A Healthy Stepmother . . . walks with her vulnerability.

“I really don’t have any big issues up in my life right now.” I proclaimed to my women’s group as we discussed the focus of our group that day.

Not an hour later, I shook with tears and the other women in the group waited respectfully for me to say more about what was happening for me. I never did articulate what was lying underneath the pain of that moment.

Reflecting later, I realized the emotion of digging down into the stories for the book I’m working on, the emotion of getting together with a couple of family members after 12 years of not, my concerns about the plight of so many around the globe, and a week of crummy sleep had all contributed to my vulnerable moment.

My protestations that nothing was wrong were the old, dusty habits of a lifetime of saying that things were fine. The old story was that I was able to take care of myself, thank you very much. For decades, I’d been reinforced for not needing emotional support and I’d been taught to keep busy and get things done.

Statue of Our Lady of La Salette, sitting cryi...

Statue of Our Lady of La Salette, sitting crying (first part of apparition). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The experience of sitting with women who didn’t flinch or rush me to wrap up my story compares with no other experience of being listened to. In fact, they simply waited and eventually we came to a moment when we sensed that the emotions had calmed enough that we could wrap up, including their emotions that had arisen from seeing my big emotion. What was most important is that they did not see me as the emotion. They know me and so they waited with me until the emotional moment had passed.

What if a stepmother had space like that to be vulnerable. What if someone would sit with her, quietly, and wait for the emotion to pass? Not a rushed waiting, as when will this be over, but a patient, hands folded, gazing near her but not staring at her, and simply breathing into the room together. That was the gift my friends gave me. They didn’t rush to me to take it away and make it okay, they simply waited, with me.

I’ve been practicing for years letting the tears come when I hear someone say to not take it so personally, or to just push on through, or to wait until the kids are grown, or that’s just the way teenagers are. Or a million other things that people say when they don’t really want to deal with a stepmother’s vulnerability. It takes practice to let tears out privately, but eventually it’s easier to let them go in front of others. I think that’s why I was able to cry with my friends.

I’m learning to be vulnerable and to share my tender moments. Crying in the company of others is my new thing to practice, my new moment to know that if what I’m saying will bring me to tears, there’s some truth in it. In fact, I feel an urgency to let out the years of not saying how I felt in the moment. The role models I’ve had were women who’ve either suppressed their tears into stony silence or held them in for so long they came bursting out in a panic attack. It seems there’s something in between. As if the measure of my mental health is directly related to the ability to feel, process, and welcome the next emotion easily and smoothly, just like I change positions on a chair.

In fact, the way the Dalai Lama shows emotion is my model. I’ve read that as he’s in conversation with someone, he can go from deep concern for the story he’s listening to and in the next moment be laughing with tears running down his eyes, or crying because there is such sadness.

Rather than clinging to the masks of okay-ness, I’m ready to let the emotion be what is on my face. Rather than using anger as the medium to justify letting my feelings of pain into the space between me and someone else, I’m going to bypass the anger and just get to the simpler emotion.

The vulnerable moment can be as familiar and easy to navigate as the joyous one, the comfortable one, or the sorrowful one. Most of us are not used to showing our vulnerability and will do anything and everything to avoid it.

Bring on tears rolling down cheeks. Bring on fluidity of emotion and not holding things in until I burst. Bring on good emotional posture, the going in any direction with feelings, at any time, and without a lot of fuss.

Cry, laugh, frown, snort, cluck, sputter, shout, sing, and smile your feelings. I’m right there with you.

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7 thoughts on “A Healthy Stepmother . . . walks with her vulnerability.

  1. I think you’ve just pointed out a really simple, profound realization….that a range of emotions is an expression of good mental health….too often suppression of emotion is seen as solid and stable….I thought I’d broken down 3 years ago (spent the summer in tears), but maybe it was more related to the 2 years of suppression before then – trying to overcome feelings that needed to come up and out earlier.

    • Absolutely, Shelley. The expression of all our emotions is so very important AND healthy. And your summer in tears was very likely the dam from the previous two years finally overflowing. There is something to the phrase “the straw that breaks the camel’s back”. You can only carry so much for so long…

  2. I can vouch loudly and clearly for expressing your feelings and letting the tears roll. And sharing with people you can trust? Crucial. When I was new at this rodeo, I kept so much to myself bc I thought it was ME that was the problem. Why couldn’t I just LOVE my stepchild? why did I let the things her mother said hurt me so much? Why did I feel so hurt by my stepchild’s dismissiveness? why did it feel like my husband shut down every time I tried to talk about it? Well- the unshed tears and unexpressed sadness and confusion turned to anger which then turned to hopelessness and despair. The perfect path to depression! A breakout of acute psoriasis and mild “situational” depression were the prize for keeping it all inside. NOW, I use my reactions as my gauge. If I feel close to tears a lot of the time, or irrational anger, or (as happened two weeks ago) if I see a red spot somewhere on my body, I know it is time to listen to my heart and look after ME… to share with my understanding friends, my family, and especially with my husband. He does not want me to go back to that dark place ever again.
    Years later, I’ve been learning to allow the joyful times to chip into my heart, too. As my stepchild has grown and our relationship has changed, I have to not only welcome the tears, but welcome the laughter and goodness, too.
    Kim- if you ever need someone to witness your tears, let me know. I will send you my phone number and we can sit “together” across the continent from each other.

  3. Big thing for me as a stepmother: it doesn’t matter if I can intellectualize a child’s response. It still can hurt. And you/I get space to experience that hurt, even if you/I “understand” it.

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