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?

img_7787

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.

IMG_1250

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?

.

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.”