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My neighbors have a new dog. They are fostering the dog for a couple of weeks to make sure the dog likes them, they like the dog, and the long-term future looks compatible.

We did a similar thing, taking our second dog on trial with the understanding that the first dog needed to give approval of the second dog.

Our first dog wasn’t sure she loved the idea, but her behavior immediately changed for the better. She relaxed. She followed the second dog, a bigger. more confident dog. As if she suddenly had a pack, she became more dog-like and less worried and less anxious. We thought that was a good sign and the match was solid enough, we adopted the second dog.

Not to compare stepmothers to dogs, or families to dog packs, but any time a new member comes into a group, there is a jockeying for attention and position and control. Anyone who’s lived through that time of adjustment knows it can be a wild ride that usually ends in all parties feeling disenfranchised.

DSCN4390But, I feel optimistic. Culturally, we are living in a time of post-entitlement era, post-individualism, and post-divorce-is-bad era. We’ve come through the sacrifice-everything-for-the-children era and it seems like we might be headed for the more reasoned every-person-matters and everyone’s-needs-can-be-met period.

Which means

  • we could be headed for a time when second families are valued as much as first families
  • we could be headed for a time when we understand that social pressures can support or destroy marriage, whether a first family or a second family
  • we could be headed for a time when we understand that to keep negating and putting down and actively destroying second families is to squander human resources that could be used to better our communities
  • we might more actively and consciously make space for new family members, including stepmothers
  • we might have regular conversation and share feedback, pointedly discussing each family member’s position and feelings, and work toward civil and respectful human packs
  • we might consider our family groups as human packs, letting go of the pressure to be a perfect family

I get confused watching ex-spouses and divorced families where the expectations and old habits get dragged along as if they were a favorite blanket, never holding up, in danger of being lost, and vulnerable to being destroyed. Then, worse, in the middle of the clinging to those expectations along comes a future partner for one or both of the ex-spouses.

We know a new life partner will come about, for one or both of the divorced couple. That is a normal part of our collective human experience. Thus, stepmothers and stepfathers are part of our normal human experience.

Therefore, a day might come when foster dogs and stepmothers are both welcomed with anticipation and curiosity, with an expected adjustment period. A day might come when it won’t matter that stepfamily adjustment is longer than the two weeks or two months we give a dog to adjust. Even if it takes two years (these days it takes seven to twelve years for stepfamily integration, and a certain number of stepfamilies never make it), the key will be that we’ve created a new cultural expectation.

When we get to this possible future cultural acceptance of stepmother adjustment and when it’s no longer a big deal, we will know we have reached cultural maturity, something we have only dreamed of to this point.

I hope I’m alive to see that day.

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.

If you are living in the thick of it, with stepkids between the ages of 10 and 18, you need a lifeline. You also need an anchor line, at least one. And, while you may think it’s over-rated or there’s no such thing, you could use some laugh lines.

First, your lifeline. The lifeline is your relationship to the person who shares your bed.

That person with the other end of the lifeline . . . stay connected to him. Follow his lead. Trust his gut. Find his bottom line and let that guide you. One of the biggest ways following his lead showed up for me was in distinguishing between the day-to-day details versus the long-term picture. I felt I could contribute to the day-to-day and I had lots of opinions about how it should go. I pressured my guy, and pressured him more. Yes I did that. And, we might have even had a discussion or two, before he admitted his goal was to focus on the long-term. Finally, I listened. And heardWhen I backed off the day-to-day focus, well, you can imagine how life changed.

Stay connected enough that you can ebb and flow, doing more and then less. Isn’t it normal to ebb and flow, sometimes projects require both of you, full tilt. Sometimes family schedules get zany. Maybe track if you’re doing so much you have to let go of the lifeline to get some of it done. Is that necessary?

Second, your anchor lines are nearly as crucial as your life line.

On our boat out on the river, when we’re having a lazy morning but want to stop and have lunch, we set an anchor. We face upstream a bit away from shore. We make sure we’re not in danger of bumping into another boat when the tide or wind changes, we drop the anchor, tie off, and then we relax.

If your husband/partner is your lifeline, your friends are your anchor line. Find a stepmom girlfriend, in person or online. Stepmother friends offer that steadiness we need to find reason in unreasonable times. They help us bear witness in the times we struggle and succeed in staying connected with self. Hanging out with them inspires hope for a more normalized life.

Stepmother girlfriends also help with the reality check. And we can use some reality, because it stinks sometimes, in the stepmother seat, living with kids hurt by their parent’s divorce and who struggle to let go 10 years after the split, or 20 years after, and sometimes not for 30 or 40 years later. Some will never get over their parent’s relationship ending, so a gentle reminder, it isn’t your job to make that okay for them.

Back Camera

Townsend and Lucy

Finally, don’t forget the laugh lines. The laugh lines are just what they seem. Lines gained by laughing.

When I joined my family, there were plenty of inside jokes that everyone else laughed at while I fell into my dark, icy chasm of isolation. It took us a while, but with my husband’s persistent dedication to inclusion and seeing life positively, we, the royal stepfamily we, found a few activities and comedy shows the oldest and youngest liked and some sports the middle kid liked, and we had the building blocks for a few good laughs.

We enjoyed many laughs watching the antics of our cat and a couple of dogs, sharing the annual Doo Calendar (sad, apparently this will be their last year) and the never-ending humor found in living with dogs. We dog-lovers even found a way to build a story around my oldest stepchild not being fond of dogs, complete with the photographic evidence to prove she had the littlest dog on her lap, once. She tolerates us humoring her about it, she’s a good sport that way.

One of my favorite humor gifts has been the Cartman magnet (South Park reference) my oldest stepson gave me. On my refrigerator, it reminds me we laughed together, and still do. He tried to make jokes early on, including giving me a nickname. I didn’t know him well enough to know whether he was laughing at me or mocking me, so I was not a good sport about it.

Dang, if I had known about laugh lines, I’d have the killer nickname of Kimmerino right about now

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Maybe you’ve been feeling hurt and are counting the ways you’re not included in Sunday’s, May 10, Mother’s Day celebrations. Maybe you’ve decided to let the crust around your heart remain there for a while, since crusts offer protection by keeping you in and others out. Or, maybe the kids in your life freely and openly bring you offerings and talismans that show love and connection to you.

What if we agreed there isn’t a right answer for the demonstration of relationship, feelings, or connection?

What if we agreed those demonstrations will shift and change over time and the sellers and pushers of the trifecta of cards-flowers-chocolates won’t determine whether a stepchild, or the parent who nudges or doesn’t nudge the child, has done the right thing?

And, what if we agreed that sometimes it’s not safe for a child to share her or his feelings for you because that child’s every move is scrutinized by another member of the family, whether mother or sibling?

I’ve seen all versions.

A friend’s now-grown stepson has showered her with cards, simply but consistently, from the first year he moved in with his father and stepmother. His mother lived more than three hours away.

Another stepmother was a custodial stepmother when her stepchildren were younger and the two girls freely expressed their feelings. They moved back in with their mother for their teen years when their mother’s life became stable enough. By the time the girls began puberty, the stepmother had a child of her own. Thus began a number of angst-laden years with little expression other than anger and fear.

And, in many stepfamilies, there wasn’t and isn’t an expression of tenderness toward the stepmother.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Mother's Day and Ho-Hum

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Regardless of which stepfamily you live in, the way others express their feelings is not a reflection on you as a stepmother.

I’d like you to consider the idea of living in the ho-hum. The way I’ve heard it said, 5% of life is sheer agony, 5% is sheer ecstasy, and 90% of life is ho-hum.

According to the tradition, we need to learn to live inside the ho-hum. Long-time readers of this blog will recognize this is the living in the gray zone, or the neutral place.

I might argue the percentages for stepmothers are a little steeper. Maybe it’s 20-25% sheer agony. 5% sheer ecstasy, 70% ho-hum. You can see pretty quickly why a stepmother feels beleaguered and succumbs to depression and anxiety at rates higher than women in other relationships. (Wednesday Martin, Stepmonster)

Learning to live in the ho-hum. Learning to live without the constant search for the perfect moment. Learning to live knowing the incredibly painful will soon pass, because it is not a permanent condition even though it feels like one. Learning to let expressions of feelings be fluid and unprescribed, sometimes close, sometimes more distant.

Learning to sit inside your own skin, knowing you are enough, doing enough, being enough, right now, in this moment.

Happy You Day . . . wherever you may be.

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Note: I’d love to know where you are. I see on my stats board for this blog there are readers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. I’d love to hear where you live. Remember, you can always comment anonymously. You can use any name you want on the comment form, whether it’s Jane, Sally, or Candace. No one will see your email except me.

Yes, boundary chalk.

What can we use for our protection? In our violence-steeped society, some easily imagine a gun or a knife. In other times, people drew swords and daggers. Or, the magic of a wand, so light, so easy to stash somewhere, even inside a sleeve or a purse.

The trouble is, protecting boundaries is tricky business. They might not exist and need to be built. They might get strong and then weaken. They might drop away and become invisible, leaving us vulnerable and easily invaded. Sometimes, we don’t even know what we’re trying to protect.

As I work on my book of tales for stepmothers (no date to offer up, but it’s progressing nicely, thanks for asking), I’ve been doing regular free writes. With my writing friends, I start with a prompt and write for seven minutes, or nine, or occasionally eleven. Our pens fly and no one stops until the timer goes off.

Here’s a piece I did on boundaries from one of those free writes. It has certainly been on my mind over these last many months.

But, this post is to tell you a drawing-boundary story of a real-life stepmother (with permission). This stepmother has one stepdaughter and two younger daughters, now in their teens. My stepmother friend and her husband have helped his daughter navigate some unhealthy, and potentially dangerous, situations for a very long time. And now, there’s a granddaughter to consider.

If you’ve been a stepmother in a situation like this, you know, there’s a weariness that grows, deep down in the bones. Giving to a person who endangers themselves again, and again. Giving again. It is exhausting.

Being called to rescue, whether with big issues like safety of small children, or little issues like getting homework done, is bound to happen for most stepmothers. But, we don’t have to beat ourselves up, we could get out the chalk and draw some lines around ourselves.

My stepmother friend knew she was running out of steam with all the helping she was doing. She kept trying to help differently each time her stepdaughter plummeted, but she was drawn in and others began relying on her. Her marriage suffered with all this helping, as did the life of her growing daughters.

One weekend, the now-grown stepdaughter with a daughter of her own, were coming to visit after a period of being stable and safe, and my friend and her husband got word that things were moving toward instability, again.

This time, my stepmother girlfriend quietly got out her chalk. She sent messages to the family and friend who so kindly informed them of the downturn for her stepdaughter. She asked them to communicate directly with her husband, the father of the woman in question. Her husband agreed that he would handle all the communication and she would take a back seat during the weekend. And, she determined to focus her attention on the activities of her younger daughters and in taking care of herself during the weekend while her stepdaughter was visiting.

I was cheering, of course, all the way from over here in my place on the sideline. You can join me in the cheering, too. I asked to tell her story because it’s a great example of the process of managing our feelings and sense of self while we are helping.

When we feel frustrated, it might be tempting to think we should know better and not let ourselves get caught in those situations. But, I think that know-better voice is the external society voice shouting in our ear. Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls it the over-culture. The know-better voice causes us to second-guess our instincts. It’s the second-guessing that is the problem, in my opinion. It’s the place that traps us in the feeling bad place and then we go help more to feel better.

I propose, rather than bashing ourselves because we repeatedly find ourselves helping, we use one of the strategies we’ve been practicing on this blog to help listen inside and know what we need. Helping is one of the options. Waiting is another. Letting others do is another. And, some combination of those is a fourth. Click on these links to read about Find your feet, dig down for your talisman, or take a nap.

A Healthy Stepmother...Draws Her Chalk BoundaryEach cycle of helping in a chronic-repetitive situation has the potential to lead us upward, like taking another step on a spiral staircase. You gain skill, knowledge, ability to see where the boundary could be, and even where to find the chalk. Sometimes it’s as simple as we don’t know there’s a boundary needing to be drawn and we let our chalk supply run out.

She’s no saint, my stepmother friend. She jumped in, instinctively responding to difficult situations, and it wasn’t as if she had time to think, okay, I’ll do this, this time, but then next time someone else can do it. She did what any of us would do and now, all these years later, she’s listening and hears the deep-down message, okay, time to step back.

That deep-down message isn’t one we are accustomed to hearing. I know. I was getting weary helping my father a year and a half ago. Bone weary. And I vividly remember the day he got angry with me and said, you are doing too much, you need to stop helping so much. I looked at him and said thanks dad, I’m glad to know you’re ready to take these things over. You’ve got it. We’ve been fine ever since. I’m no longer exhausted. But, it took him yelling for me to hear or to even know to listen to that message okay, you can stop now.

Maybe helping isn’t a permanent condition. It’s probably also true, our help is not a permanent solution for the one we’ve helped. That person is needing to learn skills and we might expect they need a few repetitions to get the message, just like we did.

The good news for my friend is that others have the skills now, now they can take over. Now she can gently shift the responsibility over to her husband and the broader circle. What if this is how it can work out? What if this is the natural progression?

Perhaps we’ve all been there. Asking ourselves Why, when we’re up to our necks in helping, gritting our teeth, or downing a third glass of wine. Why am I so weak I can’t say no? Why can’t I draw a line.

Perhaps we’ve experienced that teeth gnashing and desperate moment, when we’re in the shower crying and thinking we’ll never help again, dammit, never again, that moment is not-so-gently tapping us on the shoulder saying, okay, now, now it’s time to step aside and let someone else carry this torch.

What if that’s all, that’s it? It’s just a message. It’s not that we are failures as stepmothers, or even that our marriages are doomed. It’s simply time to shift our focus. Back to the life waiting for us. Maybe there’s a rock wall to build, or a picture to paint, or a beach to walk. It doesn’t really matter what, as long as it feeds and replenishes us for our next adventure.

And, we can rest assured, there will be more adventures . . .

You dove into this life with all your good intentions and sweet affirmations bursting from every pore. You’d have drowned in them if you hadn’t had to run so fast to keep up with figuring out what to do in any given moment, frantically working to integrate with the new family of which you’d become a part.

You dove into what you thought was a certain kind of connection, with your husband, building a certain kind of life together.

Most importantly, you dove.

What would it be like if no one did? What would happen if there was only one chance on this planet to get a relationship right? Would there be no divorce? Or, would there be no remarriage? Could there be a civilization where people didn’t keep recouping even after disasters and traumas? What would that civilization look like? But, I digress.

Here you are. Looking around, surveying the scene, wondering what you might be doing if you weren’t here. Wondering how you’ll wait until five more years go by, or eight, or ten. Whatever that marker is that once it’s passed you’ll maybe have a better life, or for sure have a better life. Maybe it’ll be less stressful, anyway.

Joseph Campbell says “we must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

I think he’s right.

A Healthy Stepmother begins more gently.When we go in with such a tight hold on the life we are sure we are entering, there isn’t any space for what it might be.

If you haven’t been able to find a place to rest in your marriage, or even within your own heart, maybe some letting go is in order. Maybe the dreams you’re hauling around are actually getting in the way of the life that is sitting right in front of you.

Interpretation is a funny thing. Expectations are insistent things. Cultural pressure is a toxic thing. Add them all together and you might think that is the life you’re meant to have.

I’m suggesting there’s a different life, one that is just as meaningful, just as connected, and just as well-intentioned. It just doesn’t happen to look exactly like the one you might’ve carried in your head.

The older I get, the clearer the message comes, that to find satisfaction and contentment and any other measure of what I’m looking for, I must first let go of the thing I’m clutching in my hand or in my heart.

Note: Maybe this is your story, somewhat my story. Mostly, this is all our story, we’re in a shared, collective time in the history of families and stepfamilies. Maybe the new tagline of this blog is “living in the gray zone.”

She entered the stepfamily with all her enthusiasm for life, exactly what her husband loved the most about her, refreshed by her verve as he was, like being refreshed standing in the spray of the waterfalls along the Columbia River Gorge. And, the things her husband loved about her were the very things her stepchildren mocked and rejected.

It didn’t take long for the enthusiasm to wane, in fact, it got lost in the shock of an earthquake-like moment when she couldn’t find a place to stand or hold an opinion that wouldn’t be criticized or belittled, except when with her husband in the privacy of their bedroom. Not so gradually, the joy faded, the excitement and stimulation of their shared lives dwindled, their hearts shrunk.

From the high, to the low, to the full acceptance of the intense dislike of the children for her, or of their mother of her, the weight of those dislikes dragged down each gathering, every holiday celebration. What were celebrations and rituals become dirges and funerals to a family that no longer existed.

The months and years passed, slowly and excruciatingly, as if this pain would last forever. So long, the couple thought they imagined their love. So long, they wondered why they thought they’d be the ones to do stepfamily integration in a different way.

They couldn’t know the fans of negativity were fueled by the larger culture, a culture in a particularly strong era of judgment and rejection, casting out of the other, entitlement and hyper-focus on the self, the narcissism of mothers (sometimes fathers) and the demonizing of fathers (sometimes mothers), all in the name of supposed-love.

More time passed, more pain passed. Her heart crusted over. She became brittle, with a hardening of the spiritual arteries. As her heart hardened, her heart-sap became sticky and instead of being shared freely, her love creepily attached to people who came close. Her pain and heaviness obvious, others avoid getting caught in caring for her wounded self.

Occasionally, she looked beside her at her husband. He hadn’t become brittle, but had faded, just a little dimmer and then more, until he was a half-shadow of the man he’d been before his children and their mother set out to pledge resistance to his wife.

But, one day, they gazed at one another after the children left, with wonderment and she said to him, That was a success, to think we almost missed it. We didn’t fight after the kids left. We made it through a holiday without getting pitted against one another. Incredible, my heart feels lighter, there is more light.

The next year, she looked at the calendar and at the approaching winter holiday with all their traditions and gatherings. She realized there was no dread. She wondered when dread had gone and she recognized this as a new measure of success. To simply go through the traditions and gatherings and support the family events without the highs and lows, that was success.

She dubbed these times as neutral. Without joy and without pain. Something in the middle that seemed neutral. Since the neutral was so much more comfortable than the pain, she accepted it, welcomed it.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . living into the Gray Zone.But, after the novelty of neutral wore off, it felt boring. Sometimes she even looked for something with more intensity to let her know the occasion had meant something, but she gave up when she realized she was just looking for an old habit.

Years progressed and one day she noted that some of the times they spent with the children felt comfortable, even light and respectful, a darker, more nuanced shade of gray, a gray with variation and texture. Not a slate of nothing gray, but a gray with hills and valleys, a topography map of grays.

Other times, they laughed together and she noted the silver and light gray, wispiness and tendrils of gray wrapping like smoke around the chimney when the fire was lit. The seeming slate of nothing gray lightened and darkened and came alive with the trust being built on shared respect.

In a moment of reflection, she knew she’d have missed the gray and all it’s nuances if she hadn’t been looking for it, hadn’t been working on finding a solid ground to stand, sit, and walk among her stepfamily.

They, he and she, accepted the neutral zone as enough. It was life and life-giving. No need for more searching, no need for more comparisons and worries their lives weren’t happy enough or full enough or satisfying enough. Their stepfamily neutral zone with it’s climate and geography contained enough for a lifetime of exploration, just like the neutral zone within each of them.

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