A Healthy Stepmother . . . and a Tale of a New Stepmother

The other day I was writing a little story and decided it didn’t make it to THE BOOK. So, you get to enjoy it now. The stories in the upcoming tales for stepmothers will be slightly more complex, but this one felt worthy of sharing.

You’ll Learn
by Kim Cottrell

Eliza met and married Davis, the man of her dreams. They had everything in common, except children. She had none and he had five.

Davis was open with her before they married, his kids were a handful, even more some days. Undaunted and energetic, a professional who’d met many a challenge, Eliza didn’t bat an eye. She was an excellent partner to Davis and she knew she’d be an excellent companion for his children, once they got to know her.

The kids fell in love with Eliza, just as she predicted. They each found something to liKe about her and she shrugged off Davis’ concerns.

Then, Eliza and Davis married and left on a honeymoon. When they returned, they walked in the door of a whole new world filled with angry stares, refusals to say hello, invitations turned down. Genuine snubbing indeed.

Eliza thought the kids would calm down after a bit, but it only got worse. The kids sat between her and Davis. They kept him occupied and only spoke to him. The oldest ones ignored her and the youngest ones had a tantrum.

Just when Eliza thought it couldn’t get any worse, Davis’ ex-wife decided to move and she asked if Davis would take the kids for the summer.

Davis was overjoyed. He’d get to spend a summer with all his kids. He floated through his days at the thought of spending more time with the kids.

Eliza agreed, on one condition, as if she had any bargaining power. There would be rules. Rules that would need to be followed. Hesitantly, Davis agreed. Sort of. What he really said was they’d need to take a look and see what was best. But, that’s not what Eliza thought he said.

The kids moved in, tumbling over one another with their things and sleeping here and there and shoes strewn and clothing tossed. Within twenty minutes of their arrival they had achieved takeover. Eliza pasted a grin on her face and bravely made her way until dinner.

The next morning she went to work and forgot about her stepchildren. She got wrapped up in some meetings and almost forgot the kids lived at her house, until she was on the way home. On an impulse, she stopped and picked up two large pizzas to take home.

When she walked in the door with the pizza, the five kids descended on her, grabbing pieces of pizza and eating as they stood right in front of her.

“Stop.” Eliza yelled. “Stop. It is polite to say hello. In our house we say hello.” Her face got red and the kids stared at her.

Davis walked out of the kitchen. He said, “What’s up?”

Eliza burst into tears and retreated to the bedroom. The kids shrugged and ate their pizza.

That Saturday, Eliza put her foot down. Over bacon and eggs and pancakes, she insisted they do chores and clean up the house. The kids looked at their plates and at their Dad. Davis asked her what the top priorities were. She pulled out her list.

The blank stares that met her told her the plan was unpopular, but she insisted. “We need the house tidied up. This is important.” Eliza might as well have stomped her foot. About half the chores got done and the kids had disappeared by the time Eliza checked back from cleaning the garage.

Davis had the great idea to go to the beach and the kids excitedly jumped up and down. They loved the trip to the beach. They all piled in the van and drove the two hours to the beach. When they arrived the first thing they always did was get an ice cream at the Dairy Delight on the way into town.

A Healthy Stepmother...Draws Her Chalk BoundaryAs they pulled off the highway, Eliza said, “We can’t do this, we need lunch first. This is dessert before dinner and this isn’t healthy. Let’s go have dinner and come back.”

From the back seat, the youngest meekly said, “This is what we always do, this is tradition.”

But Eliza got louder and more insistent and her face turned red again. She drown out the kids and Davis turned the car around and drove to the beach. They walked and had lunch and when it was time to go, they all piled in the car to head home.

As they passed the Dairy Delight, Eliza said, “Wait, we need ice cream.”

In unison, the kids said, “We’re full.”

Davis drove on home.

Eliza went on in this way, seeing something that needed doing, doing it. Setting boundaries. Establishing order.

The kids weren’t bad kids, they could have argued, but they just got silent. The only rebuttal they had was to not engage with her, to pretend she didn’t exist.

Eliza drew more lines. The kids withdrew further.

Davis put up his hands when Eliza told him of one more thing she wanted changed. Eliza thought her heart would break. She thought she was being helpful. She thought she was contributing. She saw a need and she had stepped into the role of taking care of it.

Alone.

No one else was playing the chore game with her.

The last day of summer vacation came and the kids went home to live with their mother.

The house was quiet. Yes, it was also strewn with wrappers, drink bottles, and dirty plates, but it all echoed for the lack of voices and activity. Eliza cleaned up the living room, then the bathroom. She tidied and vacuumed and before long there was order.

And silence.

One day, Davis took the kids to a movie. Eliza had other plans. She got home to an empty house and cried.

Davis came home and saw her swollen eyes. He hugged her and held her. She cried more.

She woke the next day knowing she’d built the box she now lived in, no contact, no family group, all orderly, all neat and tidy and quiet and empty.

It took Eliza a week to figure out she wanted something different. She got the makings for a nice dinner and sat down with Davis and made a request. “Teach me. Show me. What’s your strategy with the kids. Tell me how you do this juggling act.”

Davis looked at her and raised an eyebrow. Then he grinned. “It’s pretty simple. Everyone has a vote. I listen. I prioritize everything else over a clean house. And, gradually, we build tradition.”

“Remember the hot dogs we had for Christmas.” He grinned wider. “Even they are now tradition. And they love it so much.” He went on. “You’ll get the hang of it and you don’t have to drive all the time. You can sit in a seat on the sideline and share and go second or third or sometimes last because someone has to be last and you and I take turns going last so the kids don’t have to. We fill the water bowl and let them drink. We fill the food bowl and let them eat.”

He paused and looked at her with all the love in his heart. “And change comes after a first, second, and third pass. It can’t happen immediately.”

They ate a few bites of the tasty meal Eliza had prepared.

Then Davis put his fork down again. He cleared his throat. “The truth is you’re so efficient you can do ten times the work the kids and I do at the pace you work. So you need to stop and eat bon bons along the way and let us accomplish our share to keep up with you. That way the kids can feel good about themselves. They naturally want to help and they will. Let them volunteer or let me assign one of them. We just need a little more time to bring all that into action. We don’t see it the way you do.”

Eliza frowned. “I have no idea how to sit while others work.

Davis grinned. “You’ll learn.”

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and Bowls Full of Issues

Recently, I became aware of trying to hold too much. Not do too much, but hold too much. I was holding just a few things but they were enormous. Things like the generational injuries in my family. There was no way I could keep the issue inside without conflict and turmoil and distress, to myself.

Holding an issue that big is a little like trying to hold poverty or violence against women. It is too much. It can’t be held by one person.

The good news is that becoming aware of my tendency to try to hold on to the vast issues helped me do something different.

Right after I became aware of my tendency, a friend confided in me about another person. I wished she had left me out of it. I woke up the next morning running the scene over and over in my mind, distressed at knowing this information because I am a friend with the other person too. I began bubbling over, churning about what I’d say and do and how it would feel to state my need and the reaction I anticipated from her.

As I sat drinking coffee at my dining room table, all of a sudden, I remembered my tendency to take on and hold things I can’t solve.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and Bowls Full of iIssues Quickly, I imagined an array of bowls sitting on the sideboard in my dining room. I imagined taking the steaming, roiling mass the friend-issue and gently depositing it in one of the bowls. Then, I sat there and felt my posture in the chair and breathed all the way from my nasal passages down to my pelvic floor, slow, uncrushed, generous breaths, not the fullest I could take, just full enough so my ribs moved easily.

Not five minutes later, I realized I was brewing with the issue of my father’s health and well-being. The roiling of that issue felt the same as the previous one. Without berating myself, I gently placed the mass of the father-issue in another bowl on the sideboard. Then, I took a few moments to notice what it was like to have that searching and longing for resolution no longer inside me.

Some people call holding these big issues worry, but I want to make a distinction. Some of us are carrying things we have been taught we should carry. All the stepmothers who’ve received the message the health of the stepfamily is yours to hold, raise your hand. I know this because as soon as I set the issue in the bowl, I feel calm inside. Worry feels different, worry is wary, worry is about meeting deadlines and obligations. See Karla McLaren’s great description of worry, which she includes in her description of anxiety.

This setting issues in the bowl strategy can work with any issue. Especially chronic issues that crop up again and again, unlike the straight-forward issues such as getting a kid’s teeth straightened and the day arrives when there are no more orthodontia appointments.

No, these monumental issues, the ones that pull and cause you to lose sleep at night are systemic, they are bound so tightly into the fabric of stepfamilies, or your family of origin, it’s incredible anyone sleeps. Things like communication between homes. Things like child loyalty. Things like an ex-spouse using what Rorshak calls Divorce Poison in his book of the same name. These are the things that roil and broil and prevent peace.

These chronic, messy, systemic patterns of problems are the perfect things to set aside in a bowl.

Not to be ignored.

I’m not suggesting we avoid important issues. I am suggesting we practice carrying these steaming, roiling, too-big-for-one-person issues away from our central self, away from our vital organs and the tender parts that keep us alive and hopeful.

Unresolvable issues, the ones often built into the situations like stepfamilies are the perfect thing to practice working with while they remain outside yourself. When you want to consider your actions and reactions or what you might do when the same situation arises again, well, the issue is there in the bowl on the sideboard, ready for your consideration and reconsideration, whenever you are ready to work with it.

I think we need to learn the difference between the things we can safely hold and the things that are best stored outside of us. When we get good at it, if a friend complains and we want to plug our ears, we’ll barely get ruffled as we lay the issue in the bowl. When the time is right, maybe the next time we are with that friend, we can say what needs saying, without the emotional tsunami that would follow if we had been carrying the issue deep inside us trying to keep it contained.

There will always be plenty of time and space to take up and work with our big issues. But, we will likely deal with them in a more comfortable way when we have been able to stop holding and instead disengage and disconnect, maybe even forget them, for small snippets of time, until we recognize we are not an issue. We are a living, breathing human, a being.

We need to learn how it feels to live and breathe as a human, and not as an issue.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Mother’s Day and Ho-Hum

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Mother’s Day and Ho-Hum

Maybe you’ve been feeling hurt and are counting the ways you’re not included in Sunday’s, May 10, Mother’s Day celebrations. Maybe you’ve decided to let the crust around your heart remain there for a while, since crusts offer protection by keeping you in and others out. Or, maybe the kids in your life freely and openly bring you offerings and talismans that show love and connection to you.

What if we agreed there isn’t a right answer for the demonstration of relationship, feelings, or connection?

What if we agreed those demonstrations will shift and change over time and the sellers and pushers of the trifecta of cards-flowers-chocolates won’t determine whether a stepchild, or the parent who nudges or doesn’t nudge the child, has done the right thing?

And, what if we agreed that sometimes it’s not safe for a child to share her or his feelings for you because that child’s every move is scrutinized by another member of the family, whether mother or sibling?

I’ve seen all versions.

A friend’s now-grown stepson has showered her with cards, simply but consistently, from the first year he moved in with his father and stepmother. His mother lived more than three hours away.

Another stepmother was a custodial stepmother when her stepchildren were younger and the two girls freely expressed their feelings. They moved back in with their mother for their teen years when their mother’s life became stable enough. By the time the girls began puberty, the stepmother had a child of her own. Thus began a number of angst-laden years with little expression other than anger and fear.

And, in many stepfamilies, there wasn’t and isn’t an expression of tenderness toward the stepmother.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Mother's Day and Ho-Hum

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Regardless of which stepfamily you live in, the way others express their feelings is not a reflection on you as a stepmother.

I’d like you to consider the idea of living in the ho-hum. The way I’ve heard it said, 5% of life is sheer agony, 5% is sheer ecstasy, and 90% of life is ho-hum.

According to the tradition, we need to learn to live inside the ho-hum. Long-time readers of this blog will recognize this is the living in the gray zone, or the neutral place.

I might argue the percentages for stepmothers are a little steeper. Maybe it’s 20-25% sheer agony. 5% sheer ecstasy, 70% ho-hum. You can see pretty quickly why a stepmother feels beleaguered and succumbs to depression and anxiety at rates higher than women in other relationships. (Wednesday Martin, Stepmonster)

Learning to live in the ho-hum. Learning to live without the constant search for the perfect moment. Learning to live knowing the incredibly painful will soon pass, because it is not a permanent condition even though it feels like one. Learning to let expressions of feelings be fluid and unprescribed, sometimes close, sometimes more distant.

Learning to sit inside your own skin, knowing you are enough, doing enough, being enough, right now, in this moment.

Happy You Day . . . wherever you may be.

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Note: I’d love to know where you are. I see on my stats board for this blog there are readers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. I’d love to hear where you live. Remember, you can always comment anonymously. You can use any name you want on the comment form, whether it’s Jane, Sally, or Candace. No one will see your email except me.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Draws Her Boundary Chalk  

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Draws Her Boundary Chalk  

Yes, boundary chalk.

What can we use for our protection? In our violence-steeped society, some easily imagine a gun or a knife. In other times, people drew swords and daggers. Or, the magic of a wand, so light, so easy to stash somewhere, even inside a sleeve or a purse.

The trouble is, protecting boundaries is tricky business. They might not exist and need to be built. They might get strong and then weaken. They might drop away and become invisible, leaving us vulnerable and easily invaded. Sometimes, we don’t even know what we’re trying to protect.

As I work on my book of tales for stepmothers (no date to offer up, but it’s progressing nicely, thanks for asking), I’ve been doing regular free writes. With my writing friends, I start with a prompt and write for seven minutes, or nine, or occasionally eleven. Our pens fly and no one stops until the timer goes off.

Here’s a piece I did on boundaries from one of those free writes. It has certainly been on my mind over these last many months.

But, this post is to tell you a drawing-boundary story of a real-life stepmother (with permission). This stepmother has one stepdaughter and two younger daughters, now in their teens. My stepmother friend and her husband have helped his daughter navigate some unhealthy, and potentially dangerous, situations for a very long time. And now, there’s a granddaughter to consider.

If you’ve been a stepmother in a situation like this, you know, there’s a weariness that grows, deep down in the bones. Giving to a person who endangers themselves again, and again. Giving again. It is exhausting.

Being called to rescue, whether with big issues like safety of small children, or little issues like getting homework done, is bound to happen for most stepmothers. But, we don’t have to beat ourselves up, we could get out the chalk and draw some lines around ourselves.

My stepmother friend knew she was running out of steam with all the helping she was doing. She kept trying to help differently each time her stepdaughter plummeted, but she was drawn in and others began relying on her. Her marriage suffered with all this helping, as did the life of her growing daughters.

One weekend, the now-grown stepdaughter with a daughter of her own, were coming to visit after a period of being stable and safe, and my friend and her husband got word that things were moving toward instability, again.

This time, my stepmother girlfriend quietly got out her chalk. She sent messages to the family and friend who so kindly informed them of the downturn for her stepdaughter. She asked them to communicate directly with her husband, the father of the woman in question. Her husband agreed that he would handle all the communication and she would take a back seat during the weekend. And, she determined to focus her attention on the activities of her younger daughters and in taking care of herself during the weekend while her stepdaughter was visiting.

I was cheering, of course, all the way from over here in my place on the sideline. You can join me in the cheering, too. I asked to tell her story because it’s a great example of the process of managing our feelings and sense of self while we are helping.

When we feel frustrated, it might be tempting to think we should know better and not let ourselves get caught in those situations. But, I think that know-better voice is the external society voice shouting in our ear. Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls it the over-culture. The know-better voice causes us to second-guess our instincts. It’s the second-guessing that is the problem, in my opinion. It’s the place that traps us in the feeling bad place and then we go help more to feel better.

I propose, rather than bashing ourselves because we repeatedly find ourselves helping, we use one of the strategies we’ve been practicing on this blog to help listen inside and know what we need. Helping is one of the options. Waiting is another. Letting others do is another. And, some combination of those is a fourth. Click on these links to read about Find your feet, dig down for your talisman, or take a nap.

A Healthy Stepmother...Draws Her Chalk BoundaryEach cycle of helping in a chronic-repetitive situation has the potential to lead us upward, like taking another step on a spiral staircase. You gain skill, knowledge, ability to see where the boundary could be, and even where to find the chalk. Sometimes it’s as simple as we don’t know there’s a boundary needing to be drawn and we let our chalk supply run out.

She’s no saint, my stepmother friend. She jumped in, instinctively responding to difficult situations, and it wasn’t as if she had time to think, okay, I’ll do this, this time, but then next time someone else can do it. She did what any of us would do and now, all these years later, she’s listening and hears the deep-down message, okay, time to step back.

That deep-down message isn’t one we are accustomed to hearing. I know. I was getting weary helping my father a year and a half ago. Bone weary. And I vividly remember the day he got angry with me and said, you are doing too much, you need to stop helping so much. I looked at him and said thanks dad, I’m glad to know you’re ready to take these things over. You’ve got it. We’ve been fine ever since. I’m no longer exhausted. But, it took him yelling for me to hear or to even know to listen to that message okay, you can stop now.

Maybe helping isn’t a permanent condition. It’s probably also true, our help is not a permanent solution for the one we’ve helped. That person is needing to learn skills and we might expect they need a few repetitions to get the message, just like we did.

The good news for my friend is that others have the skills now, now they can take over. Now she can gently shift the responsibility over to her husband and the broader circle. What if this is how it can work out? What if this is the natural progression?

Perhaps we’ve all been there. Asking ourselves Why, when we’re up to our necks in helping, gritting our teeth, or downing a third glass of wine. Why am I so weak I can’t say no? Why can’t I draw a line.

Perhaps we’ve experienced that teeth gnashing and desperate moment, when we’re in the shower crying and thinking we’ll never help again, dammit, never again, that moment is not-so-gently tapping us on the shoulder saying, okay, now, now it’s time to step aside and let someone else carry this torch.

What if that’s all, that’s it? It’s just a message. It’s not that we are failures as stepmothers, or even that our marriages are doomed. It’s simply time to shift our focus. Back to the life waiting for us. Maybe there’s a rock wall to build, or a picture to paint, or a beach to walk. It doesn’t really matter what, as long as it feeds and replenishes us for our next adventure.

And, we can rest assured, there will be more adventures . . .

A Healthy Stepmother . . . And A Certain Kind of Life

You dove into this life with all your good intentions and sweet affirmations bursting from every pore. You’d have drowned in them if you hadn’t had to run so fast to keep up with figuring out what to do in any given moment, frantically working to integrate with the new family of which you’d become a part.

You dove into what you thought was a certain kind of connection, with your husband, building a certain kind of life together.

Most importantly, you dove.

What would it be like if no one did? What would happen if there was only one chance on this planet to get a relationship right? Would there be no divorce? Or, would there be no remarriage? Could there be a civilization where people didn’t keep recouping even after disasters and traumas? What would that civilization look like? But, I digress.

Here you are. Looking around, surveying the scene, wondering what you might be doing if you weren’t here. Wondering how you’ll wait until five more years go by, or eight, or ten. Whatever that marker is that once it’s passed you’ll maybe have a better life, or for sure have a better life. Maybe it’ll be less stressful, anyway.

Joseph Campbell says “we must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

I think he’s right.

A Healthy Stepmother begins more gently.When we go in with such a tight hold on the life we are sure we are entering, there isn’t any space for what it might be.

If you haven’t been able to find a place to rest in your marriage, or even within your own heart, maybe some letting go is in order. Maybe the dreams you’re hauling around are actually getting in the way of the life that is sitting right in front of you.

Interpretation is a funny thing. Expectations are insistent things. Cultural pressure is a toxic thing. Add them all together and you might think that is the life you’re meant to have.

I’m suggesting there’s a different life, one that is just as meaningful, just as connected, and just as well-intentioned. It just doesn’t happen to look exactly like the one you might’ve carried in your head.

The older I get, the clearer the message comes, that to find satisfaction and contentment and any other measure of what I’m looking for, I must first let go of the thing I’m clutching in my hand or in my heart.

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

Updated post from May 12, 2011, A Healthy Stepmother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Healthy Stepmother . . . reflects on Santa.

In 2010, I wrote the first version of Santa Sophia, a Christmas poem for stepmothers. I’ve been tinkering with it since, each year knowing another truth about this process or thinking of another word here and there that shape the message more like it happens in our hearts and in our homes.

Whatever your plans this year, whatever your family constellation, whatever your burdens, my wish for you is to know the hope of connection and the sanity of shared experience. In many families, a stepmother is isolated from her own people, estranged from them, or so engaged with her stepfamily she forgets to be with family and friends.

She can drift and float along, with nothing to anchor her experience and her heart.

Maybe this year you will reach out, outside the silence of aloneness, out past the rejection, and beyond the pain. Open yourself to letting another stepmother into your life, or reaching out to one newer than you. Let your vulnerability be a connection with someone you can trust.

There is no rushing. We are not in a race to get somewhere. We can take our time, cultivate deeper relationships, and go back to heal pieces that will help us move forward.

Santa Sophia: A Christmas Poem for Stepmothers
©2014 K.Cottrell 

Twas two nights before Christmas, when all through the land
Not a stepmother was sleeping, not even on demand.
The fireplace was lit in the living room there,
A sign of the peace we prayed we’d soon share.

The children were texting all snug in their beds,
While Netflix and Instagram danced in their heads.
With hubby cat-napping, and I with my book,
We’d just settled in to our warm winter nook.

When out in the drive there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my Kindle to see what was the matter.
Over to the window, I was pulled by a feeling,
And gazed through the glass with open-mouthed reeling.

The stars they did shine on the occupants inside,
And lit up the house where worries collide.
When, what to my sleep-deprived eyes should appear,
But one electric car and eight rambling black bear.

Opening doors they did bound, bringing anchoring ideas,
I knew in a moment, it was Santa Sophia.
Warm fur, curious noses, the black bear they came,
And she whispered and encouraged, and called them by name.

“Now, Baloo! Now Brer! Now, Ben and Ted-ster!
On, Humphrey! On, Bamse! On Bruin and Buster!
They went into the house, to the young, to the old.
Shuffling here and now there, finding hearts that were cold.

As old memories of pre-divorce family repeat,
The pain and the loss, bitter pills children eat.
Into the house, the black bears they did amble,
With satchels of honey, and hurts to unscramble.

And then, in a twinkling, in the rooms up above,
The soothing and healing of each warming love.
As I listened in silence, afraid to turn around,
Into the living room Sophia came with a bound.

She was dressed all in tencel, from her head to her toes,
And her clothes were all silvered with buttons and bows.
A bundle of sticks she had flung on her back,
She could have built fire, without even a match.

Her eyes, how they shone! Her laugh, a delight.
Her smile so warm and so absolutely right.
With capable hands, she reached for my heart,
And began to transform my pain into art.

A stick of gum she chewed loudly, and then gave a sneeze,
And the noise of it told me, she’d do as she please.
She had a kind face and a whole bunch of chutzpah,
She nodded when she laughed, as if saying … good’on ya.

She was darling and strong, a right sassy old self,
And I sighed when I saw her, and gave in to myself.
A wink of her eye and a twist of her head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

She spoke not a word, but went straight to work,
And filled all their hearts, even cleared out the murk.
And laying her hands alongside temporal lobes,
She called forth a wish for peace round the globe.

She summoned the black bear, to me gave a nod,
And away they all drove to the next of stepmoms.
And I heard her exclaim, as they disappeared from view,
“Stepmother, take heart … this year you’ll see through.”

 

 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . When I Grow Up 

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Karen. She enjoyed drawing faces in the peanut butter on her morning toast and merrily skipped to school on time. Karen loved school. She loved learning. She loved listening to stories told to the class by her teacher.

One week in school, they studied families and family constellations. Some children had a man and a woman as parents. Some kids had two women as parents, or two men. Some had one parent. Some had four parents, because the mother and father had divorced and remarried and there were two homes and two sets of parents, and four sets of grandparents, or more. The parents in the four parent sets were sometimes combinations of a man and a woman, two women, two men, and so on. Some parents adopted children and lived in one of these kinds of families.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . when I grow up

Lily Tucker-Pritchett, of Modern Family, TV show, click photo to read her bio.

Karen lived with two daddies and she loved them with all her heart. She listened with fascination as the teacher described all the types of families and read stories that described the lives and the ways the parents made sure the children were growing and learning and feeling safe and eating well and sleeping enough. It was clearly a big job being a parent, with the making sure a family was cared for and cared about.

On the day they learned about the four parent families, Karen skipped home from school making up a song under her breath. She had almost worked out the words by the time she reached her front door and rang the bell.

The door swung opened and Daddy smiled, “Karen, I’m so happy to see you. Oh, Scruffy, calm down now.”

Daddy reached down and soothed the excited dog, while  Scruffy jumped in circles.

Karen laughed and petted Scruffy and smiled her Karen smile. She was the happiest child on her street and well-known for loving people and pets and plants and other animals. Horses too, lots of horses.

“I’ve made you a special after-school snack today. Do you remember we have that special program at school this evening, the international night?” Daddy looked over his shoulder as he went to the kitchen to get the snack and bring it to the dining room.

“So, we’ll have a good snack now and then eat at the international celebration. What did you study in school with Mrs. Chapman today?

“Today, we learned all about three and four-parent families. You remember last week we learned about two-mommy families and two-daddy families, like ours? Well, this week we learned about father-stepmother and mother-stepfather families. Only sometimes both the parents aren’t remarried so it’s a father-stepmother and mother family, or a father and mother-stepfather family.”

“I wonder why they call them that?” Daddy wondered aloud.

“What do you mean, isn’t that what they are always called? Karen was puzzled.

Daddy laughed, “Ohhhh no. Not that long ago there were battles over who was parenting the children. There were nasty battles that cost hundreds of thousands and millions in courts and took up time for people who weren’t even involved in the marriage. It was completely inappropriate. So, after a mini-revolution, things changed. Do you know anyone in school from a four-parent family?

“Hmm, I’m not sure.” Karen thought about it. “I think Tommy is from one. And, Christa.”

“Sounds like you know someone from every type of family.”

“My favorite person in all the families is the stepmother. I want to be one when I grow up.” Karen whispered, conspiratorially.

“You do? What do you like about stepmothers?” Daddy asked, keeping his astonishment to himself.

They talked on in this way and Karen told Daddy all about the stepmother in the story the teacher read. Even though she already had children of her own, she had so much love in her heart she was willing to take on someone else’s children. Not to replace the mommy, they had a mommy, but to help the daddy so he wasn’t lonely. Even though not all parents were man-woman couples, everyone agreed having two parents in a house to raise children was easier than one.

Karen kept talking and Daddy kept asking and they were still talking when Papa came home. Papa pulled the car into the driveway and Daddy let Scruffy out to go greet him, a daily ritual. Once the car was parked and turned off, Daddy opened the door and motioned Scruffy out. Scruffy raced around and around the car, barking with happiness, and racing around again. Finally, after three times around the car, always three times, he stopped by the driver door and sat on his haunches with his front legs up in the air. He begged for Papa to open the door. Papa did and Scruffy wagged and wagged and walked inside the house heeling alongside his second favorite human.

Papa lifted Karen and swung her up in the air. He hugged her close and she hugged him so tight. Together, they all went to the International Celebration at the school and there were lots and lots of parents and children there, all kinds of families.

Not much more was said about wanting to be a stepmother until one day a few weeks later, Karen came home from school, crying. She never cried after school. She was always so happy to be home, nothing bothered her.

Daddy opened the door when Karen rang the bell and opened his arms when he saw her crying. She ran into them and he hugged her, not asking any questions. Daddy remained quiet, just hugging and waiting. Finally, Karen’s sobs slowed down and spaces grew longer between them. Then she looked up.

“Sally told me I can’t be a stepmother.” She looked like she might start crying again. “She said you can’t be a stepmother first, you have to have children first. Or be married and then divorced first.”

“Oh she did, huh?” Daddy asked, knitting his brows together. He waited.

“Yeah, she told me it was a stupid idea and her parents had said people who got married more than once were losers.”

Daddy listened for a long time. His heart felt heavy every time he heard of the things some parents told their kids. This was one of those times.

“Well, I tell you what, I’ll walk to school with you tomorrow and we can see if the teacher knows anything or thinks we should do anything.”

“Daddy, why would we do that?”

“Oh, first, it’s not true that you can’t be a stepmother without being married before or having children. There are lots of women who marry a man or woman who already has children, even if they don’t have children of their own.”

“Really?” Karen looked hopeful.

“Yes, in fact, that’s why I don’t understand why Sally was making such a big deal about being a stepmother.” Daddy shook his head.

They had a nice evening and then went to bed early, they were all so tired. The next morning, Daddy and Karen walked to school together and talked to the teacher about Karen’s conversation with Sally.

Daddy started, “Mrs. Chapman, I hear you’re studying types of parents in families. It’s so exciting to see you including the various combinations of families, not just the stereotypical man and woman. I know for us, it’s not that, with two men.” He smiled and paused.

“It’s so great to see all the good support you give Karen with her homework, even though we don’t have much yet in third grade.” Mrs. Chapman stopped what she was doing and came around her desk.

“Thank you, we do support everything Karen does. She’s so bright and a very eager learner.” Daddy never bored of hearing appreciation for the home studying.

“How can I help you today, Mr. Elliot.”

“Well, maybe Karen told you, well, wait, I should ask. Karen, are you okay if I describe your dream when you grow up?” Daddy looked at Karen. “And, it’s not a problem if you don’t want me to say.”

“Yes, I want to hear what Mrs. Chapman thinks.”

“So, Karen wants to be a stepmother when she grows up. She’s been fascinated by the unit you are studying on family and the parent-combinations. She comes home and tells me every day what the story was.”

“Anyway, it seems Sally told Karen she can’t be a stepmother unless she’s been divorced or has children of her own already. Do you know why she might have said that?” Daddy waited to see what Mrs. Chapman might think.

“Hmmm, that’s interesting. Part of the unit is about stepmothers and I make a point to tell the children not every stepmother has her own children. More and more women are marrying men and they don’t have children from before.” Mrs. Chapman pondered the question and thought about what she knew about Sally.

“You know, maybe I’ll just ask her at the morning break today. I really appreciate you bringing this to my attention.” And then, Mrs. Chapman turned to Karen. “You can be anything you want to be, Karen. Don’t let anyone else’s thinking determine what you will do. It is your life and you get to make your own decisions.”

Daddy and Karen walked slowly out of the classroom and Daddy bent down for a hug and a kiss goodbye.

“Are you okay, Kare?” He looked into her eyes and asked with his.

“Yeah, I feel better, Daddy. Thank you so much. You are such a good talker. I feel so much better.” Karen turned to go back to class.

“And, Daddy, I still want to be a stepmother some day.”

A Healthy Stepmother . . . life is not a caravan of despair!

Come, come, whoever you are!

Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving!

This is not a caravan of despair.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve broken 

Your vow a thousand times, still 

And yet again, Come!

          Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks 

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So, yes, dear stepmother. Here you are, poised on the precipice of another holiday season. Wondering how you’ve hung on to your self and your life since the last holiday season.

Maybe the clouds don’t hang over your head the way they used to? Maybe you see the clearing and can reach out and offer that to another stepmother who is drowning in the deluge of the storm? Maybe you’ll have a story to share in the comments to contribute to our collective witnessing of one another’s lives?

Some of us have it easier than others.

Just because some of us have it easier doesn’t mean we’ve got it all figured out. It might mean we are in the eye of the storm. It might mean the storm has passed. It might mean our lives have settled and integrated and we can focus on other things.

I urge you to focus on other things even if you are still in the storm. The storm will rage whether you focus on it or not, so why not get a book and settle into another time and space while it rages on around you.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . life is not a caravan of despair!And, contemplate that leaving takes many shapes. Leaving is not bad. We’re conditioned to think it is.

I’m at a beach town on the Oregon Coast as I write this, working on my fairy tales for stepmothers. Yes, I can now say that out loud. The stories are taking shape and I’m getting so excited. 

I was walking down the street and across my path went a woman with whom I used to share much closeness. Things happened that caused there to be uncloseness. Was that a leaving? Was that an ending? It doesn’t feel it, since there was no official ending. It’s more like it’s suspended out there in time, nebulous, not clear, super muddy. But okay.

I don’t need to run after it. It can sit there, in all the messiness. Maybe like some of the relationships we have with our stepchildren.

It’s easy to think a muddy or unclear relationship is a negative thing. Does it have to be? Could it just be sitting there, somewhat dormant, neutral, without judgment? Could that be okay?

Inspired by Rumi, I wrote this…

Leaving. Leaving.

Left. 

I have been left and I have left others.

Hundreds of times, maybe thousands. 

Was it error? 

Was it my ill-thought-out-ways? 

Or, was it simply the learning of whom to go toward? 

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Examine your leavings and letting go. This life is not a caravan of despair!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . works with kindness.

No matter the behavior of others, no matter your own behavior, you can practice living toward what feels better for your spirit. Kim Cottrell


Bold statement, to be sure. Hard to do if you’re a stepchild feeling guilty if you’re kind to your stepmother. Hard to consider if you’re a mother worried your children are having too much fun with the stepmother. Hard to do if you’re the stepmother and struggle in every new situation to find the place you belong.

Its a daily practice. It’s a spiritual quest. It doesn’t really matter who you are in the stepfamily equation, there could be a lot more kindness in every household. Is there ever enough? Kindness, that is.

My husband and I visited his youngest son at his college across the country. The roommate situation isn’t very good for him, nor for one of his friends and listening to them share their frustrations got me thinking about how we treat folks we don’t like. Sometimes, to inspire yourself, you need that quote to print and hang on the fridge. Here’s one for your kindness practice.

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