A Healthy Stepmother . . . and Three Radical, Un-Lofty Goals for the Holidays

Quick, it’s time for you to remind yourself to step back, sit back, fall back, get back, lay back, and pay back. Pay yourself back for every time you’ve ever over-extended and pretended.

Holiday gatherings at this time of year aren’t that different from holidays at other times of the year, in general. They are a thousand times different from other holidays, in specific. Decades of tradition, ritual, and cultural meaning ascribed to a certain song, a favorite dish, or a secret handshake create a recipe for exclusion of stepmothers.

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you know my pet project is convincing all of you to refrain from doing other people’s work. And, I don’t mean sweeping the sidewalk to your front door when the kids forget to do the chores.

I mean letting children do what they are capable of doing, which is much, much, much (please, add another much) more than we think they can.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . radical, un-lofty goalsI mean letting adults do what they are capable of doing (i.e. feel pain, worry, take care of others, consider and plan for the day, and advocate for children). Especially, when it comes to their own children. Yes, I do mean letting parents take care of their children.

The father, presumably your husband or partner, takes care of his children on his time. If he needs your help, you wait for him to ask you. You refrain from jumping in simply because you see what needs doing next.

The mother, presumably your husband/partner’s ex-spouse, takes care of her children on her time. You refrain from jumping in simply because you see what needs doing next.

Just because you can see it, doesn’t mean it belongs to you. 

Are you with me? The following ideas are things I wish I had considered ten years ago, but please use your knowledge of yourself, your spouse/partner, and the circumstances in your relationship to decide if these things will be helpful for you. Making your own decision will be good practice for you, especially when you’re feeling pressured into helping others.

Three radical, un-lofty Goals for the rest of 2014.

  1. Stay home for one of every three family outings. Sleep. Meet up with girlfriends. Read. Fume. Write in your journal. Surf Facebook. Or, stay home for two of every three and dance to loud music throughout the house. Hell, dance to loud music in the park or at the mall. Walk the dog. But, resist the urge to attend every family outing between now and January 1st. While you’re at it, let your spouse know he/she can play hooky for one of the family outings, what the heck.
  2. Spend one hour together without clothing, under the covers, every week between now and the end of the year. Just be there, no agenda. Agree you will leave the agenda out of it. You are there to meet up, eye to eye, safe and warm under the blankets, and say hello. Talk. Worry. Cry. Hug. Fight….no, wait, I don’t mean that, you do too much of that already, skip that one. If there isn’t a time in your day or evening without children around, wake in the middle of the night and take your clothes off. Spending an hour with no clothes on under the covers with your partner will, at the very least, remind you there are things in life more important than arguing, even if that is simply being held. At the very most, you will have shared intimacy at a time when you need it most. It’s preferable that you touch skin to skin, even a foot or a toe or holding hands, or whatever else you can can agree is being called for at the moment. Ahem. And, if the ahem doesn’t take very long, STAY under the covers for the whole hour, even if you fall asleep. 
  3. Answer all requests with Can I get back to you on that? In your impulse to belong, join, and be seen as generous, you can get stuck in the yes. In reality, you’ve got a choice. You are not the end-all, be-all for anyone. Not even your children. Write this down, Can I get back to you on that? Use it, every single time someone asks for your time, attention, or help. Can you help me with raking the leaves? Can I get back to you on that? Can you mend these pants for me? Can I get back to you on that? Can you meet me for coffee on Thursday? Can I get back to you on that? Mommy, I need treats for the school party. Can I get back to you on that? And, of course, what you do while you’re getting back to them is check your calendar and make sure you don’t have back-to-back appointments, double-bookings, or too many things on one day. During the holidays, make fewer appointments. And, of course, some of the kid requests get a higher priority, they are children. But, not everything is urgent, not even the treats for the school party. This is why the gods and goddesses made Trader Joe’s.

Un-lofty goals? Yes indeedy! Who said all the good goals were lofty goals involving getting our needs met by serving everyone else? The words maid, servant, janitor, dishwasher, or [fill-in-the-blank] come to mind. Doing all those things perfectly simply leads to anxiety and depression and the feeling you’re never good enough.

Un-lofty goals, on the other hand, are decadent and yummy. Although, in most families, un-lofty goals will be seen as radical, they are exactly what is needed. Un-lofty goals will help you feel like you are playing hooky. Which is good, since this is the kind of hooky you were meant to take. This is the kind of hooky that will restore your spirit, tickle your fancy, and open the doors and windows of your thinking so you can create your own top-three list for the next family outing.

There you go, three radical, un-lofty goals, and all. Clothing required for blog reading and commenting.

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 . . . Goats and advice for a child.

My husband and I are not regular TV or movie watchers, but we occasionally enjoy a couple of movies in a row on Netflix. On Saturday evening, we watched Jesus Henry Christ on the recommendation of a friend. We liked it, so after the movie was done and there was Goats in the Netflix cue, we looked at one another, grinned, and pushed Play.

Goats, stars Graham Phillips as Ellis, a 15-year-old boy who secretly applies to the same prep school his father attended. When he gets accepted and moves there, there is an opportunity for him to establish a relationship with his father, a relationship his mother Wendy, played by Vera Farmiga, has successfully obstructed for Ellis’ entire life.

Ellis has taken care of his mother’s affairs, paying the bills and running the house for some years and Wendy is distraught at the thought of him leaving. Wendy can’t stand the thought of her son being in a close relationship with his father. In fact, when Ellis spends Thanksgiving with his father and begins to get to know him, she turns on her son and accuses him of being just like his father, a man she has publicly damned over and over in front of Ellis.

Feral goat in Aruba

Feral goat in Aruba (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The character of Wendy saddened me. I know of children in Ellis’ situation who spend their childhood taking care of a mother or a father, emotionally and for years. The movie realistically depicted the manipulation that can go on in parent-child relationships. At one point, Wendy is sitting on the kitchen floor sobbing, “I’m a mother, I miss him like I miss a part of myself.” Several weeks later, when Ellis comes home for Christmas, she doesn’t say hello and profess her love, instead she yells at him for not calling her more often.

My own father behaved much like Wendy did. He was less blatant, more sneaky. He didn’t call my mother names, he simply talked about how afraid she was and how being afraid kept her from living and making decisions. He built up a story that took on mythic proportions. Gradually, over the years of me building up a greater understanding of what my mother went through living with my father, I came to understand why she behaved as she did and how much he used discrediting her to his advantage so he would look good for us kids.

Several times during the movie, I wanted to shout to Ellis, “ask her to be quiet, ask her to speak kindly about your father.” But then I remembered it took me until I was 48 to ask my father to stop. Ellis is just 15 in the movie, so instead of telling her to be quiet, he seizes an opportunity to spend the summer with his dad as his way to get away from his mother. I know it was just a movie, but I wanted to take Wendy aside and say to her, “If you keep on this way, you’ll lose him. At some point you need to quit manipulating and start acknowledging he’s his own person.”

So, today, I’m suggesting to teens and young adults who have one parent who bashes the other parent with verbal insults, or an eye roll every time a father is mentioned, or story-telling that keeps the other parent in an unfavorable light. I recommend you not wait until you are 48 to ask your parent to speak kindly of the other parent. I recommend you find a way to ask now.

I wish I had asked my dad to stop insulting my mom about 20 years ago.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Santa Sophia: A Christmas Poem for Stepmothers

With the tragedy in Connecticut on Friday, I thought I’d hold this post which I’ve updated from the original 2010 version. Then this morning, as I went through the motions of getting the day started, sorting reactions and judging my own and others’ responses, it seemed appropriate to share after all. It is about healing and letting nature have it’s way with us so we can loosen our defensive and protective stances against one another. We belong to the tribe of humanity, more than we let ourselves believe, and this poem is about the love that accompanies that shared humanity. Let us care for stepmothers as we care for each family member, let each stepmother be someone a child can rely on.  

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Santa Sophia: A Christmas Poem for Stepmothers 
©2010 Kim Cottrell

Twas two weeks before Christmas, when all through the land
Not a stepmother was sleeping, not even on demand.
The fireplace was lit in the living room there,
A sign of the peace we prayed we’d soon share.

The children were texting all snug in their beds,
While videos and Facebook danced in their heads.
With hubby cat-napping, and I with my book,
We’d just settled in to our warm winter nook.

When out in the drive there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my Kindle to see what was the matter.
Over to the window, I was pulled by a feeling,
And gazed through the glass with open-mouthed reeling.

The stars they did shine on the occupants inside
And lit up the house where worries collide.
When, what to my sleep-deprived eyes should appear,
But one electric car and…eight black bear.

A wise old crone, overflowing with ideas,
I knew in a moment it must be Sophia.
More convincing than parents, the black bear they came,
And she whispered, and encouraged, and called them by name!

“Now, Baloo! Now Brer! Now, Ben and Ted-ster!
On, Humphrey! On, Bamse! On Bruin and Buster!
Into the house! To the young! To the old!
Now here! Now there! Finding hearts that will hold!”

As fond memories of pre-divorce family repeat,
The pain and the loss, bitter pills, they did eat.
Into the house the black bears they did amble,
With satchels of joy, and Sophia in a ramble.

And then, in a twinkling, in the rooms up above
The soothing and healing of each growing love.
As I listened in silence, afraid to turn around,
Into the living room Sophia came with a bound.

She was dressed all in silk, from her head to her toes,
And her clothes were all silvered with buttons and bows.
A bundle of sticks she had flung on her back,
She could have built fire, without even a match

Her eyes–how they shone! Her laugh, a delight!
Her smile so warm and so absolutely right!
Her capable hands, she clasped tight to her heart,
As if ready to transform my pain into art.

A stick of gum she chewed loudly, and then gave a sneeze,
And the noise of it told me, she’d do as she please!
She had a kind face and a whole bunch of chutzpah,
She nodded when she laughed, as if saying . . . good’on ya!

She was darling and strong, a right sassy old self,
And I sighed when I saw her, and gave in to myself!
A wink of her eye and a twist of her head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

She spoke not a word, but went straight to work,
And filled all their hearts, even cleared out the murk.
And laying her hands alongside temporal lobes,
She called forth a wish for peace round the globe!

She sprang to her Zipcar, to me gave a nod,
And away they all drove to the next of stepmoms.
And I heard her exclaim, ‘fore she disappeared from view,
“Stepmothers, take heart . . . for you’ll always see through!”

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