A Healthy Stepmother . . . Makes a Place for Grief

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Makes a Place for Grief

Recently, several people close to me died and two more face their end. When I told a friend the most recent news, she handed me a book, Die Wise, by Stephen Jenkinson. I became so engrossed in the book, I was like my dog with a bone.

In Die Wise, I read. Grief is a way of loving what has slipped from view. And, I thought of the many things that slip out of view in this life that have nothing to do with someone dying. Divorce and remarriage came to mind.

Then I wondered whether it would be possible to strengthen a remarriage by including the grief caused by the death of the divorced family and the child’s access to both parents.

I once led group gatherings I called Walking Your Grief. I asked each person to write a word on a card to name their grief. We tacked the cards on the front wall of the room where they stayed for the rest of the gathering, a silent witness to the connection to the ancestor, the four-legged companion, or the earth. Most left the gathering grateful for the forum to grieve their loved one.

Imagine with me, a grieving wall in the family home, especially in those early years of a remarriage? The children could walk by and see a photo or a word they themselves had placed there, each time an opportunity to speak or reflect silently. Imagine how things might be different if expressions of grief were welcomed in your family? Imagine these expressions of grief as ways of showing love? img_5902

What I was reminded of in Die Wise is that we don’t have to lose those we love, whether from death or from divorce. When someone dies, we simply keep them close. I keep my grandmother alive by making her version of a flourless fruitcake, a recipe my entire family swoons over. We serve our meals on my stepmother’s mother’s dining table, carried all the way from Minnesota.

I keep the paint-splattered stepstool that my grandfather used at his workbench close at hand, another talisman of my mother’s parents. I also love the wooden bench I scavenged from my father’s house following his stroke. Once Dad and I sat in the sun on my back porch. He spied one of the benches and shook his head. “Why do you have that junky old bench?” I grinned. “Because I like it, Dad.”

I imagine stepchildren grieving and trying against almost all the odds to keep the absent parent close to their heart. Often we expect them to rewrite their childhood in their mind and heart and see their other parent as we, the adults, see them. I don’t think they can. 

You say, it’s been three years since the divorce, it’s time to move on. You say you are not the one causing the problem.

I say, three years is nothing. They will love and grieve both parents for the rest of their lives, almost without exception. If they are not allowing one parent into their heart, you can be sure the love of the other parent is stunted as well.

cropped-hands_with_candles-t2.jpgI thought of building a grieving wall in our home, something more than the photos and images we have of them. The closest I came was one Thanksgiving after we’d been remarried for six years or more. The kids were with us and their mom was out of town. I knew thoughts of her weighed on their minds and I was thinking of my family, particularly my own mother. I brought the candle holder out of the cupboard and loaded it up. I invited them to take turns with me and name someone they held in their thoughts as they lit a candle. By the time we lit the ninth candle, we could have lit nine more.

All of which leads me to a few thoughts . . .

  • We can be courageous when we focus on respect toward the missed parent. We do it for the child’s heart. For the child’s future. We do it for our own heart.
  • We can be courageous when we make space for the child’s grieving process which might well last a lifetime. Perhaps we even grieve with them.
  • We can be courageous when we make a place for anchors and memories of the child’s former life.
  • We can be courageous when we focus on filling our hearts, including grieving our own loves.

It’s not necessary to grade ourselves on how courageous we are. We don’t need to take inventory and see how many times we found ourselves closed off to grief, our own or others’. We don’t need to fill our homes with memorabilia of the other home. 

It might be more useful to take the idea of the grief into our hearts and embrace this aspect of living in a family after divorce and after remarriage. The grief won’t look happy, it won’t look cheery, it won’t look cooperative. Can that be okay?

We can be courageous when we behave as though grief is a way of loving what has slipped from view.

 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and Love That Liberates (Maya Angelou)

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and Love That Liberates (Maya Angelou)

I just watched a five-minute video of Maya Angelou telling three stories to illustrate that love liberates. I’m pretty sure I held my breath throughout, hanging on every word, gasping at the end yesss.

Love, as she’s describing it, liberates.

Angelou describes as a new mother at 17, deciding to move out of her mother’s house. She describes their conversation which didn’t end with her mother declaring if Angelou left she could never come back. Her mother did not draw a line with a threat or cast a net to keep her there. And, in fact, Angelou came back several times, as she describes it, “every time life slammed me down and made me call it uncle.”

She describes her mother liberating her to go out in the world and be who she was, and later, how she liberated her own mother.

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As stepmothers, we might use Angelou’s words to guide us in our interactions with our spouse, our stepchildren, even with our own children.

One of the biggest implications is the idea of letting go, doing less for our stepfamily, and not trying to be the end-all, be-all. If this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve read those suggestions here, and here, and here.

Instead, we grit our teeth and soldier on, pulsing with anger, seething with frustration, going through the motions of things like unloading the dishwasher, lucky those dishes aren’t people or things we love. We might crush them with our intensity.

But. Love liberates. Angelou distilled it down that succinctly and I love it. Let it be a bumper sticker or a mantra. Let it be the positive affirmation. Whatever we need it to be, let it be so.

Love liberates. It doesn’t ask, will you do this my way so I feel better. Will you salve my worries or my wounds or my sense of not belonging? Will you put me into the middle of this life as if I’ve been here all along? Will you love me?

Love asks none of that.

I’m going to guess that Angelou’s mother felt good enough in her own skin, good enough to be able to stand separately from her daughter and let her leave and let her make those mistakes. Never once did she say, I told you so. She let her go. Which means she minded her own business and welcomed Angelou back when she got smacked down by life.

What if it could be that way and be okay? What if another person’s lack of doing something or lack of achievement or being taken advantage of or inability to see something that is so terribly obvious to us, what if that is NO reflection on us? If that is true, the mistakes your stepchildren make are not about you. No one did something on purpose. No one stumbled and failed because they have a stepmother.

Remember, this life your stepfamily lived was there a long time before you came along. Your job isn’t to fix it. It’s to witness it. It is to support your husband in the best way you can. It is to take care of yourself, which may include doing your personal, interior work to help yourself learn how to stand inside your own skin without needing someone else to shore and hold you up.

It doesn’t matter if the mother of the children has difficulty holding herself up. It doesn’t matter if she does terrible and egregious things. You are not in charge of her. Neither is your husband. It is not his fault she is this way. It is not the children’s fault she is this way. And, for every woman who describes the ex-wife as crazy, whew, I have to take a deep breath because it’s so seldom that is true. She does crazy things. She goes way out into the extremes of a person’s behavior. She manipulates and she acts thirteen, but she isn’t crazy. Not in the failing-an-exam way. There are other people in the world who see her functional side, who think she is a good person in the way your people see you as a good person.

No, what she’s struggling with is letting her love liberate. She may not know how to do that. She may not have been liberated by love. She may know uncloying and unclutching love or the freedom of love that unbinds.

Even though you will have numerous times in the future to clench your teeth and breathe and try to make sense of things that seem nonsensical, you only have one person to answer to, yourself. If you focus on answering to yourself, to be as careful about your motives and intentions as possible, to let your love be unclutching and nonbinding, then your relationship with your husband and your stepchildren will benefit. That is what will help you feel better. When you feel those relationships are nurtured and strong. But that doesn’t come from the superficial, being together moments. It comes from repeated interactions in which acceptance, trust, and devotion are shown in the actions it takes to navigate the moment. It will likely still be painful, on many occasions.

Angelou’s story is cleaner than ours. She was a daughter and she was talking about her mother. She wasn’t describing a stepfamily, but I think the story still applies. Angelou describes telling her mother, “you were not a good mother of small children, but you were a great mother of young adults.” How refreshing. How completely refreshing. No beating around the bush. No recriminations. Just laying it out. Simple. I liked that part a lot.

Right now, or later today, or tomorrow, when you feel your teeth clench and your shoulders tense, think: How can I let this love I feel liberate? What would that look like if I let go of the outcome?

Let’s do some experimenting. Together. You in your home, me in mine. We’ll check back in after a few weeks and see how it’s going.

Love liberates.