What My Husband’s Ex-Wife Taught Me About Belonging

I’ve been thinking a lot about Wayne Dyer’s assertion that when you change the way you look at things (or people), things (and people) change. Even difficult things (and difficult people).

I’ve also been thinking about the fact that there are things we can only seem to learn and understand when someone dies.

Things about ourselves. Things about the person. About life. I started learning this when my father died on New Year’s Eve, 2010.

As uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful as grief has been and can be, I am astonished by, and in awe of, the things I have learned and understood. Things that were simply unknowable and not able to be understood, prior to death.

The story I am about to tell you sort of mashes up these two concepts.

My husband’s ex-wife (Elizabeth), the mother of his three children, taught me about belonging when she died.

Before I share the lesson, I have to share that I didn’t used to like her much. In fact, there were times when my thoughts about her were quite unkind and sometimes downright nasty. And, from what I understand, she thought and felt the same way about me.

In some ways it was typical ex-wife/current wife, biological mom/stepmom stuff. I wanted to believe that I was Super Step Mom here to save the day…to save my step kids from their unstable, perhaps mentally ill mother. She probably thought I was an overstepping know-it-all who thought I was better than her. 

But you know what? Over the years we did fun things together. I am not even going to say “for the sake of the kids” because while they were certainly the reason we ever hung out, I can see now that we were meant to be part of each other’s lives, at least for a while.

Some of my fondest memories of the past 20 years include her: sitting in the stands at the Little League field and gymnastics meets. Some holidays. The time we took 12-year-old Jessica and two of her friends to see Hanson (you should have heard the screaming!). The graduations. The birth of our grandson.

In those moments, she was gracious. She included me. In pictures with her kids. “You’re part of the family too…” Except I didn’t believe she was sincere.

The thing is, I haven’t always felt like I belonged.

My parents divorced when I was three and so growing up I had two (complicated) families:

One with my mother, stepfather, and adopted brother. We’d often spend time with my stepfather’s family, but I wasn’t biologically part of it. Then my mother and stepfather got divorced so the family fractured a little more.

And the other with my father, stepmother, half sister and half brother. And when I was with them, we’d often spend time with my stepmother’s family…and I wasn’t biologically part of them either. My father and stepmother eventually got divorced, as well.

All the divorces, all the remarriages. The steps. The halves. The once-removeds. The people who are there because they’re somehow part of the mix.

Then I married a man with kids and an ex-wife.

Getting back to Elizabeth.

She had lung cancer.

On her last somewhat lucid day, I went to see her in the hospital. I had been afraid to show up because I didn’t think I was welcome or belonged there. I didn’t want to “intrude.” I was uncomfortable, not knowing how I’d handle it.

I sat down next to her bed and reached for her hand. She roused herself and said, “None of this handshake shit…I want a hug.” And so I hugged her.

A little while later she complained about chapped lips. Her daughter Jessica offered her some Chapstick, which she promptly waved away. She wanted something softer. There was a tiny pink pot of Vaseline lip balm by the bed.

“Do you want me to put some of this on?” Jessica asked.

“No,” she said gruffly.

Her son Jeremey asked if he could do it. Again, no.

They both looked at me, as I was the only other person in the room, and Jeremey asked, “You want Karen to do it?”

She raised her finger in the air and replied, with her trademark sarcasm, “Ding ding ding!”

So I reached over and carefully put some balm on her lips.

She died a few days later.

Afterwards, in the midst of what seemed like disproportionate grief over her death, there was something else: shame.

I alluded to it previously. At one time I had not-nice thoughts about her and I told not-nice stories. Then I started telling myself the story that she’d had a painful childhood, that she was a victim, and that I pitied her. Along with pity, however, I was also pissed because I still believed that she was creating pain for others.

And I believed that story right up until the end. Almost.

The experience I had with her before she died showed me something else about myself.

My sense of loss was connected to the contrast: I didn’t like her when she was alive, but when she was dying, she touched me in such a way that I was able to let go of all the stories I had ever told about her – and I woke up to her wholeness and her goodness. The wholeness and goodness that was always there, but which I chose not to see.

I felt shame. And it’s okay.

Brené Brown says that feeling shame is what separates “normal” people from psychopaths (who apparently don’t feel shame).

When I shared my experience in a blog post, a friend commented: “I’m pretty sure I could not be the woman you were.”

Fact is, I couldn’t be that woman either until Elizabeth helped me be that woman.

And just like I can now see her innate goodness, I can also see my own.

I had to sit with my shame for quite a while in order to see this. I had to accept it and choose to experience it, with all its burning discomfort.

Once it burned itself out, I felt indescribable compassion, both for her and for myself.

Rather than using my shame to hurt me, I  choose to let it transform me.

Part of being truly alive is not being afraid of the contrast. Shame and compassion are equally valuable parts of the deal.

What I know now is that…

…she understood how important it was (for both of us) that I be able to express my care for her before she died.

…all those years, it was I who chose to feel separate and apart, for whatever reason. It was I who had barriers up. I am not blaming myself, but I see how I held back.

…it’s up to me to be willing to be included. To step up and own the fact that I belong…and to act like it.

…these people with whom we spend time – who love the same people we love – who teach us stuff – even if we don’t like them, they’re family…and eventually we can feel genuine love for them.

They can change. And so can we.

KCLA

Karen C.L. Anderson is a storyteller and a story transformer. When she writes about her life and experiences, in an effort to explain them to herself, she finds that it resonates with others. She is dedicated to the concept that the truth never creates suffering and that all stories can be told through the lens of truth. She is the author of The Peaceful Daughter’s Guide To Separating From A Difficult Mother. She lives in New London, CT, with her husband. Her website is kclanderson.com

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30 thoughts on “What My Husband’s Ex-Wife Taught Me About Belonging

  1. Beautiful. I’m sure many of us have or will find ourselves in your story. I certainly do. I feel very lucky to have found a sense of being part of one big modern family, and finding my compassion, on a camping trip the eve of my stepdaughter’s wedding. It’s still a struggle, but to find the good in others is finding the good in ourselves. You certainly did that!

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  2. Very good story! Thanks for sharing. Life isn’t always so easy and simple, although we wish it would be at times. But if everything was so easy, then strangely life wouldn’t be so fun, right?

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  3. What a powerful story. We put up walls to avoid showing our vulnerability not always realizing it’s what gives us strength and help us build the connection with others we at times so deeply desire. Thank you for sharing! 🙂

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  4. Hi Karen! I am a great believer in Wayne Dyer’s assertion. What’s the other saying, “We don’t see people as they are, we see people as WE are.” But even knowing that doesn’t make it easy. Sometimes a very personal story like your own helps to make it extremely clear. Thank you for such a wonderful reminder. ~Kathy

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    1. Thank you Kathy! And yes, I love the concept that we see others as we are…and when we’re able to acknowledge that without judging ourselves harshly, it opens up so much freedom!

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  5. You pegged me right here: “In some ways it was typical ex-wife/current wife, biological mom/stepmom stuff. I wanted to believe that I was Super Step Mom here to save the day…to save my step kids from their unstable, perhaps mentally ill mother. She probably thought I was an overstepping know-it-all who thought I was better than her.” Thought-provoking piece. You’ve inspired me to open my heart and mind a bit and be willing to see this difficult relationship from a new perspective. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for sharing your story so honestly, Karen. I’m sure it has touched many hearts. It has mine. It’s interesting how death helps us realise the pettiness and transience of differences. If only we could see it soon enough.

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    1. So true. My own dear Mother passed from this world to the next about 2 months ago. I was blessed to be at her side during her final 18 hours on Earth. Now that the grief has passed; life somehow feels fuller and richer. Bring it on Universe!

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  7. I’ve had similar struggles as a stepmother. Only five years in, I’m very new to this venture. I hope for change in the step to birth dynamic. I didn’t expect the extreme resistance I received and continue to receive. She hates me to the core, perhaps I am more stable and less selfish than she is in this particular situation, but I wanted to be a team.

    Our distance makes it easy to avoid one another, though I tried to bridge the gap with private blogs of his daily ventures with pictures, monthly emails, and even as far as emergency phone calls from the doctors office. It all went ignored, and I stopped trying to be her partner. That’s when I could feel the step nightmare emerge, I was going to be better.

    The first branch ever in five years was semi passed through my husband just last month. She called to thank me for my dedicated work to him and his reading, math, and science studies. He left a kindergartener reading behind his class, and apparently returned at a third grade reading level, this is something that obviously weighed on her heart, and now she was relieved. I hope someday she will speak to me, or that we’ll be able to work together as a team…pipe dreams.

    This piece really instilled hope that perhaps at the end of the road is forgiveness, from me to her that is. I see the nasty attitude I’ve started to have against this invisible entity that lingers in my home, and I want so desperately to let it go.

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    1. If I could offer one piece of advice, it would be this: nothing happens on a neat and tidy timeline. Adjustments and feelings of love and familyhood take time and are not linear.

      Your desire to find peace will serve you well ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Rarely am I moved to tears by a post. This is a wonderful story about many of the things that I share on my blog and through writing as well. Happy to have read this as it’s helped nudge me a little closer to compassion and understanding as well.

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  9. I hope one day I can find a similar peace and closure, I myself a step-mom have really struggled with belonging and even though the bio-mom has not been in the picture- my step-kids grandparents
    and extended family on my husbands side have (as they assumed the missing role when their mom left). There has been meddling to the point of threatening custody and outright calling me mentally in stable. Just very complicated and almost narcisstic personalities, that I too have put up walls. There is a fine line between having trouble adjusting and being somewhat protective to being outright passive aggressive(saying they support our step-family but acting far from it) and unwilling to really work together. There is a lot of personal pain that maybe one day a light can be shown. I do agree on things change when you change how you look at them. For me it is how I have viewed myself because of others, since changing how I see myself I at least have been better able to cope in a more positive way for the sake of my step-family . This is a good turn of point of view that I will keep in mind, a good read.

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    1. It’s an ongoing process, for sure. What I know now is that it can be a joyful one, even when it’s painful. Wishing you much peace.

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