A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Photographs

The wallet photo. The mantel portrait. Senior pictures on the picture rail. Snapshots under fridge magnets, all in a jumble. Digital frame, ever framing.

Years pass, decades pass. Piles of photographs. My life. My parents’ life. My siblings, their life. My stepchildren, life. Great grandmother, ancestral life. There, all there, in the photographs.

Back when my husband’s children where younger, we took the boat, three kids, and one small dog to Yale Lake in Southwestern Washington. The kids, despite being good swimmers, wore life jackets. The dog, never in the water as far as we knew, wore one too. After the initial thrill of tubing, my husband cut the engine and we floated while we traded places on the tube.

Into the quiet moment, the boys called for the dog. 

Without hesitating, the dog leaped. Almost immediately, she popped up in the cold water with what could only be described as a surprised expression. She paddled ferociously toward the boys with all the power her small feet could muster. The eldest, lounging in the boat waiting her turn to ski was also a certified life guard. She threw off her towel and jumped in after the dog, just in case.

In moments, the dog reached the boys and they pulled her up on the tube before any of us had time to worry.

All that, captured in photographs. All that, now digitized. A moment of unity. Five humans pulling for the same thing: one little dog getting to a safe place.

You never know how much you’ll want an image, sometimes only years later.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . reads a Christmas poem.

Did you catch the poem I posted for you on YouTube?

In that post, I connected you to my YouTube channel and read it aloud to you. I’m experimenting with some audio postings and some readings of other material I’ve written. You can find the wording written on the YouTube posting.

I wrote Santa Sophia with you in mind. I wrote it with me in mind. I wrote it with my stepmom girlfriend in mind, and my amazing 4-legged companions.

The Santa is a woman, Sophia, which means Wisdom. She is wise, sassy, not afraid to be herself and she shows up in an electric car and has 8 very cool travelling companions. The ursus, black bear, more precisely Americanus Ursus, are the teddy bears of our dreams and our awakening. Hence, the names they bear (pun intended).

My hope is that this will be a poem for you to listen to in any time of need, but particularly at this time of year.

Let the holidays begin!

 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . gets a Christmas wish.

The holidays are coming . . .

Usually that’s enough to cause any stepmother to shudder. This year I decided to re-write a old poem and turn it into a modern-day wish. Something I could dust off each year to reveal the sentiment that lives in my heart but that gets beat down by the day-to-day stuff.

This poem goes out to every stepmother, no matter whether you’ve been naughty or nice, no matter what anyone thinks of you, no matter how hard a day you’ve had. Every one of us needs a dream, a little sliver of hope that things can change. Just a little.

This is for you.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . ReSETs.

After a few intense weeks building my updated webpage and editing and tweaking and adding and making the new page look just-so, there came a day when it seemed time to sit back and relax for a few days before I completed the last round of edits. But, first, there was the matter of a testimonial and creating a link to the website of the person giving me the testimonial.

Done.

So I pressed Publish Updated Pages.

And went to view the updated pages only to find the site was NOT THERE. The webpage redirected me to my Mobile Me account and there was no information about my site and none of the work that had been there just seconds before was visible.

No expert, I did know that the information was there but that something was lost in the link between what I had created and where it was viewable.

After an hour of fiddling, I restored the page and my website was viewable but I still could not complete that one last update. In fact, I kept getting a message asking me to sign up for a Mobile Me account. Clearly I already had one and it was not accessible the way I was trying to get to it.

I went to bed.

The next day I sat down to problem-solve again, remaining calm in the face of my looming frustration. That’s when I discovered the online chat support. I quickly submitted my question.

Melissa, a technician, responded to my query and clarified my question and then told me she thought she could help me.

Whew, please let it be so.

She asked me to log out of Mobile Me. Then she asked me to log out of iWeb where I’d built my website. Then, she asked me to log back in to Mobile Me and then sign in again to iWeb.  Finally, I was to publish my updates.

As if by magic, I logged on, was admitted and opened iWeb and hit the Publish Updated Pages button and within seconds my updates were there for the world to view.

It was as if a big happy face sat on my shoulder helping me breath a sigh of relief and I felt giddy from the simplicity of it all. I profusely thanked Melissa and filled out the survey about the online chat support.

. . . then, a very looooooooooong pause to reflect on what had just happened.

When the computer gets turned off or a program gets shut down, it gives the system time to go back into the inner workings of itself to restore itself to its previous functional state. In my case, I had changed my Mobile Me password and iWeb did not recognize it. It was only after I had closed them both and reintroduced them to one another with all the new passwords that the system worked. That restore and repair function is built into almost all the computers and programs and electronics now. When you have a hiccup, you turn the thing off and begin again and as if there were magic, the hiccup is gone. Sure, some major issues can arise, but 90% of the time your problems will be take care of by the ReBOOT, aka ReSET.

That’s what I need in my life as a stepmother. I need to hit the ReBOOT button now and then, maybe more now than then, and take advantage of the restoration of me to my previous functional self. The reboot would also help me to recognize or be reintroduced to the players in the family drama, me, my husband, and sometimes the kids, after we’ve had alterations in our contents or changes of passwords.

I know I’d benefit from a ReSET more often than I take one. And, with the holidays approaching, I’m giving myself some homework to watch more closely for those times I feel little glitches or irritations or impending mood swings. I want to catch them early and say ReSET. I’ll see you in five or 30 or in an hour or after I’ve folded clothes or done something that guides me back to me. I like that feeling of being able to roll with whatever comes along and I can’t do that when I don’t feel like me.

ReBOOT.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . works toward being healthy.

Health is a roller coaster, which means that one day you’re on the top of your game; energetic, sassy, quick to discern, and unstoppable. The next day you’re lethargic, uncomprehending, and reactive. And, health isn’t limited to just up and down, there are all the shades of up and all the shades of down and the contours of each. There are curves and loops and slants on the turns of the roller coaster that contain the nuance of your health on any given day.

Your health is one thing you have some influence over.

Your lifelong health is something you can begin to influence at this very moment. Excuse me for a moment while I take a sip of my coffee. It’s my first cup of the day.

Fact is, we’re bombarded with information about how to take care of our bodies, our clothes, our food, what to eat, what to not eat, what to wear, what to not wear, what to do for exercise, how much of it to do, how little is too little, and how much we should sleep. It’s overwhelming all the ways we should be behaving. And, for what? So we can feel good that we are minding, being good, following the expectations.

I recently read a great blogpost, Nourished Kitchen, about cereal and why most box cereal is bad for you and especially bad for your children. I was talking about it and my mother-in-law commented that she was very upset. She thought Cheerios were good for you and helped reduce your cholesterol, just like they say on the box. And to find out that they weren’t, well, she was mad. She’d been led to believe something that wasn’t true. She had let someone else make her decisions for her.

I think we are each doing our best just like she was. It’s just that there are so many things we think are good for us in our society and people are very opinionated about what is best. It’s very hard to track it all. My own thought is that the degree to which we need to focus on our physical, social, emotional, environmental, or spiritual health changes in proportion each day. One day, I need to walk 8 miles, the next day I really need to focus on cleaning out the spare room so I can be in a peaceful environment. One day, I want to eat only fruit and the next day I’m all about oatmeal and a piece of chicken.

And then there’s the “family” or whatever you choose to call your band, pod, coalition, or group, otherwise known as a stepfamily.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes you can sail through the stepfamily events without a hitch. Oh yeah, something might irritate you and other things might make you raise an internal eyebrow. But mostly, you’re able to keep yourself feeling some sort of equilibrium inside. Your blood pressure stays in a normal range and your heart isn’t breaking.

Other times, well, let’s face it, it’s hard. You might do a great job of censoring yourself while the event or interaction is going on and then go home and have a huge fight with your husband. Or, you might go home and crash and sleep for 24 hours. Those are pretty sure signs that the effort to stay in that censorship mode was exhausting. Also, learning to identify that pattern might be worth a lot. It might prevent a lot of disagreements that wouldn’t need to be disagreements.

Health moves and flows and recedes and ebbs. It is no more a constant state than being warm or cold. It fluctuates with the events around and within the busyness of one’s life.

I’ve long thought I could influence my own health. My work is all about helping folks get out of old stuck habits so they have new ways to get to a satisfying and potent life. I practice the same strategies for myself. So, when I recently read Mindsight, by Daniel Siegel, I was thrilled to see that his book so clearly spells out all the physical and physiological evidence for re-engineering your brain by changing what you are doing.

Literally, when you learn to do things in a new way, you are growing new synapses in your brain, new neural pathways for information to travel. It’s as though you can heal your own self by creating a new way of doing something. It’s not about simply creating a new way of thinking. No, it’s more that learning new option means you have a new way of doing and being, otherwise known as new behavior. Learning and life are a process, the intermingling the physical with the mental.

Health is a multi-faceted concept. It’s not about being “good.” It’s about being dynamic, responsive, spontaneous, centered, and upright. It’s about integrity, intensity, and waxing, and waning.

Listen to yourself. Listen for those days when you need to be low-key. Listen for those days when, if you push yourself, it’s as if you pushed yourself over the cliff. Listen for the times when you can step on the gas and really go, because those days are there too, ready to be accessed and enjoyed. Listen and watch for the times when you need lots of armor, there will be those times. Then, keep watch for the times you can lay down the armor and expose yourself. Grow those events and carry less and less armor over time. Give yourself time to go slow and time to inch along. Give yourself time to think and wonder and time to rush ahead. Give yourself a day of salad greens and a day of dark chocolate. Give yourself a day to learn something new.

There is never just one right answer. You have the answers, trust that, even when others would like to make you wrong or tell you what to do.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . salutes average.

She peeled away her expectations of joyous connection to her husband’s children. She peeled away the unrealistic idea that she would fall in love with them like she fell in love with her husband. She peeled away the enormity of the extended family expectations that she would behave a certain way in any given moment and always look her best and always smile and always give. And give. And give. And she peeled away their shocked and upset look when she didn’t live up to their expectations.

She opened her hand and blew, like she was blowing the unrealistic idea of who she would be as a stepmother AWAY!

Then, she looked around. Sure enough, there were still dust bunnies of ideas of how she should behave under the couch, behind the drapes in the dining room, and along the edges of the hallway. The mass of stereotypes of stepmother and womanly behavior were as thick as her dog’s coat when it was shedding. So, she brushed and vacuumed and coaxed them out and put them in the garbage.

And so, finally.

There was calm.

The expectations quieted down and time passed. Shoulders that had hunched in defense softened and furrowed brows smoothed.

Without warning, a space opened into what had felt like a battle zone. She eyed the space warily. It was definitely not to be trusted. What about that time . . . ? What about when they . . . ? Feeling cautious, she waited.

And waited.

And, when after more time had passed with no negative events, no angry reactions, and no challenges, she calmed even more. It was then that she decided that even if something unexpected and negative and uncomfortable occurred in the future, she’d just stand there and let it swirl around her.

The calm grew and more space opened and the idea of being in the same room and sharing the same holidays seemed less challenging, less difficult, and less uncomfortable.

And, came a day when they DID do an activity together and it was fun. It was unladen with family politics. The day unfolded with enough tradition to keep it structured and enough unstructure to keep it spontaneous.

In the end, it wasn’t about everyone being close. It was about staying open to the group and the idea of being this group. It was about sharing the attention. It was about giving and getting, with every one of them contributing. It was about receiving the giving graciously and appreciatively.

It was a very simple day.

Uncomplicated, average, and fun!

A Healthy Stepmother . . . chooses her footing.

Not so long ago, my husband and I hiked Wind Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge. It was a short hike, but it gained enough elevation that is was quite steep in some places. In other places, it was clear there’d been a slide and the trail was narrow. Not so many people hiked this way and we enjoyed the solitude and silence to slowly work our way up the ridge.

We meandered along and shared the thrill of working for the view, letting life unravel and loosen the worry lines of our faces. The dogs were a big help. They happily scrambled along wishing we’d go faster. They sniffed, wagged, and wiggled their way to the top of the mountain. The view from the top that day was stellar, overheated valley cooled by a strong breeze, sun reflecting off the Columbia River and the glaciers of Mt. Hood. Glorious really, and so we drank it in.

On the way down the mountain, it occurred to me that being married to a man with children is a lot like hiking. There are a few things about stepping with each foot that you either learn from experience or you’re lucky enough to find an experienced hiking partner who tells you of the pitfalls to look out for.

First and foremost, watch out for the banana peel effect. There are some things that make the trail extremely slick. If it’s wet the trail will be slick, most especially the rocks and roots that stick up out of the trail so avoid stepping on those rocks and roots. Go around them. Loose pine needles will also make the trail slick, especially when there is elevation. If they are dense, you can keep your footing best by not lifting your foot very high. Get into a shuffling gait and slide your foot forward.

When it’s very dry, even bare dirt is slick, so use the exact opposite strategy you would use when it’s wet. Use the tops of the rocks and roots that stick out of the ground to break your fall. When dry, they are the grippiest parts of the trail and offer the chance for solid footing.

Balance is a big issue when hiking. And, the laws of physics that apply to skiing also apply to hiking. If you sit back on your heels, you’re going to fall. True in skiing and true in hiking. You want to balance the weight on the front and back of your feet, sometimes even leaning more forward.

Finding balance means that you step with one foot in a way that allows you to maintain the stability of your footing. If the place you step doesn’t feeling stable, you can easily reverse and take your foot off that place and reset to get better footing. The best way to keep your balance is to focus on the foot you’re standing on when you take each step. When you can perceive that foot is solidly placed, you can step with the leading leg easily and thoughtfully. This way, you can go forward or backward and keep your balance.

Moral of this story: resist the urge to throw yourself headlong into anything, whether it’s hiking down a hill or marrying a man with children. Take your time to keep your footing. Consider the terrain and use the elements you find within the environment as your tools. Remember that what is good footing when the trail is wet is completely different when it’s dry. Consider reversibility and the fact that you can, if you’re watching closely, decide on one course of action and then change your mind, without losing your balance and without getting hurt.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . unpacks.

After 5 years of living in the home I share with my husband and his kids, I finally unpacked the boxes of dishes I inherited from my mother, aunt, and grandmothers. Why I didn’t unpack them until now, I have no idea. All I know is that they sat in a corner of the basement, quiet, out of the way, minding their own business, and not making waves.

It was no small irony to observe that for the first few years of my marriage to a man with children from a previous marriage that I also tried to be quiet, stay out of the way, mind my own business and not make waves. Sure, I had a few moments over the years when I erupted because the enormity of the feelings inside was so great I couldn’t contain them any longer. But mostly, largely, I’ve remained supportive of my husband, advocated for what seemed best for the kids even when they didn’t know they had an advocate, and been a huge champion for community-building and sharing. You know, all that stuff they teach in kindergarten.

First, I hauled the 4 small boxes from their place in the basement, blew off the dust and removed the delicate contents, much of it from the depression-era. These pieces I’d gathered over the years, shards of my maternal ancestry,  were mismatched and chipped and incomplete sets of Franciscan glasses, delicate dessert cups, pink-ish wine goblets, and my favorite, a set of 50’s plastic-coated tumblers. I remembered them all from my grandmother’s house when we went there for family dinners.

Now, I wonder. Did I leave them in the boxes because they weren’t complete sets, because they weren’t functional? Did I leave them in the boxes so they wouldn’t be broken, nevermind that we have some beautiful built in cabinets in our 1921 bungalow that would have kept them safe. Or worse, did I leave them in the boxes because I didn’t think they would measure up?

By now, the metaphor may be obvious, but it took me 5 years to figure it out. Now, I want to shout it out to all newly married women who’ve got new husbands complete with children from another marriage . . . unpack the glassware! Don’t wait. Don’t apologize. Don’t let your life mean less than the ones that you live with. Work together with your husband and make room in the cabinets for the things that matter to you both.

My husband is thrilled, he’s excited to see these things from my mother and her family. Despite my initial shyness in bringing them out, it makes complete sense. When his grandmother (his stepmother’s mother) died, he inherited several antiques including the dining room table we use today. Every year on the holidays we put all the leaves in the table and stretch it out to completely fill our dining room. If we use chairs without arms, we can squeeze 12 around the table and we’ve done that plenty of times.

One year over the turkey dinner, my husband’s stepmother confessed that her mother used to fill this very same table every night at the boarding house where she worked as the cook. My mother-in-law was thrilled to see that we also regularly bring a community together around the table and it means a lot to her that we enjoy the beauty of the table.

I got up this morning and felt somehow different walking through the dining room past the glass-fronted cabinets. There are things in there that belong to me, that have a history marked by my relatives. My female ancestors drank from these glasses and washed and dried and stored them away in their cabinets. I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer to have them in my daily life.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the loneliness myth.

Having recently gone through a phase of feeling lonely in my second marriage, I came out of it with the nagging feeling that the expectations for how a woman belong in her second marriage are over-the-top unrealistic. But, my revelation didn’t occur to me in any timely fashion, they only came after months, years, and countless “why the h–l is THIS happening to me?” sorts of ponderings late at night.

The good news is that I don’t feel lonely so much any more and I have a greater resiliency to roll with the flow, thanks in large part to reducing expectations, keeping a strong focus on NOT doing too much to fix the world for every person who walks into my circle of contact, most importantly my husband or my stepchildren. They will sort out their life, I am not around to be the fixer. I’m my husband’s wife, I’m my own person, I’m a daughter, sister, lover, friend, worker, dreamer, and loner.

Yup, loner.

My revelation came to me when I woke up one morning feeling VERY sorry for myself. I mean down-in-the-dumps sorry. Like there was just no hope for a better way of feeling. I was alone in my life, or so I thought. At first, I was mad. What the heck? I was married, there were people around. Why was I feeling so lonely. I thought then, with some indignation, that I hadn’t felt this lonely since my FIRST marriage. And, the rationalizations went so on and so forth. Blame came and went. I was feeling lonely because of this or that or the other thing.

But, one morning everything felt strange and unfamiliar. As I brushed my teeth which is hard to do when you’re gritting them, I was thinking I’ll just have to accept that marriage is about me being lonely. Maybe that’s just fine. I was thinking I’ll connect with my husband around the things we can connect about and then the rest of the time, I’ll be, well……lonely.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Top 5 books for summer reading.

My library has always been extensive. I L-O-V-E books. My sister and I used to walk to the one-room library in our small town in Southern Oregon and carry home as many books as we could manage in our arms. We went weekly to the library for years and there came a day when the librarian looked at us and said, “You girls should go to the County Library, they have a bigger selection.” By that time, our older brother was driving so we’d beg him to take us. And so it went. I’ve always read. Always loved reading.

Lately, my reading list leans dramatically toward non-fiction and I seem to devour it with the same intensity as I did those fiction stories of my childhood. Thank goodness for the Kindle for iPhone, my shelves can have a break from the weight of the actual books. There are a lot of books out there for stepmothers, seems like everyone has an idea what we should do, feel, say, think, or know. And, not just for stepmothers, for women in general. We can learn about parenting, gardening, being skinny, and beautiful, all in one book or magazine. How convenient.

But, maybe a certain topic deserves a deeper look? Among the many, many titles, my top 5 favorites of all the books on my shelves, virtual or actual, include the following:

  • Stepmonster, Wednesday Martin. This book is a must-read. The bible of stepmothering. Dr. Martin doesn’t tell you what to do, she gives you information and lets you make decisions that fit for your situation. She seems to recognize that so very many factors play into the role of marrying a man with children from a previous marriage. Haha, I almost wrote, “marrying a man with a pre-existing condition.” Haha, must be my healthcare training slipping in there.

  • Slow Down Diet, Marc David. It’s not a diet book. Down with diet books. Bah humbug. Though I’ve heard that Dr. Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Diet is also not a diet and I want to look at that. But, Marc David’s book is about getting back to having a healthy perspective on food and the role it plays in your life. Simply, buy the best quality of food you can afford and it will be so satisfying, you won’t eat the other stuff. He writes about why women exercise, but still can’t break the barrier of weight loss.

  • Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel. Dr. Wednesday Martin suggested this book in her blog not so long ago and I devoured it. Honestly, thank you, thank you. It’s time to get out of the old habit of “sit down and talk.” Yup, need to share, yup, need to care, but we do and we’re still stuck. I mean the collective “we.” Women, we need some fresh ideas and this book is good for more than a few. My favorite part of it, the stories of the couples. Very informative.

  • The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, Wendy Mogul. I’ll admit to reading this book even though I have no children of my own. After working with and observing families for nearly 30 years, reading this book was a little like going back for a few credits of continuing education. Great read, awesome perspective.

  • Hold Me Tight, Sue Johnson. And, really this one should be the first on the list. I’m only part way through it, which is why it’s here on the bottom. We’re taught in our culture to keep a stiff upper lip, to be competent and self-reliant, not needy, not anxious, non-emotional. Dr. Johnson describes in lay-terms her ideas about attachment and love and why adults need the same assurances and reassurances that children do. She even says that most of her colleagues didn’t agree with her when she first began her line of research. And oh, THAT got my attention. Because if 50% of first marriages and almost 65-70% of second marriages end in divorce, we need the something new. It can’t be that ALL those couples didn’t make good decisions. Sure some of them did, and my hunch is that a huge percentage of them got caught in the trap of the culture and what we think we’re “supposed to do.”

Happy Summer Reading. Dig down, dive in, get under the covers with your flashlight like my sister and I did and read ALL NIGHT. I’ll be curious what you think. And, please feel free to add your favorite book to the comments. Maybe we’ll compile the “best book list for stepmothers that ever was!”