A Healthy Stepmother . . . Bitter to Better

If you’ve been in your remarriage more than three years, you know exactly what I mean when I refer to bitter versus better. Maybe you arrived at such a stepmother moment late at night wondering what the hell happened and what you were thinking. Maybe you sat in the dark, heart-broken, diving down into the depths, wallowing in the pity, feeling it in every fiber.

It’s in a moment like that, maybe not the first moment or the second, but at some point a little voice came. The little voice was soft, only perceived by you. The voice whispered, Is this the hill you want to die on? Is this the thing that’s going to tip you away from being your indomitable enthusiastic self to some kind of bitter, resentful, heart-broken shell of your former self? And, are you willingly giving up yourself? 

And, finally, another whisper, Why?

A Healthy Stepmother . . . bitter into better.For me, there was a very clear moment of weighing the bitter versus better choice. I didn’t want to keep marching on as though there was only one way. I didn’t want to keep fighting about who controlled whom. I didn’t want to live my life resenting anyone or anything, most of all the decisions I had made when actually I was stone-cold-sober and in my right mind, including marrying my wonderful guy. 

For me, it felt completely obvious. 

For once. 

It was the first time in my life I was glad for all my years and all my experience with chaos and pain and agony. I was grateful I wasn’t in my 30s, a time when it would have taken me much longer to reach the point where I said, Hey wait, I’m working too hard at this and I’m exhausted. I was a good girl and I would go until the bell rang, just like in the movie The Fighter. Mark Wahlberg’s character was exhausted, bleeding, and almost knocked out. Then, he shook his head and acknowledged he was about to lose and that he needed to do something different. He wasn’t strong at that point in the fight, in fact he almost fell over, so he held his arms in a more protective place and he punched with different timing. He knocked out the other guy, and won. 

I’m not suggesting you knock anyone out. I am suggesting you figure out a new place to hold your arms to protect yourself and to look and see when to push and move forward. I’m no expert on boxing, but clearly there is strategy and it’s not a free-for-all despite how it looks. There is strategy for early in the fight, for mid-way through the fight, and for late in the fight. There’s the mental psychology of being hit and hitting, of how to take the blows and bounce back. There’s the mental talk, that silent pep rally only the fighter knows and hears. 

When I got smarter and decided I wasn’t going to let bitterness be my best friend, it became a lot easier to decide when to let something go. Often that looked like not even getting in the ring. I took a day, or many days, off from the fight. It became easier to let things go and to even miss out on some things so I could remain outside the fight. 

Eventually, life didn’t feel like a fight any more. I had more peace and more energy for other things. I took on fewer battles that weren’t my own. 

Choosing better over bitter, it’s a practice. A daily practice.  

Getting in the ring less and less often, and eventually never, is better. Even if it’s hard, it’s better to have some difficulty in life for a short time to gain the long-term payoff of life without bitter. 

Life without bitter opens to life connected to you, you connected to your important people. Life without bitter is sweeter. 

Life without bitter is, simply, better. 

 

 

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 finding her voice.

It’s so wonderful that the place I left off in my blogging on January 2 was unapologetically beginning anew. It’s so wonderful because it’s true. Since I wrote that last blog, there’s been an entire hidden world going on inside me.

My self-image, that internal conceptual picture that’s a series of overlays of my emotional self, my physical self, my kinesthetic self, my thinking self, and so on, has been shifting and quaking. The image shifted away from me as a person who can’t say aloud what she thinks and who needs to curate every word that comes from her mouth to me as a person who says what she wants to say.

I read an article on February 4, 2014 that affected me so deeply I wanted to throw up, but not in the way you might think. I wrote my mind and before I could censor myself, knowing from my deepest gut I needed to be out there with it, I sent it to Joanne Bamberger at The Broad Side. When I woke up the morning of February 5, it had been published. Gulp.

Here’s what I put out in the world.

A Healthy Stepmother finds a new voice.

And

Here’s what another blogger wrote after she read my article.

While the subject isn’t about stepmothers, regular readers of my blog will likely not be surprised at my stance. It’s the same stance I’ve tried to embrace in my place as a stepmother and wife of a man with children from a previous marriage. I’ve focused on respecting my stepchildren and their mother to the best of my ability.

I’m not advocating we stepmothers put ourselves out to be the doormat, in fact, I think that can be dangerous. But, I am of the opinion we should do what we need to do to keep peace in our hearts as much of the time as we can, to think at least neutral if not positive thoughts about our stepchildren, and to work our asses off to remain as connected in healthy ways to our spouse. Then, decades down the road when the kids are grown and they have more life perspective and put the relationship of their parents into a new light, we can find ourselves holding the possibility of a different relationship.

Perhaps what’s most important about the practice of remaining at peace in your own heart during times of complete turmoil when one side wants to blame the other side and you as stepmother take the heat we call collateral damage, is that your heart stays soft enough and pliable enough for you to consider alternatives to reacting negatively toward the mother of your stepkids or to the stepkids themselves. Rather than solidifying your reactions and interactions into hard lines with little flexibility with regard to how things should be done or becoming an emotional bully, I’m advocating you adjust as the situation calls for it. Show up when you need to show up, speak up when that is what you need, ease back when you want to ponder your next move, and negotiate every family activity with a question of what is needed for you to remain connected to your husband at that time.

One of the biggest things that shifted my self-image as a stepmother was beginning this blog. It was the beginning of me finding my voice and honing the way I wanted to represent my ideas. Not to make them palatable for the masses. I wrote to be clear about the hurts and possibilities of being a stepmother, to become more aware, to be more realistic, and to share why being a stepmother is so much about the condition of our hearts. On February 4 when I was furiously dumping my thoughts onto paper, I found myself grateful for these last four years of blogging.

One thing I’ve embraced in my 50s is to not rush things. I have never written and published things before they were ready to come out of me. I sat with my reactions to the story We Have It All Wrong after it was published and processed my own reactions. Although I considered other’s reactions to the story, most importantly, I worked within myself to process my reaction to breaking silence after so many decades. I was shifting from a person trying to not make waves or hurt anyone to a person with a voice. My voice is limited to telling my side of the story, whether it’s about my growing up family or about my stepfamily. And, the issue isn’t oh look at me. The issue is health. How can we grow up with such shit in our lives and become healthy adults and be okay within strong relationships.

If as many as two in four women have been abused, and some experts think it is that high, then you and I both know that sexual abuse touches the lives of divorced families and stepfamilies. There is no way around it. How and what we believe should be done to the offender is going to be flowing over into our everyday lives.

Just lately in the world, all I read is the hate and over-reaction. It’s why I didn’t tell my story for years and years and year and years. I didn’t want to calm people down when they over-reacted to a story that happened to me in 1974. It didn’t happen yesterday. It wasn’t someone else’s life, it was my life and my experience. I don’t need someone to go take care of it for me. I don’t need someone to pity me.

I once went to a five elements acupuncturist who was very wonderful while she was initially meeting me and then when I shared my story in what felt like a trusting space, she went into pity and sympathy and treated me like I was broken. I was so upset I could’t say to her, you just went into treating me like a victim. I didn’t go back. That was almost 10 years ago now and I’ve come some long way since then. Being a stepmother will do that.

In fact, as I was writing my opinions and asking myself over and over, do you really think we are being too hard on fathers who offend against their daughters or anyone who sexually abuses someone within their community, I knew there was a way being a stepmother had changed my views. I had become more and more clear about the messiness of life and how nothing is so black and white. There is always gray and always another aspect to consider.

The week after my article was published on The Broad Side, it snowed in Portland and we were sequestered in the house. I had lots of time to reflect. Then, my husband and I went to Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon on a trip we’d wanted to do for years. On the last day of the trip, I was sick. I thought I was dehydrated, I thought maybe the glass of wine with dinner the night before had tipped me into heat exhaustion from the dehydration and heat. But it wasn’t that hot and I only had 2 glasses of wine. I vomited when I got up. I vomited by the side of the road after we left the Grand Canyon. I vomited again at a rest area and again before we got to the Las Vegas Airport. I’m pretty convinced now it was the deepest visceral reaction of my whole self, purging my silence, purging my demons and all the voices telling me I should be quiet and lady-like and polite and be careful because something I said might not be liked by someone else. Whew…my restrictions lying by the side of the highway in Nevada and Arizona.

You see, there is alway a little doorway, even if it’s tucked in the corner of a heart and back around behind the darkest recesses, one might leave open for the possibility of a different future. Perhaps our challenge in our hurt, whether we are stepmothers or daughters who’ve been abused, is to find that door and ever so slowly open it to reveal the wonders of the human heart. Wonders that we will need to use in our closeness with our spouses and partners. Wonders that will vastly improve the quality of our lives if we can only dust them off and practice using them.

I hope you will join me in finding that doorway to your heart. Not so you can go be lovey with someone else. No, it’s all about being lovey with yourself. That is the practice of the decade, the skillset of the century. Love yourself and you’ll find your way to behaving differently with others.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . publishes a Manifesto!

Everyone is on the manifesto bandwagon and, though I’ll admit to being a late adopter for many key cultural phenomenon, I’m pretty excited to create a Manifesto. I hated saddle shoes until they were almost out of style and then I longed for a pair. Same with the Beatles. Instead, this then-9-year-old was roaming around the house belting Wayne Newton’s version of Little Green Apples.

Long-time readers of the blog will recognize the Manifesto revolves around the titles of the blog posts themselves. Thus, if you’d like to remind yourself of the post for that topic, simply enter the key phrase into the search window on the blog.

When you click on the Manifesto image, it’ll pop out into a size you can print on an 8.5×11 piece of paper.

Enjoy!

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 . . . 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 gauntlet of adjustment.

Today, as the year ends, I’m reflecting back on how stepmothers adjust to life in a stepfamily. In this final post of the year, I leave you with my interpretation of the stages of adjustment a stepmother makes to her new stepmother life. I call this process of integration, the gauntlet of adjustment, which is an apt description of many a stepmother’s walk through the initiation into a family.

In the beginning, there is a period of Generosity when the father of the children feels generous, the stepmother feels generous, the kids might even feel generous. This is the stage when forgiving someone for their daily fears and foibles is easy and most family members feel magnanimous and free.

Angers Castle

Angers Castle (Photo credit: stevec77)

Within the first year or so, maybe sooner, there begins an inkling of the dawning of a realization that it just might be that we’ve gotten in over our heads. This is the Dismay period where we look around in disbelief and say to ourselves, say this isn’t so! I didn’t just marry a man who’s children hate me. I didn’t just move away from my friends and family to be treated this way. But, at the Dismay stage of the game, our brains still won’t wrap around the fact that we said I DO and this is the end result. So, we go into survival mode, we keep smiling and going through the motions of being generous. Eventually, we realize these worries coming up in the Dismay phase are real.

After Dismay, comes the Double-Take phase. We can’t believe all the things we have walked right by, even though these problems weren’t evident in the Generous stage. Everyone behaved generously and real personality styles weren’t on display when we first got involved. But then, in the Double-Take phase, what we see is the real, true, real-life way our new family members behave.

Still, even then, we are human and our human nature sends us into a process of survival. We go into Denial. We tell ourselves it’s really not as bad as we think it is and we try to talk ourselves out of thinking that our lives are anything other than fine, just fine. We don’t want to be seen as a party-pooper and we don’t want to sound negative. For a brief time we convince ourselves we’ll be fine and that it just takes time to adjust. Denial can last a long time.

We live like this with our dismay, double-take, and denial for a while and one day we wake up and discover we are Indignant. We bring our Indignant selves to wonder why in the world our husband is not doing this and not doing that. If only he would do something, anything, life would be better. If only we could be a better woman, all would be well. We start worrying we aren’t woman enough and at the same time we are so mad and sometimes crazy indignant at our husband. By this time, the cumulative effect of the Dismay, Denial, and Indignant phase begins to affect our marriages.

Of course, not far behind the indignation is the Anger. Anger is that place where some of us feel most uncomfortable. We might want to yell, but we stifle. Or, we yell and feel tons of guilt or oceans of shame. This is the stage at which we can no longer pretend it doesn’t matter that our stepchildren don’t like us. It’s the stage we recognize that we’ve been doing the proverbial pissing into the wind and it has made no difference in our adjustment to our family. At this stage, it is so easy to feel that love is lost and there’s absolutely no hope of our lives improving.

For the women who stay (and some who go) there often follows a period of feeling Bereft. Numb. With a sense of not caring for the people with which one shares a home and a life. In this phase, we stepmothers often walk around zombie-ish and apologetic, often listening to our internal dialogue more than the dialogue between us and family members.

After Bereft-ness, comes the feeling sorry for ourselves, aka the Martyr. Personally, I think by the time we become aware of being a Martyr, we are faced with a choice of whether to dig our heels in and accept martyrdom as a role that may be played successfully, or not. My own grandmother was a martyr. I never found it particularly pretty, but she was surrounded by her children until the end of her life.

After many years, when we’re appropriately sick of feeling angry, bereft, indignant, and victimized, we might become able to shift away from the martyr. Often, this is the moment when we can truly let go of whatever it was we hope to gain, including being seen in a favorable light by anyone in our extended stepfamily. In that moment, when we admit there isn’t a story-book life to be found, in that moment we can back up and begin a process of Acceptance.

In Acceptance, we can acknowledge that our life is different than it might have been if we were still single. We can accept that we are a partner-member of a family that may never fully accept us but that we can still find a way to have a nice life, filled with satisfaction and peace. Acceptance is an amazing process. It’s the time when you look back outside yourself and see that you are a pretty amazing person, just the way you are. You realize you don’t need to change yourself or worry about being successful, nor do you need to change your husband. You can still stay in dialogue, but you let go of the need for change. Acceptance includes affirmations of who you are as a woman, the woman your husband fell in love with. You regain your sense of self and strength and begin again.

After Acceptance comes the Blossoming, and a renewal of the feeling that you are the perfect person to be with this perfect husband. Perfect being tongue-in-cheek, of course. It’s just that you realize if you had bailed in Year 2 or Year 5, you’d have missed out on this amazing journey to the heart of trust and love and understanding and compassion that you’re building with your guy in Year 7 and Year 9 and beyond.

These stages proceed at different paces for everyone, depending how many kids, how old you are and your life goals, what your husband thinks about himself, and, it’s so complicated! And, of course, women choose to exit the process at many different stages. Their pain makes so much sense given this process which is messy and never smooth sailing. The pain involved in this process inspires me to write and challenge the status quo.

When all is said and done, what you will find is that you have built your personal Resilience. Together, you and your husband can now handle almost anything and when things go wrong, you’ll look at each other and shrug and not get too worried when you don’t have a perfect reaction. One of you might say, yeah, that was pretty tricky. The other nods and you move on, together, in a way that feels connected and builds even more trust and resilience.

Here’s to our future contented lives, may we listen to ourselves, strengthen our soothing skills, and grow into more resilience!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . on belonging.

Belonging.

Belonging might be the issue we avoid when we whole-heartedly and enthusiastically throw our lot in with our guy and agree to make the best of things. Some of us promise to have and hold, in sickness and in health. Some of us forgo the vows and share a home. Either way, it’s likely we’d all like to slip into the family photo as if we’ve been there all along.

I know I did. And, I’ve watched friends and acquaintances from near and far who agreed to make the best of things with their man and who dove enthusiastically into the making that happen.

The good news is that our human nature compels us to find a way to belong to our group and the community of folks we live in. That’s why I’ve likened becoming a stepmother with the longer trips I’ve taken to a foreign country. In those circumstances, not being able to understand the language or express myself, I felt unsettled, excluded, and nervous about how to go about making things better. No matter how badly I wanted to belong, I was an outsider. At some point, on the 4th day of the trip when I’d been to the same cafe for coffee every morning and the clerk recognized me, my heart opened and I breathed and smiled and I knew I would survive.

The bad news is that despite the fact that I know all these things, despite that I repeated the visiting a foreign country experience when I moved to Pittsburgh, Hartford, South Fork, Greeley, and Seattle, I still had to go through that becoming part of the group when I came into my stepfamily.

Ivan Bilibin's illustration of the Russian fai...

Ivan Bilibin’s illustration of the Russian fairy tale about Vasilisa the Beautiful (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, why did I arrive at my new home sitting beside my husband in the moving van, his two boys helping cooperatively and happily, thinking that somehow this situation would be different? It’s as if there was a fairy tale inside me being played out, leading me into the temptation that I wasn’t going to stumble. I fantasized we’d figure out the just-right way to adjust and integrate without pain of any kind. All without feeling like a third, or fourth, or fifth wheel.

I marvel. I shake my head. I glance away, sheepish. I was 44 when I met my husband, 46 when we married, and I’m 53 now. All to say, I wasn’t born yesterday, I get how these things go.

Once I got over the shock and horror that I had succumbed to the fantasy and fairy tale of the happily ever after, it got worse. There was crying, wailing, venting, and flat out griping. Nothing I did changed the fact that I was the new kid on the block. I still needed to find the cafe, the hair stylist, and the mechanic and I still needed to figure out how to belong in my new family. Even though I’d only moved across town, eight miles away, I might as well have gone to the moon. It wasn’t my neighborhood and they weren’t my people.

I like to think of my husband and his kids, the kids’ mom, and the extended relatives as the people I’d meet if I went to a new city and set up living there. The folks I’d meet might treat me nicely, warily, welcomingly or standoffishly. That’s how real life goes and there are no guarantees that I’d be accepted. What is guaranteed is that it will take time, sometimes years to settle in and make a home.

Settling in and belonging is a process and I look back in wonder that I, and so many other stepmothers, lost track of that. It takes time to belong and it can’t be rushed.

 

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Santa Sophia: A Christmas Poem for Stepmothers

With the tragedy in Connecticut on Friday, I thought I’d hold this post which I’ve updated from the original 2010 version. Then this morning, as I went through the motions of getting the day started, sorting reactions and judging my own and others’ responses, it seemed appropriate to share after all. It is about healing and letting nature have it’s way with us so we can loosen our defensive and protective stances against one another. We belong to the tribe of humanity, more than we let ourselves believe, and this poem is about the love that accompanies that shared humanity. Let us care for stepmothers as we care for each family member, let each stepmother be someone a child can rely on.  

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Santa Sophia: A Christmas Poem for Stepmothers 
©2010 Kim Cottrell

Twas two weeks before Christmas, when all through the land
Not a stepmother was sleeping, not even on demand.
The fireplace was lit in the living room there,
A sign of the peace we prayed we’d soon share.

The children were texting all snug in their beds,
While videos and Facebook danced in their heads.
With hubby cat-napping, and I with my book,
We’d just settled in to our warm winter nook.

When out in the drive there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my Kindle to see what was the matter.
Over to the window, I was pulled by a feeling,
And gazed through the glass with open-mouthed reeling.

The stars they did shine on the occupants inside
And lit up the house where worries collide.
When, what to my sleep-deprived eyes should appear,
But one electric car and…eight black bear.

A wise old crone, overflowing with ideas,
I knew in a moment it must be Sophia.
More convincing than parents, the black bear they came,
And she whispered, and encouraged, and called them by name!

“Now, Baloo! Now Brer! Now, Ben and Ted-ster!
On, Humphrey! On, Bamse! On Bruin and Buster!
Into the house! To the young! To the old!
Now here! Now there! Finding hearts that will hold!”

As fond memories of pre-divorce family repeat,
The pain and the loss, bitter pills, they did eat.
Into the house the black bears they did amble,
With satchels of joy, and Sophia in a ramble.

And then, in a twinkling, in the rooms up above
The soothing and healing of each growing love.
As I listened in silence, afraid to turn around,
Into the living room Sophia came with a bound.

She was dressed all in silk, from her head to her toes,
And her clothes were all silvered with buttons and bows.
A bundle of sticks she had flung on her back,
She could have built fire, without even a match

Her eyes–how they shone! Her laugh, a delight!
Her smile so warm and so absolutely right!
Her capable hands, she clasped tight to her heart,
As if ready to transform my pain into art.

A stick of gum she chewed loudly, and then gave a sneeze,
And the noise of it told me, she’d do as she please!
She had a kind face and a whole bunch of chutzpah,
She nodded when she laughed, as if saying . . . good’on ya!

She was darling and strong, a right sassy old self,
And I sighed when I saw her, and gave in to myself!
A wink of her eye and a twist of her head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

She spoke not a word, but went straight to work,
And filled all their hearts, even cleared out the murk.
And laying her hands alongside temporal lobes,
She called forth a wish for peace round the globe!

She sprang to her Zipcar, to me gave a nod,
And away they all drove to the next of stepmoms.
And I heard her exclaim, ‘fore she disappeared from view,
“Stepmothers, take heart . . . for you’ll always see through!”

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . meets an Omama.

Here in Portland, Oregon, we have the daily newspaper, the Oregonian. One section of the Oregonian is called Omamas, as in Oregonian Mamas. It’s about all things related to families.

Today, I was so happy to meet Heidi Williams of the Omama staff in person. In addition to her other duties with the paper, Heidi has begun writing about stepfamilies, often focused on stepmothers. It is wonderful to have that aspect of family life represented, especially since the number of families with children living in two homes is growing each decade.

We spent a great hour exchanging viewpoints on the big issues and I know I came away inspired and encouraged and even more committed to this path that has led me to writing and bringing voice to the stepmother journey.

Here’s a sampling of the topics Heidi has written:

That’s My Evil Stepmom

Honoring Stepfathers

Blended Family Portrait

and

Stepfamilies Around the World 

You can also follow Heidi on Twitter @by_heidi.

I’m very excited to have met Heidi, not just because she’s local, but because every story about a woman engaged in healthy and constructive lives with her husband and stepchildren is another story we can add to a growing narrative of caring, compassionate, and concerned stepmothers.

Stepmothers everywhere have an opportunity to influence how stepmothers are perceived in our culture by building good content online. Have you ever gone to YouTube and searched for stepmother? You will find some things there I can’t even say here, they are so disgusting. We need to begin to add story after story to that medium and build up a catalog so the positive stories are the ones that float to the top. (If you do go there, maybe you’ll find Santa Sophia, a Christmas story I wrote about a stepmother and recorded in my voice.)

The same with Google or any other search engine. The more we blog, the more we use Facebook or Twitter, the more real-life positive stories will be found. Gradually and slowly, we can replace the negative content about stepmothers with a more fair and balanced viewpoint.

So, today when I met Heidi, I was excited for the big, long-term future that stretches out there into a time when our children are adults and having families of their own. Their lives hold the same statistical odds as our own, with a 50/50 chance they could become stepmothers and stepfathers. It would be so wonderful to imagine that we are cleaning up the cultural image, opening a healthy dialogue, and creating a more supportive environment so they will have an easier time of it than we are having.

I can dream.