A Healthy Stepmother . . . When Mothers Lose Perspective

We’re headed into summer and the negotiations over who is doing what and when and with whom. This is never a comfortable time and it’s often easier for a stepmother to put her head down and hope to ignore the situation. It’s impossible to ignore, the pain is there on the face of the child. The discomfort and shame is there in the way that child behaves at his father’s house.

This post is about acknowledging the pain and suffering on the part of everyone when mothers lose perspective. Mothers have incredible power and it’s confusing and damaging when they wield it inappropriately. There’s a toxic by-product of unsaid feelings, unexpressed concerns, and un-negotiated decisions. This wears on mothers themselves, on their exes, and the stepmother. Justifications over unresolved issues between the mother and father are not an excuse for a mother to bring her child into the middle.

I’ve heard enough mother stories  (the 44 women I know who are stepmothers) and the stories make my heart hurt. I hang on to these stories, hoping to soften them up, almost as if I could soften my heart to the story, then the mothers’ hearts could also be softened. 

English: Mother and child.

Mother and child. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I thought it would be appropriate to get really clear about the behaviors we’re talking about, because clearly there is a percentage of mothers who don’t behave this way. I bow down to the mothers like Rose who honors her ex-husband’s wife and actively supports her time with the boys. I think Melanie is a rock star for the way she helps her son work through his feelings about all his parents in a way that allows her son to love them all. 

While I don’t have easy solutions, I always have hope, the hope a mother or two might look at this list and agree, it’s time to find another way of interacting.

First, mothers do these low-grade-but-undermining-over-time things often enough to be considered “all the time,” according to my sources: 

  • Fail to communication, decisions made without consulting the father of the children. 
  • Use kids, regardless of their age, as couriers to communicate with the father of the children, and then claim she doesn’t like that style. 
  • Subtly undermine the child’s time with the father. 
  • Badmouth and bash the father and/or the stepmother with the innocence of someone who believes she isn’t doing any damage. 
  • Make half-hearted attempts to extend communication and respect to the father of the children and his wife/partner, just enough to profess being communicative. 
  • Behave as though there is no (legitimate) home for the child other than her own. 
  • Behave as though the child comes from one side of the family. 

Second, mothers do these medium-grade-obstructionisms frequently, things which often have a direct impact on the other household: 

  • Be permissive, not following through on limits, and then blame the father for being too permissive. 
  • Change plans at the last minute and not including the other adults (step-parents) in the communication.
  • Allow children to do things that are illegal (drinking and drugs) and then complain the father and stepmother are too strict.
  • Have strategy conversations with the father and reach agreements about the issues, but discuss the agreements with the child before the three get together. 

And, finally, mothers do these high-grade-interference-and-shaming-for-the-child things more often than we read in the news: 

  • Involve teachers, other parents, and relatives in the disputes between the parents. 
  • Include the child in private negotiations/conversations between the adults, and using shaming language to demonstrate a position of power and paint a picture of one parent loving the child more than the other. The child is asked to choose the “good” parent.  
  • Repeatedly take the father to court and behave as though he is a deadbeat dad when he is responsibly caring for his children. 
  • Attack the stepmother in public, verbally or physically, whether or not the children are present. 

I keep wondering what life would be like, not just for the stepmothers and mothers but for the children, if mothers stopped doing these behaviors. I keep wondering how the quality of life for her child would improve if he or she could move freely between homes and not have to carry the censorship and worry over lost love and approval. 

These behaviors represent the worst part about divorce. 

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . sheds her single story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . on finding her voice.

It’s so wonderful that the place I left off in my blogging on January 2 was unapologetically beginning anew. It’s so wonderful because it’s true. Since I wrote that last blog, there’s been an entire hidden world going on inside me.

My self-image, that internal conceptual picture that’s a series of overlays of my emotional self, my physical self, my kinesthetic self, my thinking self, and so on, has been shifting and quaking. The image shifted away from me as a person who can’t say aloud what she thinks and who needs to curate every word that comes from her mouth to me as a person who says what she wants to say.

I read an article on February 4, 2014 that affected me so deeply I wanted to throw up, but not in the way you might think. I wrote my mind and before I could censor myself, knowing from my deepest gut I needed to be out there with it, I sent it to Joanne Bamberger at The Broad Side. When I woke up the morning of February 5, it had been published. Gulp.

Here’s what I put out in the world.

A Healthy Stepmother finds a new voice.

And

Here’s what another blogger wrote after she read my article.

While the subject isn’t about stepmothers, regular readers of my blog will likely not be surprised at my stance. It’s the same stance I’ve tried to embrace in my place as a stepmother and wife of a man with children from a previous marriage. I’ve focused on respecting my stepchildren and their mother to the best of my ability.

I’m not advocating we stepmothers put ourselves out to be the doormat, in fact, I think that can be dangerous. But, I am of the opinion we should do what we need to do to keep peace in our hearts as much of the time as we can, to think at least neutral if not positive thoughts about our stepchildren, and to work our asses off to remain as connected in healthy ways to our spouse. Then, decades down the road when the kids are grown and they have more life perspective and put the relationship of their parents into a new light, we can find ourselves holding the possibility of a different relationship.

Perhaps what’s most important about the practice of remaining at peace in your own heart during times of complete turmoil when one side wants to blame the other side and you as stepmother take the heat we call collateral damage, is that your heart stays soft enough and pliable enough for you to consider alternatives to reacting negatively toward the mother of your stepkids or to the stepkids themselves. Rather than solidifying your reactions and interactions into hard lines with little flexibility with regard to how things should be done or becoming an emotional bully, I’m advocating you adjust as the situation calls for it. Show up when you need to show up, speak up when that is what you need, ease back when you want to ponder your next move, and negotiate every family activity with a question of what is needed for you to remain connected to your husband at that time.

One of the biggest things that shifted my self-image as a stepmother was beginning this blog. It was the beginning of me finding my voice and honing the way I wanted to represent my ideas. Not to make them palatable for the masses. I wrote to be clear about the hurts and possibilities of being a stepmother, to become more aware, to be more realistic, and to share why being a stepmother is so much about the condition of our hearts. On February 4 when I was furiously dumping my thoughts onto paper, I found myself grateful for these last four years of blogging.

One thing I’ve embraced in my 50s is to not rush things. I have never written and published things before they were ready to come out of me. I sat with my reactions to the story We Have It All Wrong after it was published and processed my own reactions. Although I considered other’s reactions to the story, most importantly, I worked within myself to process my reaction to breaking silence after so many decades. I was shifting from a person trying to not make waves or hurt anyone to a person with a voice. My voice is limited to telling my side of the story, whether it’s about my growing up family or about my stepfamily. And, the issue isn’t oh look at me. The issue is health. How can we grow up with such shit in our lives and become healthy adults and be okay within strong relationships.

If as many as two in four women have been abused, and some experts think it is that high, then you and I both know that sexual abuse touches the lives of divorced families and stepfamilies. There is no way around it. How and what we believe should be done to the offender is going to be flowing over into our everyday lives.

Just lately in the world, all I read is the hate and over-reaction. It’s why I didn’t tell my story for years and years and year and years. I didn’t want to calm people down when they over-reacted to a story that happened to me in 1974. It didn’t happen yesterday. It wasn’t someone else’s life, it was my life and my experience. I don’t need someone to go take care of it for me. I don’t need someone to pity me.

I once went to a five elements acupuncturist who was very wonderful while she was initially meeting me and then when I shared my story in what felt like a trusting space, she went into pity and sympathy and treated me like I was broken. I was so upset I could’t say to her, you just went into treating me like a victim. I didn’t go back. That was almost 10 years ago now and I’ve come some long way since then. Being a stepmother will do that.

In fact, as I was writing my opinions and asking myself over and over, do you really think we are being too hard on fathers who offend against their daughters or anyone who sexually abuses someone within their community, I knew there was a way being a stepmother had changed my views. I had become more and more clear about the messiness of life and how nothing is so black and white. There is always gray and always another aspect to consider.

The week after my article was published on The Broad Side, it snowed in Portland and we were sequestered in the house. I had lots of time to reflect. Then, my husband and I went to Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon on a trip we’d wanted to do for years. On the last day of the trip, I was sick. I thought I was dehydrated, I thought maybe the glass of wine with dinner the night before had tipped me into heat exhaustion from the dehydration and heat. But it wasn’t that hot and I only had 2 glasses of wine. I vomited when I got up. I vomited by the side of the road after we left the Grand Canyon. I vomited again at a rest area and again before we got to the Las Vegas Airport. I’m pretty convinced now it was the deepest visceral reaction of my whole self, purging my silence, purging my demons and all the voices telling me I should be quiet and lady-like and polite and be careful because something I said might not be liked by someone else. Whew…my restrictions lying by the side of the highway in Nevada and Arizona.

You see, there is alway a little doorway, even if it’s tucked in the corner of a heart and back around behind the darkest recesses, one might leave open for the possibility of a different future. Perhaps our challenge in our hurt, whether we are stepmothers or daughters who’ve been abused, is to find that door and ever so slowly open it to reveal the wonders of the human heart. Wonders that we will need to use in our closeness with our spouses and partners. Wonders that will vastly improve the quality of our lives if we can only dust them off and practice using them.

I hope you will join me in finding that doorway to your heart. Not so you can go be lovey with someone else. No, it’s all about being lovey with yourself. That is the practice of the decade, the skillset of the century. Love yourself and you’ll find your way to behaving differently with others.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . unapologetically begins anew!

(The Know Thyself series will be completed in the next week or two. Thank you for your patience.)

Sometimes I think we should all attend the No More Apologies School. If there were such a thing, I’d run to sign up. My knee-jerk apology isn’t as strong as it once was, but it’s still in there, assessing my performance against someone else’s as if judging whether there are really 3.0 ounces of Havarti cheese on the scale, or only 2.89 ounces.

I’m working diligently to graduate as fast as I can, see issues below. I wonder if they would have a division specifically for stepmothers.

Scrooge's third visitor, from Charles Dickens:...

Scrooge’s third visitor, from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • So many things didn’t get done this year, at least not by me. I had my hands full with tasks for my dad and catching up on my own healthcare after a year of being a caregiver. December and the lead in to the holidays was the same. In fact, on the Friday before Christmas, the tree was not decorated and there were no christmas cards to send out. I was feeling 60% guilty and apologized to my husband at least three times. That morning, he sprang to life as if Santa himself. I came home from class to find the tree decorated. Later that afternoon he arrived home with 50 photocards and we sat down and sent them together. I was so grateful, I stopped apologizing and started thanking him. I ended up with less than 20% guilt, remembering that most years I did all those tasks alone. It felt awesome to do some of it together. Result: 0% risk of apology.
  • After Christmas, while I was snuggling with my box of kleenex and jar of Vicks while I nursed a cold, I thought about all the barriers between me and my stepchildren. I lamented, to myself, the efforts I’d made that seemed to have gone nowhere and felt the guilt of knowing I wasn’t putting much effort in these days. I was at risk of apologizing, more than a 50/50 chance. Thank goodness I was feeling so crummy and no one wanted to hang out, I was saved from myself and turned my focus to resting and getting well. Risk of apologizing dropped to less than 10%.
  • It’s not just the doing-stuff we can tend to apologize for. It’s also the being-stuff. I know sometimes I feel bad, knowing the kids don’t want me in some of the photos, knowing they’d just as soon be with their dad. In those moments, it’s pretty crazy, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling in the way. That’s an apology, in my opinion. In the old days, I was 55% at risk of apologizing for myself, whether just in my head or out loud. Now, I make sure my husband has ample opportunities to spend time with the kids alone and I let the rest of it roll along. So, I guess I could say my guilt factor has reduced way, way, way down on that issue and my risk of apology is down to 5%.
  • Another point of apology I used to drag around like a security blanket was to my husband for not being able to get through the holidays without suffering and then falling apart. Somehow I thought I should be able to get through it without feeling sad and forlorn, without wishing for my old life, and without feeling like an alien in my own home. Whew, my apology risk was 90% and my guilt was 85%. It has taken years and trust and love and more of all those things. We grew together into our more seasoned and mature expectations of the outcome of these family togethernesses. Now, my apology risk is less than 20% and my guilt is down to less than 30%. I’m much more focused on the big picture and the long haul and when the going gets tough, I either have a brief time-out or zero in on my husband and let the rest of the crowd fade into the background.

The list of things that could potentially be apologized for is incredibly long.

Hmmm, maybe the No More Apologies School is already in session.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fred Courtadon portant une création de Jérémy ...

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

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

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

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

Here’s my idea:

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

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

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

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

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

The holiday season? Bring it!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . 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 . . . publishes a Manifesto!

Everyone is on the manifesto bandwagon and, though I’ll admit to being a late adopter for many key cultural phenomenon, I’m pretty excited to create a Manifesto. I hated saddle shoes until they were almost out of style and then I longed for a pair. Same with the Beatles. Instead, this then-9-year-old was roaming around the house belting Wayne Newton’s version of Little Green Apples.

Long-time readers of the blog will recognize the Manifesto revolves around the titles of the blog posts themselves. Thus, if you’d like to remind yourself of the post for that topic, simply enter the key phrase into the search window on the blog.

When you click on the Manifesto image, it’ll pop out into a size you can print on an 8.5×11 piece of paper.

Enjoy!

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Becomes a Master Swimmer.

My parents loved the water and we spent hours as a family on the banks of the North and South Umpqua rivers in Douglas County, Oregon. There is no time in my memory we were not in and around water and we learned to swim early and well.

Because we were around the water from birth, there was no fear, no trepidation, just sheer unadulterated joy at the buoyancy and freedom one felt while in the water.

Do you remember learning to swim? Weren’t you exposed slowly and gradually and over time, lots and lots of time? Can you imagine getting lessons in becoming a stepmother (or a mother for that matter) over time, lots and lots of time? What if someone took you by the hand and said, this is the dog paddle, this is the side stroke, this is a shallow dive, and this is how to deep dive.

English: Aerial view of the mouth of the Umpqu...

Aerial view of the mouth of the Umpqua River on the Pacific Ocean near Reedsport, Oregon, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What if there was a time to practice after you’d been introduced into your stepfamily, a time when no one judged you because you weren’t good enough yet. A time when they understood you were learning.

Yes, we have learning to do. Not learning how to be perfect or learning how to make everyone happy. We have everything to learn, from dipping a toe in without getting wet to taking a dive into the deep end. We can learn slowly so we get comfortable and understand what is expected. We can learn the rules of team swimming and how to get the most out of being in the water.

Unfortunately, most often we stepmothers dive in and find ourselves struggling and gurgling and swallowing some water and the waves seem really big and sometimes we get swept under where it’s really dangerous and there’s a possibility of rip tides. Anyone who’s lived in a place where the ocean floor drops quickly away from the beach knows what I mean about rip tides. They are treacherous and they are real. Rip tides exist in stepfamilies and it’s good to know how to recognize them.

Tomorrow is the 7th anniversary of marriage for me and my wonderful husband and we have learned much about swimming together. We have the dog paddle and the side stroke to keep our heads above water. We have the freestyle to zip through the water and make headway. And thank goodness, we know the survival float which is all about resting and conserving energy until help comes.

Looking back, I can see when I needlessly jumped in without looking around to see what was going on. Now, I have enough experience in my stepfamily to know I should walk around the deck or the shore before jumping in so I get the lay of the land, or the lay of the rocks.

I say let’s embrace beginning swimming. Let’s embrace being a beginner in general. Let’s settle in to learn the tried and true techniques of keeping our head above water, improving endurance, and maximizing agility. Soon enough we’ll have enough skill to dive off the high dive, soon enough we will be Master Swimmers.

Until then, let’s go slow and let’s be okay in the not-know.

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