A Healthy Stepmother . . . on a Love-for-All

Mother’s Day.

It all started in the 1850s, when West Virginia women’s organizer Ann Reeves Jarvis held Mother’s Day work clubs to improve sanitary conditions and try to lower infant mortality by fighting disease and curbing milk contamination, according to historian Katharine Antolini of West Virginia Wesleyan College. The groups also tended wounded soldiers from both sides during the U.S. Civil War from 1861 to 1865. Brian Handwerk for National Geographic

Hardly recognizable with the consumeristic nature of our modern Mother’s Day celebrations. Mother’s Day with all its exclusions of non-mothers and the raising onto pedestals of women for a certain 24-hour period rather than leveling the playing field for women every day of the year. If it’s that a woman births a child that’s being celebrated, then maybe we should just admit we’re celebrating the female ability to bring life into the world because we know this to be important for the future of our species.

If we’re celebrating nurturing, then Mother’s Day misses the boat with all the humans of both genders excluded in the narrow definition of mother.

And, what about Stepmother’s Day, officially the Sunday after Mother’s Day? What’s up with that? A separate day because these two women can’t be acknowledged on the same day, even though they care for and love the same children? Because one of the women birthed the children, she must keep any other woman’s hands off their heart? Can that be true? We see example after example in our everyday lives showing us this is how it feels to some.

As for being a stepmother, I honored stepmothers in A Heathy Stepmother and the Holy Grail of Success. It was one of the most commented on blogposts, after the post A Healthy Stepmother is Not Alone.

The thing is, there are some incredible women on the planet, mothers and not mothers alike. They are able to see that the best possible future for any child involves loving and moving toward love. They see that love is expansive and includes everyone. They see that love has no boundaries and the more love is shared, the more love there is. They know love begets love.

Here’s an example of two such women . . .

Sistering On

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I want to hear more stories like this. Let’s shout these stepmother-mother stories from the mountaintops. Let’s put them on billboards as people enter our cities. Let’s feature these positive stories on the evening news. The more adults hear stories of women working together to love children, the more men and women will know it is possible to lay down the stories of the common culture and move toward peace.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Love-for-All

Peace Dog

These two women in the Sistering On story went against our current cultural story that tells mothers to not like stepmothers.

I’m glad they did.

Today, and every day, let’s practice peace. Peace for the adults. Peace for the children.

I’m thrilled to know of these peace-seekers who enter into the world of Love-for-All. Maybe this is the frontier we humans are always seeking, the frontier of letting go of fear and opening into the largely unexplored expanse of the heart.

Maybe the pioneers are these two Sistering On women who will lead us to the happy place we all dream of finding.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . looks at the past in her present.

Join me, would you, in looking back at your childhood. Look deeply into those little girl eyes and do an assessment. Who was she trying to please? Who did she warm up to? Who did she avoid? How did she behave when she was happy? What scared her? What was the thing that hurt her heart so she went out of her way to avoid it?

Now, jump to your early years with your stepchildren. Look deeply into that woman’s eyes and do an assessment. Who was she trying to please? Who did she warm up to? Who did she avoid? How did she behave when she was happy? What scared her? What was the thing that hurt her heart so she went out of her way to avoid it?

Are there any similarities?

Yeah, I thought so.

Collection of the Chinese National Government

Collection of the Chinese National Government (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For me, it’s the same story with different players. I can look back and see that the issues that were hard for me in the early days of my stepfamily integration were the same issues as the hard stuff from my kid-dom.

Recently, my father had a stroke and I was quickly reminded of those family dynamics when my siblings and I danced around who might show up to visit or to take care of Dad’s business. The heart of the family issues was still there.

Fortunately, for me, I’ve done enough preparatory work on my world view of my family that now, for the first time, I was able to process the emotions of it all and dig down in and come up with a perspective I could hold for the duration of this dance with my dad.

In fact, part of the perspective I was able to achieve came from honing my skills in keeping my calm, in navigating troubled waters, in living with folks who are still carrying grief, and in letting go of unrealistic expectations of myself and others. In other words, I’ve learned a lot in the almost 9 years my husband and I have been a couple.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, being a stepmother is a spiritual experience offering the perfect incubator for a woman’s spiritual practice.

Given that, I urge you to open the door a little wider and look out into the back yard of your childhood and see what else offers itself up for cleaning up and airing out. There will always be something, and you might as well keep scraping until it’s all gone.

I’m watching my father adapt to his loss of the use of his right arm and leg. I’m reminded of our mortality and the brevity that is this life. I’m reminded that some day it’ll be me in the bed or my husband or a sibling.

I’m reminded, these life issues are no different than those in our stepfamilies and I soften toward everyone, my childhood family and my adult stepfamily. The clarity about what each one of us needs in order to participate in this life seems so obvious in these moments of endangered health.

We each draw in breath, we each need sustenance, we each need shelter and warmth, and on and on. So many ways we are each connected, one to the other, and share the experience of being human. It is there, in the focus on our shared humanity, that we meet as like beings and open a hand to another.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . on belonging.

Belonging.

Belonging might be the issue we avoid when we whole-heartedly and enthusiastically throw our lot in with our guy and agree to make the best of things. Some of us promise to have and hold, in sickness and in health. Some of us forgo the vows and share a home. Either way, it’s likely we’d all like to slip into the family photo as if we’ve been there all along.

I know I did. And, I’ve watched friends and acquaintances from near and far who agreed to make the best of things with their man and who dove enthusiastically into the making that happen.

The good news is that our human nature compels us to find a way to belong to our group and the community of folks we live in. That’s why I’ve likened becoming a stepmother with the longer trips I’ve taken to a foreign country. In those circumstances, not being able to understand the language or express myself, I felt unsettled, excluded, and nervous about how to go about making things better. No matter how badly I wanted to belong, I was an outsider. At some point, on the 4th day of the trip when I’d been to the same cafe for coffee every morning and the clerk recognized me, my heart opened and I breathed and smiled and I knew I would survive.

The bad news is that despite the fact that I know all these things, despite that I repeated the visiting a foreign country experience when I moved to Pittsburgh, Hartford, South Fork, Greeley, and Seattle, I still had to go through that becoming part of the group when I came into my stepfamily.

Ivan Bilibin's illustration of the Russian fai...

Ivan Bilibin’s illustration of the Russian fairy tale about Vasilisa the Beautiful (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, why did I arrive at my new home sitting beside my husband in the moving van, his two boys helping cooperatively and happily, thinking that somehow this situation would be different? It’s as if there was a fairy tale inside me being played out, leading me into the temptation that I wasn’t going to stumble. I fantasized we’d figure out the just-right way to adjust and integrate without pain of any kind. All without feeling like a third, or fourth, or fifth wheel.

I marvel. I shake my head. I glance away, sheepish. I was 44 when I met my husband, 46 when we married, and I’m 53 now. All to say, I wasn’t born yesterday, I get how these things go.

Once I got over the shock and horror that I had succumbed to the fantasy and fairy tale of the happily ever after, it got worse. There was crying, wailing, venting, and flat out griping. Nothing I did changed the fact that I was the new kid on the block. I still needed to find the cafe, the hair stylist, and the mechanic and I still needed to figure out how to belong in my new family. Even though I’d only moved across town, eight miles away, I might as well have gone to the moon. It wasn’t my neighborhood and they weren’t my people.

I like to think of my husband and his kids, the kids’ mom, and the extended relatives as the people I’d meet if I went to a new city and set up living there. The folks I’d meet might treat me nicely, warily, welcomingly or standoffishly. That’s how real life goes and there are no guarantees that I’d be accepted. What is guaranteed is that it will take time, sometimes years to settle in and make a home.

Settling in and belonging is a process and I look back in wonder that I, and so many other stepmothers, lost track of that. It takes time to belong and it can’t be rushed.

 

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . was there when the traditions began.

One thing I read long ago in the stepmother literature was a suggestion to establish traditions with your stepchild(ren) in your new family constellation. In those early years, that sounded like a lot of work and a set up for rejection so I shied away from that strategy.

Now, looking back, I can see my family has plenty of traditions. The traditions we keep going were originally little things and they started themselves, almost without us trying. We made a few guesses about what might be fun and paid attention to whether the kids liked it and we liked it. We made sure to repeat the successful things and the rest is history. No one got involved in an elaborate planning of activities and timing and calendars.

Three traditions I can think of immediately in my family are the annual crab feed, the block party breakfast, and the back-to-school shopping.

Desperate to have a smooth dinner with the kids the first year I was around for the Christmas holidays, my husband and I decided on a crab dinner. Nothing fancy. Five people, five Dungeness crabs, five tubes of Ritz crackers, and five bottles of cocktail sauce. I honestly don’t think there was anything else on the table that first year. We dug in and made an enormous mess and shared the one thing we all had in common, a love of Pacific Northwest seafood.

a dungeness crab

a dungeness crab (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We repeat that tradition every year now, quite willingly, and even if we have to shift the day around, we sit down and eat crab.

Also in the first year of my life with husband and his kids, I made a deal with one of my stepsons. It was the morning of our annual block party and I knew the day would be filled with juice and desserts and ice cream and who knows what else. My husband and I didn’t want to constantly be checking with him but we were very interested that he have good nutrition, so I made him a deal.

If he ate a fried egg sandwich for breakfast, he could eat whatever else he wanted all day, no questions asked. I used the best bread I could find, wheat with nuts and seeds, and two eggs so he’d have a good dose of protein with complete nutrition. I lightly toasted the bread with instructions from him about just how he liked it.

Huge hit. That’s been our deal ever since and this year was no different. It’s our standby even now that he doesn’t sleep at our house.

Also, this year, I took one of the kids on our 6th or 7th annual back-to-school shopping trip. Like always, we made a plan about what he needed and got very strategic about getting as much value as we could for the money we spent. We even commented this year how neat it was to look back and see what priorities had shifted and how the items we were looking for had changed. Those shopping trips weren’t really planned in the beginning, they just happened. I invited my other stepkids to go back-to-school shopping also, but we never got into a pattern and it’s not a tradition with them.

The smallest things can become a tradition. Things that don’t seem like a big deal at the time. Where the dog lies when everyone goes to bed. What the menu is on a special occasion. Who sits where at the dinner table. And, a fried egg sandwich on a summer day.

I like knowing that I’m taking part in a ritual that wasn’t created on purpose, but one that sprouted and grew from the circumstances that surrounded it.

Lasting traditions will evolve and you won’t even know you were there at the beginning until you hear the clamor . . . but it’s tradition!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . carves out a summer.

It was a hot and windy day in August of 1973 in my small southern Oregon town, the kind of weather that would’ve kicked the dust up in the streets if they hadn’t been paved. My brother and I rode our bikes to the creek where we spent the greatest part of the day swimming, eating blackberries, and playing with friends. We were too young to have jobs and just old enough to go swimming without our parents, according to at least one of our parents. We returned home in time for dinner and chores, played a little kick-the-can, and slept out on the wrap-around porch of our 1895 house whose upstairs bedrooms were sweltering in the mid-summer heat. This went on for 2 1/2 months of summer, but it felt like 2 1/2 years. Time warped in a stretching-on-forever way, much like the ribbons of country roads that we roamed on our bikes.

When I look back at those years, I realize there’s still a place in me that thinks that’s what summer is and I wonder if others have a particular experience or memory that defines summer. For me it’s blackberries. We spent hours picking blackberries and selling them to our neighbors who put up quart after quart of jam.

English: Chehalem blackberries

English: Chehalem blackberries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My husband associates summer with popsicles. He is like a kid about them. When he wants to feel that summer feeling, he gets a big bag of popsicles and passes them out to the neighbor kids and parents and we all sit around on someone’s lawn under a shady tree and drip our popsicles while we talk and catch up. It’s a beautiful sight, the grinning kids, the calm among the adults, and the togetherness. That’s really what my guy is after, he’s all about the community spirit and togetherness. Popsicles are a beautiful thing, they require no cooking and they can even be homemade. We made them from Kool-Aid when I was a kid, but juice is just as good, likely better.

The point of this blogpost is that expectations of summer and what will happen in summer can be as unrealistic as the expectations we wrap around the winter holidays. We can set ourselves up for unnecessary hurts and troubled hearts. We can end up stressed and in conflict with our husbands and partners.

We don’t have to spend our time that way.

We can relax our idea of what should happen and let happen what will. We can let go of all kinds of things, even when we didn’t know we could. Once we take our emotional energy away from the worry and upset and feeling frustrated, we can turn that energy to the connection and relational thinking that we’d really like to have.

So, you don’t get to the library every day this summer. So, you don’t go on a trip. So, summer consists of the kids playing in the wading pool in the front yard with the dog and the neighbor kids. So, you roast marshmallows with the neighbors instead of going to a movie.

So.

Sometimes I think we think summer is the big trip, the Grand Canyon of adventures. I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s about the scent and taste of blackberries that bring back years of memories that involve brothers and neighbors and riding bikes. I think it’s about the texture and temperature of a popsicle as it melts in your mouth and you recall all the laughter and good times.

Summer is a feeling. It is a moment. Summer holds the greatest potency when it stretches out in front of you forever without a bunch of obligations blocking the way.

I say let your kids get bored. Let them figure out something new to do on their own. Let yourself get a little bit bored. Your brain needs that time as a rest from being filled full of facts and figures that you spend the rest of your days in. Even if you’re working through the summer and the kids are with someone else during the day, use these long evenings to gather for a picnic and see what happens when you’ve all had a chance to slow down. Just changing where you eat your evening meal will change something. We eat most of our summer meals on our front porch or on the back deck. Either way, it feels glamorous because we are outside.

And, of course, we have blackberries for dessert.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . does as good as she can.

You’ve heard the expression, when life gives you lemons make lemonade. Another one that works when things are really, really rough, you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit. Both are true, depending on the circumstances.

Regardless of which expression fits the day that is stretching out in front of you with all it’s potential and challenge, underneath is the idea that you can do as good as you can.

You can do as good as you can.

Lately, as I’ve read reader comments and listened to friends’ stories and lived my life challenges, I’m sobered by how many of us are judging and berating ourselves for not doing even better. In amongst the indignation and heart-hurts rests a deep judgment that we should have known another way, another way to witness our husband when the children forgot to call or another better way to respond when someone wrinkled their nose and rejected our efforts.

Equally staggering are the disappointments that litter our days/weeks/years. There is an expectation that if things go a certain way then everything will be fine. We stepmothers proceed to kill ourselves trying to make life go a certain way. There can never be a certain way that is good enough, but the allure of that fantasy lives strong within us.

Orestes Pursued by the Furies, by John Singer ...I want someone to write a book for stepmothers that advises us to copy our husbands. Doesn’t that sound like a crazy idea? But, I’m here to tell you that every time I copy my husband’s behavior, I feel better. I feel less stressed about who said what and to whom and when and what they thought of me. I look at him and see what he’s sharing and expressing and when I can match what’s happening for him the experience is much easier for me. I’ve been studying him for years now and I like the results inside myself. I harbor worry less, much, much less. Okay, I stop at copying the goofy way he begins his day but boy, oh boy, I admire that he can wake up every morning and start over as though he had a clean slate since I am usually mired in the leftovers from the night before.

I want someone to write a book for stepmothers that insists they let others struggle. I want that author to admonish women who run around doing everything for everyone and I want them to lead workshops in how stepmothers can stand and wait in silence until the realization dawns on others that the struggle, whatever it is, is not our job. I’m still practicing that one, I give myself a C+ or a B- on that one, a huge improvement over the F+ in my earlier role as a doormat.

Those same authors should contemplate authoring a book about stepmother guilt. Sure, stepmother guilt is laced with women’s guilt, but a special kind of guilt is laid on a stepmother, a guilt born of not being the Mother. That gets wrapped in around the guilt of not being woman enough so that her new family has no struggles. This book is begging to be written.

Finally, we need to practice kindness and direct it at the self, so maybe there should be a book about that. We need to be reminded that chastising ourselves about how we look and about what we have or have not accomplished is futile and only adds to our feelings of discontent. We need to practice kindness toward ourselves especially when we have tried to give what was ours to give on that day and it was rebuffed. We even more especially need self-kindness if we are givers and we give, give, give until we are empty. In that moment of realization that we have done it again, when we feel like we were duped but we know deep down that we did it to ourselves, in that moment we don’t need to berate ourselves for being stupid. We tried. We did our best. Even if the other person wasn’t gracious enough to recognize that or kind enough to understand the situation was difficult, we can still remain resolute in our kindness toward the self.

I want us to walk tall rather than stooped under the weight of the guilt of not being enough. Whatever a stepmother can do on a particular day is enough. It is that simple. To offer what we can offer to the people we live with and care about or even don’t care about, whatever we can offer as the host of our home. . . we must accept that as enough. We know that what we offer may be different from one time to the next because we might have more energy or share more of a connection or be engaged in the process in a different way.

Long ago, at the gas station where my husband filled his car the attendant encouraged as he pulled away, have as good a day as you can! We love that expression at our house and use it liberally.

Have as good a day as you can.

Do as good as you can.

Let that be enough.

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