A Healthy Stepmother . . . on belonging.

Belonging isn’t automatically granted except by birth. Even then, in some families, there’s a huge power and control dynamic that keeps some members out and others in.

Belonging is granted after a stepmother has been through the fire. After she’s dipped her hands in the molten rage of a marriage dissolved and walked on the coals of everyone’s grief and longing and leftover anger. Of course, you’d think she’d anticipate this gauntlet but that would be giving her superhuman powers. As far as I know, most stepmothers are mere mortals destined to live as the other mortals do in her extended stepfamily.

Today, I’m thinking of tribes and groups and clubs and PTAs and even gangs. Always there is a period of getting to know one another. Then there’s an initiation act, do something really huge and you’ll be accepted as part of the group. After the initiation, there will be still more observation and waiting to see if it’s really true who you are. Then, after more time goes by, you might get to a place where you realize it feels as if you’ve been in this group forever.

The point is, the process takes time. Years. Likely, it’ll take the 7-12 years that the experts suggest for a stepmother (with or without children of her own) to be integrated into her new family.

What is interesting is that the moment of awareness of that integration isn’t a victory. It isn’t about the stepmother winning and someone else losing, or even about everyone winning. It is simply another phase of the process that is just what it is, not good or bad or negative or positive.

One day you don’t belong.

Another day you do.

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8 thoughts on “A Healthy Stepmother . . . on belonging.

    • Jill, looking back, I don’t think I could have predicted when the moment would come or even have known what it would look like. It was very subtle and the vaguest change of feeling. I don’t think anyone else has noticed either, we are all still going through our motions in our daily way. Looking forward, I’m certain I’ll feel times when I don’t belong. But, I feel sure the moment will be a fleeting thing and will settle soon enough.

  1. Happy New Year!
    I am a brand new stepmother. My husband I married in October 2011. I have been reflecting a lot on the holidays just passed and have been trying to broaden my perspective on all the dynamics that come into play during that time and my interpretations and experiences. I am so grateful to have my new stepfamily but I have to admit it has been an isolating experience in many ways. I discovered your blog today and read your posts with a very hungry appetite! It was overwhelming in a way to read your words and feel some of that isolation slip away. I have to admit, I had a little cry I was so releived that someone else can relate to my experiences and feelings and that they are o.k.
    This 2012 I am going to work on embracing the process and focus less on outcomes and how things “should” be 🙂
    I look forward to more words of wisdom.

    • Lindsay, overwhelming is a good word. It seems like it has a large enough volume to hold the enormity of feeling that comes with “being of, but not.” Welcome to this blog. Be sure to read the 10 Essentials, it’s way back in December 2009, the first month of this blog.

      And, all the best to you as you find your way.

  2. This makes me think about all the stuff about shame and connection/disconnection that Brené Brown talks about and feeling worthy. I wonder how much of the belonging is actually the outside environment (i.e., other people in your family) granting you the feeling of belonging, and how much is what we hold inside of ourselves that then gets communicated to others, even if indirectly and unconsciously. I think it’s probably a combination of both, but I’ve been thinking lately about how my own actions/reactions/thoughts play into things as well.

    • It feels like a combination to me. Even if the kids accept me but I don’t feel I belong, I won’t be comfortable and settle in. Or, vice versa where I am getting messages from them. I do think though, that there’s a moment when it no longer matters what they think or do, there can be a shift inside a woman to say/feel/act in a way that demonstrates her deep, deep acceptance and knowing of her place beside her husband, regardless of his kids attitudes. It’s a complex and chaotic process, in my experience.

  3. And sometimes you never will belong. I’ve been married to my husband for 21 years. I am wondering if divorce at the age of 58 gives me any chance at happiness for myself, now that I’ve supported the kids, his and ours, out of high school. I’ve lost health, and career, my own close family, (through distance) and have spent every holiday with people who just did not want to let me in, did not want to even find out if they liked me. I’ve paid debts accrued in his previous family, and will likely be paying them until I retire. And it is never enough, never visible, never ok.

    There may be some extra difficulty in seeing when enough is enough when the complexities are thick. But I do have to accept now that my husband has a family, the kids and his siblings; and I have a family, my siblings. And that I’d better start accepting that, because the door to the kids’ world will never open. And my own daughter pretty much has to conform, or lose them too.

    Don’t underestimate the power of overwhelming numbers; and don’t wait 20 years to say, enough.

    • Hello Ani, words could never be truer . . . and sometimes you will never belong. That is the reality I have also seen. I know a woman who doesn’t celebrate any of the holidays with her husband and his kids. She drives to her hometown and spends it with her sister, perhaps for reasons similar to yours. I can completely relate, having had an epiphany on the holidays where I realized I was spending my time with people who wouldn’t even hug me. It was a very sobering moment, painful and sobering.

      The complexities go on and on, don’t they, as you’ve so stated so well. For me, as a woman and as someone who grew up in a very chaotic and unhealthy childhood, I return to each situation and ask myself what I can do to take care of me. For example, I was taught to be the peacemaker and the fixer for everything and everyone. In my mid-30’s, I discovered that wasn’t a healthy option for a sustainable life for me and I’ve been on a path ever since to try to call myself on it when I get into taking care of everyone else. It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done and as much as I know about setting those boundaries, when I became a stepmother all those strategies went out the window. I had to remind myself I had actually known them and benefitted from them. It sounds to me like you’ve taken care of everyone and given, and given, and then given some more, and no one notices or acknowledges. I feel and know that pain, it cuts down deep. I send you many good thoughts and thanks for sharing here.

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