Every stepmother likely relates to that feeling of not belonging in her stepfamily. For example, when children ignore her when they walk in a room and say hello to their father and she’s sitting three feet away. Or, when the mother of the children behaves as if the stepmother does not matter. Even inadvertently, when a husband forgets to tell his stepmother wife that the kids are joining them for dinner.
If you have felt these feelings, you know they sit below the surface and show themselves when the circumstances are just-so. You know they never die and you know how deep they cut, clear to the heart of what it is to be married to a man with children.
If you missed the post about belonging, you can catch up here. This post is about how it feels to not belong.
I’ve begun to think the crux of the not-belonging in our stepfamilies is about not being picked. Think back to when you were a child and teams were being chosen for dodgeball. The memory is vivid for me. We were at the Washington Elementary School gymnasium with it’s ancient wood stage, bleachers, and oak-plank floor that is now used as a community center. It was 1968 in Oakland, Oregon, population 1002.
A class of nervous nine-year-olds stood in that gym in a line, hoping the captain of the team would choose them, hoping they were good enough to be chosen early. As child after child went to stand with the team that chose them, those few left unchosen felt an ominous cloud growing inside, bigger and bigger until it blocked out all the voices and the stares and the relief on the faces of the ones already chosen. Do you remember a time like that, when the shame felt so vulnerable-making you thought you’d crumple up right there?
Could it be that the same feelings of nervousness and dread and shame of not being chosen for the game are what a stepmother feels when she’s left out of her family?
Shame, it turns out, is universal (refer to Brené Brown posts here).
Not only that, what if this shame thing is also what results in mothers treating stepmothers poorly? It is my opinion that some mothers behave as they do because they are working hard against experiencing shame, or the possibility of even a small amount of shame. They feel vulnerable at the thought of their children liking another woman and the risk of feeling the shame of being left alone is so great they might find themselves behaving in ways they’d never have dreamed of before they got divorced. Let’s face it, who learns healthy ways of processing those feelings of 9-year-old, not-chosen shame or 13-year-old, not-asked-to-the-dance shame? I didn’t have those models when I was growing up, and according to Dr. Brown, many of us didn’t.
What if shame is what makes the pain of being excluded within our own stepfamilies so deeply felt, so palpable, and so relevant? If so, it explains why stepmothers feel as though we’ve been hurt to our core in those moments of being treated as invisible. It’s why the pain feels big enough to consume us.
Maybe you’ll protest that you have no shame. Maybe you’ll protest that the problems in the family aren’t your fault or that your stepfamily would relate better if only everyone else would see the real problems.
Maybe, but the shame of not being chosen is a universal human experience. And, according to Dr. Brown, shame is a part of all our lives, which means it exists not just in my experience as a stepmother, or yours. It also exists in most situations that humans navigate. Which means it’s happening for all of us, no one of us is the only woman having shame.
And, let’s also not forget, no one in a stepfamily equation gets to claim the high ground about shame, not mothers, not fathers, not children, or stepmothers and stepfathers. Anyone in a stepfamily can wield the I’ll ignore you card, but at the end of the day, we’re all human, we all have shame. Anyone can wield the I’m better than you card, but again, we’re all human. We all need to work with our internal committee and shame is a key player.
Even though my natural tendency is to cover up shame so no one will notice, here it is. I’m broaching this very sensitive subject, out in public. As Dr. Brown says, as soon as you can get an issue into the light of day, it gets smaller. That’s why I’m going on and on about shame. If shame is why the process of integrating into a stepfamily is so difficult, I want it to become smaller for all of us, stepmothers and mothers alike.
Maybe shame is our secret hand-shake, our path to peace.
Rather than run from our shame and treat it like something to be avoided, let’s treat it like chicken pox. We know we’re going to get it, so the sooner we get exposed and develop an immunity, the better our lives will be.