A Healthy Stepmother . . . reflects on toxicity.

According to the experts and according to my personal experience, it can take years for healthy interactions to develop within stepfamilies. By my definition, healthy interactions involve more integration of the stepmother regardless of who is interacting. And, the healthy interactions are less painful than they once were and are more neutral for everyone. Sometimes though, we are prevented from developing healthier relationships because of the toxic legacy someone in the family or extended stepfamily has inherited. This idea of toxicity is a great description if you think in terms of the degree that any person can cause damage to a relationship.

Recently, I read Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. Susan Forward, the author, digs into the things you can do to shift the patterns of your relationship with your parents. I found especially interesting the chapter describing beliefs and values and I made notes of her suggestions for non-defensive responses since I often get caught in my interactions with my toxic father. I loved the advice on developing and using a position statement, such as “I am willing to drive you to the doctor once a month.” which establishes limits at the same time it demonstrates that I am not divorcing him.

At the same time, I found Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power. In Difficult Mothers, Terri Apter describes The Angry Mother, The Controlling Mother, The Narcissistic Mother, The Envious Mother, and the Emotionally Unavailable Mother. My own mother was emotionally unavailable in her depression and I read that chapter with much interest.

There is a chapter “Am I a Difficult Mother?”, specifically for you to reflect on whether you are a Difficult Mother. Just reading about what it means to have a difficult mother helped me gain a deeper sense of the impact of my mother’s depression on my life.

If you spend time with either one of these books, you’ll cry when you read what kids live through. Or, you’ll nod in agreement because you can relate. The question in any girl or boy’s childhood is whether she or he has relationships that support the developing spirit and self-image so she or he can grow up to be a healthy adult. Are the adults raising a child burdening him or her in ways that cause the child to take on the role of caregiving or peacemaking or any number of other ways of trying to make everything better for everyone else?

I read and digested and percolated on all of this information. It was great review of the story I’m telling myself about my relationship with my mother, who isn’t living, and my father, who is.

That’s when it occurred to me that in both extended families and extended stepfamiles, we can look at the behaviors of any person and come to a greater understanding of their influence on our lives. As a stepmother, I can use the same strategies outlined by Susan Forward in Toxic Parents to establish boundaries and take a position with each member of my stepfamily.

It is quite daunting to read what some adults went through as children with angry fathers or narcissistic mothers. It’s easy to downplay the role of the neglectful father or the emotionally unavailable mother as not as damaging to a child. Clearly, that isn’t true and as adults some of us will spend the rest of our lives undoing the habits formed when we were trying to survive stressful situations we encountered in our growing up homes.

Remember my post on resisting the urge to save your stepchildren? I stand by that. This reflection on toxicity isn’t meant as a charge to go rescue someone. Instead, it’s an idea that by knowing and understanding your family situation and all its players, the ones you bring and the ones your husband brings, maybe you can update the story you tell about each of you. If nothing else, you’ll gain a fuller understanding of the life your stepkids are living. You won’t change anyone else, but you can shift how you respond so you are less reactive and more true to yourself.

I hope that’s how it can go for all of us, yesterday’s children and tomorrow’s adults.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . is not alone.

I went walking with a stepmom girlfriend very early this morning. We meet up every now and then in the dark of the morning, before dawn, and walk until the sun is coming up. Our schedules just work out that way and it’s a great way to start the day. Even when I think it’s awfully early to be up and out, by the time we’ve gone a few blocks I’m always glad I didn’t stay home.

Today, my friend’s pain and frustration with regard to her stepdaughters was bubbling over. She has tried and tried but eventually she gave up the trying. There are three more years before the girls graduate from high school. Three long years to endure indifference, insolence, sullen looks, and disrespect. Three long years to argue with the husband about what is the best way to deal with their actions.

I’m betting we’ve all been there with our teenage (and younger) stepkids, whether they are boys or girls. While my situation has softened and there is less angst among all of us, we’re not completely through that phase. And, I look back and see how far I’ve come.

First, I tried to change the situation and establish expectations. And, I tried to be good enough and creative enough to do the just-right things that would make all of us feel good and happy and all get along. Then, I found myself pouting because I was used to my efforts yielding results. In fact, while I was pouting, I think I also exclaimed how things were not fair and how painful it all was. Indeed, I was in excruciating pain, not seeing an end to the situation of being ignored, insulted, and disrepected.

Tug of war contested at the 1904 Summer Olympi...

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Then, I disengaged and explored how that worked for awhile. It was better, but I didn’t get to stay connected to my husband and sometimes he really wanted to share those kid times with me. I found that sometimes I could be there with him and sometimes I couldn’t. I chose not to whenever I knew I would be crabby. Just knowing I had a choice was a huge, huge relief.

Finally, after I had disengaged long enough, I was able to realize that I didn’t care what the kids thought of me. It was clear that their dad and I were together and they could fight the idea or accept it, as they wished. I realized that if I didn’t need to be liked, then there was less concern for me about who said what and when. And, I let go of my end of the rope even more and ended the tug-of-war.

Fortunately, when I let go of my end of the tug-of-war, life did not end. In fact, my days became amazingly calm and I went around looking over my shoulder to see what was wrong. Where was the angst? Where was the feeling of enormity? Gone, it was all gone. I had let go and I was still in the family, still in my marriage, still involved with the kids. In fact, my relationship with them began to get better when I didn’t care and try so much. Now, every time I feel conflict, I look around to see what I’m hanging on to and I let it go. I set it down and move on to the things that matter to me even more.

As I listened to my friend this morning and her story of her stepdaughters, I made sure she knew she was alone. I reassured her that her husband was doing the best he could and that she was doing the best that she could. And, I reassured her that none of it was her fault. We’ve all lived through a teen who remains loyal to their mother and won’t let themselves get close to the stepmother. And, when there is a mother who can’t let go and who can’t let the child have relationships with others, then the situation deteriorates even more. Sadly, it’s going to be a long three years for my friend.

I will keep walking with her. But, I wanted to ask a favor. If you’ve been in this situation . . . if you’ve found yourself in frustration, gritting your teeth and agonizing over no end in sight, I wonder if you would leave a message so my friend knows that she is not alone. I know she is not, but I’d love to give her a tangible way of knowing that this is what we are all going through. You see, I’m pretty sure that all over the country, women are struggling with these feelings of frustration and pain and no woman is the only one going through this time. No woman is alone.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . on belonging.

Belonging isn’t automatically granted except by birth. Even then, in some families, there’s a huge power and control dynamic that keeps some members out and others in.

Belonging is granted after a stepmother has been through the fire. After she’s dipped her hands in the molten rage of a marriage dissolved and walked on the coals of everyone’s grief and longing and leftover anger. Of course, you’d think she’d anticipate this gauntlet but that would be giving her superhuman powers. As far as I know, most stepmothers are mere mortals destined to live as the other mortals do in her extended stepfamily.

Today, I’m thinking of tribes and groups and clubs and PTAs and even gangs. Always there is a period of getting to know one another. Then there’s an initiation act, do something really huge and you’ll be accepted as part of the group. After the initiation, there will be still more observation and waiting to see if it’s really true who you are. Then, after more time goes by, you might get to a place where you realize it feels as if you’ve been in this group forever.

The point is, the process takes time. Years. Likely, it’ll take the 7-12 years that the experts suggest for a stepmother (with or without children of her own) to be integrated into her new family.

What is interesting is that the moment of awareness of that integration isn’t a victory. It isn’t about the stepmother winning and someone else losing, or even about everyone winning. It is simply another phase of the process that is just what it is, not good or bad or negative or positive.

One day you don’t belong.

Another day you do.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . digs down.

Queen's Christmas tree at Windsor Castle 1848,...

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This is the time of the year I dig down, deep. I dig down to find the bone I buried on another day when my energy and enthusiasm were over-flowing because I knew I’d need it and want it for these days around the holidays. My dogs do that. They actually bury their bones, at least on occasion. Mostly they gnash and chew and thoroughly enjoy them. But once in a while, they bury the offered bone.

Here we are on the 21st of December in my family that celebrates Christmas. My husband and I usually have three Christmas’s, this year we’ll have four. I’m not depleted right now, but I’m beginning to feel my expectation of being depleted ramping up into higher gear remembering the many ways I was depleted in the last few years.

So far, this year has been . . . not perfect, but good. Even fine on some days. So, what to do about the increasing sense that it’s all about to fall apart? The dread of some of the patterns from the past years has crept through my resolve to enjoy Christmas.

Indeed, I am enjoying Christmas this year. My husband helped me decorate and we had a great time. We used a live Douglas Fir tree we had in a pot in the yard and moved it to our porch outside the front window. We dressed it in lights and basic red ornaments. That combined with our usual icicle lights strung across the front of the house and our Boy Scout wreath, and we’re definitely in the spirit.

We used an old card tree that cards slid out of almost every time a new card was added. It’s in the shape of a tree anyway so we hung it up and draped it with ornaments. I also set up my Santa collection. Finally, there’s the slew of candles on the mantle that I light every day. All combine to leave me satisfied and contemplative about the contemplative things of the season.

Even so, the dread is mounting and it’s doing me much good to remember that I am not the only woman going through the holiday scramble. I send this shout out to all you stepmothers who’ve been reading the blog. Dig down. Not to be the perfect woman. Not to look like a Barbie for Christmas. Not to make the most perfect meal a woman ever made. Dig down for the whiff of yourself you buried on one of those last days you were sensing a surplus of you. Go find that self, that bit of you you buried. Bring it back out into the light and carry it with you, either in a locket around your neck or in your pocket like a talisman.

You can find it.

It’s there.

Dig down.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . knows the season to feeeeline. (more self-soothing)

It’s not too early to prepare yourself for the November-December embers. You know what I mean. The time of year when the expectation is for happy, merry, and thrilled-to-be-alive from all the family members. A few of them have permission to play that out a different way and others do not.

It’s a vulnerable time of year for a stepmother because she’s expected to show up and pay attention, but not too much. Pssst, it’s a vulnerable time of year for most, but not everyone is willing to admit it. It is expected that a stepmother will act happy, but not be too involved. She is expected to witness. almost like an audience member, but not show her emotions. She is not one of the family members with permission to behave other than happy, merry, and thrilled-to-be-alive.

And, there’s plenty of pain that she might feel and see. The pain around where a child is on a certain day and at certain special times. The pain of a dad not having time with his child. The pain of keeping silence because you really don’t need or want to add more pain to the child’s pain, and the child does have pain.

No matter how much a stepmother mentally or physically prepares for the non-stop six-to-eight week bandwagon that is the Thanksgiving/Winter Holiday, she needs some alternatives to the go-go-go that carries the season. It’s during this month and a half of the year that I recommend you take on the behavior of a cat.

Consider the cat. My cat has passed on, but if he was here he’d be sitting on the back of the couch looking out at the world in his calm and dignified manner. He was never overly-ruffled unless he went outside where the young cats came to challenge his authority. When he had too much of them, he’d come back inside and have a bath and a nap. For a cat, there is no humility in taking a break or retreating to regroup and rejuvenate. For a cat, this is what life is, one long nap interrupted by breaks to play and check things out.

I’m not suggesting you nap all day, but you can intersperse being ready 99% of the time to participate in family activities with a daily nap or rest time to bring yourself back to level and steady.

Depending on where you are in the process of integration into your stepfamily, you might need or want more or less of the cat experience. This doesn’t mean you can’t behave like the dog (allllwwwaaaaays ready for a walk or a fetch, see this post) and go out looking at Christmas lights and have a great time. But, if you keep connected to your cat-like needs, when you get back home it’s okay to slip away for a cup of tea. Or, you can sneak away for a scan and some time to balance your sensing, feeling, thinking, and doing (remember this post?).

Hopefully, it’s not just you who can get some cat time? Maybe your guy can also have his moment to lick his paws and take a nap in front of a football game. And you? What would give you that feeling of sitting on the back of the sofa basking in the sun with a regal countenance? When you know what it is, you’ll have yet another tool for your self-soothing process.


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.

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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A Healthy Stepmother . . . runs out of self-soothing steam. (Self-Soothing series, 4 of 10)

Note: Yes, you read the headline correctly . . . runs out of self-soothing steam. What if we don’t strive for perfection, what if we strive for health.

Recently, things have steamed up around my house and I got lost in one of those not-so-self-soothing loops. You know the kind. You’re doing everything you can to calm, restore, and keep your equilibrium. To no avail.

It wasn’t the no-reply to my text. It wasn’t the one more favor, pretty please. It wasn’t the lack of contribution to our home. Nope. We’ve been dealing with the stuff that takes your breath away and I can’t write it here because I said this isn’t blog about my family.

I’ve soothed for weeks now. Weeks. And quite successfully. Glad I haven’t been angry or self-righteous all these weeks, I’d be a wreck if I had been. Nope, I’ve acted very clear-headed and I’m satisfied that I’ve supported my husband in the way he needed, supported myself in the way I could, felt supported by him and I wouldn’t change any of it.

Today, I woke up and it was a different story. It might be that my self-soothing skills were shattered by the incessant noise of over-the-top fireworks. We haven’t had peace for 3 days and my system is overloaded. And, in addition to all the noise, it’s been difficult over the last few days to find alone time.

I headed into this holiday weekend with depleted self-soothing abilities after all the really big stuff. So, on Friday, the no reply to my text was the proverbial last straw.

I’m pretty sure that since nothing about our human experience is constant, then neither is our ability to remain calm, cool, and soothed. Thus, I’ll be kind to myself and accept that my crabbiness today isn’t a constant either. It is a temporary condition, one that will pass.

Ironically, I meant to write a funny blog post today. One that would give all stepmothers something to chuckle about. Sadly, I’ve come up empty-handed.

I’m content to remind myself that the self-soothing resource that I’ve cultivated these last months and years is strong. Just because it’s depleted today doesn’t mean it will be tomorrow. I’ll get some good sleep, eat my vegetables, and work on nurturing myself. Most importantly, I won’t apologize for my irritability. Irritability is what happens when nerves fray, tensions mount, and resources dry up. Irritability happens.

I’ll be back on the self-soothing bandwagon again soon enough! Now, it’s back to the basics……. find some space to recharge.

P.S. Between when I wrote this post and when I’m putting it up here on the blog, my husband and I had one of the best conversations of our marriage. We’re right on track, together, and it feels like my self-soothing tank is getting close to full again. Who knew this is where we’d end up and I’m sure we wouldn’t have stumbled on this particular version of the conversation if it hadn’t been for my state of mind today. Self-soothing depletes. Irritability happens. Self-soothing returns. Sort of like a tide.