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 Peace

A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Peace

Where is the peace? Show me the peace.

I’m looking, always looking for peace. Finding ways to make things easier, better, smoother, less complicated, more obvious. All for peace.

Full of that desire and motivation, I took my husband’s hand and entered into my stepfamily.

Squish.

The sound of peace under the boot heels of the past, the familiar past up against the cold and unknown future.

img_5902One day, I came face-to-face with an image of peace. As if I was expecting some grandmother rocking by the fire and telling stories while she handed out cookies. I can count the people I know who live that way, on less than one hand. 

These days, I can show you bits and pieces of peace.

I’m building a new image of peace as I go.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Being Good

I wonder if the remarried woman has more pressure on her to be a good wife than in a first marriage. I wonder if the stakes feel higher to be good because the odds of a remarriage succeeding are so dismal.

And how good does a good wife have to be? How good does a stepmother-wife have to be?

Does going from good wife to divorced woman have something to do with how mothers reach for their children? Is there something about reclaiming and emboldening the image of good mother that will somehow compensate for the loss of good wife? And if good mothers and good wives are good women, can there be two good women in an extended stepfamily? 

Is there a limited amount of good?

Is the label good necessary, is it automatic?

test-clip-art-7iakpmratI can argue no one needs it. Good feels like a set up for doing too much, for over-doing, and for over-extending. Good feels like a great way to start a competition.

Think of it. Someone needs to find that misplaced coat because the weather turned cold overnight and it’s raining outside. The child can’t walk to school in the cold without a coat. So someone must find the coat. Who jumps to go find the coat? 

And I wonder, is there more pressure to be the good stepmother from the children, more from the husband, or more from the ex-wife? Or are we trying so hard to prove we are worthy of this man because others lay claim to him as father, son, or ex-husband that we impose the good label on ourselves.

Do we feel we have to prove we are good enough to justify him marrying us in the first place? To justify him wanting his children to get along with us? To justify him trusting us enough to leave the children with us?

And so we bend, mold, flex, double-over, curl up, make ourselves smaller, make ourselves stronger, do more, be more, try to be prettier, try to solve all problems. We aspire to become female Macgyvers, able to do anything, be anywhere, and love anyone.

How do we decide who establishes the measure of a good stepmother? Who do we let apply this measure to us?

And finally, how is our good earned?

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Reflects on Anniversaries

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Reflects on Anniversaries

Happy Anniversary! My friend exclaimed as she got in her car to leave our lunch date. My husband and I had celebrated our tenth anniversary as a remarried couple over the weekend and my friend has been a staunch supporter of ours.

Happy Anniversary! The card arrived from my in-laws and my husband’s sister. They have been strong supporters of our marriage, opening the family circle to make space from the very first time they met me.

Friends and extended family, the ones intimate enough to know us, all congratulated us on our milestone, a decade. A decade is nothing in the life of my women’s circle. I’m the only one who’s been divorced and remarried. The rest of them have been married nearly forty years and counting.

When I say a decade is like thirty years in a remarriage, some of you know what I mean. You know there has been a lot of water under the bridge. You know the adjustments and integrations taking place. You know.

Ironically, our celebration is the anniversary of the death of the marriage my husband was in before me.

“For the child, the parents are always together.” Suzi Tucker, Constellations Facilitator, said these words as we worked through one woman’s story.

img_1243“Amen.” I said it to myself as I stood in the place of one of the woman’s children. I know this to be true from my own experience as a child and from my experience married to a man with children.

In the early years of my remarriage, it was difficult to respect a child’s perspective while so many emotions churned and the past loomed larger than the future. These days, now ten years into the married part, it feels less foreign.

“For the child, the parents are always together.” It makes more sense now that there have been more memories laid down that support a sense of community. The funny thing is, you can’t create those memories or supports immediately. It really does take time, years in fact. Seven to twelve years according to the experts.

And, that’s what settles my heart. No one is expected to get it right the first try. No one is to know what a child needs until that person knows and understands the child in a deeper way than one or two years brings. And no child is expected to know how to handle a new person in his or her life. There’s an evolution to relationships. There’s a developmental process to relationships.

For me, the evolution was in the letting go of every single expectation I had carried over the threshold with me. For me, it was in the letting myself off the hook for not being some superhero. Maybe that’s the title of a stepmother book, “No Superheroes Needed.”

Because there’s nothing to be saved.

I do mean that literally. No one needs saving. Sure, some people in the extended stepfamily might be misbehaving. Some of them might be misbehaving a lot. Still, in those chaotic and crazy moments when it seems the world has ended, you are an idea person, you are a problem-solver, and you are your spouse’s deepest support. But it isn’t yours to go wading into the fray and set the boundaries or fight the fires. You can do that together with your partner, but it isn’t yours to lead the way or make the definitions of what will be best for children that aren’t your own.

That’s the harsh part. That’s the part that makes us feel vulnerable. That’s the point where we want to stomp our foot and shake a fist to express our frustration with our disenfranchisement. It’s the part that makes us get on our high horse which isn’t the same as taking the high road.

There are no simple answers. There are no easy solutions. Some of us have husbands and partners who are not as good at solving these problems or at even acknowledging they exist. Some of us have partners who would rather bury their head in the sand and watch a child struggle than deal with an ex-spouse. And, some of us have husbands who do a great job of boundary setting and take care of the emotional work with their children and ex-partner. So many differences within families and no easy answers.

I hope you make it to the happy anniversary stage. I hope you wade and slog your way through those days that make you want to stay in bed. I hope the many edges of your self haven’t been chipped away so that you no longer recognize yourself. I hope you come out on the other side of that swamp with your heart intact and your marriage stronger.

I hope you find ways to soothe your feelings so you can take on less and less of the goings ons as a personal affront to you. This family was going to survive, or not, before you came along.

I hope you realize your priority is your relationship to that person to whom you said “I do.” 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Marries With Eyes Wide Open 

You knew what you were getting in for. You knew his ex was obsessed with controlling his house. You knew she felt bad for not caring for the kids and leaving them with you, enough that she made a scene to distract from the truth. You knew she had taken him to court once before. 

You also knew only the younger two kids were crazy about you. The older ones were standoffish and silent. 

Most of all, you knew you were crazy about this man who held your hand and said “I do” while he smiled into your eyes. 

To assume your innocence is to disempower you. To assume you were completely blinded is to discredit your intellect. You knew remarriage with children was going to be tough. 

You didn’t know how tough. 

You didn’t realize how strongly the mythology and cultural hatred of stepmothers would seep into your home and cover every surface with its sticky and cloying clutches. You didn’t know you’d never be able to move within your life without certain assumptions being made about you. 

You didn’t know no one would get to know you before they spread rumors about your opinions and behaviors. You didn’t know you needed a press agent. 


Most of all, you didn’t know marrying a man with children would be like a crash course on politics and mediation. You could not know how deeply your personal self would be negated nor the degree to which you didn’t matter. 

You couldn’t know until you knew. And it would take you some months, if not years to awaken to the knowing and understanding. 

You’d arise one day and go about your business and realize the extent of your patience. You’d find it in you to one more time to step away from confrontation and the possibility of leaving altogether.

You’d find out how much confidence you had in yourself when no one else showed any in you. You’d find out how tolerant you were and how able to stand in a strange culture without feeling invisible. 

You’d find out that you didn’t have to prove anything and that your stepchild thinking he or she made decisions was not the same as that child actually making them. You’d find out your willingness to make space for someone else and the difference between that and disappearing. 

If you are marrying or already married to a man with children, the gift available to you is to work with yourself and enter into your most spiritual existence, ever. To stay still, inside your own pain and suffering until the core of it shifts and you can see another way to live within it and not be it. Know you will find a way that works for you and not just for everyone else. 

This gift of seeing and being self, of respecting self, which I so highly recommend you take, has the potential to be liberating in a way nothing has liberated you before. 

If your energy goes into this process of growing awareness of who you are and what you bring to life, including this marriage, then you can benefit from the richness and live many happy years with this husband of yours with all the skills you’ll need to do anything. And I do mean anything. 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Gets Up Each Morning

Some days I wonder how we survive. Not to be melodramatic, but this business of getting up and getting kids off to school and greeting them when they come home and feeding them and educating them and getting them to the place of being able to go out into the world on their own in this day and age, this is emotionally challenging at best.

When this scenario plays out in a stepfamily, it’s nothing short of a miracle.

I wonder how fathers go to bed at night without an aching heart, I wonder how they hold an arm around the one who isn’t the mother of the children, seeing her pain and feeling her pain.

I can guess many a father would like to escape memories of the argument with the children’s mother. I know many a father who pushes those emotions down day after day to deal with Little League and driving lessons. I know many a father who is there, who shows up no matter what the children need.

I’ve heard from women who marry men with children with full knowledge remarriage is difficult at best. These same prepared, successful women are then knocked to their knees by the tidal wave of unbelonging. The wave is so high and so powerful, few stepmothers escape it regardless of background and family history. It’s a wonder more don’t run, it’s a wonder so many stay. Many a stepmother’s courage should be the subject of legend. 

Maybe you’re like me and you’ve spent many hours considering what it takes to be in this remarriage stewpot? You’ve wondered just what could be done to improve the situation because you intuitively know if the situation were better for fathers and stepmothers the situation would be better for the children and likely even the children’s mother. You’ve marveled at the strength of those who only have one strategy, the strategy of pushing out and pushing away.

Those stepmothers who stay in their remarriages have found a way to keep living in their skin, a way to stay rooted to their own experience and not be sucked into another person’s view of them. They have developed an ability to let things bounce off and fall away. They stay deeply connected to their resilience, that ability to not be sunk by any one event or even a whole bunch of events. They know how to stay afloat.

Ask a stepmother what she’s doing. Keeping the faith, or trying to do so. Focusing on her relationship with her partner/husband, or intending to do so. Feeling like a good person but not so much she feels like a slave, or hoping to do so. Because several things are true, she is not the mother. She is not responsible to replace the mother especially since the mother is likely alive and well. Even if she is the custodial stepmother, the marriage will be more successful if she isn’t automatically conscripted for a certain role in the child’s life. She should discuss this in-depth with her beloved and ease her way in rather than get sucked underwater. She knows that and sometimes she lets it slide when they don’t get around to the conversation. She might regret it later and even blame him for not taking the initiative.

She gets up and tries her best. Sometimes her best is too much and she can’t know that until it’s too late. Sometimes she gives and gives and leaves herself open. Sometimes she goes out on that limb and ends up falling or being pushed off.

Often she regrets giving too much.

Often she is exhausted. Often she can see her husband is exhausted.

Some days she wonders how she survives.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Holds Onto a Smoldering Gaze

My imagining of what it might be like to be the husband
of a stepmother. And, my dream of what each of
you finds at the end of your day. 

So many other days, he pushed and pulled and made things happen. They seemed like big things. He thought they were, but were they? Did they mean enough, matter enough, enough to match their sacrifice? Was it now that the sacrifice would be repaid, these days between the visits, these moments when there was stillness and his children needed him less?

He drove out of the airport parking garage and turned back toward home, feeling his contentment about letting them go. He remembered his own launch into the world and the feeling of support mingled with freedom and respect. He expected his kids to be okay, to make decisions and find their way. He readily gave them the same respect and freedom he had had, even as he recalled the time one of them needed his help and came back home. Things improved for a time and then fell apart again, and he mourned the pain and strain for them all.

Those days were all behind them now. The kids were strong and moving forward. He was lucky to be through it and find her still with him. She hadn’t run, though he could tell she had wanted to get the hell out and go someplace she was more welcome, at least a time or two. God, he wished he could give her that, a world where she was wanted. He could only do the wanting for himself and he wasn’t sure if one person made a world.

He pulled onto the parkway and shook his head. He couldn’t lie to himself though he’d be hard-pressed to admit it to her. On the days she was in pain and turned away from him in tears, he felt shame that he couldn’t protect her. After a couple of years, the shame morphed into regret and eventually it all seemed too much to watch. He found himself wishing she could ignore the way she was treated, even though he knew how unrealistic a wish that was.

FullSizeRender-5What made it so hard for her was her sensitivity and ability to read a situation, the same things he loved about her. He loved her wide open heart and he longed to build her a door she could close when others came into her nest and left behind their messes. It would be an ornate door, thick with curves, to match her physicality and complexity and all the things he loved about her.

He sighed as he passed the restaurant where they’d been a few times early in their courtship. If only he could protect her, take her pain away, shield her from the slinging tongues and tart retorts.

On some rare days, when she grew tired of closing herself off or forgot to contain herself, she moved freely among them and he loved to watch her then. On those days, she was her incredible, exactly-her self. On those days, his heart lifted at her courage and persistence and willingness to try it all again.

He smiled as he pulled in the driveway and turned off the car. He knew she was waiting and would greet him at the door. He knew he’d ignore her worried face and sweep her into his embrace.

And, it happened just the way he knew it would.

She flung open the door and buried her face in his neck. He whispered, “Now it’s just you and me.” He squeezed her close and she hugged him back, holding and swaying until their breaths became even and symmetrical.

They stood there, in the entry of their home, with the dog barking in circles of exclamations until he finally came to a sit at their feet. The greeting ritual worked like a magic, smoothing over hurts from the sideways looks and avoided glances. Like a soul salve, the hugging breath eased the pain and lowered the wall between her yearning for peace and his desire to stop the onslaught against her.

Eventually, after what seemed forever and probably not more than a few minutes, their embrace softened and eased until they swayed together ever so slightly. He brushed the hair off her forehead and she nuzzled his check and lips. Their eyes met in a warm gaze tinged with echoes of the smoldering gazes of earlier years, more seasoned now, if a weathered smoldering gaze could be a thing.

In that moment, for them, the gaze was all that mattered.

.