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 . . . Feeds Herself and Her Family

Let’s talk about food. Nourishment. Sustenance. Calories. Let’s talk about what it takes to get from breakfast to lunch and that importance of an after-school snack.

Some meals stick longer, that is they take longer to fully digest and they keep the metabolic system in balance. They provide an ample supply of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and sugars the brain and body need for optimal thinking, sensing, feeling, and doing.

What if we apply the idea of nourishment to our families, what if we focus on the non-food nourishment that keeps us going? What if we think of food as the connection we need as humans to get through the days, weeks, and months of our lives?

We could think of social media and binge-watching Netflix as the simple sugars of our connections. Facebook satisfies mightily and gives a big adrenalin rush, depending on the news of the day. But, the excitement and connection burns off fast, almost as soon as you log off. 

The healthy fats are the respect we have for one another, personal privacy, and a shared commitment to the group. We need these healthy fats, at least in small daily doses. In fact, people die when the diet is too low in fat because the heart and brain require fats to function normally. We might not see respect or privacy in a stepfamily as often as we’d like, but we need at least minimal amounts for our stepfamilies to survive.

And, we need protein, in large enough quantities to sustain us. Protein should be included daily in our connection diet. Proteins might be the one-to-one time adults spend with kids and with one another. Proteins are the shared interests and the ways we support one another’s shared interest. Proteins are the group activities everybody loves. In my family, our thing is our shared love of good food. We prepare and eat good food. Sometimes we adventure out and try a new restaurant or cuisine. We never miss our annual crab feast at Christmas. 

The complex carbohydrates are essential to our family connections, but not always glamorous. In our stepfamilies, the complex carbohydrates are the keeping up of the house, the caring for a family pet, the time spent with family friends, the board games. There’s also the parallel time (side by side) spent cooking, doing homework, or vacation planning. Like green leafy vegetables, colorful squash, and lots of root vegetables, our stepfamilies do better when we get enough of these activities.

A sidenote: I know it’s popular to include family dinners as the most important time of the day or week, but I’m not sure I agree for every stepfamily. Without a doubt, regular family dinners are essential in an undivorced family or a custodial stepfamily where there is a chance to develop a routine. But in a Wednesday dinner and weekends type of stepfamily, once a week might be enough.

If weekly dinners are vital to you and your partner and you feel you can’t imagine getting rid of them for something else, it’d be worth considering one night a week when table manners are not the topic of conversation. As connection builders, family dinner can be disastrous. When it’s not okay if someone eats an entire chicken leg in one bite, well, you know who is going to be the designated police. 

img_8163Which brings me to drawing lines in the sand, about anything. I hear stories of parents and stepparents who become distraught about what a child doesn’t do. He doesn’t clean his room. She leaves the bathroom a mess. Fair enough. But decide ahead of time how much policing you’ll do and how wide your blinders can be. When you have reached your policing limit, walk away. 

One of the best thing I learned was to walk away from whatever the thing was that was bugging me. I mentally set the problem down. I left it on the counter. Then I left the room. Yes, I just turned and walked away. Both in my mind and in real life, I learned to set things down and not take ownership of policing.

That walking away . . . at first it seemed like the most delicious icing from a triple-chocolate layer cake, sugary and yummy, but gone from my system all too soon and incredibly guilt-inducing. But, I practiced. And before long, walking away became a staple in my connection diet, just like a complex carbohydrate.

Walking away was one of the healthiest connectors and I began to rely on it like I never had before. 

Walking away became the best beet salad I’d ever enjoyed.

. . .

Thanks to Nancy, a stepmother reader, for planting the seeds about feeding your family. 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Getting Up in the Morning 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Getting Up in the Morning 

I admit, I’ve been distracted. By an endless campaign season here in the United States. By the election itself. By the mood and conflict surrounding the result.

Honestly, I’ve felt I was living inside a stepfamily run amok.

We know those families. We stepmothers are more than familiar with that conflict. With that grief. With the living among people who have lost so much and don’t know how to sort out moving forward. With the living among those who use their anger as daggers to slash and cut and harm anyone within arm’s reach, including their own children.

It’s as if a blindness descends and overtakes even these sane and caring people. As if the larger human instinct to survive, which has historically meant working together in groups to find food and shelter and fend off danger, has been lost. As if when we walked through the forest we left it behind on one of our rest stops. 

I’m rattled because I’m working on a book of tales for stepmothers, with some fables of how we might shift the focus in the future, to more resilient stepfamilies. To stepfamilies that can absorb loss, support one another in grief, and create enough stability for joy to creep in once in a while. I’m rattled because I wonder what use my book might be.

I’m rattled because not only do I see signs of a crumbling resolve in stepmothers and stepfamilies around me, but I see all the signs of a crumbling integrity and honor in the larger society outside my home.

It worries me. This blatant disregard for the consequences of actions. This willingness to burn the house down, often seen in a stepfamily when one of the divorcing parents takes the other parent to court over and over and over again, never letting either household settle into a calm place for the children. The children live with constant stress and it shows.

So, when I think of sitting down to write to you and share my thoughts, when I think of what it means to be a stepmother in 2017, I struggle to come up with something meaningful.

Because every morning when you wake up, you are being asked to show up again. How will you do that? How can you get up day after day in the face of yelling and accusations and lies about you, and still show up, really be present to the situation?

How can you get up in the morning and go about your day without resorting to the same anger and disrespect you see all around you? How do you keep one little shred of yourself to yourself, selfishly guarding it so no one strips you from knowing who you are? How do you build a treasure chest that fuels you during long and sustained sieges on your decency and your partner’s decency?

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I’m not sure I know any more. I have lots of ideas here and here in my blog archives. I use them every day. They help. And some days they don’t. Some days I want to get in the stepmother chat room or Facebook group and rant. I don’t. I know it won’t help me in the long-term. I know it will simply fuel my anger and disappointment.

No, this feeling of swimming against the tide is bigger than my family or your family. This societal chaos feels like trying to swim and keep your head above water and someone pushes you back under. Every time. This consistently bumping into a dead-end feels like setting about making friends with a family member only to have someone else’s divisive words or actions drive you apart. This is having your every motive scrutinized and proclaimed a lie.

It’s hard to manage in an environment like that. Reading the newspaper each morning feels like entering those Facebook groups and learning of the latest lie told to the children so they don’t want to come to their dad’s house. The purposeful withholding of information feels like learning about your stepchild’s soccer game a couple of hours before the event.

I don’t know how we stop it. I keep trying to remain calm. I keep breathing. I keep telling myself, at the minimum, do no harm. Don’t make it worse. But that only works sometimes.

Sometimes I have to let myself sit in the pain and stop trying to make it go away. I’m strong enough. I’ve established that.

I’ll be here long after the fighting stops. I’ll be here long after the stories are told and fade away. I’m still me. You are still you.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Photographs

The wallet photo. The mantel portrait. Senior pictures on the picture rail. Snapshots under fridge magnets, all in a jumble. Digital frame, ever framing.

Years pass, decades pass. Piles of photographs. My life. My parents’ life. My siblings, their life. My stepchildren, life. Great grandmother, ancestral life. There, all there, in the photographs.

Back when my husband’s children where younger, we took the boat, three kids, and one small dog to Yale Lake in Southwestern Washington. The kids, despite being good swimmers, wore life jackets. The dog, never in the water as far as we knew, wore one too. After the initial thrill of tubing, my husband cut the engine and we floated while we traded places on the tube.

Into the quiet moment, the boys called for the dog. 

Without hesitating, the dog leaped. Almost immediately, she popped up in the cold water with what could only be described as a surprised expression. She paddled ferociously toward the boys with all the power her small feet could muster. The eldest, lounging in the boat waiting her turn to ski was also a certified life guard. She threw off her towel and jumped in after the dog, just in case.

In moments, the dog reached the boys and they pulled her up on the tube before any of us had time to worry.

All that, captured in photographs. All that, now digitized. A moment of unity. Five humans pulling for the same thing: one little dog getting to a safe place.

You never know how much you’ll want an image, sometimes only years later.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Place

A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Place

When I think of place, I can’t help but think of the song, Home on the Range.

Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play.
Where seldom is heard, a discouraging word,
And the sky is not cloudy all day.

Isn’t that what we’re all looking for? Home. A place. A nest. A bed.

We’e especially hoping for the part about no discouraging word. 

When we move in with our beloved and his children we bring our things, we put clean sheets on the bed, we try to settle into the obvious space.

Less obvious is the settling we must do inside that place in the heart, the heart inside our chest, not the heart inside the beloved’s chest. The heart that houses the deepest place of our belonging. Before we will fit in any other place, we must have belonging inside the self.

In the beginning, an invitation is extended, to enter into the home of the beloved. Consider that invitation and whether space was made for you, separate from whether you feel you have a place. Was there space vacated to make room for you?

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Lucy has a place and she knows how to settle within it. 

Then, the invitation is accepted. Consider the acceptance. Did you fully accept the invitation or secretly leave strings attached like a lifeline back to some other time, just in case this one doesn’t work out. When you’ve severed old lifelines, only then will the settling and adjusting to your new circumstances have begun.

Finding place is easy. Settling into place and heart can take years.

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 . . . Amidst the Chaos

Is it just me or is there chaos in nearly every direction. Is it harder and harder to find peace, let alone peace and quiet? Is it now just as noisy inside your home as it is outside your home? Which came first, the inside noise or the outside noise? Though, maybe it doesn’t matter.

The cumulative effect of the busy-ness and rushing and roaring takes a toll. It wears you down and begins to lay heavy on your actions and your heart.

All of which means you work harder to keep your center and find a sense of things being right with the world.

Now, what helps us feel right with the world is different for everyone. For some, its religion. For others, running or cycling or taking part in sports. For others, it’s being in nature. Still others get lost in a book. And there can be combinations of all those.

The thing is, that toll it’s taking on you, it can cause you to snap at your loved one. It can cause you to doubt yourself. It can cause you to be less tolerant of the children you help support.

There aren’t new words of wisdom, I didn’t just wake up and find a new solution and rush to share it with you. If there was a solution, it wouldn’t be called our human condition.

But, I did listen to a podcast this week that seemed so very relevant. Rebecca Tippett, in her On Being podcast, interviewed Pauline Boss on The Myth of Closure. What ensued was a wonderful conversation about grief and unresolved loss and complicated loss. Divorce is one of the life events that qualifies to be labeled complicated loss.

You’re nodding your head. You know. Yeah, I know you do.

May you find space for some peace, and for some peace and quiet, amidst this complicated and chaotic life.

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 . . . 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 . . . Doles Out Her Emotional Labor

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Doles Out Her Emotional Labor

On Facebook and Twitter and the blogosphere, I see post after post from stepmothers struggling with the husband, the stepkids, and the ex-wife. I get it. I get it.

No, I really do get it. The process of integrating a stepfamily takes seven to twelve years according to experts such as Patricia Papernow, Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t.

Regardless of where you are in the process of stepfamily integration, it isn’t easy. Regardless of your best efforts, the speed of the integration isn’t slower or faster because of what you do. There are countless variables, so many it’s not possible to read a book about what others do and simply apply that to your own family, however there are some good ideas in some books. Think of the number of books about child development and how many contradictory theories there are for what is best. Same with stepmothering.

Every stepmother I know has learned she has to live it to see what works for her and her family.

For me, the greatest level of peace has come when I’ve educated myself about the process and taken less responsibility for the outcome. I know, it feels weird to not be designated as a fixer. It is so ingrained. I used to think it was a personal failing, now I know it’s culturally dictated. So, when I found this article, I knew I wanted to share it with everyone who marries a person with children from a previous marriage.

In Women Are Just Better at This Stuff: Is Emotional Labor Feminism’s Next Frontier?, November 2015, Rose Hackman introduced her latest research with this:

We remember children’s allergies, we design the shopping list, we know where the spare set of keys is. We multi-task. We know when we’re almost out of Q-tips, and plan on buying more. We are just better at remembering birthdays. We love catering to loved ones, and we make note of what they like to eat. We notice people’s health, and force friends and family to go see the doctor.

We listen to our partner’s woes, forgive them the absences, the forgetfulness, the one-track mindedness while we’re busy organizing a playdate for the kids. We applaud success when it comes: the grant that was received, the promotion. It was their doing, and ours in the background. Besides, if we work hard enough, we can succeed too: all we need to do is learn to lean in.

Hackman says this is emotional labor and someone has to do it. Both at home and at the office, women are doing the greatest percentage of emotional labor and wondering why they are so exhausted. I feel her article is a very fair description of the issues, without disparaging the men and women we partner with.

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Go ahead, get out for an early morning walk…

So, take a moment to breath. Consider Hackman’s list. Add to it all the things you’re juggling in your attention right now. Add to it all the worries you have about the kids, your husband, your own health and well-being. No wonder you’re exhausted and wondering if your marriage will survive. Simple marriages (my term, in which neither partner has been remarried before) struggle with emotional labor. Stepmothers, add an element of double or triple duty here. Emotional labor is one big reason it feels stressful. That and loyalty binds. No wonder stepmothers are depressed or anxious (Wednesday Martin).

If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you’ll know I’m a big proponent of doing less. Of getting over the Great Healer Complex. For reminders and ideas for how to work with the image of doing less, see A Healthy Stepmother Minds Her Own Business, or A Healthy Stepmother Does as Good as She Can, or A Healthy Stepmother Knows When to Cat, Dog, or Hamster.

You might have felt doubtful when you’ve heard me encouraging you to do less. You might have struggled with guilt that things aren’t getting done: Johnny is going to flunk math, Suzie is not going to have that cute outfit to wear, or someone needs to pick up the kids.

Rose Hackman’s work is an awesome way to understand emotional labor in the context of your current life as a woman, as a wife, and as a stepmother.

Believe it or not, if you do less, your family will be better for it. It reminds me of the episode of Blue Blood (Season 3, Episode 2, Domestic Disturbance) where Linda went back to work and Danny was struggling to step up and help out more at home. Linda felt guilty she wasn’t there to do all the things she used to do. Erin reassured her it’d be good for the boys to take on more responsibility. In fact, maybe that’s the simplest way to encourage children to do more in the home, don’t you be the one doing things that don’t get done. Wait. Things will change if you can wait long enough.

While you experiment, there’s no need to go to the other extreme and never offer emotional labor. It’s a continuum and we can live somewhere along it without getting stuck on either end. Imagine, if you decreased the emotional labor in your life by ten or fifteen percent? How much energy would you have to do something else? To create something? To sustain yourself?

Of course, I’m dying to know what you’ll do and how it turned out. Please come back and comment and let me know. As always, you can post anonymous comments, just pick an alias. I’m the only one who will ever see your email address.

Ready to dish up some emotional labor?

Ready. Set. Stop!