A Healthy Stepmother . . . Makes a Place for Grief

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Makes a Place for Grief

Recently, several people close to me died and two more face their end. When I told a friend the most recent news, she handed me a book, Die Wise, by Stephen Jenkinson. I became so engrossed in the book, I was like my dog with a bone.

In Die Wise, I read. Grief is a way of loving what has slipped from view. And, I thought of the many things that slip out of view in this life that have nothing to do with someone dying. Divorce and remarriage came to mind.

Then I wondered whether it would be possible to strengthen a remarriage by including the grief caused by the death of the divorced family and the child’s access to both parents.

I once led group gatherings I called Walking Your Grief. I asked each person to write a word on a card to name their grief. We tacked the cards on the front wall of the room where they stayed for the rest of the gathering, a silent witness to the connection to the ancestor, the four-legged companion, or the earth. Most left the gathering grateful for the forum to grieve their loved one.

Imagine with me, a grieving wall in the family home, especially in those early years of a remarriage? The children could walk by and see a photo or a word they themselves had placed there, each time an opportunity to speak or reflect silently. Imagine how things might be different if expressions of grief were welcomed in your family? Imagine these expressions of grief as ways of showing love? img_5902

What I was reminded of in Die Wise is that we don’t have to lose those we love, whether from death or from divorce. When someone dies, we simply keep them close. I keep my grandmother alive by making her version of a flourless fruitcake, a recipe my entire family swoons over. We serve our meals on my stepmother’s mother’s dining table, carried all the way from Minnesota.

I keep the paint-splattered stepstool that my grandfather used at his workbench close at hand, another talisman of my mother’s parents. I also love the wooden bench I scavenged from my father’s house following his stroke. Once Dad and I sat in the sun on my back porch. He spied one of the benches and shook his head. “Why do you have that junky old bench?” I grinned. “Because I like it, Dad.”

I imagine stepchildren grieving and trying against almost all the odds to keep the absent parent close to their heart. Often we expect them to rewrite their childhood in their mind and heart and see their other parent as we, the adults, see them. I don’t think they can. 

You say, it’s been three years since the divorce, it’s time to move on. You say you are not the one causing the problem.

I say, three years is nothing. They will love and grieve both parents for the rest of their lives, almost without exception. If they are not allowing one parent into their heart, you can be sure the love of the other parent is stunted as well.

cropped-hands_with_candles-t2.jpgI thought of building a grieving wall in our home, something more than the photos and images we have of them. The closest I came was one Thanksgiving after we’d been remarried for six years or more. The kids were with us and their mom was out of town. I knew thoughts of her weighed on their minds and I was thinking of my family, particularly my own mother. I brought the candle holder out of the cupboard and loaded it up. I invited them to take turns with me and name someone they held in their thoughts as they lit a candle. By the time we lit the ninth candle, we could have lit nine more.

All of which leads me to a few thoughts . . .

  • We can be courageous when we focus on respect toward the missed parent. We do it for the child’s heart. For the child’s future. We do it for our own heart.
  • We can be courageous when we make space for the child’s grieving process which might well last a lifetime. Perhaps we even grieve with them.
  • We can be courageous when we make a place for anchors and memories of the child’s former life.
  • We can be courageous when we focus on filling our hearts, including grieving our own loves.

It’s not necessary to grade ourselves on how courageous we are. We don’t need to take inventory and see how many times we found ourselves closed off to grief, our own or others’. We don’t need to fill our homes with memorabilia of the other home. 

It might be more useful to take the idea of the grief into our hearts and embrace this aspect of living in a family after divorce and after remarriage. The grief won’t look happy, it won’t look cheery, it won’t look cooperative. Can that be okay?

We can be courageous when we behave as though grief is a way of loving what has slipped from view.

 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Photographs

The wallet photo. The mantel portrait. Senior pictures on the picture rail. Snapshots under fridge magnets, all in a jumble. Digital frame, ever framing.

Years pass, decades pass. Piles of photographs. My life. My parents’ life. My siblings, their life. My stepchildren, life. Great grandmother, ancestral life. There, all there, in the photographs.

Back when my husband’s children where younger, we took the boat, three kids, and one small dog to Yale Lake in Southwestern Washington. The kids, despite being good swimmers, wore life jackets. The dog, never in the water as far as we knew, wore one too. After the initial thrill of tubing, my husband cut the engine and we floated while we traded places on the tube.

Into the quiet moment, the boys called for the dog. 

Without hesitating, the dog leaped. Almost immediately, she popped up in the cold water with what could only be described as a surprised expression. She paddled ferociously toward the boys with all the power her small feet could muster. The eldest, lounging in the boat waiting her turn to ski was also a certified life guard. She threw off her towel and jumped in after the dog, just in case.

In moments, the dog reached the boys and they pulled her up on the tube before any of us had time to worry.

All that, captured in photographs. All that, now digitized. A moment of unity. Five humans pulling for the same thing: one little dog getting to a safe place.

You never know how much you’ll want an image, sometimes only years later.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the Sunglasses of Connection

Once upon a time, there was a 10-year-married couple and their two children, Ivan, 8, and Hazel, 5. The family lived in an average house in the middle of an average town near an average river. They lived an average life-like most families. Both parents worked because money was necessary to pay the mortgage and put food on the table.

Sadly, one day they received a visit from the Divorce Harpie, a very damning omen since over 70% of the married couples visited by the Divorce Harpie ended their marriages within a year. One never knew the Divorce Harpie had come. He came in the middle of the night, sneering his way into their average house, bored with his own life and entertained by messing around in other’s lives. The Divorce Harpie loved watching the chaos and mayhem that came after one in the couple determined they needed to end the marriage. In fact, he always chose the woman of the couple to infect with discontent, and he always made sure the man of the couple never suspected a thing. In fact, it was worse than that. He erased all concerns and history from the man’s mind so he had no memory of the discontent in the marriage. When his wife asked for a divorce, it was always out of the blue. 

On the night the Divorce Harpie visited, the woman was up late working on the last of the Christmas cards so they could be mailed in the morning. The cruelty of the timing was lost on everyone, except the Divorce Harpie. He delighted in making sure the holidays were filled with conflict and sorrow. 

Sure enough, his visit produced the results he was looking for. His spell worked so well, not even the Fairy of Reconciliation could reclaim the marriage with her incredible skill at reconnecting hearts. The woman awoke the day after Christmas and when her husband came down for his morning coffee, she told him she wanted a divorce. 

The world stopped spinning for a few moments.

The Angel of Anxiety fluttered and flitted about, unsure whether to process the news, but doing her job. No one spoke, no one breathed, for a full 60 seconds. Finally, everyone exhaled and looked around, thinking it odd they couldn’t see very clearly. In the time it took them to let the news sink in, the Angel of Anxiety had outfitted everyone in the family with a pair of sunglasses. Each pair of sunglasses had smoky lenses, dark enough to impair vision and make it seem like perpetual dusk. 

Time went by and the divorce proceeded. The kids went to live with their dad, not because their mother didn’t want them, but because their father was more persuasive about why they should remain with him. He argued that children needed a father and there was plenty of evidence that showed when a father was present in the home the children had fewer educational issues. The smoky glasses gave him some cover for his story and reduced the number of questions about his plans for the future. He argued that he worked from home and was available in case the kids had difficulty in school. He also claimed to be the more stable of the two parents. 

The judges listened and ruled that the mother of the children needed to pay support payments for as long as the children were in high school and beyond. If they wanted to go to college, the mother was expected to pay because her job brought in more compensation. 

The kids lived with the dad and visited the mom. The dad tried to be neutral about the kids’ relationship with their mother but he resented that she made more money than he did. He resented that she went on trips here and there while he was home with the kids, forgetting that he had insisted the kids live with him and ignoring that she would take the kids any time she asked. She had consented to the kids living with him and hadn’t argued for half-time physical custody because she believed kids needed some consistency and it was better if they had one place to call home, like their dogs who relied on structure. Her concession had been that if he was going to take the kids that he be consistent and available for them and not change the plan every week. 

This plan worked out to varying degrees of success for a year and then they hit a speed bump. The Angel of Anxiety had a brother, The Lord of Depression, who visited the father one night when he was up late working on his latest sculpture wondering how he was going to buy groceries because he had spent all the money on clothes for the kids. Begrudgingly, he admitted to himself he had bought them more expensive clothes than they could afford, but he felt justified because they needed to keep up appearances for the neighborhood they lived in. 

Life went on in this push-me/pull-me kind of tug of war between the parents. Each time the anxiety got greater, one parent or another increased the smokiness of the sunglass lenses. One day, the father changed the tint to a green color and every time he said something the children agreed with him that their mother was mean and overbearing. Then, the mother changed the tint in the sunglasses to a purple color that caused the children to believe that her family, the mother’s side, was the only family  worth paying attention to. 

English: Tea shades

English: Tea shades (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tensions escalated. Ivan began shop-lifting in response to the tension and got caught. He spent the summer in juvenile detention. Hazel became depressed and wouldn’t come out of her room. She didn’t want to get caught up in the war between parents so it was easier to opt out. Even the love bestowed on her when she acted in ways her parents approved felt tainted. 

This pattern went on for years, growing more destructive as time went on. The alienation each child felt toward the mother one week, toward the father the next week, took a toll. 

Eventually, both children graduated from high school and moved away to another city to attend college. In college, they gradually lost the tint in the sunglasses and began to view the world through the lens of many others, often others they respected who had no vested interest in the outcome of their lives. The relief was palpable. Each of the children grew strong, resilient, and capable. They had never felt this strength before. Free from the pressure to behave a certain way, free from the strain of emotions within their divorced family, they blossomed and grew and matured. 

Holidays came and went and at first they didn’t go home for the ritual Thanksgiving or Christmas. Finally, in his junior year, Ivan decided to venture home and agreed with Hazel to meet up in their hometown. They seemed to have awakened one day with amnesia for their parents’ struggles. 

They traveled to their hometown and one of them stayed with their mother and one of them stayed with the father. By this time, each of the parents was doing fine, but with some residual resentment from years past. At the same time, they were also stronger and less needy. However, they hadn’t been around the children for a couple of years and each was eager to make his or her case justifying past behaviors. 

The first night passed with everyone on their best behavior. 

The second day came and the mother began darkening the tint on her son’s sunglasses. The father began darkening the tint on his daughter’s sunglasses. It began slowly, gradually, so gradually the children had little awareness they were not seeing with their own eyes. 

By day three, tensions were mounting again and Ivan and Hazel began arguing with one another about which parent was right and which one was wrong. On day four, they each flew back to college, angry with their sibling. 

Back on campus, as soon as each stepped through the door of the dormitory, the tinting in the glasses dropped away and they each grabbed the phone and called the other. 

Hazel began, “Did you notice how we couldn’t really see clearly? Do you think it’s been that way for a long time?” 

Ivan agreed, “Yeah, I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t see either purple or green. How did all that begin?” 

They ended the phone call agreeing their parents were being manipulative and they needed to find a way to end it. Or, not see them again. It just wasn’t worth the hassle and heartache of being twisted and torn one way and another. And, worse, they were pitted against one another. And even worse, it wasn’t just one of the parents, it was both of them. There was no way to have authentic relationships and now they each understood what those might look like. 

Summer vacation came and went and they didn’t go home despite many requests from the parents. Finally, they insisted the parents fly out and meet them, together, in Hazel’s town. As soon as the parents stepped off the plane, their children handed them clear sunglasses, the normal kind you buy in the store, not the kind issued by the Divorce Harpie. 

Immediately, the mother gasped. She could see what she had been doing trying to get them to love her family more, all in the name of love. She could see it wasn’t love. The father put his new glasses on slower, but with some curiosity after watching his ex-wife. He inhaled sharply. The clarity of his children’s innocence and vulnerability caused him pain to realize how his sarcasm and anxiety had caused them pain. 

They made a pact, then and there, each member of the family would carry normal sunglasses in a stash in their traveling case and when someone began with the criticism, superiority, bashing the other, or creating a negative story line about the other parent or any of the other kids and family members, they would be handed a fresh pair of glasses. They would acknowledge the legacy from the past and the way they couldn’t see clearly with the other glasses. They would understand what those things Anxiety and Depression looked like and offer a hand to the others. 

They would see the world with clarity and know the meaning of love, kindness, compassion, community, and connection. They would do the best they could to hand those things down to the next generation. 

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . When Mothers Lose Perspective

We’re headed into summer and the negotiations over who is doing what and when and with whom. This is never a comfortable time and it’s often easier for a stepmother to put her head down and hope to ignore the situation. It’s impossible to ignore, the pain is there on the face of the child. The discomfort and shame is there in the way that child behaves at his father’s house.

This post is about acknowledging the pain and suffering on the part of everyone when mothers lose perspective. Mothers have incredible power and it’s confusing and damaging when they wield it inappropriately. There’s a toxic by-product of unsaid feelings, unexpressed concerns, and un-negotiated decisions. This wears on mothers themselves, on their exes, and the stepmother. Justifications over unresolved issues between the mother and father are not an excuse for a mother to bring her child into the middle.

I’ve heard enough mother stories  (the 44 women I know who are stepmothers) and the stories make my heart hurt. I hang on to these stories, hoping to soften them up, almost as if I could soften my heart to the story, then the mothers’ hearts could also be softened. 

English: Mother and child.

Mother and child. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I thought it would be appropriate to get really clear about the behaviors we’re talking about, because clearly there is a percentage of mothers who don’t behave this way. I bow down to the mothers like Rose who honors her ex-husband’s wife and actively supports her time with the boys. I think Melanie is a rock star for the way she helps her son work through his feelings about all his parents in a way that allows her son to love them all. 

While I don’t have easy solutions, I always have hope, the hope a mother or two might look at this list and agree, it’s time to find another way of interacting.

First, mothers do these low-grade-but-undermining-over-time things often enough to be considered “all the time,” according to my sources: 

  • Fail to communication, decisions made without consulting the father of the children. 
  • Use kids, regardless of their age, as couriers to communicate with the father of the children, and then claim she doesn’t like that style. 
  • Subtly undermine the child’s time with the father. 
  • Badmouth and bash the father and/or the stepmother with the innocence of someone who believes she isn’t doing any damage. 
  • Make half-hearted attempts to extend communication and respect to the father of the children and his wife/partner, just enough to profess being communicative. 
  • Behave as though there is no (legitimate) home for the child other than her own. 
  • Behave as though the child comes from one side of the family. 

Second, mothers do these medium-grade-obstructionisms frequently, things which often have a direct impact on the other household: 

  • Be permissive, not following through on limits, and then blame the father for being too permissive. 
  • Change plans at the last minute and not including the other adults (step-parents) in the communication.
  • Allow children to do things that are illegal (drinking and drugs) and then complain the father and stepmother are too strict.
  • Have strategy conversations with the father and reach agreements about the issues, but discuss the agreements with the child before the three get together. 

And, finally, mothers do these high-grade-interference-and-shaming-for-the-child things more often than we read in the news: 

  • Involve teachers, other parents, and relatives in the disputes between the parents. 
  • Include the child in private negotiations/conversations between the adults, and using shaming language to demonstrate a position of power and paint a picture of one parent loving the child more than the other. The child is asked to choose the “good” parent.  
  • Repeatedly take the father to court and behave as though he is a deadbeat dad when he is responsibly caring for his children. 
  • Attack the stepmother in public, verbally or physically, whether or not the children are present. 

I keep wondering what life would be like, not just for the stepmothers and mothers but for the children, if mothers stopped doing these behaviors. I keep wondering how the quality of life for her child would improve if he or she could move freely between homes and not have to carry the censorship and worry over lost love and approval. 

These behaviors represent the worst part about divorce. 

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Yours? Mine?

This business of what’s mine? As if I can only love what’s mine and therefore if it’s not mine, I’ll make it mine so I can love it. And, I’ll ignore everything and everyone that isn’t mine, as if I have no responsibility to the community around me.

Or, I’ll force the situation or the person to be otherwise and then it’ll feel and be mine.

The kids belong to the blood, or so the story goes, and so the legal beagles declare they are not the stepparent’s.

As if kids are possessions.

The mother label gives license. The father label gives license, but less than the mother license. As if it takes one or the other of these licenses to help a human grow to maturity.

No, you can’t drive him to school, you’re not the mom.

No, the volunteers in the class will be moms and dads, not stepparents.

Huygens and his children (property of the Maur...

Huygens and his children (property of the Maurits Huis, The Hague) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The message of kids belonging to parents gets repeated until the echo of it bounces off the inner rooms of a child’s mind and she can’t escape.

The sense of belonging to the parent grows so strong, the simple act of being nice to another person creates internal conflict for the child. Much simpler to simply avoid.

We’ve got it all screwed up.

See, he’s not mine. She’s not mine. No human is mine. Not even my dearest husband. Nothing is yours either, but I won’t argue with you if you can’t see it. You’ll get there one day.

Regarding this not-mine person, I see how easy it is to warp the innocence of the caring, giving, generous child. Have you noticed children begin with that innocence? But, they learn what they see and live with and they want to please. It takes awareness and consciousness and purposeful conversations to keep from walking straight into the trap of raising an egocentric, worried-if-I’ll-get-mine adult.

How do we build a world where the lines of mine begin to blur?

How do we allow a community to raise a child?

How do we let go of our clutchiness?

How do we accept that nothing is ours that won’t be buried with us when we die?

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(Note: I shouldn’t need to write a note, but I live in a stepfamily. Inevitably, someone will read and think I’m talking about my personal family and that something has happened that has needed this blog post as a response to that event. In fact, the subject of this blog post has been on my mind for some time now. Caring for my father and the complicated questions of who shows up to help me has been the impetus for me to write about the possessiveness, or lack of it, among humans. We claim as ours when it is convenient and then deny and make reasons for not showing up when that serves us well. And it goes both ways, parent to child and child to parent. Most of all, I wanted to highlight the messiness of it and how often we behave as though completely disconnected from the truest intentions of our hearts.)

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . walks into the elder future of stepfamilies.

Between my husband and I, we have three different versions of walking a path with our elders.

In my family, with my mother long deceased, I care for my father with some help from one brother and with two other siblings who want nothing to do with him. I have a stepfather who remarried and we struggle to stay in contact, so I worry about him. In my husband’s family, he is an only child to his mother and has two stepsiblings who have faded from the picture after their father died. My husband also has a his half-sister and they work well together to support and advocate for my husband’s father and stepmother.

No doubt, there are many other versions of adult child of divorce roles but these three examples give a peek into the future of what our stepfamilies will be like as we age up.

Consider this . . . most adult children of divorce have TWO sets of parents. They might then marry another adult child of divorce, who also has TWO sets of parents, and immediately there are FOUR sets of parents to care for within a family. This isn’t often the thought on your mind when you walk down the aisle. Typically, we’re distracted with worrying whether the children will like us or whether one of the kids will make a scene at the reception because he or she is angry that their father is getting married.

My father has lived with my husband and I for three months now after his discharge from stroke rehabilitation. As he stabilized enough to move to a more independent living situation, my father-in-law suffered a heart attack and an emergency double-bypass. Then, as my father-in-law went home with my stepmother-in-law to recover, my mother-in-law had a relapse of a chronic pain condition and needs more support.

I am grateful for each one of these elders in my life and this is not a whine. I have zero complaints about putting things down and helping them have a better quality of life. It would certainly be easier if they all lived in my town, but we are beginning to explore options for long-distance contacts. They each have an iPad and we have recently discovered Cozi, an online calendar management system.

If two and three and four sets of parents is the norm in the typical stepfamily, what kind of assistance will we adult children need in order to support and advocate for our parents? I know first-hand the feeling of stress and distress when a parent struggles and suffers. Double the number of parents, double the stress. Or, quadruple the parents, and there you go. You never know if you’ll be the one holding the caregiver bag or the one high-tailing it because you just discovered you’ve got no stomach for it.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . lays down the blame.As far as I can see, the elder end of the spectrum contains fundamental issues we might never have considered in the early years of our stepfamilies. In the early years of many a stepfamily, the primary stressor is typically the relationship with the ex-spouse. As the kids become teens and the elders get . . . well, older or elder, or whatever you want to call the process, the primary issue becomes exponentially complicated.

Based on my experience with my father, it is a full-time job to attend to closing a life and rebuilding another one. As a power-of-attorney, I am on-call. Multiply by two more for my husband and we’ve got our life focus for the next many years. Maybe you don’t plan to participate in the care of your elders, but my husband and I understand this is a part of our lives. It just is.

We’ve joked that we need our own adult care home, which we could do in our state. We would get screened by the federal government and fingerprinted and separated from those who’ve committed crimes. After that, we’d be able to care for our own elders in our own home. We have enough elders to easily fill an official foster home, but our current home wouldn’t fit them all and they don’t get along. But, if they did, we could save a great deal on resources, especially time, energy, and the emotional cost of running from home to home.

Years ago, one of my stepkids had a school assignment to draw a dream house and label the rooms in Spanish. The resulting dream home had a room for all the siblings and each parent, on different floors. There was recognition of the parents not being married and evidence of the deep yearning to have everyone under one roof.

Today, I wish I could build that house. I know if I were in the situation I’m imagining could solve so many problems, I likely wouldn’t want to live with my husband’s ex, but I also see what the future holds for our kids when they grow older and it’s our turn to be the elders. They will be pulled emotionally in two, three, or four different directions.

This world of ours is definitely complicated. Not just because we are living longer, but because we haven’t figured out how to live in community. Truly honest, “I-wish-you-well,” community. If we did, well, my stepkid’s dream house wouldn’t be so far-fetched.

We can take on this walking-the-path with our elders as a burden, or we can release all the expectations that set us up for thinking being around old people is a traumatic experience. Sure, I get frustrated with my dad. As he gets better and thinks he’s independent, he wants to have more say. The problem is, he isn’t independent and  needs help, always. There’s a complication in that, for sure.

Most of the time, I’m the one who’s gaining. I’ve gained a deeper understanding of my family, a respect for what my dad has been through in life, and clarity about what it means to show up for someone even when you don’t like what is going on.

There are so many things we have yet to sort out about being in a stepfamily in our culture today, no wonder it’s easier to play the blame-the-stepmother (or father, or ??, fill in the blank) game.

I’m learning that despite how traumatic the early stepfamily years seem, they were just the beginning of the story.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . where stepmothering begins and ends.

When my husband and I brought my Dad to live with us in May, I knew I was in for some big changes. I’m the primary caregiver and the one who gets up with him at night. Which is not a complaint, more to paint the picture.

After about a week had passed, I thought, “oh wow, this is just like bringing home a baby. No wonder mothers are tired.”

I’m writing here today to say, nope, nothing could be further from the truth. Bringing a parent home to live with you is nothing like bringing home a baby.

The fact that you brought the baby into the world is what makes being a mother different that daughtering your aging parent. I did not bring my father into the world. He lived for 25 years before I was born. For the next 20 years, he was a close part of his children’s lives, helping raise us with ideas of how we could be confident and capable adults if we had certain lessons. Then, my parents divorced and from the age of 38 onward to 77, he lived mostly alone listening to his own muse as to what he did with his time.

English: Father and daughter with early Easy B...

English: Father and daughter with early Easy Bake Oven, which resembled a conventional oven. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then, a few months ago, he suffered a stroke and came to live with me.

Now, he needs someone to cook for him, someone to help him get dressed, someone to bathe him, and someone to walk with him in case he loses his balance. He also needs a cheerleader and recreational therapist. On those fronts, he’s in good hands. We get him out and about and involved in our community. We live on a street with close relationships to our neighbors and they love visiting with him. My brother visits as often as his out-of-town job allows.

Within all those parameters is a space in which my father and I navigate the past, the present, and the worry for the future. Indeed, I could lay down some sort of house rules that might work for me, but he is an adult and though he’s had a stroke, he isn’t incompetent. He isn’t confused and he isn’t demented.

Earlier, I was setting up his computer in his room and thinking about what podcasts he might enjoy since he can’t read any more because of stroke-related vision problems, I could feel that I was in danger of once again deciding how something for him.

And that is the moment the whole issue became relevant to being a stepmother. Bringing my father home and helping him has turned out more like being a stepmother than being a mother.

Working with my father to encourage without pushing, offering opportunities to exercise without over-controlling, providing healthy meals without being boring, and establishing a daily routine without dictating have all been a delicate dance. I am so reminded of my concerns that the kids weren’t getting enough sleep, or that they were eating too much sugar, or that I wanted them to pick up after themselves. It didn’t matter how sensible my ideas were, they met with the evil eye of who do you think you are to tell us what to do?

So, today when my dad was finishing the lunch our new caregiver had made for him, he was telling her that sometimes he wanted to sleep in and around here that was impossible.

“What about this morning?” I insisted.

“Oh, that? That’s not sleeping in.” He exclaimed. “I’m talking about sleeping until I wake up.”

Ha, helping him navigate his new life is exactly like being a stepmother. Except it’s not.

Today, as I headed out to the store, he reached out and beckoned me close. He bestowed an earnest hug and told me he loved me and appreciated me.

Right there, the similarity to stepmothering ended.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . meets a kindred stepmother.

I met a stepmother a few months ago that immediately caught my attention because her story is so like my own. The ages of the kids. The age she was when she got married. The issues that clung like moss to the divorced couple, moss that resisted the scrubbing and sprinkling of moss remover.

My new stepmother friend, Alice, sent me email last week saying that she was dreading Mother’s Day. We met up for a walk and she told me her story.

When Alice met Mister-one-day-to-be-her-husband, his children had various reactions. The eldest wanted nothing to do with her, but the youngest became her buddy. The youngest opened her heart and wanted to connect. And connect they did. They played games together, they rode bikes together, they swam together, often with Mister-one-day-to-be-her-husband, often on their own.

After my new friend and her lovely man married, the great vibes continued between her and the youngest stepchild. In fact, they became great pals. The child learned that Alice was her champion and advocate. She understood she could talk to her about anything and there was safety in that conversation. Alice was careful to not take over the mom stuff and she listened respectfully but without criticism over the years.

Choosing: painting by first husband, George Fr...

Choosing: painting by first husband, George Frederic Watts, c. 1864 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alice had read that children will go through a questioning of the relationship with the stepmother at each phase of development and as if on cue, at age 13, her stepdaughter acted haughty and rejecting of Alice. She complained that Alice was telling her what to do, when the week before she had cooperated eagerly. From there on, their relationship went downhill.

Alice looked sad when she told me that early in the marriage her youngest stepchild had also, spontaneously and without urging from her father, insisted on stepmother celebrations on the weekend after Mother’s Day. But, for the last three years not only was there no stepmother celebration, there was no acknowledgement of any kind. Oh, the kids were polite enough when they were around Alice but they kept their feelings to themselves, unless they were complaining about something they didn’t like.

Alice told me her heart felt heavy and she felt as if she had to hide her feelings for the kids. It was as if somehow a huge cord that tied them to their mother’s home was reinforced and strengthened, almost like the umbilical cord still existed, and they were afraid their mother would know if they had been nice to Alice. Alice carried her hurts and the hurts of witnessing her husband as he was also marginalized and pushed out, little by little, from the kids’ lives. She said her husband kept a great attitude, determined his relationship was not going to be defined by what anyone else did or said.

Alice told me she felt better after we walked and talked and this morning she sent me a note to say she’d survived Mother’s Day, intact of body, mind, and spirit. I was glad for her sharing since I’ve felt many of those things, not in that order and not exactly like that, but similar in the sense of having a close relationship and then losing it because others couldn’t afford to let the closeness outside their group exist.

The issues are many, the process intricate and delicate. And, maybe the only cure for these loyalty binds is time. I know several stepmothers whose stepchildren are in their late 20s and 30s and the relationship has softened. The stepchildren can share their feelings because they live outside the shadow of the mother. The children feel safer and more adept at having their own feelings and the umbilical cord is thinner or has dissolved. Maybe those adult children understand they are honoring their father when they behave appropriately with his wife. Maybe they become mature enough to understand that caring and showing it to someone else in no way detracts from the love they have for their mother. It shouldn’t be an either/or. It could be an and.

So, here’s to time. Time and another day. Any day is just that, another day. Alice keeps herself together because she has learned to appreciate many different kinds of moments and not make a big deal out of the ones that aren’t stellar. She’s getting very good at it and her happiness level has skyrocketed.

I want to be just like her.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Goats and advice for a child.

My husband and I are not regular TV or movie watchers, but we occasionally enjoy a couple of movies in a row on Netflix. On Saturday evening, we watched Jesus Henry Christ on the recommendation of a friend. We liked it, so after the movie was done and there was Goats in the Netflix cue, we looked at one another, grinned, and pushed Play.

Goats, stars Graham Phillips as Ellis, a 15-year-old boy who secretly applies to the same prep school his father attended. When he gets accepted and moves there, there is an opportunity for him to establish a relationship with his father, a relationship his mother Wendy, played by Vera Farmiga, has successfully obstructed for Ellis’ entire life.

Ellis has taken care of his mother’s affairs, paying the bills and running the house for some years and Wendy is distraught at the thought of him leaving. Wendy can’t stand the thought of her son being in a close relationship with his father. In fact, when Ellis spends Thanksgiving with his father and begins to get to know him, she turns on her son and accuses him of being just like his father, a man she has publicly damned over and over in front of Ellis.

Feral goat in Aruba

Feral goat in Aruba (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The character of Wendy saddened me. I know of children in Ellis’ situation who spend their childhood taking care of a mother or a father, emotionally and for years. The movie realistically depicted the manipulation that can go on in parent-child relationships. At one point, Wendy is sitting on the kitchen floor sobbing, “I’m a mother, I miss him like I miss a part of myself.” Several weeks later, when Ellis comes home for Christmas, she doesn’t say hello and profess her love, instead she yells at him for not calling her more often.

My own father behaved much like Wendy did. He was less blatant, more sneaky. He didn’t call my mother names, he simply talked about how afraid she was and how being afraid kept her from living and making decisions. He built up a story that took on mythic proportions. Gradually, over the years of me building up a greater understanding of what my mother went through living with my father, I came to understand why she behaved as she did and how much he used discrediting her to his advantage so he would look good for us kids.

Several times during the movie, I wanted to shout to Ellis, “ask her to be quiet, ask her to speak kindly about your father.” But then I remembered it took me until I was 48 to ask my father to stop. Ellis is just 15 in the movie, so instead of telling her to be quiet, he seizes an opportunity to spend the summer with his dad as his way to get away from his mother. I know it was just a movie, but I wanted to take Wendy aside and say to her, “If you keep on this way, you’ll lose him. At some point you need to quit manipulating and start acknowledging he’s his own person.”

So, today, I’m suggesting to teens and young adults who have one parent who bashes the other parent with verbal insults, or an eye roll every time a father is mentioned, or story-telling that keeps the other parent in an unfavorable light. I recommend you not wait until you are 48 to ask your parent to speak kindly of the other parent. I recommend you find a way to ask now.

I wish I had asked my dad to stop insulting my mom about 20 years ago.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the holy grail of success.

I saw an article the other day on how to be a successful stepmother. I nearly spit out my coffee. Success? How about keeping good manners and being respectful. Is that what they meant by success? How about loving your husband when you want to slug him because he doesn’t get why you feel left out in a particular family situation? Is that what is meant by success?

Nope. The article was about the things a stepmother could do to make the family better, good, healthy. As if the stepmother has that power dripping from her every word and move.

After I got done brewing and stewing about the meaning of success and the pressure it puts on any person, mothers, fathers, stepmothers, I decided to break in on my weekly blog routine and write this post.

I want us to stop killing stepmothers. We need to find ways to support them, in the same way we support mothers. Why? Super simple, stepmothers are part of the current family structure in our United States. Stepmothers are here to stay, growing in numbers every month, every year, and every decade. To not support stepmothers, or anyone else in a family, is to not support the family. As if to say, it doesn’t matter if the trauma continues.

We know that if our water quality is good enough the fish can survive. We know that if the air quality is good enough the birds can survive. We also know if our stepfamily community is strong enough the stepmother has a better chance of being healthy.

Healthy is different from successful. Healthy is free from anxiety or depression and other medical conditions. Wednesday Martin reports in Stepmonster that stepmothers are twice as likely as mothers to have depression. If the general population has a 20% incidence of anxiety and depression (according to the Centers for Disease & Prevention), yikes!

So, it’s frustrating to me to read headlines like Top 10 Tips to Become a Successful Stepmother. I just made that one up, but there are plenty like it.

What is success? Success for a woman? Success for a stepmother? Success for a stepfamily? And is the stepmother responsible for the success of the stepfamily?

What if success is getting up in the morning? Putting the milk and oatmeal on the table? Contributing to the group effort such as driving the kids to and from events? Partnering with the hubs to create a positive environment in the home regardless of whether the kids spend more than a couple of hours a week.

Success might be a measure of whether the marriage stays a marriage. And then, is that the stepmother’s responsibility? By herself? Where are the articles to the fathers, Top Ten Tips to Keep Your Spouse Engaged When Your Children Aren’t Hers. Or, 5 Reasons It Takes A Village To Support a Stepmother. And for the rest of the family and extended family, Three Ways to Support a Mother by Supporting a Stepmother.

See, this is the dirty secret . . . we, as a culture, have given permission for every divorced couple to take all of the grief and sorrow and strife and unresolved angst that follows divorce and ball it up into a giant overly-sodden spitball, so large it would sink a battleship, and lay it at the feet of the stepmother and say, okay honey, now climb on over that. If she can and if she does, and if she gets to the other side and her hairdo and makeup are intact and her clothes neatly pressed enough that she could be on the cover of a magazine, well then, we miiiiiiight consider including her in the club called family.

Everyone knows that spitballs won’t hold her weight. Everyone knows that each step she takes is to sink into a pit of nothing, almost like quicksand. Everyone knows the gauntlet laid out for her is impossible to complete and she’s going to be haggard, irritable, and anti-social by the time she’s done. It’s pretty likely she can’t accomplish the task and that’s precisely why it’s been given to her. So, can you see how asking about success is a set-up?

Rather than worrying about being successful, let alone a successful stepmother, I hope a woman will be engaged enough to find ways to be content within herself and connected to her husband. I hope she will be healthy enough to take care of her emotional pain in ways that calm her heart and don’t over-burden the relationship. I hope she will be open enough to confess her pain in a way that allows her husband to witness, but not have to rush in the knight-in-shining-armor behavior.

I hope she finds her verve and her passion for life.

And, the measure of her life? That will come later, much later, after the kids have grown and gone and are living lives they’ve created for themselves and she and her husband have long become content with sitting side by side, just the two of them. In those moments when she’s looking at the man she chose over and over, the one she shared years of tears, joys, and adventures with, she’ll have the opportunity to gauge the satisfaction in her heart and decide how her life has ripened. Even then, it’s not about others telling her whether she was a success and it’s not about her winning.

It’s about having been there, and she was there.

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