(Note: Week 5 of a 10-week series on self-soothing. Looking to our animal nature to access our ability to manage our reactions and have the life we choose, not the life that happens while we are upset or retreating.)
After our evening dog walk, my husband and I linger on the front porch watching the sky darken before we go inside. Our big dog loves this hang out time with us. Our little dog, Lucy, does . . . and doesn’t. She often seems as though she’d like to sit on the porch with us, but as night falls the wind picks up and she peers nervously over hunched shoulders looking for an escape route.
When I take her inside, she calms quickly and I go back to join my husband on the porch. The peace is short-lived. Lucy lives for the sight and sniff of the people in our close-knit community who come to say hello with the latest news. Soon, she hears the neighbor’s step on the porch and she launches into a fire drill of barking. As I reflect on her very temporary peace, it occurs to me that Lucy’s problem is similar to the stepmother dilemma, to detach or not to detach.
One of the coping recommendations for a stepmother is to detach when things get overwhelming or she finds herself becoming anxious or depressed when wrapped in the drama of her remarried family. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, there are some great descriptions of detachment in Stepmonster, by Wednesday Martin. Detachment is a great way to reground and regroup but sometimes it comes with its own stress. The situations that bother me produce similar conflicts in me as the loud noises do for Lucy.
The facts are that Lucy has a great home with us. She is comforted by being with us and life is good for her. But, Lucy is bothered by the wind and firecrackers and any sharp, loud noise. When she hears loud noise, she runs to hide and calm herself. She is our self-appointed guard dog and she makes sure we know when things are okay and when they are not. Thus, when she is scared, she goes into a massive quandary about continuing her guard-dog job or escaping away to a more comforting place.
I, too, love my home and the family that comes with it. It’s my life now and I have no desire or intention to make someone go away or compete for resources of attention, love, or money. It is enough to share this life with my husband, knowing that he and I will be here together for a very long time.
I feel ownership and caring for the home we have created together, so the loud noise and craziness of lots of people who all need something at the same moment, well, it is sometimes too much for me. If I use the detachment strategy, that often implies leaving to the safe place. I recognize the same conflict in Lucy that I feel in myself, wanting to be part of things but often needing to retreat. I could really relate to her as she sat shivering on the porch a few days after the 4th of July, really wanting her escape hatch to open and take her away.
I keep coming back to a strategy I read in Passionate Marriage, by David Schnarch. Schnarch describes a two-choice dilemma as a moment when you are confronted with an either/or situation, for example, say you struggle with either I stay or I go. If you choose to stay you have another choice to make . . . stay with some calm in your heart or fume the whole time you are staying. Alternatively, if you decide to retreat, you could retreat while fuming or retreat with calm in your heart.
In order to practice the two-choice dilemma, I’ve learned to stop-and-wait. Stop-and-wait in the middle of my reaction helps me sort through my choices. In that choice, no matter which option I take, there is another choice. When I think of the situation as a series of choices to be made, I find many ways for me to keep my integrity in the middle of a big-deal-situation. The stop and wait gives me the chance to regroup and evaluate and then move forward with something I want.
The stop-and-wait strategy works for Lucy the guard dog also. When we’re on a walk and she gets scared, I stop and ask her to sit. She sits and nervously looks at me and then over her shoulder. I can tell when we have waited long enough because her shoulders start to fall away from her ears and at that point I release her to sniff the nearest tree or wall. Her 220 million olfactory receptors take over and she’s soon forgotten what scared her. If we’re home and she gets scared, I send her to her bed and she goes without protest, to sit and wait. She readily curls up on her bed and waits. Calm finds her quickly in most cases.
I’ve observed and copied my dogs’ behavior a multitude of times. Without fail their behavior is a great teacher. Take naps when you need them. Tread lightly. Bark when there is danger. Respect the pack. Don’t worry, be happy. And, this last one, the sit-and-wait, works even when your nervous system is overstressed and you feel ready to chew up the couch.
Maybe the title of this piece should be . . . a healthy stepmother stops and waits and sniffs.