A Healthy Stepmother . . . and Love That Liberates (Maya Angelou)

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and Love That Liberates (Maya Angelou)

I just watched a five-minute video of Maya Angelou telling three stories to illustrate that love liberates. I’m pretty sure I held my breath throughout, hanging on every word, gasping at the end yesss.

Love, as she’s describing it, liberates.

Angelou describes as a new mother at 17, deciding to move out of her mother’s house. She describes their conversation which didn’t end with her mother declaring if Angelou left she could never come back. Her mother did not draw a line with a threat or cast a net to keep her there. And, in fact, Angelou came back several times, as she describes it, “every time life slammed me down and made me call it uncle.”

She describes her mother liberating her to go out in the world and be who she was, and later, how she liberated her own mother.

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As stepmothers, we might use Angelou’s words to guide us in our interactions with our spouse, our stepchildren, even with our own children.

One of the biggest implications is the idea of letting go, doing less for our stepfamily, and not trying to be the end-all, be-all. If this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve read those suggestions here, and here, and here.

Instead, we grit our teeth and soldier on, pulsing with anger, seething with frustration, going through the motions of things like unloading the dishwasher, lucky those dishes aren’t people or things we love. We might crush them with our intensity.

But. Love liberates. Angelou distilled it down that succinctly and I love it. Let it be a bumper sticker or a mantra. Let it be the positive affirmation. Whatever we need it to be, let it be so.

Love liberates. It doesn’t ask, will you do this my way so I feel better. Will you salve my worries or my wounds or my sense of not belonging? Will you put me into the middle of this life as if I’ve been here all along? Will you love me?

Love asks none of that.

I’m going to guess that Angelou’s mother felt good enough in her own skin, good enough to be able to stand separately from her daughter and let her leave and let her make those mistakes. Never once did she say, I told you so. She let her go. Which means she minded her own business and welcomed Angelou back when she got smacked down by life.

What if it could be that way and be okay? What if another person’s lack of doing something or lack of achievement or being taken advantage of or inability to see something that is so terribly obvious to us, what if that is NO reflection on us? If that is true, the mistakes your stepchildren make are not about you. No one did something on purpose. No one stumbled and failed because they have a stepmother.

Remember, this life your stepfamily lived was there a long time before you came along. Your job isn’t to fix it. It’s to witness it. It is to support your husband in the best way you can. It is to take care of yourself, which may include doing your personal, interior work to help yourself learn how to stand inside your own skin without needing someone else to shore and hold you up.

It doesn’t matter if the mother of the children has difficulty holding herself up. It doesn’t matter if she does terrible and egregious things. You are not in charge of her. Neither is your husband. It is not his fault she is this way. It is not the children’s fault she is this way. And, for every woman who describes the ex-wife as crazy, whew, I have to take a deep breath because it’s so seldom that is true. She does crazy things. She goes way out into the extremes of a person’s behavior. She manipulates and she acts thirteen, but she isn’t crazy. Not in the failing-an-exam way. There are other people in the world who see her functional side, who think she is a good person in the way your people see you as a good person.

No, what she’s struggling with is letting her love liberate. She may not know how to do that. She may not have been liberated by love. She may know uncloying and unclutching love or the freedom of love that unbinds.

Even though you will have numerous times in the future to clench your teeth and breathe and try to make sense of things that seem nonsensical, you only have one person to answer to, yourself. If you focus on answering to yourself, to be as careful about your motives and intentions as possible, to let your love be unclutching and nonbinding, then your relationship with your husband and your stepchildren will benefit. That is what will help you feel better. When you feel those relationships are nurtured and strong. But that doesn’t come from the superficial, being together moments. It comes from repeated interactions in which acceptance, trust, and devotion are shown in the actions it takes to navigate the moment. It will likely still be painful, on many occasions.

Angelou’s story is cleaner than ours. She was a daughter and she was talking about her mother. She wasn’t describing a stepfamily, but I think the story still applies. Angelou describes telling her mother, “you were not a good mother of small children, but you were a great mother of young adults.” How refreshing. How completely refreshing. No beating around the bush. No recriminations. Just laying it out. Simple. I liked that part a lot.

Right now, or later today, or tomorrow, when you feel your teeth clench and your shoulders tense, think: How can I let this love I feel liberate? What would that look like if I let go of the outcome?

Let’s do some experimenting. Together. You in your home, me in mine. We’ll check back in after a few weeks and see how it’s going.

Love liberates.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . on finding her voice.

It’s so wonderful that the place I left off in my blogging on January 2 was unapologetically beginning anew. It’s so wonderful because it’s true. Since I wrote that last blog, there’s been an entire hidden world going on inside me.

My self-image, that internal conceptual picture that’s a series of overlays of my emotional self, my physical self, my kinesthetic self, my thinking self, and so on, has been shifting and quaking. The image shifted away from me as a person who can’t say aloud what she thinks and who needs to curate every word that comes from her mouth to me as a person who says what she wants to say.

I read an article on February 4, 2014 that affected me so deeply I wanted to throw up, but not in the way you might think. I wrote my mind and before I could censor myself, knowing from my deepest gut I needed to be out there with it, I sent it to Joanne Bamberger at The Broad Side. When I woke up the morning of February 5, it had been published. Gulp.

Here’s what I put out in the world.

A Healthy Stepmother finds a new voice.

And

Here’s what another blogger wrote after she read my article.

While the subject isn’t about stepmothers, regular readers of my blog will likely not be surprised at my stance. It’s the same stance I’ve tried to embrace in my place as a stepmother and wife of a man with children from a previous marriage. I’ve focused on respecting my stepchildren and their mother to the best of my ability.

I’m not advocating we stepmothers put ourselves out to be the doormat, in fact, I think that can be dangerous. But, I am of the opinion we should do what we need to do to keep peace in our hearts as much of the time as we can, to think at least neutral if not positive thoughts about our stepchildren, and to work our asses off to remain as connected in healthy ways to our spouse. Then, decades down the road when the kids are grown and they have more life perspective and put the relationship of their parents into a new light, we can find ourselves holding the possibility of a different relationship.

Perhaps what’s most important about the practice of remaining at peace in your own heart during times of complete turmoil when one side wants to blame the other side and you as stepmother take the heat we call collateral damage, is that your heart stays soft enough and pliable enough for you to consider alternatives to reacting negatively toward the mother of your stepkids or to the stepkids themselves. Rather than solidifying your reactions and interactions into hard lines with little flexibility with regard to how things should be done or becoming an emotional bully, I’m advocating you adjust as the situation calls for it. Show up when you need to show up, speak up when that is what you need, ease back when you want to ponder your next move, and negotiate every family activity with a question of what is needed for you to remain connected to your husband at that time.

One of the biggest things that shifted my self-image as a stepmother was beginning this blog. It was the beginning of me finding my voice and honing the way I wanted to represent my ideas. Not to make them palatable for the masses. I wrote to be clear about the hurts and possibilities of being a stepmother, to become more aware, to be more realistic, and to share why being a stepmother is so much about the condition of our hearts. On February 4 when I was furiously dumping my thoughts onto paper, I found myself grateful for these last four years of blogging.

One thing I’ve embraced in my 50s is to not rush things. I have never written and published things before they were ready to come out of me. I sat with my reactions to the story We Have It All Wrong after it was published and processed my own reactions. Although I considered other’s reactions to the story, most importantly, I worked within myself to process my reaction to breaking silence after so many decades. I was shifting from a person trying to not make waves or hurt anyone to a person with a voice. My voice is limited to telling my side of the story, whether it’s about my growing up family or about my stepfamily. And, the issue isn’t oh look at me. The issue is health. How can we grow up with such shit in our lives and become healthy adults and be okay within strong relationships.

If as many as two in four women have been abused, and some experts think it is that high, then you and I both know that sexual abuse touches the lives of divorced families and stepfamilies. There is no way around it. How and what we believe should be done to the offender is going to be flowing over into our everyday lives.

Just lately in the world, all I read is the hate and over-reaction. It’s why I didn’t tell my story for years and years and year and years. I didn’t want to calm people down when they over-reacted to a story that happened to me in 1974. It didn’t happen yesterday. It wasn’t someone else’s life, it was my life and my experience. I don’t need someone to go take care of it for me. I don’t need someone to pity me.

I once went to a five elements acupuncturist who was very wonderful while she was initially meeting me and then when I shared my story in what felt like a trusting space, she went into pity and sympathy and treated me like I was broken. I was so upset I could’t say to her, you just went into treating me like a victim. I didn’t go back. That was almost 10 years ago now and I’ve come some long way since then. Being a stepmother will do that.

In fact, as I was writing my opinions and asking myself over and over, do you really think we are being too hard on fathers who offend against their daughters or anyone who sexually abuses someone within their community, I knew there was a way being a stepmother had changed my views. I had become more and more clear about the messiness of life and how nothing is so black and white. There is always gray and always another aspect to consider.

The week after my article was published on The Broad Side, it snowed in Portland and we were sequestered in the house. I had lots of time to reflect. Then, my husband and I went to Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon on a trip we’d wanted to do for years. On the last day of the trip, I was sick. I thought I was dehydrated, I thought maybe the glass of wine with dinner the night before had tipped me into heat exhaustion from the dehydration and heat. But it wasn’t that hot and I only had 2 glasses of wine. I vomited when I got up. I vomited by the side of the road after we left the Grand Canyon. I vomited again at a rest area and again before we got to the Las Vegas Airport. I’m pretty convinced now it was the deepest visceral reaction of my whole self, purging my silence, purging my demons and all the voices telling me I should be quiet and lady-like and polite and be careful because something I said might not be liked by someone else. Whew…my restrictions lying by the side of the highway in Nevada and Arizona.

You see, there is alway a little doorway, even if it’s tucked in the corner of a heart and back around behind the darkest recesses, one might leave open for the possibility of a different future. Perhaps our challenge in our hurt, whether we are stepmothers or daughters who’ve been abused, is to find that door and ever so slowly open it to reveal the wonders of the human heart. Wonders that we will need to use in our closeness with our spouses and partners. Wonders that will vastly improve the quality of our lives if we can only dust them off and practice using them.

I hope you will join me in finding that doorway to your heart. Not so you can go be lovey with someone else. No, it’s all about being lovey with yourself. That is the practice of the decade, the skillset of the century. Love yourself and you’ll find your way to behaving differently with others.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . where stepmothering begins and ends.

When my husband and I brought my Dad to live with us in May, I knew I was in for some big changes. I’m the primary caregiver and the one who gets up with him at night. Which is not a complaint, more to paint the picture.

After about a week had passed, I thought, “oh wow, this is just like bringing home a baby. No wonder mothers are tired.”

I’m writing here today to say, nope, nothing could be further from the truth. Bringing a parent home to live with you is nothing like bringing home a baby.

The fact that you brought the baby into the world is what makes being a mother different that daughtering your aging parent. I did not bring my father into the world. He lived for 25 years before I was born. For the next 20 years, he was a close part of his children’s lives, helping raise us with ideas of how we could be confident and capable adults if we had certain lessons. Then, my parents divorced and from the age of 38 onward to 77, he lived mostly alone listening to his own muse as to what he did with his time.

English: Father and daughter with early Easy B...

English: Father and daughter with early Easy Bake Oven, which resembled a conventional oven. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then, a few months ago, he suffered a stroke and came to live with me.

Now, he needs someone to cook for him, someone to help him get dressed, someone to bathe him, and someone to walk with him in case he loses his balance. He also needs a cheerleader and recreational therapist. On those fronts, he’s in good hands. We get him out and about and involved in our community. We live on a street with close relationships to our neighbors and they love visiting with him. My brother visits as often as his out-of-town job allows.

Within all those parameters is a space in which my father and I navigate the past, the present, and the worry for the future. Indeed, I could lay down some sort of house rules that might work for me, but he is an adult and though he’s had a stroke, he isn’t incompetent. He isn’t confused and he isn’t demented.

Earlier, I was setting up his computer in his room and thinking about what podcasts he might enjoy since he can’t read any more because of stroke-related vision problems, I could feel that I was in danger of once again deciding how something for him.

And that is the moment the whole issue became relevant to being a stepmother. Bringing my father home and helping him has turned out more like being a stepmother than being a mother.

Working with my father to encourage without pushing, offering opportunities to exercise without over-controlling, providing healthy meals without being boring, and establishing a daily routine without dictating have all been a delicate dance. I am so reminded of my concerns that the kids weren’t getting enough sleep, or that they were eating too much sugar, or that I wanted them to pick up after themselves. It didn’t matter how sensible my ideas were, they met with the evil eye of who do you think you are to tell us what to do?

So, today when my dad was finishing the lunch our new caregiver had made for him, he was telling her that sometimes he wanted to sleep in and around here that was impossible.

“What about this morning?” I insisted.

“Oh, that? That’s not sleeping in.” He exclaimed. “I’m talking about sleeping until I wake up.”

Ha, helping him navigate his new life is exactly like being a stepmother. Except it’s not.

Today, as I headed out to the store, he reached out and beckoned me close. He bestowed an earnest hug and told me he loved me and appreciated me.

Right there, the similarity to stepmothering ended.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the stories we live and tell.

A friend of mine posted on Facebook.

photo (14).

I read the article and it was so good, I’ll tease you with this nugget, “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” Bruce Feiler, from the article. I’m fascinated with resilience. If my friend Carly thought this was about resilience, this binding together in families, then I needed to read it. I teach resiliency. I’ve recovered my own resiliency and gone on to have a really wonderful life. But, was I always resilient? If not, how and when did I learn to be resilient?

Wow, and another wow. You know how things land in your lap when you are in the thick of it. Three weeks into bringing my father home to live with us after his stroke, I’ve been deep in examining the family narrative and wouldn’t have thought of referring to it in that way if not for seeing this article.

When we decided to bring Dad home, I felt surprised at my decision. When he had his stroke it wasn’t my first reaction, in fact, I went about the process of looking for an adult foster home for him to reside close to me. As we looked and as his needs became more apparent, it was clear we needed a better handle on his condition and the only way to do that was bring him with us. He needed some consistency of care to make the leap to the next level of functioning, so here we are. And, it’s going well, mostly as we expected. We will likely still end up finding him a foster home, but for now we are focused on improving his quality of life regardless of where he lives.

After we got him home, I began combing the story line in my family for stories of my relatives caring for relatives. The obvious, my sister and I cared for our mom at home when she was dying of melanoma at the age of 47. She was so young, it seemed not so typical.

On my mom’s side of the family, Aunt Rose, my mother’s sister, took care of her grandmother who had dementia. I was in junior high and high school and loved having my great grandmother in my life. Later Aunt Rose took care of her husband and then her father. My cousin and I took care of Aunt Rose when she was dying of lung cancer at the age of 70, I was the weekend relief caregiver to my cousin who had a family an hour away. So, not only have I seen the family narrative in action, I’ve lived it.

On my dad’s side of the family, my dad’s sisters took care of their mother for over 15 years after my grandmother had a series of strokes. For a large portion of that time, my Aunt Ranae had Grandma solo. And, my cousin Vicki’s family cared for her at home when she was dying at 51 of melanoma.

Clearly, a strong family narrative exists around caring for relatives, and my journey through the taking-care-of-dad process gives me a new understanding of why stepfamilies are slow to accept the stepmothers in their midst. The culture has a strong and strongly negative narrative about stepmothers being untrustworthy and conniving. Whether or not a particular family narrative matches the cultural narrative, it takes sensitivity and resolve to not be swayed by the popular culture. When we aren’t swayed, I think of this as resisting the easy way out. But, who can resist the easy way out?

Here’s what I hope, but I’m doing anyway even if it changes nothing. I hope that if I live true to my family narrative, and not the popular narrative, then my stepfamily narrative will be shifted. And now I get it that I don’t need to have a report card each year at Christmas that says, you’ve been a great stepmother because…xyz. I only need to live true to my heart and the narrative will have another layer of complexity added and each generation adds another layer. Each event and each story adds another. That’s why it’s so critical how we respond in a crisis within the family.

Any time we’ve had a family crisis, my husband and I dug in to find our true feelings and our commitment to the future of all involved. We made a plan and we hung on to it whether we were challenged to take the easy way out or challenged to cave in. It seems our actions are contributing to the family narrative and we’re  seen as reliable and consistent. If the family narrative theory is true, the children involved will also see themselves as reliable. Thus, the stepfamily narrative becomes richer, more complex, and therefore less easily influenced by the negative messages the popular culture holds about stepfamilies.

Most of all, along the way all hearts are eased.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the gauntlet of adjustment.

Today, as the year ends, I’m reflecting back on how stepmothers adjust to life in a stepfamily. In this final post of the year, I leave you with my interpretation of the stages of adjustment a stepmother makes to her new stepmother life. I call this process of integration, the gauntlet of adjustment, which is an apt description of many a stepmother’s walk through the initiation into a family.

In the beginning, there is a period of Generosity when the father of the children feels generous, the stepmother feels generous, the kids might even feel generous. This is the stage when forgiving someone for their daily fears and foibles is easy and most family members feel magnanimous and free.

Angers Castle

Angers Castle (Photo credit: stevec77)

Within the first year or so, maybe sooner, there begins an inkling of the dawning of a realization that it just might be that we’ve gotten in over our heads. This is the Dismay period where we look around in disbelief and say to ourselves, say this isn’t so! I didn’t just marry a man who’s children hate me. I didn’t just move away from my friends and family to be treated this way. But, at the Dismay stage of the game, our brains still won’t wrap around the fact that we said I DO and this is the end result. So, we go into survival mode, we keep smiling and going through the motions of being generous. Eventually, we realize these worries coming up in the Dismay phase are real.

After Dismay, comes the Double-Take phase. We can’t believe all the things we have walked right by, even though these problems weren’t evident in the Generous stage. Everyone behaved generously and real personality styles weren’t on display when we first got involved. But then, in the Double-Take phase, what we see is the real, true, real-life way our new family members behave.

Still, even then, we are human and our human nature sends us into a process of survival. We go into Denial. We tell ourselves it’s really not as bad as we think it is and we try to talk ourselves out of thinking that our lives are anything other than fine, just fine. We don’t want to be seen as a party-pooper and we don’t want to sound negative. For a brief time we convince ourselves we’ll be fine and that it just takes time to adjust. Denial can last a long time.

We live like this with our dismay, double-take, and denial for a while and one day we wake up and discover we are Indignant. We bring our Indignant selves to wonder why in the world our husband is not doing this and not doing that. If only he would do something, anything, life would be better. If only we could be a better woman, all would be well. We start worrying we aren’t woman enough and at the same time we are so mad and sometimes crazy indignant at our husband. By this time, the cumulative effect of the Dismay, Denial, and Indignant phase begins to affect our marriages.

Of course, not far behind the indignation is the Anger. Anger is that place where some of us feel most uncomfortable. We might want to yell, but we stifle. Or, we yell and feel tons of guilt or oceans of shame. This is the stage at which we can no longer pretend it doesn’t matter that our stepchildren don’t like us. It’s the stage we recognize that we’ve been doing the proverbial pissing into the wind and it has made no difference in our adjustment to our family. At this stage, it is so easy to feel that love is lost and there’s absolutely no hope of our lives improving.

For the women who stay (and some who go) there often follows a period of feeling Bereft. Numb. With a sense of not caring for the people with which one shares a home and a life. In this phase, we stepmothers often walk around zombie-ish and apologetic, often listening to our internal dialogue more than the dialogue between us and family members.

After Bereft-ness, comes the feeling sorry for ourselves, aka the Martyr. Personally, I think by the time we become aware of being a Martyr, we are faced with a choice of whether to dig our heels in and accept martyrdom as a role that may be played successfully, or not. My own grandmother was a martyr. I never found it particularly pretty, but she was surrounded by her children until the end of her life.

After many years, when we’re appropriately sick of feeling angry, bereft, indignant, and victimized, we might become able to shift away from the martyr. Often, this is the moment when we can truly let go of whatever it was we hope to gain, including being seen in a favorable light by anyone in our extended stepfamily. In that moment, when we admit there isn’t a story-book life to be found, in that moment we can back up and begin a process of Acceptance.

In Acceptance, we can acknowledge that our life is different than it might have been if we were still single. We can accept that we are a partner-member of a family that may never fully accept us but that we can still find a way to have a nice life, filled with satisfaction and peace. Acceptance is an amazing process. It’s the time when you look back outside yourself and see that you are a pretty amazing person, just the way you are. You realize you don’t need to change yourself or worry about being successful, nor do you need to change your husband. You can still stay in dialogue, but you let go of the need for change. Acceptance includes affirmations of who you are as a woman, the woman your husband fell in love with. You regain your sense of self and strength and begin again.

After Acceptance comes the Blossoming, and a renewal of the feeling that you are the perfect person to be with this perfect husband. Perfect being tongue-in-cheek, of course. It’s just that you realize if you had bailed in Year 2 or Year 5, you’d have missed out on this amazing journey to the heart of trust and love and understanding and compassion that you’re building with your guy in Year 7 and Year 9 and beyond.

These stages proceed at different paces for everyone, depending how many kids, how old you are and your life goals, what your husband thinks about himself, and, it’s so complicated! And, of course, women choose to exit the process at many different stages. Their pain makes so much sense given this process which is messy and never smooth sailing. The pain involved in this process inspires me to write and challenge the status quo.

When all is said and done, what you will find is that you have built your personal Resilience. Together, you and your husband can now handle almost anything and when things go wrong, you’ll look at each other and shrug and not get too worried when you don’t have a perfect reaction. One of you might say, yeah, that was pretty tricky. The other nods and you move on, together, in a way that feels connected and builds even more trust and resilience.

Here’s to our future contented lives, may we listen to ourselves, strengthen our soothing skills, and grow into more resilience!

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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 . . . leaves the big stuff on the table. (Self-Soothing series, #6)

I struggled a long time to write this blog post because we’re headed into discussions of the big stuff and how to self-soothe. The big stuff stirs up our internal stuff. Self-soothing is all about how we manage our emotions and what we do with our actions in the face of the big stuff in our stepfamily. Remember, I’m not a psychologist or a counselor or a stepmother coach. I am a stepmother who has studied human behavior for many decades and is now shining the “patterns of behavior” light on this issue of being a stepmother.

The last few weeks, when you were practicing making space, taking inventory, paying attention to your patterns, all of those studies were to lay the groundwork upon which to process your big stuff. The stronger your groundwork practice, the stronger your self-soothing in the internal stuff.

One of the simplest ways to self-soothe is to leave the big stuff where it belongs. That’s it . . . leave it sitting there on the sofa or the table. Don’t even pick it up. You can walk all around it. You can look at it. You can even touch it, but it’s best if you can leave it lying there while you do.

I’ve thought we need those intermittent warnings that you hear at the airport . . . “please do not leave your luggage unattended, any luggage left unattended will be destroyed.” Our stepmother version could be . . . “please do not take on the big stuff that isn’t yours, any big stuff you take on that doesn’t belong to you could explode at any moment.”

If you have picked up a big stuff issue, you’ve noticed how hot it gets. The three really big stuff issues that come up for most stepmothers? One is the pursuing of the child’s love. Another is the judging of the mother. And the third is the rescuing of the child. Any one of these can burn you, all three together and you’ve got a bonfire. Continue reading