A Healthy Stepmother . . . Holds Onto a Smoldering Gaze

My imagining of what it might be like to be the husband
of a stepmother. And, my dream of what each of
you finds at the end of your day. 

So many other days, he pushed and pulled and made things happen. They seemed like big things. He thought they were, but were they? Did they mean enough, matter enough, enough to match their sacrifice? Was it now that the sacrifice would be repaid, these days between the visits, these moments when there was stillness and his children needed him less?

He drove out of the airport parking garage and turned back toward home, feeling his contentment about letting them go. He remembered his own launch into the world and the feeling of support mingled with freedom and respect. He expected his kids to be okay, to make decisions and find their way. He readily gave them the same respect and freedom he had had, even as he recalled the time one of them needed his help and came back home. Things improved for a time and then fell apart again, and he mourned the pain and strain for them all.

Those days were all behind them now. The kids were strong and moving forward. He was lucky to be through it and find her still with him. She hadn’t run, though he could tell she had wanted to get the hell out and go someplace she was more welcome, at least a time or two. God, he wished he could give her that, a world where she was wanted. He could only do the wanting for himself and he wasn’t sure if one person made a world.

He pulled onto the parkway and shook his head. He couldn’t lie to himself though he’d be hard-pressed to admit it to her. On the days she was in pain and turned away from him in tears, he felt shame that he couldn’t protect her. After a couple of years, the shame morphed into regret and eventually it all seemed too much to watch. He found himself wishing she could ignore the way she was treated, even though he knew how unrealistic a wish that was.

FullSizeRender-5What made it so hard for her was her sensitivity and ability to read a situation, the same things he loved about her. He loved her wide open heart and he longed to build her a door she could close when others came into her nest and left behind their messes. It would be an ornate door, thick with curves, to match her physicality and complexity and all the things he loved about her.

He sighed as he passed the restaurant where they’d been a few times early in their courtship. If only he could protect her, take her pain away, shield her from the slinging tongues and tart retorts.

On some rare days, when she grew tired of closing herself off or forgot to contain herself, she moved freely among them and he loved to watch her then. On those days, she was her incredible, exactly-her self. On those days, his heart lifted at her courage and persistence and willingness to try it all again.

He smiled as he pulled in the driveway and turned off the car. He knew she was waiting and would greet him at the door. He knew he’d ignore her worried face and sweep her into his embrace.

And, it happened just the way he knew it would.

She flung open the door and buried her face in his neck. He whispered, “Now it’s just you and me.” He squeezed her close and she hugged him back, holding and swaying until their breaths became even and symmetrical.

They stood there, in the entry of their home, with the dog barking in circles of exclamations until he finally came to a sit at their feet. The greeting ritual worked like a magic, smoothing over hurts from the sideways looks and avoided glances. Like a soul salve, the hugging breath eased the pain and lowered the wall between her yearning for peace and his desire to stop the onslaught against her.

Eventually, after what seemed forever and probably not more than a few minutes, their embrace softened and eased until they swayed together ever so slightly. He brushed the hair off her forehead and she nuzzled his check and lips. Their eyes met in a warm gaze tinged with echoes of the smoldering gazes of earlier years, more seasoned now, if a weathered smoldering gaze could be a thing.

In that moment, for them, the gaze was all that mattered.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and Bowls Full of Issues

Recently, I became aware of trying to hold too much. Not do too much, but hold too much. I was holding just a few things but they were enormous. Things like the generational injuries in my family. There was no way I could keep the issue inside without conflict and turmoil and distress, to myself.

Holding an issue that big is a little like trying to hold poverty or violence against women. It is too much. It can’t be held by one person.

The good news is that becoming aware of my tendency to try to hold on to the vast issues helped me do something different.

Right after I became aware of my tendency, a friend confided in me about another person. I wished she had left me out of it. I woke up the next morning running the scene over and over in my mind, distressed at knowing this information because I am a friend with the other person too. I began bubbling over, churning about what I’d say and do and how it would feel to state my need and the reaction I anticipated from her.

As I sat drinking coffee at my dining room table, all of a sudden, I remembered my tendency to take on and hold things I can’t solve.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and Bowls Full of iIssues Quickly, I imagined an array of bowls sitting on the sideboard in my dining room. I imagined taking the steaming, roiling mass the friend-issue and gently depositing it in one of the bowls. Then, I sat there and felt my posture in the chair and breathed all the way from my nasal passages down to my pelvic floor, slow, uncrushed, generous breaths, not the fullest I could take, just full enough so my ribs moved easily.

Not five minutes later, I realized I was brewing with the issue of my father’s health and well-being. The roiling of that issue felt the same as the previous one. Without berating myself, I gently placed the mass of the father-issue in another bowl on the sideboard. Then, I took a few moments to notice what it was like to have that searching and longing for resolution no longer inside me.

Some people call holding these big issues worry, but I want to make a distinction. Some of us are carrying things we have been taught we should carry. All the stepmothers who’ve received the message the health of the stepfamily is yours to hold, raise your hand. I know this because as soon as I set the issue in the bowl, I feel calm inside. Worry feels different, worry is wary, worry is about meeting deadlines and obligations. See Karla McLaren’s great description of worry, which she includes in her description of anxiety.

This setting issues in the bowl strategy can work with any issue. Especially chronic issues that crop up again and again, unlike the straight-forward issues such as getting a kid’s teeth straightened and the day arrives when there are no more orthodontia appointments.

No, these monumental issues, the ones that pull and cause you to lose sleep at night are systemic, they are bound so tightly into the fabric of stepfamilies, or your family of origin, it’s incredible anyone sleeps. Things like communication between homes. Things like child loyalty. Things like an ex-spouse using what Rorshak calls Divorce Poison in his book of the same name. These are the things that roil and broil and prevent peace.

These chronic, messy, systemic patterns of problems are the perfect things to set aside in a bowl.

Not to be ignored.

I’m not suggesting we avoid important issues. I am suggesting we practice carrying these steaming, roiling, too-big-for-one-person issues away from our central self, away from our vital organs and the tender parts that keep us alive and hopeful.

Unresolvable issues, the ones often built into the situations like stepfamilies are the perfect thing to practice working with while they remain outside yourself. When you want to consider your actions and reactions or what you might do when the same situation arises again, well, the issue is there in the bowl on the sideboard, ready for your consideration and reconsideration, whenever you are ready to work with it.

I think we need to learn the difference between the things we can safely hold and the things that are best stored outside of us. When we get good at it, if a friend complains and we want to plug our ears, we’ll barely get ruffled as we lay the issue in the bowl. When the time is right, maybe the next time we are with that friend, we can say what needs saying, without the emotional tsunami that would follow if we had been carrying the issue deep inside us trying to keep it contained.

There will always be plenty of time and space to take up and work with our big issues. But, we will likely deal with them in a more comfortable way when we have been able to stop holding and instead disengage and disconnect, maybe even forget them, for small snippets of time, until we recognize we are not an issue. We are a living, breathing human, a being.

We need to learn how it feels to live and breathe as a human, and not as an issue.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and a blessing for softness.

There you stand . . . ready for what comes to you. We know how strong you are. We know how able and willing. We know your heart is full and wide and vast and you can squeeze one more, and then one more, and then one more again into the dark recesses of your heart, especially when the one more comes with softening heart.

Glimpses and moments of softening take place when there isn’t a watchful eye, so be sure to look out of the corner of your eye and not directly. The softness can’t exist around the dinner table with the many other sets of eyes on each other’s every move or the monitoring of every nuance of your frowning mouth or furrowed brow. The softness and will wait to find an opening in you that is exactly as soft and open as needed. Then, in the flickers of time when you are soft and open and the other is also softening, you will meet on a field and run and play with no fear of being discovered.

Should you ever feel stuck and not breathing, continue on, letting the air in and letting it out. If you accidentally hold your breath, soften so you let air out quietly so as not to scare the softness away. Your very focus on your breath and your slight indifference will be what attracts the softening. Let the softening take time like you do when you set butter cubes out to soften for the cookies or brownies. The butter slowly comes to room temperature and the wrapping becomes a little oily and begins to wrinkle and conform to the warming yellow cube. Resist forcing the softening by putting it in the microwave, too brittle, harsh, and dangerous.

photo143.jpgMay you find and remain in your own softness when you face no softness. May you listen deep in your self and wonder what your posture and demeanor asks of you so you get the first benefit of the softness and the overflow creates a welcoming space for a soft-eyed inquiry, a not-sure gesture, even for a shrill and demanding request. The shrillness will feel like a test and you may harden to meet it because we all harden in the face of shrillness. But sit, stay, wait . . . leave the butter out and let it stay soft.

May you be able to see through things, past the ill-conceived attempt to pull you in, past the unsure heart that only knows lashing out, behind the curtain of disbelief in your intentions. May you get beyond all that and in an occasional moment of softness meeting softness, walk together into a room as big as a gymnasium where there is room to navigate and soften even more.

May you hold these moments gently, leaving off expectations for how often and how many. May you rest, content in your own softness and in the ability to meet others with softness should they come to you. Leave off pursuit, nestle in the rocking chair your grandmother left you. Pull and tuck the afghan around and offer to share when someone cries out. May those unexpected moments of heart seeing heart be enough. You know and the other heart knows. No need to broadcast on the front of a magazine or on the internet. Remain soft to the potential of softening, protect yourself when you need protecting and open again when danger has passed.

Most of all, may you surround yourself with the softness of the others who walk your same path. They carry the same wishes, hopes, and dreams. They, of able, willing, and wide heart. Meet them as often as you can and together remember the time spent with an open and soft heart is an investment for yourself and a building of the trove that is your relationship with your self and others.

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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 . . . on belonging.

Belonging.

Belonging might be the issue we avoid when we whole-heartedly and enthusiastically throw our lot in with our guy and agree to make the best of things. Some of us promise to have and hold, in sickness and in health. Some of us forgo the vows and share a home. Either way, it’s likely we’d all like to slip into the family photo as if we’ve been there all along.

I know I did. And, I’ve watched friends and acquaintances from near and far who agreed to make the best of things with their man and who dove enthusiastically into the making that happen.

The good news is that our human nature compels us to find a way to belong to our group and the community of folks we live in. That’s why I’ve likened becoming a stepmother with the longer trips I’ve taken to a foreign country. In those circumstances, not being able to understand the language or express myself, I felt unsettled, excluded, and nervous about how to go about making things better. No matter how badly I wanted to belong, I was an outsider. At some point, on the 4th day of the trip when I’d been to the same cafe for coffee every morning and the clerk recognized me, my heart opened and I breathed and smiled and I knew I would survive.

The bad news is that despite the fact that I know all these things, despite that I repeated the visiting a foreign country experience when I moved to Pittsburgh, Hartford, South Fork, Greeley, and Seattle, I still had to go through that becoming part of the group when I came into my stepfamily.

Ivan Bilibin's illustration of the Russian fai...

Ivan Bilibin’s illustration of the Russian fairy tale about Vasilisa the Beautiful (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, why did I arrive at my new home sitting beside my husband in the moving van, his two boys helping cooperatively and happily, thinking that somehow this situation would be different? It’s as if there was a fairy tale inside me being played out, leading me into the temptation that I wasn’t going to stumble. I fantasized we’d figure out the just-right way to adjust and integrate without pain of any kind. All without feeling like a third, or fourth, or fifth wheel.

I marvel. I shake my head. I glance away, sheepish. I was 44 when I met my husband, 46 when we married, and I’m 53 now. All to say, I wasn’t born yesterday, I get how these things go.

Once I got over the shock and horror that I had succumbed to the fantasy and fairy tale of the happily ever after, it got worse. There was crying, wailing, venting, and flat out griping. Nothing I did changed the fact that I was the new kid on the block. I still needed to find the cafe, the hair stylist, and the mechanic and I still needed to figure out how to belong in my new family. Even though I’d only moved across town, eight miles away, I might as well have gone to the moon. It wasn’t my neighborhood and they weren’t my people.

I like to think of my husband and his kids, the kids’ mom, and the extended relatives as the people I’d meet if I went to a new city and set up living there. The folks I’d meet might treat me nicely, warily, welcomingly or standoffishly. That’s how real life goes and there are no guarantees that I’d be accepted. What is guaranteed is that it will take time, sometimes years to settle in and make a home.

Settling in and belonging is a process and I look back in wonder that I, and so many other stepmothers, lost track of that. It takes time to belong and it can’t be rushed.

 

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . dwells in possibility.

I did something really old-school today. I got out a card and envelope and used an actual pen to write a thank-you note to my in-laws for the nice birthday gift they sent. While I was at it, I wrote a note to my mother-in-law. There’s no typo here, I have two sets of in-laws. My father-in-law and stepmother-in-law, and my mother-in-law. My stepfather-in-law died almost 3 years ago.

It’s been a long time since I put pen to paper, but I was inspired by a clean desk and the box of beautiful notecards I unearthed in a pile of paper. As I wrote the cards out, I paused to find the just-right wording and my eyes fell on the quote inside the lid of the box of notecards.

Dwell in possibility. 
Emily Dickinson

The word dwell holds so much. It’s all about staying long in a moment and not hurrying away. Most of the time, we are urged to leave the moment. For example: do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment (Buddha). Or, don’t dwell on what went wrong, instead, focus on what to do next…spend your energies on moving forward toward finding the answer. (Denis Waitley). And, it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live. (J. K. Rowling)

For me, Dickinson’s quote, dwell in possibility, stands out. It insists . . . do stay. Do linger. Do mull. Do ruminate. On the possibilities.

And, I agree. For such a long time, I found myself dragged by old habits inherited from my family to be hyper-critical, analyzing each moment for how good it was, rather than relaxing and enjoying the now. Mixed up in all that reactivity, I forgot to dwell in possibilities.

There are many ways to imagine possibilities. I love to have dreaming sessions and let my imagination run wild. Even J.K. Rowling, who suggests we shouldn’t dream lest we forget to live, must have had an active dream-life to write the Harry Potter series.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . dwells in possibility.Lately, I’ve been turning my dreams toward me and my husband and his children? I’ve loosened my hold on the worry of whether the things I dreamed could ever happen. I’m focusing instead on the possibilities. It’s basically brainstorming and not censoring what gets put on the list. Any idea is legitimate and I can review it later and see if I want to keep it.

When I dwell in the possibilities of my relationship with my husband, I see more fun and less worry. I see us laughing and sharing, fatigued some days but excited about the long-term future. I find it’s easier to let the less-than-desirable slip off my shoulders when I dwell on the possibilities.

When I dwell in possibilities with my stepkids, I see fun and interaction, not pain or suffering. I don’t imagine myself with a furrowed brow that needs ironing out. I dwell and recall the times we shared a laugh or the political cartoon I couldn’t wait to share because politics are our connection.

Possibilities are endless and not to be confused with expectations that don’t match real life. But, if I’m stuck in my old ruts, I lose sight of the fact that I can go this way or that way, over here or over there, up or down, back or forward, left or right, curved or straight, wide or narrow, together or solo, and the whole range of places in-between those places.

Possibilities.

I love to dwell in them.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . musical guide to remarriage.

I’m obsessed with the movie, Love Actually. The music is as much a part of the movie as the vignettes themselves and since I had to drive to the other end of my state for a teaching engagement, I had lots of time to listen to the entire soundtrack. Somewhere between Jump and Too Lost in You, it occurred to me all these songs represent some part of a journey of falling in love, losing illusions, grappling with disappointment and falling back in love.

Years ago, I heard a woman’s voice on NPR radio tell me that she saw marriage as a process of falling in and out of love with the same person over and over and over again. Since I didn’t hear who she was, I can’t give you the source material on that, but I love the sentiment. In my experience, it’s true. But, we don’t have much patience for the falling out of love part, we most often hold strong to our disdain of anything that’s not perfect and work as fast as we can to get back to the happily-ever-after moment. I don’t think that’s reality. I think much of life is ho-hum, if we are lucky, and a good bit of it is excruciating in some way or another.

But, let’s start at the beginning…..you remember that feeling . . . you met him, fell head over heels, and dove in. Deep. If you don’t remember that feeling and the event, my recommendation is that you go back and dust it off and renew the feeling. Holding that time as a shining light in the darkness is worth a lot. I’ll get back to that later. For now . . . Jump For My Love

When the magic softens and the day-to-day messiness and angst and jockeying for who’s going to be closest to daddy gets into full swing, the distance between you and your guy can grow and grow. It can be terrifying. You try to hang on, you try to show him what needs to happen. He feels like he’s trying his best and all he can hear is you yelling at him. Magic turns to dust . . . The Trouble With Love

Sometimes you hope someone (usually the man you married) will sweep in and rescue you. That fantasy is one that dies hard. Most often, in a remarriage, you’re both stuck inside your tormented box of pain, hoping it will somehow miraculously end. . . . Wherever You Will Go

And then, you step back and take some time to sink into the inner parts of yourself and assess your situation. Only you know what you need, only you know what you are willing to let go of and what is essential to your survival. Tricky part is that we can let go of much, much, much, much more than we think and it’s often going to turn out for the best when we do. You know what I’m talking about . . . all those expectations, if only he would….if only she would. Let them go to this lovely lullaby. . . . The Glasgow Love Theme

After you’ve taken those hours, days, weeks, or months to sort it all through . . . once you’ve made your decision that YES, this is the man I’m meant to be with, then you get to the place where you surrender and discover you didn’t die. You discover you can keep your integrity and wholeness, maybe even more of it than before. . . . Both Sides Now

Acceptance of a real and natural relationship might take months and maybe even years, but for those of us who are fortunate enough to stick it out, there comes a day you wake up and feel at peace. At peace with your decision and at peace with your man.

I’m going to whisper when I say this, in some ways that’s what felt like the beginning of my marriage to my husband. We finally arrived at a whole new level of relationship and I fell in love with him all over again, just as meaningful as before, with even more trust and understanding. And the memories of how we met and how we got to here, in this precise place in our relationship, are worth so much. We are grateful, we are together, and I’d do this all over again, not something I’d have said four years ago. . . . Lost in You

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Maybe you don’t have a road trip waiting for you that allows you to turn up the volume and sing out loud to these songs, but you might have a moment on a walk or when the kids are gone to school, or late at night with the headphones on. For me, this particular music (and the movie) is a salve on sore thoughts, a smoothing out of the bumps and bruises from earlier struggles. No doubt, we’ll struggle again, but at the moment, we’re both still singing!

. . .
Update:
Listening again to the soundtrack and can hardly believe I forgot these amazing songs . . .  I’ll See It Through . . . Songbird.

Enjoy!