A Healthy Stepmother . . . Renews Her Boundaries as Many Times as it Takes.

Updated post from May 12, 2011, A Healthy Stepmother

She closed the book and tossed it on the chair with a sigh. The book had been no more helpful than the previous three titles she’d brought home, each of them overflowing with opinions of how a woman married to a man with children should behave. Chapter after chapter the list of shoulds and shouldn’ts grew and grew.

She wished it were easier, to figure out how and when and what the issues were that she should bring up first, and second, and last. She kept hoping a stepmother would tell her story without advice, just lots of stories of this is how it went. Then she could use it as a place to begin exploring. Unfortunately, most of the books on the shelf followed tired self-help formats with lists of do this, but don’t do that.

She sighed again. It seemed such a waste. The best books gave information and educated about the process, the worst gave advice that made it sound as if the stepmother would complete the list of just-right things, the stepchildren would happily participate in stepfamily life. As if the problems in a stepfamily were a stepmother’s fault. Where were the books written to the entire family, as if they were a system that functioned together?

In the early days, she hadn’t known where to begin so she hadn’t set any boundaries with her stepkids and neither had their father. Then, when she voiced her concerns, a tidal wave of rejection washed her voice out.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Renews Her Boundaries as Many Times as it TakesLife had gone on in that somewhat aimless way, not structured, not tidy. In fact, it had been messy and uncontrolled and unpredictable and unnerving.

But, she had let it be and waited and watched. During the wait, she studied. She paid attention and learned who her family members were.

Gradually, she began voicing her needs. If you want to swear, go outside. In this house, we respect one another. No, you may not go into my bedroom and search the sock drawer.

Gradually, what began as a small voice speaking out developed into a voice able to make the same reasonable requests any adult might make. When we enter a room or a home, we say hello. When we need something from someone else, we say please and thank you. When we are struggling, we say so out loud instead of lashing out with angry words.

Almost overnight, she felt better, a weight lifted off her shoulders. She ignored the sour faces and the surprised looks. As she spoke aloud and drew the boundaries, she began to regain her footing in her own life. She was so inspired she began caring for herself again.

She began to say whatever was on her mind, in a thoughtful way. She maintained compassion and kindness as her guides, and she continued voicing her opinions and requests. She continued ignoring the raised eyebrows, and most of the time she was heard.

She decided it wasn’t that bad speaking from the heart. It didn’t always feel easy or comfortable, but she liked the feeling of knowing she’d behaved as a real person and not a fictitious or invisible one. She decided it was not only enough that she feel real, it was everything that she feel real to herself.

9 thoughts on “A Healthy Stepmother . . . Renews Her Boundaries as Many Times as it Takes.

  1. Further supporting my theory that everything helpful I know about stepparenting has come from my experience with foster parenting & teaching. There is nothing in suggestions about being a good foster parent or good teacher that suggests that sliding into the background and being invisible is a quality way to create a strong classroom or support a child’s development. I thought of my classroom as a place where everyone needed to be safe, including myself, and things needed to work, in general, for everyone, myself included. This is a much better way (in my opinion) of thinking about stepfamily systems– we need to think about the system as a whole, and how everyone has a legitimate place in the system, so everyone needs to have some measure of attention paid to what works for him/her, FROM THE BEGINNING, not when someone has “earned” the right to be considered. Is it easy? No, not at all– but it’s not easy to teach a class of 30 children, 15 of whom work best with others and 15 who are introverts, and we certainly don’t tell teachers who need to establish relationships with children as soon as possible, “Just be in the background.”

    • I agree, Victwa, from the beginning is ideal. In thinking about your examples, it occurs to me…the foster parent or teacher is THE authority. It is expected in the culture for that person in that role to take certain responsibilities and follow them through. They not only get to help create the rules and guidelines, they are invested with the authority to follow through, including any mediation, negotiation, and resolution if there is a conflict. A stepmother has none of that, thus from the get-go she is adrift to some degree. She will be anchored and invested to the degree the system around her, the entire stepfamily, has dealt with the dissolution of the marriage and the parents have found agreements on how they will work together for the future. In my experience and observation, that almost never happens. I’m sure there are a few exceptions to the example, but I don’t know anyone who’s succeeded as you’ve described among the 50 stepmothers in my immediate circle.

      Another thing I’ve noticed is that it’s difficult to characterize stepfamilies because they are so different from one another, despite seeming similar on the surface. The variables effecting the likelihood of integration being a success are so complex as to be mind-bending.

      • Yeah, I think my response was really more addressing your last section– the feeling true to myself/oneself. I am not, nor have I ever been someone who hangs out in the background (and I guess I would really encourage everyone to not be background in your own home– that just doesn’t seem like valuing your personhood). While I cannot control what other people are doing, I can act in a way that feels true to what I need. When I think about the way I spent the first couple of years with my stepdaughter in particular, I wasn’t true to me. I was being background because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do. I can’t control what my stepdaughter thinks of me or what happens to our relationship but I can make a commitment to show up as my real self. And my real self is someone who sets boundaries and has opinions. I think it’s really much less (for me) about trying to figure out integration (I’m not really sure what that even means, frankly, or what successful v. non-successful integration would look like) and figuring out, “What does being true to me look like here?” Being true to me looks like setting and holding boundaries and also having requests/wants/expectations for the way I and others are treated in this home.

        I think the question about authority is a longer conversation. I have always felt that a child’s parent was the ultimate authority on him/her and that my role as a teacher was to support that child’s development for the time I was with him/her. I think my comment maybe be related to building relationships. If someone took me aside and had asked, before stepping into the stepfamily situation, “What do you know about building strong relationships with kids?” I would have said, “Be real, have boundaries, communicate them early on, follow through and be consistent, communicate what you like about the child in question but don’t worry if the kid likes you because being a trustworthy adult is more important than being a liked adult.” I don’t think for me it had to do with being the authority of anything as much as it has to do with being real and true to who I am. Holding back and silence, for me, is not being real. I can’t control my stepkids’ mom, them, what my husband does or doesn’t do, but I can control my own willingness to be real. I think that’s part of what I’m saying– while we can’t control a system, we can certainly control our own willingness to be honest about what it means to be you or me in this system.

        I have a lot more to say but blog comments aren’t the best place for nuanced discussions.

      • Ahhhh, I think I see more of what you were trying to express. I read it the first time as you not having had any issues with that aspect of the adjustment and I was thinking, “whoa, you have the secrets.” I myself was never in the background, I can make friends with anyone, almost anywhere. So it wasn’t about skill level. For me, my silence wasn’t a sense of I should be quiet, it was more of a sense of getting the lay of the land before I opened myself up. But that’s just my story. I know just as many stepmoms who go in and draw some hard lines from the first day and they struggle too. Mostly, that’s my point in the post, each one of us has her own process of coming into a group of strangers. Add that to the fact it’s the most closed type of group on the planet, and it’s bound to take her a while to adjust. Thankfully, many of us do. I appreciate all your comments, Victwa, and this is a great place to sort out what we’re trying to say, among friends who have a good-hearted intention toward one another. Comments always welcome! You wouldn’t think this whole business should be so complicated . . .

    • Yes!!!! That’s what I was doing with my Self-Soothing series. I teach the Feldenkrais Method in my day job, and it is an excellent way to balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems of our body. I’ve relied on it every day, except in the very beginning of my stepfamily life when I got swept up in the drama of it all. But paying attention to the here and now was how I found my way back and why I’ve sloughed a boatload(s) of old habitual thinking. This is a great way to describe it, thanks for posting.

    • As for “How to have a successful stepfamily,” those types of articles and books are no more service than any other women’s magazine article or book about how to be good enough, thin enough, beautiful enough, or successful enough. Ugh. Throw them all out. Once, a writer for the Stepmom Magazine emailed and asked if she could use some of my blog material for an article she was doing on “Happily Ever After.” I about lost it and told her there was no such thing, then gave her some conditions under which I was willing. Needless to say, she didn’t end up using my perspective.

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