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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A Healthy Stepmother . . . on the cycle of pain and comfort.

The research on chronic pain is exploding with new ways to manage long-term pain without prescriptions of life-destroying pharmaceuticals. Because being a stepmother spans decades, we might consider applying some of these strategies to our situation.

In one scenario, pain is localized to one particular focal point, but the interwoven nerve endings are sensitized to notice what is going on in another area. It’s much like the sensitivity many of us bring to the emotional state of others in our families. It’s as if we have radar and can pick up the smallest uncomfortable moment or anxiety or anger or any other reaction. We know when our husbands are in pain, we know when they are distressed. Even though they tell us nothing is wrong, we know there’s something up.

Sigh. Often the stepmother is the one who verbalizes the pain, but it’s her husband who is feeling it. She might not even know she’s doing this, but I’m beginning to think this is more common than I originally thought. I wonder how much indignation comes from a stepmother witnessing the significant pain her spouse is enduring.

English: Illustration of the pain pathway in R...

English: Illustration of the pain pathway in René Descartes’ Traite de l’homme (Treatise of Man) 1664. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently accompanied my mother-in-law to a pain clinic where they systematically reviewed her pain response and experimented with different courses of treatment. As they began to peel away the layers and she found relief, they discovered an old, old, old injury on her low back that had been untreated for decades. She’s getting better and her pain levels have dropped dramatically.

One of the things I recall the nurse practitioner telling her was that they needed to teach her brain some new calming strategies. She needed to learn new reactions to pain, rather than the old anxiety reactions and alarm that pushed her into big adrenalin releases into her blood stream which in turn created havoc in her mental state.

I don’t think she was very impressed in the beginning. Talking wasn’t a familiar process for her, in her generation a person just pushed on through the difficulty, it’s how she got injured. Acupuncture was a little more familiar for her and she willingly tried that. She had massage and therapy in a warm water pool. As she got treatment for the actual problem, her overall pain response began to diminish, so that now she can tell exactly where the pain comes from. And, now she has ways to work with her reaction to the pain. Rather than tense up everywhere, she takes a bath and calms her nervous system. She lies on the floor and lets her muscles relax.

We stepmothers can borrow those strategies. We can teach ourselves a new reaction. We can begin to notice when we tense in reaction to painful emotional experiences and calm ourselves so the pain doesn’t spread like wildfire. If we get to the calming early before the pain is so loud and strong it causes us to think we’ll be consumed, we have a better quality of life ahead.

We can learn to calm by paying attention to the signals from our body. When we notice ourselves holding the breath, we let it out and take in another and keep on in that way. When we notice we’re tense, we let our hands loosen and our eyes open so we’re not squinting and we let our face soften and our tongue quit pressing so hard against the roof of our mouth. Basically, we unanchor. We still keep our feet on the ground, in fact, we want to rely even more on our feet on the ground or our butt on the chair. We keep track of where we are in space and we let everything else be less ready for defense.

By softening and unanchoring, we can actually get more prepared for whatever it is we need to do. We can lean toward this person in support of what he is saying, or leave the room because we need a momentary break, or walk back in and find the ground so we can stand in the space listening to words that don’t match our feelings.

In those less anxious, calmer, less painful observation states, we have a better chance of staying connected to our important people and a better chance of feeling like we’re okay, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

And, ultimately, each moment we spend in that unanchored, tongue not pressing, breath not holding, face not scrunched posture is another moment added to the collective pool of experience in knowing how to remain calm. The calm pool is the place we can return to over and over and over to remind ourselves how to recover from difficult interactions. The calm pool is a place we go to restore and rejuvenate.

It’s not that we’ll live in the calm pool every moment, that would be a rather zombie-esque life. But, the calm pool will help us become familiar with returning to an equilibrium or homeostasis throughout the physical self. When the calm is as easy to access as the anxious or worried response, we’ll find it easy to return to an emotional equilibrium.

That’s what is happening for my mother-in-law. A little pain is her signal to rest and calm. Fatigue doesn’t push her into anxiety for the bigger pain that might come. She’s getting stronger, she can walk farther, and she’s made some new friends.

We can do that too. We can build new reactions to these long-standing pains that will be with us the rest of our lives. We can learn to let go and enjoy the roller coaster that is this delicious life we’ve got an opportunity to enjoy.

Hey, let’s meet up in the calm pool.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . walks with her vulnerability.

“I really don’t have any big issues up in my life right now.” I proclaimed to my women’s group as we discussed the focus of our group that day.

Not an hour later, I shook with tears and the other women in the group waited respectfully for me to say more about what was happening for me. I never did articulate what was lying underneath the pain of that moment.

Reflecting later, I realized the emotion of digging down into the stories for the book I’m working on, the emotion of getting together with a couple of family members after 12 years of not, my concerns about the plight of so many around the globe, and a week of crummy sleep had all contributed to my vulnerable moment.

My protestations that nothing was wrong were the old, dusty habits of a lifetime of saying that things were fine. The old story was that I was able to take care of myself, thank you very much. For decades, I’d been reinforced for not needing emotional support and I’d been taught to keep busy and get things done.

Statue of Our Lady of La Salette, sitting cryi...

Statue of Our Lady of La Salette, sitting crying (first part of apparition). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The experience of sitting with women who didn’t flinch or rush me to wrap up my story compares with no other experience of being listened to. In fact, they simply waited and eventually we came to a moment when we sensed that the emotions had calmed enough that we could wrap up, including their emotions that had arisen from seeing my big emotion. What was most important is that they did not see me as the emotion. They know me and so they waited with me until the emotional moment had passed.

What if a stepmother had space like that to be vulnerable. What if someone would sit with her, quietly, and wait for the emotion to pass? Not a rushed waiting, as when will this be over, but a patient, hands folded, gazing near her but not staring at her, and simply breathing into the room together. That was the gift my friends gave me. They didn’t rush to me to take it away and make it okay, they simply waited, with me.

I’ve been practicing for years letting the tears come when I hear someone say to not take it so personally, or to just push on through, or to wait until the kids are grown, or that’s just the way teenagers are. Or a million other things that people say when they don’t really want to deal with a stepmother’s vulnerability. It takes practice to let tears out privately, but eventually it’s easier to let them go in front of others. I think that’s why I was able to cry with my friends.

I’m learning to be vulnerable and to share my tender moments. Crying in the company of others is my new thing to practice, my new moment to know that if what I’m saying will bring me to tears, there’s some truth in it. In fact, I feel an urgency to let out the years of not saying how I felt in the moment. The role models I’ve had were women who’ve either suppressed their tears into stony silence or held them in for so long they came bursting out in a panic attack. It seems there’s something in between. As if the measure of my mental health is directly related to the ability to feel, process, and welcome the next emotion easily and smoothly, just like I change positions on a chair.

In fact, the way the Dalai Lama shows emotion is my model. I’ve read that as he’s in conversation with someone, he can go from deep concern for the story he’s listening to and in the next moment be laughing with tears running down his eyes, or crying because there is such sadness.

Rather than clinging to the masks of okay-ness, I’m ready to let the emotion be what is on my face. Rather than using anger as the medium to justify letting my feelings of pain into the space between me and someone else, I’m going to bypass the anger and just get to the simpler emotion.

The vulnerable moment can be as familiar and easy to navigate as the joyous one, the comfortable one, or the sorrowful one. Most of us are not used to showing our vulnerability and will do anything and everything to avoid it.

Bring on tears rolling down cheeks. Bring on fluidity of emotion and not holding things in until I burst. Bring on good emotional posture, the going in any direction with feelings, at any time, and without a lot of fuss.

Cry, laugh, frown, snort, cluck, sputter, shout, sing, and smile your feelings. I’m right there with you.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the shame of not being chosen for dodgeball.

Every stepmother likely relates to that feeling of not belonging in her stepfamily. For example, when children ignore her when they walk in a room and say hello to their father and she’s sitting three feet away. Or, when the mother of the children behaves as if the stepmother does not matter. Even inadvertently, when a husband forgets to tell his stepmother wife that the kids are joining them for dinner.

If you have felt these feelings, you know they sit below the surface and show themselves when the circumstances are just-so. You know they never die and you know how deep they cut, clear to the heart of what it is to be married to a man with children.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . runs out of self-soothing steam.If you missed the post about belonging, you can catch up here. This post is about how it feels to not belong.

I’ve begun to think the crux of the not-belonging in our stepfamilies is about not being picked. Think back to when you were a child and teams were being chosen for dodgeball. The memory is vivid for me. We were at the Washington Elementary School gymnasium with it’s ancient wood stage, bleachers, and oak-plank floor that is now used as a community center. It was 1968 in Oakland, Oregon, population 1002.

A class of nervous nine-year-olds stood in that gym in a line, hoping the captain of the team would choose them, hoping they were good enough to be chosen early. As child after child went to stand with the team that chose them, those few left unchosen felt an ominous cloud growing inside, bigger and bigger until it blocked out all the voices and the stares and the relief on the faces of the ones already chosen. Do you remember a time like that, when the shame felt so vulnerable-making you thought you’d crumple up right there?

Could it be that the same feelings of nervousness and dread and shame of not being chosen for the game are what a stepmother feels when she’s left out of her family?

Shame, it turns out, is universal (refer to Brené Brown posts here).

Not only that, what if this shame thing is also what results in mothers treating stepmothers poorly? It is my opinion that some mothers behave as they do because they are working hard against experiencing shame, or the possibility of even a small amount of shame. They feel vulnerable at the thought of their children liking another woman and the risk of feeling the shame of being left alone is so great they might find themselves behaving in ways they’d never have dreamed of before they got divorced. Let’s face it, who learns healthy ways of processing those feelings of 9-year-old, not-chosen shame or 13-year-old, not-asked-to-the-dance shame? I didn’t have those models when I was growing up, and according to Dr. Brown, many of us didn’t.

What if shame is what makes the pain of being excluded within our own stepfamilies so deeply felt, so palpable, and so relevant? If so, it explains why stepmothers feel as though we’ve been hurt to our core in those moments of being treated as invisible. It’s why the pain feels big enough to consume us.

Maybe you’ll protest that you have no shame. Maybe you’ll protest that the problems in the family aren’t your fault or that your stepfamily would relate better if only everyone else would see the real problems.

Maybe, but the shame of not being chosen is a universal human experience. And, according to Dr. Brown, shame is a part of all our lives, which means it exists not just in my experience as a stepmother, or yours. It also exists in most situations that humans navigate. Which means it’s happening for all of us, no one of us is the only woman having shame.

And, let’s also not forget, no one in a stepfamily equation gets to claim the high ground about shame, not mothers, not fathers, not children, or stepmothers and stepfathers. Anyone in a stepfamily can wield the I’ll ignore you card, but at the end of the day, we’re all human, we all have shame. Anyone can wield the I’m better than you card, but again, we’re all human. We all need to work with our internal committee and shame is a key player.

Even though my natural tendency is to cover up shame so no one will notice, here it is. I’m broaching this very sensitive subject, out in public. As Dr. Brown says, as soon as you can get an issue into the light of day, it gets smaller. That’s why I’m going on and on about shame. If shame is why the process of integrating into a stepfamily is so difficult, I want it to become smaller for all of us, stepmothers and mothers alike.

Maybe shame is our secret hand-shake, our path to peace.

Rather than run from our shame and treat it like something to be avoided, let’s treat it like chicken pox. We know we’re going to get it, so the sooner we get exposed and develop an immunity, the better our lives will be.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . on belonging.

Belonging.

Belonging might be the issue we avoid when we whole-heartedly and enthusiastically throw our lot in with our guy and agree to make the best of things. Some of us promise to have and hold, in sickness and in health. Some of us forgo the vows and share a home. Either way, it’s likely we’d all like to slip into the family photo as if we’ve been there all along.

I know I did. And, I’ve watched friends and acquaintances from near and far who agreed to make the best of things with their man and who dove enthusiastically into the making that happen.

The good news is that our human nature compels us to find a way to belong to our group and the community of folks we live in. That’s why I’ve likened becoming a stepmother with the longer trips I’ve taken to a foreign country. In those circumstances, not being able to understand the language or express myself, I felt unsettled, excluded, and nervous about how to go about making things better. No matter how badly I wanted to belong, I was an outsider. At some point, on the 4th day of the trip when I’d been to the same cafe for coffee every morning and the clerk recognized me, my heart opened and I breathed and smiled and I knew I would survive.

The bad news is that despite the fact that I know all these things, despite that I repeated the visiting a foreign country experience when I moved to Pittsburgh, Hartford, South Fork, Greeley, and Seattle, I still had to go through that becoming part of the group when I came into my stepfamily.

Ivan Bilibin's illustration of the Russian fai...

Ivan Bilibin’s illustration of the Russian fairy tale about Vasilisa the Beautiful (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, why did I arrive at my new home sitting beside my husband in the moving van, his two boys helping cooperatively and happily, thinking that somehow this situation would be different? It’s as if there was a fairy tale inside me being played out, leading me into the temptation that I wasn’t going to stumble. I fantasized we’d figure out the just-right way to adjust and integrate without pain of any kind. All without feeling like a third, or fourth, or fifth wheel.

I marvel. I shake my head. I glance away, sheepish. I was 44 when I met my husband, 46 when we married, and I’m 53 now. All to say, I wasn’t born yesterday, I get how these things go.

Once I got over the shock and horror that I had succumbed to the fantasy and fairy tale of the happily ever after, it got worse. There was crying, wailing, venting, and flat out griping. Nothing I did changed the fact that I was the new kid on the block. I still needed to find the cafe, the hair stylist, and the mechanic and I still needed to figure out how to belong in my new family. Even though I’d only moved across town, eight miles away, I might as well have gone to the moon. It wasn’t my neighborhood and they weren’t my people.

I like to think of my husband and his kids, the kids’ mom, and the extended relatives as the people I’d meet if I went to a new city and set up living there. The folks I’d meet might treat me nicely, warily, welcomingly or standoffishly. That’s how real life goes and there are no guarantees that I’d be accepted. What is guaranteed is that it will take time, sometimes years to settle in and make a home.

Settling in and belonging is a process and I look back in wonder that I, and so many other stepmothers, lost track of that. It takes time to belong and it can’t be rushed.

 

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . knows reading or watching Brene Brown’s work is an act of self-soothing.

Some of you may know of Brene Brown and her fairly famous TED Talk on Vulnerability with almost 7 million views to date.

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And then, there was the amazing Whole-Hearted Parenting Manifesto.

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Finally, we have the fairly recent article on the Whole-Hearted Parenting Manifesto from the Huffington Post. It’s well-worth a read, as is Brene’s latest book, Daring Greatly.

If this feels like one huge endorsement, it’s because it is! I find her work helps me stay grounded. I feel so human and lovable when I read her messages, follow her blog, or watch a video of her talking. We are lucky to have researchers like her bringing work on vulnerability and shame out into the public eye.

Cheers, Brene Brown, from an appreciative fan!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . on advice about holidays.

In many ways, the holidays are simply our daily lives on steroids, an intensive twist for a month. So, whether it’s the physical doing, the emotional hurricane, or the worry exhaustion, it’s a good idea to start by getting grounded in the day-to-day with books like Stepmonster, Wednesday Martin, and The Happy Stepmother, Rachelle Katz (I wish the title was The Happy Enough Stepmother, less pressure). That said, Katz beautifully describes the difference between what stepmothers hope and a realistic expectation. Throughout the book she offers examples, and plenty of them. Thank you, we needed that!

English: "The First Thanksgiving at Plymo...

English: “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Advice about how to survive the holidays abounds. My favorites are from Wednesday Martin in her 10 Day Countdown to the Holidays from 2009. Start with Holiday Tip #1 and work your way through.

My holiday strategies from years past are herehere, and here (my favorite).

This year, I’d like to encourage you to ramp up the self-soothing to your maximum levels. Here in the U.S., we’ve just come through one of the most anxiety-provoking presidential races in our time and the general tone of daily life remains edgy, to say the least. Combine the traumatic events around the world with the growing list of folks we know who are losing jobs or looking, add a few major healthcare issues and a difficulty with an ex-spouse or a child, and the fact we’re doing as good as we’re doing is a minor miracle.

Maybe there are ways to streamline the holidays or do less, but we haven’t found them at our house. Every year, my husband and I think we will have fewer events, we will cook less, and we will worry less. We never do. It’s a complicated situation, we’re a stepfamily and he and I are both children of divorce. If we do less, we cut out our important people. That’s not going to happen.

So, we’ve become realistic. We’ve changed our expectations from having a great time to simply gathering and letting things go as they will. And really, the point of this post is to say that perfect holidays, whatever they are, are undefinable. What is perfect for one person is awful for someone else. In fact, we now deem a messy holiday that turns out fairly decent to be successful. There have been some that surprised us, when the kids insisted that we open our presents first and they paid close attention to our reactions. And, we stay connected in our hearts by working together to make the days and events what they are.

Given the difficulty society has with coping with stepfamilies, the difficulties stepfamilies have with coming to peaceful interactions, for us to hang on to the idea that we could somehow just be good enough or do things just-right enough for everyone to have a nice time . . . well, we decided to let that go. There was nothing left to do but increase self-care. My husband and I do that in different ways, but we support one another 100% in getting self-care needs met.

My strategy is to practice what I teach. Yesterday, my client reminded me of the first class she attended just before Thanksgiving a year ago. We were doing a lesson on posture and scanning the position of the head and legs and arms while lying on the floor. Not long after that class she found herself serving dinner to a houseful of relatives with all levels of closeness and difficulties. At one point, she realized she was struggling so she slipped upstairs to lie on the floor in her bedroom. Her husband came to find her about 10 minutes later. As he looked down at her, he asked her if she was doing okay. I am now, she replied.

I love her story and I use a number of strategies (see the self-soothing series). I love when slowing down, noticing posture, and becoming more aware of my physical nature calms me. It’s as simple as tracking my breath in and out. It’s as elegant as noticing where one foot is on the ground and if I am using the whole foot to support me in standing. It’s as obvious as wearing comfortable clothing and shoes so I can breathe and feel like the woman I know myself to be.

Maybe you won’t have time to go lie down on the floor. Maybe you won’t have time to lock yourself in the bathroom, stand against the door, and let your weight be held up by the door and your feet. Maybe you won’t be able to walk the dogs around the block and get some fresh air. But, maybe you can imagine you are breathing. Maybe you can imagine you are walking tall.

As soon as you imagine yourself with tall posture, full breath, and a calm voice, you’ll notice that not so much later, those things are there, for real.

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