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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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the stories we live and tell.

A friend of mine posted on Facebook.

photo (14).

I read the article and it was so good, I’ll tease you with this nugget, “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” Bruce Feiler, from the article. I’m fascinated with resilience. If my friend Carly thought this was about resilience, this binding together in families, then I needed to read it. I teach resiliency. I’ve recovered my own resiliency and gone on to have a really wonderful life. But, was I always resilient? If not, how and when did I learn to be resilient?

Wow, and another wow. You know how things land in your lap when you are in the thick of it. Three weeks into bringing my father home to live with us after his stroke, I’ve been deep in examining the family narrative and wouldn’t have thought of referring to it in that way if not for seeing this article.

When we decided to bring Dad home, I felt surprised at my decision. When he had his stroke it wasn’t my first reaction, in fact, I went about the process of looking for an adult foster home for him to reside close to me. As we looked and as his needs became more apparent, it was clear we needed a better handle on his condition and the only way to do that was bring him with us. He needed some consistency of care to make the leap to the next level of functioning, so here we are. And, it’s going well, mostly as we expected. We will likely still end up finding him a foster home, but for now we are focused on improving his quality of life regardless of where he lives.

After we got him home, I began combing the story line in my family for stories of my relatives caring for relatives. The obvious, my sister and I cared for our mom at home when she was dying of melanoma at the age of 47. She was so young, it seemed not so typical.

On my mom’s side of the family, Aunt Rose, my mother’s sister, took care of her grandmother who had dementia. I was in junior high and high school and loved having my great grandmother in my life. Later Aunt Rose took care of her husband and then her father. My cousin and I took care of Aunt Rose when she was dying of lung cancer at the age of 70, I was the weekend relief caregiver to my cousin who had a family an hour away. So, not only have I seen the family narrative in action, I’ve lived it.

On my dad’s side of the family, my dad’s sisters took care of their mother for over 15 years after my grandmother had a series of strokes. For a large portion of that time, my Aunt Ranae had Grandma solo. And, my cousin Vicki’s family cared for her at home when she was dying at 51 of melanoma.

Clearly, a strong family narrative exists around caring for relatives, and my journey through the taking-care-of-dad process gives me a new understanding of why stepfamilies are slow to accept the stepmothers in their midst. The culture has a strong and strongly negative narrative about stepmothers being untrustworthy and conniving. Whether or not a particular family narrative matches the cultural narrative, it takes sensitivity and resolve to not be swayed by the popular culture. When we aren’t swayed, I think of this as resisting the easy way out. But, who can resist the easy way out?

Here’s what I hope, but I’m doing anyway even if it changes nothing. I hope that if I live true to my family narrative, and not the popular narrative, then my stepfamily narrative will be shifted. And now I get it that I don’t need to have a report card each year at Christmas that says, you’ve been a great stepmother because…xyz. I only need to live true to my heart and the narrative will have another layer of complexity added and each generation adds another layer. Each event and each story adds another. That’s why it’s so critical how we respond in a crisis within the family.

Any time we’ve had a family crisis, my husband and I dug in to find our true feelings and our commitment to the future of all involved. We made a plan and we hung on to it whether we were challenged to take the easy way out or challenged to cave in. It seems our actions are contributing to the family narrative and we’re  seen as reliable and consistent. If the family narrative theory is true, the children involved will also see themselves as reliable. Thus, the stepfamily narrative becomes richer, more complex, and therefore less easily influenced by the negative messages the popular culture holds about stepfamilies.

Most of all, along the way all hearts are eased.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . meets a kindred stepmother.

I met a stepmother a few months ago that immediately caught my attention because her story is so like my own. The ages of the kids. The age she was when she got married. The issues that clung like moss to the divorced couple, moss that resisted the scrubbing and sprinkling of moss remover.

My new stepmother friend, Alice, sent me email last week saying that she was dreading Mother’s Day. We met up for a walk and she told me her story.

When Alice met Mister-one-day-to-be-her-husband, his children had various reactions. The eldest wanted nothing to do with her, but the youngest became her buddy. The youngest opened her heart and wanted to connect. And connect they did. They played games together, they rode bikes together, they swam together, often with Mister-one-day-to-be-her-husband, often on their own.

After my new friend and her lovely man married, the great vibes continued between her and the youngest stepchild. In fact, they became great pals. The child learned that Alice was her champion and advocate. She understood she could talk to her about anything and there was safety in that conversation. Alice was careful to not take over the mom stuff and she listened respectfully but without criticism over the years.

Choosing: painting by first husband, George Fr...

Choosing: painting by first husband, George Frederic Watts, c. 1864 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alice had read that children will go through a questioning of the relationship with the stepmother at each phase of development and as if on cue, at age 13, her stepdaughter acted haughty and rejecting of Alice. She complained that Alice was telling her what to do, when the week before she had cooperated eagerly. From there on, their relationship went downhill.

Alice looked sad when she told me that early in the marriage her youngest stepchild had also, spontaneously and without urging from her father, insisted on stepmother celebrations on the weekend after Mother’s Day. But, for the last three years not only was there no stepmother celebration, there was no acknowledgement of any kind. Oh, the kids were polite enough when they were around Alice but they kept their feelings to themselves, unless they were complaining about something they didn’t like.

Alice told me her heart felt heavy and she felt as if she had to hide her feelings for the kids. It was as if somehow a huge cord that tied them to their mother’s home was reinforced and strengthened, almost like the umbilical cord still existed, and they were afraid their mother would know if they had been nice to Alice. Alice carried her hurts and the hurts of witnessing her husband as he was also marginalized and pushed out, little by little, from the kids’ lives. She said her husband kept a great attitude, determined his relationship was not going to be defined by what anyone else did or said.

Alice told me she felt better after we walked and talked and this morning she sent me a note to say she’d survived Mother’s Day, intact of body, mind, and spirit. I was glad for her sharing since I’ve felt many of those things, not in that order and not exactly like that, but similar in the sense of having a close relationship and then losing it because others couldn’t afford to let the closeness outside their group exist.

The issues are many, the process intricate and delicate. And, maybe the only cure for these loyalty binds is time. I know several stepmothers whose stepchildren are in their late 20s and 30s and the relationship has softened. The stepchildren can share their feelings because they live outside the shadow of the mother. The children feel safer and more adept at having their own feelings and the umbilical cord is thinner or has dissolved. Maybe those adult children understand they are honoring their father when they behave appropriately with his wife. Maybe they become mature enough to understand that caring and showing it to someone else in no way detracts from the love they have for their mother. It shouldn’t be an either/or. It could be an and.

So, here’s to time. Time and another day. Any day is just that, another day. Alice keeps herself together because she has learned to appreciate many different kinds of moments and not make a big deal out of the ones that aren’t stellar. She’s getting very good at it and her happiness level has skyrocketed.

I want to be just like her.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Reshuffles and Advocates

It seems impossible that it was two months since I last wrote a blog post. But there it is, the last post on March 11 and today is May 8.

My father had a stroke in late February and life has been a whirlwind since then. First, there was getting him admitted to a rehabilitation facility close to my home. Then, worrying aloud about his mental status long enough that the medical team took a closer look and decided he’d had another stroke, albeit a small one.

We took a long-planned Spring Break vacation and when we returned, I cried to see him take steps with his walker. Now, he’s regularly walking more than 150 feet in physical therapy. He has made fantastic changes in so many ways.

Then, the dreaded hunt for a place for my father to live brought me to my knees. The places we saw just weren’t a match and one day I was so frustrated, I cried aloud, “If it gets worse, I’ll just bring him home.” I wasn’t serious in the moment, but there was something very appealing about it. At home, I’d be able to rule out about 10 things that could possibly be contributing to his trouble sleeping through the night.

Long story short, we’re bringing him home. At least long enough to get him stabilized and build back his morale. He’s depressed and shutting down or acting like he doesn’t want to talk to anyone. I’m spending as much time as I can with him and it’s all wearing thin. It will be easier to have him here than to spend every night worrying that he might fall again in the night because he’s trying to escape a wet bed.

After endless conversations with the staff and apparently upsetting the night shift because I asked to visit with them in the wee hours of the morning to get a better sense of what was going on. The staff decided I didn’t think they were doing a good job. Sigh . . . really?

My coping strategies have largely consisted of a mantra to feel what I feel in the moment and work it through and then move to the next thing. Thus, I have tolerated all the uncertainty fairly well but once a week I’ve had a good cry. Today, my tears flowed down my cheeks as I drove home blinking so I could drive safely. When the tears subsided, I realized this frustration felt so familiar.

It’s like being a stepmother.

The staff at the rehab facility have the power, I’m not a staff person. I’m not allowed to stay overnight because he shares a room and it’s not a hospital. The head nurse writes orders and the night shift does what they want and when they want to.

It’s honestly like being in the role of stepmother. I can see what would be best for my dad and my ideas are ignored because I’m not part of the system.

I’m not sure if this realization helps me or frustrates me more. I’ve learned a lot about letting go of expectations in the process of being a stepmother. Maybe that learning can help me as a daughter to my dad who is struggles and needs help.

Sadly, both my stepmother life and my dad’s future health feel somewhat like a complex game in which there are so many layers it takes years to learn how to play. My dad doesn’t have years to learn to play, so I’m not waiting around. I’ve definitely learned to let it be okay if others have an opinion about me during my time as a stepmother, so I can handle the scrutiny of nurses and medical professions.

After all, in this situation I’m the daughter. I look forward to bringing him home to rest, good food, exercise in beautiful surroundings, and a community waiting to cheer him on.

The countdown begins and I’m so glad to back to my stepmother blogging.

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

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

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

Are there any similarities?

Yeah, I thought so.

Collection of the Chinese National Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and a blessing for softness.

There you stand . . . ready for what comes to you. We know how strong you are. We know how able and willing. We know your heart is full and wide and vast and you can squeeze one more, and then one more, and then one more again into the dark recesses of your heart, especially when the one more comes with softening heart.

Glimpses and moments of softening take place when there isn’t a watchful eye, so be sure to look out of the corner of your eye and not directly. The softness can’t exist around the dinner table with the many other sets of eyes on each other’s every move or the monitoring of every nuance of your frowning mouth or furrowed brow. The softness and will wait to find an opening in you that is exactly as soft and open as needed. Then, in the flickers of time when you are soft and open and the other is also softening, you will meet on a field and run and play with no fear of being discovered.

Should you ever feel stuck and not breathing, continue on, letting the air in and letting it out. If you accidentally hold your breath, soften so you let air out quietly so as not to scare the softness away. Your very focus on your breath and your slight indifference will be what attracts the softening. Let the softening take time like you do when you set butter cubes out to soften for the cookies or brownies. The butter slowly comes to room temperature and the wrapping becomes a little oily and begins to wrinkle and conform to the warming yellow cube. Resist forcing the softening by putting it in the microwave, too brittle, harsh, and dangerous.

photo143.jpgMay you find and remain in your own softness when you face no softness. May you listen deep in your self and wonder what your posture and demeanor asks of you so you get the first benefit of the softness and the overflow creates a welcoming space for a soft-eyed inquiry, a not-sure gesture, even for a shrill and demanding request. The shrillness will feel like a test and you may harden to meet it because we all harden in the face of shrillness. But sit, stay, wait . . . leave the butter out and let it stay soft.

May you be able to see through things, past the ill-conceived attempt to pull you in, past the unsure heart that only knows lashing out, behind the curtain of disbelief in your intentions. May you get beyond all that and in an occasional moment of softness meeting softness, walk together into a room as big as a gymnasium where there is room to navigate and soften even more.

May you hold these moments gently, leaving off expectations for how often and how many. May you rest, content in your own softness and in the ability to meet others with softness should they come to you. Leave off pursuit, nestle in the rocking chair your grandmother left you. Pull and tuck the afghan around and offer to share when someone cries out. May those unexpected moments of heart seeing heart be enough. You know and the other heart knows. No need to broadcast on the front of a magazine or on the internet. Remain soft to the potential of softening, protect yourself when you need protecting and open again when danger has passed.

Most of all, may you surround yourself with the softness of the others who walk your same path. They carry the same wishes, hopes, and dreams. They, of able, willing, and wide heart. Meet them as often as you can and together remember the time spent with an open and soft heart is an investment for yourself and a building of the trove that is your relationship with your self and others.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the shame of not being chosen for dodgeball.

Every stepmother likely relates to that feeling of not belonging in her stepfamily. For example, when children ignore her when they walk in a room and say hello to their father and she’s sitting three feet away. Or, when the mother of the children behaves as if the stepmother does not matter. Even inadvertently, when a husband forgets to tell his stepmother wife that the kids are joining them for dinner.

If you have felt these feelings, you know they sit below the surface and show themselves when the circumstances are just-so. You know they never die and you know how deep they cut, clear to the heart of what it is to be married to a man with children.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . runs out of self-soothing steam.If you missed the post about belonging, you can catch up here. This post is about how it feels to not belong.

I’ve begun to think the crux of the not-belonging in our stepfamilies is about not being picked. Think back to when you were a child and teams were being chosen for dodgeball. The memory is vivid for me. We were at the Washington Elementary School gymnasium with it’s ancient wood stage, bleachers, and oak-plank floor that is now used as a community center. It was 1968 in Oakland, Oregon, population 1002.

A class of nervous nine-year-olds stood in that gym in a line, hoping the captain of the team would choose them, hoping they were good enough to be chosen early. As child after child went to stand with the team that chose them, those few left unchosen felt an ominous cloud growing inside, bigger and bigger until it blocked out all the voices and the stares and the relief on the faces of the ones already chosen. Do you remember a time like that, when the shame felt so vulnerable-making you thought you’d crumple up right there?

Could it be that the same feelings of nervousness and dread and shame of not being chosen for the game are what a stepmother feels when she’s left out of her family?

Shame, it turns out, is universal (refer to Brené Brown posts here).

Not only that, what if this shame thing is also what results in mothers treating stepmothers poorly? It is my opinion that some mothers behave as they do because they are working hard against experiencing shame, or the possibility of even a small amount of shame. They feel vulnerable at the thought of their children liking another woman and the risk of feeling the shame of being left alone is so great they might find themselves behaving in ways they’d never have dreamed of before they got divorced. Let’s face it, who learns healthy ways of processing those feelings of 9-year-old, not-chosen shame or 13-year-old, not-asked-to-the-dance shame? I didn’t have those models when I was growing up, and according to Dr. Brown, many of us didn’t.

What if shame is what makes the pain of being excluded within our own stepfamilies so deeply felt, so palpable, and so relevant? If so, it explains why stepmothers feel as though we’ve been hurt to our core in those moments of being treated as invisible. It’s why the pain feels big enough to consume us.

Maybe you’ll protest that you have no shame. Maybe you’ll protest that the problems in the family aren’t your fault or that your stepfamily would relate better if only everyone else would see the real problems.

Maybe, but the shame of not being chosen is a universal human experience. And, according to Dr. Brown, shame is a part of all our lives, which means it exists not just in my experience as a stepmother, or yours. It also exists in most situations that humans navigate. Which means it’s happening for all of us, no one of us is the only woman having shame.

And, let’s also not forget, no one in a stepfamily equation gets to claim the high ground about shame, not mothers, not fathers, not children, or stepmothers and stepfathers. Anyone in a stepfamily can wield the I’ll ignore you card, but at the end of the day, we’re all human, we all have shame. Anyone can wield the I’m better than you card, but again, we’re all human. We all need to work with our internal committee and shame is a key player.

Even though my natural tendency is to cover up shame so no one will notice, here it is. I’m broaching this very sensitive subject, out in public. As Dr. Brown says, as soon as you can get an issue into the light of day, it gets smaller. That’s why I’m going on and on about shame. If shame is why the process of integrating into a stepfamily is so difficult, I want it to become smaller for all of us, stepmothers and mothers alike.

Maybe shame is our secret hand-shake, our path to peace.

Rather than run from our shame and treat it like something to be avoided, let’s treat it like chicken pox. We know we’re going to get it, so the sooner we get exposed and develop an immunity, the better our lives will be.

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