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 Finds a Fostering Family

My neighbors have a new dog. They are fostering the dog for a couple of weeks to make sure the dog likes them, they like the dog, and the long-term future looks compatible.

We did a similar thing, taking our second dog on trial with the understanding that the first dog needed to give approval of the second dog.

Our first dog wasn’t sure she loved the idea, but her behavior immediately changed for the better. She relaxed. She followed the second dog, a bigger. more confident dog. As if she suddenly had a pack, she became more dog-like and less worried and less anxious. We thought that was a good sign and the match was solid enough, we adopted the second dog.

Not to compare stepmothers to dogs, or families to dog packs, but any time a new member comes into a group, there is a jockeying for attention and position and control. Anyone who’s lived through that time of adjustment knows it can be a wild ride that usually ends in all parties feeling disenfranchised.

DSCN4390But, I feel optimistic. Culturally, we are living in a time of post-entitlement era, post-individualism, and post-divorce-is-bad era. We’ve come through the sacrifice-everything-for-the-children era and it seems like we might be headed for the more reasoned every-person-matters and everyone’s-needs-can-be-met period.

Which means

  • we could be headed for a time when second families are valued as much as first families
  • we could be headed for a time when we understand that social pressures can support or destroy marriage, whether a first family or a second family
  • we could be headed for a time when we understand that to keep negating and putting down and actively destroying second families is to squander human resources that could be used to better our communities
  • we might more actively and consciously make space for new family members, including stepmothers
  • we might have regular conversation and share feedback, pointedly discussing each family member’s position and feelings, and work toward civil and respectful human packs
  • we might consider our family groups as human packs, letting go of the pressure to be a perfect family

I get confused watching ex-spouses and divorced families where the expectations and old habits get dragged along as if they were a favorite blanket, never holding up, in danger of being lost, and vulnerable to being destroyed. Then, worse, in the middle of the clinging to those expectations along comes a future partner for one or both of the ex-spouses.

We know a new life partner will come about, for one or both of the divorced couple. That is a normal part of our collective human experience. Thus, stepmothers and stepfathers are part of our normal human experience.

Therefore, a day might come when foster dogs and stepmothers are both welcomed with anticipation and curiosity, with an expected adjustment period. A day might come when it won’t matter that stepfamily adjustment is longer than the two weeks or two months we give a dog to adjust. Even if it takes two years (these days it takes seven to twelve years for stepfamily integration, and a certain number of stepfamilies never make it), the key will be that we’ve created a new cultural expectation.

When we get to this possible future cultural acceptance of stepmother adjustment and when it’s no longer a big deal, we will know we have reached cultural maturity, something we have only dreamed of to this point.

I hope I’m alive to see that day.

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 . . . 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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