A Healthy Stepmother . . . is part of the dialogue.

Hello and happy new year! Here we are at the beginning of a new calendar year and I’m doing my usual, ignore the goal-setting and resolution-building. In fact, this article came across my desk which suggests we ought to be dreaming. I couldn’t agree more. I love a good dream, it’s what gets me up in the morning.

One of the things I used to dream about was being involved in the dialogue about kid issues in my home. If you’re a stepmother, you might join me in a good chuckle. We all start there and some women accomplish it to their satisfaction but that has not been my experience, nor the experience of many of the real-life stepmothers I know. Instead, my work has been to discover when I agree, when I can bend, and when I need to let go, as well as how to gracefully navigate between those choices without guilt and with healthy boundary setting.

Knowing it is healthy to have and use my voice, I began blogging. I fumbled and bumbled my way through the first months, finding the words to describe what I stand for in the world of stepmothering. At first, I convinced myself I wasn’t part of the ever-growing stepmother industry, because I wasn’t selling anything. Then, I was invited to do a guest post for Wednesday Martin on her Stepmonster blog.

I kept writing. I kept honing my thoughts about what we stepmothers call ourselves, about our struggles to feel okay and our recurrent pain in the face of repetitious slights, as well as our basic need to find a sense of belonging. I almost stopped blogging, thinking I had run out of material. If not for one of you readers sending an email, Kim, are you still writing this blog, I hope so, I need this, I might have stopped. Turns out, I wasn’t done.

In August, Shari Gregory, LCSW, approached me about co-leading a support group for stepmothers. Shari and I have been meeting and developing our curriculum so we can begin as soon as 8-10 stepmothers find us and interview with us. Our plan is an 8-week program on Tuesday evenings from 6:30-8:30pm. We are about halfway through our interviews and looking forward to finalizing details in the next month. If you know anyone in the Portland, Oregon area, please have them get in touch.

Because we are charging a $30 fee for each week of the group, I’m suddenly part of it, the stepmother industry. I cringe because I don’t like the thought of being part of an industry and I never liked being a market target.

And, as if co-leading a support group wasn’t enough to entrench me in the stepmother industry, I’m now working on a book. I took a class called Discover The Book You Were Meant to Write, with Jen Violi. I definitely discovered my book and I’m well on the way. I can’t say more at this point, but you know my style. It’ll still be me, with a twist and still me. But, when my book for stepmothers comes out, I’ll be even deeper into the stepmother industrial complex.

The good news in all of this industrial complexity is that I am a language geek, meaning I love words. I am fascinated with what they mean and how we behave differently when we use different words. And,

  • I am on a mission to reclaim stepmother as a positive term.
  • I’m getting active on Twitter and beginning dialogues there.
  • I’m continuing to blog and twist a few arms to stop calling names, since calling names leaves a slick, gooey, coating of slime on the person using the name. And, when we use those names online, it just leaves a trail of see, we told you so, stepmothers are only out for themselves. I think there are lots of other ways to process our pain rather than publicly. If you want more of my thoughts on how to soothe on that subject, just say so.

I’ve come to realize we stepmothers need each other and we need to blog and be visible. There are a bunch of us out here doing this in a healthy and positive way. For some ideas of what others are doing, check out artist-stepmother Kimberly Harding’s blog, journalist-stepmother Amy Young’s blog, or this anonymous blog, Stepmother Revolution.

It also makes a difference when we follow and comment on a blog, like you do here, and here’s why. If we are going to change the dialogue about stepmothers in the culture, we need people to see and read the day-to-day introspective, respectful, and compassionate words of stepmothers like you. By commenting, you are helping build evidence to show that stepmothers are not conniving, selfish, or unloving women (or, insert any other negative word applied to stepmothers). You will be contributing to a growing trend that will show sociologists and folks like the Wednesday Martins-of-the-future that there was a shift in the stepmother psyche in the early 21st century.

And, this is why I’m going to keep walking forward into the stepmother industry

  • to remain part of the dialogue
  • to contribute in constructive and meaningful ways
  • and most of all, to make sure we leave evidence so it will be said we weren’t looking for a place to scream about the mother of our stepchildren, we were looking for peace and inclusion.

My best to you for 2013.

Dream big.

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I so appreciate you leaving your thoughts here, and by doing so, helping build the conversation. A few of you have noted that your comments show up on a Google search. That’s true, but you can preserve your anonymity by using your first name only. Another idea is to go by Jane Doe or some other name. You don’t need a separate email account to do that, simply fill in whatever name you want to use in the comment form. Your email must be real, but no one sees your email except me and I don’t share it with anyone.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Santa Sophia: A Christmas Poem for Stepmothers

With the tragedy in Connecticut on Friday, I thought I’d hold this post which I’ve updated from the original 2010 version. Then this morning, as I went through the motions of getting the day started, sorting reactions and judging my own and others’ responses, it seemed appropriate to share after all. It is about healing and letting nature have it’s way with us so we can loosen our defensive and protective stances against one another. We belong to the tribe of humanity, more than we let ourselves believe, and this poem is about the love that accompanies that shared humanity. Let us care for stepmothers as we care for each family member, let each stepmother be someone a child can rely on.  

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Santa Sophia: A Christmas Poem for Stepmothers 
©2010 Kim Cottrell

Twas two weeks 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 videos and Facebook 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 black bear.

A wise old crone, overflowing with ideas,
I knew in a moment it must be Sophia.
More convincing than parents, 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!
Into the house! To the young! To the old!
Now here! Now there! Finding hearts that will hold!”

As fond memories of pre-divorce family repeat,
The pain and the loss, bitter pills, they did eat.
Into the house the black bears they did amble,
With satchels of joy, and Sophia in a ramble.

And then, in a twinkling, in the rooms up above
The soothing and healing of each growing love.
As I listened in silence, afraid to turn around,
Into the living room Sophia came with a bound.

She was dressed all in silk, 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!
Her capable hands, she clasped tight to her heart,
As if ready 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 sprang to her Zipcar, to me gave a nod,
And away they all drove to the next of stepmoms.
And I heard her exclaim, ‘fore she disappeared from view,
“Stepmothers, take heart . . . for you’ll always see through!”

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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 . . . news and support group.

Huffington Post this morning……Why Does My Husband’s Ex-Wife Hate Me.

You’ll be comforted, it’s mostly about her, not about you. Well, #4 is about you, #11 is about you. The rest of the reasons are about her ability to process her own life.

Rather than celebrate in our minds and give a sigh of relief, I urge us all to keep doing the work of processing our own lives. Stepmothers are no better-than or worse-than mothers, each woman is in flux no matter what her role. It’s clear the ability any one of us has to process events and make peace within our hearts will be what determines our contentment with our lives.

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Sneak Preview: A new support group is coming to Portland, Oregon!

I was approached by a counselor and attorney, Shari R. Gregory, about co-leading a support group for stepmothers. We’ve developed an 8-week curriculum that begins January 8, 2013. We’ll be interviewing women over the next two months to make sure the group will fit their needs. The flyer is posted on the Support Group: Portland tab, but I’m including it here also.

Shari will be the perfect co-leader for the group. I hesitated to offer a group on my own, but with her master’s in social work, her experiences as an attorney, and her 10 years as a stepmother, she’s got wonderful perspectives all her own. She had me at, “I’ve been following your blog for a year” and how much she has used the thoughts share there and then she asked me to co-facilitate a group.

I’m very thrilled with this opportunity to continue the dialogue about self-soothing, perspectives, and finding our place. We are committed to creating a welcoming, non-judgmental, and trusting environment for each woman to explore her deepest concerns. It’s my hope that each woman find the freedom to share herself in the world with integrity and ease despite the difficulties inherent in the stepmother experience.

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!

. . .
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!

A Healthy Stepmother . . . gives it time.

Maybe you’re like me and you grew up knowing how to make things happen. You learned to watch and listen and pay attention to the nuance. Then you used the info you had gathered to plan and carry out a strategy to solve the problem or create something new. As far as I can tell, most of us learned this detailed way of noticing, planning, and fixing.

You grew up and went on about your life. Maybe you got married and had kids or didn’t have kids. You divorced. Then met the man you’re with now. You married and anticipated using your well-honed skills of making things happen.

Instead, suddenly the world went sideways.

Franz Jüttner (1865–1925): Illustration from S...

Franz Jüttner (1865–1925): Illustration from Sneewittchen, Scholz’ Künstler-Bilderbücher, Mainz 1905 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As if someone waved a magic wand, all the world stopped moving in the direction you were going and began moving in almost exactly the opposite direction. Your strategies didn’t work and you flailed and struggled and tried harder and the world kept moving past you as if you weren’t there.

You watched in disbelief, then in anger, then with sarcasm and tears.

The world kept moving as if you weren’t there.

Finally, you stopped. You waited. You sat down and contemplated whether you could really do this. Maybe this remarriage-with-kids thing was too much. Maybe you shouldn’t have said I do. Maybe you should have known what you were getting into. Maybe this was really all your fault.

I think it’s in that moment, when you stop and reassess, that you actually begin a process that will create a place for you in your new family. That moment comes after you’ve caught your breath and can see that it isn’t your place to make life good for everyone; husband, kids, or kids’ mother. That moment comes when you live and act as though it isn’t your job to try so hard even though you’ve been trying really, really hard. The moment comes when you forgive yourself for trying so hard and accept that it was what you learned as a kid. You more fully understand that the acceptance you gained as a teen and young woman for being so good actually cemented the trying so hard as a strategy you would later need to let soften.

In that stop, wait, and breathe moment, that is when you can let things unravel. You can let your fingers sift the problems, so you can tell which ones are actually problems. You can let your thoughts swirl and swirl and finally come to rest and those that refuse to rest, well, they should likely be dealt with. You can let your spirit be assured that you are good enough just as you are. You can listen and feel for your physical self to find a resting place.

Finally, when all systems calm and come to a rest, make a note for yourself that this is your starting place. This is home base. This is the return from outer space place that waits for you when all hell breaks loose.

You can move out from that place deep inside you and offer what you will, but monitor carefully so you never give more than you hold and never more than you have.

When you get to the stop, wait, breathe moment, you’ll be ready for the letting go and the accepting what is, including the slow pace of finding your place. You can then look at your life and realize that you do have skills to bring to these relationships and that to support those skills you must learn to give your life time and do even less, more gently, and with softness.

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