A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Being Good

I wonder if the remarried woman has more pressure on her to be a good wife than in a first marriage. I wonder if the stakes feel higher to be good because the odds of a remarriage succeeding are so dismal.

And how good does a good wife have to be? How good does a stepmother-wife have to be?

Does going from good wife to divorced woman have something to do with how mothers reach for their children? Is there something about reclaiming and emboldening the image of good mother that will somehow compensate for the loss of good wife? And if good mothers and good wives are good women, can there be two good women in an extended stepfamily? 

Is there a limited amount of good?

Is the label good necessary, is it automatic?

test-clip-art-7iakpmratI can argue no one needs it. Good feels like a set up for doing too much, for over-doing, and for over-extending. Good feels like a great way to start a competition.

Think of it. Someone needs to find that misplaced coat because the weather turned cold overnight and it’s raining outside. The child can’t walk to school in the cold without a coat. So someone must find the coat. Who jumps to go find the coat? 

And I wonder, is there more pressure to be the good stepmother from the children, more from the husband, or more from the ex-wife? Or are we trying so hard to prove we are worthy of this man because others lay claim to him as father, son, or ex-husband that we impose the good label on ourselves.

Do we feel we have to prove we are good enough to justify him marrying us in the first place? To justify him wanting his children to get along with us? To justify him trusting us enough to leave the children with us?

And so we bend, mold, flex, double-over, curl up, make ourselves smaller, make ourselves stronger, do more, be more, try to be prettier, try to solve all problems. We aspire to become female Macgyvers, able to do anything, be anywhere, and love anyone.

How do we decide who establishes the measure of a good stepmother? Who do we let apply this measure to us?

And finally, how is our good earned?

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Reflects on Anniversaries

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Reflects on Anniversaries

Happy Anniversary! My friend exclaimed as she got in her car to leave our lunch date. My husband and I had celebrated our tenth anniversary as a remarried couple over the weekend and my friend has been a staunch supporter of ours.

Happy Anniversary! The card arrived from my in-laws and my husband’s sister. They have been strong supporters of our marriage, opening the family circle to make space from the very first time they met me.

Friends and extended family, the ones intimate enough to know us, all congratulated us on our milestone, a decade. A decade is nothing in the life of my women’s circle. I’m the only one who’s been divorced and remarried. The rest of them have been married nearly forty years and counting.

When I say a decade is like thirty years in a remarriage, some of you know what I mean. You know there has been a lot of water under the bridge. You know the adjustments and integrations taking place. You know.

Ironically, our celebration is the anniversary of the death of the marriage my husband was in before me.

“For the child, the parents are always together.” Suzi Tucker, Constellations Facilitator, said these words as we worked through one woman’s story.

img_1243“Amen.” I said it to myself as I stood in the place of one of the woman’s children. I know this to be true from my own experience as a child and from my experience married to a man with children.

In the early years of my remarriage, it was difficult to respect a child’s perspective while so many emotions churned and the past loomed larger than the future. These days, now ten years into the married part, it feels less foreign.

“For the child, the parents are always together.” It makes more sense now that there have been more memories laid down that support a sense of community. The funny thing is, you can’t create those memories or supports immediately. It really does take time, years in fact. Seven to twelve years according to the experts.

And, that’s what settles my heart. No one is expected to get it right the first try. No one is to know what a child needs until that person knows and understands the child in a deeper way than one or two years brings. And no child is expected to know how to handle a new person in his or her life. There’s an evolution to relationships. There’s a developmental process to relationships.

For me, the evolution was in the letting go of every single expectation I had carried over the threshold with me. For me, it was in the letting myself off the hook for not being some superhero. Maybe that’s the title of a stepmother book, “No Superheroes Needed.”

Because there’s nothing to be saved.

I do mean that literally. No one needs saving. Sure, some people in the extended stepfamily might be misbehaving. Some of them might be misbehaving a lot. Still, in those chaotic and crazy moments when it seems the world has ended, you are an idea person, you are a problem-solver, and you are your spouse’s deepest support. But it isn’t yours to go wading into the fray and set the boundaries or fight the fires. You can do that together with your partner, but it isn’t yours to lead the way or make the definitions of what will be best for children that aren’t your own.

That’s the harsh part. That’s the part that makes us feel vulnerable. That’s the point where we want to stomp our foot and shake a fist to express our frustration with our disenfranchisement. It’s the part that makes us get on our high horse which isn’t the same as taking the high road.

There are no simple answers. There are no easy solutions. Some of us have husbands and partners who are not as good at solving these problems or at even acknowledging they exist. Some of us have partners who would rather bury their head in the sand and watch a child struggle than deal with an ex-spouse. And, some of us have husbands who do a great job of boundary setting and take care of the emotional work with their children and ex-partner. So many differences within families and no easy answers.

I hope you make it to the happy anniversary stage. I hope you wade and slog your way through those days that make you want to stay in bed. I hope the many edges of your self haven’t been chipped away so that you no longer recognize yourself. I hope you come out on the other side of that swamp with your heart intact and your marriage stronger.

I hope you find ways to soothe your feelings so you can take on less and less of the goings ons as a personal affront to you. This family was going to survive, or not, before you came along.

I hope you realize your priority is your relationship to that person to whom you said “I do.” 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Doles Out Her Emotional Labor

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Doles Out Her Emotional Labor

On Facebook and Twitter and the blogosphere, I see post after post from stepmothers struggling with the husband, the stepkids, and the ex-wife. I get it. I get it.

No, I really do get it. The process of integrating a stepfamily takes seven to twelve years according to experts such as Patricia Papernow, Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t.

Regardless of where you are in the process of stepfamily integration, it isn’t easy. Regardless of your best efforts, the speed of the integration isn’t slower or faster because of what you do. There are countless variables, so many it’s not possible to read a book about what others do and simply apply that to your own family, however there are some good ideas in some books. Think of the number of books about child development and how many contradictory theories there are for what is best. Same with stepmothering.

Every stepmother I know has learned she has to live it to see what works for her and her family.

For me, the greatest level of peace has come when I’ve educated myself about the process and taken less responsibility for the outcome. I know, it feels weird to not be designated as a fixer. It is so ingrained. I used to think it was a personal failing, now I know it’s culturally dictated. So, when I found this article, I knew I wanted to share it with everyone who marries a person with children from a previous marriage.

In Women Are Just Better at This Stuff: Is Emotional Labor Feminism’s Next Frontier?, November 2015, Rose Hackman introduced her latest research with this:

We remember children’s allergies, we design the shopping list, we know where the spare set of keys is. We multi-task. We know when we’re almost out of Q-tips, and plan on buying more. We are just better at remembering birthdays. We love catering to loved ones, and we make note of what they like to eat. We notice people’s health, and force friends and family to go see the doctor.

We listen to our partner’s woes, forgive them the absences, the forgetfulness, the one-track mindedness while we’re busy organizing a playdate for the kids. We applaud success when it comes: the grant that was received, the promotion. It was their doing, and ours in the background. Besides, if we work hard enough, we can succeed too: all we need to do is learn to lean in.

Hackman says this is emotional labor and someone has to do it. Both at home and at the office, women are doing the greatest percentage of emotional labor and wondering why they are so exhausted. I feel her article is a very fair description of the issues, without disparaging the men and women we partner with.

IMG_1250

Go ahead, get out for an early morning walk…

So, take a moment to breath. Consider Hackman’s list. Add to it all the things you’re juggling in your attention right now. Add to it all the worries you have about the kids, your husband, your own health and well-being. No wonder you’re exhausted and wondering if your marriage will survive. Simple marriages (my term, in which neither partner has been remarried before) struggle with emotional labor. Stepmothers, add an element of double or triple duty here. Emotional labor is one big reason it feels stressful. That and loyalty binds. No wonder stepmothers are depressed or anxious (Wednesday Martin).

If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you’ll know I’m a big proponent of doing less. Of getting over the Great Healer Complex. For reminders and ideas for how to work with the image of doing less, see A Healthy Stepmother Minds Her Own Business, or A Healthy Stepmother Does as Good as She Can, or A Healthy Stepmother Knows When to Cat, Dog, or Hamster.

You might have felt doubtful when you’ve heard me encouraging you to do less. You might have struggled with guilt that things aren’t getting done: Johnny is going to flunk math, Suzie is not going to have that cute outfit to wear, or someone needs to pick up the kids.

Rose Hackman’s work is an awesome way to understand emotional labor in the context of your current life as a woman, as a wife, and as a stepmother.

Believe it or not, if you do less, your family will be better for it. It reminds me of the episode of Blue Blood (Season 3, Episode 2, Domestic Disturbance) where Linda went back to work and Danny was struggling to step up and help out more at home. Linda felt guilty she wasn’t there to do all the things she used to do. Erin reassured her it’d be good for the boys to take on more responsibility. In fact, maybe that’s the simplest way to encourage children to do more in the home, don’t you be the one doing things that don’t get done. Wait. Things will change if you can wait long enough.

While you experiment, there’s no need to go to the other extreme and never offer emotional labor. It’s a continuum and we can live somewhere along it without getting stuck on either end. Imagine, if you decreased the emotional labor in your life by ten or fifteen percent? How much energy would you have to do something else? To create something? To sustain yourself?

Of course, I’m dying to know what you’ll do and how it turned out. Please come back and comment and let me know. As always, you can post anonymous comments, just pick an alias. I’m the only one who will ever see your email address.

Ready to dish up some emotional labor?

Ready. Set. Stop!

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Holds Onto a Smoldering Gaze

My imagining of what it might be like to be the husband
of a stepmother. And, my dream of what each of
you finds at the end of your day. 

So many other days, he pushed and pulled and made things happen. They seemed like big things. He thought they were, but were they? Did they mean enough, matter enough, enough to match their sacrifice? Was it now that the sacrifice would be repaid, these days between the visits, these moments when there was stillness and his children needed him less?

He drove out of the airport parking garage and turned back toward home, feeling his contentment about letting them go. He remembered his own launch into the world and the feeling of support mingled with freedom and respect. He expected his kids to be okay, to make decisions and find their way. He readily gave them the same respect and freedom he had had, even as he recalled the time one of them needed his help and came back home. Things improved for a time and then fell apart again, and he mourned the pain and strain for them all.

Those days were all behind them now. The kids were strong and moving forward. He was lucky to be through it and find her still with him. She hadn’t run, though he could tell she had wanted to get the hell out and go someplace she was more welcome, at least a time or two. God, he wished he could give her that, a world where she was wanted. He could only do the wanting for himself and he wasn’t sure if one person made a world.

He pulled onto the parkway and shook his head. He couldn’t lie to himself though he’d be hard-pressed to admit it to her. On the days she was in pain and turned away from him in tears, he felt shame that he couldn’t protect her. After a couple of years, the shame morphed into regret and eventually it all seemed too much to watch. He found himself wishing she could ignore the way she was treated, even though he knew how unrealistic a wish that was.

FullSizeRender-5What made it so hard for her was her sensitivity and ability to read a situation, the same things he loved about her. He loved her wide open heart and he longed to build her a door she could close when others came into her nest and left behind their messes. It would be an ornate door, thick with curves, to match her physicality and complexity and all the things he loved about her.

He sighed as he passed the restaurant where they’d been a few times early in their courtship. If only he could protect her, take her pain away, shield her from the slinging tongues and tart retorts.

On some rare days, when she grew tired of closing herself off or forgot to contain herself, she moved freely among them and he loved to watch her then. On those days, she was her incredible, exactly-her self. On those days, his heart lifted at her courage and persistence and willingness to try it all again.

He smiled as he pulled in the driveway and turned off the car. He knew she was waiting and would greet him at the door. He knew he’d ignore her worried face and sweep her into his embrace.

And, it happened just the way he knew it would.

She flung open the door and buried her face in his neck. He whispered, “Now it’s just you and me.” He squeezed her close and she hugged him back, holding and swaying until their breaths became even and symmetrical.

They stood there, in the entry of their home, with the dog barking in circles of exclamations until he finally came to a sit at their feet. The greeting ritual worked like a magic, smoothing over hurts from the sideways looks and avoided glances. Like a soul salve, the hugging breath eased the pain and lowered the wall between her yearning for peace and his desire to stop the onslaught against her.

Eventually, after what seemed forever and probably not more than a few minutes, their embrace softened and eased until they swayed together ever so slightly. He brushed the hair off her forehead and she nuzzled his check and lips. Their eyes met in a warm gaze tinged with echoes of the smoldering gazes of earlier years, more seasoned now, if a weathered smoldering gaze could be a thing.

In that moment, for them, the gaze was all that mattered.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and Bowls Full of Issues

Recently, I became aware of trying to hold too much. Not do too much, but hold too much. I was holding just a few things but they were enormous. Things like the generational injuries in my family. There was no way I could keep the issue inside without conflict and turmoil and distress, to myself.

Holding an issue that big is a little like trying to hold poverty or violence against women. It is too much. It can’t be held by one person.

The good news is that becoming aware of my tendency to try to hold on to the vast issues helped me do something different.

Right after I became aware of my tendency, a friend confided in me about another person. I wished she had left me out of it. I woke up the next morning running the scene over and over in my mind, distressed at knowing this information because I am a friend with the other person too. I began bubbling over, churning about what I’d say and do and how it would feel to state my need and the reaction I anticipated from her.

As I sat drinking coffee at my dining room table, all of a sudden, I remembered my tendency to take on and hold things I can’t solve.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and Bowls Full of iIssues Quickly, I imagined an array of bowls sitting on the sideboard in my dining room. I imagined taking the steaming, roiling mass the friend-issue and gently depositing it in one of the bowls. Then, I sat there and felt my posture in the chair and breathed all the way from my nasal passages down to my pelvic floor, slow, uncrushed, generous breaths, not the fullest I could take, just full enough so my ribs moved easily.

Not five minutes later, I realized I was brewing with the issue of my father’s health and well-being. The roiling of that issue felt the same as the previous one. Without berating myself, I gently placed the mass of the father-issue in another bowl on the sideboard. Then, I took a few moments to notice what it was like to have that searching and longing for resolution no longer inside me.

Some people call holding these big issues worry, but I want to make a distinction. Some of us are carrying things we have been taught we should carry. All the stepmothers who’ve received the message the health of the stepfamily is yours to hold, raise your hand. I know this because as soon as I set the issue in the bowl, I feel calm inside. Worry feels different, worry is wary, worry is about meeting deadlines and obligations. See Karla McLaren’s great description of worry, which she includes in her description of anxiety.

This setting issues in the bowl strategy can work with any issue. Especially chronic issues that crop up again and again, unlike the straight-forward issues such as getting a kid’s teeth straightened and the day arrives when there are no more orthodontia appointments.

No, these monumental issues, the ones that pull and cause you to lose sleep at night are systemic, they are bound so tightly into the fabric of stepfamilies, or your family of origin, it’s incredible anyone sleeps. Things like communication between homes. Things like child loyalty. Things like an ex-spouse using what Rorshak calls Divorce Poison in his book of the same name. These are the things that roil and broil and prevent peace.

These chronic, messy, systemic patterns of problems are the perfect things to set aside in a bowl.

Not to be ignored.

I’m not suggesting we avoid important issues. I am suggesting we practice carrying these steaming, roiling, too-big-for-one-person issues away from our central self, away from our vital organs and the tender parts that keep us alive and hopeful.

Unresolvable issues, the ones often built into the situations like stepfamilies are the perfect thing to practice working with while they remain outside yourself. When you want to consider your actions and reactions or what you might do when the same situation arises again, well, the issue is there in the bowl on the sideboard, ready for your consideration and reconsideration, whenever you are ready to work with it.

I think we need to learn the difference between the things we can safely hold and the things that are best stored outside of us. When we get good at it, if a friend complains and we want to plug our ears, we’ll barely get ruffled as we lay the issue in the bowl. When the time is right, maybe the next time we are with that friend, we can say what needs saying, without the emotional tsunami that would follow if we had been carrying the issue deep inside us trying to keep it contained.

There will always be plenty of time and space to take up and work with our big issues. But, we will likely deal with them in a more comfortable way when we have been able to stop holding and instead disengage and disconnect, maybe even forget them, for small snippets of time, until we recognize we are not an issue. We are a living, breathing human, a being.

We need to learn how it feels to live and breathe as a human, and not as an issue.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . ends the finite game.

Years ago, a friend gave me a small book titled Finite and Infinite Games, by James P. Carse. The book left a big impression on me and garnered a place on my bookshelf all these years. When I needed it the other day, there is was, unfolding the wisdom for me at exactly the time I needed it. Or, so I thought.

In fact, I wish I had remembered this book a decade ago when I began my life as a stepmother because when I opened the pages of the book again, the words leaped out of the page and into my stepmother consciousness and here I am, rushing to share with you.

Briefly, a few of the concepts of a finite game. The main purpose of a finite game is winning. Finite means it has an end. The rules are well-defined and serve the purpose of defining a winner and a loser and how you’ll know when the game has ended. These rules are externally defined and cannot change as the game progresses. You can also not play alone. You need an opponent. Think divorce court, settlements, child custody battles, and on and on. There is definitely that part of living in a stepfamily that involves living within a finite game.

On the other end of the spectrum is the infinite game. In an infinite game, the goal is not winning. In fact, infinite means the game goes on forever. The goal is continuing to play. Thus, rules serve to keep the play going. Rules get changed, get this . . . to prevent someone from winning. That’s where I had to stop reading and walk the dogs and let it soak in. That’s the part that made me think of our stepfamilies. Could there be a game with rules that accommodated and changed to keep everyone playing and keep someone from winning?

Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, James P. Carse

Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, James P. Carse

Life is the biggest infinite game there is and we get to choose whether we are going to play it like it’s a finite game, with a winner and a loser. Personally, I think the winner-loser mentality is the best way to increase blood pressure, heart rate, anxiety, and depression. Constantly comparing ourselves to someone else. Constantly jockeying for the best seat at the table. Constantly putting others down so they don’t appear better, in case we perceive ourselves as losing. Ugh. I have no time for it.

It’s true, you can’t waltz into the other house and say, hey, snap out of it, let’s all live with some respect. But, we can take ourselves away from the finite game and the game of winning and losing. You see, in the finite game, there must be an opponent. The game cannot be played when there is no opponent. Some might argue there could be a game called Who Can Give the Silent Treatment the Longest game, which sort of looks like there isn’t a finite game. But, that’s a finite game if you engage in the nastiness of it all. If your heart and mind get wrapped up in knots each time you think of that other person, yep, you’re playing a finite game, complete with winner-loser. If you’re practicing healthy boundaries (ala Karla McLaren) and you feel neutral when you hear this person’s name and don’t go off in a 30-minute tirade each time you think of him/her, then it’s likely you’ve taken yourself out of the game. In that moment, there is no finite game.

I don’t know if the game of life automatically becomes an infinite game when we stop playing the finite game. What I do know is that as soon as I laid down the worry of being enough, doing enough, what he or she was or wasn’t doing, and a whole ton of other stuff, the game felt different. Yes, it was like that. It was immediate. It felt like one moment a battle raged inside me and the next moment, when I focused on a different game, voila, there was no more winning and losing. I continue paying attention to boundaries focusing on the infinite game.

No, life isn’t perfect. But it’s better. Much better.

So, what is the game I’m playing? The infinite game I’m playing. Well, beside the overarching LIFE game, there is the hugely important Marriage to My Fabulous Guy game, the Growing and Maturing as a Human game, and the Who Can I Be When the Criticism Falls Off Me game.

I expect there are a few other games in my stepfamily future as we all mature and age up. As an infinite game teammate, I’m okay with that.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . exercises her bitterness muscles.

There is a time in our lives, usually in midlife, when a woman has to make a decision–possibly the most important psychic decision of her future life–about whether to be bitter or not. Women often come to this in their late thirties or early forties. They are at the point when they are full up to their ears with everything and they’ve “had it” and “the last straw has broken the camel’s back” and they’re “pissed off and pooped out.” Their dreams of their twenties may be lying in a crumple. There may be broken hearts, broken marriages, broken promises. (page 364, see footnote)

Being a stepmother means to live a constant daily practice of softening the heart away from bitterness. Or not. 

Some days I find myself more successful than not at keeping bitterness at bay, other days I fail miserably. On days when I can let bitterness relax it’s hold on my heart, I feel the most freedom and comfort in my stepfamily life. 

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes suggests a woman make a timeline of her life and “to mark with a cross the places along the graph, starting with her infancy all the way to the present, where parts and pieces of her self and her life have died.” (page 365, see footnote).  

Once you begin acknowledging those things that have been cut off or that have died because they never came to life or were pushed away, then you can begin working with them. Each of those losses leaves a scar and imperceptibly inches us toward a possible future bitterness. To remain unbitter, to exercise the bitterness muscle, means to work with the events that have led to the losses and release them into forgiveness. 

Ignoring the losses, not tending the forgiveness process, allows the bitterness moment to settle in, when after years and years, decades of a woman’s life, the things which have been cut off get added to the many things that have died, and to the many things that were pushed away. It suddenly becomes too much. Too many. One more and the scale tips toward bitterness. 

For me, there is a physical sensation that tells me when bitterness is encroaching. I get a feeling of a clutching in my chest, like fingers around my heart. Often my breathing is interrupted. Over the years, I’ve taken to keeping track of my heart, you know, to see if it can stay soft or whether it’s not. I breath while I pay attention to releasing the hand that clutches my heart. 

Artwork by Kim Cottrell, 2014.

Artwork by Kim Cottrell, 2014.

I’ve been practicing this letting go of the clutching for years. Years. Even before I was a stepmother. In the beginning the bitterness crept up on me before I could tell what was happening. Now, as soon as the bitterness clutching begins I’m aware I feel not quite myself and immediately my attention goes to the clutching and letting the clutching drain away. 

I exercise my bitterness muscles regularly. The first part of the workout requires noticing when there’s a potential insult, hurt, or ache that indicates a part of me is dying off, been cut off, or sent to the back burner once more. Then, the workout involves paying attention to the sensations associated with that dying off, cutting off, or putting on the back burner. The heart-clench is my sensation. You might notice something else. Maybe it’s a sinking sensation in your gut. Maybe it’s a knot in your stomach or a lump in your throat. No matter what sensation arises for you, you’ll know what it means, you’ll know because it’s a familiar feeling.  

The simple act of noticing, acknowledging, and naming the clutching and potential for bitterness brings enough movement to the area and enough awareness to effectively reverse the clutching behavior. You can reverse bitterness clutching. You can teach the bitterness muscle to release and relax. 

A bitterness workout is the opposite of lifting weights. It’s the opposite of running relays or hiking mountains. A bitterness workout is the releasing of the contraction, it’s the letting go of the need to do something different. It’s finding ways to take care of the psyche so the bitterness doesn’t have a chance to take up permanent residence. 

I was thirty-six years old, attending graduate school, living in my Pittsburgh apartment, alone, when the bitterness choice moment came upon me. It was as if someone rang a bell and announced it was “Time for Bitter.” I looked around and over my left shoulder to see what was there, then my right. I finished the dishes and sat on my floor to contemplate the offering. After an hour or so, with the light fading from the winter sky, a very clear “No, this is not the way it’s going to be, I will not accept the bitters,” came over me. 

I walked out on bitter and have kept it at bay ever since. Some days that is a great deal of work, but my heart reaps the rewards, running with abandon through the past and present and out into the future. May we meet there in the bitterless meadow. 

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Reference: Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, 1992, chapter titled Marking Territory: Marking the Boundaries of Rage and Forgiveness)

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