A Healthy Stepmother . . . finds Okay.

Daily, I walk my beautiful dogs. The little one is constantly frightened and when she sees another dog, she feels threatened and she barks to defend her territory. Because of that, the big dog gets riled up and they both lunge and bark.

I’ve worked with them for a long time to stay calm when other dogs approach. We passed three dogs today and with just a few voice cues from me, they remained calm.

If they can learn a new behavior so can I, and so can you. It is possible to teach ourselves to discern and gather information and shift our responses so we can have lives that feel okay.

Could we agree that in any given moment, Okay could be good enough?

Okay is not being all things to all people. Okay is not believing as if this moment and this fight is going to do you in. Okay is not preventing your husband from feeling his feelings, as if you can spare him the heart-ache of his lifetime.

Okay is enough to let your pulse relax and your brain unwind. Okay is adequate for building relationships slowly and over time, relationships that have a future.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and a possible future.

It’s possible that someday, we’ll all look back and reflect that life didn’t have to be this hard for stepfamilies. It’s possible.

It’s possible that the larger culture will become accustomed to families who are married, divorced, remarried, and remarried again. It’s possible.

It’s possible that this generation of stepfamilies who are the trailblazers, with more older stepmother, more stepmothers without children of their own, and more career women becoming stepmothers, will lend a hand to bring civility and reason to the process of learning a new family structure with no strings attached to the outcome. It’s possible they will set the record straight that stepmothers are not in competition with the ex-wife. It’s possible.

It’s possible that children will no longer feel odd for being from a family of divorce, because someday more children will have two homes than one. For better or worse, children of divorce will become the norm. It’s possible.

It’s possible that someday your stepchildren will look directly at both you and their dad and say, “Hey, thanks . . . that was a really great time and a nice dinner. I appreciate it!” It’s possible.

It’s possible that someday kids won’t have to choose between parents. Maybe psychologists will have discovered some new strategies for adults to sort through and figure out their childhood so parents don’t hold their kids hostage. In those cases, the kids will be free to come and go and flow between homes and the stress level will drop dramatically. It’s possible.

It’s possible that someday the ex-wife will voluntarily call and give information about things that relate to the children, important things like healthcare and school attendance. It’s possible.

It’s possible that every human will behave respectfully toward every other human, acknowledging that the other person has needs just as he or she does. It’s possible that even children will understand this because they will see adults treating one another with respect and kindness and they will understand that is the best way to create a collaborative future. It’s possible.

It’s possible that someday, sadness will be sadness, untainted by anger. And, grief will be lived out loud and processed without manipulation. It’s possible that children will learn these lessons at an early age and grow to be twice, no three times, as compassionate as their parents’ generation. It’s possible.

It’s possible that if you stub your toe, it hurts. And, it’s possible that it wasn’t someone else’s fault. You just stubbed your toe.

It’s possible.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . grows a longer fuse.

Once upon a time, there was a woman who lived in the wilds of Step-Land way off around the block from where you live. You know her, you’ve seen her. She is giving her best, married to a man with children from a previous marriage. She’s intentionally behaving in a way that feels respectful and honorable, but it’s the hardest thing she’s ever done. She’s holding back what she might say so she won’t hurt anyone or make more problems.

This woman, Mary, could not be outsmarted or fooled or disregarded. She was not out for warfare, but she came into her stepfamily completely aware that there would be difficulties and that nothing is as simple as it seems. She knew she would need additional resources, but when the counselor suggested that she grow up, she knew she would have to do the work of figuring it out on her own.

Mary was a stepdaughter herself, so she had compassion for her step kids and compassion for their mom. She had compassion for her husband and she had compassion for herself. But all that compassion didn’t count for much when everyone was upset and no one talked about their feelings.

Answers were slow in appearing as the children tried to find comfort in the past and in competing with one another and the tension between the ex-spouses was thick. Thick was a word that described most of their holidays, thick like too-heavy blankets, thick like air that is hot and humid, thick like layers of ice over a lake.

Mary sat back and watched. She knew that everyone was struggling and she knew that she was not the solver of any of their problems.

And one day as she watched, she noticed that even though her stepson had said something rude, her heart had stayed steady and her pulse remained low. Her breathing was still calm and not skyrocketing and she smiled. From that day on, she began a study of her vital signs. She knew that her blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing were all related and that even if she couldn’t directly affect her blood pressure, she could influence it through her breathing.

One day at a family gathering, she noticed that her own brother reacted in a short-fuse way. Raised by the same people, she had learned to react to things that went wrong with a big emotional reaction, the same as he had. She studied some more and as she watched and watched, she saw how the process played out, so very predictable and routine, almost scripted. Thus, while she was not the cause of stepfamily problems, she had been influenced by her own family history in how she responded.

She let that percolate for a time.

And one day, she began a new strategy. Every time there was a shift or a rudeness or a lateness or a snub or non-communication in her stepfamily, she focused on the things she could change. She let her breath out slowly. She softened her eyes and her face. She let her shoulders down. She let go of her smile and she focused on breathing evenly.

One day, she noticed that she was able to listen to things that would have sent her reeling. And she stayed calm and her breathe was slow and soft. Sometimes she needed to walk out of the room to get the rhythm and she kept at it. Finally, she could keep her own equilibrium regardless of the anxieties of those around her and regardless of what they did to help themselves feel better.

Finally, the day came when she barely jumped or reacted. On that day she looked at her husband and rolled her eyes and laughed in response to part of the meal being left on the dishes when they went in the dishwasher. She connected with him and moved on.

Note: Even if this seems simple, it is not. It took years for Mary to get to the point where she smiled and wasn’t ruffled. If you decide you want to work with yourself on your own reactions, for you, for no one else but you, to get you back . . . well, go slow, go easy. Go softly.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . gives an anytime-gift.

He loves his kids. It breaks his heart to not live with them. He thinks of them constantly and though he’s made his peace with the fact that they are elsewhere, he’s tracking them. He worries when they are having problems. He worries, about all kinds of things.

He’s a divorced dad, like so many other divorced dads, who doesn’t have the connection to his kids that he wants and needs.

His connection to them is frail, and yet not. On the surface, it seems they are so easily swayed to dislike him or be hurtful or ignore him. Sometimes, in the growing up years, the kids will even manipulative him to get what they think they want from him. But, under all that, and before and after the anger, he’s the dad. He just is. It doesn’t matter where he lives, he belongs to them. Just as they belong to him no matter where they live.

When he takes a wife and seeks to find peace and love in his life, it’s easy at first to get swept into all the wishing for how things could be easy between them all. That fantasy gets smashed soon enough and there are years of intense discomfort all around. He wants to see his kids, but feels sad that they treat his wife the way they do and that they can’t all get along. Still, he often misses his kids.

Most of the time, he can ride on the top of the ripples that get set in motion when there is tension between all these people that he loves. He can ignore some of the small stuff and give space to them to sort out their feelings. Other times, he clarifies and sets limits around what is okay or not okay. Sometimes, he wants to ignore the tensions and can’t, but he finds a way to deal with it that keeps him connected to his loved ones. Sometimes, he just has to bury himself in whatever will hold his attention.

And occasionally, the ripples are so big they wash over the sides of his craft and capsize his big plan to keep his own equilibrium. In those rare moments, he casts about for some way to hang on and there you are with your hand out so he can find his balance and keep his footing. You look into his eyes and yours say, “I get it that this is a tricky situation. I might not like where it’s going or how it feels, but I’m here with you, beside you, and in support of you being with your kids.”

He sees what you mean. He understands the gift. He sees that you can stay connected to him throughout the unpredictable nature of his relationship with children who don’t live with him. That means everything.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . holidays and resisting the urge.

I have no idea how I made it through the first few Christmas holidays with my husband and his three kids. I have no memory of the things I did to get through the days. I have a few very dramatic and negative memories surrounding schedules and who was where and when. I have a few very touching and meaningful memories surrounding a gesture a child made toward me or an experience we shared during those days. But, mostly, I blocked out how uncomfortable and frustrating it was.

Sadly, it was likely painful and uncomfortable and awkward for the kids and their dad, too. I thought at the time it was my fault everyone was struggling. I lived through meals where my husband’s ex and her extended family were the main point of discussion. I lived through present exchanges where I felt like an after-thought. I lived through meals where everyone became silent when I spoke.

I survived.

Over the years, I developed some self-preservation tactics. While the kids had the option to get mad and stomp out or punish me with silence, the scene of these often muted good-byes was and is my home. My husband invited me here. I was, and am, going to trust him and not second-guess him or make him prove he wants me here.

As the holidays approach, I’m writing a few notes to remind myself about what I can do to stay grounded for the next few weeks. Maybe some of these ideas will be useful for you. Most of them are free, almost none of them involve things you might never do, and you can practice them year-round.

1. Listen to yourself and act accordingly.
It’s likely that at least 50% of your difficult times seem difficult because you’re tired. Often, you’ve done too much and if it’s all new, it’s exhausting. Some days you might need a nap. Some days you might need silence. Other days, information would be helpful so you can understand the complexities of the history of your new relatives. Still other days you could need familiarity. Surround yourself with a place to retreat for naps or alone time, photo(s) of good times with your own relatives, and a calendar full of dog walks. Resist the urge to push yourself past your limits. You are not super-anyone.

2. Get clear about your role.
It’s not your job to make Christmas fun, good, lovely, wonderful, amazing, or the-best-ever for anyone. Let me say that again . . . you are not responsible for making sure that anyone or everyone has a good holiday experience. Resist the urge to take that on as your own. Every single person in your household will have the kind of holiday he or she can hold in his or her heart. You can schedule experiences that let them have an opportunity, but you cannot make them have a fun time or insist that they enjoy it or even guarantee that it will be memory-building. Take your “I’ll-be-everything-to-everyone” hat and put it way back in the back of the closet with your off-season clothes until you really need it or deserve it. That will be never, but that’s another blog post.

3. Schedule friend time once a week by phone, an online chat, or in person.
Get out your calendar and call all your girlfriends, sister, mother, or your stepmom girlfriend. Make sure that you have a girlfriend date scheduled weekly between now and the end of the year. Each weekly session would ideally be at least 30 minutes long and you would include topics such as how you are feeling about yourself, how things are going, what you hope for the holidays with your family, and how you are taking care of yourself. You could also report the things your husband is doing to support you and explore how you might ask for any other kinds of support you need from him. Resist the urge for this phone call, chat, or coffee meeting to turn into a skewering or bashing of the ex-wife. This is your Christmas, not hers. This is your time to focus on what you need for you and what is in your heart and soul. If you spend your time calling her hateful names or analyzing what she is doing or not doing, it’s very counter-productive. You are much better off to focus on what you feel inside and to talk about what you dream of and hope for your weeks ahead. Plan how to meet your needs. Yes, how you can meet those needs for yourself. Not how your husband can meet your needs, not how the kids can meet your needs. The question is: How can you meet your needs, for yourself. How?

4. Schedule couple time, hire a sitter, barter with a friend.
Go out with your husband away from your home without children. If this is a dog walk, if this is a shopping trip, if this is to the movie, make sure you get once a week time with your husband. Just walk and breathe and don’t even try to talk. Go to the movie and hold hands, silently. Run through the gift list or actually look for a gift, but leave the big worries for later when you are back at home. Compartmentalize. Find a way to build a sacred boundary around your time together. Give signals that tell your husband you are thinking of him. If you need a hug, ask for one. Do not wait until he thinks of it. Resist the urge to berate him for not thinking of it. If you listen to your needs and you determine you need a hug, ask. Keep it simple. Keep it direct.

5. Decorate for yourself.
Maybe you live in a home where the kids like Christmas but they won’t spend time decorating with you because you are not their mom. Maybe you are putting things on the tree that they remember and you don’t put them up in the exact correct location. First of all, decorate for you. Schedule and advertise the tree decorating so that if they want to attend, they’ll can make plans to be there. Resist the urge to take complaints about your efforts not being the same as past years in a personal way. Wait. Just wait. Let those comments roll off. If there are decorations you know are special, set them aside so the kids can put them on the tree. I have a Santa collection and every year I dibs the mantle for the wooden, glass, ceramic, and metal Santas and the candles that need to be lit every night.

6. Decorate yourself.
Dress up. Resist the urge to go to the store in your sweats, even for a quick errand. Instead, get out your nice jeans or your favorite holiday outfit and wear them, often. Get a Santa hat and go grocery shopping. One year, I flew to Colorado to visit my cousin and wore a Santa hat all through the Chicago airport. I had so much fun meeting and talking to people. The hat was an instant friend-maker. Guaranteed to help you feel in the spirit. You don’t need to buy new clothes, in fact, I’d recommend against it. Just get out the things you save for special occasions and wear those. Your favorite clothes will feel more comfortable and more secure, and you can enjoy being inside a cocoon that is yours, all yours.

7. Get out the candles.
Light the candles every single day. I used to buy pillar candles but now I’m all about tea lights. They are self-contained, they go out after about 4 hours, and they are stable and will not fall over or spill. I have several candle holders now and change out the tea lights on a daily basis. Yes, I go through a lot of them but in the end it’s less expensive than pillars or tapers, it’s safer, and I get the lift of the festive feeling every single day. No resistance here.

8. Cook your favorite meal.
Make a meal that you love . . . with food you love to eat. The day after Thanksgiving I cooked all day and made a meatloaf packed with all kinds of vegetables, a side dish of brussels sprouts, and a casserole of fennel gratin. It was a meal I’d been dreaming of for weeks and it tasted amazing. That was my Thanksgiving. Do that for yourself. If you know your family doesn’t like your favorite types of foods, then send them out shopping or to the zoo and have your friends over to enjoy your cooking. While we’re on this subject, let your husband cook the meals for the kids. Or let him plan what they will be and help you prepare. Or, go out. Or, have the kids help you cook. Resist the urge to schedule yourself to do all the cooking, especially over the holidays. If you are not a custodial stepmom, let him cook for his kids. It makes so much sense. He knows what they like, they really want him to cook for them anyway, and he was probably cooking for them before you came along. And, even if you don’t like what he will serve them, eat a bite or two. Resist rejecting it. I know I turned my nose up at some of it because I didn’t want so much pasta, etc., but eating a small portion or even just a bite paid off. Sort of like what I expect the kids to do when they get served a meal they don’t like.

9. Scale back everything.
It seems like the holidays arrive and there’s 10 times the work to do. The shopping, the meal preparation, visiting, and cleaning the house so it’s ready. Resist the urge to sign yourself up for all these jobs. Divide and conquer. You start with, so and so is coming over for dinner, who is going to vacuum the living room and who is going to wipe down the bathroom sink? Even if you have never assigned chores or talked about this as a family, just bringing up the subject when everyone is together and spelling it out like that, it’s remarkable how adaptable everyone suddenly becomes, including your husband. Another idea is to scale back on how many things you schedule over the vacation. Stay home and keep things simple. We have two or three dinners for every holiday because of the way our family is constructed. This year, I was going to do the big traditional meal again on the final family dinner and my husband said, no, no, no, no, no…we are going to get deli meat and nice cheeses and build sandwiches. In the end, we made a sandwich bar and everyone built his/her own. No wonder I love this guy. As it was, I was exhausted by then and not as talkative as usual, but I hung out and watched and listened and enjoyed. It was a nice time. A very nice time. Minus the hype.

10. Plan a couple getaway for January.
Find a way to get out of town. Send the kids to grandma’s house or plan to go away when the kids are at their other house. Whatever you do, schedule a getaway for after the holidays. Knowing were leaving on a certain date has meant everything. Every time I’d get frustrated or feel crowded or hurt from being ignored, I’d think of the getaway and feel better inside. Nothing to resist here.

These ten items are my anchors for taking care of myself at any time, but especially during the holidays. I’m sure I’ll think of more as I go through these next few weeks and I’ll blog about them. In the meantime, I need to get my online chats scheduled. Excuse me . . .

A Healthy Stepmother . . . reads a Christmas poem.

Did you catch the poem I posted for you on YouTube?

In that post, I connected you to my YouTube channel and read it aloud to you. I’m experimenting with some audio postings and some readings of other material I’ve written. You can find the wording written on the YouTube posting.

I wrote Santa Sophia with you in mind. I wrote it with me in mind. I wrote it with my stepmom girlfriend in mind, and my amazing 4-legged companions.

The Santa is a woman, Sophia, which means Wisdom. She is wise, sassy, not afraid to be herself and she shows up in an electric car and has 8 very cool travelling companions. The ursus, black bear, more precisely Americanus Ursus, are the teddy bears of our dreams and our awakening. Hence, the names they bear (pun intended).

My hope is that this will be a poem for you to listen to in any time of need, but particularly at this time of year.

Let the holidays begin!

 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . gets a Christmas wish.

The holidays are coming . . .

Usually that’s enough to cause any stepmother to shudder. This year I decided to re-write a old poem and turn it into a modern-day wish. Something I could dust off each year to reveal the sentiment that lives in my heart but that gets beat down by the day-to-day stuff.

This poem goes out to every stepmother, no matter whether you’ve been naughty or nice, no matter what anyone thinks of you, no matter how hard a day you’ve had. Every one of us needs a dream, a little sliver of hope that things can change. Just a little.

This is for you.