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.

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