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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A Healthy Stepmother . . . knows reading or watching Brene Brown’s work is an act of self-soothing.

Some of you may know of Brene Brown and her fairly famous TED Talk on Vulnerability with almost 7 million views to date.

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And then, there was the amazing Whole-Hearted Parenting Manifesto.

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Finally, we have the fairly recent article on the Whole-Hearted Parenting Manifesto from the Huffington Post. It’s well-worth a read, as is Brene’s latest book, Daring Greatly.

If this feels like one huge endorsement, it’s because it is! I find her work helps me stay grounded. I feel so human and lovable when I read her messages, follow her blog, or watch a video of her talking. We are lucky to have researchers like her bringing work on vulnerability and shame out into the public eye.

Cheers, Brene Brown, from an appreciative fan!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . on advice about holidays.

In many ways, the holidays are simply our daily lives on steroids, an intensive twist for a month. So, whether it’s the physical doing, the emotional hurricane, or the worry exhaustion, it’s a good idea to start by getting grounded in the day-to-day with books like Stepmonster, Wednesday Martin, and The Happy Stepmother, Rachelle Katz (I wish the title was The Happy Enough Stepmother, less pressure). That said, Katz beautifully describes the difference between what stepmothers hope and a realistic expectation. Throughout the book she offers examples, and plenty of them. Thank you, we needed that!

English: "The First Thanksgiving at Plymo...

English: “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Advice about how to survive the holidays abounds. My favorites are from Wednesday Martin in her 10 Day Countdown to the Holidays from 2009. Start with Holiday Tip #1 and work your way through.

My holiday strategies from years past are herehere, and here (my favorite).

This year, I’d like to encourage you to ramp up the self-soothing to your maximum levels. Here in the U.S., we’ve just come through one of the most anxiety-provoking presidential races in our time and the general tone of daily life remains edgy, to say the least. Combine the traumatic events around the world with the growing list of folks we know who are losing jobs or looking, add a few major healthcare issues and a difficulty with an ex-spouse or a child, and the fact we’re doing as good as we’re doing is a minor miracle.

Maybe there are ways to streamline the holidays or do less, but we haven’t found them at our house. Every year, my husband and I think we will have fewer events, we will cook less, and we will worry less. We never do. It’s a complicated situation, we’re a stepfamily and he and I are both children of divorce. If we do less, we cut out our important people. That’s not going to happen.

So, we’ve become realistic. We’ve changed our expectations from having a great time to simply gathering and letting things go as they will. And really, the point of this post is to say that perfect holidays, whatever they are, are undefinable. What is perfect for one person is awful for someone else. In fact, we now deem a messy holiday that turns out fairly decent to be successful. There have been some that surprised us, when the kids insisted that we open our presents first and they paid close attention to our reactions. And, we stay connected in our hearts by working together to make the days and events what they are.

Given the difficulty society has with coping with stepfamilies, the difficulties stepfamilies have with coming to peaceful interactions, for us to hang on to the idea that we could somehow just be good enough or do things just-right enough for everyone to have a nice time . . . well, we decided to let that go. There was nothing left to do but increase self-care. My husband and I do that in different ways, but we support one another 100% in getting self-care needs met.

My strategy is to practice what I teach. Yesterday, my client reminded me of the first class she attended just before Thanksgiving a year ago. We were doing a lesson on posture and scanning the position of the head and legs and arms while lying on the floor. Not long after that class she found herself serving dinner to a houseful of relatives with all levels of closeness and difficulties. At one point, she realized she was struggling so she slipped upstairs to lie on the floor in her bedroom. Her husband came to find her about 10 minutes later. As he looked down at her, he asked her if she was doing okay. I am now, she replied.

I love her story and I use a number of strategies (see the self-soothing series). I love when slowing down, noticing posture, and becoming more aware of my physical nature calms me. It’s as simple as tracking my breath in and out. It’s as elegant as noticing where one foot is on the ground and if I am using the whole foot to support me in standing. It’s as obvious as wearing comfortable clothing and shoes so I can breathe and feel like the woman I know myself to be.

Maybe you won’t have time to go lie down on the floor. Maybe you won’t have time to lock yourself in the bathroom, stand against the door, and let your weight be held up by the door and your feet. Maybe you won’t be able to walk the dogs around the block and get some fresh air. But, maybe you can imagine you are breathing. Maybe you can imagine you are walking tall.

As soon as you imagine yourself with tall posture, full breath, and a calm voice, you’ll notice that not so much later, those things are there, for real.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the pursuit of winning.

I’ve been a fan of the Oregon State Beavers since I entered the school as a freshman in 1978. This year, for the first time in over a hundred years, the football team has a winning record, 6-0. You can sense the struggle and heartache this team has been through and the Oregon State fans are some of the most die-hard fans you’ve every met, they keep showing up for their team even when they lose.

It’s this winning season that caused me to reflect on all those years of losing and how winning and losing have a lot to do with the stepfamily experience.

Early in my re-marriage, there was a palpable tension that I didn’t understand. As I observed what was going on, and sorted through the politics, it became apparent there was some fairly serious competition going on in our extended stepfamily.

I also noticed that in stepfamilies I knew, there was often one parent vying to be the winner. Sometimes, both parents fought for the winning spot in their child’s attention. Other times, a stepparent edged into the competition. In other families, there was an all-out covert campaign, with regular one-upping. Or, more passively, one parent putting the other parent down in an effort to discredit them. There was even a parent who needed to be needed so badly she set up situations where she appeared as a winner.

I re-evaluated the place I held and engaged with my stepfamily for the umpteenth time. I re-evaluated my sense of needing to do or fix something or make things better. I emerged from the deep-dive committed to laying down my end of the tug-of-war which I wrote about in this blog post.

It turns out stepping away from the competition was the best thing I’ve done in this stepmother journey.

When I’ve suggested as much to a couple of friends, they responded, “but, ___ “ and the list of complaints and worries went on, clearly they were tormented by the feelings they had inside. They weren’t ready to end the tug-of-war, not yet.

There are apparently some stepfamilies where the parents in the two homes work together closely and there is not a competition. I take my hat off to them. If you can do that and it works and there isn’t resentment from any of the parents, then bravo.

That is not the case in 90% of the stepfamilies I know. In most cases, a great outcome would be if the parents largely left each other to their own devices and didn’t interfere with one another. Instead, we see competitions that focus on making sure the child shows loyalty and emotional attachment.

If you’re in one of the 90% of stepfamilies I’m familiar with, you can gauge whether you’re caught up in even a low-level competition by your responses to a few issues. If you find yourself stewing on what the kids’ mother wore today and how awful it was, you’re in competition. If you feel gleeful that you got to spend more time with the child, that’s competition. If you feel angry when your way of doing something is criticized, “my mom doesn’t do it like that,” that’s a pretty good sign you see yourself in competition.

It’s a tough thing to let go of, this competition. While there are cases to be made for competition and I’m so glad my football team keeps getting up every day and playing the game, a stepfamily is not a game or a competition. A stepfamily is a haven, a healthy environment, and a resource for all the people who take shelter there.

I decided that I could let go of my competitiveness and comparisons and stay focused on that haven-healthy-resource future with my husband, a future that very, very often looks like we’re not winning. From the outside, it often looks like we are losing. But we know we’re not, we get up each day and give it our best, sometimes with good results and sometimes ho-hum results. Occasionally, something happens that confirms for me that this life is a process and even though it’ll never be exact or fair or even or equal, it’s a great life and we do indeed have a haven-healthy-resource thing going on.

I’m on board with my hubby and OSU Coach Riley. Neither one of them yells to inspire people. They go with and support and encourage. It works for them and it’s working for me. My blood pressure is down (just kidding, I didn’t have high blood pressure, it just felt like it) and my heart is at peace. I don’t like everything I see and I can get riled up a bit from time to time. I’ve also been known to stick my nose in during an emergency and I stand by that and would do it again in a heartbeat. But, overall, we’re moving in the right direction, toward a positive experience, a healthy environment, and a haven-resource for us all.

Just like my OSU football team, we’ve hung on to our vision of the future and we keep working toward it even on days when the pace is glacial and we wonder what it’s all for. Then, we look up and find ourselves in the thick of this life we share with his kids.

That is winning.

Mothers Day Madness

I’m the first to admit that Mother’s Day is not my favorite day. It’s been 28 years since I sat with my mother on what was her last Mother’s Day, reading her cards while she listened, gaunt and shrunken

Mothers' Day Cake crop

Mothers’ Day Cake crop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

with cancer. She died three weeks later, exhausted from her years-long battle with melanoma.

What do you give to the mother who is dying? You give the only thing you can give, your love. And, you show your love by giving your time. You sit with her when a thousand things are going on in life that need attention, but this is the place you are needed. You keep her in her home and bathe her and brush her dentures until they no longer fit her mouth. You swallow your pride and your fear and you walk into the room where the nurse will instruct you in giving the shots that will keep her comfortable. That is the only other gift you can give, your promise to take good notes and keep her comfortable.

This year, nearly 30 years after my mother died, I went to find Mother’s Day cards for the mothers in my life, my mother-in-law and stepmother-in-law. I care for both of these women. I respect them and they both care deeply for my husband.

I stood there reading the cards and after the 3rd or 4th card, I became paralyzed. The cards I read made me sick to my stomach.

Thank you for making me the person I am today. Everything I am I owe to you. Really, seriously, we are completely negating the daughter or son to take advantage of what life has offered up and we transfer all the honor and credit to the mother. Really?

I thought of my own mother and what she might have sacrificed. Indeed, she had stayed married to my father when apparently she really wanted to leave. Was that the model I was supposed to choose? 

The cards that defined what a mother was were just as appalling.

A mother is kind, gives unconditional love, always patient, never harsh, always knows the just right thing to say, and on and on and blah, blah, blah. I thought of how my mother was depressed and unable to convey what we kids meant to her. Was that the part that I was to honor, was that what made me strong? 

As I read, I became more upset. The Mother’s Day cards were like judgments. They were judgments of what a mother is supposed to be and what she is supposed to live up to. As if once she met all the requirements, she’d be considered a good woman. What an enormous amount of pressure. My own mother struggled with that pressure and I’d rather she had been less of a June Cleaver and just yelled at my dad, back the eff off! I’d have cheered for her.

Instead, she’s gone and there’s no fantasizing about what I want to say to her, I’m stuck with fantasizing about what I could have said.

That day, in the store, I read the Mother’s Day cards and wondered, w.ho wrote the questions? Were they written by children (albeit adult children) who hope their mother would behave that way? Were they written by the mothers themselves who wanted their children to put them on a pedestal. Either way, I was grossed out. What a lot of unmeetable expectations.

I had no idea I was so upset until I read my friend Stacey’s Facebook post:

“Being a mother is about dealing with strengths you didn’t know you had and dealing with fears you didn’t know existed.” Credited to Linda Wooten.

I even wrote on Stacey’s wall, something to the effect of “at least that’s better than the crap on the Mother’s Day cards.” There were no more comments and even Stacey didn’t respond. I deleted my comments and went to ponder more.

In my pondering, I realized that I was very disturbed. I’ve never met a perfect woman and I’ve never met a perfect mother. That’s no insult to all the good women and good mothers out there. Good is different than perfect, please note the distinction. In fact, good is better than perfect. Perfect is a desperate woman trying to please everyone else. Good is a mother who models for her child that a woman is not perfect. In a much looooonger post I could describe a good mother, but here I’ll just say, she’s not going to be found in a greeting card.

You might read this post and think I’m still grieving my mother. That would be true. Regardless of your age when you lose your mother, physically or emotionally, you still want more time with her.

You might read this post and think that a mother should live up to a high standard, one step below being an angel. I assure you, that’s your fantasy speaking to you and your embrace of the modern myth that women should and could be all things to all people, if they just wanted to be.

Being a woman has nothing to do with the greeting card fantasy that we are all-knowing, all-seeing, or all-doing. We make messes, we clean them up. We support others, sometimes we let them down. It is almost impossible for a woman to fix today’s world, but we’ll likely die trying.

I suggest we ease up on what we think a mother should be. What if we let her figure it out for herself and accept that maybe she doesn’t want or need to be a stereotype? Yeah, what if?

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