According to the experts and according to my personal experience, it can take years for healthy interactions to develop within stepfamilies. By my definition, healthy interactions involve more integration of the stepmother regardless of who is interacting. And, the healthy interactions are less painful than they once were and are more neutral for everyone. Sometimes though, we are prevented from developing healthier relationships because of the toxic legacy someone in the family or extended stepfamily has inherited. This idea of toxicity is a great description if you think in terms of the degree that any person can cause damage to a relationship.
Recently, I read Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. Susan Forward, the author, digs into the things you can do to shift the patterns of your relationship with your parents. I found especially interesting the chapter describing beliefs and values and I made notes of her suggestions for non-defensive responses since I often get caught in my interactions with my toxic father. I loved the advice on developing and using a position statement, such as “I am willing to drive you to the doctor once a month.” which establishes limits at the same time it demonstrates that I am not divorcing him.
At the same time, I found Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power. In Difficult Mothers, Terri Apter describes The Angry Mother, The Controlling Mother, The Narcissistic Mother, The Envious Mother, and the Emotionally Unavailable Mother. My own mother was emotionally unavailable in her depression and I read that chapter with much interest.
There is a chapter “Am I a Difficult Mother?”, specifically for you to reflect on whether you are a Difficult Mother. Just reading about what it means to have a difficult mother helped me gain a deeper sense of the impact of my mother’s depression on my life.
If you spend time with either one of these books, you’ll cry when you read what kids live through. Or, you’ll nod in agreement because you can relate. The question in any girl or boy’s childhood is whether she or he has relationships that support the developing spirit and self-image so she or he can grow up to be a healthy adult. Are the adults raising a child burdening him or her in ways that cause the child to take on the role of caregiving or peacemaking or any number of other ways of trying to make everything better for everyone else?
I read and digested and percolated on all of this information. It was great review of the story I’m telling myself about my relationship with my mother, who isn’t living, and my father, who is.
That’s when it occurred to me that in both extended families and extended stepfamiles, we can look at the behaviors of any person and come to a greater understanding of their influence on our lives. As a stepmother, I can use the same strategies outlined by Susan Forward in Toxic Parents to establish boundaries and take a position with each member of my stepfamily.
It is quite daunting to read what some adults went through as children with angry fathers or narcissistic mothers. It’s easy to downplay the role of the neglectful father or the emotionally unavailable mother as not as damaging to a child. Clearly, that isn’t true and as adults some of us will spend the rest of our lives undoing the habits formed when we were trying to survive stressful situations we encountered in our growing up homes.
Remember my post on resisting the urge to save your stepchildren? I stand by that. This reflection on toxicity isn’t meant as a charge to go rescue someone. Instead, it’s an idea that by knowing and understanding your family situation and all its players, the ones you bring and the ones your husband brings, maybe you can update the story you tell about each of you. If nothing else, you’ll gain a fuller understanding of the life your stepkids are living. You won’t change anyone else, but you can shift how you respond so you are less reactive and more true to yourself.
I hope that’s how it can go for all of us, yesterday’s children and tomorrow’s adults.