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 . . . 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 . . . Knows Thyself, Pt 2: The Spine

This is the second in a series of six posts, Know Thyself, dedicated to stepmothers everywhere who need extra support as we navigate the sticky situations of holiday gatherings. Our goal is not to magically make life happy, but rather to interrupt our feelings of worry, fear, or frustration long enough to make choices that fit our situation and needs. It’s ideal if you can suspend judgment about what you find in your observations and be willing to stay with it when it seems like nothing is happening. 

Find a place to sit, stand, or lie down.

First, reflect on your observations of your breathing from the activity last week. Is it easier to track your breathing now? Can you tell that the breath causes movement in your back, on the sides of your torso along the ribs, and in your chest and abdominal area? Can you tell when you are breathing in shallowly and when the inhalation is deep?

Now, shift your attention to your spine. Think of the length of your spine and how it is shaped. Are there curves in your spine? At the neck? At the lower back? What about a rounding in the upper back, do you have a sense of falling in your chest in such a way your shoulders round forward? Do you have pain at any point along the spine? How significant is the discomfort?

The lumbar region in regards to the rest of th...

The lumbar region in regards to the rest of the spine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What do you believe to be true about posture? Do you think slumping is bad? Do you think your shoulders should be thrown back and your stomach pulled in? How long can you stand or sit in any one pose before you have to move and adjust to be comfortable?

Pay attention to the curves you noticed in your spine? Do something to deepen the curves just a small amount? Please go gently and don’t move so far you cause discomfort. Now, experiment and see if there is something you can do to decrease the curves, again, very gently. Go back and forth between deepening the curves and diminishing the curves. Make the distance smaller and smaller in each direction until you are not moving, but have come to rest in what we might call neutral.

How close is that neutral posture to the posture you normally carry?

When you are out and about in your life, catch yourself and take note of the shape of your spine. If you can, just watch for a few seconds before you make an adjustment to what you think it should be. In fact, each time you find yourself in a posture you don’t like, rather than immediately moving to match the image of what you think you should be doing, just wait and take in even more of the picture. How long is the front of you? How long is the back of you? Are you comfortable? When you know the answers to these questions, then feel free to adjust to something else and go on about breathing and living and noticing the shape of your spine.

Each time you find yourself in a challenging situation or a conversation that feels risky, take note of the shape of your spine. Are there any patterns you can find? Do you hunch your shoulders when you are worried? What do you do with your spine when you feel challenged? Defeated? Are there degrees of slumping and being upright? Can you experiment with the middle, not slumping and not upright?

Incorporate these kinds of noticing into your daily experience, while you wait in line at the checkout, while you sit at a stop light, while you stand at the kitchen sink, or brush your teeth. Don’t worry about spending hours and hours studying yourself, try to fit the observations in here and there so the sequence is simple and fairly brief, just a question, a noticing, and a move on to the next thing. Do this as often as you can remember.

For this week, that is enough.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Knows Thyself (Part 1, Breath)

Recently, my husband and I were planning for the upcoming holidays and our idea to manage one of the events created a bit of space in our juggling of connections. At the thought of this extra space, I felt my shoulders soften and fall away from my ears. My brow unfurled and my breathing lengthened, all signs I was feeling more at ease.

Another of our family events holds a greater risk of being difficult. At the thought of this other event, I noticed myself clench. My entire torso stiffened and my breathing became more shallow. I drew my shoulders and arms closer to my body and set my jaw as if I was preparing to defend myself in my clenched-ness.

Maybe you’re like me and you enjoy the idea of a holiday with your spouse where you don’t have to armor up or spend your time alone. As soon as I felt the clench, I said to myself, “Yup, time to ramp up the paying attention to my skeleton and how I’m holding myself.” Every stepmother who secretly dreads the upcoming holiday shuffle, raise her hand!

Even though my stepfamily now finds ways to soften into shared experience, I still remember the difficult years and can’t help but brace just thinking of some of them. My memories aren’t of how awful someone else was, they are of how difficult it was for me to hold on to myself amidst the turmoil. This year, I want something different for myself, so I decided to share.

For the next six weeks on this blog, I’ll guide you through the process I use in my daily life to pay attention to what I am doing so I can shift my experience and remain living inside my skin! The flow of these observations will ease your way as you navigate sticky situations. Once you feel comfortable with the process of paying attention to your posture, the benefits are yours to take along to graduations, weddings, or family vacations.

I’m naming the series, Know Thyself, because understanding what we are doing is the first step to accepting or changing it. I can’t think of a better way to prepare for turbulence in the coming weeks.

You’ll need a place to sit, stand, or lie down. You will also need to suspend judgment about what you find in your observations and a willingness to stay with it when it doesn’t seem like anything is happening in the first hours, days, and weeks.

Week One: Know Thy Breath

Sit, stand, or lie down. Put your feet shoulder distance apart and place your hands in a comfortable position. First, notice how long it takes you to draw in a breath? Watch many breaths to get the sense if they are similar or your breathing is inconsistent. It may change while you are watching it. That is normal.

How long does the breath stay inside you? Moments? One? Many? Is it comfortable? Do you feel stressed when the breath is full inside you? Do you hold it as if you don’t dare let it go? Do you hold it in case you make noise as you let it out and draw attention to yourself? Do your ribs move when you inhale? Do they expand forward, out to the sides, backward? Do you feel the air pushing on your internal organs, downward toward your pelvis. Does your belly get soft when you inhale or do you hold it tightly and the inhalation strains against the abdominal muscles?

A circa 1884 poster for William Shakespeare's ...

Polonius: This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell, my blessing season this in thee! Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How long does an exhalation take to leave you? Do you find yourself releasing the breath in a sigh, messaging your disapproval or disagreement? Do you have to push to get the air out, or does it leave with no restriction? Is the amount of air leaving you the same as the amount of air that came in on the inhalation? Is it more? Is it less? Do you feel the shape of your torso change when you exhale? Do you get shorter or taller with an exhalation?

Can you sense the effects of your breath on your sternum, your ribs, your belly, your back, your shoulders, or your neck? The rest of your body?

The next time you are sitting at the dinner table with your stepfamily and things aren’t going so well, or even if they are fine, bring your attention to your breath. Pay attention to the inhaling, exhaling, length of the breath, how much air, the way your ribs move or don’t move when you take air in and let it out.

Every time you can over the next week, pay attention to your breathing. Make a game of it. See if you can pay attention to your breathing while you sit at a stoplight, have coffee with a friend, get your child ready for school, debate the merits of bedtime with your spouse, write out and mail holiday greetings, or spend time reading this blog.

Your work is to pay attention. For now, please don’t try to change anything. This exercise is not to see if you can change your breathing. You are not to make the breathing longer or shorter or purposely expand your ribs or stop holding your breath. You are simply paying attention.

Of course, once you turn your attention to something it will change. But, it will be best if you think of yourself as an observer, simply cataloging, in as many situations as you can, what it is that you do with your breathing.

You can write your observations on paper or just remember. Whatever you remember is enough. This activity is you, shifting your attention from time to time to observe your breathing patterns.

That is all.

It will be enough, one week of paying attention to the anatomy of your breathing.

Ready . . . set . . . notice!

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Disclaimer: For some of us, noticing ourselves is exactly what we are trying to avoid. If that is you, please read along with us and use your resources to support you as you work through each week’s activities. Seek professional help if you have any questions about your readiness. If in doubt, wait and take part later when you feel more prepared.  

Note: I’d love to know if you are participating. You can message me privately or you can comment here to say, “I’m in” or “I’m in, in Portland (or, the name of your city).” That way, we’ll all know we are breathing together.

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