Archive for the ‘Personal Reflections’ Category

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.


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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.)

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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!

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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.

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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!

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In class last week I watched my own couple therapy unfold before my eyes.

My professor played one member of the couple, an older man with children from a previous marriage. A classmate played his younger, childless wife.

He didn’t want more kids; and when they got together, neither did she. But she’d changed, and he hadn’t, and though they were happy in every other way…there they were.

It was surreal. My classmate—not a stepmom—did a really amazing job predicting and expressing the feelings I had poured out before my own therapist.

My professor said afterward that this was a real case of his. He wanted to demonstrate what are, to him, the most heartbreaking cases of all: the ones where a wonderful couple just can’t agree on an issue for which there is no possible compromise.

And how strange to know that my husband and I were, more or less, that tragic couple. I couldn’t help thinking that, if this demonstration had come only a few months earlier, I probably would have left the classroom in tears.

But if you’re like me, you want to know what the outcome was for this couple in real life. My professor said that they finally agreed to try for a child for six months. If they were not successful, they would stop. And that’s what happened. The husband’s daughter ended up having her own child, and the stepmom helped raise the baby. My professor pointed out this last as a positive, though I know many a stepmom whose heart would remain forever in pieces to see her own stepdaughter having the experience she was denied.

Caught in the uncertainty of trying for my own child, I have no way of knowing if this woman’s fate won’t also be mine. All I can do is hope for better, and be grateful that my husband—like this man—came around.

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In my graduate program there is a huge age-and-life-experience divide. Most students are in their young-to-mid 20s, unmarried with no children. A significant group is in their 40s and 50s, almost all married or divorced with children. I, a childless stepmother at 34, sit squarely between these two camps.

And not for the first time in the past year, I witnessed the parents smugly patronizing the non-parents.

It started out innocently enough. My professor was talking about the impact that children have on a marriage. And suddenly he said, “When you have children, your capacity for love instantly expands. It really affects how you do therapy.”

That’s right, folks. Having kids not only makes you more loving, it makes you a better therapist!

Well, you can bet the parents in the class jumped all over that jazz. They were all glowing and sharing anecdotes about their marvelous expansive love.

Oh, but wait. Before anyone could get too annoyed, too offended, there came the attempt to level the playing field…

“That’s not to say that you have to have kids to be a good therapist,” my professor hastily explained. “There are lots of ways to get in touch with that kind of love.” He went on to say that one of the best marriage counselors he knows is a nun.

I believe he meant it. But the damage was done. The non-parents got the good old patronizing pat on the head. I’ve seen this same treatment over and over again: Having children is the most meaningful thing in the world! they gush. Oh, but there are lots of meaningful things in the world. Don’t you worry, now. And then they go on their self-satisfied way, feeling like they’ve exonerated themselves from rudeness while still having made their superiority perfectly clear.

Witnessing all this, I felt worse for the other non-parents than for myself. After all, my classmates know I’m a stepmother, and never would I admit to them that my experience in that capacity has been any less satisfying than their own lives as parents. And perhaps before too long I’ll have a biological child of my own.

But I still wanted to punch them all.

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