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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Some of you may know, I’m working on a book. Yes, a book. Not only that, it’s a book for you. For stepmothers of all stages of family integration. It’s not a how-to book, giving you the ten things you can do to make you family happy or improve your outlook or learn to tolerate the bullying. It’s a book of tales for you to find solace, validation, and inspiration.

I’ve taken the themes I see and some of the stories I’ve heard in my dozen years of navigating this business of being in the life of my man and his kids. It’s a wild ride and I don’t expect we’re done. The good news is that it gets less unnerving than in those early days.

I have more work to do on the book, it’ll be ready for a few select readers soon. Then, more revisions and then find a publisher. Hmmm, wonder who wants to publish a book of tales for stepmothers?

This weekend, I went to the beach with Jen Violi for her inaugural Story Watch retreat. It was a great chance to work on some of the revisions and problem-solve a couple of story development issues and share with other women who listened and asked questions. One woman is a stepmother, one is a stepdaughter, and the others were so supportive and respectful of my topic. I couldn’t have asked for more generous encouragement.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Writes Her Tales at the Beach

On one of my writing breaks, I took a walk on the beach. What a beautiful day it was.

I’ll keep you posted from time to time. I mostly wanted you to know there are supportive people out there. People who aren’t stepmothers who are pulling for peace and family respect and the possibility of family health.

May you be finding moments of peace . . .

Adapted from a post February 22, 2012

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

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

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

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

I HEART Cappuccino

I HEART Cappuccino

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

[  space to breathe and contemplate  ]


[  more space to breathe and contemplate  ]

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

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

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

The other day I was writing a little story and decided it didn’t make it to THE BOOK. So, you get to enjoy it now. The stories in the upcoming tales for stepmothers will be slightly more complex, but this one felt worthy of sharing.

You’ll Learn
by Kim Cottrell

Eliza met and married Davis, the man of her dreams. They had everything in common, except children. She had none and he had five.

Davis was open with her before they married, his kids were a handful, even more some days. Undaunted and energetic, a professional who’d met many a challenge, Eliza didn’t bat an eye. She was an excellent partner to Davis and she knew she’d be an excellent companion for his children, once they got to know her.

The kids fell in love with Eliza, just as she predicted. They each found something to liKe about her and she shrugged off Davis’ concerns.

Then, Eliza and Davis married and left on a honeymoon. When they returned, they walked in the door of a whole new world filled with angry stares, refusals to say hello, invitations turned down. Genuine snubbing indeed.

Eliza thought the kids would calm down after a bit, but it only got worse. The kids sat between her and Davis. They kept him occupied and only spoke to him. The oldest ones ignored her and the youngest ones had a tantrum.

Just when Eliza thought it couldn’t get any worse, Davis’ ex-wife decided to move and she asked if Davis would take the kids for the summer.

Davis was overjoyed. He’d get to spend a summer with all his kids. He floated through his days at the thought of spending more time with the kids.

Eliza agreed, on one condition, as if she had any bargaining power. There would be rules. Rules that would need to be followed. Hesitantly, Davis agreed. Sort of. What he really said was they’d need to take a look and see what was best. But, that’s not what Eliza thought he said.

The kids moved in, tumbling over one another with their things and sleeping here and there and shoes strewn and clothing tossed. Within twenty minutes of their arrival they had achieved takeover. Eliza pasted a grin on her face and bravely made her way until dinner.

The next morning she went to work and forgot about her stepchildren. She got wrapped up in some meetings and almost forgot the kids lived at her house, until she was on the way home. On an impulse, she stopped and picked up two large pizzas to take home.

When she walked in the door with the pizza, the five kids descended on her, grabbing pieces of pizza and eating as they stood right in front of her.

“Stop.” Eliza yelled. “Stop. It is polite to say hello. In our house we say hello.” Her face got red and the kids stared at her.

Davis walked out of the kitchen. He said, “What’s up?”

Eliza burst into tears and retreated to the bedroom. The kids shrugged and ate their pizza.

That Saturday, Eliza put her foot down. Over bacon and eggs and pancakes, she insisted they do chores and clean up the house. The kids looked at their plates and at their Dad. Davis asked her what the top priorities were. She pulled out her list.

The blank stares that met her told her the plan was unpopular, but she insisted. “We need the house tidied up. This is important.” Eliza might as well have stomped her foot. About half the chores got done and the kids had disappeared by the time Eliza checked back from cleaning the garage.

Davis had the great idea to go to the beach and the kids excitedly jumped up and down. They loved the trip to the beach. They all piled in the van and drove the two hours to the beach. When they arrived the first thing they always did was get an ice cream at the Dairy Delight on the way into town.

A Healthy Stepmother...Draws Her Chalk BoundaryAs they pulled off the highway, Eliza said, “We can’t do this, we need lunch first. This is dessert before dinner and this isn’t healthy. Let’s go have dinner and come back.”

From the back seat, the youngest meekly said, “This is what we always do, this is tradition.”

But Eliza got louder and more insistent and her face turned red again. She drown out the kids and Davis turned the car around and drove to the beach. They walked and had lunch and when it was time to go, they all piled in the car to head home.

As they passed the Dairy Delight, Eliza said, “Wait, we need ice cream.”

In unison, the kids said, “We’re full.”

Davis drove on home.

Eliza went on in this way, seeing something that needed doing, doing it. Setting boundaries. Establishing order.

The kids weren’t bad kids, they could have argued, but they just got silent. The only rebuttal they had was to not engage with her, to pretend she didn’t exist.

Eliza drew more lines. The kids withdrew further.

Davis put up his hands when Eliza told him of one more thing she wanted changed. Eliza thought her heart would break. She thought she was being helpful. She thought she was contributing. She saw a need and she had stepped into the role of taking care of it.


No one else was playing the chore game with her.

The last day of summer vacation came and the kids went home to live with their mother.

The house was quiet. Yes, it was also strewn with wrappers, drink bottles, and dirty plates, but it all echoed for the lack of voices and activity. Eliza cleaned up the living room, then the bathroom. She tidied and vacuumed and before long there was order.

And silence.

One day, Davis took the kids to a movie. Eliza had other plans. She got home to an empty house and cried.

Davis came home and saw her swollen eyes. He hugged her and held her. She cried more.

She woke the next day knowing she’d built the box she now lived in, no contact, no family group, all orderly, all neat and tidy and quiet and empty.

It took Eliza a week to figure out she wanted something different. She got the makings for a nice dinner and sat down with Davis and made a request. “Teach me. Show me. What’s your strategy with the kids. Tell me how you do this juggling act.”

Davis looked at her and raised an eyebrow. Then he grinned. “It’s pretty simple. Everyone has a vote. I listen. I prioritize everything else over a clean house. And, gradually, we build tradition.”

“Remember the hot dogs we had for Christmas.” He grinned wider. “Even they are now tradition. And they love it so much.” He went on. “You’ll get the hang of it and you don’t have to drive all the time. You can sit in a seat on the sideline and share and go second or third or sometimes last because someone has to be last and you and I take turns going last so the kids don’t have to. We fill the water bowl and let them drink. We fill the food bowl and let them eat.”

He paused and looked at her with all the love in his heart. “And change comes after a first, second, and third pass. It can’t happen immediately.”

They ate a few bites of the tasty meal Eliza had prepared.

Then Davis put his fork down again. He cleared his throat. “The truth is you’re so efficient you can do ten times the work the kids and I do at the pace you work. So you need to stop and eat bon bons along the way and let us accomplish our share to keep up with you. That way the kids can feel good about themselves. They naturally want to help and they will. Let them volunteer or let me assign one of them. We just need a little more time to bring all that into action. We don’t see it the way you do.”

Eliza frowned. “I have no idea how to sit while others work.

Davis grinned. “You’ll learn.”

I just watched a five-minute video of Maya Angelou telling three stories to illustrate that love liberates. I’m pretty sure I held my breath throughout, hanging on every word, gasping at the end yesss.

Love, as she’s describing it, liberates.

Angelou describes as a new mother at 17, deciding to move out of her mother’s house. She describes their conversation which didn’t end with her mother declaring if Angelou left she could never come back. Her mother did not draw a line with a threat or cast a net to keep her there. And, in fact, Angelou came back several times, as she describes it, “every time life slammed me down and made me call it uncle.”

She describes her mother liberating her to go out in the world and be who she was, and later, how she liberated her own mother.


As stepmothers, we might use Angelou’s words to guide us in our interactions with our spouse, our stepchildren, even with our own children.

One of the biggest implications is the idea of letting go, doing less for our stepfamily, and not trying to be the end-all, be-all. If this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve read those suggestions here, and here, and here.

Instead, we grit our teeth and soldier on, pulsing with anger, seething with frustration, going through the motions of things like unloading the dishwasher, lucky those dishes aren’t people or things we love. We might crush them with our intensity.

But. Love liberates. Angelou distilled it down that succinctly and I love it. Let it be a bumper sticker or a mantra. Let it be the positive affirmation. Whatever we need it to be, let it be so.

Love liberates. It doesn’t ask, will you do this my way so I feel better. Will you salve my worries or my wounds or my sense of not belonging? Will you put me into the middle of this life as if I’ve been here all along? Will you love me?

Love asks none of that.

I’m going to guess that Angelou’s mother felt good enough in her own skin, good enough to be able to stand separately from her daughter and let her leave and let her make those mistakes. Never once did she say, I told you so. She let her go. Which means she minded her own business and welcomed Angelou back when she got smacked down by life.

What if it could be that way and be okay? What if another person’s lack of doing something or lack of achievement or being taken advantage of or inability to see something that is so terribly obvious to us, what if that is NO reflection on us? If that is true, the mistakes your stepchildren make are not about you. No one did something on purpose. No one stumbled and failed because they have a stepmother.

Remember, this life your stepfamily lived was there a long time before you came along. Your job isn’t to fix it. It’s to witness it. It is to support your husband in the best way you can. It is to take care of yourself, which may include doing your personal, interior work to help yourself learn how to stand inside your own skin without needing someone else to shore and hold you up.

It doesn’t matter if the mother of the children has difficulty holding herself up. It doesn’t matter if she does terrible and egregious things. You are not in charge of her. Neither is your husband. It is not his fault she is this way. It is not the children’s fault she is this way. And, for every woman who describes the ex-wife as crazy, whew, I have to take a deep breath because it’s so seldom that is true. She does crazy things. She goes way out into the extremes of a person’s behavior. She manipulates and she acts thirteen, but she isn’t crazy. Not in the failing-an-exam way. There are other people in the world who see her functional side, who think she is a good person in the way your people see you as a good person.

No, what she’s struggling with is letting her love liberate. She may not know how to do that. She may not have been liberated by love. She may know uncloying and unclutching love or the freedom of love that unbinds.

Even though you will have numerous times in the future to clench your teeth and breathe and try to make sense of things that seem nonsensical, you only have one person to answer to, yourself. If you focus on answering to yourself, to be as careful about your motives and intentions as possible, to let your love be unclutching and nonbinding, then your relationship with your husband and your stepchildren will benefit. That is what will help you feel better. When you feel those relationships are nurtured and strong. But that doesn’t come from the superficial, being together moments. It comes from repeated interactions in which acceptance, trust, and devotion are shown in the actions it takes to navigate the moment. It will likely still be painful, on many occasions.

Angelou’s story is cleaner than ours. She was a daughter and she was talking about her mother. She wasn’t describing a stepfamily, but I think the story still applies. Angelou describes telling her mother, “you were not a good mother of small children, but you were a great mother of young adults.” How refreshing. How completely refreshing. No beating around the bush. No recriminations. Just laying it out. Simple. I liked that part a lot.

Right now, or later today, or tomorrow, when you feel your teeth clench and your shoulders tense, think: How can I let this love I feel liberate? What would that look like if I let go of the outcome?

Let’s do some experimenting. Together. You in your home, me in mine. We’ll check back in after a few weeks and see how it’s going.

Love liberates.

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.


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