A Healthy Stepmother . . . life is not a caravan of despair!

Come, come, whoever you are!

Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving!

This is not a caravan of despair.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve broken 

Your vow a thousand times, still 

And yet again, Come!

          Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks 

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So, yes, dear stepmother. Here you are, poised on the precipice of another holiday season. Wondering how you’ve hung on to your self and your life since the last holiday season.

Maybe the clouds don’t hang over your head the way they used to? Maybe you see the clearing and can reach out and offer that to another stepmother who is drowning in the deluge of the storm? Maybe you’ll have a story to share in the comments to contribute to our collective witnessing of one another’s lives?

Some of us have it easier than others.

Just because some of us have it easier doesn’t mean we’ve got it all figured out. It might mean we are in the eye of the storm. It might mean the storm has passed. It might mean our lives have settled and integrated and we can focus on other things.

I urge you to focus on other things even if you are still in the storm. The storm will rage whether you focus on it or not, so why not get a book and settle into another time and space while it rages on around you.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . life is not a caravan of despair!And, contemplate that leaving takes many shapes. Leaving is not bad. We’re conditioned to think it is.

I’m at a beach town on the Oregon Coast as I write this, working on my fairy tales for stepmothers. Yes, I can now say that out loud. The stories are taking shape and I’m getting so excited. 

I was walking down the street and across my path went a woman with whom I used to share much closeness. Things happened that caused there to be uncloseness. Was that a leaving? Was that an ending? It doesn’t feel it, since there was no official ending. It’s more like it’s suspended out there in time, nebulous, not clear, super muddy. But okay.

I don’t need to run after it. It can sit there, in all the messiness. Maybe like some of the relationships we have with our stepchildren.

It’s easy to think a muddy or unclear relationship is a negative thing. Does it have to be? Could it just be sitting there, somewhat dormant, neutral, without judgment? Could that be okay?

Inspired by Rumi, I wrote this…

Leaving. Leaving.

Left. 

I have been left and I have left others.

Hundreds of times, maybe thousands. 

Was it error? 

Was it my ill-thought-out-ways? 

Or, was it simply the learning of whom to go toward? 

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Examine your leavings and letting go. This life is not a caravan of despair!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . ushers in a new life.

Call me an usher. Call me a guide, a messenger, or any other word that means I’m helping someone get to another phase of life.

This last six months has found me walking the path with my father to recover from his stroke and move away from the life he had in a town north of mine, a town he can no longer live in alone. What a difficult process, we’re both grieving and letting go, stumbling over old family mythology and the ever-present hope that things will get better.

Hermes with the Sandal-Louvre

Hermes has been called The Messenger God, and the story of Persephone and Demeter places Hermes in the Underworld to bring her back to her mother. Hermes with the Sandal-Louvre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I drove Dad back to his house to look it over and meet up with his friends from church. They talked for hours over coffee and lunch in what might be one of the last trips for a while since my brother and I are nearly done emptying the house and shed.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

How many divorced dads or moms have closed down their life? I don’t mean the one they live in after the divorce, I mean the old one. The new life is no longer about the sharing of the marriage bed or the intimacy and safe haven that goes on between a couple. Some divorced people try to keep those intimacies open, but they should really do all they can to close down their marriage. It has been well-documented in the divorce and remarriage literature that it is very common for the old life to linger on long after the divorce. And, when the old life gets left open, well, things get messy.

One day, the stepmother comes to town, falls in love with divorced dad and marries and/or moves in, her presence signaling the end of the old life. It doesn’t matter how fabulous a person the stepmother is, or how adaptable she is to the family’s old ways, or how much understanding or compassion she brings to the table, she cannot escape being the harbinger of grief, a tangible, visible reminder that the mother and father are not together. Note: There are likely those who feel this way about the stepfather, but the statistics show the stepfather is accepted into a remarriage far more often than a stepmother, Stepmonster, Wednesday Martin, 2009.

No wonder children scream, “you’re not my mother” with their words or actions. No wonder they don’t say hello. No wonder they tip-toe around as if the stepmother were invisible. To acknowledge her would be to acknowledge the family, as they knew it, is dead. Some children grow into adulthood before they accept the end of the mother-father-together life. Some never reach acceptance.

For my father, as we near the end of one phase of closing his old life, I hope he finds peace with his new life. In many ways, his new life is of much better quality than his old life. He has regular social interactions, he eats better and more consistently, and he worries less about the day-to-day issues. Still, each morning he wakes up after a good night of dreams, dreams in which he is pre-stroke, whole, healthy-ish. As he awakens, the realization of his condition seeps in and he needs a good hour to work through the feelings and recognition of I’m-not-who-I-was-in-the-dreams.

That must be what it is for some children whose parents remarry. For those children, they likely wake each morning expecting mom and dad just down the hall, crushed when they remember their old life no longer exists. That wasn’t my case as a child of divorce, which is why I say some children. Other children get it and understand the process. They might not like it, but they get it.

My wish for stepchildren everywhere is that they give grief time and allow for adjustments. I hope they find adults they can talk to and weep with and that they find new things to be glad about, until they can see what the new life offers. Often it offers more than expected.

And, I hope the stepchildren and their father and mother look around for their stepmother/usher. She might be off to one side, not involved in the melee, not vocal in the chaos. That won’t mean she’s not interested, it might mean she’s shoring up her resources amid the ongoing grieving. Her presence is enough to help close down the old life and you won’t find her running around trying to make everything okay. She knows that to respect the old life is enough and she practices that respect to the best of her humanly abilities. More than anyone in the remarriage, she is unable to pretend this is still the same old life. And that is the blessing and the curse. However, with the old life properly contained, memories of it will actually burn brighter, truer, and more steadily.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Becomes a Master Swimmer.

My parents loved the water and we spent hours as a family on the banks of the North and South Umpqua rivers in Douglas County, Oregon. There is no time in my memory we were not in and around water and we learned to swim early and well.

Because we were around the water from birth, there was no fear, no trepidation, just sheer unadulterated joy at the buoyancy and freedom one felt while in the water.

Do you remember learning to swim? Weren’t you exposed slowly and gradually and over time, lots and lots of time? Can you imagine getting lessons in becoming a stepmother (or a mother for that matter) over time, lots and lots of time? What if someone took you by the hand and said, this is the dog paddle, this is the side stroke, this is a shallow dive, and this is how to deep dive.

English: Aerial view of the mouth of the Umpqu...

Aerial view of the mouth of the Umpqua River on the Pacific Ocean near Reedsport, Oregon, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What if there was a time to practice after you’d been introduced into your stepfamily, a time when no one judged you because you weren’t good enough yet. A time when they understood you were learning.

Yes, we have learning to do. Not learning how to be perfect or learning how to make everyone happy. We have everything to learn, from dipping a toe in without getting wet to taking a dive into the deep end. We can learn slowly so we get comfortable and understand what is expected. We can learn the rules of team swimming and how to get the most out of being in the water.

Unfortunately, most often we stepmothers dive in and find ourselves struggling and gurgling and swallowing some water and the waves seem really big and sometimes we get swept under where it’s really dangerous and there’s a possibility of rip tides. Anyone who’s lived in a place where the ocean floor drops quickly away from the beach knows what I mean about rip tides. They are treacherous and they are real. Rip tides exist in stepfamilies and it’s good to know how to recognize them.

Tomorrow is the 7th anniversary of marriage for me and my wonderful husband and we have learned much about swimming together. We have the dog paddle and the side stroke to keep our heads above water. We have the freestyle to zip through the water and make headway. And thank goodness, we know the survival float which is all about resting and conserving energy until help comes.

Looking back, I can see when I needlessly jumped in without looking around to see what was going on. Now, I have enough experience in my stepfamily to know I should walk around the deck or the shore before jumping in so I get the lay of the land, or the lay of the rocks.

I say let’s embrace beginning swimming. Let’s embrace being a beginner in general. Let’s settle in to learn the tried and true techniques of keeping our head above water, improving endurance, and maximizing agility. Soon enough we’ll have enough skill to dive off the high dive, soon enough we will be Master Swimmers.

Until then, let’s go slow and let’s be okay in the not-know.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . cuts herself some slack and some other ideas.

For the New Stepmother 

  • Becoming a stepmother is like traveling to another country to live for a year and falling into a depression when you arrive. Though you were excited and amazed and in wonder at the adventure, there’s also loss and a feeling of not belonging. It seems pretty normal to have an adjustment period and that’s my concern: we don’t cut ourselves much slack.
  • Becoming a stepmother is like moving in with a houseful of strangers, except that if everyone was a stranger you’d all be on a level playing field.
  • A new stepmother often experiences the shock of being thrown in the deep end without knowing how to swim.
  • A stepmother will often find herself trying to love a pack of porcupines.

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For the Been-There-Awhile Stepmother

  • A stepmother’s biggest hurdle is meeting and making friends with her own emotions.
  • The stepmother who can find, hold, and nurture the place inside her will always feel at home.
  • The stepmother who sees herself as a whole, complete person will fare well in any situation.
  • A smart stepmother builds a safety net.
  • A stepmother feels sad when things are sad, troubled when things are troubling, curious when things don’t make sense, and satisfied when things are good enough.

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For the Well-Seasoned Stepmother 

  • A healthy stepmother embraces good enough.
  • A healthy stepmother learns to let sleeping dogs lie.
  • A healthy stepmother finds her breath before she hurls her voice.
  • A healthy stepmother lowers her expectations without letting go of her integrity.
  • A healthy stepmother finds a quality to respect about each of her husband’s children..

And, the one that started this whole blog . . . a healthy stepmother worries about filling her own shoes.

Anything you’d like to add? 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . gives it time.

Maybe you’re like me and you grew up knowing how to make things happen. You learned to watch and listen and pay attention to the nuance. Then you used the info you had gathered to plan and carry out a strategy to solve the problem or create something new. As far as I can tell, most of us learned this detailed way of noticing, planning, and fixing.

You grew up and went on about your life. Maybe you got married and had kids or didn’t have kids. You divorced. Then met the man you’re with now. You married and anticipated using your well-honed skills of making things happen.

Instead, suddenly the world went sideways.

Franz Jüttner (1865–1925): Illustration from S...

Franz Jüttner (1865–1925): Illustration from Sneewittchen, Scholz’ Künstler-Bilderbücher, Mainz 1905 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As if someone waved a magic wand, all the world stopped moving in the direction you were going and began moving in almost exactly the opposite direction. Your strategies didn’t work and you flailed and struggled and tried harder and the world kept moving past you as if you weren’t there.

You watched in disbelief, then in anger, then with sarcasm and tears.

The world kept moving as if you weren’t there.

Finally, you stopped. You waited. You sat down and contemplated whether you could really do this. Maybe this remarriage-with-kids thing was too much. Maybe you shouldn’t have said I do. Maybe you should have known what you were getting into. Maybe this was really all your fault.

I think it’s in that moment, when you stop and reassess, that you actually begin a process that will create a place for you in your new family. That moment comes after you’ve caught your breath and can see that it isn’t your place to make life good for everyone; husband, kids, or kids’ mother. That moment comes when you live and act as though it isn’t your job to try so hard even though you’ve been trying really, really hard. The moment comes when you forgive yourself for trying so hard and accept that it was what you learned as a kid. You more fully understand that the acceptance you gained as a teen and young woman for being so good actually cemented the trying so hard as a strategy you would later need to let soften.

In that stop, wait, and breathe moment, that is when you can let things unravel. You can let your fingers sift the problems, so you can tell which ones are actually problems. You can let your thoughts swirl and swirl and finally come to rest and those that refuse to rest, well, they should likely be dealt with. You can let your spirit be assured that you are good enough just as you are. You can listen and feel for your physical self to find a resting place.

Finally, when all systems calm and come to a rest, make a note for yourself that this is your starting place. This is home base. This is the return from outer space place that waits for you when all hell breaks loose.

You can move out from that place deep inside you and offer what you will, but monitor carefully so you never give more than you hold and never more than you have.

When you get to the stop, wait, breathe moment, you’ll be ready for the letting go and the accepting what is, including the slow pace of finding your place. You can then look at your life and realize that you do have skills to bring to these relationships and that to support those skills you must learn to give your life time and do even less, more gently, and with softness.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . was there when the traditions began.

One thing I read long ago in the stepmother literature was a suggestion to establish traditions with your stepchild(ren) in your new family constellation. In those early years, that sounded like a lot of work and a set up for rejection so I shied away from that strategy.

Now, looking back, I can see my family has plenty of traditions. The traditions we keep going were originally little things and they started themselves, almost without us trying. We made a few guesses about what might be fun and paid attention to whether the kids liked it and we liked it. We made sure to repeat the successful things and the rest is history. No one got involved in an elaborate planning of activities and timing and calendars.

Three traditions I can think of immediately in my family are the annual crab feed, the block party breakfast, and the back-to-school shopping.

Desperate to have a smooth dinner with the kids the first year I was around for the Christmas holidays, my husband and I decided on a crab dinner. Nothing fancy. Five people, five Dungeness crabs, five tubes of Ritz crackers, and five bottles of cocktail sauce. I honestly don’t think there was anything else on the table that first year. We dug in and made an enormous mess and shared the one thing we all had in common, a love of Pacific Northwest seafood.

a dungeness crab

a dungeness crab (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We repeat that tradition every year now, quite willingly, and even if we have to shift the day around, we sit down and eat crab.

Also in the first year of my life with husband and his kids, I made a deal with one of my stepsons. It was the morning of our annual block party and I knew the day would be filled with juice and desserts and ice cream and who knows what else. My husband and I didn’t want to constantly be checking with him but we were very interested that he have good nutrition, so I made him a deal.

If he ate a fried egg sandwich for breakfast, he could eat whatever else he wanted all day, no questions asked. I used the best bread I could find, wheat with nuts and seeds, and two eggs so he’d have a good dose of protein with complete nutrition. I lightly toasted the bread with instructions from him about just how he liked it.

Huge hit. That’s been our deal ever since and this year was no different. It’s our standby even now that he doesn’t sleep at our house.

Also, this year, I took one of the kids on our 6th or 7th annual back-to-school shopping trip. Like always, we made a plan about what he needed and got very strategic about getting as much value as we could for the money we spent. We even commented this year how neat it was to look back and see what priorities had shifted and how the items we were looking for had changed. Those shopping trips weren’t really planned in the beginning, they just happened. I invited my other stepkids to go back-to-school shopping also, but we never got into a pattern and it’s not a tradition with them.

The smallest things can become a tradition. Things that don’t seem like a big deal at the time. Where the dog lies when everyone goes to bed. What the menu is on a special occasion. Who sits where at the dinner table. And, a fried egg sandwich on a summer day.

I like knowing that I’m taking part in a ritual that wasn’t created on purpose, but one that sprouted and grew from the circumstances that surrounded it.

Lasting traditions will evolve and you won’t even know you were there at the beginning until you hear the clamor . . . but it’s tradition!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . carves out a summer.

It was a hot and windy day in August of 1973 in my small southern Oregon town, the kind of weather that would’ve kicked the dust up in the streets if they hadn’t been paved. My brother and I rode our bikes to the creek where we spent the greatest part of the day swimming, eating blackberries, and playing with friends. We were too young to have jobs and just old enough to go swimming without our parents, according to at least one of our parents. We returned home in time for dinner and chores, played a little kick-the-can, and slept out on the wrap-around porch of our 1895 house whose upstairs bedrooms were sweltering in the mid-summer heat. This went on for 2 1/2 months of summer, but it felt like 2 1/2 years. Time warped in a stretching-on-forever way, much like the ribbons of country roads that we roamed on our bikes.

When I look back at those years, I realize there’s still a place in me that thinks that’s what summer is and I wonder if others have a particular experience or memory that defines summer. For me it’s blackberries. We spent hours picking blackberries and selling them to our neighbors who put up quart after quart of jam.

English: Chehalem blackberries

English: Chehalem blackberries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My husband associates summer with popsicles. He is like a kid about them. When he wants to feel that summer feeling, he gets a big bag of popsicles and passes them out to the neighbor kids and parents and we all sit around on someone’s lawn under a shady tree and drip our popsicles while we talk and catch up. It’s a beautiful sight, the grinning kids, the calm among the adults, and the togetherness. That’s really what my guy is after, he’s all about the community spirit and togetherness. Popsicles are a beautiful thing, they require no cooking and they can even be homemade. We made them from Kool-Aid when I was a kid, but juice is just as good, likely better.

The point of this blogpost is that expectations of summer and what will happen in summer can be as unrealistic as the expectations we wrap around the winter holidays. We can set ourselves up for unnecessary hurts and troubled hearts. We can end up stressed and in conflict with our husbands and partners.

We don’t have to spend our time that way.

We can relax our idea of what should happen and let happen what will. We can let go of all kinds of things, even when we didn’t know we could. Once we take our emotional energy away from the worry and upset and feeling frustrated, we can turn that energy to the connection and relational thinking that we’d really like to have.

So, you don’t get to the library every day this summer. So, you don’t go on a trip. So, summer consists of the kids playing in the wading pool in the front yard with the dog and the neighbor kids. So, you roast marshmallows with the neighbors instead of going to a movie.

So.

Sometimes I think we think summer is the big trip, the Grand Canyon of adventures. I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s about the scent and taste of blackberries that bring back years of memories that involve brothers and neighbors and riding bikes. I think it’s about the texture and temperature of a popsicle as it melts in your mouth and you recall all the laughter and good times.

Summer is a feeling. It is a moment. Summer holds the greatest potency when it stretches out in front of you forever without a bunch of obligations blocking the way.

I say let your kids get bored. Let them figure out something new to do on their own. Let yourself get a little bit bored. Your brain needs that time as a rest from being filled full of facts and figures that you spend the rest of your days in. Even if you’re working through the summer and the kids are with someone else during the day, use these long evenings to gather for a picnic and see what happens when you’ve all had a chance to slow down. Just changing where you eat your evening meal will change something. We eat most of our summer meals on our front porch or on the back deck. Either way, it feels glamorous because we are outside.

And, of course, we have blackberries for dessert.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . shakes and sighs.

I drove my 75-year-old father to the eye doctor yesterday. He struggles with diabetes and the health complications that go along with it. He was also head-injured as a young man so there are no simple conversations. Every interaction is fraught with emotion and debate. As a child, I learned the strategies to work with him when he was unpredictable but since then I’ve spent decades unraveling those strategies as quickly as I could to give myself a fighting chance to have a healthy life of my own.

I’m hooked less and less these days by his inflammatory statements and dramatic way of sharing his concerns. After dropping him off at his house, I could not miss that my sighs were huge, and I don’t remember sighing so freely before.

A sigh is familiar, in fact my dogs sigh constantly. They lie down and heave a big sigh. Ten minutes later, there’s another sigh. It’s as if all the stuff they are thinking goes out the window and they lie quietly and in the next moment they are sleeping.

I let my next sigh grow bigger. It felt good. As if all the excess tension of keeping good boundaries and not over-reacting was released in a positive way. I sighed again.

My little dog shakes a lot when she is nervous, even when it seems there was a positive event. She might receive a very nice back rub or a good belly scratch from someone and when she walks away from that person, she shakes and her whole body joins in with a wiggle that shakes her from her head to her tail.

I’ve always been jealous of that shake. I’m convinced a shake like that could let humans shed their excess worry and tension. Maybe we wouldn’t have to take so many medications. And for sure, our spines would be more supple.

For me, I’m working my way away from is carrying around a frustrated mind. I’m working on letting things be the way they are without feeling like I’m the person designated to fix everything. You know what I’m talking about, whether it’s your parents or the worry you have for your stepkids, you cannot be the end-all, be-all, solver-all.

So what do you do in the years of witnessing, when life isn’t all pretty and nice and everyone gets along? I think you have to keep sighing and shaking. Copy my dogs or your dogs, they have it right. When there is too much stimulation and life is overwhelming, take a good shake. Or, wander to one of your favorite coffee shops to pause and sit down with a big, huge sigh.

Copy, as copying was meant to be.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . is not alone.

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

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

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

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

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

Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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