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 . . . Gets Up Each Morning

Some days I wonder how we survive. Not to be melodramatic, but this business of getting up and getting kids off to school and greeting them when they come home and feeding them and educating them and getting them to the place of being able to go out into the world on their own in this day and age, this is emotionally challenging at best.

When this scenario plays out in a stepfamily, it’s nothing short of a miracle.

I wonder how fathers go to bed at night without an aching heart, I wonder how they hold an arm around the one who isn’t the mother of the children, seeing her pain and feeling her pain.

I can guess many a father would like to escape memories of the argument with the children’s mother. I know many a father who pushes those emotions down day after day to deal with Little League and driving lessons. I know many a father who is there, who shows up no matter what the children need.

I’ve heard from women who marry men with children with full knowledge remarriage is difficult at best. These same prepared, successful women are then knocked to their knees by the tidal wave of unbelonging. The wave is so high and so powerful, few stepmothers escape it regardless of background and family history. It’s a wonder more don’t run, it’s a wonder so many stay. Many a stepmother’s courage should be the subject of legend. 

Maybe you’re like me and you’ve spent many hours considering what it takes to be in this remarriage stewpot? You’ve wondered just what could be done to improve the situation because you intuitively know if the situation were better for fathers and stepmothers the situation would be better for the children and likely even the children’s mother. You’ve marveled at the strength of those who only have one strategy, the strategy of pushing out and pushing away.

Those stepmothers who stay in their remarriages have found a way to keep living in their skin, a way to stay rooted to their own experience and not be sucked into another person’s view of them. They have developed an ability to let things bounce off and fall away. They stay deeply connected to their resilience, that ability to not be sunk by any one event or even a whole bunch of events. They know how to stay afloat.

Ask a stepmother what she’s doing. Keeping the faith, or trying to do so. Focusing on her relationship with her partner/husband, or intending to do so. Feeling like a good person but not so much she feels like a slave, or hoping to do so. Because several things are true, she is not the mother. She is not responsible to replace the mother especially since the mother is likely alive and well. Even if she is the custodial stepmother, the marriage will be more successful if she isn’t automatically conscripted for a certain role in the child’s life. She should discuss this in-depth with her beloved and ease her way in rather than get sucked underwater. She knows that and sometimes she lets it slide when they don’t get around to the conversation. She might regret it later and even blame him for not taking the initiative.

She gets up and tries her best. Sometimes her best is too much and she can’t know that until it’s too late. Sometimes she gives and gives and leaves herself open. Sometimes she goes out on that limb and ends up falling or being pushed off.

Often she regrets giving too much.

Often she is exhausted. Often she can see her husband is exhausted.

Some days she wonders how she survives.

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 . . . reflects on Santa.

In 2010, I wrote the first version of Santa Sophia, a Christmas poem for stepmothers. I’ve been tinkering with it since, each year knowing another truth about this process or thinking of another word here and there that shape the message more like it happens in our hearts and in our homes.

Whatever your plans this year, whatever your family constellation, whatever your burdens, my wish for you is to know the hope of connection and the sanity of shared experience. In many families, a stepmother is isolated from her own people, estranged from them, or so engaged with her stepfamily she forgets to be with family and friends.

She can drift and float along, with nothing to anchor her experience and her heart.

Maybe this year you will reach out, outside the silence of aloneness, out past the rejection, and beyond the pain. Open yourself to letting another stepmother into your life, or reaching out to one newer than you. Let your vulnerability be a connection with someone you can trust.

There is no rushing. We are not in a race to get somewhere. We can take our time, cultivate deeper relationships, and go back to heal pieces that will help us move forward.

Santa Sophia: A Christmas Poem for Stepmothers
©2014 K.Cottrell 

Twas two nights 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 Netflix and Instagram 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 rambling black bear.

Opening doors they did bound, bringing anchoring ideas,
I knew in a moment, it was Santa Sophia.
Warm fur, curious noses, 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!
They went into the house, to the young, to the old.
Shuffling here and now there, finding hearts that were cold.

As old memories of pre-divorce family repeat,
The pain and the loss, bitter pills children eat.
Into the house, the black bears they did amble,
With satchels of honey, and hurts to unscramble.

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

She was dressed all in tencel, 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.
With capable hands, she reached for my heart,
And began 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 summoned the black bear, to me gave a nod,
And away they all drove to the next of stepmoms.
And I heard her exclaim, as they disappeared from view,
“Stepmother, take heart … this year you’ll see through.”

 

 

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 . . . 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 . . . 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.