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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.

Recently, a woman commented here, thanking me for the perspective of one of the posts. She shared her story of tragically losing her mother when her father forced her mother out of her life, and that her mother loss is still reverberating through her life. And, I read her blog and found her to be sensitively and thoughtfully working her way through her childhood loss as she writes in what is hopefully a healing and productive way.

I was going to share her story here and link to her blog, and then something stopped me. I had commented there, on her other blog, and gently suggested that at 22, her stepmother was likely unprepared to walk into the fire of defending the then-girl’s mother or questioning her new husband. I suggested that it was doubtful that the stepmother had wanted to erase the mother from the girl’s life. And, the author of the blog agreed with me, indeed her stepmother had been young.

A few days later a woman commented, and then another one, and another, describing a stepmother who ruined a life. Another admonished me to not be naive, stepmothers were bad. Another agreed.

I stand by my comment, the motive of a stepmother is very seldom to erase anyone from a life. In my real-life experience, the motives we attribute to others are most often based on our assumptions and not on the actual details we might learn if we polled every person in the scenario.

It reminded me of a time I was in a group of women (that had nothing to do with stepmothering). As we introduced ourselves, I mentioned I was a stepmother and I was working through the issues that come along with that. One woman blurted, “Oh, you’re an evil stepmother.” Later, the blurter and I were in a small group together working on an exercise and she told us more about her story. Simply meeting me had reminded her of one of her most traumatic moments. She was five years old when her mother died. Her father went into a depression and didn’t talk to her, he didn’t tell her any of the details about her mother’s death, and he didn’t comfort her. At some point, he remarried to a woman who tried to be nice to the young girl, but the girl’s wound wasn’t something the stepmother could heal.

All those years later, at least fifty, the woman was still wrestling with the issue and blaming her stepmother. Even though she corrected herself and said that her stepmother had tried, she had continued to tell the original story in the blaming stepmother, it’s all her fault way. She had told it as if she were five years old and her mother had just died.

I find myself contemplating issues of small children, parents controlling situations, blame, shame, and shutting people up, and several things occur to me.

First, when a child is wounded, it takes a mighty strong personality to work toward health and well-being. And, there are many children who are mighty strong and resilient and they find a way, often with help and sometimes in spite of seeming help. Somehow, deep down in there, they know there is another version of the story and if they dig it will come out. Or, as they get older, they decide they would like to live in peace without carrying a primal wound around like a piece of shrapnel inside that might kill them at any moment if they move just so. And, there are some who don’t make it out of the past and it stays with them and colors their perspective of the world.

Second, as a child we can’t know our parent’s, or stepparent’s, motives unless we ask. And, sometimes we won’t get an answer even when we ask. Even for parents, it takes a mighty strong personality to work toward health and well-being and not harm the children along the way. When the adults are motivated to live in peace without carrying the marriage or childhood wounds around like pieces of shrapnel…well, you get the drift. And, there are some who don’t make it out of the past and it stays with them and colors their perspective of the world.

Third, it feels most honorable to live with assumptions of honorable stepmothers, until we learn otherwise. There are stepmothers who survive and stepmothers who struggle, just as there are mothers who survive and mothers who struggle. There are stepmothers who misbehave and there are stepmothers who sacrifice and go above and beyond, just as there are mothers who misbehave and stepmothers who sacrifice and go above and beyond.

It is naive to assume all stepmothers are bad, just as it is naive to assume all mothers are good.

Most naive of all is to assume a stepmother should be the savior and rescue every child who is lost and hurt when the parents’ marriage ends.

I’m grateful to know there are children of divorce, who lost a parent one way or another, who are now adults and working toward an integration of their life. There are many of us, who are now parents and stepparents, working to make sense of our childhood experience and fit them into our now-adult world view, so we can move on and shift our focus to our children and the world around us.

There is nothing naive in that.

Updated post from May 12, 2011, A Healthy Stepmother

She closed the book and tossed it on the chair with a sigh. The book had been no more helpful than the previous three titles she’d brought home, each of them overflowing with opinions of how a woman married to a man with children should behave. Chapter after chapter the list of shoulds and shouldn’ts grew and grew.

She wished it were easier, to figure out how and when and what the issues were that she should bring up first, and second, and last. She kept hoping a stepmother would tell her story without advice, just lots of stories of this is how it went. Then she could use it as a place to begin exploring. Unfortunately, most of the books on the shelf followed tired self-help formats with lists of do this, but don’t do that.

She sighed again. It seemed such a waste. The best books gave information and educated about the process, the worst gave advice that made it sound as if the stepmother would complete the list of just-right things, the stepchildren would happily participate in stepfamily life. As if the problems in a stepfamily were a stepmother’s fault. Where were the books written to the entire family, as if they were a system that functioned together?

In the early days, she hadn’t known where to begin so she hadn’t set any boundaries with her stepkids and neither had their father. Then, when she voiced her concerns, a tidal wave of rejection washed her voice out.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Renews Her Boundaries as Many Times as it TakesLife had gone on in that somewhat aimless way, not structured, not tidy. In fact, it had been messy and uncontrolled and unpredictable and unnerving.

But, she had let it be and waited and watched. During the wait, she studied. She paid attention and learned who her family members were.

Gradually, she began voicing her needs. If you want to swear, go outside. In this house, we respect one another. No, you may not go into my bedroom and search the sock drawer.

Gradually, what began as a small voice speaking out developed into a voice able to make the same reasonable requests any adult might make. When we enter a room or a home, we say hello. When we need something from someone else, we say please and thank you. When we are struggling, we say so out loud instead of lashing out with angry words.

Almost overnight, she felt better, a weight lifted off her shoulders. She ignored the sour faces and the surprised looks. As she spoke aloud and drew the boundaries, she began to regain her footing in her own life. She was so inspired she began caring for herself again.

She began to say whatever was on her mind, in a thoughtful way. She maintained compassion and kindness as her guides, and she continued voicing her opinions and requests. She continued ignoring the raised eyebrows, and most of the time she was heard.

She decided it wasn’t that bad speaking from the heart. It didn’t always feel easy or comfortable, but she liked the feeling of knowing she’d behaved as a real person and not a fictitious or invisible one. She decided it was not only enough that she feel real, it was everything that she feel real to herself.

Ten years ago, when I became a stepmother, I’d never have described my experience as one of being oppressed. And, as a younger woman, I would’ve never agreed that others controlled my behavior. Things like interference, stone-walling, and passive-aggression on the part of others didn’t seem to warrant the label, oppression. I didn’t even like the word oppression, it sounded so impossible.

It’s only recently, I’ve acknowledged oppression as a thing in my life, despite that I’m female and oppression against women has been going on for a tediously long time, i.e. forever. Now, I see that oppression of stepmothers is simply a subcategory of oppression against women.

Wikipedia describes social oppression as “the socially supported mistreatment and exploitation of a group, category, or individual.”

Racism, sexism and other prejudices are often studied as individual beliefs which, although not necessarily oppressive in themselves, can lead to oppression if they are codified in law or become parts of a culture……the tools of oppression include a progression of denigration, dehumanization, and demonization; which often generate scapegoating, which is used to justify aggression against targeted groups and individuals.

Denigration and demonizing, uh-huh. Scapegoating as a justification for aggression, mmm-hmmm. I’m quite confident my 44 stepmother friends would agree they’ve been denigrated and demonized. They have been, and are being, scapegoated. Some have even been assaulted. Many around them, unsure how to handle witnessing such behavior, say nothing.

Obviously, there are degrees of severity, but oppression is everywhere. It’s as if we’re either living in a giant dog-pile each fighting our way to the top or vying for winner in a Most-Maligned contest.

Look around, siblings oppress one another. Spouses oppress one another. Parents oppress children. Children oppress parents. Teachers oppress students. Administrations oppress teachers. CEOs and administrations oppress workers. You get the drift. Oppression isn’t limited to gender or race. It is about power and the use of power to control the behavior of another person or group of people.

If you’ve heard don’t take things so personally more than once, it’s likely you’re an oppressed stepmother. If you’ve opened the doorway of your home to children who breezed past and didn’t say hello, it’s likely you’re an oppressed stepmother. If you’ve been told, you’re not my mother because you gave an opinion about the schedule or chores that needed doing to keep the house running, it’s likely you’re an oppressed stepmother. Many books written for stepmothers compound the problem further by outlining all the ways a stepmother should change her behavior so as to not offend anyone, so as to be included, and so as to ensure her stepfamily has a happy life.

But, it’s not the stepmother’s job to become un-oppressed! She’s not the one doing the oppressing, at least not in the beginning. I’ve seen some stepmothers become oppressive because it’s the way they know to survive the situation.

It is time to dive into this subject of oppression and dissect it. Let’s read the books that describe the stepfamily situation as it is, not as the fairy tale we want to live within (look for my annotated book list this year). Then, let’s work together toward behavior that includes everyone in the family. If we already know stepfamilies form on the foundation of grief from a family divorce, then we already have the basis from which to work toward the well-being of every member in the stepfamily group. What are we waiting for?

Wouldn’t it be amazing if mothers stood beside stepmothers and said, it’s not right what we are calling stepmothers, its not right how we are treating them. And if a mother demonstrated to her children what it meant to treat the stepmother with respect? We need more mothers like this.

Wouldn’t it be healing for fathers to stand beside their wives and say to their children, I need you to treat my wife with respect, she is a member of our family. Wouldn’t it be incredible if this was the norm? Wouldn’t it be incredible if parents, both mothers and fathers, weren’t held hostage by the possibility their children might withhold love?

I don’t expect the culture we live in to change overnight, but it will never change if we don’t have a conversation other than the stepmothers should behave conversation.

Let’s begin now.

In 2010, I wrote the first version of Santa Sophia, a Christmas poem for stepmothers. I’ve been tinkering with it since, each year knowing another truth about this process or thinking of another word here and there that shape the message more like it happens in our hearts and in our homes.

Whatever your plans this year, whatever your family constellation, whatever your burdens, my wish for you is to know the hope of connection and the sanity of shared experience. In many families, a stepmother is isolated from her own people, estranged from them, or so engaged with her stepfamily she forgets to be with family and friends.

She can drift and float along, with nothing to anchor her experience and her heart.

Maybe this year you will reach out, outside the silence of aloneness, out past the rejection, and beyond the pain. Open yourself to letting another stepmother into your life, or reaching out to one newer than you. Let your vulnerability be a connection with someone you can trust.

There is no rushing. We are not in a race to get somewhere. We can take our time, cultivate deeper relationships, and go back to heal pieces that will help us move forward.

Santa Sophia: A Christmas Poem for Stepmothers
©2014 K.Cottrell 

Twas two nights before Christmas, when all through the land
Not a stepmother was sleeping, not even on demand.
The fireplace was lit in the living room there,
A sign of the peace we prayed we’d soon share.

The children were texting all snug in their beds,
While Netflix and Instagram danced in their heads.
With hubby cat-napping, and I with my book,
We’d just settled in to our warm winter nook.

When out in the drive there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my Kindle to see what was the matter.
Over to the window, I was pulled by a feeling,
And gazed through the glass with open-mouthed reeling.

The stars they did shine on the occupants inside,
And lit up the house where worries collide.
When, what to my sleep-deprived eyes should appear,
But one electric car and eight rambling black bear.

Opening doors they did bound, bringing anchoring ideas,
I knew in a moment, it was Santa Sophia.
Warm fur, curious noses, the black bear they came,
And she whispered and encouraged, and called them by name.

“Now, Baloo! Now Brer! Now, Ben and Ted-ster!
On, Humphrey! On, Bamse! On Bruin and Buster!
They went into the house, to the young, to the old.
Shuffling here and now there, finding hearts that were cold.

As old memories of pre-divorce family repeat,
The pain and the loss, bitter pills children eat.
Into the house, the black bears they did amble,
With satchels of honey, and hurts to unscramble.

And then, in a twinkling, in the rooms up above,
The soothing and healing of each warming love.
As I listened in silence, afraid to turn around,
Into the living room Sophia came with a bound.

She was dressed all in tencel, from her head to her toes,
And her clothes were all silvered with buttons and bows.
A bundle of sticks she had flung on her back,
She could have built fire, without even a match.

Her eyes, how they shone! Her laugh, a delight.
Her smile so warm and so absolutely right.
With capable hands, she reached for my heart,
And began to transform my pain into art.

A stick of gum she chewed loudly, and then gave a sneeze,
And the noise of it told me, she’d do as she please.
She had a kind face and a whole bunch of chutzpah,
She nodded when she laughed, as if saying … good’on ya.

She was darling and strong, a right sassy old self,
And I sighed when I saw her, and gave in to myself.
A wink of her eye and a twist of her head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

She spoke not a word, but went straight to work,
And filled all their hearts, even cleared out the murk.
And laying her hands alongside temporal lobes,
She called forth a wish for peace round the globe.

She summoned the black bear, to me gave a nod,
And away they all drove to the next of stepmoms.
And I heard her exclaim, as they disappeared from view,
“Stepmother, take heart … this year you’ll see through.”

 

 

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