A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the shame of not being chosen for dodgeball.

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.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . runs out of self-soothing steam.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.

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10 thoughts on “A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the shame of not being chosen for dodgeball.

  1. http://www.shanaschutte.com/Voice_of_Shame.html I love this article by Shana Schutte about how the voice of shame sounds exactly like a wound we’ve received at one point or another. So glad you are talking about this! Feels like this week has been dedicated to defending my place (and our roles) as a “step” there are so many ways that shame and hurt can creep in even if we are in healthy and vibrant relationships with our skids and husbands. It can come from friends who expect you to love your kids just like a mother would– it can come from the kids and it can come from yourself when you feel like your failing. WHAT A TOPIC!!! We can all relate.

  2. Thanks, Amy, for commenting. Defending your place can be an exhausting experience, not to mention a lonely one.

    For everyone:
    I didn’t link to this exact blog post of Brené Brown’s before and I want to make sure you’ve got easy access to this particular piece. http://www.ordinarycourage.com/my-blog/2008/8/8/shame-researcher-heal-thyself.html. Her description of how it sounds to notice the vulnerability and work through it is so valuable. The resilience piece is what grabbed my attention, since this is what we are working toward as stepmothers. I use this article because it is like a template and I can imagine myself in that conversation and substitute my own issues for the ones she shares.

    What I love the most about Brown’s work, is that she includes herself in the picture as one who is vulnerable, shameful, and courageous. I love that she isn’t standing outside the milieu saying “here’s what these people need to know in order to process their shame.”

    I also think I was playing it safe with my own emotions. Using an example from my childhood instead of from my current stepmother life was safer than revealing a real life story. I tell myself I’m protecting my family privacy, but there might be a way to give an example and since this issue is just so important, I’m going to ponder how that might look. My motivation is to get down in there in the tangled web of why being a stepmother can be such a pain-filled experience. The piece about shame is just one of many threads and while it certainly shows up in different ways for each woman, I feel there is so much there, so much to be explored. Rest assured, I’ll bring it up again!

  3. This is something I have never really considered. I always DID feel chosen, by my husband and his daughter. She was five when we met and although her parents had been separated since she was one, I was the first woman her Dad had introduced her to. Her mom was already remarried. We spent time together as friends at first, no sleepovers for a long while, and then one day, she was walking between us and put my hand into his hand and skipped away. One of my favourite memories of her!
    In reading Amy’s comment, I realized that the shame I have experienced has really only come from outsider’s comments: you just need to love her more, you just need to stand up for yourself, you just need to make your husband understand, you just need to hang on, or let go, or, or, or…. All well-meaning but shame-inducing nonetheless. This is definitely something to ponder. I look forward to your next post on this topic.
    (and I haven’t read any of Brene Brown but will try to do that soon!)

    • Lana, if you’ve been in your stepdaughter’s life since she was 5, you’ve gone through most of the developmental transitions with her (and still are!). I’ve noticed that questioning of the stepmother each time a developmental milestone was met for a child, certainly in the teen and early adult years. What might have been acceptable in the relationship at one time became less acceptable in some of those years, and it’s like a roller coaster. I see that in my friends stepchildren and my own.

      As for the outside comments: yeah, priceless. I love the ones “your husband just needs to _(fill in blank)_!!! Right, the guy is doing a great job of trying to make life work, there are no hard lines to be drawn. In fact, the families I’ve known where the lines are drawn solid and hard are the ones that have ended up divorced. There is one long, wavy, curly, divergent path that eventually curves back to catch up with itself closer to the beach where you can sit down and put your feet in the sand, hold hands, and watch the sun set. That line is the one I’m following.

    • Yeah….it feels that way. And, the repetitious nature of the judgments and comments and lack of acknowledgement, all those things become cumulative. Maybe we need to become snakes and shed our skin on a regular basis so we can sluff off the yuk.

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