A Healthy Stepmother . . . Feeds Herself and Her Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Wonders Where You’ll Be

After the early years in my marriage, there came a time I realized I wasn’t alone as a stepmother. The realization came long after I began my blog, long after I knew dozens of stepmothers.

It seems common that we cling to the idea that everyone else is doing better at this stepmother thing than we are. We’re pretty sure we’re right. 

But, there are so many of us out here, getting up each day and making the best of life. There are now more remarried couples than first-time couples, which means more stepfamilies than first-time families. Who knew?

On this day of gathering with family, this day of high expectations, I wonder where you are. 

Will you be in your home, preparing a meal for your family and some of your extended stepfamily? 

Will there be people who sit around your table with resentment or will they participate with respect and appreciation for your efforts?

Will you feel welcomed in your own home, or will snubs and rejections, so subtle they’d be denied if ever called out, haunt you throughout the day and for weeks to come?

Will you feel pressure, even heaping it on yourself, to make sure everyone has a nice time, as if you had the power to ensure anyone had a good time other than yourself

Will you forget these are your husband’s children and spend your precious resources making up for things that happened to them in the past or try to be the perfect wife and compensate for your husband’s negative experiences? 

Will you be going to your in-laws for the big meal or another home where you are welcomed? Or, will you be spending time in a hostile place you’ve never felt welcome?

Will you try to grin and bear it as you’ve done on so many occasions, only to end up crying alone in the bathroom, or later after you’re home and the dark of night covers the tracks of tears on your pillow. 

  Will your husband have the just-right thing to say to help you feel okay, or will he be drowning in his own unrealistic expectations for the day and snap at you when you need comfort? Will you be able to separate from the worn out narrative that says really good people have a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving and feel bad because you know your family will never measure up and it’s all your fault? 

Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, however you are spending the day, including if it’s home alone and you’ve had an enormous fight with your beloved, may you dig down in the treasure chest of reality and community and realize . . . you are not alone. You do not have to be perfect. You do not have to make the day perfect for anyone else. Your food has to satisfy only those who enjoy it. Your humor has to be good enough for those who understand it. And your presence has to comfort only you. 

I hope you go easy on yourself. Help when it makes sense and go sit down when it seems called for, and sitting down will be called for far more than you think. 

Go easy on your husband. He might have a bad day with or without you by his side. He might be tired enough or worried enough or unskilled at navigating relationships enough to truly be beside himself on these high-expectation moments. 

Your job is not to save him, or to question whether you are necessary in his life. Your job is to support yourself so you are steady enough to tolerate the rough day ahead. When you stay steady in yourself, you are available to both yourself and him. That is what it means to stand beside someone. I’ll write more about that standing beside him business another time. 

For now, you take care of you. Ask before you help him, does he want help. And breathe. Who cares if it turns out perfectly?

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and a Tale of a New Stepmother

The other day I was writing a little story and decided it didn’t make it to THE BOOK. So, you get to enjoy it now. The stories in the upcoming tales for stepmothers will be slightly more complex, but this one felt worthy of sharing.

You’ll Learn
by Kim Cottrell

Eliza met and married Davis, the man of her dreams. They had everything in common, except children. She had none and he had five.

Davis was open with her before they married, his kids were a handful, even more some days. Undaunted and energetic, a professional who’d met many a challenge, Eliza didn’t bat an eye. She was an excellent partner to Davis and she knew she’d be an excellent companion for his children, once they got to know her.

The kids fell in love with Eliza, just as she predicted. They each found something to liKe about her and she shrugged off Davis’ concerns.

Then, Eliza and Davis married and left on a honeymoon. When they returned, they walked in the door of a whole new world filled with angry stares, refusals to say hello, invitations turned down. Genuine snubbing indeed.

Eliza thought the kids would calm down after a bit, but it only got worse. The kids sat between her and Davis. They kept him occupied and only spoke to him. The oldest ones ignored her and the youngest ones had a tantrum.

Just when Eliza thought it couldn’t get any worse, Davis’ ex-wife decided to move and she asked if Davis would take the kids for the summer.

Davis was overjoyed. He’d get to spend a summer with all his kids. He floated through his days at the thought of spending more time with the kids.

Eliza agreed, on one condition, as if she had any bargaining power. There would be rules. Rules that would need to be followed. Hesitantly, Davis agreed. Sort of. What he really said was they’d need to take a look and see what was best. But, that’s not what Eliza thought he said.

The kids moved in, tumbling over one another with their things and sleeping here and there and shoes strewn and clothing tossed. Within twenty minutes of their arrival they had achieved takeover. Eliza pasted a grin on her face and bravely made her way until dinner.

The next morning she went to work and forgot about her stepchildren. She got wrapped up in some meetings and almost forgot the kids lived at her house, until she was on the way home. On an impulse, she stopped and picked up two large pizzas to take home.

When she walked in the door with the pizza, the five kids descended on her, grabbing pieces of pizza and eating as they stood right in front of her.

“Stop.” Eliza yelled. “Stop. It is polite to say hello. In our house we say hello.” Her face got red and the kids stared at her.

Davis walked out of the kitchen. He said, “What’s up?”

Eliza burst into tears and retreated to the bedroom. The kids shrugged and ate their pizza.

That Saturday, Eliza put her foot down. Over bacon and eggs and pancakes, she insisted they do chores and clean up the house. The kids looked at their plates and at their Dad. Davis asked her what the top priorities were. She pulled out her list.

The blank stares that met her told her the plan was unpopular, but she insisted. “We need the house tidied up. This is important.” Eliza might as well have stomped her foot. About half the chores got done and the kids had disappeared by the time Eliza checked back from cleaning the garage.

Davis had the great idea to go to the beach and the kids excitedly jumped up and down. They loved the trip to the beach. They all piled in the van and drove the two hours to the beach. When they arrived the first thing they always did was get an ice cream at the Dairy Delight on the way into town.

A Healthy Stepmother...Draws Her Chalk BoundaryAs they pulled off the highway, Eliza said, “We can’t do this, we need lunch first. This is dessert before dinner and this isn’t healthy. Let’s go have dinner and come back.”

From the back seat, the youngest meekly said, “This is what we always do, this is tradition.”

But Eliza got louder and more insistent and her face turned red again. She drown out the kids and Davis turned the car around and drove to the beach. They walked and had lunch and when it was time to go, they all piled in the car to head home.

As they passed the Dairy Delight, Eliza said, “Wait, we need ice cream.”

In unison, the kids said, “We’re full.”

Davis drove on home.

Eliza went on in this way, seeing something that needed doing, doing it. Setting boundaries. Establishing order.

The kids weren’t bad kids, they could have argued, but they just got silent. The only rebuttal they had was to not engage with her, to pretend she didn’t exist.

Eliza drew more lines. The kids withdrew further.

Davis put up his hands when Eliza told him of one more thing she wanted changed. Eliza thought her heart would break. She thought she was being helpful. She thought she was contributing. She saw a need and she had stepped into the role of taking care of it.

Alone.

No one else was playing the chore game with her.

The last day of summer vacation came and the kids went home to live with their mother.

The house was quiet. Yes, it was also strewn with wrappers, drink bottles, and dirty plates, but it all echoed for the lack of voices and activity. Eliza cleaned up the living room, then the bathroom. She tidied and vacuumed and before long there was order.

And silence.

One day, Davis took the kids to a movie. Eliza had other plans. She got home to an empty house and cried.

Davis came home and saw her swollen eyes. He hugged her and held her. She cried more.

She woke the next day knowing she’d built the box she now lived in, no contact, no family group, all orderly, all neat and tidy and quiet and empty.

It took Eliza a week to figure out she wanted something different. She got the makings for a nice dinner and sat down with Davis and made a request. “Teach me. Show me. What’s your strategy with the kids. Tell me how you do this juggling act.”

Davis looked at her and raised an eyebrow. Then he grinned. “It’s pretty simple. Everyone has a vote. I listen. I prioritize everything else over a clean house. And, gradually, we build tradition.”

“Remember the hot dogs we had for Christmas.” He grinned wider. “Even they are now tradition. And they love it so much.” He went on. “You’ll get the hang of it and you don’t have to drive all the time. You can sit in a seat on the sideline and share and go second or third or sometimes last because someone has to be last and you and I take turns going last so the kids don’t have to. We fill the water bowl and let them drink. We fill the food bowl and let them eat.”

He paused and looked at her with all the love in his heart. “And change comes after a first, second, and third pass. It can’t happen immediately.”

They ate a few bites of the tasty meal Eliza had prepared.

Then Davis put his fork down again. He cleared his throat. “The truth is you’re so efficient you can do ten times the work the kids and I do at the pace you work. So you need to stop and eat bon bons along the way and let us accomplish our share to keep up with you. That way the kids can feel good about themselves. They naturally want to help and they will. Let them volunteer or let me assign one of them. We just need a little more time to bring all that into action. We don’t see it the way you do.”

Eliza frowned. “I have no idea how to sit while others work.

Davis grinned. “You’ll learn.”

A Healthy Stepmother . . . life is not a caravan of despair!

Come, come, whoever you are!

Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving!

This is not a caravan of despair.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve broken 

Your vow a thousand times, still 

And yet again, Come!

          Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks 

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So, yes, dear stepmother. Here you are, poised on the precipice of another holiday season. Wondering how you’ve hung on to your self and your life since the last holiday season.

Maybe the clouds don’t hang over your head the way they used to? Maybe you see the clearing and can reach out and offer that to another stepmother who is drowning in the deluge of the storm? Maybe you’ll have a story to share in the comments to contribute to our collective witnessing of one another’s lives?

Some of us have it easier than others.

Just because some of us have it easier doesn’t mean we’ve got it all figured out. It might mean we are in the eye of the storm. It might mean the storm has passed. It might mean our lives have settled and integrated and we can focus on other things.

I urge you to focus on other things even if you are still in the storm. The storm will rage whether you focus on it or not, so why not get a book and settle into another time and space while it rages on around you.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . life is not a caravan of despair!And, contemplate that leaving takes many shapes. Leaving is not bad. We’re conditioned to think it is.

I’m at a beach town on the Oregon Coast as I write this, working on my fairy tales for stepmothers. Yes, I can now say that out loud. The stories are taking shape and I’m getting so excited. 

I was walking down the street and across my path went a woman with whom I used to share much closeness. Things happened that caused there to be uncloseness. Was that a leaving? Was that an ending? It doesn’t feel it, since there was no official ending. It’s more like it’s suspended out there in time, nebulous, not clear, super muddy. But okay.

I don’t need to run after it. It can sit there, in all the messiness. Maybe like some of the relationships we have with our stepchildren.

It’s easy to think a muddy or unclear relationship is a negative thing. Does it have to be? Could it just be sitting there, somewhat dormant, neutral, without judgment? Could that be okay?

Inspired by Rumi, I wrote this…

Leaving. Leaving.

Left. 

I have been left and I have left others.

Hundreds of times, maybe thousands. 

Was it error? 

Was it my ill-thought-out-ways? 

Or, was it simply the learning of whom to go toward? 

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Examine your leavings and letting go. This life is not a caravan of despair!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Lives Life on the Edge

Remember a time in your life when you made your own decisions? Remember having your decisions respected by others? Remember when another’s behavior didn’t impact your life quite as significantly as it does now? And, remember when you were in charge of what happened in your home? You know, the days before your marriage. 

That time before your marriage was a time you lived with a leadership role in your own life. Then, you said I do and just-like-that the roles and the rules changed. You went to sleep one day in charge of what happened to you and woke the next day with three or four or five other somebodies figuring into the equation of how your time was spent, including whether you lived under the same roof with someone who resented your presence. 

Recent events in my family of origin have left me questioning my roles within any group. As a kid, my place was always in the middle, trying to make everything okay for everyone. I was the Omega in the pack of siblings, with the others heaping on huge helpings of teasing or criticism or opinion. But lately, I’ve discovered another place to live. I’ve found a place on the edge where I’m not leading the decision-making, but am remaining true to myself. I’m no longer automatically caretaking others, but remaining engaged by observing, listening, and supporting when asked to help.  

Scenes of urban life in Byzantium. Left illumi...

Scenes of urban life in Byzantium. Left illumination is a scene of marriage. The right illumination depicts a conversation among family members. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I first learned this living on the edge business from adjusting my role within my stepfamily. When I let go of insisting on inclusion in certain conversations, I immediately relaxed. When I let go of thinking I needed to be involved in every event, there was time for my other interests, which fed my spirit and washed away the resentment and the feeling of being out of control. 

At first, the edge of the circle seemed like a precarious place, precisely because it wasn’t familiar. The edge of the circle held new variables and new perspectives. Being on the edge involved not being in the know about every little thing. It involved letting go of the planning and processing or mediating between the other parties. Over time, I became more comfortable in my lawn chair on the edge of the circle and participated from that place. In many ways, it was a relief, since I was no more waiting on everyone like a garden party hostess.  

It’s worth remembering, no one in a family is ever truly outside the group. Even in estranged families, where someone is excluded, or shunned and sent away, the place that person took up is still there, waiting to be reclaimed.  

In the same way, a stepmother is never outside the group but she can think she is. When her familiar roles aren’t available and others don’t make space for her, she can feel like an alien. In those moments, she has a few options. She can run another out of the position she thinks she belongs in, she can win others over and gain her position back, or she can adapt and realize that most stepmothers wear more than one hat anyway. 

A healthy stepmother is resilient. She is an expert at finding second, third, and fourth choices in sticky situations. She might take things personally in the early years of her marriage, but she quickly develops a new perspective that allows her to begin practicing all the roles a stepmother can take in the extended stepfamily. And, over time, she understands, it truly isn’t about her. 

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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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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the importance of place.

Have you adjusted to your place in your stepfamily?

I purposely say place because I don’t like how role sounds or feels. A role is a prescribed set of behaviors designed to fit a certain circumstance. A place is yours. You will find it or build it or discover it or create it. Your place will be there when you get confused and struggle to find where you belong.

I didn’t always see that. I struggled. And, I haven’t met a stepmother yet who hasn’t struggled to feel there is a place for her.

I’m not talking about adjusting to the easy stuff, the time when it’s just you and one of your stepchildren and you both let your guard down and the joy flows. The time when the child is uncensored and unwatched by adults or other children who carry the word back about who is doing what. This time of one adult and one child is the easy time.

No, when I ask if you’ve adjusted to your place in your stepfamily, I’m referring to the place you hold when the holidays are in full swing, when there’s a graduation going on, when a birthday needs celebrating, or when someone is getting married. These big stuff occasions require a place in order to feel comfortable in one’s skin.

This will sound funny . . . you have to take your place. I don’t mean with elbows shoving like my Portland Trailblazers determined to win the rebound. I don’t mean dictating how things will go for the Sunday dinner. I don’t mean cataloguing the mental list of all the things you’d like to see changed about your new home.

In fact, hopefully you’ll take your place in your own style, gently some days, more assertively on others, benignly much of the time, and supportively as often as you can. But the place, the where of you, is there. Constant.

What happens when you are in your place and feel it and live in it, even from it, is that the children learn where you are. They know what to expect on a given day. They begin to trust and that trust seeps in, past the bravado, past the scorn or rejection. They begin to assume you will be there. And you will, it’s your place. It’s not negotiable, it just is.

Eventually, your place is no longer up for discussion and even though you might be tempted to think a flare up or difficulty or trouble will cause you to not have a place, think again. In fact, in confused and chaotic moments it’s even more critical that you are simply where you are, in your place.

And, I don’t mean your place is the same as my place or that there’s only one place for stepmothers, any more than there’s one place for mothers. For sure, one aspect of the place is beside your husband, but the other aspects of the place are as different as we women are different. Our interests, our style, our mannerisms, our humor, our strengths and weakness, each of these shapes the place we take up.

When enough time has passed, there you are in your place, firmly ensconced in a way that makes you a fixture as much as anyone else in the family. At that moment, you’ve become a place the child can turn to when he or she needs the things you offer from your place.

In January of 2012, I was thinking of this idea of place in terms of belonging. Now I think you can’t belong until you have a place. But, the place isn’t a place in the sense of a physical place. While it’s important to have your bed be yours, a certain chair that is yours or a room you retreat to, what I’m thinking of is intrinsic. It is the space you occupy when you are being you, when you are fully engaged in the living in your stepfamily, when you are giving and receiving what is there to be given and received.

Place cards being calligraphed before a state ...

Place cards being calligraphed before a state dinner. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because your place is something you take, it will seem in the beginning you need to be invited in, as you would be around the table at a friend’s dinner party. However in your stepfamily, there won’t be name cards so you won’t know exactly where to place yourself. A lack of name cards is one of the things that makes adjusting to your stepfamily take a good amount of time. The order of things, something as simple as who sits where around the table, has shuffled and everyone is likely uncomfortable. The potential is high for every awkward thing to happen, and it most often does.

And that’s true for every other activity where there is an order and a process and turn-taking. When does your turn come? Do you take the last turn? Are you thrust in the first turn? Who decides?

If you accept that the place isn’t automatically assigned and that no one else can create it for you and it isn’t handed out after a certain initiation period, then you’ll know you can get our bearings as a new stepmother and do the work of peeling back the layers of expectations and dashed hopes and find what the place can be.

Once you work through and get to the place, remain there. Live from there. Relax in there. Be curious and look around from there.

This place is worth knowing and having.

In many ways, this place is you.

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