A Healthy Stepmother . . . on loving, connecting, and stepmothering.

(The Know Thyself series will resume next week)

Last Monday glittered like stolen golden moments in our Pacific Northwest. I pointed the car south to my dad’s residence and reflected on how far we’ve come since February 20 when he had his stroke.

I thought of the excitement in his voice and the smile on his face during our FaceTime chat the night before, and I smiled with the rush of good feelings when someone you care about is doing well. I felt more than love, a kind of beyond-love moment when you know you are a human on the planet. Love given. Love received.

The expansive, welcoming, and generous feelings I get from being a love-giver and love-receiver leave me feeling open and exuberant and quite willing to give more.

It’s taken most of my nearly 54 years to figure out how to remain in the love-giving place, how to resist folding in on myself, and how to recognize the supports I need to keep giving from an open heart. My women’s circle of Sophias is one of my practice places. And my husband, with his ever-tolerant nature, practices with me and waits for me to catch up. My upbringing taught me hard lines of behavior and my do-it-right attitude reinforced the hard lines, his upbringing led him to tolerance and patience and his let’s-stay-connected attitude re-enforced the tolerance.

Do you realize? Not only does a new stepmother NOT have the expansive love-given, love-received moments to work with when she’s settling into her new world, but because those connections aren’t there, she frequently ramps up her Hustle for Worthiness (see quote).

You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story & hustle for your worthiness. Brené Brown

I did. When I wasn’t getting anywhere, I put my head down and forged on, trying even harder. I imagine you might have too.

But, I also know I don’t and can’t do the HUSTLE anymore.

And, furthermore, I discovered the association between hustling to settle in with my new family and hustling to connect with my siblings. It’s no wonder my dismay with my new family was so strong in the beginning. I was re-walking all the same issues I’d lived through with my siblings. Thankfully, I’ve long moved on and now have at least a few new twists on the family patterns. In the last five years, I’ve learned to run less and startle seldom.

But, in order to stop the Hustle, I had to let go. I let my end of the rope go. I’ve written about that on this blog before, here.

I stopped worrying so much. Not in a cold, watch-me-shut-you-out kind of way. More in an “I’m here sharing the planet with you” and “I respect your place here and we can co-habitate” kind of way. I’ve learned to wait and remain connected to my husband as we navigate the family process. The wait-to-connect strategy is useful, it gives time to sort a response.

So, a brief recap of the process . . .

  1. Remain inside own skin.
  2. Resist urge to hustle for approval.
  3. Wait.
  4. Help when it feels like the expansive thing to do.
  5. Helping your husband equals helping yourself with regard to your family and your coupledom.
  6. Wait, and wait more.
  7. Spend more time with those who receive your love and give back to you, allowing you to be open and inspired with your love-giving.
  8. Minimize or eliminate time with those who pretend to have your interests in mind and with those who show you disrespect.
  9. Always be respectful, but maintain your boundaries and keep coming back to the second point, resist the urge to hustle for approval. It gets you nowhere.

Maybe I should take out a billboard announcement. I feel like this is big news. Maybe the biggest of my life.

I’m done hustling.

I’ve learned I’m a rock when I’m not hustling. As in . . . Gibraltar! I give, support, nourish, empathize, witness, and problem-solve and now that I get it, I have me on my side. My promise to myself, “I will no longer let myself behave like the wispy, wavery, ethereal cloud I can become when I am Hustling for Worthiness.”

The good news is, the Hustler doesn’t live here much any more. And the really good news, those golden moments of connection that leave me feeling I can’t fit all the love that exists into this lifetime, those moments come more often and I  know how to receive them. Love given. Love received.

Note:
All references to hustling, hustling for worthiness, and being a hustler, etc. are a huge vote of excitement for Brené Brown’s work. Look her up! Here, here, and here! Pick any of her books and start reading. 

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Yours? Mine?

This business of what’s mine? As if I can only love what’s mine and therefore if it’s not mine, I’ll make it mine so I can love it. And, I’ll ignore everything and everyone that isn’t mine, as if I have no responsibility to the community around me.

Or, I’ll force the situation or the person to be otherwise and then it’ll feel and be mine.

The kids belong to the blood, or so the story goes, and so the legal beagles declare they are not the stepparent’s.

As if kids are possessions.

The mother label gives license. The father label gives license, but less than the mother license. As if it takes one or the other of these licenses to help a human grow to maturity.

No, you can’t drive him to school, you’re not the mom.

No, the volunteers in the class will be moms and dads, not stepparents.

Huygens and his children (property of the Maur...

Huygens and his children (property of the Maurits Huis, The Hague) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The message of kids belonging to parents gets repeated until the echo of it bounces off the inner rooms of a child’s mind and she can’t escape.

The sense of belonging to the parent grows so strong, the simple act of being nice to another person creates internal conflict for the child. Much simpler to simply avoid.

We’ve got it all screwed up.

See, he’s not mine. She’s not mine. No human is mine. Not even my dearest husband. Nothing is yours either, but I won’t argue with you if you can’t see it. You’ll get there one day.

Regarding this not-mine person, I see how easy it is to warp the innocence of the caring, giving, generous child. Have you noticed children begin with that innocence? But, they learn what they see and live with and they want to please. It takes awareness and consciousness and purposeful conversations to keep from walking straight into the trap of raising an egocentric, worried-if-I’ll-get-mine adult.

How do we build a world where the lines of mine begin to blur?

How do we allow a community to raise a child?

How do we let go of our clutchiness?

How do we accept that nothing is ours that won’t be buried with us when we die?

.

(Note: I shouldn’t need to write a note, but I live in a stepfamily. Inevitably, someone will read and think I’m talking about my personal family and that something has happened that has needed this blog post as a response to that event. In fact, the subject of this blog post has been on my mind for some time now. Caring for my father and the complicated questions of who shows up to help me has been the impetus for me to write about the possessiveness, or lack of it, among humans. We claim as ours when it is convenient and then deny and make reasons for not showing up when that serves us well. And it goes both ways, parent to child and child to parent. Most of all, I wanted to highlight the messiness of it and how often we behave as though completely disconnected from the truest intentions of our hearts.)

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . begins more gently.

If I could, I’d begin more gently.

I wouldn’t have fallen in love more gently with my amazing husband. The kind of love that sustains us has been strong enough to keep me from my old habit of wanting to pack my bag and head for the hills when the emotions escalated and strong enough to glue us together through several family crises.

I wouldn’t go slower with my stepkids, I purposely went slowly with them, choosing some way to relate to each of them. Whether it was weekly pick ups from practice and dinner on the way home or daily homework sessions, I offered invitations gently.

A Healthy Stepmother begins more gently.I wouldn’t go slower with rule-making and re-organizing a house. Nearly every book on stepfamilies and stepmothers tells you to get together with your spouse and establish house rules, set things up early, and be clear about your expectations. Some families might thrive in re-establishing rules, for us that wasn’t the case. Entering a family with teens was tenuous at best and over time I brought some great ideas from one or another of the books I was reading. My husband listened and acknowledged the ideas and by the time we’d talked them through, we both acknowledged they sounded great, but probably weren’t the way we wanted to interact with the kids in our situation.

I’d tread more gently in expecting happiness in my new life. I’d honor the new marriage and my new husband and participate in family activities, but I wouldn’t expect I’d be happy in the first year or even two years. I’d give myself as much time as I would if I had a new job, six months before I’d expect to belong. I’d give myself as much time to adjust as I would if I moved to a foreign country, a year before I’d begin to think it was a good move. Instead, initially I felt as if I’d moved to a foreign country and tried to behave like a native from day one. If I had it to do over again, I’d let go of that idea of instant happiness.

I’d look more gently at indifference toward me and not take it as a personal statement of my presence. It’s not personal took me five years to understand on a heart level. It’s not personal was true and I’m entirely grateful for all the folks who said it, over and over and over and over. I couldn’t hear their message early on because I was working so hard at fitting in and finding a place that felt like mine. When I could finally understand it’s not personal, I saw children uncomfortable with feelings and newness and strangers and came to a better understanding of how they struggled

I’d be gentle with my decisions. The advice for how to behave as a stepmother fills several shelves in any bookstore. I fell for some of it and got sidetracked from listening to myself. Fortunately, for me, it became very clear early on in my remarriage that no two stepfamilies are alike. We can lump all of us into a category, like we do, but each household contains a unique set of individuals who, together, make a unique system and require unique attention to work things through. The advice in each book worked for at least one family or the author wouldn’t have written it and even the books compiled of someone’s years of working with clients don’t offer the whole story. Those books offer lists of what many founds useful. They may still miss the mark for a majority of stepfamilies.

That’s just it, I can’t see into the real future. I can maybe see the future others paint for me or one other stepfamilies are living. But my future lies somewhere out there along the edge of the path I am on, somewhat blurry and indistinct. I’ll keep on gently and steadily, like I’ve learned to do, with all the fortitude I possess.

I’ll recognize my future when I get there.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . walks into the elder future of stepfamilies.

Between my husband and I, we have three different versions of walking a path with our elders.

In my family, with my mother long deceased, I care for my father with some help from one brother and with two other siblings who want nothing to do with him. I have a stepfather who remarried and we struggle to stay in contact, so I worry about him. In my husband’s family, he is an only child to his mother and has two stepsiblings who have faded from the picture after their father died. My husband also has a his half-sister and they work well together to support and advocate for my husband’s father and stepmother.

No doubt, there are many other versions of adult child of divorce roles but these three examples give a peek into the future of what our stepfamilies will be like as we age up.

Consider this . . . most adult children of divorce have TWO sets of parents. They might then marry another adult child of divorce, who also has TWO sets of parents, and immediately there are FOUR sets of parents to care for within a family. This isn’t often the thought on your mind when you walk down the aisle. Typically, we’re distracted with worrying whether the children will like us or whether one of the kids will make a scene at the reception because he or she is angry that their father is getting married.

My father has lived with my husband and I for three months now after his discharge from stroke rehabilitation. As he stabilized enough to move to a more independent living situation, my father-in-law suffered a heart attack and an emergency double-bypass. Then, as my father-in-law went home with my stepmother-in-law to recover, my mother-in-law had a relapse of a chronic pain condition and needs more support.

I am grateful for each one of these elders in my life and this is not a whine. I have zero complaints about putting things down and helping them have a better quality of life. It would certainly be easier if they all lived in my town, but we are beginning to explore options for long-distance contacts. They each have an iPad and we have recently discovered Cozi, an online calendar management system.

If two and three and four sets of parents is the norm in the typical stepfamily, what kind of assistance will we adult children need in order to support and advocate for our parents? I know first-hand the feeling of stress and distress when a parent struggles and suffers. Double the number of parents, double the stress. Or, quadruple the parents, and there you go. You never know if you’ll be the one holding the caregiver bag or the one high-tailing it because you just discovered you’ve got no stomach for it.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . lays down the blame.As far as I can see, the elder end of the spectrum contains fundamental issues we might never have considered in the early years of our stepfamilies. In the early years of many a stepfamily, the primary stressor is typically the relationship with the ex-spouse. As the kids become teens and the elders get . . . well, older or elder, or whatever you want to call the process, the primary issue becomes exponentially complicated.

Based on my experience with my father, it is a full-time job to attend to closing a life and rebuilding another one. As a power-of-attorney, I am on-call. Multiply by two more for my husband and we’ve got our life focus for the next many years. Maybe you don’t plan to participate in the care of your elders, but my husband and I understand this is a part of our lives. It just is.

We’ve joked that we need our own adult care home, which we could do in our state. We would get screened by the federal government and fingerprinted and separated from those who’ve committed crimes. After that, we’d be able to care for our own elders in our own home. We have enough elders to easily fill an official foster home, but our current home wouldn’t fit them all and they don’t get along. But, if they did, we could save a great deal on resources, especially time, energy, and the emotional cost of running from home to home.

Years ago, one of my stepkids had a school assignment to draw a dream house and label the rooms in Spanish. The resulting dream home had a room for all the siblings and each parent, on different floors. There was recognition of the parents not being married and evidence of the deep yearning to have everyone under one roof.

Today, I wish I could build that house. I know if I were in the situation I’m imagining could solve so many problems, I likely wouldn’t want to live with my husband’s ex, but I also see what the future holds for our kids when they grow older and it’s our turn to be the elders. They will be pulled emotionally in two, three, or four different directions.

This world of ours is definitely complicated. Not just because we are living longer, but because we haven’t figured out how to live in community. Truly honest, “I-wish-you-well,” community. If we did, well, my stepkid’s dream house wouldn’t be so far-fetched.

We can take on this walking-the-path with our elders as a burden, or we can release all the expectations that set us up for thinking being around old people is a traumatic experience. Sure, I get frustrated with my dad. As he gets better and thinks he’s independent, he wants to have more say. The problem is, he isn’t independent and  needs help, always. There’s a complication in that, for sure.

Most of the time, I’m the one who’s gaining. I’ve gained a deeper understanding of my family, a respect for what my dad has been through in life, and clarity about what it means to show up for someone even when you don’t like what is going on.

There are so many things we have yet to sort out about being in a stepfamily in our culture today, no wonder it’s easier to play the blame-the-stepmother (or father, or ??, fill in the blank) game.

I’m learning that despite how traumatic the early stepfamily years seem, they were just the beginning of the story.

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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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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the importance of place.

Have you adjusted to your place in your stepfamily?

I purposely say place because I don’t like how role sounds or feels. A role is a prescribed set of behaviors designed to fit a certain circumstance. A place is yours. You will find it or build it or discover it or create it. Your place will be there when you get confused and struggle to find where you belong.

I didn’t always see that. I struggled. And, I haven’t met a stepmother yet who hasn’t struggled to feel there is a place for her.

I’m not talking about adjusting to the easy stuff, the time when it’s just you and one of your stepchildren and you both let your guard down and the joy flows. The time when the child is uncensored and unwatched by adults or other children who carry the word back about who is doing what. This time of one adult and one child is the easy time.

No, when I ask if you’ve adjusted to your place in your stepfamily, I’m referring to the place you hold when the holidays are in full swing, when there’s a graduation going on, when a birthday needs celebrating, or when someone is getting married. These big stuff occasions require a place in order to feel comfortable in one’s skin.

This will sound funny . . . you have to take your place. I don’t mean with elbows shoving like my Portland Trailblazers determined to win the rebound. I don’t mean dictating how things will go for the Sunday dinner. I don’t mean cataloguing the mental list of all the things you’d like to see changed about your new home.

In fact, hopefully you’ll take your place in your own style, gently some days, more assertively on others, benignly much of the time, and supportively as often as you can. But the place, the where of you, is there. Constant.

What happens when you are in your place and feel it and live in it, even from it, is that the children learn where you are. They know what to expect on a given day. They begin to trust and that trust seeps in, past the bravado, past the scorn or rejection. They begin to assume you will be there. And you will, it’s your place. It’s not negotiable, it just is.

Eventually, your place is no longer up for discussion and even though you might be tempted to think a flare up or difficulty or trouble will cause you to not have a place, think again. In fact, in confused and chaotic moments it’s even more critical that you are simply where you are, in your place.

And, I don’t mean your place is the same as my place or that there’s only one place for stepmothers, any more than there’s one place for mothers. For sure, one aspect of the place is beside your husband, but the other aspects of the place are as different as we women are different. Our interests, our style, our mannerisms, our humor, our strengths and weakness, each of these shapes the place we take up.

When enough time has passed, there you are in your place, firmly ensconced in a way that makes you a fixture as much as anyone else in the family. At that moment, you’ve become a place the child can turn to when he or she needs the things you offer from your place.

In January of 2012, I was thinking of this idea of place in terms of belonging. Now I think you can’t belong until you have a place. But, the place isn’t a place in the sense of a physical place. While it’s important to have your bed be yours, a certain chair that is yours or a room you retreat to, what I’m thinking of is intrinsic. It is the space you occupy when you are being you, when you are fully engaged in the living in your stepfamily, when you are giving and receiving what is there to be given and received.

Place cards being calligraphed before a state ...

Place cards being calligraphed before a state dinner. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because your place is something you take, it will seem in the beginning you need to be invited in, as you would be around the table at a friend’s dinner party. However in your stepfamily, there won’t be name cards so you won’t know exactly where to place yourself. A lack of name cards is one of the things that makes adjusting to your stepfamily take a good amount of time. The order of things, something as simple as who sits where around the table, has shuffled and everyone is likely uncomfortable. The potential is high for every awkward thing to happen, and it most often does.

And that’s true for every other activity where there is an order and a process and turn-taking. When does your turn come? Do you take the last turn? Are you thrust in the first turn? Who decides?

If you accept that the place isn’t automatically assigned and that no one else can create it for you and it isn’t handed out after a certain initiation period, then you’ll know you can get our bearings as a new stepmother and do the work of peeling back the layers of expectations and dashed hopes and find what the place can be.

Once you work through and get to the place, remain there. Live from there. Relax in there. Be curious and look around from there.

This place is worth knowing and having.

In many ways, this place is you.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . where stepmothering begins and ends.

When my husband and I brought my Dad to live with us in May, I knew I was in for some big changes. I’m the primary caregiver and the one who gets up with him at night. Which is not a complaint, more to paint the picture.

After about a week had passed, I thought, “oh wow, this is just like bringing home a baby. No wonder mothers are tired.”

I’m writing here today to say, nope, nothing could be further from the truth. Bringing a parent home to live with you is nothing like bringing home a baby.

The fact that you brought the baby into the world is what makes being a mother different that daughtering your aging parent. I did not bring my father into the world. He lived for 25 years before I was born. For the next 20 years, he was a close part of his children’s lives, helping raise us with ideas of how we could be confident and capable adults if we had certain lessons. Then, my parents divorced and from the age of 38 onward to 77, he lived mostly alone listening to his own muse as to what he did with his time.

English: Father and daughter with early Easy B...

English: Father and daughter with early Easy Bake Oven, which resembled a conventional oven. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then, a few months ago, he suffered a stroke and came to live with me.

Now, he needs someone to cook for him, someone to help him get dressed, someone to bathe him, and someone to walk with him in case he loses his balance. He also needs a cheerleader and recreational therapist. On those fronts, he’s in good hands. We get him out and about and involved in our community. We live on a street with close relationships to our neighbors and they love visiting with him. My brother visits as often as his out-of-town job allows.

Within all those parameters is a space in which my father and I navigate the past, the present, and the worry for the future. Indeed, I could lay down some sort of house rules that might work for me, but he is an adult and though he’s had a stroke, he isn’t incompetent. He isn’t confused and he isn’t demented.

Earlier, I was setting up his computer in his room and thinking about what podcasts he might enjoy since he can’t read any more because of stroke-related vision problems, I could feel that I was in danger of once again deciding how something for him.

And that is the moment the whole issue became relevant to being a stepmother. Bringing my father home and helping him has turned out more like being a stepmother than being a mother.

Working with my father to encourage without pushing, offering opportunities to exercise without over-controlling, providing healthy meals without being boring, and establishing a daily routine without dictating have all been a delicate dance. I am so reminded of my concerns that the kids weren’t getting enough sleep, or that they were eating too much sugar, or that I wanted them to pick up after themselves. It didn’t matter how sensible my ideas were, they met with the evil eye of who do you think you are to tell us what to do?

So, today when my dad was finishing the lunch our new caregiver had made for him, he was telling her that sometimes he wanted to sleep in and around here that was impossible.

“What about this morning?” I insisted.

“Oh, that? That’s not sleeping in.” He exclaimed. “I’m talking about sleeping until I wake up.”

Ha, helping him navigate his new life is exactly like being a stepmother. Except it’s not.

Today, as I headed out to the store, he reached out and beckoned me close. He bestowed an earnest hug and told me he loved me and appreciated me.

Right there, the similarity to stepmothering ended.

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