A Healthy Stepmother . . . Liberally Applies Time Outs, For Herself 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Liberally Applies Time Outs, For Herself 

Recently, a friend of mine sent a text to me and another friend. Her parents were arriving for a week’s long visit and she was worried about repeating the same old habits that weren’t comfortable for her or her family. She said, any ideas you have for me to focus and keep a level head much appreciated.

Immediately, I shared with her all the secrets I’ve shared with you, my stepmother kindreds. Take time for yourself. Go to the bathroom. Often. Use the time behind that locked door to breath and settle into your body. Walk the dog. Watch a movie with the kids/parents. Participate in activities that involve parallel play, otherwise known as side by side activities. Not having to look one another in the eye is a blessing in many circumstances, no matter which relationship feels difficult.

Later, she told us the most useful suggestion was to take a time out when things were spinning into uncomfortable territory. She had. She mentioned that her mother had needed a time out, more than once. And, she reported matter-of-factly, she took the time outs for her mother.

IMG_5871-2When I heard that, I grinned. How perfect. When someone else is misbehaving in the relationship, if they won’t calm down and discuss, or change the topic, or find a way to manage and move forward, then you take yourself away, for five minutes, or fifteen minutes, or an hour. Repeat, as necessary.

So, over the next two weeks when you’re in close quarters with family and high on the expectation roller coaster, consider taking a time out. Whether it’s your own or someone else’s behavior, it is possible to interrupt the negative interaction and let it die. The kids are pouting and yelling? Take a few minutes elsewhere. The husband has a frustrating day because the kids are not connecting with him and he starts to take it out on you? Take a bit of a break and come back and interact later.

Use the time out as one of the ways to keep healthy boundaries. Keep your internal self balanced and ready to respond in the way you choose. Behave on your terms, not in reaction to someone else. No matter who it is, liberally apply time to process the situation and decide how to move forward.

Your sanity and well-being might depend on just that.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Leaves the Big Stuff on the Table

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Leaves the Big Stuff on the Table

This post was originally part of a series on self-soothing from the summer of 2011. While the big stuff topics for stepmothers are relevant every day, they can be even more important to remember and reflect upon during the holidays. May you find many moments of peace in these last few weeks of 2015.

I struggled a long time to write this blog post because we’re headed into discussions of the big stuff and how to self-soothe. The big stuff stirs up our internal stuff. Self-soothing is all about how we manage our emotions and what we do with our actions in the face of the big stuff in our stepfamily. Remember, I’m not a psychologist or a counselor or a stepmother coach. I am a stepmother who has studied human behavior for many decades and is now shining the “patterns of behavior” light on this issue of being a stepmother.

The last few weeks, when you were practicing making space, taking inventory, paying attention to your patterns, all of those studies were to lay the groundwork upon which to process your big stuff. The stronger your groundwork practice, the stronger your self-soothing in the internal stuff.

One of the simplest ways to self-soothe is to leave the big stuff where it belongs. That’s it . . . leave it sitting there on the sofa or the table. Don’t even pick it up. You can walk all around it. You can look at it. You can even touch it, but it’s best if you can leave it lying there while you do.

I’ve thought we need those intermittent warnings that you hear at the airport . . . “please do not leave your luggage unattended, any luggage left unattended will be destroyed.” Our stepmother version could be . . . “please do not take on the big stuff that isn’t yours, any big stuff you take on that doesn’t belong to you could explode at any moment.”

FullSizeRender 2If you have picked up a big stuff issue, you’ve noticed how hot it gets. The three really big stuff issues that come up for most stepmothers? One is the pursuing of the child’s love. Another is the judging of the mother. And the third is the rescuing of the child. Any one of these can burn you, all three together and you’ve got a bonfire. Continue reading

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Wonders Where You’ll Be

After the early years in my marriage, there came a time I realized I wasn’t alone as a stepmother. The realization came long after I began my blog, long after I knew dozens of stepmothers.

It seems common that we cling to the idea that everyone else is doing better at this stepmother thing than we are. We’re pretty sure we’re right. 

But, there are so many of us out here, getting up each day and making the best of life. There are now more remarried couples than first-time couples, which means more stepfamilies than first-time families. Who knew?

On this day of gathering with family, this day of high expectations, I wonder where you are. 

Will you be in your home, preparing a meal for your family and some of your extended stepfamily? 

Will there be people who sit around your table with resentment or will they participate with respect and appreciation for your efforts?

Will you feel welcomed in your own home, or will snubs and rejections, so subtle they’d be denied if ever called out, haunt you throughout the day and for weeks to come?

Will you feel pressure, even heaping it on yourself, to make sure everyone has a nice time, as if you had the power to ensure anyone had a good time other than yourself

Will you forget these are your husband’s children and spend your precious resources making up for things that happened to them in the past or try to be the perfect wife and compensate for your husband’s negative experiences? 

Will you be going to your in-laws for the big meal or another home where you are welcomed? Or, will you be spending time in a hostile place you’ve never felt welcome?

Will you try to grin and bear it as you’ve done on so many occasions, only to end up crying alone in the bathroom, or later after you’re home and the dark of night covers the tracks of tears on your pillow. 

  Will your husband have the just-right thing to say to help you feel okay, or will he be drowning in his own unrealistic expectations for the day and snap at you when you need comfort? Will you be able to separate from the worn out narrative that says really good people have a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving and feel bad because you know your family will never measure up and it’s all your fault? 

Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, however you are spending the day, including if it’s home alone and you’ve had an enormous fight with your beloved, may you dig down in the treasure chest of reality and community and realize . . . you are not alone. You do not have to be perfect. You do not have to make the day perfect for anyone else. Your food has to satisfy only those who enjoy it. Your humor has to be good enough for those who understand it. And your presence has to comfort only you. 

I hope you go easy on yourself. Help when it makes sense and go sit down when it seems called for, and sitting down will be called for far more than you think. 

Go easy on your husband. He might have a bad day with or without you by his side. He might be tired enough or worried enough or unskilled at navigating relationships enough to truly be beside himself on these high-expectation moments. 

Your job is not to save him, or to question whether you are necessary in his life. Your job is to support yourself so you are steady enough to tolerate the rough day ahead. When you stay steady in yourself, you are available to both yourself and him. That is what it means to stand beside someone. I’ll write more about that standing beside him business another time. 

For now, you take care of you. Ask before you help him, does he want help. And breathe. Who cares if it turns out perfectly?

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and a Tale of a New Stepmother

The other day I was writing a little story and decided it didn’t make it to THE BOOK. So, you get to enjoy it now. The stories in the upcoming tales for stepmothers will be slightly more complex, but this one felt worthy of sharing.

You’ll Learn
by Kim Cottrell

Eliza met and married Davis, the man of her dreams. They had everything in common, except children. She had none and he had five.

Davis was open with her before they married, his kids were a handful, even more some days. Undaunted and energetic, a professional who’d met many a challenge, Eliza didn’t bat an eye. She was an excellent partner to Davis and she knew she’d be an excellent companion for his children, once they got to know her.

The kids fell in love with Eliza, just as she predicted. They each found something to liKe about her and she shrugged off Davis’ concerns.

Then, Eliza and Davis married and left on a honeymoon. When they returned, they walked in the door of a whole new world filled with angry stares, refusals to say hello, invitations turned down. Genuine snubbing indeed.

Eliza thought the kids would calm down after a bit, but it only got worse. The kids sat between her and Davis. They kept him occupied and only spoke to him. The oldest ones ignored her and the youngest ones had a tantrum.

Just when Eliza thought it couldn’t get any worse, Davis’ ex-wife decided to move and she asked if Davis would take the kids for the summer.

Davis was overjoyed. He’d get to spend a summer with all his kids. He floated through his days at the thought of spending more time with the kids.

Eliza agreed, on one condition, as if she had any bargaining power. There would be rules. Rules that would need to be followed. Hesitantly, Davis agreed. Sort of. What he really said was they’d need to take a look and see what was best. But, that’s not what Eliza thought he said.

The kids moved in, tumbling over one another with their things and sleeping here and there and shoes strewn and clothing tossed. Within twenty minutes of their arrival they had achieved takeover. Eliza pasted a grin on her face and bravely made her way until dinner.

The next morning she went to work and forgot about her stepchildren. She got wrapped up in some meetings and almost forgot the kids lived at her house, until she was on the way home. On an impulse, she stopped and picked up two large pizzas to take home.

When she walked in the door with the pizza, the five kids descended on her, grabbing pieces of pizza and eating as they stood right in front of her.

“Stop.” Eliza yelled. “Stop. It is polite to say hello. In our house we say hello.” Her face got red and the kids stared at her.

Davis walked out of the kitchen. He said, “What’s up?”

Eliza burst into tears and retreated to the bedroom. The kids shrugged and ate their pizza.

That Saturday, Eliza put her foot down. Over bacon and eggs and pancakes, she insisted they do chores and clean up the house. The kids looked at their plates and at their Dad. Davis asked her what the top priorities were. She pulled out her list.

The blank stares that met her told her the plan was unpopular, but she insisted. “We need the house tidied up. This is important.” Eliza might as well have stomped her foot. About half the chores got done and the kids had disappeared by the time Eliza checked back from cleaning the garage.

Davis had the great idea to go to the beach and the kids excitedly jumped up and down. They loved the trip to the beach. They all piled in the van and drove the two hours to the beach. When they arrived the first thing they always did was get an ice cream at the Dairy Delight on the way into town.

A Healthy Stepmother...Draws Her Chalk BoundaryAs they pulled off the highway, Eliza said, “We can’t do this, we need lunch first. This is dessert before dinner and this isn’t healthy. Let’s go have dinner and come back.”

From the back seat, the youngest meekly said, “This is what we always do, this is tradition.”

But Eliza got louder and more insistent and her face turned red again. She drown out the kids and Davis turned the car around and drove to the beach. They walked and had lunch and when it was time to go, they all piled in the car to head home.

As they passed the Dairy Delight, Eliza said, “Wait, we need ice cream.”

In unison, the kids said, “We’re full.”

Davis drove on home.

Eliza went on in this way, seeing something that needed doing, doing it. Setting boundaries. Establishing order.

The kids weren’t bad kids, they could have argued, but they just got silent. The only rebuttal they had was to not engage with her, to pretend she didn’t exist.

Eliza drew more lines. The kids withdrew further.

Davis put up his hands when Eliza told him of one more thing she wanted changed. Eliza thought her heart would break. She thought she was being helpful. She thought she was contributing. She saw a need and she had stepped into the role of taking care of it.

Alone.

No one else was playing the chore game with her.

The last day of summer vacation came and the kids went home to live with their mother.

The house was quiet. Yes, it was also strewn with wrappers, drink bottles, and dirty plates, but it all echoed for the lack of voices and activity. Eliza cleaned up the living room, then the bathroom. She tidied and vacuumed and before long there was order.

And silence.

One day, Davis took the kids to a movie. Eliza had other plans. She got home to an empty house and cried.

Davis came home and saw her swollen eyes. He hugged her and held her. She cried more.

She woke the next day knowing she’d built the box she now lived in, no contact, no family group, all orderly, all neat and tidy and quiet and empty.

It took Eliza a week to figure out she wanted something different. She got the makings for a nice dinner and sat down with Davis and made a request. “Teach me. Show me. What’s your strategy with the kids. Tell me how you do this juggling act.”

Davis looked at her and raised an eyebrow. Then he grinned. “It’s pretty simple. Everyone has a vote. I listen. I prioritize everything else over a clean house. And, gradually, we build tradition.”

“Remember the hot dogs we had for Christmas.” He grinned wider. “Even they are now tradition. And they love it so much.” He went on. “You’ll get the hang of it and you don’t have to drive all the time. You can sit in a seat on the sideline and share and go second or third or sometimes last because someone has to be last and you and I take turns going last so the kids don’t have to. We fill the water bowl and let them drink. We fill the food bowl and let them eat.”

He paused and looked at her with all the love in his heart. “And change comes after a first, second, and third pass. It can’t happen immediately.”

They ate a few bites of the tasty meal Eliza had prepared.

Then Davis put his fork down again. He cleared his throat. “The truth is you’re so efficient you can do ten times the work the kids and I do at the pace you work. So you need to stop and eat bon bons along the way and let us accomplish our share to keep up with you. That way the kids can feel good about themselves. They naturally want to help and they will. Let them volunteer or let me assign one of them. We just need a little more time to bring all that into action. We don’t see it the way you do.”

Eliza frowned. “I have no idea how to sit while others work.

Davis grinned. “You’ll learn.”

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and Bowls Full of Issues

Recently, I became aware of trying to hold too much. Not do too much, but hold too much. I was holding just a few things but they were enormous. Things like the generational injuries in my family. There was no way I could keep the issue inside without conflict and turmoil and distress, to myself.

Holding an issue that big is a little like trying to hold poverty or violence against women. It is too much. It can’t be held by one person.

The good news is that becoming aware of my tendency to try to hold on to the vast issues helped me do something different.

Right after I became aware of my tendency, a friend confided in me about another person. I wished she had left me out of it. I woke up the next morning running the scene over and over in my mind, distressed at knowing this information because I am a friend with the other person too. I began bubbling over, churning about what I’d say and do and how it would feel to state my need and the reaction I anticipated from her.

As I sat drinking coffee at my dining room table, all of a sudden, I remembered my tendency to take on and hold things I can’t solve.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and Bowls Full of iIssues Quickly, I imagined an array of bowls sitting on the sideboard in my dining room. I imagined taking the steaming, roiling mass the friend-issue and gently depositing it in one of the bowls. Then, I sat there and felt my posture in the chair and breathed all the way from my nasal passages down to my pelvic floor, slow, uncrushed, generous breaths, not the fullest I could take, just full enough so my ribs moved easily.

Not five minutes later, I realized I was brewing with the issue of my father’s health and well-being. The roiling of that issue felt the same as the previous one. Without berating myself, I gently placed the mass of the father-issue in another bowl on the sideboard. Then, I took a few moments to notice what it was like to have that searching and longing for resolution no longer inside me.

Some people call holding these big issues worry, but I want to make a distinction. Some of us are carrying things we have been taught we should carry. All the stepmothers who’ve received the message the health of the stepfamily is yours to hold, raise your hand. I know this because as soon as I set the issue in the bowl, I feel calm inside. Worry feels different, worry is wary, worry is about meeting deadlines and obligations. See Karla McLaren’s great description of worry, which she includes in her description of anxiety.

This setting issues in the bowl strategy can work with any issue. Especially chronic issues that crop up again and again, unlike the straight-forward issues such as getting a kid’s teeth straightened and the day arrives when there are no more orthodontia appointments.

No, these monumental issues, the ones that pull and cause you to lose sleep at night are systemic, they are bound so tightly into the fabric of stepfamilies, or your family of origin, it’s incredible anyone sleeps. Things like communication between homes. Things like child loyalty. Things like an ex-spouse using what Rorshak calls Divorce Poison in his book of the same name. These are the things that roil and broil and prevent peace.

These chronic, messy, systemic patterns of problems are the perfect things to set aside in a bowl.

Not to be ignored.

I’m not suggesting we avoid important issues. I am suggesting we practice carrying these steaming, roiling, too-big-for-one-person issues away from our central self, away from our vital organs and the tender parts that keep us alive and hopeful.

Unresolvable issues, the ones often built into the situations like stepfamilies are the perfect thing to practice working with while they remain outside yourself. When you want to consider your actions and reactions or what you might do when the same situation arises again, well, the issue is there in the bowl on the sideboard, ready for your consideration and reconsideration, whenever you are ready to work with it.

I think we need to learn the difference between the things we can safely hold and the things that are best stored outside of us. When we get good at it, if a friend complains and we want to plug our ears, we’ll barely get ruffled as we lay the issue in the bowl. When the time is right, maybe the next time we are with that friend, we can say what needs saying, without the emotional tsunami that would follow if we had been carrying the issue deep inside us trying to keep it contained.

There will always be plenty of time and space to take up and work with our big issues. But, we will likely deal with them in a more comfortable way when we have been able to stop holding and instead disengage and disconnect, maybe even forget them, for small snippets of time, until we recognize we are not an issue. We are a living, breathing human, a being.

We need to learn how it feels to live and breathe as a human, and not as an issue.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Mother’s Day and Ho-Hum

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Mother’s Day and Ho-Hum

Maybe you’ve been feeling hurt and are counting the ways you’re not included in Sunday’s, May 10, Mother’s Day celebrations. Maybe you’ve decided to let the crust around your heart remain there for a while, since crusts offer protection by keeping you in and others out. Or, maybe the kids in your life freely and openly bring you offerings and talismans that show love and connection to you.

What if we agreed there isn’t a right answer for the demonstration of relationship, feelings, or connection?

What if we agreed those demonstrations will shift and change over time and the sellers and pushers of the trifecta of cards-flowers-chocolates won’t determine whether a stepchild, or the parent who nudges or doesn’t nudge the child, has done the right thing?

And, what if we agreed that sometimes it’s not safe for a child to share her or his feelings for you because that child’s every move is scrutinized by another member of the family, whether mother or sibling?

I’ve seen all versions.

A friend’s now-grown stepson has showered her with cards, simply but consistently, from the first year he moved in with his father and stepmother. His mother lived more than three hours away.

Another stepmother was a custodial stepmother when her stepchildren were younger and the two girls freely expressed their feelings. They moved back in with their mother for their teen years when their mother’s life became stable enough. By the time the girls began puberty, the stepmother had a child of her own. Thus began a number of angst-laden years with little expression other than anger and fear.

And, in many stepfamilies, there wasn’t and isn’t an expression of tenderness toward the stepmother.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Mother's Day and Ho-Hum

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Regardless of which stepfamily you live in, the way others express their feelings is not a reflection on you as a stepmother.

I’d like you to consider the idea of living in the ho-hum. The way I’ve heard it said, 5% of life is sheer agony, 5% is sheer ecstasy, and 90% of life is ho-hum.

According to the tradition, we need to learn to live inside the ho-hum. Long-time readers of this blog will recognize this is the living in the gray zone, or the neutral place.

I might argue the percentages for stepmothers are a little steeper. Maybe it’s 20-25% sheer agony. 5% sheer ecstasy, 70% ho-hum. You can see pretty quickly why a stepmother feels beleaguered and succumbs to depression and anxiety at rates higher than women in other relationships. (Wednesday Martin, Stepmonster)

Learning to live in the ho-hum. Learning to live without the constant search for the perfect moment. Learning to live knowing the incredibly painful will soon pass, because it is not a permanent condition even though it feels like one. Learning to let expressions of feelings be fluid and unprescribed, sometimes close, sometimes more distant.

Learning to sit inside your own skin, knowing you are enough, doing enough, being enough, right now, in this moment.

Happy You Day . . . wherever you may be.

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Note: I’d love to know where you are. I see on my stats board for this blog there are readers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. I’d love to hear where you live. Remember, you can always comment anonymously. You can use any name you want on the comment form, whether it’s Jane, Sally, or Candace. No one will see your email except me.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Draws Her Boundary Chalk  

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Draws Her Boundary Chalk  

Yes, boundary chalk.

What can we use for our protection? In our violence-steeped society, some easily imagine a gun or a knife. In other times, people drew swords and daggers. Or, the magic of a wand, so light, so easy to stash somewhere, even inside a sleeve or a purse.

The trouble is, protecting boundaries is tricky business. They might not exist and need to be built. They might get strong and then weaken. They might drop away and become invisible, leaving us vulnerable and easily invaded. Sometimes, we don’t even know what we’re trying to protect.

As I work on my book of tales for stepmothers (no date to offer up, but it’s progressing nicely, thanks for asking), I’ve been doing regular free writes. With my writing friends, I start with a prompt and write for seven minutes, or nine, or occasionally eleven. Our pens fly and no one stops until the timer goes off.

Here’s a piece I did on boundaries from one of those free writes. It has certainly been on my mind over these last many months.

But, this post is to tell you a drawing-boundary story of a real-life stepmother (with permission). This stepmother has one stepdaughter and two younger daughters, now in their teens. My stepmother friend and her husband have helped his daughter navigate some unhealthy, and potentially dangerous, situations for a very long time. And now, there’s a granddaughter to consider.

If you’ve been a stepmother in a situation like this, you know, there’s a weariness that grows, deep down in the bones. Giving to a person who endangers themselves again, and again. Giving again. It is exhausting.

Being called to rescue, whether with big issues like safety of small children, or little issues like getting homework done, is bound to happen for most stepmothers. But, we don’t have to beat ourselves up, we could get out the chalk and draw some lines around ourselves.

My stepmother friend knew she was running out of steam with all the helping she was doing. She kept trying to help differently each time her stepdaughter plummeted, but she was drawn in and others began relying on her. Her marriage suffered with all this helping, as did the life of her growing daughters.

One weekend, the now-grown stepdaughter with a daughter of her own, were coming to visit after a period of being stable and safe, and my friend and her husband got word that things were moving toward instability, again.

This time, my stepmother girlfriend quietly got out her chalk. She sent messages to the family and friend who so kindly informed them of the downturn for her stepdaughter. She asked them to communicate directly with her husband, the father of the woman in question. Her husband agreed that he would handle all the communication and she would take a back seat during the weekend. And, she determined to focus her attention on the activities of her younger daughters and in taking care of herself during the weekend while her stepdaughter was visiting.

I was cheering, of course, all the way from over here in my place on the sideline. You can join me in the cheering, too. I asked to tell her story because it’s a great example of the process of managing our feelings and sense of self while we are helping.

When we feel frustrated, it might be tempting to think we should know better and not let ourselves get caught in those situations. But, I think that know-better voice is the external society voice shouting in our ear. Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls it the over-culture. The know-better voice causes us to second-guess our instincts. It’s the second-guessing that is the problem, in my opinion. It’s the place that traps us in the feeling bad place and then we go help more to feel better.

I propose, rather than bashing ourselves because we repeatedly find ourselves helping, we use one of the strategies we’ve been practicing on this blog to help listen inside and know what we need. Helping is one of the options. Waiting is another. Letting others do is another. And, some combination of those is a fourth. Click on these links to read about Find your feet, dig down for your talisman, or take a nap.

A Healthy Stepmother...Draws Her Chalk BoundaryEach cycle of helping in a chronic-repetitive situation has the potential to lead us upward, like taking another step on a spiral staircase. You gain skill, knowledge, ability to see where the boundary could be, and even where to find the chalk. Sometimes it’s as simple as we don’t know there’s a boundary needing to be drawn and we let our chalk supply run out.

She’s no saint, my stepmother friend. She jumped in, instinctively responding to difficult situations, and it wasn’t as if she had time to think, okay, I’ll do this, this time, but then next time someone else can do it. She did what any of us would do and now, all these years later, she’s listening and hears the deep-down message, okay, time to step back.

That deep-down message isn’t one we are accustomed to hearing. I know. I was getting weary helping my father a year and a half ago. Bone weary. And I vividly remember the day he got angry with me and said, you are doing too much, you need to stop helping so much. I looked at him and said thanks dad, I’m glad to know you’re ready to take these things over. You’ve got it. We’ve been fine ever since. I’m no longer exhausted. But, it took him yelling for me to hear or to even know to listen to that message okay, you can stop now.

Maybe helping isn’t a permanent condition. It’s probably also true, our help is not a permanent solution for the one we’ve helped. That person is needing to learn skills and we might expect they need a few repetitions to get the message, just like we did.

The good news for my friend is that others have the skills now, now they can take over. Now she can gently shift the responsibility over to her husband and the broader circle. What if this is how it can work out? What if this is the natural progression?

Perhaps we’ve all been there. Asking ourselves Why, when we’re up to our necks in helping, gritting our teeth, or downing a third glass of wine. Why am I so weak I can’t say no? Why can’t I draw a line.

Perhaps we’ve experienced that teeth gnashing and desperate moment, when we’re in the shower crying and thinking we’ll never help again, dammit, never again, that moment is not-so-gently tapping us on the shoulder saying, okay, now, now it’s time to step aside and let someone else carry this torch.

What if that’s all, that’s it? It’s just a message. It’s not that we are failures as stepmothers, or even that our marriages are doomed. It’s simply time to shift our focus. Back to the life waiting for us. Maybe there’s a rock wall to build, or a picture to paint, or a beach to walk. It doesn’t really matter what, as long as it feeds and replenishes us for our next adventure.

And, we can rest assured, there will be more adventures . . .