Thankful Thursday: Treats and Purrs Edition

One more week and still no additional blog posts. I’m working on it. I swear!

As I’ve stated before, I am working through some family issues and really just taking time to gain some clarity on things and really figure out where I should be involved and where I should step back: an ongoing Stepmom dilemma. In the meantime, the best thing for me is to focus on gratitude. So Thankful Thursdays are the best thing I can do right now.

This week has seen illness in my home. First it was me. Sunday, I woke up feeling terrible. Headache, fatigue, and for lack of a better, softer term I got “sick”… it was some kind of bug. Ugh.

Hubs had to work that day, and when he called in to check on me I told him how I was feeling, but for some reason held back a request for something I’d been craving that I thought might soothe my upset stomach. But lo and behold, when he came home he had the desired object in his hands. I love it when he reads my mind like that!

There is a church in my neighborhood that is on my running route that always posts interesting sayings on their sign. This week’s saying is from Albert Einstein, “Coincidence is God’s Way of remaining anonymous.” I couldn’t be more thankful for this coincidence. Thank you God for looking out for me!

The other sick one in the house is my cat. I found out recently that my little “Monseñor Fuzzybutt” has diabetes. Upon weighing him, the vet found out he was 8 pounds! He is a long-haired cat, so the weight loss was apparent, but did not appear to be that drastic. I felt like such a bad kitty mommy. (Thankfully the vet did not pass judgment on me and focused on him. Bless her.)

We are intervening with dietary changes and close monitoring, so we can hopefully avoid the need for medications. He appears to be responding well, so I am, of course, thankful for that; but I also realized just how thankful I am for my cat.

I’ve never judged anyone who calls their pets “furr babies,” but I also walked the fine line between cooing at him, projecting human qualities onto him, and giving him 101 cute nicknames and knowing that he is a cat and not a person. While this experience has not changed my view, it has underscored just how important the little guy is to me.

I’m completely focused on getting him to a manageable state. Given the recent rockiness in our family’s path, I’m not sure what I would do if he was no longer with us. I don’t think I could take it. He really can help to soothe my soul when it is troubled. When I’m going through a period where I’m the invisible women to Skid or Hubs is being particularly prickly when working on project around the house, he’s there. He gives me affection. He cuddles with me when I’m sick or unwinding at the end of the long day. He offers acceptance. He’s usually glad to see me. I know I can tell him my deepest, darkest secrets and he won’t tell a soul. He demands very little in return. He’s a special member of the family and I am thankful for him.

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More Skin to Shed

Today I’m feeling more than frustrated.  I don’t think I can find the words to express how frustrating it is to have strong parental instincts when you don’t have children of your own.  As a stepmom, one of my biggest struggles is learning when to rein it in.  

Hubs and I have different parenting styles.  I’m more structured and focused down the road.  He’s flexible and in the moment.  If we had a child of our own, these differing perspectives might be extremely fruitful together: a Yin and Yang of parenthood.   However, given that Skid is not mine; I’m discovering that my ideas on parenting are often best left to myself.

Just this morning, we clashed over a common problem in our household: leaving things to the very last minute.  It doesn’t matter if it’s permission forms that need to be signed, school supplies needed for a project, or event entry fees, it more than likely comes to Hubs attention at zero hour.  Last night the problem reared its head more than once.  At 7:00 PM cups were needed for a class party the next day.  Then at 11:00 PM, permission slips AND donations were needed for a fund raiser at school. 

My mind wandered back to the last time this happened.  Skid wanted to try out for the basketball team.  Hubs was informed he’d have to fill out insurance paperwork and write out a check for physicals at 10:30 the night before they were due. I quickly scanned to papers and found out we would have to purchase an insurance policy and dig out immunization records to complete everything. We didn’t have the name of who to write a check to and neither of us had cash to cover the fee.  Needless to say, we were left scrambling to get it done.  Hubs was understandably upset.

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Thankful Thursday: Screaming Alien Aunt Experiment Edition

It’s another Thursday, so once again I’ll do a quick rundown of things for which I’ve felt grateful in the past week.

 The Scream

News broke this week that the last privately held version of Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream‘ will be going up for auction. One of my favorite NPR call-in shows “On Point” turned its attention to the iconic work yesterday and spent an hour – an entire HOUR – discussing the painting’s impact on culture and how it speaks to the human experience. I love that this incredible piece of art can speak to so many.  There’s something about it that’s encouraging.  It shows me that we’re not that different after all. To listen a podcast of the show click here.

My Skid

Although I use this blog to discuss the challenges of being a stepmother, I can say that I am thankful for Skid. Watching Skid when we’re out with family brings a smile to my face. There is a humor and lightness to Skid’s demeanor and flashes of sheer joy when Skid doesn’t think anyone is looking, which are heartwarming to see.  It’s just that right now there are hurdles. We’re dealing with the teen years: years when it seems like an alien has invaded your home — a sulky, moody unpredictable alien who doesn’t like to clean or hang out with parental life forms.  I had a brief glimpse into a different scenario when Hubs and I were carrying on our long-distance romance.  At age 8, Skid would take every opportunity to hug and cuddle with me on those long weekend visits.  Things seemed to change once the ring was on my finger and Skid began straddling the threshold to adolescence.  I miss those days and am grateful for them, however brief they were.  The memory of them helps to keep my love for Skid alive  and fuels the hope that down the road a path might open up to bring our family closer together.

A Realization

I realized when reviewing comments I’ve made on this blog and others that I made an error.  I’ve mentioned that I am the only woman in the family without kids of her own and completely forgot my two aunts who don’t have children of their own (one my mother’s side and another on my father’s side). Both have pretty full lives.  I’m not sure if it is because both aunts are far away in Canada that contributed to my momentary memory lapse, but I’m a little ashamed that I disregarded them.  I don’t often share my blog with family members, so I don’t think that they’ll find out (whew!). However, it dawned on me that they may be sources of inspiration and advice.

The Erin Experiment

The Erin Experiment is a great blog written by one of the contributors to “Stepmom” magazine. She blogs about all aspects of her life — from being a stepmom to her commuter marriage and all things in-between. I really like Erin’s take on things, and it often seems that she and I are going through similar things at the same time. She looks at her life in a very positive and honest perspective, which I admire. I feel like she and I are kindred spirits.  If you have a moment, go check out her blog at www.erinexperiment.com.

Love and blessings to you!

Thankful Thursday

I’ve got a lot of thoughts brewing for prospective posts that need a bit of refinement, so I’ll take an opportunity to walk down the sunny side of the street and count a couple of blessings.  (Maybe this will become a regular thing, who knows?)

Blessing Number 1:  After many years of a self-imposed laryngitis of the soul, I’m finally getting my voice back.

Writing here and guest blogging on LWOB has been an incredibly freeing exercise. I’ve realized that when I process everything internally it ultimately skews my perception in such a way that I misread the signs of life and end up taking a wrong turn into Crazy Town. Getting things out of my head and onto paper puts some distance between me and the inner-ramblings of my mind, so I can course correct.

As one of those people who needs to time to get their thoughts together,  I have great admiration for people who can say what’s on their mind, at the proper time, and are able to do so with tact and grace. I want that presence of mind, so exploring my wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings here is helping me better articulate them in my daily life. (So, yay me!)

I am also truly touched by the responses I’ve received here and at LWOB.  Thank you for your supportive and encouraging words.  Many of you have helped me when I needed it most, so it is even more humbling to hear that something I have written has spoken to your experience or helped you in some way.  It leaves me thanking God for the courage and inspiration to share.  It’s a comfort not to feel so alone, which leads me to the next blessing.

Blessing Number 2: I’ve found wonderful communities of support both online and offline .

My upbringing was Christian, so I am trained to believe there are reasons for where we are in our lives (although I have been struggling with the validity of that belief lately). 

The one time I can undoubtedly say I was in the right place at the right time was after I lost my first husband.  When he died, I was 36 years-old. I worked at an organization where four other widowed women were among my co-workers.  Of the four, three of them had lost their husbands in their 30’s.

This was an incredible gift for me.  It was a very powerful reminder that I was not the only person to have this experience. Without their presence, I could have very easily curled up into a ball of self-pity and isolated myself from the world, thinking that nobody could possibly understand what I was going through.  Instead, the mere fact of these women –who were living, breathing proof that I wasn’t unique –left me without any excuses to needlessly hold on to the “why me’s?”  They also served as examples that this storm could be weathered.  It helped me realize that I would, eventually, move on.

Since then life has brought a more struggles, all of which have been very isolating in their own way:  stepmotherhood, pregnancy loss, and childlessness not by choice are all clubs that no one dreams of joining.  They also are not issues anyone outside the ranks of their membership wants to discuss.  Who wants to hear a women talk about the ambiguity she feels towards her husband’s children, the agony of never even getting to hold a baby she desperately wanted, or the suffering that comes with a dream unfulfilled?  It’s all very depressing stuff.

Honestly, I find that people who have never been through any of these situations are much more receptive to hearing about my first husband’s death. For whatever reason, it is easier for them to relate to that struggle over the others.  Since I am remarried, I think that maybe they feel that it is a success story.  Of course, they fail to see that the “happily-ever-after” has been bumpy and any discussion of our challenges are usually met with avoidence (miscarriage is a depressing subject), platitudes (being a stepmother is simple, just be nice and the kids will like you), or problem solving (have you considered adoption, IVF, etc?).  Is it any wonder that I’m having a hard time finding peace?

I think it goes without saying that it is difficult for women in these situations to find a place in their immediate circles where they can voice their pain and feel understood.  We live in foreign lands that are hard to comprehend unless you have been there.

I feel extremely lucky that there are communities out there that allow women discuss their struggles openly without fear of judgment or misunderstanding. There are bloggers, writers, and groups in all the arenas in which I struggle (and arena is the perfect word, because there are days when I feel like a gladiator when facing down my grief).  These resources have been a tremendous help.  I’ve shared links to many on this site. 

While we all have different paths, we share the same fundamental pain that brings us together.  And, while I may not be in the same place as the others, I choose to learn from everyone. I may not hear the lessons the first time (or the second or third time), but at some point they speak to me.  Each one gets me closer to a place of healing and reminds me I am not alone.  And for that, I am extremely grateful.

If you wish to share any resources not listed here that help you, please feel free to leave them in the comments section of the post.  

Wishing you love & peace!

Still Small Voices Are Usually Right

Today, I had to rise and shine at an ungodly hour to get myself down to the hospital breast cancer center for a lovely, early-morning diagnostic mammogram. Just the way every woman wants to start her day, eh?  (Rest assured, all I have are a few benign-looking cysts – this post, thankfully, is not about that.)

There, within the tastefully-appointed inner sanctum of the “no men allowed” waiting room, I sat in anticipation of my tests. The cotton examination cape that I’d be given to wear draped softly around me. It felt like a bed sheet. The image of being back in bed relaxed me temporarily enough for a small, quiet voice inside me to say, “You’re angry.”

I sat up a little straighter in an effort to shake it off. I didn’t feel angry. In fact, I felt incredibly calm given the circumstances.

Later, when the radiologist had determined that what they found on the mammogram justified an ultrasound, I found myself on my side on an examination table watching blobs on a screen. This, of course, brought back memories of the handful of ultrasounds I had during my second pregnancy, and the joy Hubs and I felt seeing that small flickering light.  That flicker indicated a strong heartbeat.  That flicker gave us a false sense of security that the pregnancy would go well and everything would be o.k. This morning’s ultrasound also brought back the pain I felt the day that light was no longer present.  As I pushed back the memory and willed myself into an equally unpleasant present, the voice returned, “You’re angry.”

“Fine,” I thought, “I’ll concede, but at the moment there are other fish to fry.” The appointment continued, doctors were consulted and everyone was all smiles. “Nothing to worry about,” they said. “But come back in six months, so we can keep an eye on you.” So, you know, I have that to look forward to.

After being squished, mushed, poked, prodded, and gelled, I was back in my car and headed to work.  Grateful for the positive news, but still not feeling quite relieved.  The voice came back to remind me of unfinished business, “You’re angry.”

Now I was really annoyed, especially because the little voice was right. I am angry. I’m angry I did not get the life I imagined, the motherhood I crave.  I’m angry because the closest relationship I’ll ever have to motherhood is one that is so totally lopsided at the moment that it hurts me almost daily. I’m angry at others who get to have what they want easily. I’m angry because there are others like me who struggle and don’t get their happy endings.  What is so wrong with wanting to be a mother?  Why should it be denied to anyone? Nothing is clear. Nothing makes sense.  So yes, little voice, I am angry, but what do you suggest I do about it?

“Allow yourself to be angry,” the voice replied.

I don’t think I ever considered that before. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever felt entitled to be. Whenever I would begin to get angry, there was always someone there to remind me that others were hurting too, that it wasn’t quite the time or place, or that it was being directed at the wrong person or thing. Maybe it is time to be angry.

The question is “How?” Obviously I can’t walk around pissed off at the World and lashing out at everyone in it.  There’s got to be a constructive way to get it out, to channel it.

Maybe if I listen closely enough, my inner voice will offer more insight. Hopefully, it’ll happen before six months from now.

Thick Skin, Soft Heart

As I’ve been chronicling my struggles in trying to become a mom and the small window that is closing on me, some of you might wonder about why this struggle is as painful as it is.  After all, I am a stepmom, so I do have child in my stepchild.  This is true, and I do love my Skid, but those of you who aren’t in a blended family situation may find it hard to comprehend how it is not exactly the same as having a child of your own.

Oh my Skid… my wonderful, funny, sharp as a tack Skid.  I have never met a person who can so completely capture my heart and break it at the same time. Well, not since the 8th grade when I had a crush on a boy with deep-brown eyes who never gave me the time of day, but he liked my friend.  Putting puppy love aspect of the metaphor aside, it is actually very similar scenario.  Living life with Skid is painfully like being that insecure 14 year-old girl in that invisible love triangle.

The life of a step parent, especially that of stepmom, means reconciling to the fact that you’ve come into a pre-established relationship, and even if your are entrenched in both your husband’s and your stepchild’s life, you are still a bit of an foreigner.  It’s a role that psychologist Patricia Papernow coined as “the intimate outsider.” You are privy to the ins and outs of your family, but you are without the ties and history that bond child and parent. You can perform the duties of a parent – pack the lunches, do the laundry, complete registrations for basketball camp, and anything else that’s required – but you do not (and cannot) occupy that space that rightly belongs to Mom and Dad in your stepchild’s mind and heart.  Your role lies outside that sacred space, and most stepchildren do not appreciate it if you try to cross over into it.  Life is a daily dance:  The “Don’t get too close; don’t step too far back” cha-cha.

I count myself lucky that I’ve never heard the dreaded, “you’re not my mom!”  I feel I can safely assume Skid doesn’t hate me; yet at the same time, I’m acutely aware of daily behaviors that clearly delineate where I rank on the totem pole.  They are often imperceptible to Hubs, but speak volumes to me:

  • The family is watching a movie. Hubs can’t stay awake, so he gets up to go to bed. Skid takes off as well leaving me by myself
  • Skid offers Hubs a sip of soda, taste of ice cream, or piece of a candy bar, but never offers the same to me.
  • When Hubs cooks dinner, Skid hovers around the kitchen when food is being plated; when I cook dinner, Skid sits at the table with Hubs while I’m doing the plating.
  • When driving Skid to basketball, school, or sports camp, Skid pulls the most amazing contortionist’s act in order to be turned away from me and toward the passenger’s side window. 
  • Any suggestion or offer of help I have to give is met with a “No,” with the possible exception of an offer to go to McDonald’s.

Now, these behaviors are small and seemingly innocuous.  But no matter how big or small the act, it underscores that they mean a lot more to you than you mean to them -and that can really mess with your self-concept.  You know you’re nice, you know you’re lovable, but any amount of rejection on a daily basis will wear a gal down.

When you become a stepmother, there is one directive you will hear again and again:  Don’t take it personally.  It was a phrase I learned to hate in the first years of being a stepmom.  Being naturally thin-skinned, taking it personally was EXACTLY what I did, especially after my pregnancy losses.  I’d be lying on the couch for days emptying boxes of tissues and nursing my broken heart, and Skid would sail right by and not even acknowledge my presence.  I was in total despair. Not only was my body betraying me, but my step child acted like I did not exist.  I sadly admit that I let it harden my heart for a while.

One day, I was lucky enough to stumble across a blog post written by a women who was both a stepmom AND a stepchild.  Her perspective helped me finally “get it.”   While I haven’t exactly gotten it all figured out, I have adopted the mantra of “Tough skin, Soft heart” to keep myself centered during those times when I’ve seemed to slip into invisible mode in my family.

One Step Forward, One Step Back

While Snow White gets a new kick-butt persona, the stepmother archetype remains stagnent.

Who doesn’t love a Hollywood makeover?  Especially when well-worn stories that once  featured the helpless damsel in distress are retold with a more empowered, feminist point of view.

Case in point, the two upcoming releases featuring retellings of Snow White. Both feature sword-wielding protaganists determined to take control of their fate and reclaim their rightful kingdoms all the while looking amazing. So what can be anti-feminist about kick-butt versions of classic fairytale princesses?  Enter the villian. 

In order to become heros in their stories, both Snow Whites must face off with their respective Evil Queens who both perpetuate the evil stepmother archetype: one played by Julia Roberts and the other by Charlize Theron. While the classic Disney version of the tale never made the Queen’s connection to Snow White clear, both remakes in question explicitly cast the villain in the stepmother role.

So why is this a feminist issue? This archetype perpetuates the notion of stepmoms as hateful, controlling interlopers who do nothing but seek to fulfill their own desires even if it means crushing their stepchildren in the process. An archetype that in most cases could be nothing further from the truth. According the Wednesday Martin, author of the book Stepmonster, stepmothers are often the most powerless and vulnerable members of the stepfamily system.

To those outside of stepfamily life, it is difficult to perceive the differences between a stepfamily and a first family.  As a result, roles within the stepfamily are judged by a first family standard.  To an outsider, the situation appears simple, the new wife fills the former wife’s role in the household.  If she loves her husband, loves the children, attends to their needs and is nice, everyone will get along and be a happy family.  If she fails to show anything other than enthusiam for her role or his kids, she is judged harshly for it.  “You knew he had kids when you were dating him, what did you expect?” 

In reality, stepfamilies are complex situations that are based in loss. Remarriages bring together individuals who bring their different histories and past hurts into the situation. The child inevitably hurts from the disentigration of his first family. The parents feel guilty about the hurt they’ve caused their children, which often leads to overcompensation by way of lessened discipline, increased privileges, or even treatment of the child as an equal, blurring the line between adult and child.  Adding another person to the mix is not as simple as snapping a puzzle piece into place.  It does not make what is broken whole again.  It creates choas which doesn’t resolve easily. Boundaries must be re-established, discipline needs to be addressed, old wounds are opened… all related to issues that existed before the stepmom came along, but are attributed to her as her presence brought change about.  Very often, she feels responsible for fixing what she didn’t break. It’s part of what makes her role so difficult.    

The perpetuation of the evil stepmother archetype continues to cast a shadow on a greatly misunderstood role.  It creates more stress. Stepmoms seek to avoid the label even to their detriment.  According to Martin:

“Canadian researchers have found that, owing to their conviction that they must “blend” the family, and owing also to their fear of being perceived as wicked, stepmothers tend to take on the role of family counselor and marital therapist, and to bend over backwards to be “perfect.” The result is feelings of exhaustion and burnout. And such feelings, combined with the hostile environment she often finds herself in when the kids are around, prime her for anxiety and depression.”  

Not exactly the stuff of female empowerment. 

As a stepmom, I long for the day when stepmothers are portrayed against the archetype as someone sympathetic you can cheer for instead of distain.  Until then, the closest we’ll get is Alison Janey’s character in Juno who passionately defended her pregnant teenage stepdaughter to an insensitive ultrasound technician and, of course, Julia Roberts, in the somewhat unrealistic Stepmom.

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