A Healthy Stepmother . . . Lives Life on the Edge

Remember a time in your life when you made your own decisions? Remember having your decisions respected by others? Remember when another’s behavior didn’t impact your life quite as significantly as it does now? And, remember when you were in charge of what happened in your home? You know, the days before your marriage. 

That time before your marriage was a time you lived with a leadership role in your own life. Then, you said I do and just-like-that the roles and the rules changed. You went to sleep one day in charge of what happened to you and woke the next day with three or four or five other somebodies figuring into the equation of how your time was spent, including whether you lived under the same roof with someone who resented your presence. 

Recent events in my family of origin have left me questioning my roles within any group. As a kid, my place was always in the middle, trying to make everything okay for everyone. I was the Omega in the pack of siblings, with the others heaping on huge helpings of teasing or criticism or opinion. But lately, I’ve discovered another place to live. I’ve found a place on the edge where I’m not leading the decision-making, but am remaining true to myself. I’m no longer automatically caretaking others, but remaining engaged by observing, listening, and supporting when asked to help.  

Scenes of urban life in Byzantium. Left illumi...

Scenes of urban life in Byzantium. Left illumination is a scene of marriage. The right illumination depicts a conversation among family members. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I first learned this living on the edge business from adjusting my role within my stepfamily. When I let go of insisting on inclusion in certain conversations, I immediately relaxed. When I let go of thinking I needed to be involved in every event, there was time for my other interests, which fed my spirit and washed away the resentment and the feeling of being out of control. 

At first, the edge of the circle seemed like a precarious place, precisely because it wasn’t familiar. The edge of the circle held new variables and new perspectives. Being on the edge involved not being in the know about every little thing. It involved letting go of the planning and processing or mediating between the other parties. Over time, I became more comfortable in my lawn chair on the edge of the circle and participated from that place. In many ways, it was a relief, since I was no more waiting on everyone like a garden party hostess.  

It’s worth remembering, no one in a family is ever truly outside the group. Even in estranged families, where someone is excluded, or shunned and sent away, the place that person took up is still there, waiting to be reclaimed.  

In the same way, a stepmother is never outside the group but she can think she is. When her familiar roles aren’t available and others don’t make space for her, she can feel like an alien. In those moments, she has a few options. She can run another out of the position she thinks she belongs in, she can win others over and gain her position back, or she can adapt and realize that most stepmothers wear more than one hat anyway. 

A healthy stepmother is resilient. She is an expert at finding second, third, and fourth choices in sticky situations. She might take things personally in the early years of her marriage, but she quickly develops a new perspective that allows her to begin practicing all the roles a stepmother can take in the extended stepfamily. And, over time, she understands, it truly isn’t about her. 

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . knows reading or watching Brene Brown’s work is an act of self-soothing.

Some of you may know of Brene Brown and her fairly famous TED Talk on Vulnerability with almost 7 million views to date.

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And then, there was the amazing Whole-Hearted Parenting Manifesto.

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Finally, we have the fairly recent article on the Whole-Hearted Parenting Manifesto from the Huffington Post. It’s well-worth a read, as is Brene’s latest book, Daring Greatly.

If this feels like one huge endorsement, it’s because it is! I find her work helps me stay grounded. I feel so human and lovable when I read her messages, follow her blog, or watch a video of her talking. We are lucky to have researchers like her bringing work on vulnerability and shame out into the public eye.

Cheers, Brene Brown, from an appreciative fan!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . on advice about holidays.

In many ways, the holidays are simply our daily lives on steroids, an intensive twist for a month. So, whether it’s the physical doing, the emotional hurricane, or the worry exhaustion, it’s a good idea to start by getting grounded in the day-to-day with books like Stepmonster, Wednesday Martin, and The Happy Stepmother, Rachelle Katz (I wish the title was The Happy Enough Stepmother, less pressure). That said, Katz beautifully describes the difference between what stepmothers hope and a realistic expectation. Throughout the book she offers examples, and plenty of them. Thank you, we needed that!

English: "The First Thanksgiving at Plymo...

English: “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Advice about how to survive the holidays abounds. My favorites are from Wednesday Martin in her 10 Day Countdown to the Holidays from 2009. Start with Holiday Tip #1 and work your way through.

My holiday strategies from years past are herehere, and here (my favorite).

This year, I’d like to encourage you to ramp up the self-soothing to your maximum levels. Here in the U.S., we’ve just come through one of the most anxiety-provoking presidential races in our time and the general tone of daily life remains edgy, to say the least. Combine the traumatic events around the world with the growing list of folks we know who are losing jobs or looking, add a few major healthcare issues and a difficulty with an ex-spouse or a child, and the fact we’re doing as good as we’re doing is a minor miracle.

Maybe there are ways to streamline the holidays or do less, but we haven’t found them at our house. Every year, my husband and I think we will have fewer events, we will cook less, and we will worry less. We never do. It’s a complicated situation, we’re a stepfamily and he and I are both children of divorce. If we do less, we cut out our important people. That’s not going to happen.

So, we’ve become realistic. We’ve changed our expectations from having a great time to simply gathering and letting things go as they will. And really, the point of this post is to say that perfect holidays, whatever they are, are undefinable. What is perfect for one person is awful for someone else. In fact, we now deem a messy holiday that turns out fairly decent to be successful. There have been some that surprised us, when the kids insisted that we open our presents first and they paid close attention to our reactions. And, we stay connected in our hearts by working together to make the days and events what they are.

Given the difficulty society has with coping with stepfamilies, the difficulties stepfamilies have with coming to peaceful interactions, for us to hang on to the idea that we could somehow just be good enough or do things just-right enough for everyone to have a nice time . . . well, we decided to let that go. There was nothing left to do but increase self-care. My husband and I do that in different ways, but we support one another 100% in getting self-care needs met.

My strategy is to practice what I teach. Yesterday, my client reminded me of the first class she attended just before Thanksgiving a year ago. We were doing a lesson on posture and scanning the position of the head and legs and arms while lying on the floor. Not long after that class she found herself serving dinner to a houseful of relatives with all levels of closeness and difficulties. At one point, she realized she was struggling so she slipped upstairs to lie on the floor in her bedroom. Her husband came to find her about 10 minutes later. As he looked down at her, he asked her if she was doing okay. I am now, she replied.

I love her story and I use a number of strategies (see the self-soothing series). I love when slowing down, noticing posture, and becoming more aware of my physical nature calms me. It’s as simple as tracking my breath in and out. It’s as elegant as noticing where one foot is on the ground and if I am using the whole foot to support me in standing. It’s as obvious as wearing comfortable clothing and shoes so I can breathe and feel like the woman I know myself to be.

Maybe you won’t have time to go lie down on the floor. Maybe you won’t have time to lock yourself in the bathroom, stand against the door, and let your weight be held up by the door and your feet. Maybe you won’t be able to walk the dogs around the block and get some fresh air. But, maybe you can imagine you are breathing. Maybe you can imagine you are walking tall.

As soon as you imagine yourself with tall posture, full breath, and a calm voice, you’ll notice that not so much later, those things are there, for real.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . goes away.

I’m out of town on a business trip. It’s a great conference and I’m learning a ton. It’s not about stepmothers, but that’s the topic on my brain and I’ve been writing furiously and creating some new ideas for my upcoming support group.

I’ve been in touch with my husband daily, texting is a gift from the heavens. And, last night I helped one of the kids with an English paper, again, technology improves our possibilities at communication.

But I’m remembering one stepmother blog post I read a long time ago. The stepmother had gone away on business and she was feeling sad because no one missed her.

While here, I got to talking with one of the women I’m housed with. She is away for a week, like I am. She commented that her son and husband seemed to be doing just fine at home without her. She wondered aloud if they missed her. She is not a stepmother.

When I find aspects of our lives that occur because we are women, because we have a woman role in a kids’ life, when the pain we feel isn’t entirely because we are a stepmother . . . well, that’s when I feel validated, because, of course its not. Pain that is part of the experience of being in a role that every woman has brings us all to the same conversation, despite all the cultural dividing and comparisons and conflict between mothers and stepmothers.

I want us to look beyond the moment, the instance, and ask ourselves what normal is. Let’s ease up on attributing every slight or hurt or rejection as a result of being a stepmother. Mothers feel this way too!

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the pursuit of winning.

I’ve been a fan of the Oregon State Beavers since I entered the school as a freshman in 1978. This year, for the first time in over a hundred years, the football team has a winning record, 6-0. You can sense the struggle and heartache this team has been through and the Oregon State fans are some of the most die-hard fans you’ve every met, they keep showing up for their team even when they lose.

It’s this winning season that caused me to reflect on all those years of losing and how winning and losing have a lot to do with the stepfamily experience.

Early in my re-marriage, there was a palpable tension that I didn’t understand. As I observed what was going on, and sorted through the politics, it became apparent there was some fairly serious competition going on in our extended stepfamily.

I also noticed that in stepfamilies I knew, there was often one parent vying to be the winner. Sometimes, both parents fought for the winning spot in their child’s attention. Other times, a stepparent edged into the competition. In other families, there was an all-out covert campaign, with regular one-upping. Or, more passively, one parent putting the other parent down in an effort to discredit them. There was even a parent who needed to be needed so badly she set up situations where she appeared as a winner.

I re-evaluated the place I held and engaged with my stepfamily for the umpteenth time. I re-evaluated my sense of needing to do or fix something or make things better. I emerged from the deep-dive committed to laying down my end of the tug-of-war which I wrote about in this blog post.

It turns out stepping away from the competition was the best thing I’ve done in this stepmother journey.

When I’ve suggested as much to a couple of friends, they responded, “but, ___ “ and the list of complaints and worries went on, clearly they were tormented by the feelings they had inside. They weren’t ready to end the tug-of-war, not yet.

There are apparently some stepfamilies where the parents in the two homes work together closely and there is not a competition. I take my hat off to them. If you can do that and it works and there isn’t resentment from any of the parents, then bravo.

That is not the case in 90% of the stepfamilies I know. In most cases, a great outcome would be if the parents largely left each other to their own devices and didn’t interfere with one another. Instead, we see competitions that focus on making sure the child shows loyalty and emotional attachment.

If you’re in one of the 90% of stepfamilies I’m familiar with, you can gauge whether you’re caught up in even a low-level competition by your responses to a few issues. If you find yourself stewing on what the kids’ mother wore today and how awful it was, you’re in competition. If you feel gleeful that you got to spend more time with the child, that’s competition. If you feel angry when your way of doing something is criticized, “my mom doesn’t do it like that,” that’s a pretty good sign you see yourself in competition.

It’s a tough thing to let go of, this competition. While there are cases to be made for competition and I’m so glad my football team keeps getting up every day and playing the game, a stepfamily is not a game or a competition. A stepfamily is a haven, a healthy environment, and a resource for all the people who take shelter there.

I decided that I could let go of my competitiveness and comparisons and stay focused on that haven-healthy-resource future with my husband, a future that very, very often looks like we’re not winning. From the outside, it often looks like we are losing. But we know we’re not, we get up each day and give it our best, sometimes with good results and sometimes ho-hum results. Occasionally, something happens that confirms for me that this life is a process and even though it’ll never be exact or fair or even or equal, it’s a great life and we do indeed have a haven-healthy-resource thing going on.

I’m on board with my hubby and OSU Coach Riley. Neither one of them yells to inspire people. They go with and support and encourage. It works for them and it’s working for me. My blood pressure is down (just kidding, I didn’t have high blood pressure, it just felt like it) and my heart is at peace. I don’t like everything I see and I can get riled up a bit from time to time. I’ve also been known to stick my nose in during an emergency and I stand by that and would do it again in a heartbeat. But, overall, we’re moving in the right direction, toward a positive experience, a healthy environment, and a haven-resource for us all.

Just like my OSU football team, we’ve hung on to our vision of the future and we keep working toward it even on days when the pace is glacial and we wonder what it’s all for. Then, we look up and find ourselves in the thick of this life we share with his kids.

That is winning.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . musical guide to remarriage.

I’m obsessed with the movie, Love Actually. The music is as much a part of the movie as the vignettes themselves and since I had to drive to the other end of my state for a teaching engagement, I had lots of time to listen to the entire soundtrack. Somewhere between Jump and Too Lost in You, it occurred to me all these songs represent some part of a journey of falling in love, losing illusions, grappling with disappointment and falling back in love.

Years ago, I heard a woman’s voice on NPR radio tell me that she saw marriage as a process of falling in and out of love with the same person over and over and over again. Since I didn’t hear who she was, I can’t give you the source material on that, but I love the sentiment. In my experience, it’s true. But, we don’t have much patience for the falling out of love part, we most often hold strong to our disdain of anything that’s not perfect and work as fast as we can to get back to the happily-ever-after moment. I don’t think that’s reality. I think much of life is ho-hum, if we are lucky, and a good bit of it is excruciating in some way or another.

But, let’s start at the beginning…..you remember that feeling . . . you met him, fell head over heels, and dove in. Deep. If you don’t remember that feeling and the event, my recommendation is that you go back and dust it off and renew the feeling. Holding that time as a shining light in the darkness is worth a lot. I’ll get back to that later. For now . . . Jump For My Love

When the magic softens and the day-to-day messiness and angst and jockeying for who’s going to be closest to daddy gets into full swing, the distance between you and your guy can grow and grow. It can be terrifying. You try to hang on, you try to show him what needs to happen. He feels like he’s trying his best and all he can hear is you yelling at him. Magic turns to dust . . . The Trouble With Love

Sometimes you hope someone (usually the man you married) will sweep in and rescue you. That fantasy is one that dies hard. Most often, in a remarriage, you’re both stuck inside your tormented box of pain, hoping it will somehow miraculously end. . . . Wherever You Will Go

And then, you step back and take some time to sink into the inner parts of yourself and assess your situation. Only you know what you need, only you know what you are willing to let go of and what is essential to your survival. Tricky part is that we can let go of much, much, much, much more than we think and it’s often going to turn out for the best when we do. You know what I’m talking about . . . all those expectations, if only he would….if only she would. Let them go to this lovely lullaby. . . . The Glasgow Love Theme

After you’ve taken those hours, days, weeks, or months to sort it all through . . . once you’ve made your decision that YES, this is the man I’m meant to be with, then you get to the place where you surrender and discover you didn’t die. You discover you can keep your integrity and wholeness, maybe even more of it than before. . . . Both Sides Now

Acceptance of a real and natural relationship might take months and maybe even years, but for those of us who are fortunate enough to stick it out, there comes a day you wake up and feel at peace. At peace with your decision and at peace with your man.

I’m going to whisper when I say this, in some ways that’s what felt like the beginning of my marriage to my husband. We finally arrived at a whole new level of relationship and I fell in love with him all over again, just as meaningful as before, with even more trust and understanding. And the memories of how we met and how we got to here, in this precise place in our relationship, are worth so much. We are grateful, we are together, and I’d do this all over again, not something I’d have said four years ago. . . . Lost in You

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Maybe you don’t have a road trip waiting for you that allows you to turn up the volume and sing out loud to these songs, but you might have a moment on a walk or when the kids are gone to school, or late at night with the headphones on. For me, this particular music (and the movie) is a salve on sore thoughts, a smoothing out of the bumps and bruises from earlier struggles. No doubt, we’ll struggle again, but at the moment, we’re both still singing!

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Update:
Listening again to the soundtrack and can hardly believe I forgot these amazing songs . . .  I’ll See It Through . . . Songbird.

Enjoy!

A Healthy Stepmother . . . creates a new category of stepmother.

Childless stepmother.

How does that phrase sound? How does it feel? Does it make you cringe? What does it imply about a woman if she comes to a marriage with a man but doesn’t have children of her own? What are her entitlements if she does have children already and why isn’t she entitled to those same benefits when she arrives solo?

I have a huge issue with the term childless stepmother. So much so, that I wrote to Wednesday Martin, author of Stepmonster and my guru of stepmothering. Some other books have come out since then, but Wednesday’s was the first book that spoke to me woman to woman, not as expert to pupil or professional to customer. She was able, in her accepting language, to paint the picture of a process of integration and rather than saying you should do this or you should do that, she validated all us stepmothers with what was essentially, “Uh yeah, you are living in the hardest process of your life, no wonder! And here’s why!” I drank it in like I was dying of thirst.

I wrote to Wednesday and shared my thoughts. Childless, ugh. At the time (and she and I wrote a few times back and forth and I contributed to her blog once, so I feel like I can call her Wednesday, plus I think she has the coolest name and she could be a rock star), she asked me what I would propose instead of childless stepmother, but I couldn’t think of a better phrase.

This morning, like a bolt of lightning, it popped into my head.

Solo stepmother.

I am a solo stepmother. I came into this home I share with my husband and his kids, just me and my cat. No, my cat was not my child. My dogs aren’t my child either. They are my therapist, more effective than a therapist at this point in my life, even the one who is a stepmother, who’s been there so to speak, who told me to grow up. The cat is gone now, but the dogs continue to keep me grounded in a way that has sustained me through many a tough time. 

But, this term, childless stepmother, conjures an image of a woman who does not like children (I do) or who hasn’t time for children (I’ve changed my schedule a multitude of times to be home for kids or take them to and from practice) or who isn’t woman enough to have children (my family is a long line of fertile myrtles, nope, I was too busy adventuring and then made a choice that I didn’t want to be a mom at 45). Basically, I think the images of a woman who is cold, doesn’t like kids, or isn’t womanly enough is a convenient stereotype for others to use to minimize her, even other women.

How do we change the stereotype, if not by changing the words we think and speak? Even BM, the derogatory acronym for biomom, could be the more neutral M for mother. We will know whose mother she is. Instead of DH, the acronym for dear husband or darling husband, all too often used with sarcasm or hurt, we could write H. We will all know that’s our husband. Let’s use these words that carry less sting.

So how about SS, solo stepmom? There’s something a little adventurous in that term, it speaks to some of what might have been our lives before we met our H and moved in with the kids. The women I know who don’t have their own children have had a full and adventurous life and mostly don’t go into a remarriage to a man with children without first considering all the variables ad nauseam. They make a choice to bring themselves willingly to support their husbands in completing the process of raising children.

I like Solo Stepmother. Solo offers me a choice. In terms of the folks who count stepfamilies, write about stepmothers, and share the demographics, I urge you to consider this term.

And so, big shout out to Wednesday Martin. . . I figured it out, I’m a solo stepmother!