A Healthy Stepmother . . . Gets Up Each Morning

Some days I wonder how we survive. Not to be melodramatic, but this business of getting up and getting kids off to school and greeting them when they come home and feeding them and educating them and getting them to the place of being able to go out into the world on their own in this day and age, this is emotionally challenging at best.

When this scenario plays out in a stepfamily, it’s nothing short of a miracle.

I wonder how fathers go to bed at night without an aching heart, I wonder how they hold an arm around the one who isn’t the mother of the children, seeing her pain and feeling her pain.

I can guess many a father would like to escape memories of the argument with the children’s mother. I know many a father who pushes those emotions down day after day to deal with Little League and driving lessons. I know many a father who is there, who shows up no matter what the children need.

I’ve heard from women who marry men with children with full knowledge remarriage is difficult at best. These same prepared, successful women are then knocked to their knees by the tidal wave of unbelonging. The wave is so high and so powerful, few stepmothers escape it regardless of background and family history. It’s a wonder more don’t run, it’s a wonder so many stay. Many a stepmother’s courage should be the subject of legend. 

Maybe you’re like me and you’ve spent many hours considering what it takes to be in this remarriage stewpot? You’ve wondered just what could be done to improve the situation because you intuitively know if the situation were better for fathers and stepmothers the situation would be better for the children and likely even the children’s mother. You’ve marveled at the strength of those who only have one strategy, the strategy of pushing out and pushing away.

Those stepmothers who stay in their remarriages have found a way to keep living in their skin, a way to stay rooted to their own experience and not be sucked into another person’s view of them. They have developed an ability to let things bounce off and fall away. They stay deeply connected to their resilience, that ability to not be sunk by any one event or even a whole bunch of events. They know how to stay afloat.

Ask a stepmother what she’s doing. Keeping the faith, or trying to do so. Focusing on her relationship with her partner/husband, or intending to do so. Feeling like a good person but not so much she feels like a slave, or hoping to do so. Because several things are true, she is not the mother. She is not responsible to replace the mother especially since the mother is likely alive and well. Even if she is the custodial stepmother, the marriage will be more successful if she isn’t automatically conscripted for a certain role in the child’s life. She should discuss this in-depth with her beloved and ease her way in rather than get sucked underwater. She knows that and sometimes she lets it slide when they don’t get around to the conversation. She might regret it later and even blame him for not taking the initiative.

She gets up and tries her best. Sometimes her best is too much and she can’t know that until it’s too late. Sometimes she gives and gives and leaves herself open. Sometimes she goes out on that limb and ends up falling or being pushed off.

Often she regrets giving too much.

Often she is exhausted. Often she can see her husband is exhausted.

Some days she wonders how she survives.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Doles Out Her Emotional Labor

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Doles Out Her Emotional Labor

On Facebook and Twitter and the blogosphere, I see post after post from stepmothers struggling with the husband, the stepkids, and the ex-wife. I get it. I get it.

No, I really do get it. The process of integrating a stepfamily takes seven to twelve years according to experts such as Patricia Papernow, Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t.

Regardless of where you are in the process of stepfamily integration, it isn’t easy. Regardless of your best efforts, the speed of the integration isn’t slower or faster because of what you do. There are countless variables, so many it’s not possible to read a book about what others do and simply apply that to your own family, however there are some good ideas in some books. Think of the number of books about child development and how many contradictory theories there are for what is best. Same with stepmothering.

Every stepmother I know has learned she has to live it to see what works for her and her family.

For me, the greatest level of peace has come when I’ve educated myself about the process and taken less responsibility for the outcome. I know, it feels weird to not be designated as a fixer. It is so ingrained. I used to think it was a personal failing, now I know it’s culturally dictated. So, when I found this article, I knew I wanted to share it with everyone who marries a person with children from a previous marriage.

In Women Are Just Better at This Stuff: Is Emotional Labor Feminism’s Next Frontier?, November 2015, Rose Hackman introduced her latest research with this:

We remember children’s allergies, we design the shopping list, we know where the spare set of keys is. We multi-task. We know when we’re almost out of Q-tips, and plan on buying more. We are just better at remembering birthdays. We love catering to loved ones, and we make note of what they like to eat. We notice people’s health, and force friends and family to go see the doctor.

We listen to our partner’s woes, forgive them the absences, the forgetfulness, the one-track mindedness while we’re busy organizing a playdate for the kids. We applaud success when it comes: the grant that was received, the promotion. It was their doing, and ours in the background. Besides, if we work hard enough, we can succeed too: all we need to do is learn to lean in.

Hackman says this is emotional labor and someone has to do it. Both at home and at the office, women are doing the greatest percentage of emotional labor and wondering why they are so exhausted. I feel her article is a very fair description of the issues, without disparaging the men and women we partner with.

IMG_1250

Go ahead, get out for an early morning walk…

So, take a moment to breath. Consider Hackman’s list. Add to it all the things you’re juggling in your attention right now. Add to it all the worries you have about the kids, your husband, your own health and well-being. No wonder you’re exhausted and wondering if your marriage will survive. Simple marriages (my term, in which neither partner has been remarried before) struggle with emotional labor. Stepmothers, add an element of double or triple duty here. Emotional labor is one big reason it feels stressful. That and loyalty binds. No wonder stepmothers are depressed or anxious (Wednesday Martin).

If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you’ll know I’m a big proponent of doing less. Of getting over the Great Healer Complex. For reminders and ideas for how to work with the image of doing less, see A Healthy Stepmother Minds Her Own Business, or A Healthy Stepmother Does as Good as She Can, or A Healthy Stepmother Knows When to Cat, Dog, or Hamster.

You might have felt doubtful when you’ve heard me encouraging you to do less. You might have struggled with guilt that things aren’t getting done: Johnny is going to flunk math, Suzie is not going to have that cute outfit to wear, or someone needs to pick up the kids.

Rose Hackman’s work is an awesome way to understand emotional labor in the context of your current life as a woman, as a wife, and as a stepmother.

Believe it or not, if you do less, your family will be better for it. It reminds me of the episode of Blue Blood (Season 3, Episode 2, Domestic Disturbance) where Linda went back to work and Danny was struggling to step up and help out more at home. Linda felt guilty she wasn’t there to do all the things she used to do. Erin reassured her it’d be good for the boys to take on more responsibility. In fact, maybe that’s the simplest way to encourage children to do more in the home, don’t you be the one doing things that don’t get done. Wait. Things will change if you can wait long enough.

While you experiment, there’s no need to go to the other extreme and never offer emotional labor. It’s a continuum and we can live somewhere along it without getting stuck on either end. Imagine, if you decreased the emotional labor in your life by ten or fifteen percent? How much energy would you have to do something else? To create something? To sustain yourself?

Of course, I’m dying to know what you’ll do and how it turned out. Please come back and comment and let me know. As always, you can post anonymous comments, just pick an alias. I’m the only one who will ever see your email address.

Ready to dish up some emotional labor?

Ready. Set. Stop!

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Holds Onto a Smoldering Gaze

My imagining of what it might be like to be the husband
of a stepmother. And, my dream of what each of
you finds at the end of your day. 

So many other days, he pushed and pulled and made things happen. They seemed like big things. He thought they were, but were they? Did they mean enough, matter enough, enough to match their sacrifice? Was it now that the sacrifice would be repaid, these days between the visits, these moments when there was stillness and his children needed him less?

He drove out of the airport parking garage and turned back toward home, feeling his contentment about letting them go. He remembered his own launch into the world and the feeling of support mingled with freedom and respect. He expected his kids to be okay, to make decisions and find their way. He readily gave them the same respect and freedom he had had, even as he recalled the time one of them needed his help and came back home. Things improved for a time and then fell apart again, and he mourned the pain and strain for them all.

Those days were all behind them now. The kids were strong and moving forward. He was lucky to be through it and find her still with him. She hadn’t run, though he could tell she had wanted to get the hell out and go someplace she was more welcome, at least a time or two. God, he wished he could give her that, a world where she was wanted. He could only do the wanting for himself and he wasn’t sure if one person made a world.

He pulled onto the parkway and shook his head. He couldn’t lie to himself though he’d be hard-pressed to admit it to her. On the days she was in pain and turned away from him in tears, he felt shame that he couldn’t protect her. After a couple of years, the shame morphed into regret and eventually it all seemed too much to watch. He found himself wishing she could ignore the way she was treated, even though he knew how unrealistic a wish that was.

FullSizeRender-5What made it so hard for her was her sensitivity and ability to read a situation, the same things he loved about her. He loved her wide open heart and he longed to build her a door she could close when others came into her nest and left behind their messes. It would be an ornate door, thick with curves, to match her physicality and complexity and all the things he loved about her.

He sighed as he passed the restaurant where they’d been a few times early in their courtship. If only he could protect her, take her pain away, shield her from the slinging tongues and tart retorts.

On some rare days, when she grew tired of closing herself off or forgot to contain herself, she moved freely among them and he loved to watch her then. On those days, she was her incredible, exactly-her self. On those days, his heart lifted at her courage and persistence and willingness to try it all again.

He smiled as he pulled in the driveway and turned off the car. He knew she was waiting and would greet him at the door. He knew he’d ignore her worried face and sweep her into his embrace.

And, it happened just the way he knew it would.

She flung open the door and buried her face in his neck. He whispered, “Now it’s just you and me.” He squeezed her close and she hugged him back, holding and swaying until their breaths became even and symmetrical.

They stood there, in the entry of their home, with the dog barking in circles of exclamations until he finally came to a sit at their feet. The greeting ritual worked like a magic, smoothing over hurts from the sideways looks and avoided glances. Like a soul salve, the hugging breath eased the pain and lowered the wall between her yearning for peace and his desire to stop the onslaught against her.

Eventually, after what seemed forever and probably not more than a few minutes, their embrace softened and eased until they swayed together ever so slightly. He brushed the hair off her forehead and she nuzzled his check and lips. Their eyes met in a warm gaze tinged with echoes of the smoldering gazes of earlier years, more seasoned now, if a weathered smoldering gaze could be a thing.

In that moment, for them, the gaze was all that mattered.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Liberally Applies Time Outs, For Herself 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Liberally Applies Time Outs, For Herself 

Recently, a friend of mine sent a text to me and another friend. Her parents were arriving for a week’s long visit and she was worried about repeating the same old habits that weren’t comfortable for her or her family. She said, any ideas you have for me to focus and keep a level head much appreciated.

Immediately, I shared with her all the secrets I’ve shared with you, my stepmother kindreds. Take time for yourself. Go to the bathroom. Often. Use the time behind that locked door to breath and settle into your body. Walk the dog. Watch a movie with the kids/parents. Participate in activities that involve parallel play, otherwise known as side by side activities. Not having to look one another in the eye is a blessing in many circumstances, no matter which relationship feels difficult.

Later, she told us the most useful suggestion was to take a time out when things were spinning into uncomfortable territory. She had. She mentioned that her mother had needed a time out, more than once. And, she reported matter-of-factly, she took the time outs for her mother.

IMG_5871-2When I heard that, I grinned. How perfect. When someone else is misbehaving in the relationship, if they won’t calm down and discuss, or change the topic, or find a way to manage and move forward, then you take yourself away, for five minutes, or fifteen minutes, or an hour. Repeat, as necessary.

So, over the next two weeks when you’re in close quarters with family and high on the expectation roller coaster, consider taking a time out. Whether it’s your own or someone else’s behavior, it is possible to interrupt the negative interaction and let it die. The kids are pouting and yelling? Take a few minutes elsewhere. The husband has a frustrating day because the kids are not connecting with him and he starts to take it out on you? Take a bit of a break and come back and interact later.

Use the time out as one of the ways to keep healthy boundaries. Keep your internal self balanced and ready to respond in the way you choose. Behave on your terms, not in reaction to someone else. No matter who it is, liberally apply time to process the situation and decide how to move forward.

Your sanity and well-being might depend on just that.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Leaves the Big Stuff on the Table

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Leaves the Big Stuff on the Table

This post was originally part of a series on self-soothing from the summer of 2011. While the big stuff topics for stepmothers are relevant every day, they can be even more important to remember and reflect upon during the holidays. May you find many moments of peace in these last few weeks of 2015.

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.”

FullSizeRender 2If 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

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Wonders Where You’ll Be

After the early years in my marriage, there came a time I realized I wasn’t alone as a stepmother. The realization came long after I began my blog, long after I knew dozens of stepmothers.

It seems common that we cling to the idea that everyone else is doing better at this stepmother thing than we are. We’re pretty sure we’re right. 

But, there are so many of us out here, getting up each day and making the best of life. There are now more remarried couples than first-time couples, which means more stepfamilies than first-time families. Who knew?

On this day of gathering with family, this day of high expectations, I wonder where you are. 

Will you be in your home, preparing a meal for your family and some of your extended stepfamily? 

Will there be people who sit around your table with resentment or will they participate with respect and appreciation for your efforts?

Will you feel welcomed in your own home, or will snubs and rejections, so subtle they’d be denied if ever called out, haunt you throughout the day and for weeks to come?

Will you feel pressure, even heaping it on yourself, to make sure everyone has a nice time, as if you had the power to ensure anyone had a good time other than yourself

Will you forget these are your husband’s children and spend your precious resources making up for things that happened to them in the past or try to be the perfect wife and compensate for your husband’s negative experiences? 

Will you be going to your in-laws for the big meal or another home where you are welcomed? Or, will you be spending time in a hostile place you’ve never felt welcome?

Will you try to grin and bear it as you’ve done on so many occasions, only to end up crying alone in the bathroom, or later after you’re home and the dark of night covers the tracks of tears on your pillow. 

  Will your husband have the just-right thing to say to help you feel okay, or will he be drowning in his own unrealistic expectations for the day and snap at you when you need comfort? Will you be able to separate from the worn out narrative that says really good people have a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving and feel bad because you know your family will never measure up and it’s all your fault? 

Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, however you are spending the day, including if it’s home alone and you’ve had an enormous fight with your beloved, may you dig down in the treasure chest of reality and community and realize . . . you are not alone. You do not have to be perfect. You do not have to make the day perfect for anyone else. Your food has to satisfy only those who enjoy it. Your humor has to be good enough for those who understand it. And your presence has to comfort only you. 

I hope you go easy on yourself. Help when it makes sense and go sit down when it seems called for, and sitting down will be called for far more than you think. 

Go easy on your husband. He might have a bad day with or without you by his side. He might be tired enough or worried enough or unskilled at navigating relationships enough to truly be beside himself on these high-expectation moments. 

Your job is not to save him, or to question whether you are necessary in his life. Your job is to support yourself so you are steady enough to tolerate the rough day ahead. When you stay steady in yourself, you are available to both yourself and him. That is what it means to stand beside someone. I’ll write more about that standing beside him business another time. 

For now, you take care of you. Ask before you help him, does he want help. And breathe. Who cares if it turns out perfectly?

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Writes Her Tales at the Beach

Some of you may know, I’m working on a book. Yes, a book. Not only that, it’s a book for you. For stepmothers of all stages of family integration. It’s not a how-to book, giving you the ten things you can do to make you family happy or improve your outlook or learn to tolerate the bullying. It’s a book of tales for you to find solace, validation, and inspiration.

I’ve taken the themes I see and some of the stories I’ve heard in my dozen years of navigating this business of being in the life of my man and his kids. It’s a wild ride and I don’t expect we’re done. The good news is that it gets less unnerving than in those early days.

I have more work to do on the book, it’ll be ready for a few select readers soon. Then, more revisions and then find a publisher. Hmmm, wonder who wants to publish a book of tales for stepmothers?

This weekend, I went to the beach with Jen Violi for her inaugural Story Watch retreat. It was a great chance to work on some of the revisions and problem-solve a couple of story development issues and share with other women who listened and asked questions. One woman is a stepmother, one is a stepdaughter, and the others were so supportive and respectful of my topic. I couldn’t have asked for more generous encouragement.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Writes Her Tales at the Beach

On one of my writing breaks, I took a walk on the beach. What a beautiful day it was.

I’ll keep you posted from time to time. I mostly wanted you to know there are supportive people out there. People who aren’t stepmothers who are pulling for peace and family respect and the possibility of family health.

May you be finding moments of peace . . .

A Healthy Stepmother . . . knows when she’s done.

Adapted from a post February 22, 2012

There comes a moment after you’ve been struggling with a person for a long time, often years, when you know you are simply done. Maybe you reach done because the internal storm can only keep it’s energy for so long. Maybe the done moment occurs because you get bored and interested in other things. Or, maybe you become done with the difficult person because you realize that you’ll never connect in the way you’d really like to connect and you’re wasting your breath.

Before we get to the point we admit to being done, we can often come close to erasing ourselves. It’s as if we get caught up in clutching and trying and we can’t let go even if we wanted. While it’s our human spirit to keep trying and keep hoping that things will be different tomorrow, tomorrow never comes and we wake up worn out and exhausted.

Let’s take my dad and I. One day, a conversation with him started the same way it often did, with the same dance . . . he made a comment in a certain tone. I shrugged my shoulders with a certain eye roll. Then, he huffed back with a snotty remark. But, that time rather than protest again or try to reason with him I simply got up from the table with my cup of tea and moved to a nearby chair in the living room. He knew he’d lost me and he said, “Since we’re done here, I might as well leave.” And he did just that. He left.

After he left, I sat and watched the rain fall onto already over-saturated earth. I was done trying to make things okay for him. Or, for me. I wasn’t done with him. I was done with trying.

I HEART Cappuccino

I HEART Cappuccino

That day with my dad opened my awareness of the alternatives to suffering silently or forging onward even after knowing I’m done. It’s not that different than Sleeping Beauty after the apple fell out of her mouth. She came to and looked around and said, “Oh no, what the heck happened.” I felt that way with my dad, as if I’d awakened after a long sleep and realized I’d been waiting for something to happen, but nothing ever did. And, maybe it couldn’t. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I couldn’t keep sitting there. So, I moved over to another chair. Then, things shifted.

[  space to breathe and contemplate  ]

.

[  more space to breathe and contemplate  ]

For the record, my dad and my stepkids are important to me. I promise myself when it comes to my stepkids I’ll behave in ways that feel respectful of me and of them, in ways that add to our future and don’t trap either of us in old assumed patterns. The same with my dad. When he came to visit again, I managed to not fall back into my old patterns.

For so many years, I thought being done meant leaving and erasing someone or a relationship from my life. It’s been since becoming a stepmother, I’ve realized I could be done and stay.

There’s more to this being done business than meets the eye. Enhanced by Zemanta

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and a Tale of a New Stepmother

The other day I was writing a little story and decided it didn’t make it to THE BOOK. So, you get to enjoy it now. The stories in the upcoming tales for stepmothers will be slightly more complex, but this one felt worthy of sharing.

You’ll Learn
by Kim Cottrell

Eliza met and married Davis, the man of her dreams. They had everything in common, except children. She had none and he had five.

Davis was open with her before they married, his kids were a handful, even more some days. Undaunted and energetic, a professional who’d met many a challenge, Eliza didn’t bat an eye. She was an excellent partner to Davis and she knew she’d be an excellent companion for his children, once they got to know her.

The kids fell in love with Eliza, just as she predicted. They each found something to liKe about her and she shrugged off Davis’ concerns.

Then, Eliza and Davis married and left on a honeymoon. When they returned, they walked in the door of a whole new world filled with angry stares, refusals to say hello, invitations turned down. Genuine snubbing indeed.

Eliza thought the kids would calm down after a bit, but it only got worse. The kids sat between her and Davis. They kept him occupied and only spoke to him. The oldest ones ignored her and the youngest ones had a tantrum.

Just when Eliza thought it couldn’t get any worse, Davis’ ex-wife decided to move and she asked if Davis would take the kids for the summer.

Davis was overjoyed. He’d get to spend a summer with all his kids. He floated through his days at the thought of spending more time with the kids.

Eliza agreed, on one condition, as if she had any bargaining power. There would be rules. Rules that would need to be followed. Hesitantly, Davis agreed. Sort of. What he really said was they’d need to take a look and see what was best. But, that’s not what Eliza thought he said.

The kids moved in, tumbling over one another with their things and sleeping here and there and shoes strewn and clothing tossed. Within twenty minutes of their arrival they had achieved takeover. Eliza pasted a grin on her face and bravely made her way until dinner.

The next morning she went to work and forgot about her stepchildren. She got wrapped up in some meetings and almost forgot the kids lived at her house, until she was on the way home. On an impulse, she stopped and picked up two large pizzas to take home.

When she walked in the door with the pizza, the five kids descended on her, grabbing pieces of pizza and eating as they stood right in front of her.

“Stop.” Eliza yelled. “Stop. It is polite to say hello. In our house we say hello.” Her face got red and the kids stared at her.

Davis walked out of the kitchen. He said, “What’s up?”

Eliza burst into tears and retreated to the bedroom. The kids shrugged and ate their pizza.

That Saturday, Eliza put her foot down. Over bacon and eggs and pancakes, she insisted they do chores and clean up the house. The kids looked at their plates and at their Dad. Davis asked her what the top priorities were. She pulled out her list.

The blank stares that met her told her the plan was unpopular, but she insisted. “We need the house tidied up. This is important.” Eliza might as well have stomped her foot. About half the chores got done and the kids had disappeared by the time Eliza checked back from cleaning the garage.

Davis had the great idea to go to the beach and the kids excitedly jumped up and down. They loved the trip to the beach. They all piled in the van and drove the two hours to the beach. When they arrived the first thing they always did was get an ice cream at the Dairy Delight on the way into town.

A Healthy Stepmother...Draws Her Chalk BoundaryAs they pulled off the highway, Eliza said, “We can’t do this, we need lunch first. This is dessert before dinner and this isn’t healthy. Let’s go have dinner and come back.”

From the back seat, the youngest meekly said, “This is what we always do, this is tradition.”

But Eliza got louder and more insistent and her face turned red again. She drown out the kids and Davis turned the car around and drove to the beach. They walked and had lunch and when it was time to go, they all piled in the car to head home.

As they passed the Dairy Delight, Eliza said, “Wait, we need ice cream.”

In unison, the kids said, “We’re full.”

Davis drove on home.

Eliza went on in this way, seeing something that needed doing, doing it. Setting boundaries. Establishing order.

The kids weren’t bad kids, they could have argued, but they just got silent. The only rebuttal they had was to not engage with her, to pretend she didn’t exist.

Eliza drew more lines. The kids withdrew further.

Davis put up his hands when Eliza told him of one more thing she wanted changed. Eliza thought her heart would break. She thought she was being helpful. She thought she was contributing. She saw a need and she had stepped into the role of taking care of it.

Alone.

No one else was playing the chore game with her.

The last day of summer vacation came and the kids went home to live with their mother.

The house was quiet. Yes, it was also strewn with wrappers, drink bottles, and dirty plates, but it all echoed for the lack of voices and activity. Eliza cleaned up the living room, then the bathroom. She tidied and vacuumed and before long there was order.

And silence.

One day, Davis took the kids to a movie. Eliza had other plans. She got home to an empty house and cried.

Davis came home and saw her swollen eyes. He hugged her and held her. She cried more.

She woke the next day knowing she’d built the box she now lived in, no contact, no family group, all orderly, all neat and tidy and quiet and empty.

It took Eliza a week to figure out she wanted something different. She got the makings for a nice dinner and sat down with Davis and made a request. “Teach me. Show me. What’s your strategy with the kids. Tell me how you do this juggling act.”

Davis looked at her and raised an eyebrow. Then he grinned. “It’s pretty simple. Everyone has a vote. I listen. I prioritize everything else over a clean house. And, gradually, we build tradition.”

“Remember the hot dogs we had for Christmas.” He grinned wider. “Even they are now tradition. And they love it so much.” He went on. “You’ll get the hang of it and you don’t have to drive all the time. You can sit in a seat on the sideline and share and go second or third or sometimes last because someone has to be last and you and I take turns going last so the kids don’t have to. We fill the water bowl and let them drink. We fill the food bowl and let them eat.”

He paused and looked at her with all the love in his heart. “And change comes after a first, second, and third pass. It can’t happen immediately.”

They ate a few bites of the tasty meal Eliza had prepared.

Then Davis put his fork down again. He cleared his throat. “The truth is you’re so efficient you can do ten times the work the kids and I do at the pace you work. So you need to stop and eat bon bons along the way and let us accomplish our share to keep up with you. That way the kids can feel good about themselves. They naturally want to help and they will. Let them volunteer or let me assign one of them. We just need a little more time to bring all that into action. We don’t see it the way you do.”

Eliza frowned. “I have no idea how to sit while others work.

Davis grinned. “You’ll learn.”

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.