn’t what it looks like and it most often ends badly. The psychologists have written enough about this topic and the accompanying issues of ego and sense of self, I will leave it at that. Suffice to say, I bring it up because I’ve seen the situation play out, noticed how it works in families, and concluded we stepmothers serve ourselves and others best when we leave off the rescuing.

Your job? Soothe yourself. Leave the stuff that isn’t yours on the table and soothe yourself and soothe some more so you can save space in your arms for the issues that are yours to carry.

7 thoughts on “A Healthy Stepmother . . . leaves the big stuff on the table. (Self-Soothing series, #6)

  1. You are right. Those are the big land mines. It’s so hard not to touch them, but in hindsight, it would have been so much better not to touch them!

  2. You know what this makes me think of? The difference between witnessing, which you’ve written about before, and rescuing. Witnessing takes some serious strength and courage.

    • Thanks Jill, for chiming in. It is sooooooo really hard to not touch these big stuff issues. When I was reading like mad in my first couple of years as a stepmom, I sometimes felt like I was hearing a chorus of “just do this……” and “just do that……” as if then life would be a fairy tail. And, when someone did say, “just leave this one alone…” it sort of came with a threat, as if “you’d better not…..” or as if you’d be a really stupid woman who would do a thing like that. I think stepmothers are amazing people, just as the other members of a stepfamily are, and like them we are also human. We get drawn in to fix things.

      Now, I look at it from a place of strength and self-soothing and being able to support myself and realize that in those first years, it’s all about waiting. But, waiting is hard. Waiting is not that sexy. Far better to jump in and feel like you’re doing something. And, we have to talk about the issue of belonging. That is so key. It’s coming up.

      I value your insights, you’ve got some great experiences…..so keep those thoughts coming!

  3. pursuing the child’s love, this is the big, big issue can destroy a step-mum’s soul. Achieving it is the measure many step mums would use to evaluate themselves. It is my measure…failing at it is my biggest disappointment and the sense of failure is too great. I can’t get ride of completely. Even knowing this ‘issue’ depend in many factors, many of them out of my control.

    Still, there is always the doubt about my level of effort and commitment…possibly I did not care enough, I did not sacrifice enough…If I would have done this or that, my stepchildren love would be there today, real love.

    In my case, from my stepson is some respect and some recognition but not from stepdaughter. Both of them decided that blaming the past is the way to overcome the hurt and difficulties of the present.

  4. I wish I had seen this post 15 years ago! My stepchild was 5 when I met her. Her mother was mentally ill in more than one way and although my husband and she shared custody, she mainly lived with her mother. Her mother was/is cruel, unpredictable and completely inappropriate in so many ways. How could I not judge her? How could I not want to rescue my stepchild? and after attempting to rescue her by trying to demonstrate healthy love, stability, security, healthy food, a clean and cozy, peaceful home how could I not expect her to love me? Oh my. What a 15 years its been. I could write and write and write about my experience and the crazy rollercoaster. I didn’t know that I shouldn’t have done those things. And SO many people (especially my husband’s family) continually remind me of how lucky she has been to have me, and how I have done more than anyone could ever hope for in her life as my husband’s wife. And all I ever wanted was for her to be happy and healthy and to get a better shot at her furture than if her only female role model was her mother. And maybe to acknowledge this effort. Not love me maybe, but at least really LIKE me. And I don’t know how she feels. I think it’s one way and then that blows up in my face.
    To add to the mix, there are two daughters that my husband and I had together. The half-sister with a messed up background has been very confusing for them although we have always worked to share fun times, traditions, big decisions, etc with the three of them and always refer to them as SISTERS. I am slowly reading through all of the archives looking for references to families like mine.
    I am so happy that I found this blog. A lot of times I need to gripe, but most of the time I just need someone to understand what it’s like and to be supportive and encouraging.
    Anyway, all that to say, when I read the three big stuff issues, I almost fell out of my chair. Way to do it the hard way! I wish I had had more information about guidelines when I was starting out on this journey. I was trying to be Maria Von Trapp and thought that effort and love would “fix” everything.

    • Lana, first…….whew. Your family is probably right. Your sdaughter is very lucky to have someone bringing structure to her life. Ten kazillion reasons why she might not be able to show you she appreciates you, but that’s part of the stuff to leave on the table.

      I’ll say that I hear lament in your words. It’s familiar, there ARE other stepmothers who have given their all (I’m raising my hand) and feel forsaken and unappreciated.

      Maybe the way to work with the story of the gift is that now you have some permission to look at things in a new way, decide what is yours to carry. That’s a big sorting process and doesn’t go quickly, it’ll have fits and starts and sometimes you’ll do things the old way. My work is about teaching the undoing of old habits, so I know it’s not a smooth process forward. Go gently and stick with it, treat yourself well and monitor the level to which you punish yourself for not knowing.

      And, I highly recommend Stepmonster, by Wednesday Martin. Every woman should be handed this book on the day she meets her future husband. But, it wasn’t written when you got married. Nevertheless, you’ll get much from it. A universal response I’ve seen women have is that Wednesday was writing about them. Best of everything!

  5. Hi Kim,
    I was so pleasantly surprised to receive this response from you so quickly and at all! You are a kind and wise woman. I will re-read your words (both the post and your response to my comment) and I will look for Stepmonster as well.
    And I will try to figure out how to leave some things on the table. It’s tough right now, especially since sdaughter is almost 21, and has recently moved into our home with her 19 month daughter. Yes. Now I am sgrandmother? So much figuring out to do. My 14 and 11 year olds are aunts and I am trying to help everyone accept and adapt to this change in our lives. Just as my husband began to get freedom and time from the parenting challenges of young children, we have a toddler in the house again and we are the babysitters so sdaughter can work and save money (when we aren’t working fulltime ourselves).
    Yes- will look for that book online today and will keep reading your past posts. Thank you again.
    And today, I feel positive- so I’ll be grateful for that!

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