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 . . . 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 . . . 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 . . . 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 . . . and Three Radical, Un-Lofty Goals for the Holidays

Quick, it’s time for you to remind yourself to step back, sit back, fall back, get back, lay back, and pay back. Pay yourself back for every time you’ve ever over-extended and pretended.

Holiday gatherings at this time of year aren’t that different from holidays at other times of the year, in general. They are a thousand times different from other holidays, in specific. Decades of tradition, ritual, and cultural meaning ascribed to a certain song, a favorite dish, or a secret handshake create a recipe for exclusion of stepmothers.

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you know my pet project is convincing all of you to refrain from doing other people’s work. And, I don’t mean sweeping the sidewalk to your front door when the kids forget to do the chores.

I mean letting children do what they are capable of doing, which is much, much, much (please, add another much) more than we think they can.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . radical, un-lofty goalsI mean letting adults do what they are capable of doing (i.e. feel pain, worry, take care of others, consider and plan for the day, and advocate for children). Especially, when it comes to their own children. Yes, I do mean letting parents take care of their children.

The father, presumably your husband or partner, takes care of his children on his time. If he needs your help, you wait for him to ask you. You refrain from jumping in simply because you see what needs doing next.

The mother, presumably your husband/partner’s ex-spouse, takes care of her children on her time. You refrain from jumping in simply because you see what needs doing next.

Just because you can see it, doesn’t mean it belongs to you. 

Are you with me? The following ideas are things I wish I had considered ten years ago, but please use your knowledge of yourself, your spouse/partner, and the circumstances in your relationship to decide if these things will be helpful for you. Making your own decision will be good practice for you, especially when you’re feeling pressured into helping others.

Three radical, un-lofty Goals for the rest of 2014.

  1. Stay home for one of every three family outings. Sleep. Meet up with girlfriends. Read. Fume. Write in your journal. Surf Facebook. Or, stay home for two of every three and dance to loud music throughout the house. Hell, dance to loud music in the park or at the mall. Walk the dog. But, resist the urge to attend every family outing between now and January 1st. While you’re at it, let your spouse know he/she can play hooky for one of the family outings, what the heck.
  2. Spend one hour together without clothing, under the covers, every week between now and the end of the year. Just be there, no agenda. Agree you will leave the agenda out of it. You are there to meet up, eye to eye, safe and warm under the blankets, and say hello. Talk. Worry. Cry. Hug. Fight….no, wait, I don’t mean that, you do too much of that already, skip that one. If there isn’t a time in your day or evening without children around, wake in the middle of the night and take your clothes off. Spending an hour with no clothes on under the covers with your partner will, at the very least, remind you there are things in life more important than arguing, even if that is simply being held. At the very most, you will have shared intimacy at a time when you need it most. It’s preferable that you touch skin to skin, even a foot or a toe or holding hands, or whatever else you can can agree is being called for at the moment. Ahem. And, if the ahem doesn’t take very long, STAY under the covers for the whole hour, even if you fall asleep. 
  3. Answer all requests with Can I get back to you on that? In your impulse to belong, join, and be seen as generous, you can get stuck in the yes. In reality, you’ve got a choice. You are not the end-all, be-all for anyone. Not even your children. Write this down, Can I get back to you on that? Use it, every single time someone asks for your time, attention, or help. Can you help me with raking the leaves? Can I get back to you on that? Can you mend these pants for me? Can I get back to you on that? Can you meet me for coffee on Thursday? Can I get back to you on that? Mommy, I need treats for the school party. Can I get back to you on that? And, of course, what you do while you’re getting back to them is check your calendar and make sure you don’t have back-to-back appointments, double-bookings, or too many things on one day. During the holidays, make fewer appointments. And, of course, some of the kid requests get a higher priority, they are children. But, not everything is urgent, not even the treats for the school party. This is why the gods and goddesses made Trader Joe’s.

Un-lofty goals? Yes indeedy! Who said all the good goals were lofty goals involving getting our needs met by serving everyone else? The words maid, servant, janitor, dishwasher, or [fill-in-the-blank] come to mind. Doing all those things perfectly simply leads to anxiety and depression and the feeling you’re never good enough.

Un-lofty goals, on the other hand, are decadent and yummy. Although, in most families, un-lofty goals will be seen as radical, they are exactly what is needed. Un-lofty goals will help you feel like you are playing hooky. Which is good, since this is the kind of hooky you were meant to take. This is the kind of hooky that will restore your spirit, tickle your fancy, and open the doors and windows of your thinking so you can create your own top-three list for the next family outing.

There you go, three radical, un-lofty goals, and all. Clothing required for blog reading and commenting.

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 . . . ends the finite game.

Years ago, a friend gave me a small book titled Finite and Infinite Games, by James P. Carse. The book left a big impression on me and garnered a place on my bookshelf all these years. When I needed it the other day, there is was, unfolding the wisdom for me at exactly the time I needed it. Or, so I thought.

In fact, I wish I had remembered this book a decade ago when I began my life as a stepmother because when I opened the pages of the book again, the words leaped out of the page and into my stepmother consciousness and here I am, rushing to share with you.

Briefly, a few of the concepts of a finite game. The main purpose of a finite game is winning. Finite means it has an end. The rules are well-defined and serve the purpose of defining a winner and a loser and how you’ll know when the game has ended. These rules are externally defined and cannot change as the game progresses. You can also not play alone. You need an opponent. Think divorce court, settlements, child custody battles, and on and on. There is definitely that part of living in a stepfamily that involves living within a finite game.

On the other end of the spectrum is the infinite game. In an infinite game, the goal is not winning. In fact, infinite means the game goes on forever. The goal is continuing to play. Thus, rules serve to keep the play going. Rules get changed, get this . . . to prevent someone from winning. That’s where I had to stop reading and walk the dogs and let it soak in. That’s the part that made me think of our stepfamilies. Could there be a game with rules that accommodated and changed to keep everyone playing and keep someone from winning?

Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, James P. Carse

Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, James P. Carse

Life is the biggest infinite game there is and we get to choose whether we are going to play it like it’s a finite game, with a winner and a loser. Personally, I think the winner-loser mentality is the best way to increase blood pressure, heart rate, anxiety, and depression. Constantly comparing ourselves to someone else. Constantly jockeying for the best seat at the table. Constantly putting others down so they don’t appear better, in case we perceive ourselves as losing. Ugh. I have no time for it.

It’s true, you can’t waltz into the other house and say, hey, snap out of it, let’s all live with some respect. But, we can take ourselves away from the finite game and the game of winning and losing. You see, in the finite game, there must be an opponent. The game cannot be played when there is no opponent. Some might argue there could be a game called Who Can Give the Silent Treatment the Longest game, which sort of looks like there isn’t a finite game. But, that’s a finite game if you engage in the nastiness of it all. If your heart and mind get wrapped up in knots each time you think of that other person, yep, you’re playing a finite game, complete with winner-loser. If you’re practicing healthy boundaries (ala Karla McLaren) and you feel neutral when you hear this person’s name and don’t go off in a 30-minute tirade each time you think of him/her, then it’s likely you’ve taken yourself out of the game. In that moment, there is no finite game.

I don’t know if the game of life automatically becomes an infinite game when we stop playing the finite game. What I do know is that as soon as I laid down the worry of being enough, doing enough, what he or she was or wasn’t doing, and a whole ton of other stuff, the game felt different. Yes, it was like that. It was immediate. It felt like one moment a battle raged inside me and the next moment, when I focused on a different game, voila, there was no more winning and losing. I continue paying attention to boundaries focusing on the infinite game.

No, life isn’t perfect. But it’s better. Much better.

So, what is the game I’m playing? The infinite game I’m playing. Well, beside the overarching LIFE game, there is the hugely important Marriage to My Fabulous Guy game, the Growing and Maturing as a Human game, and the Who Can I Be When the Criticism Falls Off Me game.

I expect there are a few other games in my stepfamily future as we all mature and age up. As an infinite game teammate, I’m okay with that.

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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