A Healthy Stepmother . . . Makes a Place for Grief

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Makes a Place for Grief

Recently, several people close to me died and two more face their end. When I told a friend the most recent news, she handed me a book, Die Wise, by Stephen Jenkinson. I became so engrossed in the book, I was like my dog with a bone.

In Die Wise, I read. Grief is a way of loving what has slipped from view. And, I thought of the many things that slip out of view in this life that have nothing to do with someone dying. Divorce and remarriage came to mind.

Then I wondered whether it would be possible to strengthen a remarriage by including the grief caused by the death of the divorced family and the child’s access to both parents.

I once led group gatherings I called Walking Your Grief. I asked each person to write a word on a card to name their grief. We tacked the cards on the front wall of the room where they stayed for the rest of the gathering, a silent witness to the connection to the ancestor, the four-legged companion, or the earth. Most left the gathering grateful for the forum to grieve their loved one.

Imagine with me, a grieving wall in the family home, especially in those early years of a remarriage? The children could walk by and see a photo or a word they themselves had placed there, each time an opportunity to speak or reflect silently. Imagine how things might be different if expressions of grief were welcomed in your family? Imagine these expressions of grief as ways of showing love? img_5902

What I was reminded of in Die Wise is that we don’t have to lose those we love, whether from death or from divorce. When someone dies, we simply keep them close. I keep my grandmother alive by making her version of a flourless fruitcake, a recipe my entire family swoons over. We serve our meals on my stepmother’s mother’s dining table, carried all the way from Minnesota.

I keep the paint-splattered stepstool that my grandfather used at his workbench close at hand, another talisman of my mother’s parents. I also love the wooden bench I scavenged from my father’s house following his stroke. Once Dad and I sat in the sun on my back porch. He spied one of the benches and shook his head. “Why do you have that junky old bench?” I grinned. “Because I like it, Dad.”

I imagine stepchildren grieving and trying against almost all the odds to keep the absent parent close to their heart. Often we expect them to rewrite their childhood in their mind and heart and see their other parent as we, the adults, see them. I don’t think they can. 

You say, it’s been three years since the divorce, it’s time to move on. You say you are not the one causing the problem.

I say, three years is nothing. They will love and grieve both parents for the rest of their lives, almost without exception. If they are not allowing one parent into their heart, you can be sure the love of the other parent is stunted as well.

cropped-hands_with_candles-t2.jpgI thought of building a grieving wall in our home, something more than the photos and images we have of them. The closest I came was one Thanksgiving after we’d been remarried for six years or more. The kids were with us and their mom was out of town. I knew thoughts of her weighed on their minds and I was thinking of my family, particularly my own mother. I brought the candle holder out of the cupboard and loaded it up. I invited them to take turns with me and name someone they held in their thoughts as they lit a candle. By the time we lit the ninth candle, we could have lit nine more.

All of which leads me to a few thoughts . . .

  • We can be courageous when we focus on respect toward the missed parent. We do it for the child’s heart. For the child’s future. We do it for our own heart.
  • We can be courageous when we make space for the child’s grieving process which might well last a lifetime. Perhaps we even grieve with them.
  • We can be courageous when we make a place for anchors and memories of the child’s former life.
  • We can be courageous when we focus on filling our hearts, including grieving our own loves.

It’s not necessary to grade ourselves on how courageous we are. We don’t need to take inventory and see how many times we found ourselves closed off to grief, our own or others’. We don’t need to fill our homes with memorabilia of the other home. 

It might be more useful to take the idea of the grief into our hearts and embrace this aspect of living in a family after divorce and after remarriage. The grief won’t look happy, it won’t look cheery, it won’t look cooperative. Can that be okay?

We can be courageous when we behave as though grief is a way of loving what has slipped from view.

 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Gets Up Each Morning

Some days I wonder how we survive. Not to be melodramatic, but this business of getting up and getting kids off to school and greeting them when they come home and feeding them and educating them and getting them to the place of being able to go out into the world on their own in this day and age, this is emotionally challenging at best.

When this scenario plays out in a stepfamily, it’s nothing short of a miracle.

I wonder how fathers go to bed at night without an aching heart, I wonder how they hold an arm around the one who isn’t the mother of the children, seeing her pain and feeling her pain.

I can guess many a father would like to escape memories of the argument with the children’s mother. I know many a father who pushes those emotions down day after day to deal with Little League and driving lessons. I know many a father who is there, who shows up no matter what the children need.

I’ve heard from women who marry men with children with full knowledge remarriage is difficult at best. These same prepared, successful women are then knocked to their knees by the tidal wave of unbelonging. The wave is so high and so powerful, few stepmothers escape it regardless of background and family history. It’s a wonder more don’t run, it’s a wonder so many stay. Many a stepmother’s courage should be the subject of legend. 

Maybe you’re like me and you’ve spent many hours considering what it takes to be in this remarriage stewpot? You’ve wondered just what could be done to improve the situation because you intuitively know if the situation were better for fathers and stepmothers the situation would be better for the children and likely even the children’s mother. You’ve marveled at the strength of those who only have one strategy, the strategy of pushing out and pushing away.

Those stepmothers who stay in their remarriages have found a way to keep living in their skin, a way to stay rooted to their own experience and not be sucked into another person’s view of them. They have developed an ability to let things bounce off and fall away. They stay deeply connected to their resilience, that ability to not be sunk by any one event or even a whole bunch of events. They know how to stay afloat.

Ask a stepmother what she’s doing. Keeping the faith, or trying to do so. Focusing on her relationship with her partner/husband, or intending to do so. Feeling like a good person but not so much she feels like a slave, or hoping to do so. Because several things are true, she is not the mother. She is not responsible to replace the mother especially since the mother is likely alive and well. Even if she is the custodial stepmother, the marriage will be more successful if she isn’t automatically conscripted for a certain role in the child’s life. She should discuss this in-depth with her beloved and ease her way in rather than get sucked underwater. She knows that and sometimes she lets it slide when they don’t get around to the conversation. She might regret it later and even blame him for not taking the initiative.

She gets up and tries her best. Sometimes her best is too much and she can’t know that until it’s too late. Sometimes she gives and gives and leaves herself open. Sometimes she goes out on that limb and ends up falling or being pushed off.

Often she regrets giving too much.

Often she is exhausted. Often she can see her husband is exhausted.

Some days she wonders how she survives.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Wonders Where You’ll Be

After the early years in my marriage, there came a time I realized I wasn’t alone as a stepmother. The realization came long after I began my blog, long after I knew dozens of stepmothers.

It seems common that we cling to the idea that everyone else is doing better at this stepmother thing than we are. We’re pretty sure we’re right. 

But, there are so many of us out here, getting up each day and making the best of life. There are now more remarried couples than first-time couples, which means more stepfamilies than first-time families. Who knew?

On this day of gathering with family, this day of high expectations, I wonder where you are. 

Will you be in your home, preparing a meal for your family and some of your extended stepfamily? 

Will there be people who sit around your table with resentment or will they participate with respect and appreciation for your efforts?

Will you feel welcomed in your own home, or will snubs and rejections, so subtle they’d be denied if ever called out, haunt you throughout the day and for weeks to come?

Will you feel pressure, even heaping it on yourself, to make sure everyone has a nice time, as if you had the power to ensure anyone had a good time other than yourself

Will you forget these are your husband’s children and spend your precious resources making up for things that happened to them in the past or try to be the perfect wife and compensate for your husband’s negative experiences? 

Will you be going to your in-laws for the big meal or another home where you are welcomed? Or, will you be spending time in a hostile place you’ve never felt welcome?

Will you try to grin and bear it as you’ve done on so many occasions, only to end up crying alone in the bathroom, or later after you’re home and the dark of night covers the tracks of tears on your pillow. 

  Will your husband have the just-right thing to say to help you feel okay, or will he be drowning in his own unrealistic expectations for the day and snap at you when you need comfort? Will you be able to separate from the worn out narrative that says really good people have a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving and feel bad because you know your family will never measure up and it’s all your fault? 

Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, however you are spending the day, including if it’s home alone and you’ve had an enormous fight with your beloved, may you dig down in the treasure chest of reality and community and realize . . . you are not alone. You do not have to be perfect. You do not have to make the day perfect for anyone else. Your food has to satisfy only those who enjoy it. Your humor has to be good enough for those who understand it. And your presence has to comfort only you. 

I hope you go easy on yourself. Help when it makes sense and go sit down when it seems called for, and sitting down will be called for far more than you think. 

Go easy on your husband. He might have a bad day with or without you by his side. He might be tired enough or worried enough or unskilled at navigating relationships enough to truly be beside himself on these high-expectation moments. 

Your job is not to save him, or to question whether you are necessary in his life. Your job is to support yourself so you are steady enough to tolerate the rough day ahead. When you stay steady in yourself, you are available to both yourself and him. That is what it means to stand beside someone. I’ll write more about that standing beside him business another time. 

For now, you take care of you. Ask before you help him, does he want help. And breathe. Who cares if it turns out perfectly?

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . knows when she’s done.

Adapted from a post February 22, 2012

There comes a moment after you’ve been struggling with a person for a long time, often years, when you know you are simply done. Maybe you reach done because the internal storm can only keep it’s energy for so long. Maybe the done moment occurs because you get bored and interested in other things. Or, maybe you become done with the difficult person because you realize that you’ll never connect in the way you’d really like to connect and you’re wasting your breath.

Before we get to the point we admit to being done, we can often come close to erasing ourselves. It’s as if we get caught up in clutching and trying and we can’t let go even if we wanted. While it’s our human spirit to keep trying and keep hoping that things will be different tomorrow, tomorrow never comes and we wake up worn out and exhausted.

Let’s take my dad and I. One day, a conversation with him started the same way it often did, with the same dance . . . he made a comment in a certain tone. I shrugged my shoulders with a certain eye roll. Then, he huffed back with a snotty remark. But, that time rather than protest again or try to reason with him I simply got up from the table with my cup of tea and moved to a nearby chair in the living room. He knew he’d lost me and he said, “Since we’re done here, I might as well leave.” And he did just that. He left.

After he left, I sat and watched the rain fall onto already over-saturated earth. I was done trying to make things okay for him. Or, for me. I wasn’t done with him. I was done with trying.

I HEART Cappuccino

I HEART Cappuccino

That day with my dad opened my awareness of the alternatives to suffering silently or forging onward even after knowing I’m done. It’s not that different than Sleeping Beauty after the apple fell out of her mouth. She came to and looked around and said, “Oh no, what the heck happened.” I felt that way with my dad, as if I’d awakened after a long sleep and realized I’d been waiting for something to happen, but nothing ever did. And, maybe it couldn’t. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I couldn’t keep sitting there. So, I moved over to another chair. Then, things shifted.

[  space to breathe and contemplate  ]

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[  more space to breathe and contemplate  ]

For the record, my dad and my stepkids are important to me. I promise myself when it comes to my stepkids I’ll behave in ways that feel respectful of me and of them, in ways that add to our future and don’t trap either of us in old assumed patterns. The same with my dad. When he came to visit again, I managed to not fall back into my old patterns.

For so many years, I thought being done meant leaving and erasing someone or a relationship from my life. It’s been since becoming a stepmother, I’ve realized I could be done and stay.

There’s more to this being done business than meets the eye. Enhanced by Zemanta

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the Eyes of Witness

Some days you wake up and the topic you wanted to explore takes too many words to describe. On those days, you just let your fingers fly and silence your thoughts. Whatever comes of it, well, it is what it is.

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EYES

by Kim Cottrell, 2014

Deep pools opening into a soul
Widening in surprise
Narrowing in concentration
Darkening in love or in heart-to-heart moments
Oh, the freedom in connecting with the eyes
Between those who share trust
Building understanding and shared commitment.

Not so with those who guards their eyes
Who horde their most casual gaze
Defining the boundaries of this and that
Withholding and averting eyes
Safety in hiding, subtly excluding
No you can’t see into me
No you can’t have that piece of me
That soul that resides in me is for this other person
This other person that I love more
Skillfully maneuvered, masterfully executed
Averted gaze becomes the castle wall.

Sadly, the walled off soul ends up walled off from self
Never knowing the freedom
Of expansive spirit and connected gazes
When many eyes, familiar and unfamiliar
Eyes of worry, eyes of care
Meet and become personal, become known.

Exactly the reason to avert eyes, avoiding
Not looking means never having to consider another.

Thus, if you seek adventure
Take your curious eyes with you
Seek out the eyes looking back
The eyes willing to be seen
Eyes willing to share
Open your eyes to these
And feel the door opening into the next room.

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And, this must be why we love our dogs and cats. They walk right up to us and look at us, full on into our eyes, down into those places we don’t even want to admit. We might shake ourselves, but we let them look in there.

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A Healthy Stepmother and the Eyes of Witness

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On Sunday, my husband and I took my dad to have a sandwich at the tiny pub down the road. We were eating when two women walked in and began sharing a few tribulations with the bartender.

Not meaning to eavesdrop, I couldn’t help but overhear the bartender say that the single, most difficult thing she’s ever done in her life was be a stepmother. It took me less than two seconds to blurt out a Hear Ye! I found so much angst in stepmothering I had to blog about it. We connected for a few minutes before the conversation turned to other things.

What about that instant recognition? We’re so relieved to meet another who’s been through the fire. In the moment of saying Hear Ye, I witnessed for those women and they didn’t need to say a word, nor did I. We simply looked into one another’s eyes, and we knew.

When I helped my dad get in the car, the three women waved at me and nodded goodbye. Maybe it’s like my brother and his Harley friends. Or, my husband camping with his Westfalia van friends. Once you’ve walked a path others have walked, you’re in, few questions asked.

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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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