Updated from December 16, 2009.
Regardless of whether you’re preparing for your first trip into the Stepmother Wilderness or you’ve been there before, you need some essentials. Being a stepmother is a process: first, you learn the basics, then you gain skill and strength for longer trips, and finally, you become an experienced stepmother, expert in handling emergencies and traumas along the wilderness trail.
Ideally, we would be oriented to venturing into the wilderness, but honestly, life often thrusts us full-on into the long-distance hike with little to sustain us except our love for the man to whom we said “I do.” Thus, whether you are an experienced stepmother or recently married, living with someone, or contemplating marriage, you can benefit from the 10 Essentials.
1. Navigation (map and compass)
Do not leave home without a map of your direction and a compass to track your coordinates. Time and again, stepmothers get stranded, lost and confused, dehydrated, or overexposed to freezing temperatures that caught them unprepared. Had they known where they were going and which path to take, they might have returned to safety quickly and without much ado.
Take out your compass, get your map . . . plot your course. Make plans with your husband so you know you’re both on the same trail and where you’ll meet up each night if you get separated. If you get mad and stomp off, not letting him know where you’re going, you’ll have a long wait before you are found.
2. Sun protection
Prevention is the first step in protection. Rub a thin, invisible layer of sunscreen on one’s skin to keep the invisible rays from harming the skin, especially during times of long exposure. Once there’s been too much exposure, it’s difficult to do anything other than wait until the burn has healed. In our stepmother lives, the sunscreen of choice is the detachment many experts suggest. Detachment helps many stepmothers do less and avoid over-exposure, fatigue, and burning. Note: detachment is best used when needed and then shelved for times when the flow of connection feels mutual and comfortable.
3. Insulation (extra clothing)
Take insulation no matter where and what season you venture out. Insulation could be a warm layer, a dry layer, or a wicking layer. At the very least, a layer next to the skin to reduce chafing. With the right layering, you can go out in almost any weather.
Early in our marriage, my husband advised me to use insulation . . . don’t leave yourself vulnerable . . . and, be sure to take care of yourself. My enthusiastic, brave front did little insulate me from the grief that naturally occurred when he and I got married and my feelings ended up trampled and bruised. He knew how to move among those family dynamics, but my anxiety-motivated efforts to join in took me feet first, with no insulation to protect me from the cold.
4. Illumination (flashlight/headlamp)
If you can’t see where you’re going, you can’t get where you want to go. So, take a flashlight. If the weather changes for the worst and you’re stranded, you might need to signal for rescue. You might need a light to find your way back to your campsite.
And, consider a headlamp. They leave your hands free, giving you flexibility and light where you need it. Sometimes you need that focused light to shine on a problem, so you can find a solution. Knowing when to use the light comes with experience and a healthy stepmother knows when to not shine the light.
5. First-aid supplies
When you get hurt, you need help. Your stepmother first-aid kit should include a range of supplies, everything from taking a nap to going on a beach retreat with stepmother girlfriends. It should also include a stepmother support group, formal or informal, and the name of a good therapist, if you don’t already have one. In addition, learning to stand in your own skin, to show up fully and not vacate the premises, is one of the most effective first-aid supplies to carry in your kit.
You should build up a strong kit of options for nurturing yourself over the long haul. Even when stepkids don’t mean to brush you aside, they do. Even when they want to like you, their mother stands between them and you and she may or may not let them have the freedom to approach you with an open heart. In those cases, get out the first aid kit. Patch up the cuts, blisters, and bruises and move on. Unless you have a broken bone or need bed rest, there is a lot that a good long walk with the dogs will do for you.
The fire you take into the stepmother wilderness fuels your creativity, shores up your spirit, and solidifies the love you share with your husband. Without that fire, the stepmother wilderness gets dark, cold, and more than a little scary. You need fire as a vital aspect of your relationship with your husband so that you can continue to build up your history of successful interactions, memories, and stories. The fire protects you from the challenges to your union you’re sure to encounter. You are building a house of connectedness and the fire is a central element to withstand the test of time.
7. Repair kit and tools
Taking care of oneself outdoors means that sometimes you have to dig a hole to properly dispose of the waste. Sometimes you have to chop wood or haul water or build a temporary shelter. Gather up your personal stepmother repair kit and be sure to include the following items . . . you should have a cozy blanket to wrap up in when you need some nurturing, a room to escape to where you can shut the door and have some alone time, a computer so you can go online and chat with other stepmothers even in the wee hours of the night, and a Mardi Gras mask to wear when your own smile just won’t do. A pedicure, or maybe even a new hairstyle, might qualify as a repair kit, but it’s a great idea to have a few tools that don’t require going and doing. Sometimes you need repairs in the here and now and can’t get away from your obligations.
Read. You’ll soon find out that you are not alone and many others share the same concerns. There is a growing supply of books that give ideas for how to approach the stepmother role and it’s no secret that there are many different philosophies growing out there. Hands down, the best overview of stepmothering lies in the pages of Stepmonster, by Wednesday Martin. Get a copy.
8. Nutrition (extra food)
Meals are a vulnerable time for a stepmother because everyone sits face-to-face, struggling with what to say or do. One strategy to nourish your self is to let your husband cook meals for his children. This takes you out of being judged for what you cook or don’t cook and whether they like it or don’t like it. If you are the custodial stepmother, let the kids sign up for a night to fix the family meal. Independently, if they are old enough, or in teams with a parent if they are too young. Let them be in charge of food choices, preparation, and clean-up. Let them offer nourishment to others.
Nutrition also comes in the form of you and your husband getting time alone and you taking time with close friends and your own family. This could be the most neglected aspect of being a stepmother, often because stepmothers carry guilt about not being present for every moment. Special Note: Dig a hole and bury the guilt right beside the waste. Then, without further ado, resume your life.
9. Hydration (extra water)
Water, coffee, tea, juice, or cocktails. Any experienced stepmother-hiker knows that she needs to choose carefully how she hydrates. Essential is remaining hydrated, whether the conditions are warm or cold. Take enough water and take electrolytes to prevent against dehydration.
An experienced stepmother chooses a safe and appropriate environment when occasionally letting loose with friends. She doesn’t want to end up like the guy who was drinking and after a fight with his fiancé decided to swim in the Colorado River, and drowned. To summarize: drinking and the stepmother wilderness don’t mix. Use your good navigation skills and knowledge of the terrain to plan for each day, and behave accordingly. No prudish lectures here, just common sense and good wishes for the long haul.
10. Emergency shelter
Sometimes, regardless of the abilities of an experienced wilderness stepmother, the situation can fall apart. When a sudden storm comes up, grab your emergency supplies and get busy building a shelter to wait out the storm. This might include building a barrier (real or imagined) to withstand the hurricane of feelings being hurled in your direction. Hurricanes come up during most holiday and special events for the kids, or following times of transition between homes. Stormy weather can, and will, be brought into your home without warning. Practice when the winds are less intense and soon you’ll be able to quickly assemble shelter around you so you can breathe and watch and interact, without feeling assaulted by the storm going on around you.
With these essentials in your pack and knowledge of how to use them, over time you’ll learn to use them in a preventive way. Please . . . don’t venture into the Stepmother Wilderness without your 10 Essentials.
*Adapted from the 10 Essentials, The Mountaineers, Seattle.