Stepmoms Speak

29 10 2008

Diane Fromme is a writer and 13-year veteran stepmom to Brittany (22) and Ian (20), who were six and four when their mother died. Her upcoming book, Stepparenting the Grieving Child, offers an insider’s guide to navigating the unique joys and challenges of living with a child whose parent has died. For more information and to sign up for her newsletter, go to www.dianefromme.com. You can also check out her blog. Here is the opening excerpt from her book. Printed with permission.

How Did I Get Here?
By Diane Fromme 

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” – E.M. FORSTER

Fall, 1993

The blue of seven-year-old Brittany’s eyes matched that of the cloudless sky over the softball field. I had offered to watch Brittany and her younger brother Ian at the playground adjoining the field while Brian, my fiancé and their father, played a tournament game.

 It was the first time I’d ever looked purposefully into her eyes. I think I was afraid of what I might find there, just one year after the children had lost their mother to cancer. But in Brittany’s eyes I saw an unexpected calm. Only the slight, purplish-grey smudges underneath yielded a clue of strain; dark crescents in the soft, ivory skin.  When the sunlight would flicker across her eyes, I also saw questions. Unspoken questions and no answers.  Ian’s eyes were a little darker than Brittany’s: seawater blue. He was so active that I couldn’t get a deeper look. Ian was five and if he showed any sign of mourning it was masked by his nearly constant motion.  The kids dug around in the wood chips near the swings, climbed on the geo structure, and played a fantasy game concocted from the depths of their imaginations. Sometimes I let my gaze wander over to the action on the softball field, but most of the time I studied the children. I was taken with the creamy perfection one finds in the faces of the young. Their constant jabbering amused me.  I wondered what they’d been through, losing their mother. I couldn’t connect from my own experience – I had just spoken to my mother that morning – and so felt a distance from any understanding of their pain.  When Ian asked me to take him to the bathroom, he didn’t look at me but he did grab for my hand. I wasn’t used to being around children in recent years. The little hand felt strange at first, but overall warm and good.”We could get used to each other,” I thought. “This could work out just fine.”    

~

I clearly recall that when I was considering marrying Brian, everything lined up in my logical view of the world. I liked children: as a teenager I had been a youth leader and a day-camp counselor, and in my mid-twenties I mentored an at-risk, ten-year-old girl.  Now, close to thirty, I had met a man who was kind, intelligent, and sensitive, and I was actually eager to help him and his children move forward in the aftermath of his wife’s and their mother’s death.

What I didn’t know anything about was the distinct nature of stepfamily formation, its singular undulations and patterns, coupled with the effects of grief and the possible ways grief can manifest over the years. So without much further study than snapshot observations of the children, I launched optimistically forward into “I do,” which became a union of husband and wife and two children, not to mention two dogs and three cats. I also didn’t realize that Brittany and Ian’s mom, though deceased, was an essential part of our new family.  

In many ways, my blissful optimism was healthy: When you’re moving into the role of stepparent, it’s beneficial to become educated and gain assistance early on, during a time when you’re feeling positive and hopeful. And when you’re adding the challenge of stepparenting after a parent has died, some level of grief education is also vital. Of course it’s not too late to shore up your knowledge. Thank goodness, because I didn’t seek help right away.  

After many years of “let’s try this” stepparenting, followed by many years of research about what the experts recommend, my formula for successful stepparenting after a parent dies looks closest to this:  

Willing Attitude + Stepfamily and Grief Education + Support Resources = Sane Stepparenting   Grab hold of the opportunity to explore all parts of this equation, while at the same time reflect on how you arrived in a family where a child’s parent has died.

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