A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Getting Up in the Morning 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Getting Up in the Morning 

I admit, I’ve been distracted. By an endless campaign season here in the United States. By the election itself. By the mood and conflict surrounding the result.

Honestly, I’ve felt I was living inside a stepfamily run amok.

We know those families. We stepmothers are more than familiar with that conflict. With that grief. With the living among people who have lost so much and don’t know how to sort out moving forward. With the living among those who use their anger as daggers to slash and cut and harm anyone within arm’s reach, including their own children.

It’s as if a blindness descends and overtakes even these sane and caring people. As if the larger human instinct to survive, which has historically meant working together in groups to find food and shelter and fend off danger, has been lost. As if when we walked through the forest we left it behind on one of our rest stops. 

I’m rattled because I’m working on a book of tales for stepmothers, with some fables of how we might shift the focus in the future, to more resilient stepfamilies. To stepfamilies that can absorb loss, support one another in grief, and create enough stability for joy to creep in once in a while. I’m rattled because I wonder what use my book might be.

I’m rattled because not only do I see signs of a crumbling resolve in stepmothers and stepfamilies around me, but I see all the signs of a crumbling integrity and honor in the larger society outside my home.

It worries me. This blatant disregard for the consequences of actions. This willingness to burn the house down, often seen in a stepfamily when one of the divorcing parents takes the other parent to court over and over and over again, never letting either household settle into a calm place for the children. The children live with constant stress and it shows.

So, when I think of sitting down to write to you and share my thoughts, when I think of what it means to be a stepmother in 2017, I struggle to come up with something meaningful.

Because every morning when you wake up, you are being asked to show up again. How will you do that? How can you get up day after day in the face of yelling and accusations and lies about you, and still show up, really be present to the situation?

How can you get up in the morning and go about your day without resorting to the same anger and disrespect you see all around you? How do you keep one little shred of yourself to yourself, selfishly guarding it so no one strips you from knowing who you are? How do you build a treasure chest that fuels you during long and sustained sieges on your decency and your partner’s decency?

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I’m not sure I know any more. I have lots of ideas here and here in my blog archives. I use them every day. They help. And some days they don’t. Some days I want to get in the stepmother chat room or Facebook group and rant. I don’t. I know it won’t help me in the long-term. I know it will simply fuel my anger and disappointment.

No, this feeling of swimming against the tide is bigger than my family or your family. This societal chaos feels like trying to swim and keep your head above water and someone pushes you back under. Every time. This consistently bumping into a dead-end feels like setting about making friends with a family member only to have someone else’s divisive words or actions drive you apart. This is having your every motive scrutinized and proclaimed a lie.

It’s hard to manage in an environment like that. Reading the newspaper each morning feels like entering those Facebook groups and learning of the latest lie told to the children so they don’t want to come to their dad’s house. The purposeful withholding of information feels like learning about your stepchild’s soccer game a couple of hours before the event.

I don’t know how we stop it. I keep trying to remain calm. I keep breathing. I keep telling myself, at the minimum, do no harm. Don’t make it worse. But that only works sometimes.

Sometimes I have to let myself sit in the pain and stop trying to make it go away. I’m strong enough. I’ve established that.

I’ll be here long after the fighting stops. I’ll be here long after the stories are told and fade away. I’m still me. You are still you.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Being Good

I wonder if the remarried woman has more pressure on her to be a good wife than in a first marriage. I wonder if the stakes feel higher to be good because the odds of a remarriage succeeding are so dismal.

And how good does a good wife have to be? How good does a stepmother-wife have to be?

Does going from good wife to divorced woman have something to do with how mothers reach for their children? Is there something about reclaiming and emboldening the image of good mother that will somehow compensate for the loss of good wife? And if good mothers and good wives are good women, can there be two good women in an extended stepfamily? 

Is there a limited amount of good?

Is the label good necessary, is it automatic?

test-clip-art-7iakpmratI can argue no one needs it. Good feels like a set up for doing too much, for over-doing, and for over-extending. Good feels like a great way to start a competition.

Think of it. Someone needs to find that misplaced coat because the weather turned cold overnight and it’s raining outside. The child can’t walk to school in the cold without a coat. So someone must find the coat. Who jumps to go find the coat? 

And I wonder, is there more pressure to be the good stepmother from the children, more from the husband, or more from the ex-wife? Or are we trying so hard to prove we are worthy of this man because others lay claim to him as father, son, or ex-husband that we impose the good label on ourselves.

Do we feel we have to prove we are good enough to justify him marrying us in the first place? To justify him wanting his children to get along with us? To justify him trusting us enough to leave the children with us?

And so we bend, mold, flex, double-over, curl up, make ourselves smaller, make ourselves stronger, do more, be more, try to be prettier, try to solve all problems. We aspire to become female Macgyvers, able to do anything, be anywhere, and love anyone.

How do we decide who establishes the measure of a good stepmother? Who do we let apply this measure to us?

And finally, how is our good earned?

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Doles Out Her Emotional Labor

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Doles Out Her Emotional Labor

On Facebook and Twitter and the blogosphere, I see post after post from stepmothers struggling with the husband, the stepkids, and the ex-wife. I get it. I get it.

No, I really do get it. The process of integrating a stepfamily takes seven to twelve years according to experts such as Patricia Papernow, Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t.

Regardless of where you are in the process of stepfamily integration, it isn’t easy. Regardless of your best efforts, the speed of the integration isn’t slower or faster because of what you do. There are countless variables, so many it’s not possible to read a book about what others do and simply apply that to your own family, however there are some good ideas in some books. Think of the number of books about child development and how many contradictory theories there are for what is best. Same with stepmothering.

Every stepmother I know has learned she has to live it to see what works for her and her family.

For me, the greatest level of peace has come when I’ve educated myself about the process and taken less responsibility for the outcome. I know, it feels weird to not be designated as a fixer. It is so ingrained. I used to think it was a personal failing, now I know it’s culturally dictated. So, when I found this article, I knew I wanted to share it with everyone who marries a person with children from a previous marriage.

In Women Are Just Better at This Stuff: Is Emotional Labor Feminism’s Next Frontier?, November 2015, Rose Hackman introduced her latest research with this:

We remember children’s allergies, we design the shopping list, we know where the spare set of keys is. We multi-task. We know when we’re almost out of Q-tips, and plan on buying more. We are just better at remembering birthdays. We love catering to loved ones, and we make note of what they like to eat. We notice people’s health, and force friends and family to go see the doctor.

We listen to our partner’s woes, forgive them the absences, the forgetfulness, the one-track mindedness while we’re busy organizing a playdate for the kids. We applaud success when it comes: the grant that was received, the promotion. It was their doing, and ours in the background. Besides, if we work hard enough, we can succeed too: all we need to do is learn to lean in.

Hackman says this is emotional labor and someone has to do it. Both at home and at the office, women are doing the greatest percentage of emotional labor and wondering why they are so exhausted. I feel her article is a very fair description of the issues, without disparaging the men and women we partner with.

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Go ahead, get out for an early morning walk…

So, take a moment to breath. Consider Hackman’s list. Add to it all the things you’re juggling in your attention right now. Add to it all the worries you have about the kids, your husband, your own health and well-being. No wonder you’re exhausted and wondering if your marriage will survive. Simple marriages (my term, in which neither partner has been remarried before) struggle with emotional labor. Stepmothers, add an element of double or triple duty here. Emotional labor is one big reason it feels stressful. That and loyalty binds. No wonder stepmothers are depressed or anxious (Wednesday Martin).

If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you’ll know I’m a big proponent of doing less. Of getting over the Great Healer Complex. For reminders and ideas for how to work with the image of doing less, see A Healthy Stepmother Minds Her Own Business, or A Healthy Stepmother Does as Good as She Can, or A Healthy Stepmother Knows When to Cat, Dog, or Hamster.

You might have felt doubtful when you’ve heard me encouraging you to do less. You might have struggled with guilt that things aren’t getting done: Johnny is going to flunk math, Suzie is not going to have that cute outfit to wear, or someone needs to pick up the kids.

Rose Hackman’s work is an awesome way to understand emotional labor in the context of your current life as a woman, as a wife, and as a stepmother.

Believe it or not, if you do less, your family will be better for it. It reminds me of the episode of Blue Blood (Season 3, Episode 2, Domestic Disturbance) where Linda went back to work and Danny was struggling to step up and help out more at home. Linda felt guilty she wasn’t there to do all the things she used to do. Erin reassured her it’d be good for the boys to take on more responsibility. In fact, maybe that’s the simplest way to encourage children to do more in the home, don’t you be the one doing things that don’t get done. Wait. Things will change if you can wait long enough.

While you experiment, there’s no need to go to the other extreme and never offer emotional labor. It’s a continuum and we can live somewhere along it without getting stuck on either end. Imagine, if you decreased the emotional labor in your life by ten or fifteen percent? How much energy would you have to do something else? To create something? To sustain yourself?

Of course, I’m dying to know what you’ll do and how it turned out. Please come back and comment and let me know. As always, you can post anonymous comments, just pick an alias. I’m the only one who will ever see your email address.

Ready to dish up some emotional labor?

Ready. Set. Stop!

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Liberally Applies Time Outs, For Herself 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Liberally Applies Time Outs, For Herself 

Recently, a friend of mine sent a text to me and another friend. Her parents were arriving for a week’s long visit and she was worried about repeating the same old habits that weren’t comfortable for her or her family. She said, any ideas you have for me to focus and keep a level head much appreciated.

Immediately, I shared with her all the secrets I’ve shared with you, my stepmother kindreds. Take time for yourself. Go to the bathroom. Often. Use the time behind that locked door to breath and settle into your body. Walk the dog. Watch a movie with the kids/parents. Participate in activities that involve parallel play, otherwise known as side by side activities. Not having to look one another in the eye is a blessing in many circumstances, no matter which relationship feels difficult.

Later, she told us the most useful suggestion was to take a time out when things were spinning into uncomfortable territory. She had. She mentioned that her mother had needed a time out, more than once. And, she reported matter-of-factly, she took the time outs for her mother.

IMG_5871-2When I heard that, I grinned. How perfect. When someone else is misbehaving in the relationship, if they won’t calm down and discuss, or change the topic, or find a way to manage and move forward, then you take yourself away, for five minutes, or fifteen minutes, or an hour. Repeat, as necessary.

So, over the next two weeks when you’re in close quarters with family and high on the expectation roller coaster, consider taking a time out. Whether it’s your own or someone else’s behavior, it is possible to interrupt the negative interaction and let it die. The kids are pouting and yelling? Take a few minutes elsewhere. The husband has a frustrating day because the kids are not connecting with him and he starts to take it out on you? Take a bit of a break and come back and interact later.

Use the time out as one of the ways to keep healthy boundaries. Keep your internal self balanced and ready to respond in the way you choose. Behave on your terms, not in reaction to someone else. No matter who it is, liberally apply time to process the situation and decide how to move forward.

Your sanity and well-being might depend on just that.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Wonders Where You’ll Be

After the early years in my marriage, there came a time I realized I wasn’t alone as a stepmother. The realization came long after I began my blog, long after I knew dozens of stepmothers.

It seems common that we cling to the idea that everyone else is doing better at this stepmother thing than we are. We’re pretty sure we’re right. 

But, there are so many of us out here, getting up each day and making the best of life. There are now more remarried couples than first-time couples, which means more stepfamilies than first-time families. Who knew?

On this day of gathering with family, this day of high expectations, I wonder where you are. 

Will you be in your home, preparing a meal for your family and some of your extended stepfamily? 

Will there be people who sit around your table with resentment or will they participate with respect and appreciation for your efforts?

Will you feel welcomed in your own home, or will snubs and rejections, so subtle they’d be denied if ever called out, haunt you throughout the day and for weeks to come?

Will you feel pressure, even heaping it on yourself, to make sure everyone has a nice time, as if you had the power to ensure anyone had a good time other than yourself

Will you forget these are your husband’s children and spend your precious resources making up for things that happened to them in the past or try to be the perfect wife and compensate for your husband’s negative experiences? 

Will you be going to your in-laws for the big meal or another home where you are welcomed? Or, will you be spending time in a hostile place you’ve never felt welcome?

Will you try to grin and bear it as you’ve done on so many occasions, only to end up crying alone in the bathroom, or later after you’re home and the dark of night covers the tracks of tears on your pillow. 

  Will your husband have the just-right thing to say to help you feel okay, or will he be drowning in his own unrealistic expectations for the day and snap at you when you need comfort? Will you be able to separate from the worn out narrative that says really good people have a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving and feel bad because you know your family will never measure up and it’s all your fault? 

Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, however you are spending the day, including if it’s home alone and you’ve had an enormous fight with your beloved, may you dig down in the treasure chest of reality and community and realize . . . you are not alone. You do not have to be perfect. You do not have to make the day perfect for anyone else. Your food has to satisfy only those who enjoy it. Your humor has to be good enough for those who understand it. And your presence has to comfort only you. 

I hope you go easy on yourself. Help when it makes sense and go sit down when it seems called for, and sitting down will be called for far more than you think. 

Go easy on your husband. He might have a bad day with or without you by his side. He might be tired enough or worried enough or unskilled at navigating relationships enough to truly be beside himself on these high-expectation moments. 

Your job is not to save him, or to question whether you are necessary in his life. Your job is to support yourself so you are steady enough to tolerate the rough day ahead. When you stay steady in yourself, you are available to both yourself and him. That is what it means to stand beside someone. I’ll write more about that standing beside him business another time. 

For now, you take care of you. Ask before you help him, does he want help. And breathe. Who cares if it turns out perfectly?

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and Bowls Full of Issues

Recently, I became aware of trying to hold too much. Not do too much, but hold too much. I was holding just a few things but they were enormous. Things like the generational injuries in my family. There was no way I could keep the issue inside without conflict and turmoil and distress, to myself.

Holding an issue that big is a little like trying to hold poverty or violence against women. It is too much. It can’t be held by one person.

The good news is that becoming aware of my tendency to try to hold on to the vast issues helped me do something different.

Right after I became aware of my tendency, a friend confided in me about another person. I wished she had left me out of it. I woke up the next morning running the scene over and over in my mind, distressed at knowing this information because I am a friend with the other person too. I began bubbling over, churning about what I’d say and do and how it would feel to state my need and the reaction I anticipated from her.

As I sat drinking coffee at my dining room table, all of a sudden, I remembered my tendency to take on and hold things I can’t solve.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and Bowls Full of iIssues Quickly, I imagined an array of bowls sitting on the sideboard in my dining room. I imagined taking the steaming, roiling mass the friend-issue and gently depositing it in one of the bowls. Then, I sat there and felt my posture in the chair and breathed all the way from my nasal passages down to my pelvic floor, slow, uncrushed, generous breaths, not the fullest I could take, just full enough so my ribs moved easily.

Not five minutes later, I realized I was brewing with the issue of my father’s health and well-being. The roiling of that issue felt the same as the previous one. Without berating myself, I gently placed the mass of the father-issue in another bowl on the sideboard. Then, I took a few moments to notice what it was like to have that searching and longing for resolution no longer inside me.

Some people call holding these big issues worry, but I want to make a distinction. Some of us are carrying things we have been taught we should carry. All the stepmothers who’ve received the message the health of the stepfamily is yours to hold, raise your hand. I know this because as soon as I set the issue in the bowl, I feel calm inside. Worry feels different, worry is wary, worry is about meeting deadlines and obligations. See Karla McLaren’s great description of worry, which she includes in her description of anxiety.

This setting issues in the bowl strategy can work with any issue. Especially chronic issues that crop up again and again, unlike the straight-forward issues such as getting a kid’s teeth straightened and the day arrives when there are no more orthodontia appointments.

No, these monumental issues, the ones that pull and cause you to lose sleep at night are systemic, they are bound so tightly into the fabric of stepfamilies, or your family of origin, it’s incredible anyone sleeps. Things like communication between homes. Things like child loyalty. Things like an ex-spouse using what Rorshak calls Divorce Poison in his book of the same name. These are the things that roil and broil and prevent peace.

These chronic, messy, systemic patterns of problems are the perfect things to set aside in a bowl.

Not to be ignored.

I’m not suggesting we avoid important issues. I am suggesting we practice carrying these steaming, roiling, too-big-for-one-person issues away from our central self, away from our vital organs and the tender parts that keep us alive and hopeful.

Unresolvable issues, the ones often built into the situations like stepfamilies are the perfect thing to practice working with while they remain outside yourself. When you want to consider your actions and reactions or what you might do when the same situation arises again, well, the issue is there in the bowl on the sideboard, ready for your consideration and reconsideration, whenever you are ready to work with it.

I think we need to learn the difference between the things we can safely hold and the things that are best stored outside of us. When we get good at it, if a friend complains and we want to plug our ears, we’ll barely get ruffled as we lay the issue in the bowl. When the time is right, maybe the next time we are with that friend, we can say what needs saying, without the emotional tsunami that would follow if we had been carrying the issue deep inside us trying to keep it contained.

There will always be plenty of time and space to take up and work with our big issues. But, we will likely deal with them in a more comfortable way when we have been able to stop holding and instead disengage and disconnect, maybe even forget them, for small snippets of time, until we recognize we are not an issue. We are a living, breathing human, a being.

We need to learn how it feels to live and breathe as a human, and not as an issue.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . reflects on Santa.

In 2010, I wrote the first version of Santa Sophia, a Christmas poem for stepmothers. I’ve been tinkering with it since, each year knowing another truth about this process or thinking of another word here and there that shape the message more like it happens in our hearts and in our homes.

Whatever your plans this year, whatever your family constellation, whatever your burdens, my wish for you is to know the hope of connection and the sanity of shared experience. In many families, a stepmother is isolated from her own people, estranged from them, or so engaged with her stepfamily she forgets to be with family and friends.

She can drift and float along, with nothing to anchor her experience and her heart.

Maybe this year you will reach out, outside the silence of aloneness, out past the rejection, and beyond the pain. Open yourself to letting another stepmother into your life, or reaching out to one newer than you. Let your vulnerability be a connection with someone you can trust.

There is no rushing. We are not in a race to get somewhere. We can take our time, cultivate deeper relationships, and go back to heal pieces that will help us move forward.

Santa Sophia: A Christmas Poem for Stepmothers
©2014 K.Cottrell 

Twas two nights 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 Netflix and Instagram 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 rambling black bear.

Opening doors they did bound, bringing anchoring ideas,
I knew in a moment, it was Santa Sophia.
Warm fur, curious noses, 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!
They went into the house, to the young, to the old.
Shuffling here and now there, finding hearts that were cold.

As old memories of pre-divorce family repeat,
The pain and the loss, bitter pills children eat.
Into the house, the black bears they did amble,
With satchels of honey, and hurts to unscramble.

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

She was dressed all in tencel, 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.
With capable hands, she reached for my heart,
And began 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 summoned the black bear, to me gave a nod,
And away they all drove to the next of stepmoms.
And I heard her exclaim, as they disappeared from view,
“Stepmother, take heart … this year you’ll see through.”

 

 

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 . . . ends the finite game.

Years ago, a friend gave me a small book titled Finite and Infinite Games, by James P. Carse. The book left a big impression on me and garnered a place on my bookshelf all these years. When I needed it the other day, there is was, unfolding the wisdom for me at exactly the time I needed it. Or, so I thought.

In fact, I wish I had remembered this book a decade ago when I began my life as a stepmother because when I opened the pages of the book again, the words leaped out of the page and into my stepmother consciousness and here I am, rushing to share with you.

Briefly, a few of the concepts of a finite game. The main purpose of a finite game is winning. Finite means it has an end. The rules are well-defined and serve the purpose of defining a winner and a loser and how you’ll know when the game has ended. These rules are externally defined and cannot change as the game progresses. You can also not play alone. You need an opponent. Think divorce court, settlements, child custody battles, and on and on. There is definitely that part of living in a stepfamily that involves living within a finite game.

On the other end of the spectrum is the infinite game. In an infinite game, the goal is not winning. In fact, infinite means the game goes on forever. The goal is continuing to play. Thus, rules serve to keep the play going. Rules get changed, get this . . . to prevent someone from winning. That’s where I had to stop reading and walk the dogs and let it soak in. That’s the part that made me think of our stepfamilies. Could there be a game with rules that accommodated and changed to keep everyone playing and keep someone from winning?

Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, James P. Carse

Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, James P. Carse

Life is the biggest infinite game there is and we get to choose whether we are going to play it like it’s a finite game, with a winner and a loser. Personally, I think the winner-loser mentality is the best way to increase blood pressure, heart rate, anxiety, and depression. Constantly comparing ourselves to someone else. Constantly jockeying for the best seat at the table. Constantly putting others down so they don’t appear better, in case we perceive ourselves as losing. Ugh. I have no time for it.

It’s true, you can’t waltz into the other house and say, hey, snap out of it, let’s all live with some respect. But, we can take ourselves away from the finite game and the game of winning and losing. You see, in the finite game, there must be an opponent. The game cannot be played when there is no opponent. Some might argue there could be a game called Who Can Give the Silent Treatment the Longest game, which sort of looks like there isn’t a finite game. But, that’s a finite game if you engage in the nastiness of it all. If your heart and mind get wrapped up in knots each time you think of that other person, yep, you’re playing a finite game, complete with winner-loser. If you’re practicing healthy boundaries (ala Karla McLaren) and you feel neutral when you hear this person’s name and don’t go off in a 30-minute tirade each time you think of him/her, then it’s likely you’ve taken yourself out of the game. In that moment, there is no finite game.

I don’t know if the game of life automatically becomes an infinite game when we stop playing the finite game. What I do know is that as soon as I laid down the worry of being enough, doing enough, what he or she was or wasn’t doing, and a whole ton of other stuff, the game felt different. Yes, it was like that. It was immediate. It felt like one moment a battle raged inside me and the next moment, when I focused on a different game, voila, there was no more winning and losing. I continue paying attention to boundaries focusing on the infinite game.

No, life isn’t perfect. But it’s better. Much better.

So, what is the game I’m playing? The infinite game I’m playing. Well, beside the overarching LIFE game, there is the hugely important Marriage to My Fabulous Guy game, the Growing and Maturing as a Human game, and the Who Can I Be When the Criticism Falls Off Me game.

I expect there are a few other games in my stepfamily future as we all mature and age up. As an infinite game teammate, I’m okay with that.

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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