I’m at the point in my education now that the university feels comfortable enough unleashing me upon actual people. For this exciting step, called “practicum,” I’m going to be working with a grief counseling organization. I’m really excited! (And not lying. This is why counselors are freaks. I was thrilled to get a 22-page assignment during training called “Personal Death Assessment.”)

Anyway, I’m going to be serving as a facilitator for the grief support groups for children aged 5-12. It sounds like it’s going to be about half grief work (through discussion, art, and movement) and half herding cats.

I felt strong during the training. Unlike most of my fellow volunteers, I have not had a serious loss, so I didn’t expect to experience triggers during the 5 training days. And for the most part, I was right.

Until one of the staff members started talking about his work with the teen groups.

He mentioned that one of the biggest issues for grieving teens is when their living parent begins a new relationship or remarries.

And all my hackles went up. I could just hear these kids:

Why does he have to date anyone?

I hate her. She’s trying to take down my mom’s pictures.

That bitch will never be my mother!

Oh, I know I’m being one-sided. But that’s the point, because everyone else in the world is on the other side. The reality is that of course grieving children need love and conversation and guidance during such a difficult transition—and many widowed parents handle these things horribly. It is admirable that these particular teens are working out their feelings in a positive, supportive group in which they feel understood and validated. All evidence suggests that they are wise, thoughtful kids who have the best intentions.

Yet I’m still triggered. Because I just don’t want to hear kids talk about how much they hate their stepmoms.

I have some work to do on myself, of course. I have some work to do before I can come to a grieving teenager as the pure and unconditional vessel I want to be. But for now, I’m just a little bit glad that the teen groups are not seeking any new facilitators.

The childless stepmom

I wanted to share this wonderfully brave and honest blog post — well worth reading!


I’ll Be Back

I know, I keep threatening these things, but this time it’s really going to be true. After meeting with an advisor yesterday, I learned that I need to get back to school for spring quarter (starting in March) if I’m going to graduate next year. So I reinstated my student status on the spot and got my shiny registration appointment for Monday. I’m also going to be starting to work in real, actual counseling surroundings with real, actual people.

I have so many things to share here—not least of which is some fascinating material from my Multicultural Counseling and Family Therapy courses from the last school year—and I’m excited to return. (You can tell because I’m trumpeting with a kazoo and everything.)

Wow. What a long and terrible absence. I want to apologize for disappearing off the face of the blogosphere.

To put it briefly, about a year ago my life, uh, exploded a little. The changes were ultimately good, but a little crazy-making (literally, but we’ll get to that). At six months pregnant, I ended up taking over a family business after the death of a beloved family friend. Reinventing the wheel became a daily necessity, as did hauling packages to the post office in my most rotund state. Then school started, my last quarter before the baby arrived. Three days after my last final, my daughter picked her birthday — two and a half weeks early. And two months after that I got postpartum depression!

It’s been a long road. But I’m doing great now and have so much to share. I look forward to getting back to my stepsleuthing. Thanks for being here!

This summer I’m taking an advanced course in group therapy, and we met last weekend for an all-day group therapy session with our professor serving as one of the leaders and each of us as members. (We’ll spend the rest of the class time watching the videos of the session and analyzing the work of the leaders.)

In preparation, we were instructed to bring a topic to discuss. “I don’t have any stepmom issues right now,” I thought glibly, and planned to talk about something else.

Well, wouldn’t you know it—another member started talking about parental guilt, and there I went. Within minutes I was weeping about how hard it is to be a stepmom, how much I worry about how my actions and presence and absence—and my pregnancy—affect my stepdaughter.

The conversation moved on to other topics, but I was sitting there churning. My professor noticed and brought it back to me. I could barely speak as I cried about how guilty I feel for bringing another child into this family—a child that my husband and stepdaughter were perfectly happy without.

My professor asked me to turn to another member and say, “I deserve this,” which I could barely do. I believe it, sort of, but not fully—and not enough not to be guilty too. But it was wonderful to recognize and express those feelings. Everyone was so supportive and kind. And even though only one other person in the group was a stepparent, I felt like they really understood anyway. I love group therapy with insightful people!

Yesterday—five days after the therapy session—my husband and I sat spellbound by the magic of technology as doctors told us our baby is a healthy and perfectly formed little girl. We spent the day basking in the news, and last night he turned to me and told me how happy he is. It went a long way in turning guilt to joy.

As I’ve said before, my counseling psychology program—while so good in so many ways—never seems to address stepfamily issues directly or at any length. I know, there’s a  lot to smash into two or three years of coursework. Still, it’s a big gap. Most of my colleagues will emerge with fresh master’s degrees but no understanding of stepfamily concerns and dynamics.

Job security for me? Okay, maybe. But I know so many stepparents who have been burned by ignorant therapists that I can’t feel comfortable about the oversight.

One required class is called “Counseling for Contemporary Issues”—and I was sure that this would cover some stepfamily basics. But no! I haven’t taken it yet, but I’ve heard that it’s about unsavory things such as alcoholism and child abuse. (Yeah…I guess that stuff is important too.)

Well, recently my school started offering the option to qualify for a very similar, but slightly different, counseling license. In doing so, they launched a second, followup contemporary issues class. It’s brand-new next year, so I haven’t heard anything about it, but I’m really hoping that stepfamilies (and other emerging family structures) are covered. And since I’m going for both licenses, I’ll be slotted to take that class in the next year or so. Here’s to hoping that they’ve corrected this huge omission in the curriculum.

I began my counseling psychology program intending to specialize in stepfamily issues. Daunted by the difficulty of couple’s counseling (yes, I’ll admit it! It’s freaking scary!), and therefore even more frightened of family therapy (though I haven’t taken that class yet), I was starting to think that my goals were going to have to undergo a significant shift.

Luckily, I’ve landed on a modality that really feels like it could be the perfect fit for me. This past quarter I finally took the beginning group therapy course. Every student in the class also had to participate in a small therapy group (as a member). And though my group was composed of mostly young women, none with children or stepchildren, I felt a level of support and empathy from these women that reminded me profoundly of the wonderful, life-changing experiences I’ve had with online forums for stepmoms.

If you’ve ever joined such a forum, can you remember the incredible relief and happiness you felt upon realizing that you’d found a whole community of women who understand you and your struggles? The isolation stepmothers feel is often so complete and so deadly, and I believe there is immense therapeutic power in simply not feeling alone.

I want to bring this curative feeling of belonging, acceptance, and support to stepmoms in my local community. The group therapy format is absolutely perfect, perhaps even better than individual therapy in many cases: it ends the isolation, it encourages members to share stories and suggest ideas, and it’s a very cost-effective way to provide much-needed sanity to multiple people on a regular basis.

This summer I’ll be taking the advanced group course. I’m so excited to have landed upon the specialty that I believe will truly help the people closest to my heart.

Happy news

Ah, I’m so sorry for the long absence, but I swear I have a good reason: I’m pregnant!

Last summer, after reaching another excruciating impasse, my husband finally suggested that we see a therapist. We spent three months hashing out our desires and fears before deciding to pursue having a child together. Even if the outcome had been different, it was a great step for our marriage. I finally feel accepted for what I want and feel. That scary crevasse in the otherwise-perfect marriage has been plugged.

Does he have mixed feelings? Sure. My husband is a fretter. Until he can see for a fact that our marriage will continue to thrive with a full-time kid in the picture, he’s not going to relax. But I know, with the same weird confidence that I felt the first time I met him, that it’s all going to be good.

So there it is. I’m coming out of the first-trimester gloom and ready to start blogging again. Though my coursework lately has not been related to the stepfamily experience at all, I’ll share every tidbit I can!

Sorry I’ve been absent for a while; my latest classes have had zero stepfamily content (except, of course, that I’ve been studying borderline personality disorder, which gives me even more sympathy for the stepmoms I know dealing with borderline BMs!). And my personal life, great shock and surprise, has been going swimmingly.

But I do want to add another category to this blog in the meantime—namely, reviews of stepfamily-related books. And I don’t mean the important nonfiction that we’ve all read, Stepmonster and the like. I want to look at stepfamily relationships in literature.

Today we start with Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. Published as a serial between 1864 and 1866, it is certainly the earliest look at stepfamilies that I’ve ever seen. Even so, it illustrates many of the nuances and complexities of remarried life that we experience today.

I’ll warn you straight out: the stepmother is, sort of, the bad guy. But she’s not a true villain, and that is an important distinction. The reason she is the antagonist reveals as much about the timelessness of stepmother-stepdaughter difficulties as it does about the changes in parenting that have occurred over the last 150 years. But let’s first cover the basics.

Wives and Daughters is set in the charming English countryside. The story follows teenage Molly Gibson, whose mother died when she was very young. Molly’s father, a housecall-making doctor often away from home, decides to remarry in the hopes of providing Molly with a caretaker and chaperone. As though drawing a name from a hat, he chooses a beautiful widow whose own daughter is the same age as Molly.

Molly is devastated by the news. Having lived for a decade with only her father, she can’t imagine sharing him with another woman; she dreads being replaced. The feelings, her grief, are so like the ones my own stepdaughter once had that I marvel at the perpetuity of this struggle. Yet here is the difference: Molly, in many ways, has some cause for concern. In those days, children didn’t fancy themselves equal to adults, and Molly’s stepmother does in fact take over the position that Molly once held. Molly is expected to call her stepmother “Mama,” and both Molly and her father cater to the new wife’s wishes, even abandoning any physical affection so as not to make her jealous. (Can you imagine that happening today? It’s quite the opposite in most households!)

Still, Mrs. Gibson is not a villain. She is silly and shallow, but she genuinely cares for Molly in her own way. Her primary concern, in fact, is that she not be viewed as a “typical stepmother” who would treat her biological daughter better than her daughter by marriage. This theme runs throughout the novel—clearly it was the standard view of stepmothers in those days—and I have to say I recognized a bit of my own paranoia in Mrs. Gibson’s frequent worries about how others in the community perceive her.

All in all, I found the novel refreshingly nuanced for what I expected from 1865. Of course, I wished that the stepmother hadn’t been the problem character, but frankly it could have been much worse! Even as a stepmother myself, I could feel for Molly (who is a likable, if too thoroughly sweet, character)—and I also liked that the book presented stepfamilies as neither miserably horrid nor magically easy. In Wives and Daughters, we watch the Gibsons struggle to create one new family out of two distinct ones. It’s the same struggle we all face today.

Unresolvable problems

“In his vast research on marriage, Gottman reports that 69% of marital problems are unresolvable or perpetual, in that they involve core differences in personality or needs that are fundamental to the partners’ sense of self. It’s how couples go about not resolving their problems that differentiates happy and unhappy couples.” (Clinical Casebook of Couple Therapy, 42, emphasis original)

These two sentences totally blow me away. 69 percent! I can’t help but wonder why so many people who are so different would get married in the first place. But according to my couple counseling professor, who’s practiced for over 40 years, most people do marry those with significant personality differences. (It’s unclear to me if he is referring to most people in general, or most people in couple therapy. The implications of each are pretty different.)

I admit my bias: I’m not sure people who can’t meet each other’s significant needs should be together at all. The whole concept of learning how not to resolve problems makes my eyes bug out of my head a little. Of course, we all do some of that—I deal with my husband’s social anxiety, for example, by leaving him at home when I go to visit friends. But even that small instance of not-resolving is, to me, imperfect. I’m a problem-solver; I want my issues fixed. When the differences in needs get too vast, how satisfying can a marriage be?

It just makes me think of the stepmoms who deal with a towering heap of problems by scheduling activities away from the family, working longer hours, and spending holidays alone. Are they happy? No! But they manage to stay, just barely, on the edge of sanity. I’m willing to bet this is the “unhappy” brand of not-resolving, but I’m dying to know what distinguishes the two.

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