A Healthy Stepmother . . . Wakes Up to Oppression

Ten years ago, when I became a stepmother, I’d never have described my experience as one of being oppressed. And, as a younger woman, I would’ve never agreed that others controlled my behavior. Things like interference, stone-walling, and passive-aggression on the part of others didn’t seem to warrant the label, oppression. I didn’t even like the word oppression, it sounded so impossible.

It’s only recently, I’ve acknowledged oppression as a thing in my life, despite that I’m female and oppression against women has been going on for a tediously long time, i.e. forever. Now, I see that oppression of stepmothers is simply a subcategory of oppression against women.

Wikipedia describes social oppression as “the socially supported mistreatment and exploitation of a group, category, or individual.”

Racism, sexism and other prejudices are often studied as individual beliefs which, although not necessarily oppressive in themselves, can lead to oppression if they are codified in law or become parts of a culture……the tools of oppression include a progression of denigration, dehumanization, and demonization; which often generate scapegoating, which is used to justify aggression against targeted groups and individuals.

Denigration and demonizing, uh-huh. Scapegoating as a justification for aggression, mmm-hmmm. I’m quite confident my 44 stepmother friends would agree they’ve been denigrated and demonized. They have been, and are being, scapegoated. Some have even been assaulted. Many around them, unsure how to handle witnessing such behavior, say nothing.

Obviously, there are degrees of severity, but oppression is everywhere. It’s as if we’re either living in a giant dog-pile each fighting our way to the top or vying for winner in a Most-Maligned contest.

Look around, siblings oppress one another. Spouses oppress one another. Parents oppress children. Children oppress parents. Teachers oppress students. Administrations oppress teachers. CEOs and administrations oppress workers. You get the drift. Oppression isn’t limited to gender or race. It is about power and the use of power to control the behavior of another person or group of people.

If you’ve heard don’t take things so personally more than once, it’s likely you’re an oppressed stepmother. If you’ve opened the doorway of your home to children who breezed past and didn’t say hello, it’s likely you’re an oppressed stepmother. If you’ve been told, you’re not my mother because you gave an opinion about the schedule or chores that needed doing to keep the house running, it’s likely you’re an oppressed stepmother. Many books written for stepmothers compound the problem further by outlining all the ways a stepmother should change her behavior so as to not offend anyone, so as to be included, and so as to ensure her stepfamily has a happy life.

But, it’s not the stepmother’s job to become un-oppressed! She’s not the one doing the oppressing, at least not in the beginning. I’ve seen some stepmothers become oppressive because it’s the way they know to survive the situation.

It is time to dive into this subject of oppression and dissect it. Let’s read the books that describe the stepfamily situation as it is, not as the fairy tale we want to live within (look for my annotated book list this year). Then, let’s work together toward behavior that includes everyone in the family. If we already know stepfamilies form on the foundation of grief from a family divorce, then we already have the basis from which to work toward the well-being of every member in the stepfamily group. What are we waiting for?

Wouldn’t it be amazing if mothers stood beside stepmothers and said, it’s not right what we are calling stepmothers, its not right how we are treating them. And if a mother demonstrated to her children what it meant to treat the stepmother with respect? We need more mothers like this.

Wouldn’t it be healing for fathers to stand beside their wives and say to their children, I need you to treat my wife with respect, she is a member of our family. Wouldn’t it be incredible if this was the norm? Wouldn’t it be incredible if parents, both mothers and fathers, weren’t held hostage by the possibility their children might withhold love?

I don’t expect the culture we live in to change overnight, but it will never change if we don’t have a conversation other than the stepmothers should behave conversation.

Let’s begin now.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . ushers in a new life.

Call me an usher. Call me a guide, a messenger, or any other word that means I’m helping someone get to another phase of life.

This last six months has found me walking the path with my father to recover from his stroke and move away from the life he had in a town north of mine, a town he can no longer live in alone. What a difficult process, we’re both grieving and letting go, stumbling over old family mythology and the ever-present hope that things will get better.

Hermes with the Sandal-Louvre

Hermes has been called The Messenger God, and the story of Persephone and Demeter places Hermes in the Underworld to bring her back to her mother. Hermes with the Sandal-Louvre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I drove Dad back to his house to look it over and meet up with his friends from church. They talked for hours over coffee and lunch in what might be one of the last trips for a while since my brother and I are nearly done emptying the house and shed.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

How many divorced dads or moms have closed down their life? I don’t mean the one they live in after the divorce, I mean the old one. The new life is no longer about the sharing of the marriage bed or the intimacy and safe haven that goes on between a couple. Some divorced people try to keep those intimacies open, but they should really do all they can to close down their marriage. It has been well-documented in the divorce and remarriage literature that it is very common for the old life to linger on long after the divorce. And, when the old life gets left open, well, things get messy.

One day, the stepmother comes to town, falls in love with divorced dad and marries and/or moves in, her presence signaling the end of the old life. It doesn’t matter how fabulous a person the stepmother is, or how adaptable she is to the family’s old ways, or how much understanding or compassion she brings to the table, she cannot escape being the harbinger of grief, a tangible, visible reminder that the mother and father are not together. Note: There are likely those who feel this way about the stepfather, but the statistics show the stepfather is accepted into a remarriage far more often than a stepmother, Stepmonster, Wednesday Martin, 2009.

No wonder children scream, “you’re not my mother” with their words or actions. No wonder they don’t say hello. No wonder they tip-toe around as if the stepmother were invisible. To acknowledge her would be to acknowledge the family, as they knew it, is dead. Some children grow into adulthood before they accept the end of the mother-father-together life. Some never reach acceptance.

For my father, as we near the end of one phase of closing his old life, I hope he finds peace with his new life. In many ways, his new life is of much better quality than his old life. He has regular social interactions, he eats better and more consistently, and he worries less about the day-to-day issues. Still, each morning he wakes up after a good night of dreams, dreams in which he is pre-stroke, whole, healthy-ish. As he awakens, the realization of his condition seeps in and he needs a good hour to work through the feelings and recognition of I’m-not-who-I-was-in-the-dreams.

That must be what it is for some children whose parents remarry. For those children, they likely wake each morning expecting mom and dad just down the hall, crushed when they remember their old life no longer exists. That wasn’t my case as a child of divorce, which is why I say some children. Other children get it and understand the process. They might not like it, but they get it.

My wish for stepchildren everywhere is that they give grief time and allow for adjustments. I hope they find adults they can talk to and weep with and that they find new things to be glad about, until they can see what the new life offers. Often it offers more than expected.

And, I hope the stepchildren and their father and mother look around for their stepmother/usher. She might be off to one side, not involved in the melee, not vocal in the chaos. That won’t mean she’s not interested, it might mean she’s shoring up her resources amid the ongoing grieving. Her presence is enough to help close down the old life and you won’t find her running around trying to make everything okay. She knows that to respect the old life is enough and she practices that respect to the best of her humanly abilities. More than anyone in the remarriage, she is unable to pretend this is still the same old life. And that is the blessing and the curse. However, with the old life properly contained, memories of it will actually burn brighter, truer, and more steadily.

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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 . . . meets an Omama.

Here in Portland, Oregon, we have the daily newspaper, the Oregonian. One section of the Oregonian is called Omamas, as in Oregonian Mamas. It’s about all things related to families.

Today, I was so happy to meet Heidi Williams of the Omama staff in person. In addition to her other duties with the paper, Heidi has begun writing about stepfamilies, often focused on stepmothers. It is wonderful to have that aspect of family life represented, especially since the number of families with children living in two homes is growing each decade.

We spent a great hour exchanging viewpoints on the big issues and I know I came away inspired and encouraged and even more committed to this path that has led me to writing and bringing voice to the stepmother journey.

Here’s a sampling of the topics Heidi has written:

That’s My Evil Stepmom

Honoring Stepfathers

Blended Family Portrait

and

Stepfamilies Around the World 

You can also follow Heidi on Twitter @by_heidi.

I’m very excited to have met Heidi, not just because she’s local, but because every story about a woman engaged in healthy and constructive lives with her husband and stepchildren is another story we can add to a growing narrative of caring, compassionate, and concerned stepmothers.

Stepmothers everywhere have an opportunity to influence how stepmothers are perceived in our culture by building good content online. Have you ever gone to YouTube and searched for stepmother? You will find some things there I can’t even say here, they are so disgusting. We need to begin to add story after story to that medium and build up a catalog so the positive stories are the ones that float to the top. (If you do go there, maybe you’ll find Santa Sophia, a Christmas story I wrote about a stepmother and recorded in my voice.)

The same with Google or any other search engine. The more we blog, the more we use Facebook or Twitter, the more real-life positive stories will be found. Gradually and slowly, we can replace the negative content about stepmothers with a more fair and balanced viewpoint.

So, today when I met Heidi, I was excited for the big, long-term future that stretches out there into a time when our children are adults and having families of their own. Their lives hold the same statistical odds as our own, with a 50/50 chance they could become stepmothers and stepfathers. It would be so wonderful to imagine that we are cleaning up the cultural image, opening a healthy dialogue, and creating a more supportive environment so they will have an easier time of it than we are having.

I can dream.