A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the Sunglasses of Connection

Once upon a time, there was a 10-year-married couple and their two children, Ivan, 8, and Hazel, 5. The family lived in an average house in the middle of an average town near an average river. They lived an average life-like most families. Both parents worked because money was necessary to pay the mortgage and put food on the table.

Sadly, one day they received a visit from the Divorce Harpie, a very damning omen since over 70% of the married couples visited by the Divorce Harpie ended their marriages within a year. One never knew the Divorce Harpie had come. He came in the middle of the night, sneering his way into their average house, bored with his own life and entertained by messing around in other’s lives. The Divorce Harpie loved watching the chaos and mayhem that came after one in the couple determined they needed to end the marriage. In fact, he always chose the woman of the couple to infect with discontent, and he always made sure the man of the couple never suspected a thing. In fact, it was worse than that. He erased all concerns and history from the man’s mind so he had no memory of the discontent in the marriage. When his wife asked for a divorce, it was always out of the blue. 

On the night the Divorce Harpie visited, the woman was up late working on the last of the Christmas cards so they could be mailed in the morning. The cruelty of the timing was lost on everyone, except the Divorce Harpie. He delighted in making sure the holidays were filled with conflict and sorrow. 

Sure enough, his visit produced the results he was looking for. His spell worked so well, not even the Fairy of Reconciliation could reclaim the marriage with her incredible skill at reconnecting hearts. The woman awoke the day after Christmas and when her husband came down for his morning coffee, she told him she wanted a divorce. 

The world stopped spinning for a few moments.

The Angel of Anxiety fluttered and flitted about, unsure whether to process the news, but doing her job. No one spoke, no one breathed, for a full 60 seconds. Finally, everyone exhaled and looked around, thinking it odd they couldn’t see very clearly. In the time it took them to let the news sink in, the Angel of Anxiety had outfitted everyone in the family with a pair of sunglasses. Each pair of sunglasses had smoky lenses, dark enough to impair vision and make it seem like perpetual dusk. 

Time went by and the divorce proceeded. The kids went to live with their dad, not because their mother didn’t want them, but because their father was more persuasive about why they should remain with him. He argued that children needed a father and there was plenty of evidence that showed when a father was present in the home the children had fewer educational issues. The smoky glasses gave him some cover for his story and reduced the number of questions about his plans for the future. He argued that he worked from home and was available in case the kids had difficulty in school. He also claimed to be the more stable of the two parents. 

The judges listened and ruled that the mother of the children needed to pay support payments for as long as the children were in high school and beyond. If they wanted to go to college, the mother was expected to pay because her job brought in more compensation. 

The kids lived with the dad and visited the mom. The dad tried to be neutral about the kids’ relationship with their mother but he resented that she made more money than he did. He resented that she went on trips here and there while he was home with the kids, forgetting that he had insisted the kids live with him and ignoring that she would take the kids any time she asked. She had consented to the kids living with him and hadn’t argued for half-time physical custody because she believed kids needed some consistency and it was better if they had one place to call home, like their dogs who relied on structure. Her concession had been that if he was going to take the kids that he be consistent and available for them and not change the plan every week. 

This plan worked out to varying degrees of success for a year and then they hit a speed bump. The Angel of Anxiety had a brother, The Lord of Depression, who visited the father one night when he was up late working on his latest sculpture wondering how he was going to buy groceries because he had spent all the money on clothes for the kids. Begrudgingly, he admitted to himself he had bought them more expensive clothes than they could afford, but he felt justified because they needed to keep up appearances for the neighborhood they lived in. 

Life went on in this push-me/pull-me kind of tug of war between the parents. Each time the anxiety got greater, one parent or another increased the smokiness of the sunglass lenses. One day, the father changed the tint to a green color and every time he said something the children agreed with him that their mother was mean and overbearing. Then, the mother changed the tint in the sunglasses to a purple color that caused the children to believe that her family, the mother’s side, was the only family  worth paying attention to. 

English: Tea shades

English: Tea shades (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tensions escalated. Ivan began shop-lifting in response to the tension and got caught. He spent the summer in juvenile detention. Hazel became depressed and wouldn’t come out of her room. She didn’t want to get caught up in the war between parents so it was easier to opt out. Even the love bestowed on her when she acted in ways her parents approved felt tainted. 

This pattern went on for years, growing more destructive as time went on. The alienation each child felt toward the mother one week, toward the father the next week, took a toll. 

Eventually, both children graduated from high school and moved away to another city to attend college. In college, they gradually lost the tint in the sunglasses and began to view the world through the lens of many others, often others they respected who had no vested interest in the outcome of their lives. The relief was palpable. Each of the children grew strong, resilient, and capable. They had never felt this strength before. Free from the pressure to behave a certain way, free from the strain of emotions within their divorced family, they blossomed and grew and matured. 

Holidays came and went and at first they didn’t go home for the ritual Thanksgiving or Christmas. Finally, in his junior year, Ivan decided to venture home and agreed with Hazel to meet up in their hometown. They seemed to have awakened one day with amnesia for their parents’ struggles. 

They traveled to their hometown and one of them stayed with their mother and one of them stayed with the father. By this time, each of the parents was doing fine, but with some residual resentment from years past. At the same time, they were also stronger and less needy. However, they hadn’t been around the children for a couple of years and each was eager to make his or her case justifying past behaviors. 

The first night passed with everyone on their best behavior. 

The second day came and the mother began darkening the tint on her son’s sunglasses. The father began darkening the tint on his daughter’s sunglasses. It began slowly, gradually, so gradually the children had little awareness they were not seeing with their own eyes. 

By day three, tensions were mounting again and Ivan and Hazel began arguing with one another about which parent was right and which one was wrong. On day four, they each flew back to college, angry with their sibling. 

Back on campus, as soon as each stepped through the door of the dormitory, the tinting in the glasses dropped away and they each grabbed the phone and called the other. 

Hazel began, “Did you notice how we couldn’t really see clearly? Do you think it’s been that way for a long time?” 

Ivan agreed, “Yeah, I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t see either purple or green. How did all that begin?” 

They ended the phone call agreeing their parents were being manipulative and they needed to find a way to end it. Or, not see them again. It just wasn’t worth the hassle and heartache of being twisted and torn one way and another. And, worse, they were pitted against one another. And even worse, it wasn’t just one of the parents, it was both of them. There was no way to have authentic relationships and now they each understood what those might look like. 

Summer vacation came and went and they didn’t go home despite many requests from the parents. Finally, they insisted the parents fly out and meet them, together, in Hazel’s town. As soon as the parents stepped off the plane, their children handed them clear sunglasses, the normal kind you buy in the store, not the kind issued by the Divorce Harpie. 

Immediately, the mother gasped. She could see what she had been doing trying to get them to love her family more, all in the name of love. She could see it wasn’t love. The father put his new glasses on slower, but with some curiosity after watching his ex-wife. He inhaled sharply. The clarity of his children’s innocence and vulnerability caused him pain to realize how his sarcasm and anxiety had caused them pain. 

They made a pact, then and there, each member of the family would carry normal sunglasses in a stash in their traveling case and when someone began with the criticism, superiority, bashing the other, or creating a negative story line about the other parent or any of the other kids and family members, they would be handed a fresh pair of glasses. They would acknowledge the legacy from the past and the way they couldn’t see clearly with the other glasses. They would understand what those things Anxiety and Depression looked like and offer a hand to the others. 

They would see the world with clarity and know the meaning of love, kindness, compassion, community, and connection. They would do the best they could to hand those things down to the next generation. 

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . on a Love-for-All

Mother’s Day.

It all started in the 1850s, when West Virginia women’s organizer Ann Reeves Jarvis held Mother’s Day work clubs to improve sanitary conditions and try to lower infant mortality by fighting disease and curbing milk contamination, according to historian Katharine Antolini of West Virginia Wesleyan College. The groups also tended wounded soldiers from both sides during the U.S. Civil War from 1861 to 1865. Brian Handwerk for National Geographic

Hardly recognizable with the consumeristic nature of our modern Mother’s Day celebrations. Mother’s Day with all its exclusions of non-mothers and the raising onto pedestals of women for a certain 24-hour period rather than leveling the playing field for women every day of the year. If it’s that a woman births a child that’s being celebrated, then maybe we should just admit we’re celebrating the female ability to bring life into the world because we know this to be important for the future of our species.

If we’re celebrating nurturing, then Mother’s Day misses the boat with all the humans of both genders excluded in the narrow definition of mother.

And, what about Stepmother’s Day, officially the Sunday after Mother’s Day? What’s up with that? A separate day because these two women can’t be acknowledged on the same day, even though they care for and love the same children? Because one of the women birthed the children, she must keep any other woman’s hands off their heart? Can that be true? We see example after example in our everyday lives showing us this is how it feels to some.

As for being a stepmother, I honored stepmothers in A Heathy Stepmother and the Holy Grail of Success. It was one of the most commented on blogposts, after the post A Healthy Stepmother is Not Alone.

The thing is, there are some incredible women on the planet, mothers and not mothers alike. They are able to see that the best possible future for any child involves loving and moving toward love. They see that love is expansive and includes everyone. They see that love has no boundaries and the more love is shared, the more love there is. They know love begets love.

Here’s an example of two such women . . .

Sistering On

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I want to hear more stories like this. Let’s shout these stepmother-mother stories from the mountaintops. Let’s put them on billboards as people enter our cities. Let’s feature these positive stories on the evening news. The more adults hear stories of women working together to love children, the more men and women will know it is possible to lay down the stories of the common culture and move toward peace.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Love-for-All

Peace Dog

These two women in the Sistering On story went against our current cultural story that tells mothers to not like stepmothers.

I’m glad they did.

Today, and every day, let’s practice peace. Peace for the adults. Peace for the children.

I’m thrilled to know of these peace-seekers who enter into the world of Love-for-All. Maybe this is the frontier we humans are always seeking, the frontier of letting go of fear and opening into the largely unexplored expanse of the heart.

Maybe the pioneers are these two Sistering On women who will lead us to the happy place we all dream of finding.

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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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Yours? Mine?

This business of what’s mine? As if I can only love what’s mine and therefore if it’s not mine, I’ll make it mine so I can love it. And, I’ll ignore everything and everyone that isn’t mine, as if I have no responsibility to the community around me.

Or, I’ll force the situation or the person to be otherwise and then it’ll feel and be mine.

The kids belong to the blood, or so the story goes, and so the legal beagles declare they are not the stepparent’s.

As if kids are possessions.

The mother label gives license. The father label gives license, but less than the mother license. As if it takes one or the other of these licenses to help a human grow to maturity.

No, you can’t drive him to school, you’re not the mom.

No, the volunteers in the class will be moms and dads, not stepparents.

Huygens and his children (property of the Maur...

Huygens and his children (property of the Maurits Huis, The Hague) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The message of kids belonging to parents gets repeated until the echo of it bounces off the inner rooms of a child’s mind and she can’t escape.

The sense of belonging to the parent grows so strong, the simple act of being nice to another person creates internal conflict for the child. Much simpler to simply avoid.

We’ve got it all screwed up.

See, he’s not mine. She’s not mine. No human is mine. Not even my dearest husband. Nothing is yours either, but I won’t argue with you if you can’t see it. You’ll get there one day.

Regarding this not-mine person, I see how easy it is to warp the innocence of the caring, giving, generous child. Have you noticed children begin with that innocence? But, they learn what they see and live with and they want to please. It takes awareness and consciousness and purposeful conversations to keep from walking straight into the trap of raising an egocentric, worried-if-I’ll-get-mine adult.

How do we build a world where the lines of mine begin to blur?

How do we allow a community to raise a child?

How do we let go of our clutchiness?

How do we accept that nothing is ours that won’t be buried with us when we die?

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(Note: I shouldn’t need to write a note, but I live in a stepfamily. Inevitably, someone will read and think I’m talking about my personal family and that something has happened that has needed this blog post as a response to that event. In fact, the subject of this blog post has been on my mind for some time now. Caring for my father and the complicated questions of who shows up to help me has been the impetus for me to write about the possessiveness, or lack of it, among humans. We claim as ours when it is convenient and then deny and make reasons for not showing up when that serves us well. And it goes both ways, parent to child and child to parent. Most of all, I wanted to highlight the messiness of it and how often we behave as though completely disconnected from the truest intentions of our hearts.)

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . ushers in a new life.

Call me an usher. Call me a guide, a messenger, or any other word that means I’m helping someone get to another phase of life.

This last six months has found me walking the path with my father to recover from his stroke and move away from the life he had in a town north of mine, a town he can no longer live in alone. What a difficult process, we’re both grieving and letting go, stumbling over old family mythology and the ever-present hope that things will get better.

Hermes with the Sandal-Louvre

Hermes has been called The Messenger God, and the story of Persephone and Demeter places Hermes in the Underworld to bring her back to her mother. Hermes with the Sandal-Louvre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I drove Dad back to his house to look it over and meet up with his friends from church. They talked for hours over coffee and lunch in what might be one of the last trips for a while since my brother and I are nearly done emptying the house and shed.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

How many divorced dads or moms have closed down their life? I don’t mean the one they live in after the divorce, I mean the old one. The new life is no longer about the sharing of the marriage bed or the intimacy and safe haven that goes on between a couple. Some divorced people try to keep those intimacies open, but they should really do all they can to close down their marriage. It has been well-documented in the divorce and remarriage literature that it is very common for the old life to linger on long after the divorce. And, when the old life gets left open, well, things get messy.

One day, the stepmother comes to town, falls in love with divorced dad and marries and/or moves in, her presence signaling the end of the old life. It doesn’t matter how fabulous a person the stepmother is, or how adaptable she is to the family’s old ways, or how much understanding or compassion she brings to the table, she cannot escape being the harbinger of grief, a tangible, visible reminder that the mother and father are not together. Note: There are likely those who feel this way about the stepfather, but the statistics show the stepfather is accepted into a remarriage far more often than a stepmother, Stepmonster, Wednesday Martin, 2009.

No wonder children scream, “you’re not my mother” with their words or actions. No wonder they don’t say hello. No wonder they tip-toe around as if the stepmother were invisible. To acknowledge her would be to acknowledge the family, as they knew it, is dead. Some children grow into adulthood before they accept the end of the mother-father-together life. Some never reach acceptance.

For my father, as we near the end of one phase of closing his old life, I hope he finds peace with his new life. In many ways, his new life is of much better quality than his old life. He has regular social interactions, he eats better and more consistently, and he worries less about the day-to-day issues. Still, each morning he wakes up after a good night of dreams, dreams in which he is pre-stroke, whole, healthy-ish. As he awakens, the realization of his condition seeps in and he needs a good hour to work through the feelings and recognition of I’m-not-who-I-was-in-the-dreams.

That must be what it is for some children whose parents remarry. For those children, they likely wake each morning expecting mom and dad just down the hall, crushed when they remember their old life no longer exists. That wasn’t my case as a child of divorce, which is why I say some children. Other children get it and understand the process. They might not like it, but they get it.

My wish for stepchildren everywhere is that they give grief time and allow for adjustments. I hope they find adults they can talk to and weep with and that they find new things to be glad about, until they can see what the new life offers. Often it offers more than expected.

And, I hope the stepchildren and their father and mother look around for their stepmother/usher. She might be off to one side, not involved in the melee, not vocal in the chaos. That won’t mean she’s not interested, it might mean she’s shoring up her resources amid the ongoing grieving. Her presence is enough to help close down the old life and you won’t find her running around trying to make everything okay. She knows that to respect the old life is enough and she practices that respect to the best of her humanly abilities. More than anyone in the remarriage, she is unable to pretend this is still the same old life. And that is the blessing and the curse. However, with the old life properly contained, memories of it will actually burn brighter, truer, and more steadily.

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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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