A Healthy Stepmother . . . meets a kindred stepmother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want to be just like her.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Reshuffles and Advocates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s like being a stepmother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are there any similarities?

Yeah, I thought so.

Collection of the Chinese National Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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