A Healthy Stepmother . . . Goats and advice for a child.

My husband and I are not regular TV or movie watchers, but we occasionally enjoy a couple of movies in a row on Netflix. On Saturday evening, we watched Jesus Henry Christ on the recommendation of a friend. We liked it, so after the movie was done and there was Goats in the Netflix cue, we looked at one another, grinned, and pushed Play.

Goats, stars Graham Phillips as Ellis, a 15-year-old boy who secretly applies to the same prep school his father attended. When he gets accepted and moves there, there is an opportunity for him to establish a relationship with his father, a relationship his mother Wendy, played by Vera Farmiga, has successfully obstructed for Ellis’ entire life.

Ellis has taken care of his mother’s affairs, paying the bills and running the house for some years and Wendy is distraught at the thought of him leaving. Wendy can’t stand the thought of her son being in a close relationship with his father. In fact, when Ellis spends Thanksgiving with his father and begins to get to know him, she turns on her son and accuses him of being just like his father, a man she has publicly damned over and over in front of Ellis.

Feral goat in Aruba

Feral goat in Aruba (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The character of Wendy saddened me. I know of children in Ellis’ situation who spend their childhood taking care of a mother or a father, emotionally and for years. The movie realistically depicted the manipulation that can go on in parent-child relationships. At one point, Wendy is sitting on the kitchen floor sobbing, “I’m a mother, I miss him like I miss a part of myself.” Several weeks later, when Ellis comes home for Christmas, she doesn’t say hello and profess her love, instead she yells at him for not calling her more often.

My own father behaved much like Wendy did. He was less blatant, more sneaky. He didn’t call my mother names, he simply talked about how afraid she was and how being afraid kept her from living and making decisions. He built up a story that took on mythic proportions. Gradually, over the years of me building up a greater understanding of what my mother went through living with my father, I came to understand why she behaved as she did and how much he used discrediting her to his advantage so he would look good for us kids.

Several times during the movie, I wanted to shout to Ellis, “ask her to be quiet, ask her to speak kindly about your father.” But then I remembered it took me until I was 48 to ask my father to stop. Ellis is just 15 in the movie, so instead of telling her to be quiet, he seizes an opportunity to spend the summer with his dad as his way to get away from his mother. I know it was just a movie, but I wanted to take Wendy aside and say to her, “If you keep on this way, you’ll lose him. At some point you need to quit manipulating and start acknowledging he’s his own person.”

So, today, I’m suggesting to teens and young adults who have one parent who bashes the other parent with verbal insults, or an eye roll every time a father is mentioned, or story-telling that keeps the other parent in an unfavorable light. I recommend you not wait until you are 48 to ask your parent to speak kindly of the other parent. I recommend you find a way to ask now.

I wish I had asked my dad to stop insulting my mom about 20 years ago.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and 44 stepmothers.

I know 44 stepmothers.

One day, curious, with many names rattling in my head, I took a few minutes to jot a very quick list of all my relatives, friends, clients, and providers who are stepmothers, like me. I immediately came up with 44 women from four generations across three countries.

I’m still not sure why I find this significant, except to say what we already know, we stepmothers are everywhere.

I was having coffee with a stepmother friend and she realized that her mother had also been a stepmother. She hadn’t really thought about it, but in fact, there it was; her own mother. For me, I have a mother, a sister, a sister-in-law, two mother-in-laws, a niece, a hair stylist, and three close friends who were all stepmothers. And, the list goes on.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and 44 stepmothers.

The oldest generation of the stepmothers I know, now in their 70s, didn’t have support. They were silent, the irony of hailing from the silent generation. The women I know of that generation didn’t have many choices. Society prescribed for them what they would do and not do and there really wasn’t a choice about showing up or not. And, I think they had a lot of painful experiences, silently.

In my generation, too young to be a baby boomer and too old to be a Generation X, technically referred to as a Generation Jones, many of us came into our second marriages quite late. Many of the friends I count in my 44 stepmothers were in their 40s when they became a stepmother, some in their 50s. Somehow, I think being closer to 50 flavored how I went about this process of becoming a stepmother. Add in the extra bonus of going through perimenopause in the midst of integrating into a group of strangers, let’s just say it’s no wonder a few years ago at the Thanksgiving dinner table, I gave thanks for not having killed anyone (figuratively speaking, of course).

Another generation of my friends, in their late 30s and into their early 40s, is in the thick of bearing children. That means that in the midst of the craziness of intense bipartisanship on every issue under the sun, and bitter custody and parenting battles, these women are trying to survive with very small children in the midst of some very difficult challenges. My hat is off to them and they motivate me to write, write, write and bring a voice to stepmother issues.

And, the youngest generation of stepmother women I know, in their very early 20s, has their chin held high and is bravely marching into this confusing maze of family disintegration and re-integration before they’ve had a chance to think about whether that’s what they want or not. I’ll be watching this generation to see if they find a way to solve the stepmother dilemma. Maybe the mothers of this millenial generation will actually acknowledge the ways another woman in their child’s life is a positive instead of a negative. We’ll see, we need time to help us out with our conclusions there.

And, of course, many women don’t fit the description the way I broke it down here. That will always be the case since there are no neat and tidy delineations. One of the hardest things about analyzing stepmothers and stepfamilies is that every single case is unique. The age of a woman when she becomes a stepmother is significant, but so is age of the children and how the mother of the children thinks of herself. Not only that, there’s the age of a father and what generation he belongs to and what the expectations are for him in his peer group and how he feels about himself and his relationship with his ex and on, and on, and on.

I want peace for all 44 of these women, they are my friends and my family! And, peace for all women who choose to marry a man with children. Not only that, I want peace for all the mothers out there, many of whom seem tormented, because often (not always, but often) kids will have peace when their moms’ have peace.

I know 44 stepmothers. I’m still shaking my head.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . takes a deep breath.

A most contentious presidential election is less than 5 days away, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is gradually being exposed as far worse than anyone imagined, unrest grows in many countries around the globe and natural disasters have displaced millions. The unhealthy cold war in stepfamilies marches ever onward and the holiday season is upon us in the United States, with all it’s messaging of be-this, do-this.

I feel an overwhelming urge to take in a huge, giant, enormous breath of air to fill me up from top to bottom, left to right, stem to stern, front to back, to and fro, this and that, and wherever else I haven’t mentioned. I want the air inside me from the scalp of my head to the tips of my toes. Let there be no place within that isn’t nourished by that air and made better because of the oxygen.

Innnnnnnn-hale!

Savor. Linger. Wait. Listen. Soften. Notice. Soften more.

Exxxxxxx-hale.

Whew.

I needed that.

While I know it’s not just me who’s feeling the effects of all these pressures and anxieties and increasing tensions, sometimes it seems that way. Thinking it’s just me is how I know I’m holding on and not seeing clearly. Thinking I’m alone in feeling pressured is the surest sign that I’m absorbing and storing it for that rainy day rather than letting it move through me, past me, and away from me.

Today, as I drove to teach my class, I stopped at an intersection to wait for a high school student to cross the street. The oncoming car also stopped. The teen was stepping off the curb into a very narrow street and a car sped around me to pass on the right, as if not seeing the teen.

I gasped, the teen hesitated, and time stalled for many surreal moments as the driver of the car realized why we were all stopped. The car came to rest inches from the teen and the teen crossed the street. It was many moments before we released our collective breath and went on our way.

This push-me-pull-me is everywhere right now. In the way we’re driving, in the lack of patience for one another to clear the way in front of us, in our zero tolerance for another’s point of view, in our expectations that everyone around us should see things as we see them, and our complete disdain when they don’t. We turn it on our stepkids, our spouses, and ourselves.

It’s as if we’ve lost our cushion, the moment-of-choice is gone. The choice is a moment in which we can make a different assessment and come to a conclusion that keeps us connected to another. The cushion-of-choice lets us give allowance to the driver who almost hit the kid because we realize it might have been us. If we have a cushion, that means we have something left inside, something akin to compassion, and we accept that another person is doing the best he/she can and that we all make mistakes.

We keep some cushion around us when we breathe. We can rebuild the cushion when we practice breathing regularly.

Right before I left to teach my class, I tweeted,

A Healthy StepmotherA Healthy Stepmother ‏@AHealthyStepmom

Now is a great time to take in a generous breath and take even longer to let it out. Repeat every 15 minutes = #ABetterDay for #stepmothers

Is it ironic, that less than 30 minutes later, I needed to practice that for myself? Maybe not, when you consider that we humans have a need to rebalance, rejuvenate, and regroup every single day of our lives.

Maybe instead of growing a collective urge for things to be perfect, we can work together to improve balance, liveliness, and feeling connected.

Now, about that breath . . .

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Now on Twitter @ahealthystepmom. Follow me if you’d like.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . does as good as she can.

You’ve heard the expression, when life gives you lemons make lemonade. Another one that works when things are really, really rough, you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit. Both are true, depending on the circumstances.

Regardless of which expression fits the day that is stretching out in front of you with all it’s potential and challenge, underneath is the idea that you can do as good as you can.

You can do as good as you can.

Lately, as I’ve read reader comments and listened to friends’ stories and lived my life challenges, I’m sobered by how many of us are judging and berating ourselves for not doing even better. In amongst the indignation and heart-hurts rests a deep judgment that we should have known another way, another way to witness our husband when the children forgot to call or another better way to respond when someone wrinkled their nose and rejected our efforts.

Equally staggering are the disappointments that litter our days/weeks/years. There is an expectation that if things go a certain way then everything will be fine. We stepmothers proceed to kill ourselves trying to make life go a certain way. There can never be a certain way that is good enough, but the allure of that fantasy lives strong within us.

Orestes Pursued by the Furies, by John Singer ...I want someone to write a book for stepmothers that advises us to copy our husbands. Doesn’t that sound like a crazy idea? But, I’m here to tell you that every time I copy my husband’s behavior, I feel better. I feel less stressed about who said what and to whom and when and what they thought of me. I look at him and see what he’s sharing and expressing and when I can match what’s happening for him the experience is much easier for me. I’ve been studying him for years now and I like the results inside myself. I harbor worry less, much, much less. Okay, I stop at copying the goofy way he begins his day but boy, oh boy, I admire that he can wake up every morning and start over as though he had a clean slate since I am usually mired in the leftovers from the night before.

I want someone to write a book for stepmothers that insists they let others struggle. I want that author to admonish women who run around doing everything for everyone and I want them to lead workshops in how stepmothers can stand and wait in silence until the realization dawns on others that the struggle, whatever it is, is not our job. I’m still practicing that one, I give myself a C+ or a B- on that one, a huge improvement over the F+ in my earlier role as a doormat.

Those same authors should contemplate authoring a book about stepmother guilt. Sure, stepmother guilt is laced with women’s guilt, but a special kind of guilt is laid on a stepmother, a guilt born of not being the Mother. That gets wrapped in around the guilt of not being woman enough so that her new family has no struggles. This book is begging to be written.

Finally, we need to practice kindness and direct it at the self, so maybe there should be a book about that. We need to be reminded that chastising ourselves about how we look and about what we have or have not accomplished is futile and only adds to our feelings of discontent. We need to practice kindness toward ourselves especially when we have tried to give what was ours to give on that day and it was rebuffed. We even more especially need self-kindness if we are givers and we give, give, give until we are empty. In that moment of realization that we have done it again, when we feel like we were duped but we know deep down that we did it to ourselves, in that moment we don’t need to berate ourselves for being stupid. We tried. We did our best. Even if the other person wasn’t gracious enough to recognize that or kind enough to understand the situation was difficult, we can still remain resolute in our kindness toward the self.

I want us to walk tall rather than stooped under the weight of the guilt of not being enough. Whatever a stepmother can do on a particular day is enough. It is that simple. To offer what we can offer to the people we live with and care about or even don’t care about, whatever we can offer as the host of our home. . . we must accept that as enough. We know that what we offer may be different from one time to the next because we might have more energy or share more of a connection or be engaged in the process in a different way.

Long ago, at the gas station where my husband filled his car the attendant encouraged as he pulled away, have as good a day as you can! We love that expression at our house and use it liberally.

Have as good a day as you can.

Do as good as you can.

Let that be enough.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . reflects on toxicity.

According to the experts and according to my personal experience, it can take years for healthy interactions to develop within stepfamilies. By my definition, healthy interactions involve more integration of the stepmother regardless of who is interacting. And, the healthy interactions are less painful than they once were and are more neutral for everyone. Sometimes though, we are prevented from developing healthier relationships because of the toxic legacy someone in the family or extended stepfamily has inherited. This idea of toxicity is a great description if you think in terms of the degree that any person can cause damage to a relationship.

Recently, I read Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. Susan Forward, the author, digs into the things you can do to shift the patterns of your relationship with your parents. I found especially interesting the chapter describing beliefs and values and I made notes of her suggestions for non-defensive responses since I often get caught in my interactions with my toxic father. I loved the advice on developing and using a position statement, such as “I am willing to drive you to the doctor once a month.” which establishes limits at the same time it demonstrates that I am not divorcing him.

At the same time, I found Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power. In Difficult Mothers, Terri Apter describes The Angry Mother, The Controlling Mother, The Narcissistic Mother, The Envious Mother, and the Emotionally Unavailable Mother. My own mother was emotionally unavailable in her depression and I read that chapter with much interest.

There is a chapter “Am I a Difficult Mother?”, specifically for you to reflect on whether you are a Difficult Mother. Just reading about what it means to have a difficult mother helped me gain a deeper sense of the impact of my mother’s depression on my life.

If you spend time with either one of these books, you’ll cry when you read what kids live through. Or, you’ll nod in agreement because you can relate. The question in any girl or boy’s childhood is whether she or he has relationships that support the developing spirit and self-image so she or he can grow up to be a healthy adult. Are the adults raising a child burdening him or her in ways that cause the child to take on the role of caregiving or peacemaking or any number of other ways of trying to make everything better for everyone else?

I read and digested and percolated on all of this information. It was great review of the story I’m telling myself about my relationship with my mother, who isn’t living, and my father, who is.

That’s when it occurred to me that in both extended families and extended stepfamiles, we can look at the behaviors of any person and come to a greater understanding of their influence on our lives. As a stepmother, I can use the same strategies outlined by Susan Forward in Toxic Parents to establish boundaries and take a position with each member of my stepfamily.

It is quite daunting to read what some adults went through as children with angry fathers or narcissistic mothers. It’s easy to downplay the role of the neglectful father or the emotionally unavailable mother as not as damaging to a child. Clearly, that isn’t true and as adults some of us will spend the rest of our lives undoing the habits formed when we were trying to survive stressful situations we encountered in our growing up homes.

Remember my post on resisting the urge to save your stepchildren? I stand by that. This reflection on toxicity isn’t meant as a charge to go rescue someone. Instead, it’s an idea that by knowing and understanding your family situation and all its players, the ones you bring and the ones your husband brings, maybe you can update the story you tell about each of you. If nothing else, you’ll gain a fuller understanding of the life your stepkids are living. You won’t change anyone else, but you can shift how you respond so you are less reactive and more true to yourself.

I hope that’s how it can go for all of us, yesterday’s children and tomorrow’s adults.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . knows done.

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

However, with certain people we come close to erasing ourselves before we quit trying. It’s as if the self gets caught up in the clutching and the trying and we can’t let go even if we wanted. While it’s our human spirit to keep trying and keep hoping that things will be different, it can be wearing and exhausting.

The other day a conversation with my dad started the same way it always starts, with the same dance unfolding . . . he made a comment in a certain tone, I shrugged my shoulders with a certain eye roll, then he huffed back with some snotty remark, but this time rather than protest again or try to reason with him I simply got up from the table with my cup of tea and moved to a chair in the living room. He knew he’d lost me and he declared since we’re done here I might as well leave. He left and I sat, relieved, and watched the rain fall onto already over-saturated earth. I was done.

It occurred to me that stepmother relationships with stepkids follow this pattern. And whether my relationship with my dad prepared me for this time in my stepkids lives or if it was the other way around and the stepkids have helped hone my skills for interacting with my dad, I may never know. For sure, it’s mighty familiar and mighty tiresome.

"Sleeping Princess" by Viktor Vasnetsov

Image via Wikipedia

The other day with my dad, I woke up to the alternatives to suffering silently or not silently, as did Sleeping Beauty after the apple fell out of her mouth. She woke up and looked around and said oh no what the heck happened. I felt that way with my dad the other day, as if I’d been awakened after a long sleep and realized I’d been standing in line waiting for something to happen that was never going to happen.

[                                        ]

That was space.

[                                                  ]

That was even more space.

We need space to let our old habits come to a close and for the new done-not-pursuing-you feeling to take hold.

For the record, my dad and my stepkids are important people in my life and I’m not done in the sense of no more contact. I just mean done with the emotional dance that keeps a person trapped in the not-good-enough and over-trying relationship. I’m done making it such hard work.

And, most important, I think we can only perceive the done moment when we slack off of the trying and persisting. We have to ease up a little and see and feel the internal storm clearly so we can sense and know if we are truly done.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the boy/girl crisis in the U.S.

Have you seen these two books by Leonard Sax, M.D.? They might be considered required reading for every parent and step-parent. That we are in a cultural crisis and our children are suffering is certainly supported by Sax’s thesis, complete with research and outcome studies.

Boys Adrift

&

Girls on the Edge

These are not soothing books, despite my focus on self-soothing lately. In fact, you might be alarmed at some of the things you’ll learn.

If a nuclear family struggles with issues of appropriate boundaries and structure for the children and teens, then it’s even more troubling to see how those boundaries and structures fall apart amidst the discord between divorced parents. Sax does not write specifically about children of divorce, but he lays out enough research that you can make the obvious conclusion even if you aren’t looking for it.

Divorce, in and of itself, doesn’t seem the culprit here. The toxic environment for kids is created when their parents are out-and-out fighting or maintaining their version of the Cold War. Neither one of these is healthy and both create incredible stress on any child.

But, there is hope. There is hope that divorced parents mired in the pattern of blaming the other will open their eyes and see that the child is the big loser. The child is the one who needs the structure and loses when he or she is brought up without it.

There is hope that a mother will read these books and decide that setting boundaries like bedtime and computer use are vital for her child. There is hope that a father reading these books will discover that his child needs him to step in and interrupt negative situations instead of going along with the status quo.

I hold hope for my friends’ son who is on a serious downward spiral, nearing the bottom with his negative lifestyle. He began a four year college and transferred away to a community college and now that isn’t working. He’s failing all of his classes and spending his evenings partying. May his mother let even the tiniest bit of the evidence touch her heart so that her son can get help that he needs to grow into a healthy and mature adult who can be in sustainable and sustaining relationships. May his mother let his father guide the way to something more healthy as the father is attempting to do. May his mother drop the warfare about who is the winner of the children and who they love more. May she stop smothering her children in her pursuit of being loved.

And, I hold hope for my other friends’ stepdaughter who struggles to keep up with the competition from her mother for clothes, fashion, looks, and the perfect body. Clearly the daughter will never be like her mother, thus she’s caught in a perpetual negative competition, repeatedly reminded of how she can never measure up. That type of warfare is heart-breaking to watch. I want to whisk the girl away and let her spend time among women who are loving and accepting and understand that the body is one aspect of our lives but that there are a multitude of other characteristics that matter just as much or more.

Sadly, I could keep listing children who struggle among my friends’ families and it would get to be a very long list. Divorced or not divorced, this is the time for everyone to work together, for the mother’s child’s future and the father’s child’s future. They are one and the same.