A Healthy Stepmother . . . plants her feet and stands tall.

The first glimmers of dread surfaced last week, dread for the holiday season which fast approaches. Maybe you’ve felt your first dread too or maybe you’re blissfully ignoring the November and December schedule that approaches like a tsunami off the doorstep of your stepfamily home. Or, maybe you’ve long since moved past the difficulties of the holiday season and enjoy a family home filled with peace and connection.

If that latter situation belongs to you, I jump for joy with you. Hooray, that means there’s hope for the rest of us.

For the rest of us, I’ve long thought we could use our posture and the taking up of space, internal space as well as external space, to be more comfortable in difficult situations. That message has come up for me repeatedly in these last few days.

I wrote a blog post for Wednesday Martin, Stepmonster, Standing Tall in June of 2010. And, for years I’ve taught workshops on Living Inside Your Skin. This fall, I’m taking an ecourse with Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, in which she also urges we find ways to live from inside ourselves.

Then, just yesterday, a friend serendipitously mentioned this Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy, Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.

Let me just say, all of these messages have coalesced and I woke this Sunday morning knowing this idea of standing tall was meant to be my blog post here. Standing your ground, not puffing up, not caving in, is, as Brené Brown says, a useful way to go through vulnerable moments. Let’s you and I borrow it for the next few weeks and months.

Brené Brown isn’t the only one interested in how we stand in our vulnerability. Amy Cuddy talks about the Super Woman posture, feet wide, hands on hips, shoulders back. She has researched the chemical reaction inside men and women when they take up space.

I didn’t take my space in the early days with my stepfamily. I remained quiet and deferential and the kids did what any stepchild would do who isn’t comfortable with a stranger, they behaved as though I wasn’t around. I wasn’t. I was advertising I wasn’t there and didn’t want to be there. By the time I got around to telling them if they kept swearing they could go outside, I had my hands on my hips, figuratively speaking, and I began to have a presence.

Fred Courtadon portant une création de Jérémy ...

Fred Courtadon portant une création de Jérémy Beuret (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is freedom in taking up space. It’s not about bravado. It’s not about waiting until someone else is done. It’s about being awake, responsive, focused on my spouse and the connection he and I have. When I am standing tall, hands on hips, it’s easier for him to hug me. It’s easier for him to stand tall and not feel like he has to run around and protect me. The worries fall off my back because I’m not hunched. There is no broad surface of my back exposed for worries to perch and constantly nag at me. I am literally not a home to the whining and complaining and worries about life not being what it was back in the days when the parents were together.

Please do not mistake the force of my words as lack of compassion for my stepchildren or any others. Life does suck for some years after your parents divorce, sometimes for decades. At some point, every child of divorce, especially an adult child of divorce, has to decide whether to stop living in the past and live for the times that are going on now or continue to keep grievances alive at every interaction.

At some point, every stepmother has to decide whether to back away and stop trying to make up for the kids not having parents who are together. The stepmother did not cause it, unless she was dating their father before he was divorced. That’s a whole different case and I’m not talking to this stepmother. I’m talking to those of us who came along after the marriage was over, after the parents had at least moved to separate homes, and after the finances and family traditions had morphed away from keeping things the same to protect the children.

Here’s my idea:

For the month of November and December, stand in the Super Woman posture (described in full in Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk) at least once a day for 20 seconds. Maybe it’s in the morning when you get up. Maybe you need a boost because you’re about to go into a tough meeting so you escape to the restroom stall where you can have privacy to stand with hands on hips. Maybe it’s before you walk in the door of your home where the kids sprawl about wondering what is for dinner.

Every day, find a time to stand tall like Super Woman and contemplate the comfort in that posture. As Amy Cuddy says, it’s not about faking it until you make it since you aren’t striving for inauthenticity. She suggests you think of faking it until you become it and I know from my own years of studying and practicing human movement and behavior that posture strongly influences mood and comfort.

Boost the idea: (sort of like boosting your post on Facebook)

Share the idea with your stepkids. Tell them they have the power to help themselves feel more okay in unsure situations. They can learn to get the advantages that Amy Cuddy so clearly describes in her research of power and posture. Share the idea with your friends and with other stepmothers. Pass it along. Oh, and don’t forget your husband, he may need a power boost once in a while too!

This season, rather than shuttle my dread off to the side board of my mind, I’m going to embrace it and stand tall and face it. 

The holiday season? Bring it!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the stories we live and tell.

A friend of mine posted on Facebook.

photo (14).

I read the article and it was so good, I’ll tease you with this nugget, “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” Bruce Feiler, from the article. I’m fascinated with resilience. If my friend Carly thought this was about resilience, this binding together in families, then I needed to read it. I teach resiliency. I’ve recovered my own resiliency and gone on to have a really wonderful life. But, was I always resilient? If not, how and when did I learn to be resilient?

Wow, and another wow. You know how things land in your lap when you are in the thick of it. Three weeks into bringing my father home to live with us after his stroke, I’ve been deep in examining the family narrative and wouldn’t have thought of referring to it in that way if not for seeing this article.

When we decided to bring Dad home, I felt surprised at my decision. When he had his stroke it wasn’t my first reaction, in fact, I went about the process of looking for an adult foster home for him to reside close to me. As we looked and as his needs became more apparent, it was clear we needed a better handle on his condition and the only way to do that was bring him with us. He needed some consistency of care to make the leap to the next level of functioning, so here we are. And, it’s going well, mostly as we expected. We will likely still end up finding him a foster home, but for now we are focused on improving his quality of life regardless of where he lives.

After we got him home, I began combing the story line in my family for stories of my relatives caring for relatives. The obvious, my sister and I cared for our mom at home when she was dying of melanoma at the age of 47. She was so young, it seemed not so typical.

On my mom’s side of the family, Aunt Rose, my mother’s sister, took care of her grandmother who had dementia. I was in junior high and high school and loved having my great grandmother in my life. Later Aunt Rose took care of her husband and then her father. My cousin and I took care of Aunt Rose when she was dying of lung cancer at the age of 70, I was the weekend relief caregiver to my cousin who had a family an hour away. So, not only have I seen the family narrative in action, I’ve lived it.

On my dad’s side of the family, my dad’s sisters took care of their mother for over 15 years after my grandmother had a series of strokes. For a large portion of that time, my Aunt Ranae had Grandma solo. And, my cousin Vicki’s family cared for her at home when she was dying at 51 of melanoma.

Clearly, a strong family narrative exists around caring for relatives, and my journey through the taking-care-of-dad process gives me a new understanding of why stepfamilies are slow to accept the stepmothers in their midst. The culture has a strong and strongly negative narrative about stepmothers being untrustworthy and conniving. Whether or not a particular family narrative matches the cultural narrative, it takes sensitivity and resolve to not be swayed by the popular culture. When we aren’t swayed, I think of this as resisting the easy way out. But, who can resist the easy way out?

Here’s what I hope, but I’m doing anyway even if it changes nothing. I hope that if I live true to my family narrative, and not the popular narrative, then my stepfamily narrative will be shifted. And now I get it that I don’t need to have a report card each year at Christmas that says, you’ve been a great stepmother because…xyz. I only need to live true to my heart and the narrative will have another layer of complexity added and each generation adds another layer. Each event and each story adds another. That’s why it’s so critical how we respond in a crisis within the family.

Any time we’ve had a family crisis, my husband and I dug in to find our true feelings and our commitment to the future of all involved. We made a plan and we hung on to it whether we were challenged to take the easy way out or challenged to cave in. It seems our actions are contributing to the family narrative and we’re  seen as reliable and consistent. If the family narrative theory is true, the children involved will also see themselves as reliable. Thus, the stepfamily narrative becomes richer, more complex, and therefore less easily influenced by the negative messages the popular culture holds about stepfamilies.

Most of all, along the way all hearts are eased.

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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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