A Healthy Stepmother . . . unpacks.

After 5 years of living in the home I share with my husband and his kids, I finally unpacked the boxes of dishes I inherited from my mother, aunt, and grandmothers. Why I didn’t unpack them until now, I have no idea. All I know is that they sat in a corner of the basement, quiet, out of the way, minding their own business, and not making waves.

It was no small irony to observe that for the first few years of my marriage to a man with children from a previous marriage that I also tried to be quiet, stay out of the way, mind my own business and not make waves. Sure, I had a few moments over the years when I erupted because the enormity of the feelings inside was so great I couldn’t contain them any longer. But mostly, largely, I’ve remained supportive of my husband, advocated for what seemed best for the kids even when they didn’t know they had an advocate, and been a huge champion for community-building and sharing. You know, all that stuff they teach in kindergarten.

First, I hauled the 4 small boxes from their place in the basement, blew off the dust and removed the delicate contents, much of it from the depression-era. These pieces I’d gathered over the years, shards of my maternal ancestry,  were mismatched and chipped and incomplete sets of Franciscan glasses, delicate dessert cups, pink-ish wine goblets, and my favorite, a set of 50’s plastic-coated tumblers. I remembered them all from my grandmother’s house when we went there for family dinners.

Now, I wonder. Did I leave them in the boxes because they weren’t complete sets, because they weren’t functional? Did I leave them in the boxes so they wouldn’t be broken, nevermind that we have some beautiful built in cabinets in our 1921 bungalow that would have kept them safe. Or worse, did I leave them in the boxes because I didn’t think they would measure up?

By now, the metaphor may be obvious, but it took me 5 years to figure it out. Now, I want to shout it out to all newly married women who’ve got new husbands complete with children from another marriage . . . unpack the glassware! Don’t wait. Don’t apologize. Don’t let your life mean less than the ones that you live with. Work together with your husband and make room in the cabinets for the things that matter to you both.

My husband is thrilled, he’s excited to see these things from my mother and her family. Despite my initial shyness in bringing them out, it makes complete sense. When his grandmother (his stepmother’s mother) died, he inherited several antiques including the dining room table we use today. Every year on the holidays we put all the leaves in the table and stretch it out to completely fill our dining room. If we use chairs without arms, we can squeeze 12 around the table and we’ve done that plenty of times.

One year over the turkey dinner, my husband’s stepmother confessed that her mother used to fill this very same table every night at the boarding house where she worked as the cook. My mother-in-law was thrilled to see that we also regularly bring a community together around the table and it means a lot to her that we enjoy the beauty of the table.

I got up this morning and felt somehow different walking through the dining room past the glass-fronted cabinets. There are things in there that belong to me, that have a history marked by my relatives. My female ancestors drank from these glasses and washed and dried and stored them away in their cabinets. I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer to have them in my daily life.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the loneliness myth.

Having recently gone through a phase of feeling lonely in my second marriage, I came out of it with the nagging feeling that the expectations for how a woman belong in her second marriage are over-the-top unrealistic. But, my revelation didn’t occur to me in any timely fashion, they only came after months, years, and countless “why the h–l is THIS happening to me?” sorts of ponderings late at night.

The good news is that I don’t feel lonely so much any more and I have a greater resiliency to roll with the flow, thanks in large part to reducing expectations, keeping a strong focus on NOT doing too much to fix the world for every person who walks into my circle of contact, most importantly my husband or my stepchildren. They will sort out their life, I am not around to be the fixer. I’m my husband’s wife, I’m my own person, I’m a daughter, sister, lover, friend, worker, dreamer, and loner.

Yup, loner.

My revelation came to me when I woke up one morning feeling VERY sorry for myself. I mean down-in-the-dumps sorry. Like there was just no hope for a better way of feeling. I was alone in my life, or so I thought. At first, I was mad. What the heck? I was married, there were people around. Why was I feeling so lonely. I thought then, with some indignation, that I hadn’t felt this lonely since my FIRST marriage. And, the rationalizations went so on and so forth. Blame came and went. I was feeling lonely because of this or that or the other thing.

But, one morning everything felt strange and unfamiliar. As I brushed my teeth which is hard to do when you’re gritting them, I was thinking I’ll just have to accept that marriage is about me being lonely. Maybe that’s just fine. I was thinking I’ll connect with my husband around the things we can connect about and then the rest of the time, I’ll be, well……lonely.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Top 5 books for summer reading.

My library has always been extensive. I L-O-V-E books. My sister and I used to walk to the one-room library in our small town in Southern Oregon and carry home as many books as we could manage in our arms. We went weekly to the library for years and there came a day when the librarian looked at us and said, “You girls should go to the County Library, they have a bigger selection.” By that time, our older brother was driving so we’d beg him to take us. And so it went. I’ve always read. Always loved reading.

Lately, my reading list leans dramatically toward non-fiction and I seem to devour it with the same intensity as I did those fiction stories of my childhood. Thank goodness for the Kindle for iPhone, my shelves can have a break from the weight of the actual books. There are a lot of books out there for stepmothers, seems like everyone has an idea what we should do, feel, say, think, or know. And, not just for stepmothers, for women in general. We can learn about parenting, gardening, being skinny, and beautiful, all in one book or magazine. How convenient.

But, maybe a certain topic deserves a deeper look? Among the many, many titles, my top 5 favorites of all the books on my shelves, virtual or actual, include the following:

  • Stepmonster, Wednesday Martin. This book is a must-read. The bible of stepmothering. Dr. Martin doesn’t tell you what to do, she gives you information and lets you make decisions that fit for your situation. She seems to recognize that so very many factors play into the role of marrying a man with children from a previous marriage. Haha, I almost wrote, “marrying a man with a pre-existing condition.” Haha, must be my healthcare training slipping in there.

  • Slow Down Diet, Marc David. It’s not a diet book. Down with diet books. Bah humbug. Though I’ve heard that Dr. Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Diet is also not a diet and I want to look at that. But, Marc David’s book is about getting back to having a healthy perspective on food and the role it plays in your life. Simply, buy the best quality of food you can afford and it will be so satisfying, you won’t eat the other stuff. He writes about why women exercise, but still can’t break the barrier of weight loss.

  • Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel. Dr. Wednesday Martin suggested this book in her blog not so long ago and I devoured it. Honestly, thank you, thank you. It’s time to get out of the old habit of “sit down and talk.” Yup, need to share, yup, need to care, but we do and we’re still stuck. I mean the collective “we.” Women, we need some fresh ideas and this book is good for more than a few. My favorite part of it, the stories of the couples. Very informative.

  • The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, Wendy Mogul. I’ll admit to reading this book even though I have no children of my own. After working with and observing families for nearly 30 years, reading this book was a little like going back for a few credits of continuing education. Great read, awesome perspective.

  • Hold Me Tight, Sue Johnson. And, really this one should be the first on the list. I’m only part way through it, which is why it’s here on the bottom. We’re taught in our culture to keep a stiff upper lip, to be competent and self-reliant, not needy, not anxious, non-emotional. Dr. Johnson describes in lay-terms her ideas about attachment and love and why adults need the same assurances and reassurances that children do. She even says that most of her colleagues didn’t agree with her when she first began her line of research. And oh, THAT got my attention. Because if 50% of first marriages and almost 65-70% of second marriages end in divorce, we need the something new. It can’t be that ALL those couples didn’t make good decisions. Sure some of them did, and my hunch is that a huge percentage of them got caught in the trap of the culture and what we think we’re “supposed to do.”

Happy Summer Reading. Dig down, dive in, get under the covers with your flashlight like my sister and I did and read ALL NIGHT. I’ll be curious what you think. And, please feel free to add your favorite book to the comments. Maybe we’ll compile the “best book list for stepmothers that ever was!”

A Healthy Stepmother . . . laughs until she cries.

Or . . . did I get that right?

Should it “be cries until she laughs?” Hmmmm, right after I posted last weeks entry about dreaming up a peace-in, I began to notice that all my peace-in ideas were falling apart and it didn’t take me long to think…..the next blogpost needs to be about WHAT you do  in the space between the wedding and the peace?

Well, first there’s denial. This isn’t that bad, I can tolerate this. And this phase can go on for a very long time. Depends on how tough you are.

Then come tears and feeling like a victim. Why is this so hard? This can’t be happening to me. But, once you wake up and notice that you’re in this really angst-laden place in your life that you could have never imagined being in, well . . . I’m sorry to say but martyrdom sneaks in. I said “I do,” sooooooo, I’d better do. But I don’t want to do it THIS way! Most of us grit our teeth and forge onward, but layers of bitterness creep under the veneer of the politeness. Heaven forbid either you or your husband let the kids see you having any emotion other than happiness, it’s just not permissible. And, honestly, once a stepmother is bitter it’s very hard for her to let it go. I’ve been surprised by the depth of the hurt that lies under the bitter for some of my friends, but no one else looks to find the pain. They are repelled by the bitter and they avoid that woman and her support system dwindles further.

Or, maybe a nap is a good idea.

I left out the anger phase, maybe on purpose. According to Wednesday Martin, Stepmonster, 40% of us are anxious or depressed. And, in the same book it’s reported that depression is anger turned inward.  I’ll bet the statistics of depression mean “clinical” in the sense that they have been diagnosed by a mental health professional. But, I’m talking about the street depression that is rampant in our situation.

But I think we stepmoms have street-depression and some anger. But, the anger doesn’t come until you come out of the depression. After you move away from the depression you can find space to go ahead and live your life. Some of us move through that and I’ll bet some of us don’t.

And, here’s my theory, not being a psychologist and all. I think our stepmother worries actually interfere with our husbands doing their own work to handle the situation as they want to handle it. I wonder if we weren’t feeling so bad, well, I wonder if we’d see that it’s easier for them to get in touch with their own sadness. I have seen a couple of glimmers of this in my situation. It was painful to witness and I can see why I might have unknowingly waded into the middle of it. I didn’t want him to hurt, who wants to watch her husband hurt?

So, I’m gonna wake up tomorrow and laugh, cry, wail, hoot, crow, giggle, ponder, get mad, get happy, feel depleted, find ways to restore, and get on and off the roller coaster that is being a stepmother. It turns out, there’s a lot to do while you’re dreaming up the peace-in!

A Healthy Stepmother . . . sees behind the curtain.

In the version of the Wizard of Oz that lives inside my head, Dorothy and the Tin Man and the Scarecrow are waiting for an audience with the Wizard. They inadvertently see him when he’s not expected to be seen. He’s surprised and a little upset and covers up, or tries to cover up. But it’s too late, they realize he’s just a man. A human and not someone with super-duper extra powers that can hurt or help them. Dorothy learns she’ll have to get herself home on her own.

It’s that way with our stepchildren. They live more than a little behind the curtain. The loyalty bind that children of divorce live under, the push-me-pull-me from one parent to the other, is very well-documented. One parent doesn’t want the other to be the favored one and so goes the ages-long battle for the child to take a side.

Within that narrow path that a child walks, some days are simply too much. Some days that narrow path is battled against as if there were no tomorrow. Other days that narrow path welcomes the child and life is good. There’s no knowing how it will go on any given day because there are simply too many influences in a child’s life.

A stepmother has so many choices in her response to the behavior from the child, aka Wizard, not all of them healthy choices. She can attribute super human powers and hand over the keys to the castle, as if the child was the Wizard. She can try to make things okay to make up for what she perceives the child is going through. She can take all the burdens away from the child and not expect anything from him or her in terms of contributions to the household. She can fight and cajole and argue with her husband to get the child to contribute to the household.

Or, my favorite is to look behind the curtain. What looks like disdain one day is so very clearly a child who is unsure of where he stands in the push-me-pull-me parent game. What looks like insolence is a kid who comes home with a sad story about someone who treated him badly at school. What looks like anger is an internal conflict about what to do to make things better between parents so the child can freely love both parents.

So, the healthy stepmother can get about her workday, run a hot bath, turn to her novel, or go make a batch of popcorn. Somehow she can watch, wait, and witness. In the watching, she can do little things to let the child know she’s seen behind the curtain but she needs to be careful to not take the curtain away. She can wait and yet keep asking for the laundry to be brought down to the laundry room and for the dishes to go in the dishwasher and for the utensils to be used on the food instead of the fingers on the food. And, she can bear witness to this child. She can admit when things are hard for her, she can encourage her husband (the child’s father) to do the same, and she can sometimes voice out loud what the issue is that she sees.

Voicing feelings is the hardest part since a stepmother will want to speak so the witnessing doesn’t sound like an accusation. A well-timed joke, an association to a favorite movie or TV show, or an honest unveiling of the heart are all good ideas. In the end, the Wizard/child doesn’t know how to ask for help and the stepmother needs to use her knowledge of the child and of what hurt might lie in the child’s heart and speak to the child as if the child is not responsible. Certainly, until the child is an adult, he or she is doing the best she can to stay on that narrow path that has been delineated as an okay place to be.

And, like Dorothy, it may be that the stepmother needs to click her heels a few times and take herself back home to regroup and take stock of the situation. It’s a useful skill know how to get home from anywhere, in fact it helps the stepmother to keep her cool in times of uncertainty.

Unlike Dorothy, the child-Wizard doesn’t have the power to click his heels and go home. He is still bound by his dependence on his parents and vulnerable to their requirements for him. Sometimes, the best response from a stepmother when she’s aware she’s seen behind the curtain is to quietly let it fall back into place and walk on.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . knows when enough is enough.

Lately, it’s been really quiet. I mean eerily quiet. Like I’m not used to this calm. Like the tension that was always part of the fabric of my stepfamily days melted away on a stream that gently gurgled and twisted and turned its way down the mountain. I don’t mean quiet in my house, I mean quiet inside my self.

I think my self is quiet because I let go of my end of the shoestring.

Have you seen this greeting card by Stine? It depicts two men arguing over who gets a shoestring. They each hold one end of it in their teeth and their arms are constrained by the shoes they stand in. The greeting card says, “Madmen in conflict for possession of the insignificant thing.” What is most fitting is that the shoes they stand in have shoestrings.

Enough is enough!

How ironic, these two humans arguing over something that they each have.

I owned this card long before I became a stepmother and I was so thrilled to have a contribution to the collection of funny cards my husband had started on the wall in the bathroom. When I moved in, I had no idea I was hanging up my mantra and my inspiration.

It is still there, taped alongside all kinds of other goofy and slapstick thoughts and feelings. That’s exactly where it belongs. On the shelf of irony and can-you-believe-it. This photo helped me let go of my end of the shoestring so many times and is still giving me that inspiration and validation, to this day.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . practices.

Did you read last week’s post and practice your standing scans while waiting in line at the market? Maybe you noticed that you had some trouble staying in touch with your experience, that your thoughts kept drifting and shifting and before long you were thinking of issues at home and the laundry that was piling up and the homework you promised to help with. It’s easier to go over the list, again and again and again, than to pay attention to how your feet are connected to the floor.

It might be true that it’s easier to notice the “to do” list than to notice how you are standing. But, that’s just a habit. It’s your old habit and you can create a new one and then you’ll have two habits and at least then you’ll have a choice. Two habits are better than one because it’s likely your old check-out habit doesn’t cover you in every situation any more. You need a back up. Of course, three or four habits would be better because then you’d have honest-to-goodness choice, it wouldn’t be a this or that, it would be a full-on, bona fide choice. You’d be able to slow down the decision-making train and take a look around at which option would best suit the situation. When you’ve arrived at that point, indeed you have choice.

For most, it takes some serious practice before we get to that point. Continue reading