A Healthy Stepmother . . . begins more gently.

If I could, I’d begin more gently.

I wouldn’t have fallen in love more gently with my amazing husband. The kind of love that sustains us has been strong enough to keep me from my old habit of wanting to pack my bag and head for the hills when the emotions escalated and strong enough to glue us together through several family crises.

I wouldn’t go slower with my stepkids, I purposely went slowly with them, choosing some way to relate to each of them. Whether it was weekly pick ups from practice and dinner on the way home or daily homework sessions, I offered invitations gently.

A Healthy Stepmother begins more gently.I wouldn’t go slower with rule-making and re-organizing a house. Nearly every book on stepfamilies and stepmothers tells you to get together with your spouse and establish house rules, set things up early, and be clear about your expectations. Some families might thrive in re-establishing rules, for us that wasn’t the case. Entering a family with teens was tenuous at best and over time I brought some great ideas from one or another of the books I was reading. My husband listened and acknowledged the ideas and by the time we’d talked them through, we both acknowledged they sounded great, but probably weren’t the way we wanted to interact with the kids in our situation.

I’d tread more gently in expecting happiness in my new life. I’d honor the new marriage and my new husband and participate in family activities, but I wouldn’t expect I’d be happy in the first year or even two years. I’d give myself as much time as I would if I had a new job, six months before I’d expect to belong. I’d give myself as much time to adjust as I would if I moved to a foreign country, a year before I’d begin to think it was a good move. Instead, initially I felt as if I’d moved to a foreign country and tried to behave like a native from day one. If I had it to do over again, I’d let go of that idea of instant happiness.

I’d look more gently at indifference toward me and not take it as a personal statement of my presence. It’s not personal took me five years to understand on a heart level. It’s not personal was true and I’m entirely grateful for all the folks who said it, over and over and over and over. I couldn’t hear their message early on because I was working so hard at fitting in and finding a place that felt like mine. When I could finally understand it’s not personal, I saw children uncomfortable with feelings and newness and strangers and came to a better understanding of how they struggled

I’d be gentle with my decisions. The advice for how to behave as a stepmother fills several shelves in any bookstore. I fell for some of it and got sidetracked from listening to myself. Fortunately, for me, it became very clear early on in my remarriage that no two stepfamilies are alike. We can lump all of us into a category, like we do, but each household contains a unique set of individuals who, together, make a unique system and require unique attention to work things through. The advice in each book worked for at least one family or the author wouldn’t have written it and even the books compiled of someone’s years of working with clients don’t offer the whole story. Those books offer lists of what many founds useful. They may still miss the mark for a majority of stepfamilies.

That’s just it, I can’t see into the real future. I can maybe see the future others paint for me or one other stepfamilies are living. But my future lies somewhere out there along the edge of the path I am on, somewhat blurry and indistinct. I’ll keep on gently and steadily, like I’ve learned to do, with all the fortitude I possess.

I’ll recognize my future when I get there.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . walks into the elder future of stepfamilies.

Between my husband and I, we have three different versions of walking a path with our elders.

In my family, with my mother long deceased, I care for my father with some help from one brother and with two other siblings who want nothing to do with him. I have a stepfather who remarried and we struggle to stay in contact, so I worry about him. In my husband’s family, he is an only child to his mother and has two stepsiblings who have faded from the picture after their father died. My husband also has a his half-sister and they work well together to support and advocate for my husband’s father and stepmother.

No doubt, there are many other versions of adult child of divorce roles but these three examples give a peek into the future of what our stepfamilies will be like as we age up.

Consider this . . . most adult children of divorce have TWO sets of parents. They might then marry another adult child of divorce, who also has TWO sets of parents, and immediately there are FOUR sets of parents to care for within a family. This isn’t often the thought on your mind when you walk down the aisle. Typically, we’re distracted with worrying whether the children will like us or whether one of the kids will make a scene at the reception because he or she is angry that their father is getting married.

My father has lived with my husband and I for three months now after his discharge from stroke rehabilitation. As he stabilized enough to move to a more independent living situation, my father-in-law suffered a heart attack and an emergency double-bypass. Then, as my father-in-law went home with my stepmother-in-law to recover, my mother-in-law had a relapse of a chronic pain condition and needs more support.

I am grateful for each one of these elders in my life and this is not a whine. I have zero complaints about putting things down and helping them have a better quality of life. It would certainly be easier if they all lived in my town, but we are beginning to explore options for long-distance contacts. They each have an iPad and we have recently discovered Cozi, an online calendar management system.

If two and three and four sets of parents is the norm in the typical stepfamily, what kind of assistance will we adult children need in order to support and advocate for our parents? I know first-hand the feeling of stress and distress when a parent struggles and suffers. Double the number of parents, double the stress. Or, quadruple the parents, and there you go. You never know if you’ll be the one holding the caregiver bag or the one high-tailing it because you just discovered you’ve got no stomach for it.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . lays down the blame.As far as I can see, the elder end of the spectrum contains fundamental issues we might never have considered in the early years of our stepfamilies. In the early years of many a stepfamily, the primary stressor is typically the relationship with the ex-spouse. As the kids become teens and the elders get . . . well, older or elder, or whatever you want to call the process, the primary issue becomes exponentially complicated.

Based on my experience with my father, it is a full-time job to attend to closing a life and rebuilding another one. As a power-of-attorney, I am on-call. Multiply by two more for my husband and we’ve got our life focus for the next many years. Maybe you don’t plan to participate in the care of your elders, but my husband and I understand this is a part of our lives. It just is.

We’ve joked that we need our own adult care home, which we could do in our state. We would get screened by the federal government and fingerprinted and separated from those who’ve committed crimes. After that, we’d be able to care for our own elders in our own home. We have enough elders to easily fill an official foster home, but our current home wouldn’t fit them all and they don’t get along. But, if they did, we could save a great deal on resources, especially time, energy, and the emotional cost of running from home to home.

Years ago, one of my stepkids had a school assignment to draw a dream house and label the rooms in Spanish. The resulting dream home had a room for all the siblings and each parent, on different floors. There was recognition of the parents not being married and evidence of the deep yearning to have everyone under one roof.

Today, I wish I could build that house. I know if I were in the situation I’m imagining could solve so many problems, I likely wouldn’t want to live with my husband’s ex, but I also see what the future holds for our kids when they grow older and it’s our turn to be the elders. They will be pulled emotionally in two, three, or four different directions.

This world of ours is definitely complicated. Not just because we are living longer, but because we haven’t figured out how to live in community. Truly honest, “I-wish-you-well,” community. If we did, well, my stepkid’s dream house wouldn’t be so far-fetched.

We can take on this walking-the-path with our elders as a burden, or we can release all the expectations that set us up for thinking being around old people is a traumatic experience. Sure, I get frustrated with my dad. As he gets better and thinks he’s independent, he wants to have more say. The problem is, he isn’t independent and  needs help, always. There’s a complication in that, for sure.

Most of the time, I’m the one who’s gaining. I’ve gained a deeper understanding of my family, a respect for what my dad has been through in life, and clarity about what it means to show up for someone even when you don’t like what is going on.

There are so many things we have yet to sort out about being in a stepfamily in our culture today, no wonder it’s easier to play the blame-the-stepmother (or father, or ??, fill in the blank) game.

I’m learning that despite how traumatic the early stepfamily years seem, they were just the beginning of the story.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . makes a guest appearance tonight on #MomsofBoysChat

It’s finally here, it’s today….after a few weeks of getting organized, I’m going to be a guest on the #momsofboyschat on Twitter.

Yup, I’ll be the guest on a Twitter chat. Today, Friday, August 23, 7pm Pacific time (10pm Eastern). The chat is hosted by Marie Roker-Jones over at raisinggreatmen.com. Her site is worth exploring!!

The topic of the #momsofboyschat tonight is Balance and Resilience with a regard for the back-to-school time we are in. Very fitting, I’m taking my stepson on our annual school shopping trip next week.

In my work as a Feldenkrais® teacher, I teach my clients to use self-awareness to improve balance and resilience and posture and overall well-being. We can think of good posture as being able to smoothly move in any direction, at any time, without a lot of concentration or effort. In many ways, that’s the same definition as balance. I know we think of balance as not falling over, but that’s such a limiting way to contemplate a vast and delicious concept.

Balance is not too much of this or too much of that. It’s about easily going this way OR that way. Color can be balanced. Your checking account can be balanced. So can your mood and your time and everything else. So, falling over is only one of the many ways to think of balance. It’s not the way I’m going to discuss on the chat, we’ll zero in on the sense of rushing vs resting, hurry vs leisure, getting it all done vs choosing a few things done well.

Resilience relates to balance. When you are off that center and when you are bouncing around from here to there and car pooling and getting to the board meeting and running, running, running, you need the ability to quickly and comfortably come back to your starting point, aka homeostasis. We could think of that starting point as neutral, or a place of balance. It is from there we go out and to there we come back. That is resilience. Can we return to the place we began and have the energy to go out from the center again? Rubber-bandish, if you know what I mean.

I also have a few ideas about what I’m calling our Legacy Behaviors. Legacy behaviors are those things we learned in our growing up homes, back when we didn’t have as many choices about our behavior. We were going to do what needed done in the situation to fit and survive. Children are at the mercy of their adults, even if it seems we’re at theirs. All the more reason for you to feel and find balance and resilience, you will be passing along those behaviors to your children.

You can look back to your childhood family to see what you learned about how to handle things not going well, how to handle the one more thing on your plate, how to handle when someone gets ill. It’s all there, the patterns you’ve gained and use over and over without even thinking. I’ve dug down deep in my family legacies to see what was there and with my father living with us now after his stroke, I am getting to see it even more up close and personal.

My message is: we can change the patterns. We can get past enough of our anxiety, or anger, or depression, or disappointment, that we will have an improved quality of life. We can learn to stay in a place of balance or return to it easier and quicker and smoother.

It takes time and practice, but the potential to live without struggle or conflict, it is there.

My favorite story about learning balance and resilience comes from a trip I took to England years ago to teach a workshop focused on walking.

On the opening Friday evening of the workshop, I asked the group to lie on their back and reach their right leg up in the air with the sole of the foot facing the ceiling. Everyone did this amidst many groans. One woman struggled and strained to hold her leg there. I walked over and took hold of her foot and ankle with soft hands and modeled with my hands the quality of how she might hold her leg. She softened in her knee a bit. I kept holding and began some minuscule movements to turn her foot left and right. After a few moments, she softened in her ankle. Her leg was still in the air, but she was supported by me taking some of the weight and she was beginning to understand there was a way she could release the holding all along her left leg. We worked with it a few more moments and she could hold her leg in the air with some improved degree of comfort. 
She went to bed and during the night had a muscle spasm. She described that when she had a spasm, normally she’d have to get up and take some medication or get up and do some elaborate stretches. Instead, she lay there in the dark noticing the spasm. She realized it was actually in her neck, but more to one side. She began noticing her arm and how she was holding it and returned to noticing her neck. Gradually, she noticed that the spasm was as strong and before she knew it she was waking up with the awareness she’d fallen back to sleep without getting out of bed.
Her comment to me the next morning was that she had learned to keep asking, what else is there to let go of, what is another way I can do this?

I find myself returning to that question over and over and over again in my life. Whether it’s as a stepmother, as a wife, or as a daughter who’s now the caregiver, there is always something else I can let go of. When I do, there is a huge expanse of possibility that opens before me and I can go left or right or forward or backwards, even up or down. All smoothly, all with balance, and very easily return to the starting place.

Practicing balance and resilience is worth every minute of time spent.

The chat tonight will be like dipping your toe into the process, but there’s a ton of information on this blog and over on my Feldenkrais Notes blog, where if you read the Reflections pieces, you’ll get a sense of how my work relates to everyday living. And, of course, not everyone is a stepmother ;-), but the process of integrating into my family and using these strategies was what helped me organize my thinking around the topic, so it’s still the best place to get my ideas. I could have called the blog, A Healthy Human.

If you can’t join us on the chat tonight, you can begin by reading the Soothing series on the blog. About 14 posts related to strategies to practice soothing, another way to talk about Balance and Resilience.

See you soon!

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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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