A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Being Good

I wonder if the remarried woman has more pressure on her to be a good wife than in a first marriage. I wonder if the stakes feel higher to be good because the odds of a remarriage succeeding are so dismal.

And how good does a good wife have to be? How good does a stepmother-wife have to be?

Does going from good wife to divorced woman have something to do with how mothers reach for their children? Is there something about reclaiming and emboldening the image of good mother that will somehow compensate for the loss of good wife? And if good mothers and good wives are good women, can there be two good women in an extended stepfamily? 

Is there a limited amount of good?

Is the label good necessary, is it automatic?

test-clip-art-7iakpmratI can argue no one needs it. Good feels like a set up for doing too much, for over-doing, and for over-extending. Good feels like a great way to start a competition.

Think of it. Someone needs to find that misplaced coat because the weather turned cold overnight and it’s raining outside. The child can’t walk to school in the cold without a coat. So someone must find the coat. Who jumps to go find the coat? 

And I wonder, is there more pressure to be the good stepmother from the children, more from the husband, or more from the ex-wife? Or are we trying so hard to prove we are worthy of this man because others lay claim to him as father, son, or ex-husband that we impose the good label on ourselves.

Do we feel we have to prove we are good enough to justify him marrying us in the first place? To justify him wanting his children to get along with us? To justify him trusting us enough to leave the children with us?

And so we bend, mold, flex, double-over, curl up, make ourselves smaller, make ourselves stronger, do more, be more, try to be prettier, try to solve all problems. We aspire to become female Macgyvers, able to do anything, be anywhere, and love anyone.

How do we decide who establishes the measure of a good stepmother? Who do we let apply this measure to us?

And finally, how is our good earned?

A Healthy Stepmother . . . sheds her single story.

Maybe you’ve read my recent post in which I describe being so moved by current events I wrote an article that got posted to The Broad Side on February 5, just a month ago. I have plans to do more writing on the subject of child sexual abuse, not necessarily on this blog.

Since the February 5 post on The Broad Side and since my post here last week, I’ve considered why it is I hadn’t felt moved to say anything sooner. Reaction from others is part of it, but that’s only a part. What I know now is that I carried my story within me until it was no longer the single story. Let me explain.

We stepmothers have told the single story. At least for a time. We say, I am a stepmother. But that is never enough to say about ourselves, nor enough for others to know about us. The single story, I am a woman, is never enough to know about me, nor enough for others to know about me. Nor is I am from the United States, tall, college-graduate, small town raised, or a marathon walker. Any single story that gets told is just that, a single story.

I watched a Ted Talk, by Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story, the other day and knew that’s why I’d been waiting to share my story of childhood sexual abuse. I am not my abuse. I am not my height. I am not my college graduate degree. I am not my small town. To know me is to include every single thing that has ever happened to me in my life. Travel, food, books I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, music I listen to, and the color of the skin of those I know or don’t know.

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Upon further reflection, it seems to me that we go into the single story mode when we are new at something.

Once upon a time, I learned to sail. My sailing story is that I took a class and I went out the first time on the lake and capsized the boat. It took me a decade to return to sailing but I was smart enough to go out and crew on a boat that wasn’t in danger of capsizing. We had a fabulous time and I’m still a big fan. If I’d stopped at the capsizing, I’d have a story of myself as a lousy sailor and I’d probably still be avoiding it.

I remember in my late 20s and early 30s, when I was doing the hardest work on my family history and unearthing all the horror stories and bringing them out into the open, I walked around with child abuse survivor on my forehead. I didn’t relate to that word, survivor, but at least it felt better than victim. Needless to say, it was a difficult time since it seemed like the abuse was the only thing I could see about myself.

Fortunately, I enrolled in my Feldenkrais training and immersed myself in the questions: Is there another way of doing this? Is there another way to think about this? What is a second way, and now a third? And, finally, do I have more than three ways to do something (anything) so that I’m not behaving compulsively? That would mean that when the word stepmother comes up in me I have a flash of a woman who is in a difficult situation, maybe even with a powerless feeling. Then, a second flash of a woman who cares and needs to be careful about her caring. Then, a third image of a woman married to a man she loves deeply, dedicated to helping him raise his children with the opportunity grow into healthy and fulfilled adults. And, maybe there’s an image of a woman surrounded by other women who are also stepmothers and there’s a club of stepmothers growing in number by the day, week, month, and year.

I’ll admit that it took me at least 5 years to completely shed the societal image of the wicked stepmother. The image dominated the first years of my marriage to my husband even though I would have professed that wasn’t so. Now, I see so much of my resistance to the label was about denying that the label could in any way be related to me. As soon as I lost the negativity of actually being a stepmother and who I was in that role, I embraced stepmother and now flaunt it for all to see.

Since we can’t control what others think about us, how about we reach down in there and drag the other stories about us up to the surface, right there beside the stepmother label. Woman, wife, mother, lover, author, co-worker, worrier, nature-lover, rich, poor, healthy, struggling, depressed, and on and on and on. We carry so many stories, we will be here a mighty long time telling each of them. We have the grandmother story, the 5-year-old kid story, the picking beans story, throwing up in the strawberry fields story, the meeting the man story, the how-many-men-I-dated-before-I-got-it-right story, and the year I knew my first marriage was over story. On and on. Rich, textured, beautiful stories whether the events in them were beautiful or not.

As Chimamanda says so eloquently, you are not a single story.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . unapologetically begins anew!

(The Know Thyself series will be completed in the next week or two. Thank you for your patience.)

Sometimes I think we should all attend the No More Apologies School. If there were such a thing, I’d run to sign up. My knee-jerk apology isn’t as strong as it once was, but it’s still in there, assessing my performance against someone else’s as if judging whether there are really 3.0 ounces of Havarti cheese on the scale, or only 2.89 ounces.

I’m working diligently to graduate as fast as I can, see issues below. I wonder if they would have a division specifically for stepmothers.

Scrooge's third visitor, from Charles Dickens:...

Scrooge’s third visitor, from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • So many things didn’t get done this year, at least not by me. I had my hands full with tasks for my dad and catching up on my own healthcare after a year of being a caregiver. December and the lead in to the holidays was the same. In fact, on the Friday before Christmas, the tree was not decorated and there were no christmas cards to send out. I was feeling 60% guilty and apologized to my husband at least three times. That morning, he sprang to life as if Santa himself. I came home from class to find the tree decorated. Later that afternoon he arrived home with 50 photocards and we sat down and sent them together. I was so grateful, I stopped apologizing and started thanking him. I ended up with less than 20% guilt, remembering that most years I did all those tasks alone. It felt awesome to do some of it together. Result: 0% risk of apology.
  • After Christmas, while I was snuggling with my box of kleenex and jar of Vicks while I nursed a cold, I thought about all the barriers between me and my stepchildren. I lamented, to myself, the efforts I’d made that seemed to have gone nowhere and felt the guilt of knowing I wasn’t putting much effort in these days. I was at risk of apologizing, more than a 50/50 chance. Thank goodness I was feeling so crummy and no one wanted to hang out, I was saved from myself and turned my focus to resting and getting well. Risk of apologizing dropped to less than 10%.
  • It’s not just the doing-stuff we can tend to apologize for. It’s also the being-stuff. I know sometimes I feel bad, knowing the kids don’t want me in some of the photos, knowing they’d just as soon be with their dad. In those moments, it’s pretty crazy, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling in the way. That’s an apology, in my opinion. In the old days, I was 55% at risk of apologizing for myself, whether just in my head or out loud. Now, I make sure my husband has ample opportunities to spend time with the kids alone and I let the rest of it roll along. So, I guess I could say my guilt factor has reduced way, way, way down on that issue and my risk of apology is down to 5%.
  • Another point of apology I used to drag around like a security blanket was to my husband for not being able to get through the holidays without suffering and then falling apart. Somehow I thought I should be able to get through it without feeling sad and forlorn, without wishing for my old life, and without feeling like an alien in my own home. Whew, my apology risk was 90% and my guilt was 85%. It has taken years and trust and love and more of all those things. We grew together into our more seasoned and mature expectations of the outcome of these family togethernesses. Now, my apology risk is less than 20% and my guilt is down to less than 30%. I’m much more focused on the big picture and the long haul and when the going gets tough, I either have a brief time-out or zero in on my husband and let the rest of the crowd fade into the background.

The list of things that could potentially be apologized for is incredibly long.

Hmmm, maybe the No More Apologies School is already in session.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . soothes about self-soothing. (Self-Soothing series #8)

They say you teach what you need to learn. Well, maybe it’s true. As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, we’re in the  middle of the stepfamily stew and it’s taken me a bit to get my perspective back so I can keep on with our series on self-soothing.

As I worked with my own soothing strategies, it occurred to me that it’s so easy to think we’re not doing good or good enough. And that always makes me think of “what is good enough?”

Because of all my pondering on good enough, I created this self-soothing graphic for you and me. The picture below depicts self-soothing as a process, one that you can live on at any point on the continuum and still be self-soothing, except for the freak-out place.

As you read, just notice that at any stage there is something you can do that brings you closer into contact with yourself. Whether it’s just noticing your state or actually doing things that bring change, any step is useful for you.

Freak-Out:
This is a steady state of upset. Or, it might be it’s your reaction when things go wrong. To be in freak-out is to be in constant arguments and that sick-to-your-stomach pit you get when you lose yourself in the process of a stepfamily. This stage is usually accompanied by guilt and remorse when the freak-out is over and lots of judging of your self as a not-good person.
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A Healthy Stepmother . . . takes off her shoes. (Self-soothing series #7)

First of all, let’s all take a breather. Sometimes in the journey toward self-soothing it might be useful to stop self-soothing, stop placating, stop worrying, and stop anything. Relax, take off your shoes, let your toes wiggle and sigh deeply while you sip some nice cold seltzer with lime. Nothing more refreshing, unless perhaps you toss in a couple of mint leaves or rosemary. Ahhhhh……

The last post was pretty intense. Who wants to admit they have judged the children’s mother? Who wants to admit they were trying to win over the love of a child? Who wants to declare they were trying to save the child and got lost in the drama of it all? No one. It’s hard to acknowledge even in our hearts, we don’t need to say it out loud. And that’s okay. No harm, no foul. We are human. We were trying. And, it’s not too late to let it go and turn your focus elsewhere.

I’ve mentioned before that one of the ways I’ve soothed, for decades now, is by walking. I walked all through my mother’s dying process. I walked during my grief. I’ve walked to stay conditioned and for my mental health. I’ve also walked just because it feels good. I’ve walked because I was angry and I’ve walked to soothe. And boy, oh boy, I walked a lot in the beginning of my remarriage.
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A Healthy Stepmother . . . leaves the big stuff on the table. (Self-Soothing series, #6)

I struggled a long time to write this blog post because we’re headed into discussions of the big stuff and how to self-soothe. The big stuff stirs up our internal stuff. Self-soothing is all about how we manage our emotions and what we do with our actions in the face of the big stuff in our stepfamily. Remember, I’m not a psychologist or a counselor or a stepmother coach. I am a stepmother who has studied human behavior for many decades and is now shining the “patterns of behavior” light on this issue of being a stepmother.

The last few weeks, when you were practicing making space, taking inventory, paying attention to your patterns, all of those studies were to lay the groundwork upon which to process your big stuff. The stronger your groundwork practice, the stronger your self-soothing in the internal stuff.

One of the simplest ways to self-soothe is to leave the big stuff where it belongs. That’s it . . . leave it sitting there on the sofa or the table. Don’t even pick it up. You can walk all around it. You can look at it. You can even touch it, but it’s best if you can leave it lying there while you do.

I’ve thought we need those intermittent warnings that you hear at the airport . . . “please do not leave your luggage unattended, any luggage left unattended will be destroyed.” Our stepmother version could be . . . “please do not take on the big stuff that isn’t yours, any big stuff you take on that doesn’t belong to you could explode at any moment.”

If you have picked up a big stuff issue, you’ve noticed how hot it gets. The three really big stuff issues that come up for most stepmothers? One is the pursuing of the child’s love. Another is the judging of the mother. And the third is the rescuing of the child. Any one of these can burn you, all three together and you’ve got a bonfire. Continue reading

A Healthy Stepmother . . . stops and waits. (Self-Soothing series, Week 5)

(Note: Week 5 of a 10-week series on self-soothing. Looking to our animal nature to access our ability to manage our reactions and have the life we choose, not the life that happens while we are upset or retreating.)

After our evening dog walk, my husband and I linger on the front porch watching the sky darken before we go inside. Our big dog loves this hang out time with us. Our little dog, Lucy, does . . . and doesn’t. She often seems as though she’d like to sit on the porch with us, but as night falls the wind picks up and she peers nervously over hunched shoulders looking for an escape route.

When I take her inside, she calms quickly and I go back to join my husband on the porch. The peace is short-lived. Lucy lives for the sight and sniff of the people in our close-knit community who come to say hello with the latest news. Soon, she hears the neighbor’s step on the porch and she launches into a fire drill of barking. As I reflect on her very temporary peace, it occurs to me that Lucy’s problem is similar to the stepmother dilemma, to detach or not to detach.

One of the coping recommendations for a stepmother is to detach when things get overwhelming or she finds herself becoming anxious or depressed when wrapped in the drama of her remarried family. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, there are some great descriptions of detachment in Stepmonster, by Wednesday Martin. Detachment is a great way to reground and regroup but sometimes it comes with its own stress. The situations that bother me produce similar conflicts in me as the loud noises do for Lucy.

The facts are that Lucy has a great home with us. She is comforted by being with us and life is good for her. But, Lucy is bothered by the wind and firecrackers and any sharp, loud noise. When she hears loud noise, she runs to hide and calm herself. She is our self-appointed guard dog and she makes sure we know when things are okay and when they are not. Thus, when she is scared, she goes into a massive quandary about continuing her guard-dog job or escaping away to a more comforting place.

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