A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Getting Up in the Morning 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Getting Up in the Morning 

I admit, I’ve been distracted. By an endless campaign season here in the United States. By the election itself. By the mood and conflict surrounding the result.

Honestly, I’ve felt I was living inside a stepfamily run amok.

We know those families. We stepmothers are more than familiar with that conflict. With that grief. With the living among people who have lost so much and don’t know how to sort out moving forward. With the living among those who use their anger as daggers to slash and cut and harm anyone within arm’s reach, including their own children.

It’s as if a blindness descends and overtakes even these sane and caring people. As if the larger human instinct to survive, which has historically meant working together in groups to find food and shelter and fend off danger, has been lost. As if when we walked through the forest we left it behind on one of our rest stops. 

I’m rattled because I’m working on a book of tales for stepmothers, with some fables of how we might shift the focus in the future, to more resilient stepfamilies. To stepfamilies that can absorb loss, support one another in grief, and create enough stability for joy to creep in once in a while. I’m rattled because I wonder what use my book might be.

I’m rattled because not only do I see signs of a crumbling resolve in stepmothers and stepfamilies around me, but I see all the signs of a crumbling integrity and honor in the larger society outside my home.

It worries me. This blatant disregard for the consequences of actions. This willingness to burn the house down, often seen in a stepfamily when one of the divorcing parents takes the other parent to court over and over and over again, never letting either household settle into a calm place for the children. The children live with constant stress and it shows.

So, when I think of sitting down to write to you and share my thoughts, when I think of what it means to be a stepmother in 2017, I struggle to come up with something meaningful.

Because every morning when you wake up, you are being asked to show up again. How will you do that? How can you get up day after day in the face of yelling and accusations and lies about you, and still show up, really be present to the situation?

How can you get up in the morning and go about your day without resorting to the same anger and disrespect you see all around you? How do you keep one little shred of yourself to yourself, selfishly guarding it so no one strips you from knowing who you are? How do you build a treasure chest that fuels you during long and sustained sieges on your decency and your partner’s decency?

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I’m not sure I know any more. I have lots of ideas here and here in my blog archives. I use them every day. They help. And some days they don’t. Some days I want to get in the stepmother chat room or Facebook group and rant. I don’t. I know it won’t help me in the long-term. I know it will simply fuel my anger and disappointment.

No, this feeling of swimming against the tide is bigger than my family or your family. This societal chaos feels like trying to swim and keep your head above water and someone pushes you back under. Every time. This consistently bumping into a dead-end feels like setting about making friends with a family member only to have someone else’s divisive words or actions drive you apart. This is having your every motive scrutinized and proclaimed a lie.

It’s hard to manage in an environment like that. Reading the newspaper each morning feels like entering those Facebook groups and learning of the latest lie told to the children so they don’t want to come to their dad’s house. The purposeful withholding of information feels like learning about your stepchild’s soccer game a couple of hours before the event.

I don’t know how we stop it. I keep trying to remain calm. I keep breathing. I keep telling myself, at the minimum, do no harm. Don’t make it worse. But that only works sometimes.

Sometimes I have to let myself sit in the pain and stop trying to make it go away. I’m strong enough. I’ve established that.

I’ll be here long after the fighting stops. I’ll be here long after the stories are told and fade away. I’m still me. You are still you.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Place

A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Place

When I think of place, I can’t help but think of the song, Home on the Range.

Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play.
Where seldom is heard, a discouraging word,
And the sky is not cloudy all day.

Isn’t that what we’re all looking for? Home. A place. A nest. A bed.

We’e especially hoping for the part about no discouraging word. 

When we move in with our beloved and his children we bring our things, we put clean sheets on the bed, we try to settle into the obvious space.

Less obvious is the settling we must do inside that place in the heart, the heart inside our chest, not the heart inside the beloved’s chest. The heart that houses the deepest place of our belonging. Before we will fit in any other place, we must have belonging inside the self.

In the beginning, an invitation is extended, to enter into the home of the beloved. Consider that invitation and whether space was made for you, separate from whether you feel you have a place. Was there space vacated to make room for you?

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Lucy has a place and she knows how to settle within it. 

Then, the invitation is accepted. Consider the acceptance. Did you fully accept the invitation or secretly leave strings attached like a lifeline back to some other time, just in case this one doesn’t work out. When you’ve severed old lifelines, only then will the settling and adjusting to your new circumstances have begun.

Finding place is easy. Settling into place and heart can take years.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Doles Out Her Emotional Labor

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Doles Out Her Emotional Labor

On Facebook and Twitter and the blogosphere, I see post after post from stepmothers struggling with the husband, the stepkids, and the ex-wife. I get it. I get it.

No, I really do get it. The process of integrating a stepfamily takes seven to twelve years according to experts such as Patricia Papernow, Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t.

Regardless of where you are in the process of stepfamily integration, it isn’t easy. Regardless of your best efforts, the speed of the integration isn’t slower or faster because of what you do. There are countless variables, so many it’s not possible to read a book about what others do and simply apply that to your own family, however there are some good ideas in some books. Think of the number of books about child development and how many contradictory theories there are for what is best. Same with stepmothering.

Every stepmother I know has learned she has to live it to see what works for her and her family.

For me, the greatest level of peace has come when I’ve educated myself about the process and taken less responsibility for the outcome. I know, it feels weird to not be designated as a fixer. It is so ingrained. I used to think it was a personal failing, now I know it’s culturally dictated. So, when I found this article, I knew I wanted to share it with everyone who marries a person with children from a previous marriage.

In Women Are Just Better at This Stuff: Is Emotional Labor Feminism’s Next Frontier?, November 2015, Rose Hackman introduced her latest research with this:

We remember children’s allergies, we design the shopping list, we know where the spare set of keys is. We multi-task. We know when we’re almost out of Q-tips, and plan on buying more. We are just better at remembering birthdays. We love catering to loved ones, and we make note of what they like to eat. We notice people’s health, and force friends and family to go see the doctor.

We listen to our partner’s woes, forgive them the absences, the forgetfulness, the one-track mindedness while we’re busy organizing a playdate for the kids. We applaud success when it comes: the grant that was received, the promotion. It was their doing, and ours in the background. Besides, if we work hard enough, we can succeed too: all we need to do is learn to lean in.

Hackman says this is emotional labor and someone has to do it. Both at home and at the office, women are doing the greatest percentage of emotional labor and wondering why they are so exhausted. I feel her article is a very fair description of the issues, without disparaging the men and women we partner with.

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Go ahead, get out for an early morning walk…

So, take a moment to breath. Consider Hackman’s list. Add to it all the things you’re juggling in your attention right now. Add to it all the worries you have about the kids, your husband, your own health and well-being. No wonder you’re exhausted and wondering if your marriage will survive. Simple marriages (my term, in which neither partner has been remarried before) struggle with emotional labor. Stepmothers, add an element of double or triple duty here. Emotional labor is one big reason it feels stressful. That and loyalty binds. No wonder stepmothers are depressed or anxious (Wednesday Martin).

If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you’ll know I’m a big proponent of doing less. Of getting over the Great Healer Complex. For reminders and ideas for how to work with the image of doing less, see A Healthy Stepmother Minds Her Own Business, or A Healthy Stepmother Does as Good as She Can, or A Healthy Stepmother Knows When to Cat, Dog, or Hamster.

You might have felt doubtful when you’ve heard me encouraging you to do less. You might have struggled with guilt that things aren’t getting done: Johnny is going to flunk math, Suzie is not going to have that cute outfit to wear, or someone needs to pick up the kids.

Rose Hackman’s work is an awesome way to understand emotional labor in the context of your current life as a woman, as a wife, and as a stepmother.

Believe it or not, if you do less, your family will be better for it. It reminds me of the episode of Blue Blood (Season 3, Episode 2, Domestic Disturbance) where Linda went back to work and Danny was struggling to step up and help out more at home. Linda felt guilty she wasn’t there to do all the things she used to do. Erin reassured her it’d be good for the boys to take on more responsibility. In fact, maybe that’s the simplest way to encourage children to do more in the home, don’t you be the one doing things that don’t get done. Wait. Things will change if you can wait long enough.

While you experiment, there’s no need to go to the other extreme and never offer emotional labor. It’s a continuum and we can live somewhere along it without getting stuck on either end. Imagine, if you decreased the emotional labor in your life by ten or fifteen percent? How much energy would you have to do something else? To create something? To sustain yourself?

Of course, I’m dying to know what you’ll do and how it turned out. Please come back and comment and let me know. As always, you can post anonymous comments, just pick an alias. I’m the only one who will ever see your email address.

Ready to dish up some emotional labor?

Ready. Set. Stop!

A Healthy Stepmother . . . knows when she’s done.

Adapted from a post February 22, 2012

There comes a moment after you’ve been struggling with a person for a long time, often years, when you know you are simply done. Maybe you reach done because the internal storm can only keep it’s energy for so long. Maybe the done moment occurs because you get bored and interested in other things. Or, maybe you become done with the difficult person because you realize that you’ll never connect in the way you’d really like to connect and you’re wasting your breath.

Before we get to the point we admit to being done, we can often come close to erasing ourselves. It’s as if we get caught up in clutching and trying and we can’t let go even if we wanted. While it’s our human spirit to keep trying and keep hoping that things will be different tomorrow, tomorrow never comes and we wake up worn out and exhausted.

Let’s take my dad and I. One day, a conversation with him started the same way it often did, with the same dance . . . he made a comment in a certain tone. I shrugged my shoulders with a certain eye roll. Then, he huffed back with a snotty remark. But, that time rather than protest again or try to reason with him I simply got up from the table with my cup of tea and moved to a nearby chair in the living room. He knew he’d lost me and he said, “Since we’re done here, I might as well leave.” And he did just that. He left.

After he left, I sat and watched the rain fall onto already over-saturated earth. I was done trying to make things okay for him. Or, for me. I wasn’t done with him. I was done with trying.

I HEART Cappuccino

I HEART Cappuccino

That day with my dad opened my awareness of the alternatives to suffering silently or forging onward even after knowing I’m done. It’s not that different than Sleeping Beauty after the apple fell out of her mouth. She came to and looked around and said, “Oh no, what the heck happened.” I felt that way with my dad, as if I’d awakened after a long sleep and realized I’d been waiting for something to happen, but nothing ever did. And, maybe it couldn’t. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I couldn’t keep sitting there. So, I moved over to another chair. Then, things shifted.

[  space to breathe and contemplate  ]

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[  more space to breathe and contemplate  ]

For the record, my dad and my stepkids are important to me. I promise myself when it comes to my stepkids I’ll behave in ways that feel respectful of me and of them, in ways that add to our future and don’t trap either of us in old assumed patterns. The same with my dad. When he came to visit again, I managed to not fall back into my old patterns.

For so many years, I thought being done meant leaving and erasing someone or a relationship from my life. It’s been since becoming a stepmother, I’ve realized I could be done and stay.

There’s more to this being done business than meets the eye. Enhanced by Zemanta

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and Bowls Full of Issues

Recently, I became aware of trying to hold too much. Not do too much, but hold too much. I was holding just a few things but they were enormous. Things like the generational injuries in my family. There was no way I could keep the issue inside without conflict and turmoil and distress, to myself.

Holding an issue that big is a little like trying to hold poverty or violence against women. It is too much. It can’t be held by one person.

The good news is that becoming aware of my tendency to try to hold on to the vast issues helped me do something different.

Right after I became aware of my tendency, a friend confided in me about another person. I wished she had left me out of it. I woke up the next morning running the scene over and over in my mind, distressed at knowing this information because I am a friend with the other person too. I began bubbling over, churning about what I’d say and do and how it would feel to state my need and the reaction I anticipated from her.

As I sat drinking coffee at my dining room table, all of a sudden, I remembered my tendency to take on and hold things I can’t solve.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and Bowls Full of iIssues Quickly, I imagined an array of bowls sitting on the sideboard in my dining room. I imagined taking the steaming, roiling mass the friend-issue and gently depositing it in one of the bowls. Then, I sat there and felt my posture in the chair and breathed all the way from my nasal passages down to my pelvic floor, slow, uncrushed, generous breaths, not the fullest I could take, just full enough so my ribs moved easily.

Not five minutes later, I realized I was brewing with the issue of my father’s health and well-being. The roiling of that issue felt the same as the previous one. Without berating myself, I gently placed the mass of the father-issue in another bowl on the sideboard. Then, I took a few moments to notice what it was like to have that searching and longing for resolution no longer inside me.

Some people call holding these big issues worry, but I want to make a distinction. Some of us are carrying things we have been taught we should carry. All the stepmothers who’ve received the message the health of the stepfamily is yours to hold, raise your hand. I know this because as soon as I set the issue in the bowl, I feel calm inside. Worry feels different, worry is wary, worry is about meeting deadlines and obligations. See Karla McLaren’s great description of worry, which she includes in her description of anxiety.

This setting issues in the bowl strategy can work with any issue. Especially chronic issues that crop up again and again, unlike the straight-forward issues such as getting a kid’s teeth straightened and the day arrives when there are no more orthodontia appointments.

No, these monumental issues, the ones that pull and cause you to lose sleep at night are systemic, they are bound so tightly into the fabric of stepfamilies, or your family of origin, it’s incredible anyone sleeps. Things like communication between homes. Things like child loyalty. Things like an ex-spouse using what Rorshak calls Divorce Poison in his book of the same name. These are the things that roil and broil and prevent peace.

These chronic, messy, systemic patterns of problems are the perfect things to set aside in a bowl.

Not to be ignored.

I’m not suggesting we avoid important issues. I am suggesting we practice carrying these steaming, roiling, too-big-for-one-person issues away from our central self, away from our vital organs and the tender parts that keep us alive and hopeful.

Unresolvable issues, the ones often built into the situations like stepfamilies are the perfect thing to practice working with while they remain outside yourself. When you want to consider your actions and reactions or what you might do when the same situation arises again, well, the issue is there in the bowl on the sideboard, ready for your consideration and reconsideration, whenever you are ready to work with it.

I think we need to learn the difference between the things we can safely hold and the things that are best stored outside of us. When we get good at it, if a friend complains and we want to plug our ears, we’ll barely get ruffled as we lay the issue in the bowl. When the time is right, maybe the next time we are with that friend, we can say what needs saying, without the emotional tsunami that would follow if we had been carrying the issue deep inside us trying to keep it contained.

There will always be plenty of time and space to take up and work with our big issues. But, we will likely deal with them in a more comfortable way when we have been able to stop holding and instead disengage and disconnect, maybe even forget them, for small snippets of time, until we recognize we are not an issue. We are a living, breathing human, a being.

We need to learn how it feels to live and breathe as a human, and not as an issue.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Minds Her Own Business

You have no business bringing their pain into your body.

Karla McLaren

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Consider these words, “You have no business bringing their pain into your body.” Now, consider them again. And again.

Anyone’s pain. Everyone’s pain. Your child’s pain. Your husband’s pain. Your sister’s pain. Your father’s. Your mother’s. Your best friend’s.

Their pain belongs to them.

I’ve written before about making sure you don’t try to rescue your stepchildren.

I’ve written before about the hardest thing to do was to stand beside my husband and not interfere with his process of feeling and witnessing his pain when things didn’t go well.

“You have no business bringing their pain into your body.” Karla McLaren.

I want the bumper sticker. I want hundreds of bumper stickers. I want to give out bumper stickers to every stepmother, to every woman, including mothers. Especially mothers.

My women’s group was formed to examine the topic of giving up being The Great Healer (suggested by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in the chapter Homing: Returning to Oneself, in Women Who Run With the Wolves). You know, giving up on the paying attention to the noticing of someone’s pain/need and jumping in to fix it as if that were the sole purpose of life. 

In the women’s group, we have studied letting go of fixing things. We are successful, more or less, some of the time. But, we are committed to the process. And, the shared time together has become priceless. We have explored what it is to sit alongside someone, without bringing her pain into our body, to witness with her, to listen to her, to keep showing up for her. On both sides it’s an incredibly powerful process.

Sometimes when I see a stepmother spewing, I know she’s hurting. She’s hurting because she took the pain inside. She took the mother’s pain inside. She took her husband’s pain inside. Or, she took her stepchildren’s pain inside. Or, worst of all, she took all their pain inside.

When I see a Twitter post proclaiming the mother of the children a terrible person, I think the stepmother has more than her share of pain inside. She’s trying to get it out. Or, worse, she’s trying to ignore the pain and make it someone else’s fault.

When I hear a stepmother with an indignant tone describing in exquisite details the transgressions of the mother, I feel the pain of the teller. A stepmother who feels pain, deep pain. I wonder if all the pain she feels is her own or if she’s siphoning off other’s pain for the do-it-yourself gauntlet she’s taken on as her own, as if she alone can be the solution, resolution, and savior of the divorced family wandering in emotional turmoil.

How many stepmothers sacrifice themselves by taking on others’ pain? How many become depressed or anxious because there is too much of . . . well, everything? Too much of everything to make sense of anything.

I think it’s in those moments of too much that one could stop, eject the other’s pain, get it outside the self. Stop bringing other’s pain inside your own body. Then, and only then, sit back and re-establish boundaries and figure out your own business. Identify your business and then get to it. It is your business to self-soothe. It is your business to take care of your heart, body, spirit…..your self.

I’m starting to get clear that the more we can set good boundaries (not walls, boundaries) and practice living with them, the more sane our world might seem. For a most excellent description of boundaries, how anger helps set boundaries, and other startling insights into all emotions, see Karla McLaren’s book, The Language of Emotion.

There are now two books that belong on every stepmother’s bookshelf. The first is Wednesday Martin’s Stepmonster. The second is Karla McLaren’s The Language of Emotion.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Bitter to Better

If you’ve been in your remarriage more than three years, you know exactly what I mean when I refer to bitter versus better. Maybe you arrived at such a stepmother moment late at night wondering what the hell happened and what you were thinking. Maybe you sat in the dark, heart-broken, diving down into the depths, wallowing in the pity, feeling it in every fiber.

It’s in a moment like that, maybe not the first moment or the second, but at some point a little voice came. The little voice was soft, only perceived by you. The voice whispered, Is this the hill you want to die on? Is this the thing that’s going to tip you away from being your indomitable enthusiastic self to some kind of bitter, resentful, heart-broken shell of your former self? And, are you willingly giving up yourself? 

And, finally, another whisper, Why?

A Healthy Stepmother . . . bitter into better.For me, there was a very clear moment of weighing the bitter versus better choice. I didn’t want to keep marching on as though there was only one way. I didn’t want to keep fighting about who controlled whom. I didn’t want to live my life resenting anyone or anything, most of all the decisions I had made when actually I was stone-cold-sober and in my right mind, including marrying my wonderful guy. 

For me, it felt completely obvious. 

For once. 

It was the first time in my life I was glad for all my years and all my experience with chaos and pain and agony. I was grateful I wasn’t in my 30s, a time when it would have taken me much longer to reach the point where I said, Hey wait, I’m working too hard at this and I’m exhausted. I was a good girl and I would go until the bell rang, just like in the movie The Fighter. Mark Wahlberg’s character was exhausted, bleeding, and almost knocked out. Then, he shook his head and acknowledged he was about to lose and that he needed to do something different. He wasn’t strong at that point in the fight, in fact he almost fell over, so he held his arms in a more protective place and he punched with different timing. He knocked out the other guy, and won. 

I’m not suggesting you knock anyone out. I am suggesting you figure out a new place to hold your arms to protect yourself and to look and see when to push and move forward. I’m no expert on boxing, but clearly there is strategy and it’s not a free-for-all despite how it looks. There is strategy for early in the fight, for mid-way through the fight, and for late in the fight. There’s the mental psychology of being hit and hitting, of how to take the blows and bounce back. There’s the mental talk, that silent pep rally only the fighter knows and hears. 

When I got smarter and decided I wasn’t going to let bitterness be my best friend, it became a lot easier to decide when to let something go. Often that looked like not even getting in the ring. I took a day, or many days, off from the fight. It became easier to let things go and to even miss out on some things so I could remain outside the fight. 

Eventually, life didn’t feel like a fight any more. I had more peace and more energy for other things. I took on fewer battles that weren’t my own. 

Choosing better over bitter, it’s a practice. A daily practice.  

Getting in the ring less and less often, and eventually never, is better. Even if it’s hard, it’s better to have some difficulty in life for a short time to gain the long-term payoff of life without bitter. 

Life without bitter opens to life connected to you, you connected to your important people. Life without bitter is sweeter. 

Life without bitter is, simply, better.