Thursday, August 9, 2007

Steps, Baby Steps

I know a woman who married a man with seven children. His first wife had up and left them all, including their little baby. This woman that I know had become established in her career as marriage and family had eluded her thus far in life. She was in her mid-thirties when she, through a series of divine interventions, found herself taking on the sudden role of wife and mother. She had no "honeymoon" period. She never grew a baby within her own body. But seven grown children now call her 'mom'. This story would have impressed me at any time. Imagine! Well, many of us can't even adequately do that. Unless, that is, you're a stepmom.

When I met this woman, I asked her insensitively if she ever wished she'd had her own children. "They are my own children," she said. Another stepmom I know told me just before I was about to take on the role myself that I would love my stepchildren the same way that I loved my own children. She said that when people ask her which are her children and which are her stepchildren, she has to stop and think about it because sometimes she just can't remember. I took on my new role with enthusiasm and the fairest of intentions. Imagine my horror, when I found that I didn't love my stepchildren, and sometimes I didn't even like them at all. My happiness throughout much of my first two years of my new marriage was arranged around whether or not they would be here. I was insanely resentful of their relationship with their father, I was accusing of every childish misstep or misdeed around the house, I was overly defensive and protective of my own children, and I was flat out miserable. My husband had similar feelings toward my children, and we found ourselves convinced that we had made a mistake. I loved my husband, but I did not love his children. I tried to cover it up in the name of motherly/martyrly service. I cooked for all of them, I read to all of them, and I supervised them all in homework and chores, but my heart was divided. I looked forward to Wednesday's, of all days, because that is the day my stepchildren go back to their mother's house. I felt free and liberated on Wednesday's! If my children were away at their dad's, and only my husband's children were home, then I often stayed locked away in my bedroom "reading" or "watching movies" or "writing". I was really being hateful and ugly. I confess to none of these things with pride in myself, but with utter horror, shame, and even a bit of disbelief. But I sure wish someone else had confessed them to me first and saved me a lot of self-loathing over these last difficult years of transition.

There were days when I felt I might actually love my stepchildren. There were days when rays of charity shone through. I wasn't completely repulsive. But I was mostly repulsive, and disgusted by myself. Mostly, these children were less worthy than my own, and in the way of my new relationship with their father. I berated myself with thoughts of how unloving I really was, and how worthless I must be. What was wrong with me that I found loving two beautiful children so excruciatingly difficult? Come to find out, nothing.

I was led to a book called "The Enlightened Stepmother" by Perdita Kirkness Norwood, and was so relieved to read the "Five Stages of Stepfamily Development" provided in Chapter 5. I like that she emphasized two facts in this chapter:
1. Forming a stepfamily is a PROCESS.
2. Forming a stepfamily takes TIME.
With that in mind, I read on. Stepfamilies are a work in progress and some professionals say that while every successful stepfamily must move through the same five stages of development, the length of time varies enormously. Some say four to seven years, and experienced stepmothers say it may be as long as ten or twelve years. Now this may be defeating to some, but to me it was OH, HAPPY DAY!!! I, once again, in my perfectionistic and idealistic ways, was expecting immediate results that simply cannot happen immediately! Here are the Five Stages:
  1. Fantasy--This is the "we'll all be one big happy family" stage, or the "I will rescue everyone" stage. We'll all love each other, and life will be bliss. This stage is also called "Illusion". Darn it.
  2. Confusion--Clearly something is wrong! The new family is not working, but nobody wants to rock the boat, so suppression is the order of the day. Fear of failure is in the air. Insufficient preparation has taken place, and stepparents and stepkids reject each other.
  3. Crazy Time--This very difficult period is inevitable. The stress and inaction of the previous stage forces matters into the open. Everyone experiences pain, anger, dissatisfaction, guilt. Stepmothers often are swept away in an avalanche of paralyzing emotions due to disappointment that their initial fantasies are failing. Self-esteem is stripped bare, resentments smolder, serious family divisions (you and yours vs. him and his). This is decision time, make-or break time. But this stage is unavoidable if progress is to be made. Oh good, we're right on track?
  4. Stability--A poignant and exhilarating time for family members who begin truly coming together. Stepmothers usually initiate this step, perservering day after day, facing challenges and resolving them. Words like "us" and "we" start to emerge, as do small signs of stabilization. The family moves to a new level.
  5. Commitment--Beginning of final stage when change is accepted as nonthreatening. Family members choose to deepen relationships. Past difficulties are put aside, and a new atmosphere of receptiveness, trust, and respect emerges.

Finding out this information has done wonders for my beaten down soul. Every mother and stepmother wants to be successful. No one tells you how hard it will be. And while I've been sitting here wallowing in how hard it has been for me I've forgotten too often how hard it has been for everyone else too. But we're doing okay. We're right on target.

Another book that has been even more helpful has been Bonds that Make Us Free by C. Terry Warner. I realize that I was living "inside the box", and was failing to treat others as people, but rather as objects in a self-betraying way. This has opened my eyes and my heart immensely toward everyone, including my stepchildren. I am trying to stop being so absorbed with how I feel all the time, and live a truer, more authentic life. When I do this, the love just seems to flow naturally and freely. In fact, just a few days ago, I took my stepchildren with me alone on the long drive to Arizona to pick up my children from their summer visit with their dad, and we had an enjoyable time. I found myself concerned for them, interested in them, and protective of them. And having all six of my children in the car on the way home felt right through and through.


Annette Lyon said...

What a touching blog, Jenna. I can only attempt to imagine how difficult the merging of two families is. But I'm guessing you're being way too hard on yourself. What a relief to see things moving in a happy direction!

Luisa Perkins said...

You are the bestest, bravest girl. I'm so proud of you! And what's four to seven years when compared with eternity?

Unknown said...

Jenna, absolutely wonderful blog. It is a dilemma many step-parents face and I think you've given some resources and advice.

It's tough to share something so personal, but also very courageous.

Stephanie Humphreys said...

What great insights. I am in the middle of the step-parent thing myself. My step-kids were teenagers when I married my husband and they most definitely did not want another mother or my love. Over the 7 years I have been married to their dad, we went from not talking to each other to having a fragile sort of peace, to becoming friends. I guess every family has to find what works for the m and be willing to drop the expectations that can lead to so much disappointment. I don't know if we will ever be the perfect blended family, but we get along and right now that works for me.

Tina @ said...

I'm still reading through many of your older posts. I almost started crying when I read this post. YES! YES! YES! You put how I have behaved and felt in perfect words. Step-parenting has been the hardest thing I have done, all I've ever wanted is to be a mother and it is so hard to understand the feelings I've had surrounding what should be the gift of two additional children. I have acted the EXACT same way! I think it is always helpful to realize that what feels so strange is in fact such a normal process. I've ordered these books. Thank you for having the courage to share!

Rebecca said...

Thank you for sharing these feelings as well. I found that same book "the enlightened stepmother" and was so glad to know that I wasn't a monster for not instantly loving my step children and knowing that these feelings I was having were normal. I have been married to their father for 12 years and we are now getting to the stage where we can almost say we love each other. It is a hard process, but peace can be achieved through hard work, understanding and prayer. I will direct other stepmoms to your site! Thanks again!