Archive for the ‘Step Roles/Identity’ 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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Last year I wrote this short post about the different roles of mothers and fathers, commenting how stepmothers often seem to play the father role.

My suspicions were reinforced in marriage counseling class today. The topic was gender differences in parenting, and my professor reinforced all the ways that (typical) fathers differ from (typical) mothers. How many of these do you stepmoms recognize in your own stepparenting?

Fathers often…

  • teach children about how to strive for independence and function well in the outside world
  • enforce (or, in our case, want to enforce) rules and discipline
  • tend to be stricter
  • play with children more than nurture them
  • have an easier time connecting with the kids while doing an activity together

I’ll raise my hand here—guilty as charged. (Except for playing, at which I am not the greatest.) The good news is, both kinds of parenting are needed, and whether this stuff comes from mom, dad, stepmom or grandpa, it’s all good.

What I find fascinating is how often in stepfamilies, the biological father ends up playing the more lenient, nurturing “mother” role, while the stepmother becomes the “father.” (My professor says, by the way, that this is an astute observation. Go me.) But what I didn’t tell him was how unsatisfied I am to be a woman and play the father in my family. Though it might feel right for many, I’m not one of them. There’s an emptiness there that fostering independence in my stepdaughter just can’t fill.

I’m also very curious to know how women who start out as stepmoms, and play the father role, change when they have biological children. Do they revert to full-on mom-style parenting? Do they remain, essentially, fathers? Or do they blend the two styles? If I had to hazard a guess, I’d wager that the latter option is probably the most common. I know if I had my own child, I’d do far more nurturing than I do as a stepmother. But I also believe very strongly in independence and boundaries, and can’t imagine letting that go. Anyone who’s been there, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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How do you ever get over the feeling of being a non-entity in your stepchild’s life?

I know, I know: Better to be neutral than evil. But is it? It’s more peaceful, sure. But the toll of feeling insignificant, valueless—in your own home—is devastating. The constant subtle reminders that you don’t really count, you don’t really register, perpetuate this slow steady siphoning of your self-worth.

And the kicker is that the stepchild is doing nothing wrong. The stepchild is perhaps a model stepchild, in fact, a kind and polite and friendly stepchild.

But this stepchild doesn’t love you as you want to be loved. And it’s the only child you’ll ever have.

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I will confess—I love going to B&Bs. I love all the hokey decorations and the faux Victorian stylings. But the one thing I don’t love so much is having to talk to the owners and other guests at breakfast.

I prefer my breakfasts quiet—just my husband and me—and (I have to be honest) I really don’t care about chatting it up with people I’ll never see again. But what makes every B&B breakfast ever so much more uncomfortable is everyone’s inevitable suspicion that I am a not a “real” mother.

It always goes something like this. The kindly owner asks about our summer. My husband mentions our daughter —he always says she is ours; I know some don’t like this, but I do. (So far so good.) Then he mentions that she plays competitive sports. (Cue the quizzical look.) Then he mentions that she is 14, or in high school. (They are openly looking at me now, sizing me up. “She’s much too young to have a daughter in high school,” I can hear their minds ticking. “She must be the stepmother.”)

And so I can feel the burning in my face, the shifting in my seat. I’m actually not too young; I’m twenty years older than my stepdaughter. But that isn’t the point. I look young, my husband looks older, and I know what people think. And the truth is that I hate even being thought to be a stepmother. I go on vacation, at least in part, to escape life. I can pretend to be a young mother or one half of a happy child-free couple.

Until the B&B breakfast.

I don’t really understand my shame. In reality there is much to be proud of in being a good stepparent. It is one of the most difficult roles in a family, and to take it on and do it gracefully should be considered by all to be a major accomplishment. Yet that’s never how it feels in the wider world. Stepmother, especially childless stepmother, equals “less than.” It means “not real.” And there I sit, blushing into my omelette, exposed as this lesser creature.

What would the world be like, I wonder, if stepparents were admired and praised for taking on the challenges we do? I close my eyes and imagine this: compliments, encouragement. Wow, that’s great! You must be very courageous. You must really love your husband to do such a difficult thing. Your family is lucky to have you! It would change my experience completely if I thought that people equated stepmother, especially childless stepmother, with “more than”—more bravery, more patience, more self-sacrifice, more thoughtfulness.

Maybe that day is coming. I wish I didn’t need it. I wish I could sit there and hope that my husband revealed my step-identity. I wish I could happily smack down my home fries, brimming with pride that I and my friends embrace this difficult life. Because the plain truth is that we are “more than.” And I don’t know why I let strangers make me feel like anything less.

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Okay, so I put the term “psychological” in the title just to obscure the fact that that this post is based entirely on a conversation with my husband and not any cold hard data.

We were riding our bikes today and it was just a magnificent afternoon—beautiful and warm with a soft breeze. We’d just been out picnicking and were on our way home down a charming tree-lined street.

My husband suddenly said, “Isn’t this a beautiful day? It…makes me want to move.”

“Hmm, that’s counter-intuitive,” I said. “It’s so great that you want to move away?”

But that’s exactly it. Sometimes, when we’re most aware of how nice things can be here, we’re also most aware of how little we fit in.

Now I’ve always known that there’s something stifling about living in a community where I have met only one other stepparent in five years. Even though people have been surprisingly friendly (at least to my face!), the feeling of difference never really goes away. As a not-a-real-mom, I have no real place in a world where mothers are still bringing cupcakes to their middle-schoolers’ classrooms.

But even as a dad, my husband is on the outs too. Sure, as a Little League coach or algebra tutor, he’s welcomed with open arms. But fathers as nurturers, as planners? People don’t even think of it. Though my stepdaughter lives with us half the time, every single party invitation she has ever received has been sent to her biological mother. When my husband emailed a mom last week offering to give her daughter a ride to an event, she made other arrangements and didn’t even bother to reply.

But it’s not my intention here to moan about the culture or rude people: they are what they are (and I complain pretty constantly in my head, so I get my fill). What’s sad, I guess, is that my husband and I can’t even enjoy living in such a nice place because we are always, always hemmed in by his past and the present realities of shared custody. Every person we meet knows—and probably favors—my stepdaughter’s mom, both because she is a very friendly person with genuine merits and also because she has the maternal advantage. We just don’t feel like we live on our own terms here. We just don’t feel like we connect with a community that is our own.

So, when my stepdaughter goes off to college, my husband and I will probably move. My instinct, of course, is to “win” this one—to hunker down and wait it out, knowing that when my stepdaughter becomes an adult, we will be surrounded far more rarely by the kind of people who make us feel like accessories. Why should we have to get drummed out, after all?

But that taint may still be with us, the bad taste left in our mouths by all those years of being square pegs in round holes. And the thought of truly starting over in a place where no one knows us—where we can make our own way and forge a new life—where no one will ever meet, let alone socialize with, my husband’s ex—gives me feelings of freedom and relief whose restorative potential seems pretty immense.

There are many things I love about where I live: the ability to work outside on a sunny day (as I’m doing now), the proximity to so many worthwhile places, the amazing cake. But there’s more to a good place to live than just the weather and the proliferation of charming restaurants. Without psychological space, I’m coming to realize, it just doesn’t feel like home.

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I have buckets of respect for every kind of stepmom. But there is one type in particular that really, really gets me where it counts. I call her the Real Mom.

The Real Mom steps in to do the day-in, day-out work of mothering that the biological mother cannot or will not do. The sick days, the driving, the facts-of-life talks. She is the mother in every way save biologically. And more often than not, her stepchildren love her and depend on her just as the mother she is.

But it’s not that simple—for often those children have a living biological mother whom they still see. Maybe she’s a drug addict who can’t care for them. Maybe she’s chosen to pursue a career in another geographical location. Maybe she never really wanted children and decided to give custody to the father. Whatever the reason, she isn’t a primary caretaker and certainly not the primary mother.

If life—and emotions—were rational, children in these situations would rearrange their expectations and their labels. Stepmom would fill the role of mom; biological mom would fill the role of friend, aunt, stepmom, stranger—wherever she fits.

But it rarely works that way. Even as these children love their stepmoms with all their hearts, they still long for the love and attention of their biological mothers. Indeed, there are two horrific tasks routinely cast upon this type of stepmother. The first is comforting her stepchildren after their biological mother has let them down, trying as her own heart shreds to convince the kids that “your mom really does love you.” The second is to be supportive when the biological mother does follow through, smiling through her hurt and tears at the kids’ bounteous excitement and joy.

Honest to god, I don’t know how they do it. I can scarcely imagine anything more heartbreaking.

Clearly our society’s views of motherhood do their part to foster this emotional turmoil. “Everyone knows” that mothers would do anything for their children. “Everyone knows” that kids always come first in their mothers’ hearts. But where does this belief leave the children whose mothers will not do most things—let alone everything—for them? It leaves them lost. It leaves them wondering what they did wrong. It leaves them pining for the assurance that comes with maternal love, even when they have stepmothers supporting them every step of the way.

But is it just society that creates this dynamic, or is there something deeper? Humor me for a moment as I dig up a crazy theory.

Carl Jung believed that all human beings share certain instinctive concepts of various roles and ideas. He called these “archetypes.” Every culture, he argued, has a concept of Good and Evil. Every culture has a concept of a Hero. While the definitions of these archetypes may vary, human beings are born understanding them. And The Mother is one of the most important.

Now I am not a Jungian. I don’t know that I believe in archetypes at all. But I started thinking about the incredible pain these children feel when their mothers abandon them, even those who are lovingly nurtured by other caretakers. Is it really just a kid-centric society’s doing? Or is there something deep and instinctive and human that is profoundly disturbed when a mother fails to live up to our universal concept of what she should be? (And is there a part of these kids that questions a loving stepmother because she is not the archetypal wicked one they instinctively expect?)

I don’t know. I’d like to believe that with time, work, and love, these kids can learn to accept and forgive their biological mothers—and embrace their stepmothers for the crucial role they really play. I’d like to believe that they can put biology aside, realizing that true mothering is an endeavor of spirit and choice, not genetics.

I’d like to believe that—if the archetype exists—they can refashion it.

“Real Mom” doesn’t mean biological, no matter how casually and erroneously the term might be used. Real Mom is the woman who—whoever she is—does the daily, messy job of loving and shaping and raising children. And that’s an archetype I can believe in.

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“The role of fathers thus becomes important early on…as an alternative to the intensity of the mother-infant dyad with its potential fears of merging and over-closeness.”
– Horne, “Normal Emotional Development” (33)

This article goes on to suggest that mothers do their job by fostering creativity in the infant, while fathers do theirs by directing that energy to the outside world. That all makes sense…in the infant. But what’s interesting is that this struggle between dependence and independence continues to be an issue for many families long past infancy. I’ve encountered so many stepmothers who feel inspired to foster the independence in their stepchildren that the biological parents—either one or both—try to neutralize.

Maybe in this regard stepmothers are not only more like dads than moms, but even more “dadlike” than dads!

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I’ve been reading about a theory of human development called Social Role Theory, which postulates that people learn and develop by observing and taking on roles that already exist in their larger society. We start out in the “child” role and move into more complicated and numerous roles as we grow older.

While I don’t think this theory accounts for all of human development, it certainly goes a long way in explaining why we stepparents often feel so lost and discombobulated. Most of us have no role models whatsoever, let alone those we have observed since childhood. I’d even guess that a good chunk of us have a totally hazy or unrealistic view of what the role even is. How can we possibly expect to embody it?

Even more interesting, the theory explains that many roles are reciprocal—parent/child, student/teacher, employee/employer. As we grow up, then, we often move from one end of the pair to the other—starting as children, for example, we observe how to be a parent, and then later become that parent. But the stepparent role doesn’t have its own discrete pair: instead, the same child is paired with both a parent and a stepparent. This can cause role confusion for all the participants—child, stepparents, and biological parents.

On a positive note, if this Social Role Theory is even a little bit valid, it suggests that stepparenting may become less difficult and confusing as more of us grow up with our own stepparents. In theory, if children can observe confident stepparents, they will be better suited to taking on that role themselves if needed.

Of course the sticking point is that it’s much harder to define the role of the stepparent than it is to define the role of the child or the biological parent. Stepparents can be everything from acting parents to totally disengaged—and depending on the unique family makeup and personalities involved, anywhere on that spectrum could be considered “successful.” It’s hard to see how there could ever be one basic stepparent role that would work for every family.

Still, I think the increasing prevalence of stepparents will make a big difference when some of our kids become stepparents themselves. Even if they choose to do things differently than we did, they’ll still have some foundation for making those choices—Stepparent Roles that they have observed and can then accept, reject, or modify to serve their own unique families.

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