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.