Maybe you’re like me and you grew up knowing how to make things happen. You learned to watch and listen and pay attention to the nuance. Then you used the info you had gathered to plan and carry out a strategy to solve the problem or create something new. As far as I can tell, most of us learned this detailed way of noticing, planning, and fixing.
You grew up and went on about your life. Maybe you got married and had kids or didn’t have kids. You divorced. Then met the man you’re with now. You married and anticipated using your well-honed skills of making things happen.
Instead, suddenly the world went sideways.
As if someone waved a magic wand, all the world stopped moving in the direction you were going and began moving in almost exactly the opposite direction. Your strategies didn’t work and you flailed and struggled and tried harder and the world kept moving past you as if you weren’t there.
You watched in disbelief, then in anger, then with sarcasm and tears.
The world kept moving as if you weren’t there.
Finally, you stopped. You waited. You sat down and contemplated whether you could really do this. Maybe this remarriage-with-kids thing was too much. Maybe you shouldn’t have said I do. Maybe you should have known what you were getting into. Maybe this was really all your fault.
I think it’s in that moment, when you stop and reassess, that you actually begin a process that will create a place for you in your new family. That moment comes after you’ve caught your breath and can see that it isn’t your place to make life good for everyone; husband, kids, or kids’ mother. That moment comes when you live and act as though it isn’t your job to try so hard even though you’ve been trying really, really hard. The moment comes when you forgive yourself for trying so hard and accept that it was what you learned as a kid. You more fully understand that the acceptance you gained as a teen and young woman for being so good actually cemented the trying so hard as a strategy you would later need to let soften.
In that stop, wait, and breathe moment, that is when you can let things unravel. You can let your fingers sift the problems, so you can tell which ones are actually problems. You can let your thoughts swirl and swirl and finally come to rest and those that refuse to rest, well, they should likely be dealt with. You can let your spirit be assured that you are good enough just as you are. You can listen and feel for your physical self to find a resting place.
Finally, when all systems calm and come to a rest, make a note for yourself that this is your starting place. This is home base. This is the return from outer space place that waits for you when all hell breaks loose.
You can move out from that place deep inside you and offer what you will, but monitor carefully so you never give more than you hold and never more than you have.
When you get to the stop, wait, breathe moment, you’ll be ready for the letting go and the accepting what is, including the slow pace of finding your place. You can then look at your life and realize that you do have skills to bring to these relationships and that to support those skills you must learn to give your life time and do even less, more gently, and with softness.
A softening, an expanding, a feeling of rushing around my heart. It was unexpected and I waited, as if to see if it would last. When it did, I looked around as if to see if others could see what I had just felt. How could they? It was a feeling not an action.
I’m talking about tenderness.
I’m pretty sure others can’t see tenderness when I feel it, or know that I feel that way in a particular moment, but maybe they can. Maybe my face softens too and my eyes expand to take in more of what is around me. I feel that way with friends that I care about a lot. I feel tender toward them and would never do things to rough them up or make them work at being my friend. That’s not to say I walk on eggshells, I’m not an eggshell walker kind of person.
My suspicion is that many stepmothers feel tenderness toward their stepchildren. Maybe there are times when they aren’t aware that is what they are feeling.
Tenderness in a stepfamily can be so easy to miss. There can be conflict on the adult level from home to home. There can be concern over reuniting each time the child leaves and comes back. Sometimes the reuniting is tumultuous and angst laden, often in the first hours it’s like welcoming a person from another planet.
Tenderness in a stepfamily can be covered over by busyness and competition and fatigue and ten other things that crowd out noticing feelings. There is homework to be done, kids to feed, beds to be made, dogs to be walked, and another full day of it tomorrow. When is there time to notice tenderness?
If you asked me, I’d have to say that in the days when I walked around with hurt and righteousness and urgency in my steps, I wouldn’t have noticed tenderness. These last few years of writing the blog and studying what I’m talking about with you and focusing on calming and soothing my hurts have given me a new level of awareness that has made space for me to notice the tenderness.
I love it that I can see tenderness and that I can notice it in myself for each of my husband’s children from time to time. That I feel tenderness today is no promise that I’ll feel it tomorrow, nor is my feeling tenderness an expectation of how they should treat me.
These days, I find myself fuller with tenderness. It’s as if the tenderness I used to carry around, that was part of me as a child, has come back.
I like it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.