Note: Maybe this is your story, somewhat my story. Mostly, this is all our story, we’re in a shared, collective time in the history of families and stepfamilies. Maybe the new tagline of this blog is “living in the gray zone.”
She entered the stepfamily with all her enthusiasm for life, exactly what her husband loved the most about her, refreshed by her verve as he was, like being refreshed standing in the spray of the waterfalls along the Columbia River Gorge. And, the things her husband loved about her were the very things her stepchildren mocked and rejected.
It didn’t take long for the enthusiasm to wane, in fact, it got lost in the shock of an earthquake-like moment when she couldn’t find a place to stand or hold an opinion that wouldn’t be criticized or belittled, except when with her husband in the privacy of their bedroom. Not so gradually, the joy faded, the excitement and stimulation of their shared lives dwindled, their hearts shrunk.
From the high, to the low, to the full acceptance of the intense dislike of the children for her, or of their mother of her, the weight of those dislikes dragged down each gathering, every holiday celebration. What were celebrations and rituals become dirges and funerals to a family that no longer existed.
The months and years passed, slowly and excruciatingly, as if this pain would last forever. So long, the couple thought they imagined their love. So long, they wondered why they thought they’d be the ones to do stepfamily integration in a different way.
They couldn’t know the fans of negativity were fueled by the larger culture, a culture in a particularly strong era of judgment and rejection, casting out of the other, entitlement and hyper-focus on the self, the narcissism of mothers (sometimes fathers) and the demonizing of fathers (sometimes mothers), all in the name of supposed-love.
More time passed, more pain passed. Her heart crusted over. She became brittle, with a hardening of the spiritual arteries. As her heart hardened, her heart-sap became sticky and instead of being shared freely, her love creepily attached to people who came close. Her pain and heaviness obvious, others avoid getting caught in caring for her wounded self.
Occasionally, she looked beside her at her husband. He hadn’t become brittle, but had faded, just a little dimmer and then more, until he was a half-shadow of the man he’d been before his children and their mother set out to pledge resistance to his wife.
But, one day, they gazed at one another after the children left, with wonderment and she said to him, That was a success, to think we almost missed it. We didn’t fight after the kids left. We made it through a holiday without getting pitted against one another. Incredible, my heart feels lighter, there is more light.
The next year, she looked at the calendar and at the approaching winter holiday with all their traditions and gatherings. She realized there was no dread. She wondered when dread had gone and she recognized this as a new measure of success. To simply go through the traditions and gatherings and support the family events without the highs and lows, that was success.
She dubbed these times as neutral. Without joy and without pain. Something in the middle that seemed neutral. Since the neutral was so much more comfortable than the pain, she accepted it, welcomed it.
But, after the novelty of neutral wore off, it felt boring. Sometimes she even looked for something with more intensity to let her know the occasion had meant something, but she gave up when she realized she was just looking for an old habit.
Years progressed and one day she noted that some of the times they spent with the children felt comfortable, even light and respectful, a darker, more nuanced shade of gray, a gray with variation and texture. Not a slate of nothing gray, but a gray with hills and valleys, a topography map of grays.
Other times, they laughed together and she noted the silver and light gray, wispiness and tendrils of gray wrapping like smoke around the chimney when the fire was lit. The seeming slate of nothing gray lightened and darkened and came alive with the trust being built on shared respect.
In a moment of reflection, she knew she’d have missed the gray and all it’s nuances if she hadn’t been looking for it, hadn’t been working on finding a solid ground to stand, sit, and walk among her stepfamily.
They, he and she, accepted the neutral zone as enough. It was life and life-giving. No need for more searching, no need for more comparisons and worries their lives weren’t happy enough or full enough or satisfying enough. Their stepfamily neutral zone with it’s climate and geography contained enough for a lifetime of exploration, just like the neutral zone within each of them.