A Healthy Stepmother . . . accidentally discovers a new dream.

The First Thanksgiving of 2011, successfully celebrated.

For my husband and I, there’s Thanksgiving dinner with the mom side and post-Thanksgiving with the dad side, later will come my side of the family. For the kids, there’s the dad’s dad side, the dad’s mom side, and the mom’s side. We will repeat all this at Christmas without complaint. We’re glad for the time together and grateful when everyone is gracious about which day we gather.

Waiting at home.

Of course, my husband and I were guilty of trying to make holiday gatherings super special and nice for the kids when we first got married, as if to help them adjust to the fact that their dad wasn’t alone any more. I look back on that newly-married couple with fondness. They were us, naive, even in our late 40’s. We were still holding on to a dream that if we shared our lives and our good intentions, then everything would feel good for the kids.

Sadly. It didn’t feel good. Not that first year, not the year after, not the year after that. The holidays were marked by an incredible amount of stress and things were never quite right, seemingly for anyone. I was overwhelmed about the fact that I was suddenly spending most of my holiday time with folks who either didn’t care about me or didn’t know how to incorporate me into the family. I grieved for my single life when I attended wonderful holiday gatherings with friends and relatives and we freely hugged and shared how much we meant to each other. Married, it was no longer an option for me to be with those others and I missed the warmth. Without that warmth, I struggled to offer warmth to others.

I withered inside and I almost gave up on them. The holidays, I mean.

Almost. This year I decided to reclaim my love for this time of year. No longer will I let myself be pushed out of my own life, and that this is my life now. I will remain by the side of my husband, the man who chose me and I’ll celebrate with him. We’ll celebrate that we are in love and loving one another after nearly eight years.

Welcomer.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . gets used to not-knowing. (Self-Soothing #12)

For most of us, stepmothers and mothers alike, knowing what is coming is one of the ways we cope with our lives. We grew up learning to anticipate others needs, we jump up and get something for the company or the family when others are just as capable of playing the role of host. We schedule, plan, problem-solve, organize, and evaluate, all in the name of efficiency and being a good woman.

And, we had better look pretty damned good while we’re doing all that too, as Bette Midler says. Recently saw this video and found it coincided with my worries about young women and the messages about being female in our country.

But, back to the coping and doing it all . . . said stepmother sails along making sure she’s got all the just-right foods for kids lunches, makes herself available for carpool and after-school homework sessions. She plans and schedules meetings and work around the stepfamily and extended stepfamily she married when she married the man.

And, it all comes crashing down when things go sideways or the unknown and unthinkable happens. For most of it, it happens in the form of, “Oh, did you hear there’s a play tonight at 7pm?” Well, no, I didn’t hear there was a play. No, I didn’t hear there was a doctor’s appointment tomorrow and Johnny needs a ride. Nope, didn’t know we needed 3 freshly ironed white shirts for that new after-school job. Continue reading

A Healthy Stepmother . . . soothes about self-soothing. (Self-Soothing series #8)

They say you teach what you need to learn. Well, maybe it’s true. As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, we’re in the  middle of the stepfamily stew and it’s taken me a bit to get my perspective back so I can keep on with our series on self-soothing.

As I worked with my own soothing strategies, it occurred to me that it’s so easy to think we’re not doing good or good enough. And that always makes me think of “what is good enough?”

Because of all my pondering on good enough, I created this self-soothing graphic for you and me. The picture below depicts self-soothing as a process, one that you can live on at any point on the continuum and still be self-soothing, except for the freak-out place.

As you read, just notice that at any stage there is something you can do that brings you closer into contact with yourself. Whether it’s just noticing your state or actually doing things that bring change, any step is useful for you.

Freak-Out:
This is a steady state of upset. Or, it might be it’s your reaction when things go wrong. To be in freak-out is to be in constant arguments and that sick-to-your-stomach pit you get when you lose yourself in the process of a stepfamily. This stage is usually accompanied by guilt and remorse when the freak-out is over and lots of judging of your self as a not-good person.
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A Healthy Stepmother . . . leaves the big stuff on the table. (Self-Soothing series, #6)

I struggled a long time to write this blog post because we’re headed into discussions of the big stuff and how to self-soothe. The big stuff stirs up our internal stuff. Self-soothing is all about how we manage our emotions and what we do with our actions in the face of the big stuff in our stepfamily. Remember, I’m not a psychologist or a counselor or a stepmother coach. I am a stepmother who has studied human behavior for many decades and is now shining the “patterns of behavior” light on this issue of being a stepmother.

The last few weeks, when you were practicing making space, taking inventory, paying attention to your patterns, all of those studies were to lay the groundwork upon which to process your big stuff. The stronger your groundwork practice, the stronger your self-soothing in the internal stuff.

One of the simplest ways to self-soothe is to leave the big stuff where it belongs. That’s it . . . leave it sitting there on the sofa or the table. Don’t even pick it up. You can walk all around it. You can look at it. You can even touch it, but it’s best if you can leave it lying there while you do.

I’ve thought we need those intermittent warnings that you hear at the airport . . . “please do not leave your luggage unattended, any luggage left unattended will be destroyed.” Our stepmother version could be . . . “please do not take on the big stuff that isn’t yours, any big stuff you take on that doesn’t belong to you could explode at any moment.”

If you have picked up a big stuff issue, you’ve noticed how hot it gets. The three really big stuff issues that come up for most stepmothers? One is the pursuing of the child’s love. Another is the judging of the mother. And the third is the rescuing of the child. Any one of these can burn you, all three together and you’ve got a bonfire. Continue reading

A Healthy Stepmother . . . stops and waits. (Self-Soothing series, Week 5)

(Note: Week 5 of a 10-week series on self-soothing. Looking to our animal nature to access our ability to manage our reactions and have the life we choose, not the life that happens while we are upset or retreating.)

After our evening dog walk, my husband and I linger on the front porch watching the sky darken before we go inside. Our big dog loves this hang out time with us. Our little dog, Lucy, does . . . and doesn’t. She often seems as though she’d like to sit on the porch with us, but as night falls the wind picks up and she peers nervously over hunched shoulders looking for an escape route.

When I take her inside, she calms quickly and I go back to join my husband on the porch. The peace is short-lived. Lucy lives for the sight and sniff of the people in our close-knit community who come to say hello with the latest news. Soon, she hears the neighbor’s step on the porch and she launches into a fire drill of barking. As I reflect on her very temporary peace, it occurs to me that Lucy’s problem is similar to the stepmother dilemma, to detach or not to detach.

One of the coping recommendations for a stepmother is to detach when things get overwhelming or she finds herself becoming anxious or depressed when wrapped in the drama of her remarried family. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, there are some great descriptions of detachment in Stepmonster, by Wednesday Martin. Detachment is a great way to reground and regroup but sometimes it comes with its own stress. The situations that bother me produce similar conflicts in me as the loud noises do for Lucy.

The facts are that Lucy has a great home with us. She is comforted by being with us and life is good for her. But, Lucy is bothered by the wind and firecrackers and any sharp, loud noise. When she hears loud noise, she runs to hide and calm herself. She is our self-appointed guard dog and she makes sure we know when things are okay and when they are not. Thus, when she is scared, she goes into a massive quandary about continuing her guard-dog job or escaping away to a more comforting place.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . runs out of self-soothing steam. (Self-Soothing series, 4 of 10)

Note: Yes, you read the headline correctly . . . runs out of self-soothing steam. What if we don’t strive for perfection, what if we strive for health.

Recently, things have steamed up around my house and I got lost in one of those not-so-self-soothing loops. You know the kind. You’re doing everything you can to calm, restore, and keep your equilibrium. To no avail.

It wasn’t the no-reply to my text. It wasn’t the one more favor, pretty please. It wasn’t the lack of contribution to our home. Nope. We’ve been dealing with the stuff that takes your breath away and I can’t write it here because I said this isn’t blog about my family.

I’ve soothed for weeks now. Weeks. And quite successfully. Glad I haven’t been angry or self-righteous all these weeks, I’d be a wreck if I had been. Nope, I’ve acted very clear-headed and I’m satisfied that I’ve supported my husband in the way he needed, supported myself in the way I could, felt supported by him and I wouldn’t change any of it.

Today, I woke up and it was a different story. It might be that my self-soothing skills were shattered by the incessant noise of over-the-top fireworks. We haven’t had peace for 3 days and my system is overloaded. And, in addition to all the noise, it’s been difficult over the last few days to find alone time.

I headed into this holiday weekend with depleted self-soothing abilities after all the really big stuff. So, on Friday, the no reply to my text was the proverbial last straw.

I’m pretty sure that since nothing about our human experience is constant, then neither is our ability to remain calm, cool, and soothed. Thus, I’ll be kind to myself and accept that my crabbiness today isn’t a constant either. It is a temporary condition, one that will pass.

Ironically, I meant to write a funny blog post today. One that would give all stepmothers something to chuckle about. Sadly, I’ve come up empty-handed.

I’m content to remind myself that the self-soothing resource that I’ve cultivated these last months and years is strong. Just because it’s depleted today doesn’t mean it will be tomorrow. I’ll get some good sleep, eat my vegetables, and work on nurturing myself. Most importantly, I won’t apologize for my irritability. Irritability is what happens when nerves fray, tensions mount, and resources dry up. Irritability happens.

I’ll be back on the self-soothing bandwagon again soon enough! Now, it’s back to the basics……. find some space to recharge.

P.S. Between when I wrote this post and when I’m putting it up here on the blog, my husband and I had one of the best conversations of our marriage. We’re right on track, together, and it feels like my self-soothing tank is getting close to full again. Who knew this is where we’d end up and I’m sure we wouldn’t have stumbled on this particular version of the conversation if it hadn’t been for my state of mind today. Self-soothing depletes. Irritability happens. Self-soothing returns. Sort of like a tide. 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . walks. (Self-Soothing series, Week 3)

(Note: Week 3 of a 10-week series on self-soothing. The first week you found space for yourself. The second week you began to take inventory of your ability to sense, think, feel, and do and to shift between any one of those. This week you will integrate some of what you’ve learned. Do only as much as you can and luxuriate in taking your time with the material.)

Jane blindly headed out the door, only vaguely aware that although it wasn’t raining she might need a coat. She moved quickly, desperate to shake off the hurt and anger from the last few days. Her whole body ached and she felt as if she’d explode.

The first 10 blocks went by in a blur. Jane walked purposefully, her feet leading the way, heels stomping with each step, as if to shout out her indignation and upset to the ground. Her thoughts came in a tumble, each new one as hot as the one before. Jane made no effort to control her thoughts. She had learned that if she just let them go for this early part of the walk then the latter part of the walk would be much more peaceful. She kept one eye on the movie of her thoughts and another on the sidewalk in front of her.

The sounds of the last argument rang in her ears. Her stepdaughter had moved home and taken over the upstairs and the other kids were off their schedule and chaos reigned. Despite the efforts of Jane and her husband, things were not going well. Everyone was upset, but her stepdaughter would not sit down and talk. And even though she said she was looking for a job, it was clear she was not putting much effort into it.

Just thinking about the situation caused Jane to feel trapped and she noticed a constriction around her heart. Along with the thoughts came the feelings, and then the labels for the feelings she felt toward Anna. Jane felt strongly that she needed to wait and not judge Anna and not tell her what to do. But she also knew she wanted to shift away from using negative labels which had never worked for easing her own discomfort.

Finally, she could feel the softening of her heels on the ground and her pace smoothing out. She sensed the warming up of her muscles and the loosening of her entire body, enough that her neck turned easily and her shoulders settled where they belonged.

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