A Healthy Stepmother . . . Feeds Herself and Her Family

Let’s talk about food. Nourishment. Sustenance. Calories. Let’s talk about what it takes to get from breakfast to lunch and that importance of an after-school snack.

Some meals stick longer, that is they take longer to fully digest and they keep the metabolic system in balance. They provide an ample supply of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and sugars the brain and body need for optimal thinking, sensing, feeling, and doing.

What if we apply the idea of nourishment to our families, what if we focus on the non-food nourishment that keeps us going? What if we think of food as the connection we need as humans to get through the days, weeks, and months of our lives?

We could think of social media and binge-watching Netflix as the simple sugars of our connections. Facebook satisfies mightily and gives a big adrenalin rush, depending on the news of the day. But, the excitement and connection burns off fast, almost as soon as you log off. 

The healthy fats are the respect we have for one another, personal privacy, and a shared commitment to the group. We need these healthy fats, at least in small daily doses. In fact, people die when the diet is too low in fat because the heart and brain require fats to function normally. We might not see respect or privacy in a stepfamily as often as we’d like, but we need at least minimal amounts for our stepfamilies to survive.

And, we need protein, in large enough quantities to sustain us. Protein should be included daily in our connection diet. Proteins might be the one-to-one time adults spend with kids and with one another. Proteins are the shared interests and the ways we support one another’s shared interest. Proteins are the group activities everybody loves. In my family, our thing is our shared love of good food. We prepare and eat good food. Sometimes we adventure out and try a new restaurant or cuisine. We never miss our annual crab feast at Christmas. 

The complex carbohydrates are essential to our family connections, but not always glamorous. In our stepfamilies, the complex carbohydrates are the keeping up of the house, the caring for a family pet, the time spent with family friends, the board games. There’s also the parallel time (side by side) spent cooking, doing homework, or vacation planning. Like green leafy vegetables, colorful squash, and lots of root vegetables, our stepfamilies do better when we get enough of these activities.

A sidenote: I know it’s popular to include family dinners as the most important time of the day or week, but I’m not sure I agree for every stepfamily. Without a doubt, regular family dinners are essential in an undivorced family or a custodial stepfamily where there is a chance to develop a routine. But in a Wednesday dinner and weekends type of stepfamily, once a week might be enough.

If weekly dinners are vital to you and your partner and you feel you can’t imagine getting rid of them for something else, it’d be worth considering one night a week when table manners are not the topic of conversation. As connection builders, family dinner can be disastrous. When it’s not okay if someone eats an entire chicken leg in one bite, well, you know who is going to be the designated police. 

img_8163Which brings me to drawing lines in the sand, about anything. I hear stories of parents and stepparents who become distraught about what a child doesn’t do. He doesn’t clean his room. She leaves the bathroom a mess. Fair enough. But decide ahead of time how much policing you’ll do and how wide your blinders can be. When you have reached your policing limit, walk away. 

One of the best thing I learned was to walk away from whatever the thing was that was bugging me. I mentally set the problem down. I left it on the counter. Then I left the room. Yes, I just turned and walked away. Both in my mind and in real life, I learned to set things down and not take ownership of policing.

That walking away . . . at first it seemed like the most delicious icing from a triple-chocolate layer cake, sugary and yummy, but gone from my system all too soon and incredibly guilt-inducing. But, I practiced. And before long, walking away became a staple in my connection diet, just like a complex carbohydrate.

Walking away was one of the healthiest connectors and I began to rely on it like I never had before. 

Walking away became the best beet salad I’d ever enjoyed.

. . .

Thanks to Nancy, a stepmother reader, for planting the seeds about feeding your family. 

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 . . . 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 . . .  Secures Her Lines 

A Healthy Stepmother . . .  Secures Her Lines 

If you are living in the thick of it, with stepkids between the ages of 10 and 18, you need a lifeline. You also need an anchor line, at least one. And, while you may think it’s over-rated or there’s no such thing, you could use some laugh lines.

First, your lifeline. The lifeline is your relationship to the person who shares your bed.

That person with the other end of the lifeline . . . stay connected to him. Follow his lead. Trust his gut. Find his bottom line and let that guide you. One of the biggest ways following his lead showed up for me was in distinguishing between the day-to-day details versus the long-term picture. I felt I could contribute to the day-to-day and I had lots of opinions about how it should go. I pressured my guy, and pressured him more. Yes I did that. And, we might have even had a discussion or two, before he admitted his goal was to focus on the long-term. Finally, I listened. And heardWhen I backed off the day-to-day focus, well, you can imagine how life changed.

Stay connected enough that you can ebb and flow, doing more and then less. Isn’t it normal to ebb and flow, sometimes projects require both of you, full tilt. Sometimes family schedules get zany. Maybe track if you’re doing so much you have to let go of the lifeline to get some of it done. Is that necessary?

Second, your anchor lines are nearly as crucial as your life line.

On our boat out on the river, when we’re having a lazy morning but want to stop and have lunch, we set an anchor. We face upstream a bit away from shore. We make sure we’re not in danger of bumping into another boat when the tide or wind changes, we drop the anchor, tie off, and then we relax.

If your husband/partner is your lifeline, your friends are your anchor line. Find a stepmom girlfriend, in person or online. Stepmother friends offer that steadiness we need to find reason in unreasonable times. They help us bear witness in the times we struggle and succeed in staying connected with self. Hanging out with them inspires hope for a more normalized life.

Stepmother girlfriends also help with the reality check. And we can use some reality, because it stinks sometimes, in the stepmother seat, living with kids hurt by their parent’s divorce and who struggle to let go 10 years after the split, or 20 years after, and sometimes not for 30 or 40 years later. Some will never get over their parent’s relationship ending, so a gentle reminder, it isn’t your job to make that okay for them.

Back Camera

Townsend and Lucy

Finally, don’t forget the laugh lines. The laugh lines are just what they seem. Lines gained by laughing.

When I joined my family, there were plenty of inside jokes that everyone else laughed at while I fell into my dark, icy chasm of isolation. It took us a while, but with my husband’s persistent dedication to inclusion and seeing life positively, we, the royal stepfamily we, found a few activities and comedy shows the oldest and youngest liked and some sports the middle kid liked, and we had the building blocks for a few good laughs.

We enjoyed many laughs watching the antics of our cat and a couple of dogs, sharing the annual Doo Calendar (sad, apparently this will be their last year) and the never-ending humor found in living with dogs. We dog-lovers even found a way to build a story around my oldest stepchild not being fond of dogs, complete with the photographic evidence to prove she had the littlest dog on her lap, once. She tolerates us humoring her about it, she’s a good sport that way.

One of my favorite humor gifts has been the Cartman magnet (South Park reference) my oldest stepson gave me. On my refrigerator, it reminds me we laughed together, and still do. He tried to make jokes early on, including giving me a nickname. I didn’t know him well enough to know whether he was laughing at me or mocking me, so I was not a good sport about it.

Dang, if I had known about laugh lines, I’d have the killer nickname of Kimmerino right about now

.

10 Essentials* for A Healthy Stepmother

Updated from December 16, 2009.

Regardless of whether you’re preparing for your first trip into the Stepmother Wilderness or you’ve been there before, you need some essentials. Being a stepmother is a process: first, you learn the basics, then you gain skill and strength for longer trips, and finally, you become an experienced stepmother, expert in handling emergencies and traumas along the wilderness trail.

Ideally,  we would be oriented to venturing into the wilderness, but honestly, life often thrusts us full-on into the long-distance hike with little to sustain us except our love for the man to whom we said “I do.” Thus, whether you are an experienced stepmother or recently married, living with someone, or contemplating marriage, you can benefit from the 10 Essentials.

1. Navigation (map and compass)

Do not leave home without a map of your direction and a compass to track your coordinates. Time and again, stepmothers get stranded, lost and confused, dehydrated, or overexposed to freezing temperatures that caught them unprepared. Had they known where they were going and which path to take, they might have returned to safety quickly and without much ado.

Take out your compass, get your map . . . plot your course. Make plans with your husband so you know you’re both on the same trail and where you’ll meet up each night if you get separated. If you get mad and stomp off, not letting him know where you’re going, you’ll have a long wait before you are found.

2. Sun protection

Prevention is the first step in protection. Rub a thin, invisible layer of sunscreen on one’s skin to keep the invisible rays from harming the skin, especially during times of long exposure. Once there’s been too much exposure, it’s difficult to do anything other than wait until the burn has healed. In our stepmother lives, the sunscreen of choice is the detachment many experts suggest. Detachment helps many stepmothers do less and avoid over-exposure, fatigue, and burning. Note: detachment is best used when needed and then shelved for times when the flow of connection feels mutual and comfortable. 

3. Insulation (extra clothing)

Take insulation no matter where and what season you venture out. Insulation could be a warm layer, a dry layer, or a wicking layer. At the very least, a layer next to the skin to reduce chafing. With the right layering, you can go out in almost any weather.

Early in our marriage, my husband advised me to use insulation . . . don’t leave yourself vulnerable . . . and, be sure to take care of yourself. My enthusiastic, brave front did little insulate me from the grief that naturally occurred when he and I got married and my feelings ended up trampled and bruised. He knew how to move among those family dynamics, but my anxiety-motivated efforts to join in took me feet first, with no insulation to protect me from the cold.

4. Illumination (flashlight/headlamp)

If you can’t see where you’re going, you can’t get where you want to go. So, take a flashlight. If the weather changes for the worst and you’re stranded, you might need to signal for rescue. You might need a light to find your way back to your campsite. 

And, consider a headlamp. They leave your hands free, giving you flexibility and light where you need it. Sometimes you need that focused light to shine on a problem, so you can find a solution. Knowing when to use the light comes with experience and a healthy stepmother knows when to not shine the light.

5. First-aid supplies

When you get hurt, you need help. Your stepmother first-aid kit should include a range of supplies, everything from taking a nap to going on a beach retreat with stepmother girlfriends. It should also include a stepmother support group, formal or informal, and the name of a good therapist, if you don’t already have one. In addition, learning to stand in your own skin, to show up fully and not vacate the premises, is one of the most effective first-aid supplies to carry in your kit.  

10 Essentials for A Healthy StepmotherYou should build up a strong kit of options for nurturing yourself over the long haul. Even when stepkids don’t mean to brush you aside, they do. Even when they want to like you, their mother stands between them and you and she may or may not let them have the freedom to approach you with an open heart. In those cases, get out the first aid kit. Patch up the cuts, blisters, and bruises and move on. Unless you have a broken bone or need bed rest, there is a lot that a good long walk with the dogs will do for you.

6. Fire

The fire you take into the stepmother wilderness fuels your creativity, shores up your spirit, and solidifies the love you share with your husband. Without that fire, the stepmother wilderness gets dark, cold, and more than a little scary. You need fire as a vital aspect of your relationship with your husband so that you can continue to build up your history of successful interactions, memories, and stories. The fire protects you from the challenges to your union you’re sure to encounter. You are building a house of connectedness and the fire is a central element to withstand the test of time.

7. Repair kit and tools

Taking care of oneself outdoors means that sometimes you have to dig a hole to properly dispose of the waste. Sometimes you have to chop wood or haul water or build a temporary shelter. Gather up your personal stepmother repair kit and be sure to include the following items . . . you should have a cozy blanket to wrap up in when you need some nurturing, a room to escape to where you can shut the door and have some alone time, a computer so you can go online and chat with other stepmothers even in the wee hours of the night, and a Mardi Gras mask to wear when your own smile just won’t do. A pedicure, or maybe even a new hairstyle, might qualify as a repair kit, but it’s a great idea to have a few tools that don’t require going and doing. Sometimes you need repairs in the here and now and can’t get away from your obligations.

Read. You’ll soon find out that you are not alone and many others share the same concerns. There is a growing supply of books that give ideas for how to approach the stepmother role and it’s no secret that there are many different philosophies growing out there. Hands down, the best overview of stepmothering lies in the pages of Stepmonster, by Wednesday Martin. Get a copy. 

8. Nutrition (extra food)

Meals are a vulnerable time for a stepmother because everyone sits face-to-face, struggling with what to say or do. One strategy to nourish your self is to let your husband cook meals for his children. This takes you out of being judged for what you cook or don’t cook and whether they like it or don’t like it. If you are the custodial stepmother, let the kids sign up for a night to fix the family meal. Independently, if they are old enough, or in teams with a parent if they are too young. Let them be in charge of food choices, preparation, and clean-up. Let them offer nourishment to others.

Nutrition also comes in the form of you and your husband getting time alone and you taking time with close friends and your own family. This could be the most neglected aspect of being a stepmother, often because stepmothers carry guilt about not being present for every moment. Special Note: Dig a hole and bury the guilt right beside the waste. Then, without further ado, resume your life.

9. Hydration (extra water)

Water, coffee, tea, juice, or cocktails. Any experienced stepmother-hiker knows that she needs to choose carefully how she hydrates. Essential is remaining hydrated, whether the conditions are warm or cold. Take enough water and take electrolytes to prevent against dehydration. 

An experienced stepmother chooses a safe and appropriate environment when occasionally letting loose with friends. She doesn’t want to end up like the guy who was drinking and after a fight with his fiancé decided to swim in the Colorado River, and drowned. To summarize: drinking and the stepmother wilderness don’t mix. Use your good navigation skills and knowledge of the terrain to plan for each day, and behave accordingly. No prudish lectures here, just common sense and good wishes for the long haul.

10. Emergency shelter

Sometimes, regardless of the abilities of an experienced wilderness stepmother, the situation can fall apart. When a sudden storm comes up, grab your emergency supplies and get busy building a shelter to wait out the storm. This might include building a barrier (real or imagined) to withstand the hurricane of feelings being hurled in your direction. Hurricanes come up during most holiday and special events for the kids, or following times of transition between homes. Stormy weather can, and will, be brought into your home without warning. Practice when the winds are less intense and soon you’ll be able to quickly assemble shelter around you so you can breathe and watch and interact, without feeling assaulted by the storm going on around you.

With these essentials in your pack and knowledge of how to use them, over time you’ll learn to use them in a preventive way. Please . . . don’t venture into the Stepmother Wilderness without your 10 Essentials.

*Adapted from the 10 Essentials, The Mountaineers, Seattle.

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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 4: Feet

Let’s check in with how the first three focuses of our Know Thyself series have gone (Catch up with us here, here, and here.). Do you now find you have increased ability to share the focus of your attention between what is going on around you and some aspect of your physical self? Can you more easily hold the thought-thread of your comfort in your mind as you go about your days?

The good news is that you can come back to these ideas over and over and focus on the one (at a time) that piques your interest on that day or week.

This week, let’s focus on what it means to stand on our own two feet. It’s cliché to talk about the stress of the holidays, but in many ways it’s true. Usually this time of year finds us valiantly smiling as we manage task after task and feeling more overwhelmed than that many other times of the year.

Maybe if we felt more solid, it would be easier to manage the busyness. Maybe if we could feel stable on the ground, we could bring our focus more clearly to observing how our feet connect to the ground.

Let’s run through a simple awareness activity.

Remove your socks and shoes and stand on a floor that doesn’t have carpet. Pay attention to which parts of your feet press the most on the floor. Do your heels press more than the front of your feet? Do the balls of your feet press more than your heels? Do you lean more on the inside edges of your feet or more on the outside edges of your feet? Are your toes positioned on the floor closer together than your heels? Are your knees closer together than your feet? How tall do you feel standing here?

Walk around your house with your bare feet and pay attention to where the line of force travels when you touch the ground. In other words, how does your foot touch the floor? Do you come on to your heel first or on the outside edge of your foot? Do you roll off the big toe or the second toe when your foot comes off the ground? Many people think you shouldn’t walk on the outside of your feet at all. This is not true. There is a fabulous description of how the bare foot contacts the ground in The Barefoot Book by Daniel Howell. This book is well worth the read since it explains everything you ever wanted to know about healthy feet and how to make them even healthier.

Now, put your socks on and stand in the same place that you were standing when you were bare-footed. Notice how much you can sense of your foot touching the ground compared to how you noticed the pressure when you had bare feet. Now put your shoes back on and look for the same things. Do you lean more on your heels or more on the front of your feet? More on the inside edges or more on the outside edges? Do you find it’s easier to notice these things when you stand without socks and shoes?

Now…..what to do this week.

Spend some time with bare feet. Five minutes in the morning before work. Ten minutes after work while you’re getting dinner ready. If you can sneak around the block with the dogs and it’s not too cold to go barefoot, that is the super duper bonus time. Each time you walk with your shoes off, pay attention to the shape and texture of the ground. Let this way of your foot touching the ground without shoes become comfortable. Invite the kids to do walk barefoot with you.

Once you are paying attention to the comfort of your feet whether you have shoes on or not, you can begin to pay attention to which of your shoes are most comfortable and whether they fit well. You can find a guide to fitting your shoes on my website, kimcottrell.com.

There’s no need to think you have to go barefoot 100% of the time, however spending some amount of time barefoot each day will improve the health of your feet and your overall health. It will also increase your sense of being surefooted and solid in everything in your life. I know some of you live in climates where bare feet would be fantastic year-round. You are the lucky ones. Those of us who live in the northern states and other places in the world where it’s cold have greater challenges when it comes to barefoot experiences. I would love to live in a place where I could go barefoot every day the year.

As you can imagine, the metaphors are numerous about how you use your feet to walk on the earth and how you live your life. I have written about going barefoot on several occasions. One of them about noticing I was stomping when I was angry and how barefoot walking helped me calm is here. Another one about finding center is here. These might be useful.

This examination of how we stand in our own skin is a favorite topic of mine. Let me know if you want more of it and more of how your healthy feet keep your whole self healthy. Personally, I think the people who will inherit the earth are the ones who can move quickly. Pssst, limit the amount of time you spend in heels and in shoes that don’t bend when you hold the heel and the toe and twist. Each morning, ask yourself, “Which pair of shoes will allow me to run fast, jump high, and get me where I want to go?”

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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 . . . Knows Thyself (Part 1, Breath)

Recently, my husband and I were planning for the upcoming holidays and our idea to manage one of the events created a bit of space in our juggling of connections. At the thought of this extra space, I felt my shoulders soften and fall away from my ears. My brow unfurled and my breathing lengthened, all signs I was feeling more at ease.

Another of our family events holds a greater risk of being difficult. At the thought of this other event, I noticed myself clench. My entire torso stiffened and my breathing became more shallow. I drew my shoulders and arms closer to my body and set my jaw as if I was preparing to defend myself in my clenched-ness.

Maybe you’re like me and you enjoy the idea of a holiday with your spouse where you don’t have to armor up or spend your time alone. As soon as I felt the clench, I said to myself, “Yup, time to ramp up the paying attention to my skeleton and how I’m holding myself.” Every stepmother who secretly dreads the upcoming holiday shuffle, raise her hand!

Even though my stepfamily now finds ways to soften into shared experience, I still remember the difficult years and can’t help but brace just thinking of some of them. My memories aren’t of how awful someone else was, they are of how difficult it was for me to hold on to myself amidst the turmoil. This year, I want something different for myself, so I decided to share.

For the next six weeks on this blog, I’ll guide you through the process I use in my daily life to pay attention to what I am doing so I can shift my experience and remain living inside my skin! The flow of these observations will ease your way as you navigate sticky situations. Once you feel comfortable with the process of paying attention to your posture, the benefits are yours to take along to graduations, weddings, or family vacations.

I’m naming the series, Know Thyself, because understanding what we are doing is the first step to accepting or changing it. I can’t think of a better way to prepare for turbulence in the coming weeks.

You’ll need a place to sit, stand, or lie down. You will also need to suspend judgment about what you find in your observations and a willingness to stay with it when it doesn’t seem like anything is happening in the first hours, days, and weeks.

Week One: Know Thy Breath

Sit, stand, or lie down. Put your feet shoulder distance apart and place your hands in a comfortable position. First, notice how long it takes you to draw in a breath? Watch many breaths to get the sense if they are similar or your breathing is inconsistent. It may change while you are watching it. That is normal.

How long does the breath stay inside you? Moments? One? Many? Is it comfortable? Do you feel stressed when the breath is full inside you? Do you hold it as if you don’t dare let it go? Do you hold it in case you make noise as you let it out and draw attention to yourself? Do your ribs move when you inhale? Do they expand forward, out to the sides, backward? Do you feel the air pushing on your internal organs, downward toward your pelvis. Does your belly get soft when you inhale or do you hold it tightly and the inhalation strains against the abdominal muscles?

A circa 1884 poster for William Shakespeare's ...

Polonius: This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell, my blessing season this in thee! Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How long does an exhalation take to leave you? Do you find yourself releasing the breath in a sigh, messaging your disapproval or disagreement? Do you have to push to get the air out, or does it leave with no restriction? Is the amount of air leaving you the same as the amount of air that came in on the inhalation? Is it more? Is it less? Do you feel the shape of your torso change when you exhale? Do you get shorter or taller with an exhalation?

Can you sense the effects of your breath on your sternum, your ribs, your belly, your back, your shoulders, or your neck? The rest of your body?

The next time you are sitting at the dinner table with your stepfamily and things aren’t going so well, or even if they are fine, bring your attention to your breath. Pay attention to the inhaling, exhaling, length of the breath, how much air, the way your ribs move or don’t move when you take air in and let it out.

Every time you can over the next week, pay attention to your breathing. Make a game of it. See if you can pay attention to your breathing while you sit at a stoplight, have coffee with a friend, get your child ready for school, debate the merits of bedtime with your spouse, write out and mail holiday greetings, or spend time reading this blog.

Your work is to pay attention. For now, please don’t try to change anything. This exercise is not to see if you can change your breathing. You are not to make the breathing longer or shorter or purposely expand your ribs or stop holding your breath. You are simply paying attention.

Of course, once you turn your attention to something it will change. But, it will be best if you think of yourself as an observer, simply cataloging, in as many situations as you can, what it is that you do with your breathing.

You can write your observations on paper or just remember. Whatever you remember is enough. This activity is you, shifting your attention from time to time to observe your breathing patterns.

That is all.

It will be enough, one week of paying attention to the anatomy of your breathing.

Ready . . . set . . . notice!

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Disclaimer: For some of us, noticing ourselves is exactly what we are trying to avoid. If that is you, please read along with us and use your resources to support you as you work through each week’s activities. Seek professional help if you have any questions about your readiness. If in doubt, wait and take part later when you feel more prepared.  

Note: I’d love to know if you are participating. You can message me privately or you can comment here to say, “I’m in” or “I’m in, in Portland (or, the name of your city).” That way, we’ll all know we are breathing together.

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