A Healthy Stepmother . . . When Mothers Lose Perspective

We’re headed into summer and the negotiations over who is doing what and when and with whom. This is never a comfortable time and it’s often easier for a stepmother to put her head down and hope to ignore the situation. It’s impossible to ignore, the pain is there on the face of the child. The discomfort and shame is there in the way that child behaves at his father’s house.

This post is about acknowledging the pain and suffering on the part of everyone when mothers lose perspective. Mothers have incredible power and it’s confusing and damaging when they wield it inappropriately. There’s a toxic by-product of unsaid feelings, unexpressed concerns, and un-negotiated decisions. This wears on mothers themselves, on their exes, and the stepmother. Justifications over unresolved issues between the mother and father are not an excuse for a mother to bring her child into the middle.

I’ve heard enough mother stories  (the 44 women I know who are stepmothers) and the stories make my heart hurt. I hang on to these stories, hoping to soften them up, almost as if I could soften my heart to the story, then the mothers’ hearts could also be softened. 

English: Mother and child.

Mother and child. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I thought it would be appropriate to get really clear about the behaviors we’re talking about, because clearly there is a percentage of mothers who don’t behave this way. I bow down to the mothers like Rose who honors her ex-husband’s wife and actively supports her time with the boys. I think Melanie is a rock star for the way she helps her son work through his feelings about all his parents in a way that allows her son to love them all. 

While I don’t have easy solutions, I always have hope, the hope a mother or two might look at this list and agree, it’s time to find another way of interacting.

First, mothers do these low-grade-but-undermining-over-time things often enough to be considered “all the time,” according to my sources: 

  • Fail to communication, decisions made without consulting the father of the children. 
  • Use kids, regardless of their age, as couriers to communicate with the father of the children, and then claim she doesn’t like that style. 
  • Subtly undermine the child’s time with the father. 
  • Badmouth and bash the father and/or the stepmother with the innocence of someone who believes she isn’t doing any damage. 
  • Make half-hearted attempts to extend communication and respect to the father of the children and his wife/partner, just enough to profess being communicative. 
  • Behave as though there is no (legitimate) home for the child other than her own. 
  • Behave as though the child comes from one side of the family. 

Second, mothers do these medium-grade-obstructionisms frequently, things which often have a direct impact on the other household: 

  • Be permissive, not following through on limits, and then blame the father for being too permissive. 
  • Change plans at the last minute and not including the other adults (step-parents) in the communication.
  • Allow children to do things that are illegal (drinking and drugs) and then complain the father and stepmother are too strict.
  • Have strategy conversations with the father and reach agreements about the issues, but discuss the agreements with the child before the three get together. 

And, finally, mothers do these high-grade-interference-and-shaming-for-the-child things more often than we read in the news: 

  • Involve teachers, other parents, and relatives in the disputes between the parents. 
  • Include the child in private negotiations/conversations between the adults, and using shaming language to demonstrate a position of power and paint a picture of one parent loving the child more than the other. The child is asked to choose the “good” parent.  
  • Repeatedly take the father to court and behave as though he is a deadbeat dad when he is responsibly caring for his children. 
  • Attack the stepmother in public, verbally or physically, whether or not the children are present. 

I keep wondering what life would be like, not just for the stepmothers and mothers but for the children, if mothers stopped doing these behaviors. I keep wondering how the quality of life for her child would improve if he or she could move freely between homes and not have to carry the censorship and worry over lost love and approval. 

These behaviors represent the worst part about divorce. 

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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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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 . . . 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 . . . 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 . . . 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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