Living in the Shadow

You are going to have good days and you are going to have bad days. It’s part of being human. In your stepfamily you may feel more of the extremes than anywhere else in your life. Some days you will feel like you are queen of the world and everything is aligned and in order. You can tend to have that “bring it on” attitude because ain’t nothing taking you down. Other days you will feel like you are out in the middle of the ocean with 20 foot swells battering you around in your little boat. You likely feel that the closest rock to hide under is the perfect escape for you. The work we have as stepmothers is finding the balance of all the other days that fall in the spectrum between these two extremes, as this is where daily life happens.

Perhaps some of the days that the rock may look pretty good to take a rest under are Mother’s Day, Birthdays, and the Holidays. These days can feel alienating to a stepmom as they are a reminder of the life that was created before you joined the family. A whole intimate family system was intact. Children were conceived. Celebrations were had. Memories were made and will be talked about now and it can make you feel melancholy about not experiencing it yourself. You will never have the role of bio mom. You will go through phases of feeling like you’re living in the shadow of her. You will be more concerned about her than she ever will be with you. Remember you stepped onto the train that was in motion, a few people have gotten off, and a few people have gotten on - one of them being you.

I’ve been in my blended family for over a decade. I can tell you that time does help to heal. And when I say time, I mean it could take years. Sure there can be exceptions, but this balance takes more than a couple of months. There is a dance of integration, patience, and acceptance. There is no forcing of anything in a blended family. Nothing. It’s like learning a new language. It takes time, it takes work, it takes being kind and patient with yourself. It takes courage to weave a new life thread together.

As I am writing this a mourning dove has flown into the bird feeder outside my office. I wasn’t going to share, but I decided to look up what the meaning of this feathered friend is. What I found was: “the symbolism of mourning doves gives us optimism with its spirituality. Beyond their sorrowful song is a message of life, hope, renewal and peace.”

As stepmothers I feel we embody the mourning dove. Even it’s name. There is a place in us that mourns having not created these children with our partner, but gratitude to their mother that she did. We strive to bring peace to the family unit and are hopeful for what we can create. We don’t share DNA, but we can share what we’ve learned in our lives, how we process it, and how differences are ok. We offer a valuable and, likely, different perspective than their parents do. Which I like to think is pretty lucky.

In my work with other stepmothers I’ve learned that collectively as women we have to continue to look for the good in others, particularly right at home in our blended families. We are the divine feminine and embodying that means showing love, compassion, patience, acceptance, and kindness. You may feel insignificant on some days, but remember you are the weaver of the connections. Own this role in a gentle and accessible way. This is yours to define and continue to redefine. I’m on that same path with you, sister, and we can do it. 

Chrysta Horwedel

Chrysta is a Certified Stepfamily Coach and stepmother of two. Her approach is holistic, supported by certifications as a health and ayurvedic wellness coach and yoga instructor. She enjoys music, writing, hiking, healthy food, wine, and travel. She lives with her family in Los Angeles. Connect with Chrysta at instantblendedfamily.com. 

Mothering Day

Mother’s Day is coming up and I have lovely memories of celebrating my grandmother and mother on this special day. These women graciously and selflessly mothered me in many ways and they deserved to be recognized, at least, on this one day carved out for them. 

I would put on a lovely dress and we would go to have a brunch at a fancy place. We went out because that was the one day that the ladies would not be in the kitchen taking care of everyone else. My grandmother was a widow for as long as I could remember and my mother a single mom. They didn’t have a choice but to keep mothering and taking care of everyone, including themselves. 

Oh, and did I mention I had a stepmom too? My stepmom was on the outskirts of my childhood, dropping in here and there when I would see my father on occasion. It was a amicable relationship we had which I’m grateful for, but I was an easy-play-by-the-rules kind of kid so I didn’t attract much drama or discipline. We were close, but never too close.   

Little did I know back then that I would be in the stepmom role years later myself. Surprise! Being a sensitive empath isn’t exactly aligned with this role. I’ve made mistake after mistake after mistake over the years because of being overly involved. But as life goes, we learn from our mistakes and adapt to new ways of being. I’ll admit though, sometimes I wish I could trade in my sensitivity in order to channel that calm, cool, collected British demeanor my stepmom so effortlessly embodied. But no special Harry Potter wand for this girl to create any spells.  

Being a stepmom takes courage, grace, and confidence (and a bit of wine doesn’t hurt either).You are not the mother. Nope. Sorry. You have influence, but not control. You can speak your mind, but after you are heard: let goooooo. I mean it. Let go of any attachment of what YOU think the outcome should be. You will drive yourself mad. Focus on the good parts of the stepfamily and find new ways of approaching the not so good parts.  

Mother’s Day will never be your day, but there’s room for stepmoms to be recognized too. Did you know there is an official stepmothers day? Probably not as it’s not something that is in the mainstream of our society…yet. The kids have a mother and she will be recognized and celebrated by her children on Mother’s Day. It can be challenging to treat this as any other day, but in my experience it’s best to not have any expectations around this day. But I won’t lie, when I have received a text from the kids or flowers from my partner, I’ve felt incredibly grateful for the gesture and happy I was seen for my mothering.  

It hasn’t been the norm in our society, but I feel things need to shift to include stepmoms into the Mother’s Day “club”. Perhaps it is even changing Mother’s Day to Mothering Day. The majority of families today are now blended and stepmoms play a vital role in the raising of children. It takes a village to raise these children and it is time to be more inclusive of the the individuals who are present, despite how they arrived in the child’s life. It’s time to practice coexistence and to let go of old thoughts around the evil stepmother. 

If you are a stepmom, had a stepmom, or know someone in the stepmom role (maybe she’s mothering your own children), a small gesture of a text or card to tell her she’s appreciated could make her day…and maybe you’ll experience a sense of gratitude too. At the end of the day we all just want to feel seen, accepted, and loved, don’t we? 

 

Your Unique Stepfamily

Just hearing the word stepfamily, or worse, stepmother can cause people to immediately respond by saying: “I’m sorry, that must be so hard for you.” Without much thought there is judgement already happening before knowing too much about your family. In my experience this is generally from someone who has never had any intimate connection in the stepfamily dynamic. It’s not a biological union so why on Earth would life be easy or work out. Isn’t it supposed to be difficult and riddled with challenges.

Unfortunately most people have been exposed to stepfamily life through the sensational way the media portrays life with the all familiar “evil stepmother”. The stepmother is a self-absorbed, evil temptress who just wants the children to be rid of so she can focus on delighting her partner. She’s young, mean, and angling to make everyone miserable that sets foot on her path. Talk about needing to rewrite that characterization! Thankfully this stereotype is being re-written as more and more blended families has become the norm. Obviously it’s a big commitment to undertake loving a man and his children, but every stepfamily is unique and my experience may be vastly different than yours. Like raising children, there is no manual for blended family relationships or ant set way of operating within one.

There are so many factors, emotions, and histories to blend together in becoming a stepfamily. Most of us enter the relationship thinking the acceptance and flow of life of all parties involved will happen quickly. I mean we love our partner and his kids so what else could be a problem. If you are new to this dynamic keep in mind you are making a large commitment and with that needs to come patience, especially for yourself. The bonds and relationships won’t happen overnight or, sorry to say, not even in the first year. It is a process that will require a minimum of two to three years to achieve a desired flow and balance. Even after this time you’ll still be striving to keep a balance and flow to your life because, truth is, you share your life with another household and little people who are shuttled back and forth between. It is important to remember a family unit was created before you arrived and it unraveled. In that unraveling healing is needed, especially for the children. You are entering a role where respect, sensitivity, patience, and empathy are required from you.

The biological mom may or may not approve of you, the children may not approve of you, the former in-laws may disregard you, the other step-parent may ignore you, but don’t let that decide your worth in the family. Those relationships need time to evolve and they may or may not ever reach a place of harmony. But always (pay close attention here) always take the high road and be willing to be flexible. Don’t take it personally as everyone has their path, their role, and lessons to be learned.

Being a stepmom is a role where you have to be willing to go unseen at times. But know that you are not. That your presence is felt and that you matter. You have brought your unique perspective and life experience into this family unit that is being recreated. What you bring to the family is important and so are you. You’ve got this, girl. 

Growth and Expansion in Stepfamily Life

Stepfamily life has its challenges and struggles. But honestly what family unit, relationship (personal or professional) doesn’t have its challenges. In these moments of challenge is where we have the opportunity to shed our skin and grow, but that’s usually easier said than done. Believe me I’ve been there. Over and over again and consider myself a work in progress while I’m learning the lessons. Each moment, each interaction allows me to look at how I may be adding to the drama or refraining from it. I read a wonderful quote the other day that I’d like to share:

"It is okay to be at a place of struggle. Struggle is just another word for growth. Even the most evolved beings find themselves in a place of struggle now and then. In fact, struggle is a sure sign to them that they are expanding; it is their indication of real and important progress. The only one who doesn't struggle is the one who doesn't grow. So if you are struggling right now, see it as a terrific sign - celebrate your struggle." ~ Neale Donald Walsch

What if we could shift our focus from something being a struggle to instead being a moment of expansion. So often we get caught up in the negativity of a situation and we lash out, or worse disengage, with those closest to us. This may temporarily put a bandaid over the struggle we’re facing, but ultimately won’t help us move through it.

What if all of the little things that have the potential to irritate us daily could be discarded with the evening trash. What if we recognized all the beautiful lessons that come to us, especially through our loved ones and all the daily interactions, instead of being annoyed and frustrated with how we thought things should unfold. We are most comfortable and vulnerable with those closest to us which typically means we are capable of being the most cruel when we are moving through something difficult.

Stepfamily life allows for much growth as there are many opportunities for expansion. As a stepmom I’ve had my number of personal and relationship struggles to move through. Mostly all self-inflicted due to a fear based mentality and an adopted rigidity to coexist in the blended unit. (Which by the way, I don’t recommend as a means of coping). Some I had more grace than others when handling them. It’s said that the lessons we need to learn most will keep showing up until we learn them. From one stepmom to another you will at some point see light at the end of the tunnel and feel a small victory. When you do - celebrate it! Celebrate the little things and know nothing is static and that change is inevitable. We are all human and we all make mistakes, but in these mistakes are moments of vulnerability and growth if we’re willing to see and own them. 

Next time your stepchild leaves their light on, leaves their dirty dishes laying around, has piles of clothes littering their room, or whatever the annoyance may be try to step back and see it as an opportunity for your growth instead of annoyance. You can only control your emotions and reactions and wouldn’t you rather be a peaceful example, rather than being the nagging one. I can confidently say you’ll feel better if you choose this approach as you let yourself off the hook. Let go of the inner struggles and focus on the happy you. You know that one that you maybe lost sight of. I’m here to tell you she’s still there and she wants to come out and play. Go shine your light, beauty.  

You Matter

You matter. Yes. YOU. Really take in what I’m saying. You. Matter. Now take a deep inhale and feel that in your body. I know that there are days when you feel like no one sees you or appreciates you. Those are the days that it is vitally important for you to recognize that you are enough. Your contributions matter, even if they go unseen. 

Being in a stepfamily can be one of the biggest challenges someone can have in their life. It’s an undefined role. It can be a mine field. Just like when babies are born, no rule book is given to you, but you can be assured that you’ll receive a lot of unsolicited advice about what you’re doing and how you are doing it. 

You’re walking into a dynamic that was intact, children were created, the relationship fell apart and now here you are arriving fresh on the scene in a phase of rebuilding. Despite the timing of your arrival into this relationship it may be much to the displeasure of an ex partner and maybe even the children, but it is the beginning of a dance of navigating a complex, but rewarding dynamic for all involved if you choose to allow it and be in the flow. 

When you begin to question your worth I have learned that this is the time you need to step away and focus on you. Just stop everything. This is not selfish, but necessary so you don’t deplete yourself or worse criticize your partner or children. The maternal instinct is a primal one that cannot be discarded. You may or may not have your own children that you’ve brought into your new partnership, or created together, but you are helping to raise children that do not share your DNA, but you love and care for as your own. This can cause some distress if you are not taking care of yourself and instead are putting your attention on everyone’s needs, perhaps even over perceived by you, before your own.

Believe me I know what it’s like to want to be the organizer, the healer, the advice giver, and so on, but you have to be prepared to give with no expectation of receiving in return. Give freely, but while doing so be sure that you are not over extending yourself into a state of depletion Energetically you can become so involved in trying to manage, or control, your household that everyone is negatively affected and detachment and distance can replace connection and flow of the relationships.

One mantra that helps me through trying times is: I am enough. I can’t recall the original source where I first heard it, but it resonated with me. Showing up in an authentic way in the present moment of the craziness of your life is a beautiful thing. It will be messy, you will say and do the wrong things, but if it’s authentic and you are willing to grow and learn; what is more beautiful than that. Recognize that in these moments you are enough. 

You are a woman who is sensitive to the world and who is a caretaker. If you are comparing yourself to intact families or other step families do yourself a favor and stop. You, my friend, are enough. Plant the seed, water it and see what beautiful moments blossom in your life.