stepkids

What's under the surface?

I caught the tail end of the Little League World Series (Japan vs. the U.S.) today....

I stopped mid-channel-surfing because I thought--wait--what are these little kids doing playing such an intense game of baseball?

And why is it on TV?

I was reminded of, many years ago, living in Spain as a child and my older brother serving as the pitcher on our local, American little league team. These were low-key family events. Lazy. Long. Hot.... My friends and I often wandered off to play in the dirt with sticks and our dogs. Most of the time, it didn't seem to matter who won or lost.

But this game on TV was high stakes, with wound-up parents in the stands, looking as if they might pass out from the stress. I wondered at the pressure some of these kids must be under, how long and hard they'd worked to get there.

The American team won at the bottom of the sixth inning by one point, breaking a tie, and like any triumphant team in sports, the young players were euphoric. The kids exploded into leaps and fist pumps, and then finally into a happy pile over the home plate.

The camera flashed to the losing team.

That's the sucky thing about a game: someone's always gotta lose.

My heartstrings were pulled when I saw one little Japanese player openly crying and as the camera cut back and forth between the two teams, more young boys on the losing team began to cry too.

If they were grown-ups, they'd be better at hiding this, I thought. They don't know how to mask their feelings yet....

When divorced moms and stepmoms don't get along, the same thing happens: we're hurt, but we try not to show it.

We don't want to give the other side the satisfaction of seeing how upset we are. How furious or fearful, how devastated and obsessed.

We don't want them to know they've gotten under our skin.

In trying to save face, we harden ourselves, so that the behavior from the other side won't sting.

But it still does.

And though you might argue otherwise, it stings for them too, even though it might seem like it.

Seeing this is often one of the first steps to real change.

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© 2011  Jennifer Newcomb Marine   All Rights Reserved

Beyond counting your blessings

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Let’s say some prayers for our friends and neighbors in Japan.

The earthquake and tsunami have once again reminded us just how easily everything can be taken away from any of us in an instant, and now, a terrifying nuclear crisis is unfolding before our very eyes.

May they find a way to cool the reactors and spent rod pools very soon, and may aid start flowing into the country for those in need.

I lived in the Philippines for 3 years as a teen and many of my friends and fellow students were Japanese. My heart goes out to this beautiful, bustling, complex country.

It can be hard to connect a natural (and man-made) disaster to your own life, especially when it’s happening across the globe, in a culture very different from our own.

But this is an amazing opportunity to acknowledge the good things that you’re taking for granted and in doing so, open your own hearts, connecting yourself to our planetary neighbors - whether in spirit or by donating to relief efforts.

Some context for ya....

From David J. Smith's book, If the World Were a Village:

“At this moment, there are more than 6 billion people on the planet! It's hard to picture so many people at one time -- but what if we imagine the whole world as a village of just 100 people?

In this village:

  • 22 people speak a Chinese dialect
  • 20 earn less than a dollar a day
  • 17 cannot read or write
  • 60 are always hungry [emphasis mine]
  • 24 have a television”

Other facts found online about those same 100 inhabitants:

Of all the wealth in your village, 6 people (all American) would own 59% of it.

Only one person has a college degree.

20 people in the village would consume 80% of all the energy, leaving 80 people to share the rest.

Only 7 people have a computer or access to the internet.

So as you can see, we’re blessed in a multitude of ways, though this is easy to forget.

Gratitude is often simply a matter of focus.

Which begs the question: where do you habitually turn your attention?

To the things going right -- or wrong?

Automatically tackling our problems with a laser beam, a bulldozer, or a truckload of how-to manuals is a carry-over from our caveman days, when we needed to figure out a daily strategy for staying alive that worked.

But we’re lucky enough not to have to worry about being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger anymore.

Instead, we now have the luxury of turning our attention to “first-world” problems.

Struggling in jobs we hate. Feeling unappreciated in our marriages. Wondering how we let our children slide down the slippery slope to valuing their friends and texting more than their own families.

Fretting over the latest incident with the mom interfering in your life again. Hating your ex.

If you find yourself feeling guilty because you see yourself in the list above -- don’t.

It’s meant as a reminder: there is always good and bad in life.

Maybe you’re just neglecting the good, like a plant accidentally left out on the porch at night, in the cold.

Can we all just take a step back and look around?

Can we all just glide above the clouds a bit and survey the ground below us?

What are all the things that are going well in your life that you take for granted?

Where are you basking in abundance and don’t even see it?

With close friends? Family that’s always there for you? A roof over your head? Good books and websites you love? The presence of nature around you? Healthy food? The safety and stability of a country not at war?

I’ll be eternally grateful that we figured out a way through the muddy morass that used to be our two households, after my ex got remarried.

I’m grateful that I love my ex still and Carol, his wife, and the stepmom to my kids -- and that they’re two of my closest friends. I'm grateful that our children have more adults in their lives, watching over them and fretting about them, more people to connect with, to love them and nourish them.

I’m grateful for my partner in this work, Jenna.

And I feel so lucky that I get to do work that makes even a small, but genuine difference in some people’s lives.

I hope our story can inspire you to shoot for more in your divorce-connected family. Even if your situation is tense and conflict-ridden, I hope our site helps you to see that you have more power to create peace FOR YOURSELF that you ever knew.

And now, let’s send a thought bubble of love and healing out across the ocean, to Japan....

 

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine     All Rights Reserved

 

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Taking responsibility

Why I sometimes want to give up too

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What to expect when you weren't expecting... a stepmom

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Maybe you experienced a long, slow slide towards divorce. The communication dwindled. The awesome sex became lost in the tidal wave of daily life demands. It was always one thing after another with the kids. Or perhaps you were unlucky enough to be blind-sided by the sting of infidelity.

However you found yourself in the Land of Divorce, putting your life back together, reveling in the opportunity to occasionally eat cereal for dinner when the kids were at Dad’s house, I bet you never saw this one coming: another woman in your kids’ lives.

A woman you didn’t know either.

Remember what it was like after a break-up, when you were younger? Maybe you dumped him. Maybe he dumped you. But you bump into him with his hot, new girl on the street, with that air of intimacy about them, and part of your stomach goes, “Wrenk!” It’s just human nature, whether you still want him or not.

Now take that feeling and magnify it by ten when a new woman arrives on the scene with your ex-husband.

Because THIS is the man who fathered your children. THIS is the man who shared your pregnancies, who you spent countless hours talking to about what was going on with the kids. THIS man was supposed to be your future. Your partner stretching out into the years of your family’s history. One half of the foundation, the nest for these vulnerable little beings.

But no more.... It’s done. Over.

And now you’re just a statistic.

And so are your kids.

But hey, people do this all the time now, right? What’s the big deal?!

This may be hard for stepmoms to really, really understand, even when they have their own kids: but when a new woman comes into your children’s lives, it’s just plain weird.

Like someone you’ve never met before plopping down at your table of friends. Like someone getting into your car at a stop light. Like a perfect stranger joining you in the hospital waiting room during a crisis, their brows furrowed with worry.

You look at them and think: Who are YOU?

And why are you now a part of my children’s world?!

Sure, on a logical, practical level, we get it. You’re dating him. He’s dating you. If he’s integrated you into his life enough for you to meet his kids, then he’s probably in love with you and Lord knows, it’s always best when both people love each other.

But it’s the emotional stuff that throws us for a loop, as moms. It’s the automatic “jurisdiction” we don’t get - that sense that you now have a right to have input on how things should be done with our kids, when they made it this far in life just fine without you. (It makes sense for that to eventually happen, but sometimes it comes wayyyyy too early.)

It’s knowing that our children are creating their own bonds and connections with you “off stage,” as it were, outside our view. It’s wondering if you truly want them there, or if you’d rather have him all to yourselves -- if you resent them, just don’t like them or are irritated by the same behavior that irritates us.

It's the fear that yes, there is love there between you. We want that -- but we also don't. Our own experiences as mothers are often so much more conflicted that the cookie-cutter version of motherhood. Our children's love with someone we don't know can cast a spotlight on our shortcomings as a parent. We can feel guilty and anxious, fearful and confused.

It’s the vulnerability that we feel, knowing that a natural part of romantic attachment with new couples is a dissection of past mistakes and mishaps, and this likely includes stories about us that we’d rather have you not know....

In writing about this subject for years now, I think I finally understand how painful and heart-wrenching it must be for stepmoms to often feel like the perpetual outsider, to be exasperated by the ever-shifting boundaries, to be reminded over and over again that important family memories and milestones took place that had nothing to do with you.

I’m not even sure I could do it! And I have the utmost admiration for those of you who do, who keep plugging away in the face of all that pain and frustration.

Please just know that some of the difficult behavior you experience with the moms has nothing to do with YOU personally (although if you trade mutual barbs, it will eventually, sadly).

We would feel this way about any new stranger interacting with our kids, even though you may think our actions are irrational and ultimately destructive. Sometimes they are. We’re not perfect. But we’re also trying to do the best we can to do right by our children....

Think of it like this: in our minds, we are traveling down a long, flat, straight road. We can see miles and miles into the horizon. We once felt secure in the knowledge that we’d be traveling down that road with another adult by our sides: the father. The only other person in this whole world who cares about the kids just like we do.

We may have accepted that he will no longer be traveling down that road alongside us (though some moms haven’t, but that’s another story). Perhaps he’s on the right side of the road now, and we’re on the left.

It just feel jarring and strange, disorienting and illogical to be joined on that road, walking along with someone we don’t know, someone we don’t feel comfortable with, someone who may or may not be on the same parenting page whatsoever.

So please, give us time. Leave the majority of the parenting to your partner, even if you see him fumbling or out of his element. Leave the communications between houses to him. The financial negotiations. The discipline. At least initially....

Don’t take our mother tiger behavior personally. Focus on making YOUR life happy!

And moms, just realize: once you’ve seen the stepmom in your kids’ lives for a while, once you’ve seen her trying and trying, busting her ass and putting in all the same grunt work that YOU do, please, for the love of God! -- cut her some slack.

And reach out to her. She’s taking care of YOUR kids!

You WANT her on your side.

After all, isn’t that the highest sacrifice you could make as a mom? Creating room for another woman, so she can do a good job of loving your children -- with your help?

How is any other choice serving them?

 

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine   All Rights Reserved

Further reading:

The Family-Family Meeting Blow-up

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For a while there, whenever our dual-family family was ironing out some major issues—like which kid was living where, and for how long—we'd have these really intense family meetings.

We'd all sit around the kitchen table after dinner, or in the living room, half of us sprawled on the floor... and we'd talk.

One of the adults would bring up the main issue to handle, and at first, it would seem just like a regular business meeting.

Here are the facts. Here are the problems. Here's what I think we should do....

And then another adult might reasonably respond.

And then that's when the bees would start streaming out of their nest. The bats would pour out of their cave at sunset. The fire ants would bubble up from their mound.

Because, of course, everyone felt the need to chime in on their position.

Depending upon their personality and whether they were an extrovert or an introvert, some of us were (cough) a little more vocal than others.

It would get pretty messy.

And sometimes, voices would be raised.

Occasionally, someone would storm off (only to drift back again).

Luckily, we all seemed to recognize when someone had been quiet for too long; conflicting emotions visible in their face, eager to be expressed, yet fearful of being vulnerable, amping up the volume.

Often, there were tears.

During really stellar meetings, every single person in our stepfamily/single-parent family-family would take their turn and cry, their voice rising with confusion, hurt and anger.

You can imagine how long this all took.

And how tired we all were afterward!

But here's the thing....

It was always such a SURPRISE to hear how others really and truly felt.

Really.

I mean, some of this stuff just seemed to come out of left field.

Like, Really? That's what was going on with you? That's what you thought I meant? That's why you were doing and saying this? Because of this other thing that I had no idea about?!

Which is kind of pathetic, in a way....

Why weren't we paying better attention to each other! To all the hidden clues in words and behavior? To facial expressions and little dropped hints? To conversations skirted around?

EVERY TIME we had one of our awkward and tumultuous family-family meetings, we'd get to this point where I'm SURE we all thought, Oh crap. We've really done it now. One, or two, or even ALL of us have dropped so many bombs here that we FOR SURE have blown up whatever connections existed between us before.

We've gone too far.

We've broken this.

We are screwed.

And I know I wasn't the only one who felt this sense of sheer terror, this sense of fear and brain-scrambled, mental overwhelm, this ache in my stomach—like we were a bunch of kids playing with live dynamite in a remote fort tucked into a hill.

Who would find us when it all went off and the ground collapsed over our heads, burying us alive? And why in the world were we doing all this without the help of a trained counselor, a therapist, like normal people???

Somehow though... somehow... we'd keep going. We'd keep talking. Keep cajoling. Keep asking questions.

Keep listening.

And after so many verbal and emotional expulsions (the only word that seems to describe how it felt), something else would finally be detectable in the air.

Hope.... We sensed ourselves actively moving to a better place.

Respect.... For each other and our struggles, our pain.

Resolve.... To treat each other better. To pay closer attention. To do the right thing, even if it was hard.

Awe.... For being able to do this with each other, for being brave enough to look at the raw sloppiness of our inner selves, the stuff we normally hide from others - and show it.

Love.... For each other, for our vulnerabilities, our fears, our tender spots, even for our known and vehemently-denied handicaps.

And finally... gratitude. That we have managed to create something so fragile and beautiful, and yet also strong enough to bear the weight of each other.

Our family-family meetings always revealed the truth of things in all their messy, bumbling glory, in the end.

And with that truth came a new understanding of what was important to each of us... the breakable parts of each other that we must treat with extra care... what our new choices now were for moving forward.

We may not have left those meetings knowing exactly what was going to happen, but it was the clarifying light of that chaotic, but cathartic truth that let the right things unfold in the future, and those problems always ended up eventually "going away."

I can't even remember what most of them were now!

So.... I ask you:

In what ways do YOU feel like you don't understand the truth of other people in your family-family?

What do you think you might be missing?

What do you feel is being kept from you?

What are YOU not telling others when it comes to things you are hurt or angry about?

In what ways might you be blind to some of the biggest priorities and fears of others?

(I love learning about these hidden forces at work in our dual families, so this week, I'll be announcing a new course to share what I know, and to help you create more understanding in your own “family-family” for the new year ahead—even if things are really tough. You’ll have a chance to pre-register soon.)

What are your thoughts? I want to hear from you!!!

 

© 2010 Jennifer Newcomb Marine     All Rights Reserved

Which boat are you in?

Many of you come to this site because you’re looking for information that might give you an advantage with your difficult mom/stepmom relationship. You want something extra to help you create a shift. Movement in the right direction. A breakthrough out of nowhere.

You’re the only one who knows what it’s like in your particular situation.

If you’re like most people though, you’ve got a razor-sharp sense of how things stack up on the scoreboard. Who’s done what to whom. How you were justified in reacting to various offenses.

But what about when it comes to the potential for real change -- how do you know what to do? Which direction to go?

There are two possible boats you might be in if you’re struggling with the stepmom or ex-wife. So I’ll ask you:

Is this woman crazy and dangerous?

Or is she normal enough that you might one day get somewhere?

Which boat do think you’re in?

The one where you’re both basically “normal,” but having a hard time?

Or the one where she’s damaging the kids because she’s abusing drugs or alcohol, compulsively lies, maybe has a diagnosable personality disorder, and is actively alienating the children from you, even though it’s destroying them in the process?

Sounds obvious enough, right?

But here’s where this gets tricky.

When people attack us, when they hurt our feelings, snub us, do things that piss us off, when they do something with the kids that we strongly disagree with, we almost always put them in the second boat.

We are appalled at their flaws and issues, their behavior. We are offended. The reason they’re capable of acting the way they are must be because there’s something seriously wrong with them. They’ve got major problems.

And sometimes, this is true.

But sometimes... it’s not.

A little story for you.

In the brilliant book, “The Anatomy of Peace,” an Arab and a Jew lead a weekend workshop for the parents of troubled teens who are off on a wilderness retreat.

Yusef, who’s Arab, tells a tale from when he was young and earning a living, begging from Westerners on the streets of Bethlehem. He knew an elderly, blind Jewish beggar named Mordecai from working the same beat.

One day, Mordecai fell and spread his donated coins all over the ground. Not only was he struggling to stand up, his days’ earnings were everywhere.

Yusef’s first impulse was to help Mordecai get up and retrieve his coins.

But in an instant, without even being conscious of it, Yusef thought of all the injustices that the Jews had committed against his people; how angry, bitter and put upon he felt by these circumstances; this choice he had to make.

Instead of helping Mordecai, he quickly walked away.

Not only did Yusef do something unkind, he also betrayed himself in that moment.

He went against what he himself thought was the right thing to do.

Immediately after betraying himself, his mind turned to making Mordecai wrong. Making the situation wrong. Making the pressure he felt to help wrong and unfair.

In less than a second, Mordecai became the enemy.

Do you see how Yusef couldn’t, from that frame of mind, be able to accurately tell which boat Mordecai might be in (friend or foe) to save his life?

Same thing for us when we don’t do a brutally honest, slow-motion replay after a conflict-filled event.

When we can’t tease out our feelings of superiority, self-righteousness, our vindictiveness, our desire to get sympathy from others over our hardships, we lose our mental clarity.

We lose our compassion.

We lose any sense of responsibility.

We turn living, breathing people into objects.

What fascinates me is that millisecond of self-betrayal.

The self-betrayal comes first, then all else just “seems” to automatically follow....

We don’t even realize it’s happened!

We want to get along with the other woman, sometimes from just wanting less stress, more peace, cooperation, etc.

And deep inside us all, we know that our choices, our actions, our conflict-filled relationships after divorce actually hurt and frighten our children.

This knowledge tugs at our hearts and keeps us up at night.

But... something “goes wrong” again with the stepmom or ex-wife, we betray ourselves, and off she goes into the Crazy boat, even if she doesn’t belong there.

So how do you know when she does?

For one thing, it’s strikingly clear. You know it in your gut in no uncertain terms. This feeling is consistent from day-to-day. It never goes away. Those are the special circumstances that need to be taken seriously and managed with professional resources.

The Crazy boat requires stronger boundaries so you can protect your children and step-children. Maybe later, you can lower those boundaries. Maybe not.

The Normal boat is where things actually have the potential to change.

As a human being that’s a constant work in progress, I commit acts of self-betrayal on a daily basis.

How about you?

© 2010 Jennifer Newcomb Marine     All Rights Reserved

Happy Stepmother's Day!

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A happy day to all the stepmoms out there! Please know that all your efforts make a difference. All the time and taking care of the stepkids, all the things you remember to do (that others don't even seem to realize are on the list), all the ways in which you try to be flexible and patient and generous, even though sometimes it's the last thing you feel like doing -- know that it matters.

Without you, many kids wouldn't have the structure that they experience in their dad's house, the consistency, the nurturing little details that let them know someone is watching over and paying attention.

So from one mom to all of you, I acknowledge your sacrifices and strength. Our kids are the better for it and that will always mean a lot to me -- and many other moms out there, even if they don't always say it.

I know so many of you deeply love and cherish your stepkids. In the face of a potentially tricky stepmom/stepchildren relationship, you still try hard to do what's ultimately best for the kids.

May your day be filled with some validation, some relaxation and most of all, some FUN! Indulge yourself and take a break from the daily grind!

Big hugs to all of you.... :-)

 

© 2010 Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved

Why I sometimes want to give up too

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Most of our readers are stepmoms. This makes sense to me because it’s the stepmoms who are locked out of the house, waiting outside in the snow.

The dads have a lot of power, because, hey, these are their kids and they get the final say. And the moms certainly have a lot of power because, hey, these children came out of their bodies and they’ll be damned if they’re going to give any of it away to a perfect stranger. Many stepmoms talk about how they just want to give up, after trying so hard to make the relationships work in their own families and between households.

And then there are the poor, hapless kids stuck in the middle, trying to ignore the live grenades bobbing around in the air.

I get it.

It’s hard for everyone.

And yet, I still have this stubborn vision. Call me insane, but I still keep seeing a world in the future where we do things differently after divorce and remarriage.

I can still imagine a way in which we start to tear down these outdated walls, these reactionary expectations about how everyone has to look at the other side like they’re out to get you. Where people get along. Where that’s what’s actually expected of the adults. Where we’ve moved on from the Dark Ages of Family Relationships into a kind of quiet neutrality and, dare I say it, even affection between sides.

I want this so much for all of you I could cry sometimes. I wish you could know in your gut that real change, mind-blowing transformations might be just over the fence, just around the corner, just one magnanimous gesture away.

When two adults get divorced, it’s like they’re walking out of the same house and heading off in separate directions. You go north. I’ll go south.

But when one, or both, of those adults pair up with someone in a new house, they shouldn’t be habitually looking through rifle scopes aimed at the other family! That’s not a loving environment. That’s not a healthy environment. And we damn well wouldn’t want our kids or stepkids living in such a dangerous environment.

But that’s exactly what we’re creating when we just automatically set ourselves against the other household.

And I’m talking to everyone here.

You might say, “Well, we only starting getting pissed off after we had this lunatic come after us! It wasn’t our fault! We only started getting riled up out of self-defense! Really!” ...and in some cases, I will believe you.

I’ve heard enough sad, horrifying, mind-boggling tales of borderline-personality-disordered, narcissistic, substance-abusing, Parental Alienation Poster Child adults to last me a lifetime. It's heartbreaking.

But the VAST majority of us are not dealing with drug addicts or vindictive nutjobs who are hell-bent on ruining the other adults’ lives—and the childrens' in the process.

The vast majority of us, ALL of us, are simply struggling to get by and have some down time and a little fun at the end of a long day, and figure out our relationships, and how to raise a moody child, whether it’s yours or somebody else’s.

The vast majority of us are just regular people with issues and fears and a million things on our to-do list that we will never get to, but for the most part, we’re doing okay.

And in THIS wide swath of a gray area, this middling land of families, there are WAY too many people who are just being lazy.

There, I said it.

We’re being lazy! We’re not willing to look at how we’re feeding the beast of conflict. How we’re fanning the flames and keeping them going. It’s too uncomfortable. We don’t know how. We don’t know “what to do.”

Basically, we are unwilling to own our part until the other side owns theirs first.

And THAT, dear people, is where we’re going wrong. THAT is how you slide from seeing the "bio-mom" or stepmother with a slight distaste based on ignorance (“I can’t really hate her, sinceI barely know her!”), to outright hatred.

A little story for you.....

When Carol the Stepmom first came along (and this was how it felt, like she just suddenly “appeared” by magic in my life, as an announcement from the ex), I figured she was just temporary. Part of this was because of the age difference (she was 14 years younger than my ex and I, which is not uncommon, stepmoms are often younger). Part of this was because I just couldn’t really imagine someone else, someone “new” coming into the picture and STAYING there.

Once I realized she was, or appeared to be, a lot of weird stuff kicked in. I felt extremely helpless, threatened, and uncomfortable. I kept thinking, But WHO IS SHE? Why don’t I get a “say” in whether she’s “allowed” to interact with my kids or not? (Whether rational or not.) In every other arena, I had always had a lot more control over what happened in my children’s lives, and now suddenly, I didn’t.

Something switched on inside me and I turned my discomfort from living in a strange and unfamiliar place of weakness, confusion and flying blind -- and FOCUSED IT ON HER.

I picked her apart in my little brain. I made her wrong. I disliked her. I saw slights were there were none. I started to develop this little ball of cold fury towards her inside myself and it was sickening.

And I made my ex-husband wrong in even more ways than “normal,” back then.

We spent about a year and a half with BOTH of us (Carol and I) being scared of each other, feeling pissy and angry and judged by the other. Of barely being able to interact or speak to each other -- or even look each other in the face, the way you’d look at a stranger on the street!

It was awful. I thank god that life is no longer like that. And my heart goes out to everyone that’s still living that way, because I can still vividly remember how much it sucked.

But here’s the thing, when that “switch” turned on in me, that was the beginning of war.

That’s all it took.

That’s what it looks like.

It’s very simple.

There were no fireworks. There was no yelling. No heated conversations on the phone. No big confrontations or name-calling. No bashing her or my ex in front of the kids.

But it was war nevertheless.

And that’s all it takes for the struggles to begin.

With innocent “miscommunications” on the phone between houses. With disagreements over paltry, or sometimes very large, sums of money. With rigidity and a lack of flexibility over working with the other side when they need it, because doesn’t life always throw you curveballs?

And then the stockpiling kicks in.

You start keeping score of all the times the other side has screwed you over, large or small. You start anticipating being screwed. You “let yourself slide” when it comes to “innocently” screwing them, because you’re tired of always being the better person. It’s exhausting being so noble and fair all the time, isn’t it?

I can talk until I’m blue in the face about all the benefits to be gained by moms and stepmoms getting along, but in many ways, I’m talking to myself.

Why?

Because the people who see themselves at the mercy of the other side have already taken themselves out of the discussion.

Fair enough. No one can make you do anything you don’t want to do.

But I ask you this...

Would you want your own children, or future children, to duplicate the kind of life you are living now, war and all?

Because they will.

 

© 2010 Jennifer Newcomb Marine     All Rights Reserved

 

Recommended Posts:

High Heels in the Dung Pasture (or Further Adventures in Taking Responsibility)

Jennifer-David-Carol-DrPhilSo I have a moment at the end of the Dr. Phil Show that we did a few weeks ago that I’m hoping no one will see, but that my ex-husband David assures me is the one moment they will probably be sure to include (air date: Dec. 1). Great... Just what I wanted to hear.

I write, as best as I can on this blog and in the book, about owning your own shit. We didn’t actually call Chapter Two that, because I guess one expletive a book is enough. So Chapter Two is called Own Your Own Crap, but the idea is the same: one of the first steps in creating a breakthrough when a situation is bad is to own your own shit. In other words, take responsibility for the muck that you’re bringing to the table when there’s ongoing conflict.

The very notion is completely counter-intuitive for most people. We’ve got an entire lifetime’s worth of habit helping us to look outside ourselves at external circumstances -- and using them to decide whether things in our life are “good” or “bad.”

But really, we all inherently know that what determines how our “reality” really seems to go has mostly to do with what’s in our own little marble-filled noggin....

It’s just that most of us (self included) often feel perpetually resistant to looking at what’s rolling around inside our noggins.

We walk around feeling as if we’re mostly “right” and know how things should be. End of story.

But ironically, we also walk around also feeling like if only people could REALLY see inside us, they’d run for the hills, so we’re also mostly “wrong,” but that part is supposed to be a secret.

What’s ironic is that everyone feels this hidden sense of shame and random guilt, but no one is supposed to know it! So we pretend we don’t and work hard to cultivate our surface presentation of who we are. And we’re like some little cartoon microcosmic universe of busy people, living purposeful lives, zooming around -- on task and on target.

Which leads me to my confession....

In a moment at the end of the show, I found myself feeling pretty stirred up, after hearing the mom, stepmom and dad who were on during the second half of the show talk at length about their problems with each other.

Emotionally, I kept coming back to their teenage son. After hearing various stories from each adult about situations they were struggling with, I started to get truly exasperated.

No, you’re not supposed to have emotional reactions like that on national TV, especially if you’ve written a book about that particular topic. You’re supposed to be impassive, detached, operating from a higher level of professionalism and objectivity.

But damn, the stuff I was hearing just made me think about what this kid’s experience of his parents and stepmom must be like and how painful it must have been. And judging from what the adults were saying, there was only going to be more of it, possibly into perpetuity.

I was thinking, THIS is what we’re doing to our children, making them feel schizoid and fragmented, putting pressure on them to buy into one parent or teams’ version of reality, of being right, of being the better parent, supposedly fueled by their love for the child. We go back and forth with the other side as if someday they’ll wake up and realize what an idiot they’ve been this entire time, say they’re sorry and start doing things YOUR way.

And in the meantime, the kid is like a old football, being kicked across a field.

So I had a little “moment” there, at the end, where I tried to say to them that their behavior had to change, for their son’s sake.

I was kind of worked up. I think there might have been finger-pointing (cringe). I felt passionate about what I was saying.

And if that had been the end of it, it could have made for some pretty good TV, because hey, isn’t that what TV is all about? Passion? Intensity? Vulnerability? Kleenex?

But the problem is, what I said was also fueled by a sense of judgment. I felt judgmental towards the adults. And even for a bit here and there, superior, like I had figured out something they hadn’t.

Hate to say it, but there it is. You’ll probably see it for yourself anyway.

Now, have I ever put my kids in the middle of battles between Carol and David and I? Have I ever used them as ammunition?

Nah....

Okay, actually

Yeah....

Plenty. Not really so much anymore, but before we were all skipping through the fields of flowers in slow motion, you bet your ass I did.

And I STILL feel guilty about this, and rightfully so, which is maybe also why it was easy to just slide into feeling judgmental with the other adults on the show. You hide from stuff inside yourself - it still finds a way to leak out.

My ex-husband David told me it seemed like I was scolding them, even though he could tell "my heart was in the right place." He said I looked pissed. Carol assured me it was the right thing to say, "given the moment."

Personally, remembering the whole thing makes me want to crawl under my bed.

So... if I come across like a total sanctimonious scold, I’ll live -- and I’m sure the shame of doing this in front of millions of people will fade eventually, like maybe when I’m in my eighties or something.

But more than that, my little “moment” is a great example of how easy it is to slip right back into our ego-filled positions of self-righteousness, even when we’re also responding to something compassionate and caring in our hearts.

Sure, we love our children. We want to do right by them.

But we get caught up in the experience of war with the adults in these bi-nuclear family situations, because it’s all too easy to be offended by the other side, for our own actions to be misinterpreted, for the lines of communication to become horribly mangled and crossed.

Our fallback position of wanting so very much to be “right,” to be better, to be in control -- that stuff always seems to rise to the surface, no matter how altruistic we might be in our calmer, more centered moments. It’s human nature.

But we always have a choice about how we ultimately respond to our very human natures.

What happens when you make a mistake? Do you make amends, at least eventually? Do you brush it under the metaphorical carpet, hoping no one will notice, grateful for the passage of time and the obscuring dustcloud of busyness that we all seem to live in?

I apologized immediately after the show to the stepmom and dad who were on the show, but I still haven’t done so with the mom, whose contact information I have (she was on by satellite).

I need to handle that.... And will.

We all screw up.

And we will continue to, despite our best intentions and “knowledge” about how not to do that.

It’s what we do with our mistake afterward that matters.

Facing the discomfort is the first step. And kind of like going to the dentist or exercising, once you get going, it’s not so bad. You face that brakes-on feeling of resistance and then, lo and behold, you actually create room for change, growth and healing.

It’s a work in progress - this learning about being human, connecting with others past our own egos, owning our own shit. I know I’ll be learning about it ‘til the day I die.

And you?

Where are you in the dung pasture? How far to the safety of the fence? Most importantly, what kind of shoes are you wearing?!

The show is on one week from today (Tuesday, Dec. 1st). I hope you’ll tune in!

Your thoughts?

Dr. Phil episode on conflict between moms, stepmoms and dads to air Dec. 1st!

Fire up your recorders! The show we taped last week in L.A. will be on Tuesday, December 1st. We're on the first half of the show (including David, Carol's husband and my ex - poor guy) and then there's another mom/stepmom/dad combo on during the second half of the show.

I had big plans to write a summary of what the whole experience was like, but I swear, we must have used up a year's worth of adrenalin last week and I just couldn't muster the wherewithal to put my thoughts to paper. Let's just say it was pretty surreal. We were terrified, but everyone was incredibly, unbelievably nice, which helped.

And Dr. Phil was tall. :-)

And my heart went out to the other trio on the show, for different reasons. I could identify with each one of them and they seemed to be having a tough time, even though the two parents divorced nine years ago. I won't spoil the story and tell you what happened between them - you'll just have to see for yourself and come to your own conclusions!

By the time the show was over, I think the three of us had to suppress gargantuan yelps of joy that we had made it through alive. But no... we were now seasoned professionals, so we simply smiled and nodded to everyone as we did the royal wave down the long halls, returned to our bulb-lit dressing rooms, and performed a reverse-Cinderella (washing our faces THREE times and returning to Slackerville, clothes-wise). 

This week, I'm in San Francisco to help out with a family situation and won't have access to a computer during the day, so I won't be posting much until next week.

But I just wanted to say I really appreciated everyone's help who sent in questions (which I passed along to the producers) and helped publicize our search for additional guests. Thanks people's! Y'all are the best!

I hope this show plays a small part in getting a bigger discussion going about theses challenging bi-nuclear family issues. Lots of folks are suffering in isolation, thinking they're handling these situations poorly, when in fact, they're right there with the rest of us, stumbling around.

More soon!

Dr. Phil: now taking questions from the audience, as well as video questions

It appears that the mom from the mom/stepmom team that was to appear on the show this coming Tuesday has changed her mind. The show would now like to instead focus on taking questions from both moms and stepmoms in the audience, so you're in luck if you live in Los Angeles or close by, and have a burning question that you'd like addressed. 

Have one?!

They're also looking for questions to be submitted by video, so obviously that can be from anywhere!

If anyone is interested in attending the show and asking a question or sending in a video, they can either contact the show with the subject "STEPMOM/MOM CONFLICT - 11/3/09" in the subject line, or they can send me a message at marine2marine@gmail.com and I'll pass it along to the producer.

We'll still be on and we'd love to see you if you live in the area! 

Thanks!

-Jen

The shifting sands of connections

There's a funny little thing that can happen with people you love that drags the relationship down without you even noticing it - until after the fact.

I just came back from visiting my daughter Sophie, who moved out a short time ago into her own cool, little abode with roommates just north of the university. She's got the flu (or maybe just a cold) right now and it felt good to take her some soup, a few groceries, give her a hug, and hang out on her bed gabbing (while internally blessing my immune system to do its mighty job).

Lonely_sand_hill
When kids leave the nest, you miss them.

You've got to make an effort to stay connected to them, because life rearranges itself to fill up any empty spaces with busyness and details and new problems and responsibilities, and next thing you know, it's been days since you've last really talked!

We all know what that's like when it happens with the children or partner or friends in our lives -- and it's actually not any different with these dual-family relationships either. David and Carol were in Germany recently for almost a month visiting relatives. And because of one technical issue or another, we never were able to talk on the phone or by skype the entire time, which was weird.

For no good reason, a part of me starting thinking, is one of them mad at me? Is anything the matter? And irrationally, part of me also started feeling annoyed, like, fine! hmph!

Totally groundless reactions, but that's what our little hamster brains do in the absence of information sometimes, doesn't it?

When Carol came back a week early to teach a workshop, I made a note of her return, forgot to call her to check in, and then began to notice, hey -- she hasn't called me either!

Canvas_1
Stupid stuff. Because really, the poor woman was totally jet-lagged and hopped straight into teaching a three-day, all-day painting workshop and was actually out of her mind with fatigue, so it's not like the very first thing she's going to do is call me!

And why hadn't I picked up the phone either?

When we finally did talk, it was wonderful to catch up and we were both clearly happy and excited to do so. I'd missed her!

Same thing with David....

They came over one evening and we all hung out, slouched on the couches in the living room; talking about their trip, laughing, the latest things on our minds with life and romance and the girls and what Jacob (their 4 year old son) thought of Germany. Time flew by until we all realized it was late and they had a long car ride home, so we hugged good-bye.

Early_windsor_apples
It was soooo good to connect with people I love and care about. They're my family! It may sound bizarre to people who are also in divorced situations, but David and Carol are actually two of my closest friends and I know they feel the same way.

The combination of time and distance in a relationship can lend itself to imagined problems where there are none, even with people you're close to.

So why in the world do our minds do this?!

Is it just a function of general neurosis?

Insanity?

Or are we trying to protect ourselves against any potential problems, so we can head them off at the pass?

What do you think?

If you're working on improving your relationship with the mom or stepmom, check and see if this dynamic might be at work.... If so, that's actually a good thing, because it's one extra burden you get to shrug off and simply toss to the ground.

What a relief.

Wishing you strong connections and a happy family life!

© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved

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Happy Stepfamily Day!!

Happy Stepfamily Day to all the stepfamilies out there!

Bubbles Being in a stepfamily has its unique challenges, but there are also many opportunities to create new and lasting connections, new opportunities for love and support. Surprising little islands of closeness and intimacy, the chance to really see each other anew. Sure, I hear many stories about how hard it is, but I also hear lots of stories about how folks have made it work.

The wonderful thing about being human? Even if things are bad, they can change in an instant with words from the heart, with vulnerability, with emotional bravery.

So to all those folks out there who are trying, who are giving it their best, who keep hanging in there sometimes through hurt feelings and misunderstandings, I salute you!

Bubble_time And to those of you who have started to create a solid line of happy memories behind you that are building up, I salute you too!

If you're not in a stepfamily and are a single parent, you might also want to take a moment to reflect on how tricky it can be to a part of one of these family units, with various loyalties jockeying for position. We all want the best for our kids, don't we? We want them to live in an atmosphere of love and support and stability, so send the stepfamily in your life a little wish for peace and happiness, just for today!

Blue_balloons Here's a little song to share, even though it has nothing to do with families or the topic of this blog, called Micro Melodies. It's just one of my favorite songs in the whole world, from a wonderful band called The Album Leaf. I often write to their music and this song in particularly makes me insanely happy.

You know how you can hear and imagine reflections of human emotions and experiences in music? Perhaps there's a hint of life's challenges in these chords, which then always go back to a lighter, more joyful place, along with a certain quirkiness that appeals. (Remind me never to try to earn a living as a music critic!).

At any rate, enjoy! (and ignore the video part, which is a just a static picture of a city).

And enjoy the day!

© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved

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New stepmom? Heading off conflict from the get-go...

Feeling your way into potential stepmotherhood? Are you dating a divorced man with kids and things are looking promising? Here are a few ideas for setting a healthy course from the very beginning that will make you thank yourself later.

Bond over the good stuff, not the bad.
Don't make a part of your bonding experience with your guy bitching about the ex-wife. Know that part of his motivation in doing this is to prove to YOU that you're the one he's fully choosing. SHE didn't work out because she was simply the wrong woman. And in all honesty, like any human being, he's also probably projecting some of his issues onto her because he's clueless about how to fix them.

While pillow talk often involves an analysis of what went wrong in previous relationships so you can talk about how you want to do things differently now, don't let yourself get sucked into the kind of gossip that only makes things worse in the long run.

You don't need to knock down one person to raise up another (and you wouldn't want him doing this to you later if things ended up not working out, right?). Avoid it. Gossip is a habit and it creates a crappy energy that is cumulative and has momentum. The last thing you need is a growing pile of dog shit in the corner of your bedroom!

Meet her.

Yes, I'm advocating walking into the enemy's camp and introducing yourself, but hey, she was once just a person too -- someone that your partner loved enough to marry. Maybe she's not so bad after all. Be adult enough to form your own conclusions about who she is, instead of simply taking someone else's word for it. And that means talking to her on the phone, or if you live in the same town, meeting her face-to-face. Everyone has a phone. Pick it up and call her!

This suggestion may sound insane, but hey, we live in crazy times. We are SURROUNDED by divorced families and stepfamilies and that isn't going to change. If that's the case, then it's time to start approaching these situations from a brand-new, radical perspective. Let's head off problems pre-emptively, instead of dealing with the same old, same old. Be a revolutionary and muster some bravery!

Set some healthy parameters.
Introduce yourself. Tell her you know this is an awkward situation -- for both of you. Tell her you're not interested in turning the kids against her or keeping any conflict going between she and her ex (and then don't!). Tell her you're committed to staying out of the middle and letting them work through whatever they might need to, without someone gossiping about her and feeding into the score-keeping.

Tell her you'd like to work together to make this the easiest it can be for the kids. Tell her you'd like to be helpful and flexible and hope she will be in return. Who knows? Maybe you can even create a subtle, healthy competition to see who can act with the most consideration, clear communication and good manners. When people are treated with kindness, warmth and respect, they often respond in kind. Be stubborn about acting this way.

Rise above the fray.

If you take the high road, you have the potential to create a real ally in the ex-wife. What's going to raise her ire (and sense of resistance and revenge) is knowing you two are noting every fault and shortcoming of hers. If you make it clear that you are going to refrain from doing that, she'll know she can trust you to act with maturity and foresight.

Part of you may feel like you're going to be letting your BF/husband down if you don't bitch and vent with him about her, but trust me, you'll feel so much better about yourself. You'll create the space and integrity to maintain peace and cooperation between households over the long run -- and that's a huge contribution you can make to your immediate family and to the extended family as a whole.

  • What did I leave out?
  • What's your experience been?
  • Who's had some successes along these lines and what worked for you?

© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved

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Erasing the enemy - Part Two

(If you missed Part One, it's here.) The stepmother clicked the button to end the call before it started ringing. Then she took a deep breath and began to dial again. She stopped halfway, remembering some of the worst verbal insults that had made their way back to her, some of the angry and hateful facial expressions—all the ugliness that the mom obviously hadn’t had any problems tossing her way.

She looked over at the glowing blue book that had prompted all this, sitting innocently on her nightstand, and she frowned at it. This is all your fault, you stupid, little thing. You have no idea what I’m up against.....

She set the phone down and thought about all the things she needed to get done around the house. Her mind turned to an automatic inventory of the fridge, what she needed to get from the store, then it wandered to the laundry room, the bathrooms. Hmmm... how were they doing on toilet paper?

The blue book sat there... waiting. Oh fine, she huffed to herself and picked it up, opening it in the middle, just for fun.

A heart of war needs enemies to justify its warring. It needs enemies and mistreatment more than it wants peace.

"Needs." The word stood out on the page. Did she need this conflict on some twisted level?

She thought back to her original impulse, her knees clacking against each other under the table as she and the mom faced each other with nothing more than two steaming cups of liquid for defense.

She stared out the window for a few moments, her mind blank and empty. Then she dialed the number again.

“Hello?”

There it was. That voice. She hated this woman, after all she’d done to them. All that b.s. in court. What she'd put the kids through even though she held herself up as some kind of devoted mother. What in God’s name was she doing calling her? Her husband was going to kill her. Her heart was loudly pounding a thousand miles a hour, her chest suddenly felt tender and sore. She needed more air. And dammit, she knew when she opened her mouth she was going to sound  like a Nervous Nelly.

She cleared her throat. “Yeah, um—hey. It’s me.”

What a rude way to start a phone call, thought the mom. No surprise there. This had better be quick. And why wasn’t HE calling her instead? Something must be up. She checked her watch.

“Yes?”

Well now, THAT wasn’t very friendly, was it? thought the stepmom. No “Hello?" or "How’re you?” or good manners, or anything! See? Here I am trying and this is what I get? There are some people that ARE just simply impossible.

What the hell do you know about real life?, she accused the authors of that stupid little book.

"Um, yeah. So, uh.... I—-" The stepmom cleared her throat again. She didn’t want to sound like a pansy, like she was wheedling, pleading. Where was all that blustering confidence she felt only moments ago? “I’ve been reading this new book and uh, I thought I’d call... and uh, yeah.Talk.”

Silence.

The stepmom bumbled on.

“To you. I thought I’d call and talk to you.” Why wasn’t this stupid woman making things any easier. Damn her! Maybe the stepmom could just come up with an excuse to get off the phone right now and stop this slow filleting of herself alive.

The mom was instantly wary. She could hear the nervousness in the stepmom’s voice, which certainly intrigued her, but she’d be damned if she was going to have any more contact with this other woman than was absolutely necessary.

And hopefully, that would be... NONE.

“Talk to me about what.” The mom kept her voice flat and plain.

The stepmom was now actively kicking herself. Her innards were turning over and over and rearranging themselves. Maybe an alien would pop out of the middle of her chest—that’s what this was all about.

Coffee. Laughing, remember? Human BE-ING. Heart of war or heart of peace, the stepmom recited mentally like a zombie mantra. Suddenly, she thought, oh fuck it. She can’t kill me if she’s not actually here to bite my throat and drain me like a vampire. What do I have to lose anyway?

It’s already bad enough.

The stepmom took a deep breath and tried to clear her panicky head.

The mom heard this exhalation through the phone and thought, Wow, this is really weird. Something’s going on here. I wonder if I’ll be able to use this against her later somehow. Maybe they’re having problems? The mom filed these thoughts away and continued to listen, waiting for the stepmom to verbally hang herself. For some unknown reason, she had a mental image of a mountain lion in the deserts of Big Bend National Park, lying in wait while the unsuspecting hikers walked by on the path below, down the hill from the silent, tightly-wound feline.

Focus, focus, the mom reminded herself.

"Well, it’s about conflict and how it happens. How it gets generated." More silence. It was clear the mom wasn’t going to help her out—no surprise there—she would just have to plow through on her own. "Well, and it made me, I mean—I know you’re going to think this is crazy — but it made me just want to, um — to pick up the phone and call you. I thought maybe there might be a way for us to— "

Us.

Now there was an unusual grouping the mom had never heard out loud before.When was the last time she and the stepmom had ever been an US? She stifled a manic giggle.

All of a sudden, it occurred to the mom that the stepmom was actually scared. She imagined her over there, in their house, gripping the phone. The mom could feel two roads instantly stretching out in front of her. The familiar one was all about strategy, advantage, amassing your weapons, building your arsenal. The other one gave her a twinge in her stomach. What would happen if she cut the other woman a bit of slack for once?

“To, um—” the stepmom reluctantly repeated.

“Go on,” the mom said in a warmer voice. Something peculiar was happening to her. She felt like a curtain was being pulled back and she was seeing more of the other woman than she’d ever seen before, like the stepmom had stepped out from behind a desk and had actual... legs. She had the bizarre sensation of watching the stepmom go from black and white to Technicolor, just like in the Wizard of Oz.

The stepmom rushed on, encouraged. “Well, I know you probably think I don’t like you — and actually,” she hesitated, aware of the need to choose her words v-e-r-y carefully, “I’m not actually sure what I think of you—like, you know, the real you. I mean, honestly—I don’t even know you.”

The mom leaned forward in her seat, paying close attention. She thought of all the things he’d probably told the stepmom and got a sick little feeling in her gut. Watch out, she warned herself. You could be walking straight into a trap.

“Just like you don’t know me," the stepmom continued.  "And yet — and yet, there’s all this tension between us. And we’ve had all these horrible moments, these bad experiences of not getting along. And all the fighting. The court stuff. The money. And disagreeing about everything—big, small, whatever." She rushed on, wondering who was controlling the words coming out of her mouth. "And you may not even believe me, but there have been times when I actually stood up for you when ___ was trashing your name. I mean, sorry—I probably shouldn’t say that—but I just want you to know that I just wish we could.... I mean, I just wish it were just possible to maybe set some of that aside, like in a box, and—- "

The stepmom stopped abruptly. Perhaps the she had gone too far. She sensed an incorrect breach there, what she had just said, as if she was going against her own husband in the face of the enemy.

There was a long awkward silence.

Finally, the mom just threw it out there, like fragile fruit landing softly in a basket. She felt a momentary flush of pride at her generosity.

“You mean, like actually, get along?”

It sounded as absurd as planning an arduous mission to Mars together in a cardboard box, from beginning to end.

They both laughed, breaking the tension. This must have been one of the world’s weirdest, most awkward phone calls. Moms and stepmoms weren’t supposed to talk to each other for a good reason!

It dawned on the stepmom that this was the first time she had ever laughed with the mom about anything.

It dawned on the mom that this was the first time she had ever laughed with the stepmom about anything too.

The stepmom soldiered on, feeling emboldened. “Look. Would you be up for maybe getting together in person and just talking about this? Like maybe just for coffee or something? Or at the park? Whatever works for you—” It occurred to the stepmom that she’d never used those last words with the mom either. Hmm, something to think about later....

The mom looked again at those two roads stretching out in front of her. If you took a new road and went off course, you could find yourself in a real crisis, running out of water, having your trail of breadcrumbs eaten by birds, losing your way. Night falls and you are royally screwed.

She thought of the kids and got an instant pang in her heart. Never once in her wildest dreams would she have ever imagined—breathing in their soft, sweet little heads—that she’d be negotiating a park date with that strange bitch of a woman who was now also in charge of their lives, in her own little kingdom. Then she thought of the pain and confusion she could see in the kids’ faces sometimes when they returned home, a certain emotional fatigue and exhaustion that popped through here and there.

This must be so hard for them....

The stepmom hesitated. If the mom turned her down now, there would be hell to pay, because this would be it. This would have been evidence of her sticking her neck wayyyy out on the line, and if that bitch of a bio-mom threw THIS back in her face, well, she’d regret it—once she saw what was coming her way. Fine, so the mom had the power to trump the stepmom in all KINDS of ways, but the stepmom could be as wily as the best of them. You just wait. She was about to crisply say, You know what? Forget it. This was a mistake calling. I don’t know what made me think I could—

“I would love to meet you.” said the mom, although her tone of voice sure didn’t make it seem like that was the case.

It was more like she was saying, Meet me at the park at sundown and I will calmly shoot you in the forehead—because I am a really good shot. Either that, or, Sure, come at dusk, when I turn into a bat—and unless you’re wearing a turtleneck made of steel, prepare to die, Inigo Montoya.

The stepmom was confused, flustered. She wasn’t sure which way to go here. “Really?” she said.

The mom’s voice softened. “Yes, really. It might be the dumbest thing we ever did, but sure, what the hell.”

There was that pairing again.

We.

“Should we bring weapons?” the stepmom offered helpfully.

They made plans for tomorrow and got off the phone, disoriented and slightly dizzy. But also... oddly hopeful.

And very, very curious.

© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine      All Rights Reserved

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Erasing the Enemy - Part One

fleur Once upon a time, there was a mom and stepmom, stuck with each other in their lives, like a splinter in their thumb that couldn't be removed. Thumbs get used a lot, so this was a bad thing, this constant, wincing reminder of the splinter as they went about their days.

It was a pretty typical situation in that they couldn't stand each other. It was also pretty typical in that they both felt mistreated and put upon.

fairy_tale_house_1

The mom bristled at having to unwillingly "share" the parenting of her children (children that came from her own body!) with a perfect stranger. She took her leftover anger at her ex-husband for his uneven parenting, mixed in a little jealousy, fear, confusion, defensiveness, and the stomach-curdling knowledge that all her private secrets had been lain bare between the two new partners and probably laughed over - and focused her parenting irritation on the stepmom as well.

She didn't mind making life harder for the husband and stepmom. Weren't they always trying to undermine her as well? Tit for tat, as they say. Maybe one day they would come to their senses and realize how their poor behavior was only emotionally damaging the children and would change. But she wasn't going to hold her breath.

For her part, the stepmom bristled at the unwanted presence of the other woman in her life. It was worse than having the world's worst boss, this looming spectre of the mom (lording her sanctimonious, "maternal" preferences all over them!). At least with a boss, you could go home and escape, but here, their troubles with the other woman were still evident everywhere - in the children's lack of self-control, in her husband's haphazard approach to discipline, in their dangerous marital fights over the children's bad behavior and hurtful rejection of her.

She didn't mind making life harder for the mom. Wasn't she always trying to undermine us as well? Tit for tat, as they say. Maybe one day she would come to her senses and realize how her poor behavior was only emotionally damaging the children and would change. But the stepmom wasn't going to hold her breath.

One day, the stepmom was tooling around online when she heard about a book on conflict resolution* that seemed to hold the promise of creating more peace in her life, or at least help her understand why things were so bad between their two houses.

She was tired of all the stress, the subtle (or sometimes overt) struggles for power between ALL the adults, between the kids, between herself and her lower and higher impulses.

Something had to give.

She spent the next several days devouring the book, during breaks at work, while stirring a pot on the stove, and alone in the bedroom in the evenings, forgoing TV -- even, my stars, Facebook.

The following ideas held a part of her attention captive as she went about her daily routine, motivated by the sense that she was onto something big and potentially life-changing.

  • When we have problems with someone else, we turn them into an "Other," a cardboard cut-out of a human being.
  • It's easier to accuse and blame someone if they're not a nuanced, flesh-and-blood person.
  • When we are battling another, we exaggerate their wrongdoing, the damage they have inflicted upon us, our sense of victimization and our justifications for our own sometimes poor behavior.
  • We seek agreement from others to back ourselves up and "prove" that it's the other person who is wrong.
  • When we are at the height of conflict, we are simply seeing things in the most limiting, childishly basic terms -- we cut ourselves off from new ideas; the powerful energy of good intentions and our ability to blast through logjams and debris; the stretchy, open, expansive nature of possibility.

An idea was forming in the stepmom's mind.

What if---

What if... she reached out to the mom? What if she just basically said, Hey, look -- can we talk? Not as arch enemies, but just as (gulp) two people?

What if she was able to say, I know you don't like me and probably think that I don't like you either, even though I barely know you. And sure, I guess I actually HAVEN'T liked you, off and on, over the years. But---

Do you have a moment? Would you be willing to try and set all this stuff aside, so we can try and work together on some of the more basic stuff?

I mean, it sure would be nice being able to talk to each OTHER about some of this stuff, don't you think? Instead of always having to go through my husband? I mean, your ex. I mean--their father.

It's not like we need to shoot for becoming best friends or anything, but wouldn't it be nice to at least feel like we could work together on some of the simpler things?

What do ya think?

She felt her stomach drop considering the thought, like she'd driven over a sharp hill with a sudden dip on the other side.

Her friends would think she was fricking nuts, especially after all the stories she'd told them, how pissed off they'd gotten on her behalf. May as well walk through the fields past enemy lines, take off all your clothes, set your hair on fire, and dance around until you were pulverized by machine gun fire!

Come to think of it, her husband might not take too kindly to the idea either. Her face flushed with guilt.

But she thought back again to an image that was coalescing in her psyche....

She could see the two of them having a cup of coffee, knees shaking under the table, maybe laughing over something stupid.

Could they laugh over something stupid?

It would be the closest she'd ever actually got to the woman, having the chance to stare at her face, absorb her personality, sit back and observe.

Would she get her head bitten off? Would her efforts be seen as an admission of guilt, inferiority or worse, acquiescence? Ha, wouldn't that be just like her? She thought back on all the conflict between them, the silent tension, the scary legal hassles, the harsh words.

Wouldn't this be insanity, trying this?

She picked up the phone with a pounding heart, and dialed the mom's number.

(Read on for Part Two!)

*The Anatomy of Peace, by the Arbinger Institute

© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine      All Rights Reserved

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Be stubborn about the truth!

(How did it go last week? Did you refrain from any unhelpful behavior, even once? Did you stop some of your negative thoughts mid-train? What did you discover?) Question for you, moving forward....

First, let's assume that you do indeed have some changes to make when it comes to creating a better relationship with the mom or stepmom, and between both families. Ask yourself---

Do you have anyone in your life who gives it to you straight?

Someone who's willing to tell it like it is, even if you may not like it?

Someone who is brave and honest enough to point out the error of your ways, even if it might be awkward, uncomfortable, or make you feel defensive?

Someone who tells you these things from a place of wanting to serve your highest self, instead of your sometimes blind social self?

 

Who is it? And when was the last time you talked to them?

Friends like that might scare you on some level, but admit it: you also crave and respect their honesty!

Do you serve this same function for your closest friends?

Friends like this circumvent the little story we're trying to tell ourselves about problems in our life, which sometimes involves

  • justifications for our behavior,
  • the convenient denial or omission of a few telling details,
  • the focus on the other person's mistakes and shortcomings.

Friends like this just stick a few plain facts in your face and say, hey... but--- what about this?

Brilliant!

 

And often make us feel like the Emperor with no clothes, at least... temporarily.

If there's conflict between you and the other woman, or between the two families, a friend like this can be an incredible source of insight and new ideas to be acted upon.

Lacking anyone like this in your life, do you have guaranteed tools you can fall back on to help you drill down to the truth about any behavior of yours that's actually perpetuating conflict?

Things like:

  • journaling
  • meditation
  • cognitive therapy (slowing down your mental dialogue and then analyzing whether it's accurate or not, which it often isn't!)
  • goal status checks (which assumes that you're clear on your goals in the first place - a lot of us aren't)

 

If you've figured out a predictable way to sort through your emotional turmoil on a predictable basis, bravo. You're reducing your stress and making your life clearer and easier. If you haven't, dabble in one or two methods and see what happens.

There's an incredibly simple litmus test you can take to see whether your friend's questions, or your conflict resolution tools, are serving you....

Ask yourself---

  • Do I feel lighter after talking with them, or sitting down and looking at this situation?
  • Do I have a new sense of possibility here?
  • Do I now see some angles and perspectives that I was blind to before?

Sometimes we run from uncomfortable truths about our automatic behavior like someone trying to outrun an attack dog.

What would happen if you didn't?!

 

© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved

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The Fragile Bridge of Trust

When Indiana Jones threw sand out into the precipice, suddenly revealing an invisible bridge, he found the magical solution to quickly getting across, away from his enemies. But… he still had to actually cross the narrow bridge without falling off.

Trust between you and the stepmom or mom is like that same skinny bridge made real by the sand.

Sometimes you can't see it, but you can sense the fuzzy edges, suspended there in mid-air.

It's ever-present, but still requires a leap of faith. And even if the bridge is there, shining under a spotlight, it may require balance and nerves of steel to get safely to the other side. It's scary!

Plus, you know... look how far down the ground is.

There's the link of trust, but there are also many different levels of connection.

There's the functional, logistical trust you have with people you work with. The simple, surface trust between you and acquaintances. There's the underground river of trust between you and your closest friends, the ones who know all your dirt and still love you.

As the level of mutual need and dependency goes up, so does the risk.

That’s because both parties need something from each other.

Stepmoms need to know that the mom will respect her way of doing things. That she has every right to establish rules and principles in her home, guidelines that are just as valid and important as the mom's. She needs to know that her responses and emotional reactions to the children, whether good or bad, are just as valid as anything either parent might be feeling -- they're not just "pasted" onto the family unit bubble like something "extra."

Stepmoms sometimes need space from the whole chaotic jumble that is a stepfamily, since this is probably not what she originally imagined for herself when she envisioned having a family.

She wants respect. She wants closeness. She just wants to be appreciated for who she is, what she brings to her family, and not treated like a permanent outsider.

Moms need to know that the stepmom is not in secret competition with her and will not be subtly working to undermine her, to turn the children against her. She needs to know that, while the children now have a different world to immerse themselves in after the divorce, their old one is still treated with respect and held in a certain esteem. Moms need to know that she's not being blamed for behavioral issues that are just a normal part of development.

She needs to know that her instincts to protect her children won't always be chalked up to lingering issues with her ex.

She wants respect. She wants closeness. She wants to be appreciated for who she is and not treated like a permanent threat.

When one or both parties first attempt to reach out to each other, to risk a little something of themselves and work together, it can actually be terrifying.

Even if it's over something as simple as helping little Jane transport her art supplies from house to house without always losing something, or keeping Mark the man-child from continually sneaking out of the house and into trouble.

Here's the biggest fear: what if the other woman slaps you down?

What if the ex-wife or stepmother is just waiting in the lurch for a show of weakness and then, she goes in for the jugular?

And how the hell do you trust someone you don't like anyway? And what if she's already given you plenty of reasons never to trust her again?

Well, it's true—stepmothers and ex-wives typically have very different agendas, different end goals. But they're both working with the same fears and that's actually a good thing, here. They're in the same boat.

Use that commonality to help you!

Neither wants to be further tackled when she's down. Neither wants to reach out for the olive branch and then have it yanked away at the last minute, humiliating her. Neither woman wants to leave the door to the ammunitions room open overnight.

All I can say is it takes time. And repetition.

Two things we hate hearing.

Time makes it sound like you could be at this for years and years, getting nowhere. And repetition has about as much appeal as doing scales on a violin when you're just learning how to play and can only make screeching noises.

Start out small and see where it gets you.

If you get nowhere, take a breather, then try again.

If you still get nowhere, take another breather and regroup. Monitor your self-talk: is it the stuff of drama and tragedy, or a shrug and "Enh, moving on…"? Can you put yourself in her shoes and imagine what she might be feeling?

Where is it you're trying to go?

How high up on the scale of cooperation are you shooting for? What would you consider a success?

It's going to be different for everyone. Movement for some might be an exchange of tight grimaces at the front door, whereas before, no one ever even got out of the car for a kid pick-up, they just laid on the horn with anger. Improvement for others might be a heartfelt talk on the phone about Lily's grades, Timmy's depression, Sarah's pot-smoking.

What would be progress for you?

And if it's hard and doesn’t go well, what will you do with your residual feelings? Will you handle them responsibly? Can you address any inconsistencies in your boundaries without trying to rub the other woman’s face in it?

Even if you get somewhere, don't be surprised to find that you and the stepmom or ex-wife aren't always on the same page. I remember, early on, thinking Carol (the stepmom) and I (the ex-wife) were doing pretty well, only to hear from David (my ex-) that she was upset over something inconsequential (I thought) I'd said weeks before. It would take several awkward conversations to make things right, but we did, and then we plowed ahead….

It takes a certain kind of humility to keep reaching out, to keep trying to cross that bridge of connection. You've got to set aside the score-keeping, your ego, and all those vague voices in your ear that belong to friends and family, making the other woman wrong.

Have you ever truly forgiven someone who's hurt you, I mean truly forgiven them? Same kind of softness required here.

The payoffs for developing trust, even a semblance, are many.

Less stress between the two of you.

Less stress thinking about her when you're alone. More partnership and collaboration (what kind of cake should we make for so-and-so's birthday?). Less bitching with your partner. New ideas when brainstorming.

And let's not forget how important it is to create a virtual wall of parenthood in the face of children's bad behavior!

Lucky for you, and maybe, surprise... you're not in control. It's not only your show. That is, a lot of stuff happens off stage without your input, permission or direction. Which means, some very good things… might… just… happen—all on their own.

It just takes YOU to get the train rolling with a little push. And before you know it, you'll be on your way to developing some threads of trust between you and the stepmom or ex-wife that might turn into something strong and weight-bearing.

Best of luck!

© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine       All Rights Reserved