A Healthy Stepmother . . . on belonging.

Belonging.

Belonging might be the issue we avoid when we whole-heartedly and enthusiastically throw our lot in with our guy and agree to make the best of things. Some of us promise to have and hold, in sickness and in health. Some of us forgo the vows and share a home. Either way, it’s likely we’d all like to slip into the family photo as if we’ve been there all along.

I know I did. And, I’ve watched friends and acquaintances from near and far who agreed to make the best of things with their man and who dove enthusiastically into the making that happen.

The good news is that our human nature compels us to find a way to belong to our group and the community of folks we live in. That’s why I’ve likened becoming a stepmother with the longer trips I’ve taken to a foreign country. In those circumstances, not being able to understand the language or express myself, I felt unsettled, excluded, and nervous about how to go about making things better. No matter how badly I wanted to belong, I was an outsider. At some point, on the 4th day of the trip when I’d been to the same cafe for coffee every morning and the clerk recognized me, my heart opened and I breathed and smiled and I knew I would survive.

The bad news is that despite the fact that I know all these things, despite that I repeated the visiting a foreign country experience when I moved to Pittsburgh, Hartford, South Fork, Greeley, and Seattle, I still had to go through that becoming part of the group when I came into my stepfamily.

Ivan Bilibin's illustration of the Russian fai...

Ivan Bilibin’s illustration of the Russian fairy tale about Vasilisa the Beautiful (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, why did I arrive at my new home sitting beside my husband in the moving van, his two boys helping cooperatively and happily, thinking that somehow this situation would be different? It’s as if there was a fairy tale inside me being played out, leading me into the temptation that I wasn’t going to stumble. I fantasized we’d figure out the just-right way to adjust and integrate without pain of any kind. All without feeling like a third, or fourth, or fifth wheel.

I marvel. I shake my head. I glance away, sheepish. I was 44 when I met my husband, 46 when we married, and I’m 53 now. All to say, I wasn’t born yesterday, I get how these things go.

Once I got over the shock and horror that I had succumbed to the fantasy and fairy tale of the happily ever after, it got worse. There was crying, wailing, venting, and flat out griping. Nothing I did changed the fact that I was the new kid on the block. I still needed to find the cafe, the hair stylist, and the mechanic and I still needed to figure out how to belong in my new family. Even though I’d only moved across town, eight miles away, I might as well have gone to the moon. It wasn’t my neighborhood and they weren’t my people.

I like to think of my husband and his kids, the kids’ mom, and the extended relatives as the people I’d meet if I went to a new city and set up living there. The folks I’d meet might treat me nicely, warily, welcomingly or standoffishly. That’s how real life goes and there are no guarantees that I’d be accepted. What is guaranteed is that it will take time, sometimes years to settle in and make a home.

Settling in and belonging is a process and I look back in wonder that I, and so many other stepmothers, lost track of that. It takes time to belong and it can’t be rushed.

 

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

  1. Wow, Kim…it’s incredible how much I identify with your words. Yesterday, while taking space (more than usual…given my choice not to move and merge homes….which sometimes makes sense, sometimes makes no sense) I told my partner I felt like a stranger in a foreign land (and not in good way 🙂 I love a good adventure, and the idea of connecting over a cup of chai despite a language barrier can be such a wonderful moment….but not this…..traditions that are not familiar to me (and at times feelquite awkward and uncomfortable) makes it feel like a stranger being turned around customs.

    It’s okay….finding new ways to remain peaceful, and keeping up with activities, people and animals that keep me whole. My partner is only as human as me, and we’re accepting of what we can do.

    Peace, Merry Christmas 🙂

    • Shelley, egads….meant to respond to you ages ago! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and feelings. Stranger in a strange land, not sure what movie that comes from, but it’s so appropo! Peace to you and your guy! May 2013 find you all well.

  2. Thanks Kim….I appreciate the time you spend writing (you have a gift!), and for sharing your experience….and not least of all, for providing kinship, and for “normalizing” the process of integration into an pre-existing family. I had a funny thing happen over Christmas….my partner’s kids have a tradition of spending Christmas eve at a community rink (pre-divorce tradition, ongoing for all). For 3 years (we’ve been together 5) I’ve shared their tradition with them. This year, as always, their Mom (and her new partner) were close by, and it wasn’t long before a common friend pulled out his camera and told us all to huddle in for a “family picture”. I looked at my partner, the kid’s Mom, and her partner, we all grinned and faced the camera. A moment…..just a moment, but a moment nonetheless where acknowledgement of our role in one another’s sphere’s caused a smile for all (wry, yes, but a smile all the same). Happy New Year!

    • Shelley, I love this story!!! What a great feeling to just have an ordinary experience be just ordinary! That’s what I hang onto when things feel slippery and like I’ll lose my hold on them, the fact that it’s happened before and could happen again. And, while I wait, I keep practicing solid posture and full breathing and all the other stuff I can think of to stay engaged. Great, great, great story.

  3. You know, I think another thing is that stepmothers sometimes have an idea of what it would feel like “to belong.” And then this idea becomes the thing that is compared to whatever the reality is. I was a foster parent before becoming a stepmother, and I think it was an incredibly valuable prep for stepparenting, because foster parenting reminds you that hey– you and this human DON’T KNOW EACH OTHER and so it’s not going to be easy, and that really getting to know another human being takes TIME. Lots and lots of time, and lots of reminders that yup, we share very different histories. It does a disservice to the miracle that relationships between humans can be when we forget this. This reminds me of Pema Chodron’s suggestion that we work on developing curiosity about what is happening in our lives. “I should feel like _____” can be a very pressure-filled box to exist in, v. “So this is what it looks like for this other person and me to get to know each other. I wonder what’s going on between us right now?”

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