A Healthy Stepmother . . . Writes Her Tales at the Beach

Some of you may know, I’m working on a book. Yes, a book. Not only that, it’s a book for you. For stepmothers of all stages of family integration. It’s not a how-to book, giving you the ten things you can do to make you family happy or improve your outlook or learn to tolerate the bullying. It’s a book of tales for you to find solace, validation, and inspiration.

I’ve taken the themes I see and some of the stories I’ve heard in my dozen years of navigating this business of being in the life of my man and his kids. It’s a wild ride and I don’t expect we’re done. The good news is that it gets less unnerving than in those early days.

I have more work to do on the book, it’ll be ready for a few select readers soon. Then, more revisions and then find a publisher. Hmmm, wonder who wants to publish a book of tales for stepmothers?

This weekend, I went to the beach with Jen Violi for her inaugural Story Watch retreat. It was a great chance to work on some of the revisions and problem-solve a couple of story development issues and share with other women who listened and asked questions. One woman is a stepmother, one is a stepdaughter, and the others were so supportive and respectful of my topic. I couldn’t have asked for more generous encouragement.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Writes Her Tales at the Beach

On one of my writing breaks, I took a walk on the beach. What a beautiful day it was.

I’ll keep you posted from time to time. I mostly wanted you to know there are supportive people out there. People who aren’t stepmothers who are pulling for peace and family respect and the possibility of family health.

May you be finding moments of peace . . .

A Healthy Stepmother . . . sheds her single story.

Maybe you’ve read my recent post in which I describe being so moved by current events I wrote an article that got posted to The Broad Side on February 5, just a month ago. I have plans to do more writing on the subject of child sexual abuse, not necessarily on this blog.

Since the February 5 post on The Broad Side and since my post here last week, I’ve considered why it is I hadn’t felt moved to say anything sooner. Reaction from others is part of it, but that’s only a part. What I know now is that I carried my story within me until it was no longer the single story. Let me explain.

We stepmothers have told the single story. At least for a time. We say, I am a stepmother. But that is never enough to say about ourselves, nor enough for others to know about us. The single story, I am a woman, is never enough to know about me, nor enough for others to know about me. Nor is I am from the United States, tall, college-graduate, small town raised, or a marathon walker. Any single story that gets told is just that, a single story.

I watched a Ted Talk, by Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story, the other day and knew that’s why I’d been waiting to share my story of childhood sexual abuse. I am not my abuse. I am not my height. I am not my college graduate degree. I am not my small town. To know me is to include every single thing that has ever happened to me in my life. Travel, food, books I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, music I listen to, and the color of the skin of those I know or don’t know.

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Upon further reflection, it seems to me that we go into the single story mode when we are new at something.

Once upon a time, I learned to sail. My sailing story is that I took a class and I went out the first time on the lake and capsized the boat. It took me a decade to return to sailing but I was smart enough to go out and crew on a boat that wasn’t in danger of capsizing. We had a fabulous time and I’m still a big fan. If I’d stopped at the capsizing, I’d have a story of myself as a lousy sailor and I’d probably still be avoiding it.

I remember in my late 20s and early 30s, when I was doing the hardest work on my family history and unearthing all the horror stories and bringing them out into the open, I walked around with child abuse survivor on my forehead. I didn’t relate to that word, survivor, but at least it felt better than victim. Needless to say, it was a difficult time since it seemed like the abuse was the only thing I could see about myself.

Fortunately, I enrolled in my Feldenkrais training and immersed myself in the questions: Is there another way of doing this? Is there another way to think about this? What is a second way, and now a third? And, finally, do I have more than three ways to do something (anything) so that I’m not behaving compulsively? That would mean that when the word stepmother comes up in me I have a flash of a woman who is in a difficult situation, maybe even with a powerless feeling. Then, a second flash of a woman who cares and needs to be careful about her caring. Then, a third image of a woman married to a man she loves deeply, dedicated to helping him raise his children with the opportunity grow into healthy and fulfilled adults. And, maybe there’s an image of a woman surrounded by other women who are also stepmothers and there’s a club of stepmothers growing in number by the day, week, month, and year.

I’ll admit that it took me at least 5 years to completely shed the societal image of the wicked stepmother. The image dominated the first years of my marriage to my husband even though I would have professed that wasn’t so. Now, I see so much of my resistance to the label was about denying that the label could in any way be related to me. As soon as I lost the negativity of actually being a stepmother and who I was in that role, I embraced stepmother and now flaunt it for all to see.

Since we can’t control what others think about us, how about we reach down in there and drag the other stories about us up to the surface, right there beside the stepmother label. Woman, wife, mother, lover, author, co-worker, worrier, nature-lover, rich, poor, healthy, struggling, depressed, and on and on and on. We carry so many stories, we will be here a mighty long time telling each of them. We have the grandmother story, the 5-year-old kid story, the picking beans story, throwing up in the strawberry fields story, the meeting the man story, the how-many-men-I-dated-before-I-got-it-right story, and the year I knew my first marriage was over story. On and on. Rich, textured, beautiful stories whether the events in them were beautiful or not.

As Chimamanda says so eloquently, you are not a single story.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Knows Thyself, Part 5: Thoughts

If you’ve been following along the Know Thyself series, then you’re beginning to get the hang of tracking where your attention goes and how to use it to notice the shape of your spine, your overall posture, how you hold your shoulders, and where you plant your feet to give yourself support. Oh, and you’re aware of your breathing, right?

It’s time to turn our attention to our thoughts!

This article was posted the other day on a friend’s Facebook page. Of course, I reposted, and am posting it here. Share it widely, this is so important.

The Neuroscience of Suffering – And Its End 

Thoughts flow and wriggle and pause and get stuck, just like your posture. You can hold tightly to thoughts that don’t serve, you can review over and over and over again, just like you can find yourself sitting at your computer hunched over wondering how you got there, again and again and again.

"Idle Thoughts", 1898

“Idle Thoughts”, 1898 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We could pay more attention to the pattern of the thoughts. If we did, we’d learn something about letting them go. And, if we could find the way to go with them and leave off fighting with them, we’d be at peace.

And, we can teach ourselves to have different thought patterns. Clearly. The article gives good evidence that this is so. People with no previous training learned in a couple of hours to have less rumination and more calm, i.e., to quiet the mind.

This week, pay attention to your thoughts. Notice what you’re thinking and how often you’ve had that thought. Is it a new variation of the same thought you’ve carried all day? Is it a variation of a thought from a week ago? Is it the same exact thought, repeated over and over?

Is there variability in your thoughts? Do you think of what you are doing at the moment or about something from the past? Do you worry about the future? Without worrying about what you should or shouldn’t be doing, what do you find yourself doing?

Some of us need to write our observations down to track them, some of us avoid writing things down. Do whatever works for you. But, if you can, keep track. Study the patterns. Take note if the pace is fast, slow, too hurried to even notice. Is the pace of your thoughts comfortable or do you feel rushed?

If this type of noticing your thoughts is already a familiar study for you, then pay attention to the thought/posture connection. What posture is on your face when you are thinking about yesterday’s disagreement with your spouse? Where do your shoulders land when you have thoughts about Christmas morning? Again, see if you can link a thought and a posture and keep track of what you notice. Not to change it. Just to notice it.

This entire Know Thyself series is about noticing what we do, not about changing what we do. It is about learning the patterns and the threads that tie one thing to another. It is about noticing the self, over and over and over. Something may change in the process of that, but if you can resist thinking you’ll be all better by the time the Know Thyself series wraps up next week, you’ll avoid some disappointment.

This practice of noticing and noticing more is a lifelong practice. You will get better at it and it will support your human life, but this is not a practice you learn and then stop. In fact, just like many other practices, it is a good idea to use snippets of attention practice daily or weekly.

Finally, do your thoughts have a posture? Are they bouncy, heavy, dull, airy, fluid, pell mell, or chaotic? Are they something not named here? Name them, if you will. Follow them and keep naming what they are in the moment. How many different postures do your thoughts have?

Keep noticing. Keep returning to the noticing. When the holiday stress ramps into high gear, such as when everyone in the stepfamily is at your house for a meal, keep noticing.

Hang on to the physical noticings with your attention, as if that action is a lifeline. And, keep noticing.

That is all you need to do. Show up and keep noticing.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Knows Thyself, Pt 3: Shoulders

Several of you are with me on this adventure of standing more firmly in your skin, or more precisely, focusing your attention to your skeleton to give yourself more stability and resilience. I’m thrilled you’re here. If you missed Know Thyself, Pt 1: Breath or Know Thyself, Pt 2: Spine, you can still join in.

By the time you’ve come this far, maybe it’s getting easier to notice what you are doing with your body posture while you go through your day. Maybe you’re finding it’s easier to bring your attention to all those details?

This week, we’ll zero in on our shoulders, for if there’s a vulnerable aspect of our skeleton, the shoulders win the prize. Anatomically, the shoulders are almost entirely anchored in place by muscle, tendon, and connective tissue. The only bony attachment of your entire shoulder and arm is at the joint between the collar-bone (clavicle) and breast bone (sternum). This little joint, less than 1” in diameter is the hinge from which your entire arm and shoulder rotate. Pretty impressive, if you ask me. But, this is also the problem. There is greater risk of injury and more ability to sink into not-great postures.

Crouching Aphrodite. Marble, Roman variant of ...

Crouching Aphrodite. Marble, Roman variant of the Imperial Era after a Hellenistic type: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And ask yourself . . . In what posture are my shoulders? Are they rounded forward? Are they lifted toward my ears? As I look at the keyboard of my computer, do my shoulders slump and my hands awkwardly punch on the keys while my shoulders turn in?

Often when we think of posture, we think of our shoulders thrust back and our chest out. Or, we don’t want to put our chest out and we let ourselves sink in and thus we walk around with a rounded back. Neither of these postures is ideal. There is something in between.

Before we get to what to do or what is in between, you need to study and learn what you do. And when. And for how long. You need to become an expert on the posture of your shoulders. Are you sucking your shoulders in closer to your body as if you were cold? Are you tense and use lots of force with your hands, as if softening your grip might cause you to lose hold? When you do that, the pressure on your shoulders and neck is phenomenal. Are you using your cell phone so much that you end up with pain in your arms, shoulders, wrists or hands?

This week, I want you to notice where your shoulders rest. In any given moment, ask that question, “Where are my shoulders?” If you notice they rest close to your ears, then hold them there and wait a few moments. Just wait. Finally, slowly, let your shoulders return to a comfortable posture.

And, I want you to ask “Where are my shoulders?” again. If you answer “They are caved in, rounded forward, and feel pretty crummy,” you know your posture contributes to your discomfort. The good news? You have the power to shift it. Round your shoulders even more, cave in a bit more. Breath if you can, into those stuck places.

If your shoulders are thrust back in “good posture mode,” keep them there for a few moments. Note how much tension you have in your neck and whether your breathing is free. The let your attention wander away and don’t try to hold your shoulders in that way.

After you’ve spent a couple of days studying and detailing the position of your shoulders, then take a day or two to play with one of the other postures. If you are a shoulder thruster and stand at attention, try rounding and slumping forward. Don’t do it all at once, you’ll need some time to really get used to it. And, once you can round and slump, then alternate between thrusting shoulders back and rounding/slumping. This isn’t as vigorous a movement as it sounds when it’s written here, it is definitely slow and easy moves, nothing abrupt.

If you are a rounder/slumper, try lifting your shoulders toward your ears. See if you can move as smoothly going toward your ears as you do going away from the ears. The focus is on getting rid of any glitches in the bringing shoulders to ears and returning to a resting posture. You could think of it as sanding out the bumps in a table top or stirring the pudding until there are no lumps. Attend to the details.

One thing we know about posture is that poor posture can contribute to all kinds of health problems. It is easy to disrupt the breathing, inhibit the motions of the internal organs, or experience back and neck pain, to name a few. Over time, poor posture takes a toll.

And, one thing your movement teacher knows is that good posture isn’t static, it is dynamic. Healthy humans move freely, not stiffly or hesitantly. When an unexpected situation comes up, your responsiveness will depend on whether you have to re-organize yourself to move, or freeze until you are over the shock.

Finally, after you’ve studied and then experimented, go find a cat you can spend some time observing. Copy the cat. Walk like the cat. Move your back like the cat. Note how natural movement is fluid, sinewy, and languid. Once you have an idea of how the cat moves, then go back to copying humans. You’ll learn so much about your spine and being more comfortable.

You are looking for comfort. Why not find some?

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Knows Thyself, Pt 2: The Spine

This is the second in a series of six posts, Know Thyself, dedicated to stepmothers everywhere who need extra support as we navigate the sticky situations of holiday gatherings. Our goal is not to magically make life happy, but rather to interrupt our feelings of worry, fear, or frustration long enough to make choices that fit our situation and needs. It’s ideal if you can suspend judgment about what you find in your observations and be willing to stay with it when it seems like nothing is happening. 

Find a place to sit, stand, or lie down.

First, reflect on your observations of your breathing from the activity last week. Is it easier to track your breathing now? Can you tell that the breath causes movement in your back, on the sides of your torso along the ribs, and in your chest and abdominal area? Can you tell when you are breathing in shallowly and when the inhalation is deep?

Now, shift your attention to your spine. Think of the length of your spine and how it is shaped. Are there curves in your spine? At the neck? At the lower back? What about a rounding in the upper back, do you have a sense of falling in your chest in such a way your shoulders round forward? Do you have pain at any point along the spine? How significant is the discomfort?

The lumbar region in regards to the rest of th...

The lumbar region in regards to the rest of the spine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What do you believe to be true about posture? Do you think slumping is bad? Do you think your shoulders should be thrown back and your stomach pulled in? How long can you stand or sit in any one pose before you have to move and adjust to be comfortable?

Pay attention to the curves you noticed in your spine? Do something to deepen the curves just a small amount? Please go gently and don’t move so far you cause discomfort. Now, experiment and see if there is something you can do to decrease the curves, again, very gently. Go back and forth between deepening the curves and diminishing the curves. Make the distance smaller and smaller in each direction until you are not moving, but have come to rest in what we might call neutral.

How close is that neutral posture to the posture you normally carry?

When you are out and about in your life, catch yourself and take note of the shape of your spine. If you can, just watch for a few seconds before you make an adjustment to what you think it should be. In fact, each time you find yourself in a posture you don’t like, rather than immediately moving to match the image of what you think you should be doing, just wait and take in even more of the picture. How long is the front of you? How long is the back of you? Are you comfortable? When you know the answers to these questions, then feel free to adjust to something else and go on about breathing and living and noticing the shape of your spine.

Each time you find yourself in a challenging situation or a conversation that feels risky, take note of the shape of your spine. Are there any patterns you can find? Do you hunch your shoulders when you are worried? What do you do with your spine when you feel challenged? Defeated? Are there degrees of slumping and being upright? Can you experiment with the middle, not slumping and not upright?

Incorporate these kinds of noticing into your daily experience, while you wait in line at the checkout, while you sit at a stop light, while you stand at the kitchen sink, or brush your teeth. Don’t worry about spending hours and hours studying yourself, try to fit the observations in here and there so the sequence is simple and fairly brief, just a question, a noticing, and a move on to the next thing. Do this as often as you can remember.

For this week, that is enough.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . plants her feet and stands tall.

The first glimmers of dread surfaced last week, dread for the holiday season which fast approaches. Maybe you’ve felt your first dread too or maybe you’re blissfully ignoring the November and December schedule that approaches like a tsunami off the doorstep of your stepfamily home. Or, maybe you’ve long since moved past the difficulties of the holiday season and enjoy a family home filled with peace and connection.

If that latter situation belongs to you, I jump for joy with you. Hooray, that means there’s hope for the rest of us.

For the rest of us, I’ve long thought we could use our posture and the taking up of space, internal space as well as external space, to be more comfortable in difficult situations. That message has come up for me repeatedly in these last few days.

I wrote a blog post for Wednesday Martin, Stepmonster, Standing Tall in June of 2010. And, for years I’ve taught workshops on Living Inside Your Skin. This fall, I’m taking an ecourse with Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, in which she also urges we find ways to live from inside ourselves.

Then, just yesterday, a friend serendipitously mentioned this Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy, Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.

Let me just say, all of these messages have coalesced and I woke this Sunday morning knowing this idea of standing tall was meant to be my blog post here. Standing your ground, not puffing up, not caving in, is, as Brené Brown says, a useful way to go through vulnerable moments. Let’s you and I borrow it for the next few weeks and months.

Brené Brown isn’t the only one interested in how we stand in our vulnerability. Amy Cuddy talks about the Super Woman posture, feet wide, hands on hips, shoulders back. She has researched the chemical reaction inside men and women when they take up space.

I didn’t take my space in the early days with my stepfamily. I remained quiet and deferential and the kids did what any stepchild would do who isn’t comfortable with a stranger, they behaved as though I wasn’t around. I wasn’t. I was advertising I wasn’t there and didn’t want to be there. By the time I got around to telling them if they kept swearing they could go outside, I had my hands on my hips, figuratively speaking, and I began to have a presence.

Fred Courtadon portant une création de Jérémy ...

Fred Courtadon portant une création de Jérémy Beuret (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is freedom in taking up space. It’s not about bravado. It’s not about waiting until someone else is done. It’s about being awake, responsive, focused on my spouse and the connection he and I have. When I am standing tall, hands on hips, it’s easier for him to hug me. It’s easier for him to stand tall and not feel like he has to run around and protect me. The worries fall off my back because I’m not hunched. There is no broad surface of my back exposed for worries to perch and constantly nag at me. I am literally not a home to the whining and complaining and worries about life not being what it was back in the days when the parents were together.

Please do not mistake the force of my words as lack of compassion for my stepchildren or any others. Life does suck for some years after your parents divorce, sometimes for decades. At some point, every child of divorce, especially an adult child of divorce, has to decide whether to stop living in the past and live for the times that are going on now or continue to keep grievances alive at every interaction.

At some point, every stepmother has to decide whether to back away and stop trying to make up for the kids not having parents who are together. The stepmother did not cause it, unless she was dating their father before he was divorced. That’s a whole different case and I’m not talking to this stepmother. I’m talking to those of us who came along after the marriage was over, after the parents had at least moved to separate homes, and after the finances and family traditions had morphed away from keeping things the same to protect the children.

Here’s my idea:

For the month of November and December, stand in the Super Woman posture (described in full in Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk) at least once a day for 20 seconds. Maybe it’s in the morning when you get up. Maybe you need a boost because you’re about to go into a tough meeting so you escape to the restroom stall where you can have privacy to stand with hands on hips. Maybe it’s before you walk in the door of your home where the kids sprawl about wondering what is for dinner.

Every day, find a time to stand tall like Super Woman and contemplate the comfort in that posture. As Amy Cuddy says, it’s not about faking it until you make it since you aren’t striving for inauthenticity. She suggests you think of faking it until you become it and I know from my own years of studying and practicing human movement and behavior that posture strongly influences mood and comfort.

Boost the idea: (sort of like boosting your post on Facebook)

Share the idea with your stepkids. Tell them they have the power to help themselves feel more okay in unsure situations. They can learn to get the advantages that Amy Cuddy so clearly describes in her research of power and posture. Share the idea with your friends and with other stepmothers. Pass it along. Oh, and don’t forget your husband, he may need a power boost once in a while too!

This season, rather than shuttle my dread off to the side board of my mind, I’m going to embrace it and stand tall and face it. 

The holiday season? Bring it!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . on the cycle of pain and comfort.

The research on chronic pain is exploding with new ways to manage long-term pain without prescriptions of life-destroying pharmaceuticals. Because being a stepmother spans decades, we might consider applying some of these strategies to our situation.

In one scenario, pain is localized to one particular focal point, but the interwoven nerve endings are sensitized to notice what is going on in another area. It’s much like the sensitivity many of us bring to the emotional state of others in our families. It’s as if we have radar and can pick up the smallest uncomfortable moment or anxiety or anger or any other reaction. We know when our husbands are in pain, we know when they are distressed. Even though they tell us nothing is wrong, we know there’s something up.

Sigh. Often the stepmother is the one who verbalizes the pain, but it’s her husband who is feeling it. She might not even know she’s doing this, but I’m beginning to think this is more common than I originally thought. I wonder how much indignation comes from a stepmother witnessing the significant pain her spouse is enduring.

English: Illustration of the pain pathway in R...

English: Illustration of the pain pathway in René Descartes’ Traite de l’homme (Treatise of Man) 1664. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently accompanied my mother-in-law to a pain clinic where they systematically reviewed her pain response and experimented with different courses of treatment. As they began to peel away the layers and she found relief, they discovered an old, old, old injury on her low back that had been untreated for decades. She’s getting better and her pain levels have dropped dramatically.

One of the things I recall the nurse practitioner telling her was that they needed to teach her brain some new calming strategies. She needed to learn new reactions to pain, rather than the old anxiety reactions and alarm that pushed her into big adrenalin releases into her blood stream which in turn created havoc in her mental state.

I don’t think she was very impressed in the beginning. Talking wasn’t a familiar process for her, in her generation a person just pushed on through the difficulty, it’s how she got injured. Acupuncture was a little more familiar for her and she willingly tried that. She had massage and therapy in a warm water pool. As she got treatment for the actual problem, her overall pain response began to diminish, so that now she can tell exactly where the pain comes from. And, now she has ways to work with her reaction to the pain. Rather than tense up everywhere, she takes a bath and calms her nervous system. She lies on the floor and lets her muscles relax.

We stepmothers can borrow those strategies. We can teach ourselves a new reaction. We can begin to notice when we tense in reaction to painful emotional experiences and calm ourselves so the pain doesn’t spread like wildfire. If we get to the calming early before the pain is so loud and strong it causes us to think we’ll be consumed, we have a better quality of life ahead.

We can learn to calm by paying attention to the signals from our body. When we notice ourselves holding the breath, we let it out and take in another and keep on in that way. When we notice we’re tense, we let our hands loosen and our eyes open so we’re not squinting and we let our face soften and our tongue quit pressing so hard against the roof of our mouth. Basically, we unanchor. We still keep our feet on the ground, in fact, we want to rely even more on our feet on the ground or our butt on the chair. We keep track of where we are in space and we let everything else be less ready for defense.

By softening and unanchoring, we can actually get more prepared for whatever it is we need to do. We can lean toward this person in support of what he is saying, or leave the room because we need a momentary break, or walk back in and find the ground so we can stand in the space listening to words that don’t match our feelings.

In those less anxious, calmer, less painful observation states, we have a better chance of staying connected to our important people and a better chance of feeling like we’re okay, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

And, ultimately, each moment we spend in that unanchored, tongue not pressing, breath not holding, face not scrunched posture is another moment added to the collective pool of experience in knowing how to remain calm. The calm pool is the place we can return to over and over and over to remind ourselves how to recover from difficult interactions. The calm pool is a place we go to restore and rejuvenate.

It’s not that we’ll live in the calm pool every moment, that would be a rather zombie-esque life. But, the calm pool will help us become familiar with returning to an equilibrium or homeostasis throughout the physical self. When the calm is as easy to access as the anxious or worried response, we’ll find it easy to return to an emotional equilibrium.

That’s what is happening for my mother-in-law. A little pain is her signal to rest and calm. Fatigue doesn’t push her into anxiety for the bigger pain that might come. She’s getting stronger, she can walk farther, and she’s made some new friends.

We can do that too. We can build new reactions to these long-standing pains that will be with us the rest of our lives. We can learn to let go and enjoy the roller coaster that is this delicious life we’ve got an opportunity to enjoy.

Hey, let’s meet up in the calm pool.

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