A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the stories we live and tell.

A friend of mine posted on Facebook.

photo (14).

I read the article and it was so good, I’ll tease you with this nugget, “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” Bruce Feiler, from the article. I’m fascinated with resilience. If my friend Carly thought this was about resilience, this binding together in families, then I needed to read it. I teach resiliency. I’ve recovered my own resiliency and gone on to have a really wonderful life. But, was I always resilient? If not, how and when did I learn to be resilient?

Wow, and another wow. You know how things land in your lap when you are in the thick of it. Three weeks into bringing my father home to live with us after his stroke, I’ve been deep in examining the family narrative and wouldn’t have thought of referring to it in that way if not for seeing this article.

When we decided to bring Dad home, I felt surprised at my decision. When he had his stroke it wasn’t my first reaction, in fact, I went about the process of looking for an adult foster home for him to reside close to me. As we looked and as his needs became more apparent, it was clear we needed a better handle on his condition and the only way to do that was bring him with us. He needed some consistency of care to make the leap to the next level of functioning, so here we are. And, it’s going well, mostly as we expected. We will likely still end up finding him a foster home, but for now we are focused on improving his quality of life regardless of where he lives.

After we got him home, I began combing the story line in my family for stories of my relatives caring for relatives. The obvious, my sister and I cared for our mom at home when she was dying of melanoma at the age of 47. She was so young, it seemed not so typical.

On my mom’s side of the family, Aunt Rose, my mother’s sister, took care of her grandmother who had dementia. I was in junior high and high school and loved having my great grandmother in my life. Later Aunt Rose took care of her husband and then her father. My cousin and I took care of Aunt Rose when she was dying of lung cancer at the age of 70, I was the weekend relief caregiver to my cousin who had a family an hour away. So, not only have I seen the family narrative in action, I’ve lived it.

On my dad’s side of the family, my dad’s sisters took care of their mother for over 15 years after my grandmother had a series of strokes. For a large portion of that time, my Aunt Ranae had Grandma solo. And, my cousin Vicki’s family cared for her at home when she was dying at 51 of melanoma.

Clearly, a strong family narrative exists around caring for relatives, and my journey through the taking-care-of-dad process gives me a new understanding of why stepfamilies are slow to accept the stepmothers in their midst. The culture has a strong and strongly negative narrative about stepmothers being untrustworthy and conniving. Whether or not a particular family narrative matches the cultural narrative, it takes sensitivity and resolve to not be swayed by the popular culture. When we aren’t swayed, I think of this as resisting the easy way out. But, who can resist the easy way out?

Here’s what I hope, but I’m doing anyway even if it changes nothing. I hope that if I live true to my family narrative, and not the popular narrative, then my stepfamily narrative will be shifted. And now I get it that I don’t need to have a report card each year at Christmas that says, you’ve been a great stepmother because…xyz. I only need to live true to my heart and the narrative will have another layer of complexity added and each generation adds another layer. Each event and each story adds another. That’s why it’s so critical how we respond in a crisis within the family.

Any time we’ve had a family crisis, my husband and I dug in to find our true feelings and our commitment to the future of all involved. We made a plan and we hung on to it whether we were challenged to take the easy way out or challenged to cave in. It seems our actions are contributing to the family narrative and we’re  seen as reliable and consistent. If the family narrative theory is true, the children involved will also see themselves as reliable. Thus, the stepfamily narrative becomes richer, more complex, and therefore less easily influenced by the negative messages the popular culture holds about stepfamilies.

Most of all, along the way all hearts are eased.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Reshuffles and Advocates

It seems impossible that it was two months since I last wrote a blog post. But there it is, the last post on March 11 and today is May 8.

My father had a stroke in late February and life has been a whirlwind since then. First, there was getting him admitted to a rehabilitation facility close to my home. Then, worrying aloud about his mental status long enough that the medical team took a closer look and decided he’d had another stroke, albeit a small one.

We took a long-planned Spring Break vacation and when we returned, I cried to see him take steps with his walker. Now, he’s regularly walking more than 150 feet in physical therapy. He has made fantastic changes in so many ways.

Then, the dreaded hunt for a place for my father to live brought me to my knees. The places we saw just weren’t a match and one day I was so frustrated, I cried aloud, “If it gets worse, I’ll just bring him home.” I wasn’t serious in the moment, but there was something very appealing about it. At home, I’d be able to rule out about 10 things that could possibly be contributing to his trouble sleeping through the night.

Long story short, we’re bringing him home. At least long enough to get him stabilized and build back his morale. He’s depressed and shutting down or acting like he doesn’t want to talk to anyone. I’m spending as much time as I can with him and it’s all wearing thin. It will be easier to have him here than to spend every night worrying that he might fall again in the night because he’s trying to escape a wet bed.

After endless conversations with the staff and apparently upsetting the night shift because I asked to visit with them in the wee hours of the morning to get a better sense of what was going on. The staff decided I didn’t think they were doing a good job. Sigh . . . really?

My coping strategies have largely consisted of a mantra to feel what I feel in the moment and work it through and then move to the next thing. Thus, I have tolerated all the uncertainty fairly well but once a week I’ve had a good cry. Today, my tears flowed down my cheeks as I drove home blinking so I could drive safely. When the tears subsided, I realized this frustration felt so familiar.

It’s like being a stepmother.

The staff at the rehab facility have the power, I’m not a staff person. I’m not allowed to stay overnight because he shares a room and it’s not a hospital. The head nurse writes orders and the night shift does what they want and when they want to.

It’s honestly like being in the role of stepmother. I can see what would be best for my dad and my ideas are ignored because I’m not part of the system.

I’m not sure if this realization helps me or frustrates me more. I’ve learned a lot about letting go of expectations in the process of being a stepmother. Maybe that learning can help me as a daughter to my dad who is struggles and needs help.

Sadly, both my stepmother life and my dad’s future health feel somewhat like a complex game in which there are so many layers it takes years to learn how to play. My dad doesn’t have years to learn to play, so I’m not waiting around. I’ve definitely learned to let it be okay if others have an opinion about me during my time as a stepmother, so I can handle the scrutiny of nurses and medical professions.

After all, in this situation I’m the daughter. I look forward to bringing him home to rest, good food, exercise in beautiful surroundings, and a community waiting to cheer him on.

The countdown begins and I’m so glad to back to my stepmother blogging.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . looks at the past in her present.

Join me, would you, in looking back at your childhood. Look deeply into those little girl eyes and do an assessment. Who was she trying to please? Who did she warm up to? Who did she avoid? How did she behave when she was happy? What scared her? What was the thing that hurt her heart so she went out of her way to avoid it?

Now, jump to your early years with your stepchildren. Look deeply into that woman’s eyes and do an assessment. Who was she trying to please? Who did she warm up to? Who did she avoid? How did she behave when she was happy? What scared her? What was the thing that hurt her heart so she went out of her way to avoid it?

Are there any similarities?

Yeah, I thought so.

Collection of the Chinese National Government

Collection of the Chinese National Government (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For me, it’s the same story with different players. I can look back and see that the issues that were hard for me in the early days of my stepfamily integration were the same issues as the hard stuff from my kid-dom.

Recently, my father had a stroke and I was quickly reminded of those family dynamics when my siblings and I danced around who might show up to visit or to take care of Dad’s business. The heart of the family issues was still there.

Fortunately, for me, I’ve done enough preparatory work on my world view of my family that now, for the first time, I was able to process the emotions of it all and dig down in and come up with a perspective I could hold for the duration of this dance with my dad.

In fact, part of the perspective I was able to achieve came from honing my skills in keeping my calm, in navigating troubled waters, in living with folks who are still carrying grief, and in letting go of unrealistic expectations of myself and others. In other words, I’ve learned a lot in the almost 9 years my husband and I have been a couple.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, being a stepmother is a spiritual experience offering the perfect incubator for a woman’s spiritual practice.

Given that, I urge you to open the door a little wider and look out into the back yard of your childhood and see what else offers itself up for cleaning up and airing out. There will always be something, and you might as well keep scraping until it’s all gone.

I’m watching my father adapt to his loss of the use of his right arm and leg. I’m reminded of our mortality and the brevity that is this life. I’m reminded that some day it’ll be me in the bed or my husband or a sibling.

I’m reminded, these life issues are no different than those in our stepfamilies and I soften toward everyone, my childhood family and my adult stepfamily. The clarity about what each one of us needs in order to participate in this life seems so obvious in these moments of endangered health.

We each draw in breath, we each need sustenance, we each need shelter and warmth, and on and on. So many ways we are each connected, one to the other, and share the experience of being human. It is there, in the focus on our shared humanity, that we meet as like beings and open a hand to another.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Goats and advice for a child.

My husband and I are not regular TV or movie watchers, but we occasionally enjoy a couple of movies in a row on Netflix. On Saturday evening, we watched Jesus Henry Christ on the recommendation of a friend. We liked it, so after the movie was done and there was Goats in the Netflix cue, we looked at one another, grinned, and pushed Play.

Goats, stars Graham Phillips as Ellis, a 15-year-old boy who secretly applies to the same prep school his father attended. When he gets accepted and moves there, there is an opportunity for him to establish a relationship with his father, a relationship his mother Wendy, played by Vera Farmiga, has successfully obstructed for Ellis’ entire life.

Ellis has taken care of his mother’s affairs, paying the bills and running the house for some years and Wendy is distraught at the thought of him leaving. Wendy can’t stand the thought of her son being in a close relationship with his father. In fact, when Ellis spends Thanksgiving with his father and begins to get to know him, she turns on her son and accuses him of being just like his father, a man she has publicly damned over and over in front of Ellis.

Feral goat in Aruba

Feral goat in Aruba (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The character of Wendy saddened me. I know of children in Ellis’ situation who spend their childhood taking care of a mother or a father, emotionally and for years. The movie realistically depicted the manipulation that can go on in parent-child relationships. At one point, Wendy is sitting on the kitchen floor sobbing, “I’m a mother, I miss him like I miss a part of myself.” Several weeks later, when Ellis comes home for Christmas, she doesn’t say hello and profess her love, instead she yells at him for not calling her more often.

My own father behaved much like Wendy did. He was less blatant, more sneaky. He didn’t call my mother names, he simply talked about how afraid she was and how being afraid kept her from living and making decisions. He built up a story that took on mythic proportions. Gradually, over the years of me building up a greater understanding of what my mother went through living with my father, I came to understand why she behaved as she did and how much he used discrediting her to his advantage so he would look good for us kids.

Several times during the movie, I wanted to shout to Ellis, “ask her to be quiet, ask her to speak kindly about your father.” But then I remembered it took me until I was 48 to ask my father to stop. Ellis is just 15 in the movie, so instead of telling her to be quiet, he seizes an opportunity to spend the summer with his dad as his way to get away from his mother. I know it was just a movie, but I wanted to take Wendy aside and say to her, “If you keep on this way, you’ll lose him. At some point you need to quit manipulating and start acknowledging he’s his own person.”

So, today, I’m suggesting to teens and young adults who have one parent who bashes the other parent with verbal insults, or an eye roll every time a father is mentioned, or story-telling that keeps the other parent in an unfavorable light. I recommend you not wait until you are 48 to ask your parent to speak kindly of the other parent. I recommend you find a way to ask now.

I wish I had asked my dad to stop insulting my mom about 20 years ago.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the gauntlet of adjustment.

Today, as the year ends, I’m reflecting back on how stepmothers adjust to life in a stepfamily. In this final post of the year, I leave you with my interpretation of the stages of adjustment a stepmother makes to her new stepmother life. I call this process of integration, the gauntlet of adjustment, which is an apt description of many a stepmother’s walk through the initiation into a family.

In the beginning, there is a period of Generosity when the father of the children feels generous, the stepmother feels generous, the kids might even feel generous. This is the stage when forgiving someone for their daily fears and foibles is easy and most family members feel magnanimous and free.

Angers Castle

Angers Castle (Photo credit: stevec77)

Within the first year or so, maybe sooner, there begins an inkling of the dawning of a realization that it just might be that we’ve gotten in over our heads. This is the Dismay period where we look around in disbelief and say to ourselves, say this isn’t so! I didn’t just marry a man who’s children hate me. I didn’t just move away from my friends and family to be treated this way. But, at the Dismay stage of the game, our brains still won’t wrap around the fact that we said I DO and this is the end result. So, we go into survival mode, we keep smiling and going through the motions of being generous. Eventually, we realize these worries coming up in the Dismay phase are real.

After Dismay, comes the Double-Take phase. We can’t believe all the things we have walked right by, even though these problems weren’t evident in the Generous stage. Everyone behaved generously and real personality styles weren’t on display when we first got involved. But then, in the Double-Take phase, what we see is the real, true, real-life way our new family members behave.

Still, even then, we are human and our human nature sends us into a process of survival. We go into Denial. We tell ourselves it’s really not as bad as we think it is and we try to talk ourselves out of thinking that our lives are anything other than fine, just fine. We don’t want to be seen as a party-pooper and we don’t want to sound negative. For a brief time we convince ourselves we’ll be fine and that it just takes time to adjust. Denial can last a long time.

We live like this with our dismay, double-take, and denial for a while and one day we wake up and discover we are Indignant. We bring our Indignant selves to wonder why in the world our husband is not doing this and not doing that. If only he would do something, anything, life would be better. If only we could be a better woman, all would be well. We start worrying we aren’t woman enough and at the same time we are so mad and sometimes crazy indignant at our husband. By this time, the cumulative effect of the Dismay, Denial, and Indignant phase begins to affect our marriages.

Of course, not far behind the indignation is the Anger. Anger is that place where some of us feel most uncomfortable. We might want to yell, but we stifle. Or, we yell and feel tons of guilt or oceans of shame. This is the stage at which we can no longer pretend it doesn’t matter that our stepchildren don’t like us. It’s the stage we recognize that we’ve been doing the proverbial pissing into the wind and it has made no difference in our adjustment to our family. At this stage, it is so easy to feel that love is lost and there’s absolutely no hope of our lives improving.

For the women who stay (and some who go) there often follows a period of feeling Bereft. Numb. With a sense of not caring for the people with which one shares a home and a life. In this phase, we stepmothers often walk around zombie-ish and apologetic, often listening to our internal dialogue more than the dialogue between us and family members.

After Bereft-ness, comes the feeling sorry for ourselves, aka the Martyr. Personally, I think by the time we become aware of being a Martyr, we are faced with a choice of whether to dig our heels in and accept martyrdom as a role that may be played successfully, or not. My own grandmother was a martyr. I never found it particularly pretty, but she was surrounded by her children until the end of her life.

After many years, when we’re appropriately sick of feeling angry, bereft, indignant, and victimized, we might become able to shift away from the martyr. Often, this is the moment when we can truly let go of whatever it was we hope to gain, including being seen in a favorable light by anyone in our extended stepfamily. In that moment, when we admit there isn’t a story-book life to be found, in that moment we can back up and begin a process of Acceptance.

In Acceptance, we can acknowledge that our life is different than it might have been if we were still single. We can accept that we are a partner-member of a family that may never fully accept us but that we can still find a way to have a nice life, filled with satisfaction and peace. Acceptance is an amazing process. It’s the time when you look back outside yourself and see that you are a pretty amazing person, just the way you are. You realize you don’t need to change yourself or worry about being successful, nor do you need to change your husband. You can still stay in dialogue, but you let go of the need for change. Acceptance includes affirmations of who you are as a woman, the woman your husband fell in love with. You regain your sense of self and strength and begin again.

After Acceptance comes the Blossoming, and a renewal of the feeling that you are the perfect person to be with this perfect husband. Perfect being tongue-in-cheek, of course. It’s just that you realize if you had bailed in Year 2 or Year 5, you’d have missed out on this amazing journey to the heart of trust and love and understanding and compassion that you’re building with your guy in Year 7 and Year 9 and beyond.

These stages proceed at different paces for everyone, depending how many kids, how old you are and your life goals, what your husband thinks about himself, and, it’s so complicated! And, of course, women choose to exit the process at many different stages. Their pain makes so much sense given this process which is messy and never smooth sailing. The pain involved in this process inspires me to write and challenge the status quo.

When all is said and done, what you will find is that you have built your personal Resilience. Together, you and your husband can now handle almost anything and when things go wrong, you’ll look at each other and shrug and not get too worried when you don’t have a perfect reaction. One of you might say, yeah, that was pretty tricky. The other nods and you move on, together, in a way that feels connected and builds even more trust and resilience.

Here’s to our future contented lives, may we listen to ourselves, strengthen our soothing skills, and grow into more resilience!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . was there when the traditions began.

One thing I read long ago in the stepmother literature was a suggestion to establish traditions with your stepchild(ren) in your new family constellation. In those early years, that sounded like a lot of work and a set up for rejection so I shied away from that strategy.

Now, looking back, I can see my family has plenty of traditions. The traditions we keep going were originally little things and they started themselves, almost without us trying. We made a few guesses about what might be fun and paid attention to whether the kids liked it and we liked it. We made sure to repeat the successful things and the rest is history. No one got involved in an elaborate planning of activities and timing and calendars.

Three traditions I can think of immediately in my family are the annual crab feed, the block party breakfast, and the back-to-school shopping.

Desperate to have a smooth dinner with the kids the first year I was around for the Christmas holidays, my husband and I decided on a crab dinner. Nothing fancy. Five people, five Dungeness crabs, five tubes of Ritz crackers, and five bottles of cocktail sauce. I honestly don’t think there was anything else on the table that first year. We dug in and made an enormous mess and shared the one thing we all had in common, a love of Pacific Northwest seafood.

a dungeness crab

a dungeness crab (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We repeat that tradition every year now, quite willingly, and even if we have to shift the day around, we sit down and eat crab.

Also in the first year of my life with husband and his kids, I made a deal with one of my stepsons. It was the morning of our annual block party and I knew the day would be filled with juice and desserts and ice cream and who knows what else. My husband and I didn’t want to constantly be checking with him but we were very interested that he have good nutrition, so I made him a deal.

If he ate a fried egg sandwich for breakfast, he could eat whatever else he wanted all day, no questions asked. I used the best bread I could find, wheat with nuts and seeds, and two eggs so he’d have a good dose of protein with complete nutrition. I lightly toasted the bread with instructions from him about just how he liked it.

Huge hit. That’s been our deal ever since and this year was no different. It’s our standby even now that he doesn’t sleep at our house.

Also, this year, I took one of the kids on our 6th or 7th annual back-to-school shopping trip. Like always, we made a plan about what he needed and got very strategic about getting as much value as we could for the money we spent. We even commented this year how neat it was to look back and see what priorities had shifted and how the items we were looking for had changed. Those shopping trips weren’t really planned in the beginning, they just happened. I invited my other stepkids to go back-to-school shopping also, but we never got into a pattern and it’s not a tradition with them.

The smallest things can become a tradition. Things that don’t seem like a big deal at the time. Where the dog lies when everyone goes to bed. What the menu is on a special occasion. Who sits where at the dinner table. And, a fried egg sandwich on a summer day.

I like knowing that I’m taking part in a ritual that wasn’t created on purpose, but one that sprouted and grew from the circumstances that surrounded it.

Lasting traditions will evolve and you won’t even know you were there at the beginning until you hear the clamor . . . but it’s tradition!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . paces herself through the holiday gatherings.

The number of holiday functions we attend in December is a bit mind-numbing. In the last week, we’ve hosted four of five gatherings in our home. Over the years we’ve done the math, tried to consolidate or condense, but it’s nearly impossible to find the right balance. Not only are the kids with their mom and we work around that schedule, but my husband has divorced parents who don’t celebrate together. Most recently, my aging father is preferring to celebrate with us at a quieter time and we’re creating a new ritual around that.

I’ve discovered a few things that have helped me calm through this last week and keep my center. Super happy to report that my husband and I have had one quote-unquote discussion and we are so in sync this year it makes my heart sing.

As I write this, we’re headed into the last of the suppers and I’ve snuck away to my room to write and get out of the fray. Fortunately and amazingly, I’m not dreading this last dinner and am actually looking forward to some time with my mother-in-law and the kids.

How in the world did this come about . . . well, I’m as amazed as you!

First, we opened most of the presents a couple of days ago and tonight feels calmer and more about being together. That has been our dream, that our gathering time with the kids would be about being together.

Second, we made sure to have more gaps between events. It used to be that our Christmas Brunch was not even done and the kids came over excited to see about their presents. We had barely cleared the dining room table from our morning guests and we were into the next frenzy and activity. Some years it’s been suggested that I not have my Christmas Brunch and I’ve stubbornly resisted. We are now in our 8th year and it’s my favorite time of the holidays. This one is for me. Some years we have my father, some years my husband’s father and stepmother, another year my husband’s mother, always our neighbors who don’t have young children, and often a few friends. This morning as we laughed over our mimosas, I was reminded of what a great group of people I share my life with. It sustains me to feed my friends especially at a time of sharing and caring.

Third, we let go of worrying about what we would have rather had. We didn’t get our way with all the plans about where we were and when or who was with us. In some ways, once we let go of it, we really were able to relax and enjoy our time. There were less politics and more connecting with the people we were with. Last night especially, at my sister-in-law’s house (shout out to you, lovely Patti), we visited and Skyped with our nephew who is married and living in Japan. I noticed that he looked very good and my summary is that marriage agrees with him.

Fourth, I anticipated a difficult evening a couple of times and I took a handkerchief with a few drops of essential oils on it and inhaled deeply. I repeated and repeated and even if you don’t think essential oils do anything, the deep inhalations sure helped. And, it smelled wonderful. I felt like one of those women from the past with a vial of smelling salts. You can order the Adrenal Support blend and do the same. I highly recommend it for part of your daily self-care routine.

Fifth, I kept checking in with my husband and making sure we were on the same page. A couple of times we were not. And, I finally noticed and admitted that when the stress came crushing in, I was found to be wanting to change the plan. Postpone this, speed up that. And, that all seemed like so much work so I let it go and we stayed with as close to what we usually do as possible. Had we tried to make changes, it felt like turning around a train hurtling down the hill.

Sixth, we opened presents early to take pressure off of Christmas Day evening, as I mentioned earlier. Because of that, we were able to release one of the kids from feeling obligated to come and eat a meal with us. We will visit with him tomorrow or another day very soon and it will be more fun than if we had pressured him to be with us this evening. I even told him I was a little jealous that he could sneak away with his friends and have some chill time. Oh, how I’d love to do that myself sometimes.

I can hear the noises from my kitchen below and I’d better scoot. My husband’s other kids are here and so is my mother-in-law, so I’ll go and enjoy their company.

Blessings to you on this season of change. I hope this fall of self-soothing has been useful for you. Stay tuned because when I get back to the edits my editor made in these posts, I’ll be compiling them into an ebook. You’ll be the first to know.

And I slipped away to have time to calm myself but also to connect with you, so maybe that’s a number seven, to stay connected to other stepmothers that you know. All the best to you.

Merry, merry, Happy, happy!!!

Kim

A Healthy Stepmother . . . leaves the big stuff on the table. (Self-Soothing series, #6)

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.”

If 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 . . . stops and waits. (Self-Soothing series, Week 5)

(Note: Week 5 of a 10-week series on self-soothing. Looking to our animal nature to access our ability to manage our reactions and have the life we choose, not the life that happens while we are upset or retreating.)

After our evening dog walk, my husband and I linger on the front porch watching the sky darken before we go inside. Our big dog loves this hang out time with us. Our little dog, Lucy, does . . . and doesn’t. She often seems as though she’d like to sit on the porch with us, but as night falls the wind picks up and she peers nervously over hunched shoulders looking for an escape route.

When I take her inside, she calms quickly and I go back to join my husband on the porch. The peace is short-lived. Lucy lives for the sight and sniff of the people in our close-knit community who come to say hello with the latest news. Soon, she hears the neighbor’s step on the porch and she launches into a fire drill of barking. As I reflect on her very temporary peace, it occurs to me that Lucy’s problem is similar to the stepmother dilemma, to detach or not to detach.

One of the coping recommendations for a stepmother is to detach when things get overwhelming or she finds herself becoming anxious or depressed when wrapped in the drama of her remarried family. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, there are some great descriptions of detachment in Stepmonster, by Wednesday Martin. Detachment is a great way to reground and regroup but sometimes it comes with its own stress. The situations that bother me produce similar conflicts in me as the loud noises do for Lucy.

The facts are that Lucy has a great home with us. She is comforted by being with us and life is good for her. But, Lucy is bothered by the wind and firecrackers and any sharp, loud noise. When she hears loud noise, she runs to hide and calm herself. She is our self-appointed guard dog and she makes sure we know when things are okay and when they are not. Thus, when she is scared, she goes into a massive quandary about continuing her guard-dog job or escaping away to a more comforting place.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . creates space for self-soothing. Self-Soothing, Week 1.

Self-soothing is the exact opposite of other-soothing, or what most of us refer to as helping. Think of other-soothing as the flow of energy toward others and self-soothing is the flow of energy and nourishment toward the self. Too much outward flow and the person is off-balance. Too much inward flow and the person is not functional in the world. Neither, in too large a proportion, is a good thing.

As a stepmother, you most likely entered into an environment where the grieving of the lost family was not done. It was likely so palpable that any sane woman would do the natural thing and try to better the situation. Of course, that wasn’t possible. The process of grieving had to run it’s painful and difficult course. When considered in that light, it is really, really easy to get stuck in other-soothing.

I invite you to immediately let yourself off the hook of what you could and couldn’t accomplish by this point in your stepfamily. Let it go. Turn now, over here, and begin to create space to practice the strategies that you will need in order to find, develop, and keep your internal balance between other and self. You cannot simultaneously other-soothe and self-soothe. They are not compatible. Self-soothing is a quiet, personal, sometimes tear-inducing reflection that requires your brain, heart, solar plexus, and pelvic floor. You will need to make space for self-soothing in your thoughts, feelings, and actions.

You don’t need large spans of time to practice self-soothing. You can take advantage of being stopped at a traffic light. You can soothe yourself while pushing the cart through the grocery store or by shifting weight from one foot to the other in line at the post office. And, you can tune in to the rhythm of your walk while taking the dogs out. Read the following scenarios and see how these women managed.

Scenario 1
Sue was exhausted. She worried about the kids constantly, most recently because they were struggling in school and didn’t seem to know how to study. When she mentioned her worries to her husband, he took her concerns as criticism of his parenting. But, Sue felt in a bind, the conversation pattern was very negative with her husband and she knew she would not be able to stop caring about how they did in school.

She decided to put some limits on her worry and developed Homework Hours. The kids had always asked for her help and she made herself available during hours that she determined. It took months to finally transition, but eventually the kids found a rhythm with the Homework Hour and to use their study time more productively. She hadn’t stopped helping completely, but the predictability of those hours took the pressure off for all of them.

She felt such a great sense of relief that the negativity about being the only one helping them dissipated. In the hours Sue freed up, she began to focus on herself.

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