A Healthy Stepmother . . . Draws Her Boundary Chalk  

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Draws Her Boundary Chalk  

Yes, boundary chalk.

What can we use for our protection? In our violence-steeped society, some easily imagine a gun or a knife. In other times, people drew swords and daggers. Or, the magic of a wand, so light, so easy to stash somewhere, even inside a sleeve or a purse.

The trouble is, protecting boundaries is tricky business. They might not exist and need to be built. They might get strong and then weaken. They might drop away and become invisible, leaving us vulnerable and easily invaded. Sometimes, we don’t even know what we’re trying to protect.

As I work on my book of tales for stepmothers (no date to offer up, but it’s progressing nicely, thanks for asking), I’ve been doing regular free writes. With my writing friends, I start with a prompt and write for seven minutes, or nine, or occasionally eleven. Our pens fly and no one stops until the timer goes off.

Here’s a piece I did on boundaries from one of those free writes. It has certainly been on my mind over these last many months.

But, this post is to tell you a drawing-boundary story of a real-life stepmother (with permission). This stepmother has one stepdaughter and two younger daughters, now in their teens. My stepmother friend and her husband have helped his daughter navigate some unhealthy, and potentially dangerous, situations for a very long time. And now, there’s a granddaughter to consider.

If you’ve been a stepmother in a situation like this, you know, there’s a weariness that grows, deep down in the bones. Giving to a person who endangers themselves again, and again. Giving again. It is exhausting.

Being called to rescue, whether with big issues like safety of small children, or little issues like getting homework done, is bound to happen for most stepmothers. But, we don’t have to beat ourselves up, we could get out the chalk and draw some lines around ourselves.

My stepmother friend knew she was running out of steam with all the helping she was doing. She kept trying to help differently each time her stepdaughter plummeted, but she was drawn in and others began relying on her. Her marriage suffered with all this helping, as did the life of her growing daughters.

One weekend, the now-grown stepdaughter with a daughter of her own, were coming to visit after a period of being stable and safe, and my friend and her husband got word that things were moving toward instability, again.

This time, my stepmother girlfriend quietly got out her chalk. She sent messages to the family and friend who so kindly informed them of the downturn for her stepdaughter. She asked them to communicate directly with her husband, the father of the woman in question. Her husband agreed that he would handle all the communication and she would take a back seat during the weekend. And, she determined to focus her attention on the activities of her younger daughters and in taking care of herself during the weekend while her stepdaughter was visiting.

I was cheering, of course, all the way from over here in my place on the sideline. You can join me in the cheering, too. I asked to tell her story because it’s a great example of the process of managing our feelings and sense of self while we are helping.

When we feel frustrated, it might be tempting to think we should know better and not let ourselves get caught in those situations. But, I think that know-better voice is the external society voice shouting in our ear. Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls it the over-culture. The know-better voice causes us to second-guess our instincts. It’s the second-guessing that is the problem, in my opinion. It’s the place that traps us in the feeling bad place and then we go help more to feel better.

I propose, rather than bashing ourselves because we repeatedly find ourselves helping, we use one of the strategies we’ve been practicing on this blog to help listen inside and know what we need. Helping is one of the options. Waiting is another. Letting others do is another. And, some combination of those is a fourth. Click on these links to read about Find your feet, dig down for your talisman, or take a nap.

A Healthy Stepmother...Draws Her Chalk BoundaryEach cycle of helping in a chronic-repetitive situation has the potential to lead us upward, like taking another step on a spiral staircase. You gain skill, knowledge, ability to see where the boundary could be, and even where to find the chalk. Sometimes it’s as simple as we don’t know there’s a boundary needing to be drawn and we let our chalk supply run out.

She’s no saint, my stepmother friend. She jumped in, instinctively responding to difficult situations, and it wasn’t as if she had time to think, okay, I’ll do this, this time, but then next time someone else can do it. She did what any of us would do and now, all these years later, she’s listening and hears the deep-down message, okay, time to step back.

That deep-down message isn’t one we are accustomed to hearing. I know. I was getting weary helping my father a year and a half ago. Bone weary. And I vividly remember the day he got angry with me and said, you are doing too much, you need to stop helping so much. I looked at him and said thanks dad, I’m glad to know you’re ready to take these things over. You’ve got it. We’ve been fine ever since. I’m no longer exhausted. But, it took him yelling for me to hear or to even know to listen to that message okay, you can stop now.

Maybe helping isn’t a permanent condition. It’s probably also true, our help is not a permanent solution for the one we’ve helped. That person is needing to learn skills and we might expect they need a few repetitions to get the message, just like we did.

The good news for my friend is that others have the skills now, now they can take over. Now she can gently shift the responsibility over to her husband and the broader circle. What if this is how it can work out? What if this is the natural progression?

Perhaps we’ve all been there. Asking ourselves Why, when we’re up to our necks in helping, gritting our teeth, or downing a third glass of wine. Why am I so weak I can’t say no? Why can’t I draw a line.

Perhaps we’ve experienced that teeth gnashing and desperate moment, when we’re in the shower crying and thinking we’ll never help again, dammit, never again, that moment is not-so-gently tapping us on the shoulder saying, okay, now, now it’s time to step aside and let someone else carry this torch.

What if that’s all, that’s it? It’s just a message. It’s not that we are failures as stepmothers, or even that our marriages are doomed. It’s simply time to shift our focus. Back to the life waiting for us. Maybe there’s a rock wall to build, or a picture to paint, or a beach to walk. It doesn’t really matter what, as long as it feeds and replenishes us for our next adventure.

And, we can rest assured, there will be more adventures . . .

A Healthy Stepmother . . . walks with her vulnerability.

“I really don’t have any big issues up in my life right now.” I proclaimed to my women’s group as we discussed the focus of our group that day.

Not an hour later, I shook with tears and the other women in the group waited respectfully for me to say more about what was happening for me. I never did articulate what was lying underneath the pain of that moment.

Reflecting later, I realized the emotion of digging down into the stories for the book I’m working on, the emotion of getting together with a couple of family members after 12 years of not, my concerns about the plight of so many around the globe, and a week of crummy sleep had all contributed to my vulnerable moment.

My protestations that nothing was wrong were the old, dusty habits of a lifetime of saying that things were fine. The old story was that I was able to take care of myself, thank you very much. For decades, I’d been reinforced for not needing emotional support and I’d been taught to keep busy and get things done.

Statue of Our Lady of La Salette, sitting cryi...

Statue of Our Lady of La Salette, sitting crying (first part of apparition). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The experience of sitting with women who didn’t flinch or rush me to wrap up my story compares with no other experience of being listened to. In fact, they simply waited and eventually we came to a moment when we sensed that the emotions had calmed enough that we could wrap up, including their emotions that had arisen from seeing my big emotion. What was most important is that they did not see me as the emotion. They know me and so they waited with me until the emotional moment had passed.

What if a stepmother had space like that to be vulnerable. What if someone would sit with her, quietly, and wait for the emotion to pass? Not a rushed waiting, as when will this be over, but a patient, hands folded, gazing near her but not staring at her, and simply breathing into the room together. That was the gift my friends gave me. They didn’t rush to me to take it away and make it okay, they simply waited, with me.

I’ve been practicing for years letting the tears come when I hear someone say to not take it so personally, or to just push on through, or to wait until the kids are grown, or that’s just the way teenagers are. Or a million other things that people say when they don’t really want to deal with a stepmother’s vulnerability. It takes practice to let tears out privately, but eventually it’s easier to let them go in front of others. I think that’s why I was able to cry with my friends.

I’m learning to be vulnerable and to share my tender moments. Crying in the company of others is my new thing to practice, my new moment to know that if what I’m saying will bring me to tears, there’s some truth in it. In fact, I feel an urgency to let out the years of not saying how I felt in the moment. The role models I’ve had were women who’ve either suppressed their tears into stony silence or held them in for so long they came bursting out in a panic attack. It seems there’s something in between. As if the measure of my mental health is directly related to the ability to feel, process, and welcome the next emotion easily and smoothly, just like I change positions on a chair.

In fact, the way the Dalai Lama shows emotion is my model. I’ve read that as he’s in conversation with someone, he can go from deep concern for the story he’s listening to and in the next moment be laughing with tears running down his eyes, or crying because there is such sadness.

Rather than clinging to the masks of okay-ness, I’m ready to let the emotion be what is on my face. Rather than using anger as the medium to justify letting my feelings of pain into the space between me and someone else, I’m going to bypass the anger and just get to the simpler emotion.

The vulnerable moment can be as familiar and easy to navigate as the joyous one, the comfortable one, or the sorrowful one. Most of us are not used to showing our vulnerability and will do anything and everything to avoid it.

Bring on tears rolling down cheeks. Bring on fluidity of emotion and not holding things in until I burst. Bring on good emotional posture, the going in any direction with feelings, at any time, and without a lot of fuss.

Cry, laugh, frown, snort, cluck, sputter, shout, sing, and smile your feelings. I’m right there with you.

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