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 . . . Lives Life on the Edge

Remember a time in your life when you made your own decisions? Remember having your decisions respected by others? Remember when another’s behavior didn’t impact your life quite as significantly as it does now? And, remember when you were in charge of what happened in your home? You know, the days before your marriage. 

That time before your marriage was a time you lived with a leadership role in your own life. Then, you said I do and just-like-that the roles and the rules changed. You went to sleep one day in charge of what happened to you and woke the next day with three or four or five other somebodies figuring into the equation of how your time was spent, including whether you lived under the same roof with someone who resented your presence. 

Recent events in my family of origin have left me questioning my roles within any group. As a kid, my place was always in the middle, trying to make everything okay for everyone. I was the Omega in the pack of siblings, with the others heaping on huge helpings of teasing or criticism or opinion. But lately, I’ve discovered another place to live. I’ve found a place on the edge where I’m not leading the decision-making, but am remaining true to myself. I’m no longer automatically caretaking others, but remaining engaged by observing, listening, and supporting when asked to help.  

Scenes of urban life in Byzantium. Left illumi...

Scenes of urban life in Byzantium. Left illumination is a scene of marriage. The right illumination depicts a conversation among family members. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I first learned this living on the edge business from adjusting my role within my stepfamily. When I let go of insisting on inclusion in certain conversations, I immediately relaxed. When I let go of thinking I needed to be involved in every event, there was time for my other interests, which fed my spirit and washed away the resentment and the feeling of being out of control. 

At first, the edge of the circle seemed like a precarious place, precisely because it wasn’t familiar. The edge of the circle held new variables and new perspectives. Being on the edge involved not being in the know about every little thing. It involved letting go of the planning and processing or mediating between the other parties. Over time, I became more comfortable in my lawn chair on the edge of the circle and participated from that place. In many ways, it was a relief, since I was no more waiting on everyone like a garden party hostess.  

It’s worth remembering, no one in a family is ever truly outside the group. Even in estranged families, where someone is excluded, or shunned and sent away, the place that person took up is still there, waiting to be reclaimed.  

In the same way, a stepmother is never outside the group but she can think she is. When her familiar roles aren’t available and others don’t make space for her, she can feel like an alien. In those moments, she has a few options. She can run another out of the position she thinks she belongs in, she can win others over and gain her position back, or she can adapt and realize that most stepmothers wear more than one hat anyway. 

A healthy stepmother is resilient. She is an expert at finding second, third, and fourth choices in sticky situations. She might take things personally in the early years of her marriage, but she quickly develops a new perspective that allows her to begin practicing all the roles a stepmother can take in the extended stepfamily. And, over time, she understands, it truly isn’t about her. 

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10 Essentials* for A Healthy Stepmother

Updated from December 16, 2009.

Regardless of whether you’re preparing for your first trip into the Stepmother Wilderness or you’ve been there before, you need some essentials. Being a stepmother is a process: first, you learn the basics, then you gain skill and strength for longer trips, and finally, you become an experienced stepmother, expert in handling emergencies and traumas along the wilderness trail.

Ideally,  we would be oriented to venturing into the wilderness, but honestly, life often thrusts us full-on into the long-distance hike with little to sustain us except our love for the man to whom we said “I do.” Thus, whether you are an experienced stepmother or recently married, living with someone, or contemplating marriage, you can benefit from the 10 Essentials.

1. Navigation (map and compass)

Do not leave home without a map of your direction and a compass to track your coordinates. Time and again, stepmothers get stranded, lost and confused, dehydrated, or overexposed to freezing temperatures that caught them unprepared. Had they known where they were going and which path to take, they might have returned to safety quickly and without much ado.

Take out your compass, get your map . . . plot your course. Make plans with your husband so you know you’re both on the same trail and where you’ll meet up each night if you get separated. If you get mad and stomp off, not letting him know where you’re going, you’ll have a long wait before you are found.

2. Sun protection

Prevention is the first step in protection. Rub a thin, invisible layer of sunscreen on one’s skin to keep the invisible rays from harming the skin, especially during times of long exposure. Once there’s been too much exposure, it’s difficult to do anything other than wait until the burn has healed. In our stepmother lives, the sunscreen of choice is the detachment many experts suggest. Detachment helps many stepmothers do less and avoid over-exposure, fatigue, and burning. Note: detachment is best used when needed and then shelved for times when the flow of connection feels mutual and comfortable. 

3. Insulation (extra clothing)

Take insulation no matter where and what season you venture out. Insulation could be a warm layer, a dry layer, or a wicking layer. At the very least, a layer next to the skin to reduce chafing. With the right layering, you can go out in almost any weather.

Early in our marriage, my husband advised me to use insulation . . . don’t leave yourself vulnerable . . . and, be sure to take care of yourself. My enthusiastic, brave front did little insulate me from the grief that naturally occurred when he and I got married and my feelings ended up trampled and bruised. He knew how to move among those family dynamics, but my anxiety-motivated efforts to join in took me feet first, with no insulation to protect me from the cold.

4. Illumination (flashlight/headlamp)

If you can’t see where you’re going, you can’t get where you want to go. So, take a flashlight. If the weather changes for the worst and you’re stranded, you might need to signal for rescue. You might need a light to find your way back to your campsite. 

And, consider a headlamp. They leave your hands free, giving you flexibility and light where you need it. Sometimes you need that focused light to shine on a problem, so you can find a solution. Knowing when to use the light comes with experience and a healthy stepmother knows when to not shine the light.

5. First-aid supplies

When you get hurt, you need help. Your stepmother first-aid kit should include a range of supplies, everything from taking a nap to going on a beach retreat with stepmother girlfriends. It should also include a stepmother support group, formal or informal, and the name of a good therapist, if you don’t already have one. In addition, learning to stand in your own skin, to show up fully and not vacate the premises, is one of the most effective first-aid supplies to carry in your kit.  

10 Essentials for A Healthy StepmotherYou should build up a strong kit of options for nurturing yourself over the long haul. Even when stepkids don’t mean to brush you aside, they do. Even when they want to like you, their mother stands between them and you and she may or may not let them have the freedom to approach you with an open heart. In those cases, get out the first aid kit. Patch up the cuts, blisters, and bruises and move on. Unless you have a broken bone or need bed rest, there is a lot that a good long walk with the dogs will do for you.

6. Fire

The fire you take into the stepmother wilderness fuels your creativity, shores up your spirit, and solidifies the love you share with your husband. Without that fire, the stepmother wilderness gets dark, cold, and more than a little scary. You need fire as a vital aspect of your relationship with your husband so that you can continue to build up your history of successful interactions, memories, and stories. The fire protects you from the challenges to your union you’re sure to encounter. You are building a house of connectedness and the fire is a central element to withstand the test of time.

7. Repair kit and tools

Taking care of oneself outdoors means that sometimes you have to dig a hole to properly dispose of the waste. Sometimes you have to chop wood or haul water or build a temporary shelter. Gather up your personal stepmother repair kit and be sure to include the following items . . . you should have a cozy blanket to wrap up in when you need some nurturing, a room to escape to where you can shut the door and have some alone time, a computer so you can go online and chat with other stepmothers even in the wee hours of the night, and a Mardi Gras mask to wear when your own smile just won’t do. A pedicure, or maybe even a new hairstyle, might qualify as a repair kit, but it’s a great idea to have a few tools that don’t require going and doing. Sometimes you need repairs in the here and now and can’t get away from your obligations.

Read. You’ll soon find out that you are not alone and many others share the same concerns. There is a growing supply of books that give ideas for how to approach the stepmother role and it’s no secret that there are many different philosophies growing out there. Hands down, the best overview of stepmothering lies in the pages of Stepmonster, by Wednesday Martin. Get a copy. 

8. Nutrition (extra food)

Meals are a vulnerable time for a stepmother because everyone sits face-to-face, struggling with what to say or do. One strategy to nourish your self is to let your husband cook meals for his children. This takes you out of being judged for what you cook or don’t cook and whether they like it or don’t like it. If you are the custodial stepmother, let the kids sign up for a night to fix the family meal. Independently, if they are old enough, or in teams with a parent if they are too young. Let them be in charge of food choices, preparation, and clean-up. Let them offer nourishment to others.

Nutrition also comes in the form of you and your husband getting time alone and you taking time with close friends and your own family. This could be the most neglected aspect of being a stepmother, often because stepmothers carry guilt about not being present for every moment. Special Note: Dig a hole and bury the guilt right beside the waste. Then, without further ado, resume your life.

9. Hydration (extra water)

Water, coffee, tea, juice, or cocktails. Any experienced stepmother-hiker knows that she needs to choose carefully how she hydrates. Essential is remaining hydrated, whether the conditions are warm or cold. Take enough water and take electrolytes to prevent against dehydration. 

An experienced stepmother chooses a safe and appropriate environment when occasionally letting loose with friends. She doesn’t want to end up like the guy who was drinking and after a fight with his fiancé decided to swim in the Colorado River, and drowned. To summarize: drinking and the stepmother wilderness don’t mix. Use your good navigation skills and knowledge of the terrain to plan for each day, and behave accordingly. No prudish lectures here, just common sense and good wishes for the long haul.

10. Emergency shelter

Sometimes, regardless of the abilities of an experienced wilderness stepmother, the situation can fall apart. When a sudden storm comes up, grab your emergency supplies and get busy building a shelter to wait out the storm. This might include building a barrier (real or imagined) to withstand the hurricane of feelings being hurled in your direction. Hurricanes come up during most holiday and special events for the kids, or following times of transition between homes. Stormy weather can, and will, be brought into your home without warning. Practice when the winds are less intense and soon you’ll be able to quickly assemble shelter around you so you can breathe and watch and interact, without feeling assaulted by the storm going on around you.

With these essentials in your pack and knowledge of how to use them, over time you’ll learn to use them in a preventive way. Please . . . don’t venture into the Stepmother Wilderness without your 10 Essentials.

*Adapted from the 10 Essentials, The Mountaineers, Seattle.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . plants her feet and stands tall.

The first glimmers of dread surfaced last week, dread for the holiday season which fast approaches. Maybe you’ve felt your first dread too or maybe you’re blissfully ignoring the November and December schedule that approaches like a tsunami off the doorstep of your stepfamily home. Or, maybe you’ve long since moved past the difficulties of the holiday season and enjoy a family home filled with peace and connection.

If that latter situation belongs to you, I jump for joy with you. Hooray, that means there’s hope for the rest of us.

For the rest of us, I’ve long thought we could use our posture and the taking up of space, internal space as well as external space, to be more comfortable in difficult situations. That message has come up for me repeatedly in these last few days.

I wrote a blog post for Wednesday Martin, Stepmonster, Standing Tall in June of 2010. And, for years I’ve taught workshops on Living Inside Your Skin. This fall, I’m taking an ecourse with Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, in which she also urges we find ways to live from inside ourselves.

Then, just yesterday, a friend serendipitously mentioned this Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy, Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.

Let me just say, all of these messages have coalesced and I woke this Sunday morning knowing this idea of standing tall was meant to be my blog post here. Standing your ground, not puffing up, not caving in, is, as Brené Brown says, a useful way to go through vulnerable moments. Let’s you and I borrow it for the next few weeks and months.

Brené Brown isn’t the only one interested in how we stand in our vulnerability. Amy Cuddy talks about the Super Woman posture, feet wide, hands on hips, shoulders back. She has researched the chemical reaction inside men and women when they take up space.

I didn’t take my space in the early days with my stepfamily. I remained quiet and deferential and the kids did what any stepchild would do who isn’t comfortable with a stranger, they behaved as though I wasn’t around. I wasn’t. I was advertising I wasn’t there and didn’t want to be there. By the time I got around to telling them if they kept swearing they could go outside, I had my hands on my hips, figuratively speaking, and I began to have a presence.

Fred Courtadon portant une création de Jérémy ...

Fred Courtadon portant une création de Jérémy Beuret (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is freedom in taking up space. It’s not about bravado. It’s not about waiting until someone else is done. It’s about being awake, responsive, focused on my spouse and the connection he and I have. When I am standing tall, hands on hips, it’s easier for him to hug me. It’s easier for him to stand tall and not feel like he has to run around and protect me. The worries fall off my back because I’m not hunched. There is no broad surface of my back exposed for worries to perch and constantly nag at me. I am literally not a home to the whining and complaining and worries about life not being what it was back in the days when the parents were together.

Please do not mistake the force of my words as lack of compassion for my stepchildren or any others. Life does suck for some years after your parents divorce, sometimes for decades. At some point, every child of divorce, especially an adult child of divorce, has to decide whether to stop living in the past and live for the times that are going on now or continue to keep grievances alive at every interaction.

At some point, every stepmother has to decide whether to back away and stop trying to make up for the kids not having parents who are together. The stepmother did not cause it, unless she was dating their father before he was divorced. That’s a whole different case and I’m not talking to this stepmother. I’m talking to those of us who came along after the marriage was over, after the parents had at least moved to separate homes, and after the finances and family traditions had morphed away from keeping things the same to protect the children.

Here’s my idea:

For the month of November and December, stand in the Super Woman posture (described in full in Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk) at least once a day for 20 seconds. Maybe it’s in the morning when you get up. Maybe you need a boost because you’re about to go into a tough meeting so you escape to the restroom stall where you can have privacy to stand with hands on hips. Maybe it’s before you walk in the door of your home where the kids sprawl about wondering what is for dinner.

Every day, find a time to stand tall like Super Woman and contemplate the comfort in that posture. As Amy Cuddy says, it’s not about faking it until you make it since you aren’t striving for inauthenticity. She suggests you think of faking it until you become it and I know from my own years of studying and practicing human movement and behavior that posture strongly influences mood and comfort.

Boost the idea: (sort of like boosting your post on Facebook)

Share the idea with your stepkids. Tell them they have the power to help themselves feel more okay in unsure situations. They can learn to get the advantages that Amy Cuddy so clearly describes in her research of power and posture. Share the idea with your friends and with other stepmothers. Pass it along. Oh, and don’t forget your husband, he may need a power boost once in a while too!

This season, rather than shuttle my dread off to the side board of my mind, I’m going to embrace it and stand tall and face it. 

The holiday season? Bring it!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the shame of not being chosen for dodgeball.

Every stepmother likely relates to that feeling of not belonging in her stepfamily. For example, when children ignore her when they walk in a room and say hello to their father and she’s sitting three feet away. Or, when the mother of the children behaves as if the stepmother does not matter. Even inadvertently, when a husband forgets to tell his stepmother wife that the kids are joining them for dinner.

If you have felt these feelings, you know they sit below the surface and show themselves when the circumstances are just-so. You know they never die and you know how deep they cut, clear to the heart of what it is to be married to a man with children.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . runs out of self-soothing steam.If you missed the post about belonging, you can catch up here. This post is about how it feels to not belong.

I’ve begun to think the crux of the not-belonging in our stepfamilies is about not being picked. Think back to when you were a child and teams were being chosen for dodgeball. The memory is vivid for me. We were at the Washington Elementary School gymnasium with it’s ancient wood stage, bleachers, and oak-plank floor that is now used as a community center. It was 1968 in Oakland, Oregon, population 1002.

A class of nervous nine-year-olds stood in that gym in a line, hoping the captain of the team would choose them, hoping they were good enough to be chosen early. As child after child went to stand with the team that chose them, those few left unchosen felt an ominous cloud growing inside, bigger and bigger until it blocked out all the voices and the stares and the relief on the faces of the ones already chosen. Do you remember a time like that, when the shame felt so vulnerable-making you thought you’d crumple up right there?

Could it be that the same feelings of nervousness and dread and shame of not being chosen for the game are what a stepmother feels when she’s left out of her family?

Shame, it turns out, is universal (refer to Brené Brown posts here).

Not only that, what if this shame thing is also what results in mothers treating stepmothers poorly? It is my opinion that some mothers behave as they do because they are working hard against experiencing shame, or the possibility of even a small amount of shame. They feel vulnerable at the thought of their children liking another woman and the risk of feeling the shame of being left alone is so great they might find themselves behaving in ways they’d never have dreamed of before they got divorced. Let’s face it, who learns healthy ways of processing those feelings of 9-year-old, not-chosen shame or 13-year-old, not-asked-to-the-dance shame? I didn’t have those models when I was growing up, and according to Dr. Brown, many of us didn’t.

What if shame is what makes the pain of being excluded within our own stepfamilies so deeply felt, so palpable, and so relevant? If so, it explains why stepmothers feel as though we’ve been hurt to our core in those moments of being treated as invisible. It’s why the pain feels big enough to consume us.

Maybe you’ll protest that you have no shame. Maybe you’ll protest that the problems in the family aren’t your fault or that your stepfamily would relate better if only everyone else would see the real problems.

Maybe, but the shame of not being chosen is a universal human experience. And, according to Dr. Brown, shame is a part of all our lives, which means it exists not just in my experience as a stepmother, or yours. It also exists in most situations that humans navigate. Which means it’s happening for all of us, no one of us is the only woman having shame.

And, let’s also not forget, no one in a stepfamily equation gets to claim the high ground about shame, not mothers, not fathers, not children, or stepmothers and stepfathers. Anyone in a stepfamily can wield the I’ll ignore you card, but at the end of the day, we’re all human, we all have shame. Anyone can wield the I’m better than you card, but again, we’re all human. We all need to work with our internal committee and shame is a key player.

Even though my natural tendency is to cover up shame so no one will notice, here it is. I’m broaching this very sensitive subject, out in public. As Dr. Brown says, as soon as you can get an issue into the light of day, it gets smaller. That’s why I’m going on and on about shame. If shame is why the process of integrating into a stepfamily is so difficult, I want it to become smaller for all of us, stepmothers and mothers alike.

Maybe shame is our secret hand-shake, our path to peace.

Rather than run from our shame and treat it like something to be avoided, let’s treat it like chicken pox. We know we’re going to get it, so the sooner we get exposed and develop an immunity, the better our lives will be.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . is part of the dialogue.

Hello and happy new year! Here we are at the beginning of a new calendar year and I’m doing my usual, ignore the goal-setting and resolution-building. In fact, this article came across my desk which suggests we ought to be dreaming. I couldn’t agree more. I love a good dream, it’s what gets me up in the morning.

One of the things I used to dream about was being involved in the dialogue about kid issues in my home. If you’re a stepmother, you might join me in a good chuckle. We all start there and some women accomplish it to their satisfaction but that has not been my experience, nor the experience of many of the real-life stepmothers I know. Instead, my work has been to discover when I agree, when I can bend, and when I need to let go, as well as how to gracefully navigate between those choices without guilt and with healthy boundary setting.

Knowing it is healthy to have and use my voice, I began blogging. I fumbled and bumbled my way through the first months, finding the words to describe what I stand for in the world of stepmothering. At first, I convinced myself I wasn’t part of the ever-growing stepmother industry, because I wasn’t selling anything. Then, I was invited to do a guest post for Wednesday Martin on her Stepmonster blog.

I kept writing. I kept honing my thoughts about what we stepmothers call ourselves, about our struggles to feel okay and our recurrent pain in the face of repetitious slights, as well as our basic need to find a sense of belonging. I almost stopped blogging, thinking I had run out of material. If not for one of you readers sending an email, Kim, are you still writing this blog, I hope so, I need this, I might have stopped. Turns out, I wasn’t done.

In August, Shari Gregory, LCSW, approached me about co-leading a support group for stepmothers. Shari and I have been meeting and developing our curriculum so we can begin as soon as 8-10 stepmothers find us and interview with us. Our plan is an 8-week program on Tuesday evenings from 6:30-8:30pm. We are about halfway through our interviews and looking forward to finalizing details in the next month. If you know anyone in the Portland, Oregon area, please have them get in touch.

Because we are charging a $30 fee for each week of the group, I’m suddenly part of it, the stepmother industry. I cringe because I don’t like the thought of being part of an industry and I never liked being a market target.

And, as if co-leading a support group wasn’t enough to entrench me in the stepmother industry, I’m now working on a book. I took a class called Discover The Book You Were Meant to Write, with Jen Violi. I definitely discovered my book and I’m well on the way. I can’t say more at this point, but you know my style. It’ll still be me, with a twist and still me. But, when my book for stepmothers comes out, I’ll be even deeper into the stepmother industrial complex.

The good news in all of this industrial complexity is that I am a language geek, meaning I love words. I am fascinated with what they mean and how we behave differently when we use different words. And,

  • I am on a mission to reclaim stepmother as a positive term.
  • I’m getting active on Twitter and beginning dialogues there.
  • I’m continuing to blog and twist a few arms to stop calling names, since calling names leaves a slick, gooey, coating of slime on the person using the name. And, when we use those names online, it just leaves a trail of see, we told you so, stepmothers are only out for themselves. I think there are lots of other ways to process our pain rather than publicly. If you want more of my thoughts on how to soothe on that subject, just say so.

I’ve come to realize we stepmothers need each other and we need to blog and be visible. There are a bunch of us out here doing this in a healthy and positive way. For some ideas of what others are doing, check out artist-stepmother Kimberly Harding’s blog, journalist-stepmother Amy Young’s blog, or this anonymous blog, Stepmother Revolution.

It also makes a difference when we follow and comment on a blog, like you do here, and here’s why. If we are going to change the dialogue about stepmothers in the culture, we need people to see and read the day-to-day introspective, respectful, and compassionate words of stepmothers like you. By commenting, you are helping build evidence to show that stepmothers are not conniving, selfish, or unloving women (or, insert any other negative word applied to stepmothers). You will be contributing to a growing trend that will show sociologists and folks like the Wednesday Martins-of-the-future that there was a shift in the stepmother psyche in the early 21st century.

And, this is why I’m going to keep walking forward into the stepmother industry

  • to remain part of the dialogue
  • to contribute in constructive and meaningful ways
  • and most of all, to make sure we leave evidence so it will be said we weren’t looking for a place to scream about the mother of our stepchildren, we were looking for peace and inclusion.

My best to you for 2013.

Dream big.

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I so appreciate you leaving your thoughts here, and by doing so, helping build the conversation. A few of you have noted that your comments show up on a Google search. That’s true, but you can preserve your anonymity by using your first name only. Another idea is to go by Jane Doe or some other name. You don’t need a separate email account to do that, simply fill in whatever name you want to use in the comment form. Your email must be real, but no one sees your email except me and I don’t share it with anyone.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the holy grail of success.

I saw an article the other day on how to be a successful stepmother. I nearly spit out my coffee. Success? How about keeping good manners and being respectful. Is that what they meant by success? How about loving your husband when you want to slug him because he doesn’t get why you feel left out in a particular family situation? Is that what is meant by success?

Nope. The article was about the things a stepmother could do to make the family better, good, healthy. As if the stepmother has that power dripping from her every word and move.

After I got done brewing and stewing about the meaning of success and the pressure it puts on any person, mothers, fathers, stepmothers, I decided to break in on my weekly blog routine and write this post.

I want us to stop killing stepmothers. We need to find ways to support them, in the same way we support mothers. Why? Super simple, stepmothers are part of the current family structure in our United States. Stepmothers are here to stay, growing in numbers every month, every year, and every decade. To not support stepmothers, or anyone else in a family, is to not support the family. As if to say, it doesn’t matter if the trauma continues.

We know that if our water quality is good enough the fish can survive. We know that if the air quality is good enough the birds can survive. We also know if our stepfamily community is strong enough the stepmother has a better chance of being healthy.

Healthy is different from successful. Healthy is free from anxiety or depression and other medical conditions. Wednesday Martin reports in Stepmonster that stepmothers are twice as likely as mothers to have depression. If the general population has a 20% incidence of anxiety and depression (according to the Centers for Disease & Prevention), yikes!

So, it’s frustrating to me to read headlines like Top 10 Tips to Become a Successful Stepmother. I just made that one up, but there are plenty like it.

What is success? Success for a woman? Success for a stepmother? Success for a stepfamily? And is the stepmother responsible for the success of the stepfamily?

What if success is getting up in the morning? Putting the milk and oatmeal on the table? Contributing to the group effort such as driving the kids to and from events? Partnering with the hubs to create a positive environment in the home regardless of whether the kids spend more than a couple of hours a week.

Success might be a measure of whether the marriage stays a marriage. And then, is that the stepmother’s responsibility? By herself? Where are the articles to the fathers, Top Ten Tips to Keep Your Spouse Engaged When Your Children Aren’t Hers. Or, 5 Reasons It Takes A Village To Support a Stepmother. And for the rest of the family and extended family, Three Ways to Support a Mother by Supporting a Stepmother.

See, this is the dirty secret . . . we, as a culture, have given permission for every divorced couple to take all of the grief and sorrow and strife and unresolved angst that follows divorce and ball it up into a giant overly-sodden spitball, so large it would sink a battleship, and lay it at the feet of the stepmother and say, okay honey, now climb on over that. If she can and if she does, and if she gets to the other side and her hairdo and makeup are intact and her clothes neatly pressed enough that she could be on the cover of a magazine, well then, we miiiiiiight consider including her in the club called family.

Everyone knows that spitballs won’t hold her weight. Everyone knows that each step she takes is to sink into a pit of nothing, almost like quicksand. Everyone knows the gauntlet laid out for her is impossible to complete and she’s going to be haggard, irritable, and anti-social by the time she’s done. It’s pretty likely she can’t accomplish the task and that’s precisely why it’s been given to her. So, can you see how asking about success is a set-up?

Rather than worrying about being successful, let alone a successful stepmother, I hope a woman will be engaged enough to find ways to be content within herself and connected to her husband. I hope she will be healthy enough to take care of her emotional pain in ways that calm her heart and don’t over-burden the relationship. I hope she will be open enough to confess her pain in a way that allows her husband to witness, but not have to rush in the knight-in-shining-armor behavior.

I hope she finds her verve and her passion for life.

And, the measure of her life? That will come later, much later, after the kids have grown and gone and are living lives they’ve created for themselves and she and her husband have long become content with sitting side by side, just the two of them. In those moments when she’s looking at the man she chose over and over, the one she shared years of tears, joys, and adventures with, she’ll have the opportunity to gauge the satisfaction in her heart and decide how her life has ripened. Even then, it’s not about others telling her whether she was a success and it’s not about her winning.

It’s about having been there, and she was there.

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