A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the Sunglasses of Connection

Once upon a time, there was a 10-year-married couple and their two children, Ivan, 8, and Hazel, 5. The family lived in an average house in the middle of an average town near an average river. They lived an average life-like most families. Both parents worked because money was necessary to pay the mortgage and put food on the table.

Sadly, one day they received a visit from the Divorce Harpie, a very damning omen since over 70% of the married couples visited by the Divorce Harpie ended their marriages within a year. One never knew the Divorce Harpie had come. He came in the middle of the night, sneering his way into their average house, bored with his own life and entertained by messing around in other’s lives. The Divorce Harpie loved watching the chaos and mayhem that came after one in the couple determined they needed to end the marriage. In fact, he always chose the woman of the couple to infect with discontent, and he always made sure the man of the couple never suspected a thing. In fact, it was worse than that. He erased all concerns and history from the man’s mind so he had no memory of the discontent in the marriage. When his wife asked for a divorce, it was always out of the blue. 

On the night the Divorce Harpie visited, the woman was up late working on the last of the Christmas cards so they could be mailed in the morning. The cruelty of the timing was lost on everyone, except the Divorce Harpie. He delighted in making sure the holidays were filled with conflict and sorrow. 

Sure enough, his visit produced the results he was looking for. His spell worked so well, not even the Fairy of Reconciliation could reclaim the marriage with her incredible skill at reconnecting hearts. The woman awoke the day after Christmas and when her husband came down for his morning coffee, she told him she wanted a divorce. 

The world stopped spinning for a few moments.

The Angel of Anxiety fluttered and flitted about, unsure whether to process the news, but doing her job. No one spoke, no one breathed, for a full 60 seconds. Finally, everyone exhaled and looked around, thinking it odd they couldn’t see very clearly. In the time it took them to let the news sink in, the Angel of Anxiety had outfitted everyone in the family with a pair of sunglasses. Each pair of sunglasses had smoky lenses, dark enough to impair vision and make it seem like perpetual dusk. 

Time went by and the divorce proceeded. The kids went to live with their dad, not because their mother didn’t want them, but because their father was more persuasive about why they should remain with him. He argued that children needed a father and there was plenty of evidence that showed when a father was present in the home the children had fewer educational issues. The smoky glasses gave him some cover for his story and reduced the number of questions about his plans for the future. He argued that he worked from home and was available in case the kids had difficulty in school. He also claimed to be the more stable of the two parents. 

The judges listened and ruled that the mother of the children needed to pay support payments for as long as the children were in high school and beyond. If they wanted to go to college, the mother was expected to pay because her job brought in more compensation. 

The kids lived with the dad and visited the mom. The dad tried to be neutral about the kids’ relationship with their mother but he resented that she made more money than he did. He resented that she went on trips here and there while he was home with the kids, forgetting that he had insisted the kids live with him and ignoring that she would take the kids any time she asked. She had consented to the kids living with him and hadn’t argued for half-time physical custody because she believed kids needed some consistency and it was better if they had one place to call home, like their dogs who relied on structure. Her concession had been that if he was going to take the kids that he be consistent and available for them and not change the plan every week. 

This plan worked out to varying degrees of success for a year and then they hit a speed bump. The Angel of Anxiety had a brother, The Lord of Depression, who visited the father one night when he was up late working on his latest sculpture wondering how he was going to buy groceries because he had spent all the money on clothes for the kids. Begrudgingly, he admitted to himself he had bought them more expensive clothes than they could afford, but he felt justified because they needed to keep up appearances for the neighborhood they lived in. 

Life went on in this push-me/pull-me kind of tug of war between the parents. Each time the anxiety got greater, one parent or another increased the smokiness of the sunglass lenses. One day, the father changed the tint to a green color and every time he said something the children agreed with him that their mother was mean and overbearing. Then, the mother changed the tint in the sunglasses to a purple color that caused the children to believe that her family, the mother’s side, was the only family  worth paying attention to. 

English: Tea shades

English: Tea shades (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tensions escalated. Ivan began shop-lifting in response to the tension and got caught. He spent the summer in juvenile detention. Hazel became depressed and wouldn’t come out of her room. She didn’t want to get caught up in the war between parents so it was easier to opt out. Even the love bestowed on her when she acted in ways her parents approved felt tainted. 

This pattern went on for years, growing more destructive as time went on. The alienation each child felt toward the mother one week, toward the father the next week, took a toll. 

Eventually, both children graduated from high school and moved away to another city to attend college. In college, they gradually lost the tint in the sunglasses and began to view the world through the lens of many others, often others they respected who had no vested interest in the outcome of their lives. The relief was palpable. Each of the children grew strong, resilient, and capable. They had never felt this strength before. Free from the pressure to behave a certain way, free from the strain of emotions within their divorced family, they blossomed and grew and matured. 

Holidays came and went and at first they didn’t go home for the ritual Thanksgiving or Christmas. Finally, in his junior year, Ivan decided to venture home and agreed with Hazel to meet up in their hometown. They seemed to have awakened one day with amnesia for their parents’ struggles. 

They traveled to their hometown and one of them stayed with their mother and one of them stayed with the father. By this time, each of the parents was doing fine, but with some residual resentment from years past. At the same time, they were also stronger and less needy. However, they hadn’t been around the children for a couple of years and each was eager to make his or her case justifying past behaviors. 

The first night passed with everyone on their best behavior. 

The second day came and the mother began darkening the tint on her son’s sunglasses. The father began darkening the tint on his daughter’s sunglasses. It began slowly, gradually, so gradually the children had little awareness they were not seeing with their own eyes. 

By day three, tensions were mounting again and Ivan and Hazel began arguing with one another about which parent was right and which one was wrong. On day four, they each flew back to college, angry with their sibling. 

Back on campus, as soon as each stepped through the door of the dormitory, the tinting in the glasses dropped away and they each grabbed the phone and called the other. 

Hazel began, “Did you notice how we couldn’t really see clearly? Do you think it’s been that way for a long time?” 

Ivan agreed, “Yeah, I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t see either purple or green. How did all that begin?” 

They ended the phone call agreeing their parents were being manipulative and they needed to find a way to end it. Or, not see them again. It just wasn’t worth the hassle and heartache of being twisted and torn one way and another. And, worse, they were pitted against one another. And even worse, it wasn’t just one of the parents, it was both of them. There was no way to have authentic relationships and now they each understood what those might look like. 

Summer vacation came and went and they didn’t go home despite many requests from the parents. Finally, they insisted the parents fly out and meet them, together, in Hazel’s town. As soon as the parents stepped off the plane, their children handed them clear sunglasses, the normal kind you buy in the store, not the kind issued by the Divorce Harpie. 

Immediately, the mother gasped. She could see what she had been doing trying to get them to love her family more, all in the name of love. She could see it wasn’t love. The father put his new glasses on slower, but with some curiosity after watching his ex-wife. He inhaled sharply. The clarity of his children’s innocence and vulnerability caused him pain to realize how his sarcasm and anxiety had caused them pain. 

They made a pact, then and there, each member of the family would carry normal sunglasses in a stash in their traveling case and when someone began with the criticism, superiority, bashing the other, or creating a negative story line about the other parent or any of the other kids and family members, they would be handed a fresh pair of glasses. They would acknowledge the legacy from the past and the way they couldn’t see clearly with the other glasses. They would understand what those things Anxiety and Depression looked like and offer a hand to the others. 

They would see the world with clarity and know the meaning of love, kindness, compassion, community, and connection. They would do the best they could to hand those things down to the next generation. 

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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 . . . plants her feet and stands tall.

The first glimmers of dread surfaced last week, dread for the holiday season which fast approaches. Maybe you’ve felt your first dread too or maybe you’re blissfully ignoring the November and December schedule that approaches like a tsunami off the doorstep of your stepfamily home. Or, maybe you’ve long since moved past the difficulties of the holiday season and enjoy a family home filled with peace and connection.

If that latter situation belongs to you, I jump for joy with you. Hooray, that means there’s hope for the rest of us.

For the rest of us, I’ve long thought we could use our posture and the taking up of space, internal space as well as external space, to be more comfortable in difficult situations. That message has come up for me repeatedly in these last few days.

I wrote a blog post for Wednesday Martin, Stepmonster, Standing Tall in June of 2010. And, for years I’ve taught workshops on Living Inside Your Skin. This fall, I’m taking an ecourse with Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, in which she also urges we find ways to live from inside ourselves.

Then, just yesterday, a friend serendipitously mentioned this Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy, Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.

Let me just say, all of these messages have coalesced and I woke this Sunday morning knowing this idea of standing tall was meant to be my blog post here. Standing your ground, not puffing up, not caving in, is, as Brené Brown says, a useful way to go through vulnerable moments. Let’s you and I borrow it for the next few weeks and months.

Brené Brown isn’t the only one interested in how we stand in our vulnerability. Amy Cuddy talks about the Super Woman posture, feet wide, hands on hips, shoulders back. She has researched the chemical reaction inside men and women when they take up space.

I didn’t take my space in the early days with my stepfamily. I remained quiet and deferential and the kids did what any stepchild would do who isn’t comfortable with a stranger, they behaved as though I wasn’t around. I wasn’t. I was advertising I wasn’t there and didn’t want to be there. By the time I got around to telling them if they kept swearing they could go outside, I had my hands on my hips, figuratively speaking, and I began to have a presence.

Fred Courtadon portant une création de Jérémy ...

Fred Courtadon portant une création de Jérémy Beuret (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is freedom in taking up space. It’s not about bravado. It’s not about waiting until someone else is done. It’s about being awake, responsive, focused on my spouse and the connection he and I have. When I am standing tall, hands on hips, it’s easier for him to hug me. It’s easier for him to stand tall and not feel like he has to run around and protect me. The worries fall off my back because I’m not hunched. There is no broad surface of my back exposed for worries to perch and constantly nag at me. I am literally not a home to the whining and complaining and worries about life not being what it was back in the days when the parents were together.

Please do not mistake the force of my words as lack of compassion for my stepchildren or any others. Life does suck for some years after your parents divorce, sometimes for decades. At some point, every child of divorce, especially an adult child of divorce, has to decide whether to stop living in the past and live for the times that are going on now or continue to keep grievances alive at every interaction.

At some point, every stepmother has to decide whether to back away and stop trying to make up for the kids not having parents who are together. The stepmother did not cause it, unless she was dating their father before he was divorced. That’s a whole different case and I’m not talking to this stepmother. I’m talking to those of us who came along after the marriage was over, after the parents had at least moved to separate homes, and after the finances and family traditions had morphed away from keeping things the same to protect the children.

Here’s my idea:

For the month of November and December, stand in the Super Woman posture (described in full in Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk) at least once a day for 20 seconds. Maybe it’s in the morning when you get up. Maybe you need a boost because you’re about to go into a tough meeting so you escape to the restroom stall where you can have privacy to stand with hands on hips. Maybe it’s before you walk in the door of your home where the kids sprawl about wondering what is for dinner.

Every day, find a time to stand tall like Super Woman and contemplate the comfort in that posture. As Amy Cuddy says, it’s not about faking it until you make it since you aren’t striving for inauthenticity. She suggests you think of faking it until you become it and I know from my own years of studying and practicing human movement and behavior that posture strongly influences mood and comfort.

Boost the idea: (sort of like boosting your post on Facebook)

Share the idea with your stepkids. Tell them they have the power to help themselves feel more okay in unsure situations. They can learn to get the advantages that Amy Cuddy so clearly describes in her research of power and posture. Share the idea with your friends and with other stepmothers. Pass it along. Oh, and don’t forget your husband, he may need a power boost once in a while too!

This season, rather than shuttle my dread off to the side board of my mind, I’m going to embrace it and stand tall and face it. 

The holiday season? Bring it!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . ushers in a new life.

Call me an usher. Call me a guide, a messenger, or any other word that means I’m helping someone get to another phase of life.

This last six months has found me walking the path with my father to recover from his stroke and move away from the life he had in a town north of mine, a town he can no longer live in alone. What a difficult process, we’re both grieving and letting go, stumbling over old family mythology and the ever-present hope that things will get better.

Hermes with the Sandal-Louvre

Hermes has been called The Messenger God, and the story of Persephone and Demeter places Hermes in the Underworld to bring her back to her mother. Hermes with the Sandal-Louvre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I drove Dad back to his house to look it over and meet up with his friends from church. They talked for hours over coffee and lunch in what might be one of the last trips for a while since my brother and I are nearly done emptying the house and shed.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

How many divorced dads or moms have closed down their life? I don’t mean the one they live in after the divorce, I mean the old one. The new life is no longer about the sharing of the marriage bed or the intimacy and safe haven that goes on between a couple. Some divorced people try to keep those intimacies open, but they should really do all they can to close down their marriage. It has been well-documented in the divorce and remarriage literature that it is very common for the old life to linger on long after the divorce. And, when the old life gets left open, well, things get messy.

One day, the stepmother comes to town, falls in love with divorced dad and marries and/or moves in, her presence signaling the end of the old life. It doesn’t matter how fabulous a person the stepmother is, or how adaptable she is to the family’s old ways, or how much understanding or compassion she brings to the table, she cannot escape being the harbinger of grief, a tangible, visible reminder that the mother and father are not together. Note: There are likely those who feel this way about the stepfather, but the statistics show the stepfather is accepted into a remarriage far more often than a stepmother, Stepmonster, Wednesday Martin, 2009.

No wonder children scream, “you’re not my mother” with their words or actions. No wonder they don’t say hello. No wonder they tip-toe around as if the stepmother were invisible. To acknowledge her would be to acknowledge the family, as they knew it, is dead. Some children grow into adulthood before they accept the end of the mother-father-together life. Some never reach acceptance.

For my father, as we near the end of one phase of closing his old life, I hope he finds peace with his new life. In many ways, his new life is of much better quality than his old life. He has regular social interactions, he eats better and more consistently, and he worries less about the day-to-day issues. Still, each morning he wakes up after a good night of dreams, dreams in which he is pre-stroke, whole, healthy-ish. As he awakens, the realization of his condition seeps in and he needs a good hour to work through the feelings and recognition of I’m-not-who-I-was-in-the-dreams.

That must be what it is for some children whose parents remarry. For those children, they likely wake each morning expecting mom and dad just down the hall, crushed when they remember their old life no longer exists. That wasn’t my case as a child of divorce, which is why I say some children. Other children get it and understand the process. They might not like it, but they get it.

My wish for stepchildren everywhere is that they give grief time and allow for adjustments. I hope they find adults they can talk to and weep with and that they find new things to be glad about, until they can see what the new life offers. Often it offers more than expected.

And, I hope the stepchildren and their father and mother look around for their stepmother/usher. She might be off to one side, not involved in the melee, not vocal in the chaos. That won’t mean she’s not interested, it might mean she’s shoring up her resources amid the ongoing grieving. Her presence is enough to help close down the old life and you won’t find her running around trying to make everything okay. She knows that to respect the old life is enough and she practices that respect to the best of her humanly abilities. More than anyone in the remarriage, she is unable to pretend this is still the same old life. And that is the blessing and the curse. However, with the old life properly contained, memories of it will actually burn brighter, truer, and more steadily.

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