A Healthy Stepmother . . . And A Certain Kind of Life

You dove into this life with all your good intentions and sweet affirmations bursting from every pore. You’d have drowned in them if you hadn’t had to run so fast to keep up with figuring out what to do in any given moment, frantically working to integrate with the new family of which you’d become a part.

You dove into what you thought was a certain kind of connection, with your husband, building a certain kind of life together.

Most importantly, you dove.

What would it be like if no one did? What would happen if there was only one chance on this planet to get a relationship right? Would there be no divorce? Or, would there be no remarriage? Could there be a civilization where people didn’t keep recouping even after disasters and traumas? What would that civilization look like? But, I digress.

Here you are. Looking around, surveying the scene, wondering what you might be doing if you weren’t here. Wondering how you’ll wait until five more years go by, or eight, or ten. Whatever that marker is that once it’s passed you’ll maybe have a better life, or for sure have a better life. Maybe it’ll be less stressful, anyway.

Joseph Campbell says “we must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

I think he’s right.

A Healthy Stepmother begins more gently.When we go in with such a tight hold on the life we are sure we are entering, there isn’t any space for what it might be.

If you haven’t been able to find a place to rest in your marriage, or even within your own heart, maybe some letting go is in order. Maybe the dreams you’re hauling around are actually getting in the way of the life that is sitting right in front of you.

Interpretation is a funny thing. Expectations are insistent things. Cultural pressure is a toxic thing. Add them all together and you might think that is the life you’re meant to have.

I’m suggesting there’s a different life, one that is just as meaningful, just as connected, and just as well-intentioned. It just doesn’t happen to look exactly like the one you might’ve carried in your head.

The older I get, the clearer the message comes, that to find satisfaction and contentment and any other measure of what I’m looking for, I must first let go of the thing I’m clutching in my hand or in my heart.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . exercises her bitterness muscles.

There is a time in our lives, usually in midlife, when a woman has to make a decision–possibly the most important psychic decision of her future life–about whether to be bitter or not. Women often come to this in their late thirties or early forties. They are at the point when they are full up to their ears with everything and they’ve “had it” and “the last straw has broken the camel’s back” and they’re “pissed off and pooped out.” Their dreams of their twenties may be lying in a crumple. There may be broken hearts, broken marriages, broken promises. (page 364, see footnote)

Being a stepmother means to live a constant daily practice of softening the heart away from bitterness. Or not. 

Some days I find myself more successful than not at keeping bitterness at bay, other days I fail miserably. On days when I can let bitterness relax it’s hold on my heart, I feel the most freedom and comfort in my stepfamily life. 

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes suggests a woman make a timeline of her life and “to mark with a cross the places along the graph, starting with her infancy all the way to the present, where parts and pieces of her self and her life have died.” (page 365, see footnote).  

Once you begin acknowledging those things that have been cut off or that have died because they never came to life or were pushed away, then you can begin working with them. Each of those losses leaves a scar and imperceptibly inches us toward a possible future bitterness. To remain unbitter, to exercise the bitterness muscle, means to work with the events that have led to the losses and release them into forgiveness. 

Ignoring the losses, not tending the forgiveness process, allows the bitterness moment to settle in, when after years and years, decades of a woman’s life, the things which have been cut off get added to the many things that have died, and to the many things that were pushed away. It suddenly becomes too much. Too many. One more and the scale tips toward bitterness. 

For me, there is a physical sensation that tells me when bitterness is encroaching. I get a feeling of a clutching in my chest, like fingers around my heart. Often my breathing is interrupted. Over the years, I’ve taken to keeping track of my heart, you know, to see if it can stay soft or whether it’s not. I breath while I pay attention to releasing the hand that clutches my heart. 

Artwork by Kim Cottrell, 2014.

Artwork by Kim Cottrell, 2014.

I’ve been practicing this letting go of the clutching for years. Years. Even before I was a stepmother. In the beginning the bitterness crept up on me before I could tell what was happening. Now, as soon as the bitterness clutching begins I’m aware I feel not quite myself and immediately my attention goes to the clutching and letting the clutching drain away. 

I exercise my bitterness muscles regularly. The first part of the workout requires noticing when there’s a potential insult, hurt, or ache that indicates a part of me is dying off, been cut off, or sent to the back burner once more. Then, the workout involves paying attention to the sensations associated with that dying off, cutting off, or putting on the back burner. The heart-clench is my sensation. You might notice something else. Maybe it’s a sinking sensation in your gut. Maybe it’s a knot in your stomach or a lump in your throat. No matter what sensation arises for you, you’ll know what it means, you’ll know because it’s a familiar feeling.  

The simple act of noticing, acknowledging, and naming the clutching and potential for bitterness brings enough movement to the area and enough awareness to effectively reverse the clutching behavior. You can reverse bitterness clutching. You can teach the bitterness muscle to release and relax. 

A bitterness workout is the opposite of lifting weights. It’s the opposite of running relays or hiking mountains. A bitterness workout is the releasing of the contraction, it’s the letting go of the need to do something different. It’s finding ways to take care of the psyche so the bitterness doesn’t have a chance to take up permanent residence. 

I was thirty-six years old, attending graduate school, living in my Pittsburgh apartment, alone, when the bitterness choice moment came upon me. It was as if someone rang a bell and announced it was “Time for Bitter.” I looked around and over my left shoulder to see what was there, then my right. I finished the dishes and sat on my floor to contemplate the offering. After an hour or so, with the light fading from the winter sky, a very clear “No, this is not the way it’s going to be, I will not accept the bitters,” came over me. 

I walked out on bitter and have kept it at bay ever since. Some days that is a great deal of work, but my heart reaps the rewards, running with abandon through the past and present and out into the future. May we meet there in the bitterless meadow. 

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Reference: Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, 1992, chapter titled Marking Territory: Marking the Boundaries of Rage and Forgiveness)

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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 . . . 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. 

 

 

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 . . . Knows Thyself, Pt 4: Feet

Let’s check in with how the first three focuses of our Know Thyself series have gone (Catch up with us here, here, and here.). Do you now find you have increased ability to share the focus of your attention between what is going on around you and some aspect of your physical self? Can you more easily hold the thought-thread of your comfort in your mind as you go about your days?

The good news is that you can come back to these ideas over and over and focus on the one (at a time) that piques your interest on that day or week.

This week, let’s focus on what it means to stand on our own two feet. It’s cliché to talk about the stress of the holidays, but in many ways it’s true. Usually this time of year finds us valiantly smiling as we manage task after task and feeling more overwhelmed than that many other times of the year.

Maybe if we felt more solid, it would be easier to manage the busyness. Maybe if we could feel stable on the ground, we could bring our focus more clearly to observing how our feet connect to the ground.

Let’s run through a simple awareness activity.

Remove your socks and shoes and stand on a floor that doesn’t have carpet. Pay attention to which parts of your feet press the most on the floor. Do your heels press more than the front of your feet? Do the balls of your feet press more than your heels? Do you lean more on the inside edges of your feet or more on the outside edges of your feet? Are your toes positioned on the floor closer together than your heels? Are your knees closer together than your feet? How tall do you feel standing here?

Walk around your house with your bare feet and pay attention to where the line of force travels when you touch the ground. In other words, how does your foot touch the floor? Do you come on to your heel first or on the outside edge of your foot? Do you roll off the big toe or the second toe when your foot comes off the ground? Many people think you shouldn’t walk on the outside of your feet at all. This is not true. There is a fabulous description of how the bare foot contacts the ground in The Barefoot Book by Daniel Howell. This book is well worth the read since it explains everything you ever wanted to know about healthy feet and how to make them even healthier.

Now, put your socks on and stand in the same place that you were standing when you were bare-footed. Notice how much you can sense of your foot touching the ground compared to how you noticed the pressure when you had bare feet. Now put your shoes back on and look for the same things. Do you lean more on your heels or more on the front of your feet? More on the inside edges or more on the outside edges? Do you find it’s easier to notice these things when you stand without socks and shoes?

Now…..what to do this week.

Spend some time with bare feet. Five minutes in the morning before work. Ten minutes after work while you’re getting dinner ready. If you can sneak around the block with the dogs and it’s not too cold to go barefoot, that is the super duper bonus time. Each time you walk with your shoes off, pay attention to the shape and texture of the ground. Let this way of your foot touching the ground without shoes become comfortable. Invite the kids to do walk barefoot with you.

Once you are paying attention to the comfort of your feet whether you have shoes on or not, you can begin to pay attention to which of your shoes are most comfortable and whether they fit well. You can find a guide to fitting your shoes on my website, kimcottrell.com.

There’s no need to think you have to go barefoot 100% of the time, however spending some amount of time barefoot each day will improve the health of your feet and your overall health. It will also increase your sense of being surefooted and solid in everything in your life. I know some of you live in climates where bare feet would be fantastic year-round. You are the lucky ones. Those of us who live in the northern states and other places in the world where it’s cold have greater challenges when it comes to barefoot experiences. I would love to live in a place where I could go barefoot every day the year.

As you can imagine, the metaphors are numerous about how you use your feet to walk on the earth and how you live your life. I have written about going barefoot on several occasions. One of them about noticing I was stomping when I was angry and how barefoot walking helped me calm is here. Another one about finding center is here. These might be useful.

This examination of how we stand in our own skin is a favorite topic of mine. Let me know if you want more of it and more of how your healthy feet keep your whole self healthy. Personally, I think the people who will inherit the earth are the ones who can move quickly. Pssst, limit the amount of time you spend in heels and in shoes that don’t bend when you hold the heel and the toe and twist. Each morning, ask yourself, “Which pair of shoes will allow me to run fast, jump high, and get me where I want to go?”

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Reshuffles and Advocates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s like being a stepmother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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