A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the holy grail of success.

I saw an article the other day on how to be a successful stepmother. I nearly spit out my coffee. Success? How about keeping good manners and being respectful. Is that what they meant by success? How about loving your husband when you want to slug him because he doesn’t get why you feel left out in a particular family situation? Is that what is meant by success?

Nope. The article was about the things a stepmother could do to make the family better, good, healthy. As if the stepmother has that power dripping from her every word and move.

After I got done brewing and stewing about the meaning of success and the pressure it puts on any person, mothers, fathers, stepmothers, I decided to break in on my weekly blog routine and write this post.

I want us to stop killing stepmothers. We need to find ways to support them, in the same way we support mothers. Why? Super simple, stepmothers are part of the current family structure in our United States. Stepmothers are here to stay, growing in numbers every month, every year, and every decade. To not support stepmothers, or anyone else in a family, is to not support the family. As if to say, it doesn’t matter if the trauma continues.

We know that if our water quality is good enough the fish can survive. We know that if the air quality is good enough the birds can survive. We also know if our stepfamily community is strong enough the stepmother has a better chance of being healthy.

Healthy is different from successful. Healthy is free from anxiety or depression and other medical conditions. Wednesday Martin reports in Stepmonster that stepmothers are twice as likely as mothers to have depression. If the general population has a 20% incidence of anxiety and depression (according to the Centers for Disease & Prevention), yikes!

So, it’s frustrating to me to read headlines like Top 10 Tips to Become a Successful Stepmother. I just made that one up, but there are plenty like it.

What is success? Success for a woman? Success for a stepmother? Success for a stepfamily? And is the stepmother responsible for the success of the stepfamily?

What if success is getting up in the morning? Putting the milk and oatmeal on the table? Contributing to the group effort such as driving the kids to and from events? Partnering with the hubs to create a positive environment in the home regardless of whether the kids spend more than a couple of hours a week.

Success might be a measure of whether the marriage stays a marriage. And then, is that the stepmother’s responsibility? By herself? Where are the articles to the fathers, Top Ten Tips to Keep Your Spouse Engaged When Your Children Aren’t Hers. Or, 5 Reasons It Takes A Village To Support a Stepmother. And for the rest of the family and extended family, Three Ways to Support a Mother by Supporting a Stepmother.

See, this is the dirty secret . . . we, as a culture, have given permission for every divorced couple to take all of the grief and sorrow and strife and unresolved angst that follows divorce and ball it up into a giant overly-sodden spitball, so large it would sink a battleship, and lay it at the feet of the stepmother and say, okay honey, now climb on over that. If she can and if she does, and if she gets to the other side and her hairdo and makeup are intact and her clothes neatly pressed enough that she could be on the cover of a magazine, well then, we miiiiiiight consider including her in the club called family.

Everyone knows that spitballs won’t hold her weight. Everyone knows that each step she takes is to sink into a pit of nothing, almost like quicksand. Everyone knows the gauntlet laid out for her is impossible to complete and she’s going to be haggard, irritable, and anti-social by the time she’s done. It’s pretty likely she can’t accomplish the task and that’s precisely why it’s been given to her. So, can you see how asking about success is a set-up?

Rather than worrying about being successful, let alone a successful stepmother, I hope a woman will be engaged enough to find ways to be content within herself and connected to her husband. I hope she will be healthy enough to take care of her emotional pain in ways that calm her heart and don’t over-burden the relationship. I hope she will be open enough to confess her pain in a way that allows her husband to witness, but not have to rush in the knight-in-shining-armor behavior.

I hope she finds her verve and her passion for life.

And, the measure of her life? That will come later, much later, after the kids have grown and gone and are living lives they’ve created for themselves and she and her husband have long become content with sitting side by side, just the two of them. In those moments when she’s looking at the man she chose over and over, the one she shared years of tears, joys, and adventures with, she’ll have the opportunity to gauge the satisfaction in her heart and decide how her life has ripened. Even then, it’s not about others telling her whether she was a success and it’s not about her winning.

It’s about having been there, and she was there.

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14 thoughts on “A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the holy grail of success.

  1. That’s a real gem, Kim – your thoughtfulness in sharing your experience and wisdom give me more room to breathe, and helps calm the frequent anxiety and anger that rises in me when confronted with more challenge than I carry….I’ve begun to read and re-read old blogs as a way to create more space from the stress, and regain my strength. Thank you. I hope you have a really nice day 🙂 I raise my coffee mug to you, and everyone reading your blog.

    • And, a heartfelt Happy Holidays to you and your family, Shelley.

      For you and everyone reading (and reminding myself) . . . Calm and Anxiety are like the ebb and flow of a tide. Calm comes in and washes over, soothing with the just-right temperature and buoyancy. Calm lasts until the Anxiety becomes great enough that it takes away the buoyancy and peace, letting us fall into the deep, out of control. This process of dog-paddling between the ebb and flow, the calm and anxiety, gets softer and softer as we become less alarmed by our anxious thoughts and need less reassurance from our calm moments. Over time, we become so fluid, we are just like the ocean and it’s a matter of course, no big deal, that we even have an ebb and a flow. After all, who expects life to be one big paddle in a kiddie pool. On the days when it’s a tsunami, I’m hoping to be hanging on to this image. Cheers!

      • Wow, that’s a cool thought – when metaphors from the natural world ( the ebb and flow of tides) are used to decode unfamiliar or uncomfortable emotions, it brings on relief and a serenity of it’s own! Interestingly, my partner and I are planning to drive over 15 hours to the coast once Christmas is celebrated…..have been drawn to the ocean (even if it’s just above freezing, just to be there)! Cheers!

  2. I am nodding my head in agreement and clapping as I read this! Brilliant post! I am printing and keeping with me. Your insighful words and generous spirit in sharing them makes me feel less alone in this journey.

    Merry Chirstmas and Cheers to the New Year!!

    ps; a heartfelt thank you!!

  3. I have so, SO much to say. Thank you for this post. Beautifully written and thoughtful. My measure is whether or not I am smiling and tearful at the same time. I am. I won’t write a novel but will comment on just one part.
    The phrase that jumped at me among so many was “when she’s looking at the man she chose over and over” because I am still here despite the hellish times, and the ferocious ebbs and flows and its because the choice is mine. I would never ask him to choose his wife over his child. So I must choose to stay with this man and tend our marriage and just get through the tough days, instead of putting the children we have together into a car, and headng to the west coast! I want to run away SO often. Sometimes, when it’s a dark day and I question the depth of my love for him, the only thing that stops me is the thought of MY children having a stepmother someday if their parents split up. Can you believe that?
    So ironic.
    And then we have a good day or week and I breathe again and say “Whew! I’m glad I stuck it out.”
    Ah yes, the ebb and flow.
    Will stop writing now.
    Wishes to all readers of this blog, and to Kim for a happy Christmas season and a SUCCESSFUL New Year. 🙂

  4. Talia, beekiep1, Amy, Lana, Shelley so glad you are here. Your comments and your voices help other casual readers realize that there are real women, real women with hearts giving in good-faith to support husbands in being connected to kids. On the good days, it’s brilliant, isn’t it? On the other days, we drag ourselves through the soggy spitball.

    And, thanks Lana….for the wishes for success. Yes, may we all be SUCCESSFUL, now, excuse me while I go cook the oatmeal . . . /-)

    I’ll be blogging over the holiday, so stay tuned for that moment when you need to sneak away from the fray and have an “ahhhh” moment. I’ll be around getting in my own moment.

  5. Excellent. I love how real you are. It is helpful to those of us who walk the silent walk. I have many years under my hat at being a step-mom. You would think knowing the child since before talking would make it an easier journey but it does not make it any easier. Although I have become much better at the ebb and flow there are still down right crappy things I have to manage regularly.

    I often think the very real thought “I did not make this holy mess and I am working so hard to try and create a safe and enriching environment for this innocent child.” I have no regrets about the very difficult work and the sacrifice but it has taken a huge toll on me over the years.

    I am thankful for this post so I can feel connected to others who walk the silent walk.

    • Hi coolaunt, Your very real thought is something I have repeated to myself many times over the years. When I wanted to scream, I reminded myself that none of the mess was my stepdaughter’s fault, and that I could very well be the only healthy adult female rolemodel she would have. I tried to put myself in her shoes and imagine how I would want to be treated were I a stepchild. I don’t regret most of anything I did, other than perhaps my own expectations. But the toll has been heavy indeed.
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I feel less alone knowing you are there, too.

  6. I loved this post! As a stepmother-to-be, I have been becoming aware of how much responsibility I take for making the family unit work, and how much of this is due to societal pressure which holds me responsible. I am saved from total exasperation with my future spouse by the thought of how much he does for me, and for my daughter too, and -yes – the fact that he is the man I chose, and he loves me but his role as a father is also to love his son unconditionally…Thank you for writing about this.

    • 30something . . . great to have your comments here. It IS hard to resist the urge to take on too much and feel overwhelmed, but not until we are in it so deep we can barely see. And, keep saving your exasperation….every time I’ve thought I couldn’t take a moment more, I’d look over at my husband and realize, neither could he. We’d buckle down and do it together. It’s a journey!

  7. Preach it!

    I mean, seriously. No one writes posts about “10 steps to be a successful mother,” because it’s obviously a bit more complicated than that. Same with step-parenting. Duh.

    Let’s all just worry about growing a little more tomorrow than where we were today. Sheesh. That’s a tall order some days.

    • victwa, actually people do write posts “10 steps…..” because they think that’s what sells. It was one that said “3 ways to be a more successful stepmother” or something like that, that inspired this blog post. As I said, I about spit out my coffee. I hope we do keep focused on growing our awareness of our place, our process, and what it takes to soothe ourselves enough to stay engaged in our own lives in a meaningful way. Best to you.

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