A Healthy Stepmother . . . sheds her single story.

Maybe you’ve read my recent post in which I describe being so moved by current events I wrote an article that got posted to The Broad Side on February 5, just a month ago. I have plans to do more writing on the subject of child sexual abuse, not necessarily on this blog.

Since the February 5 post on The Broad Side and since my post here last week, I’ve considered why it is I hadn’t felt moved to say anything sooner. Reaction from others is part of it, but that’s only a part. What I know now is that I carried my story within me until it was no longer the single story. Let me explain.

We stepmothers have told the single story. At least for a time. We say, I am a stepmother. But that is never enough to say about ourselves, nor enough for others to know about us. The single story, I am a woman, is never enough to know about me, nor enough for others to know about me. Nor is I am from the United States, tall, college-graduate, small town raised, or a marathon walker. Any single story that gets told is just that, a single story.

I watched a Ted Talk, by Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story, the other day and knew that’s why I’d been waiting to share my story of childhood sexual abuse. I am not my abuse. I am not my height. I am not my college graduate degree. I am not my small town. To know me is to include every single thing that has ever happened to me in my life. Travel, food, books I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, music I listen to, and the color of the skin of those I know or don’t know.

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Upon further reflection, it seems to me that we go into the single story mode when we are new at something.

Once upon a time, I learned to sail. My sailing story is that I took a class and I went out the first time on the lake and capsized the boat. It took me a decade to return to sailing but I was smart enough to go out and crew on a boat that wasn’t in danger of capsizing. We had a fabulous time and I’m still a big fan. If I’d stopped at the capsizing, I’d have a story of myself as a lousy sailor and I’d probably still be avoiding it.

I remember in my late 20s and early 30s, when I was doing the hardest work on my family history and unearthing all the horror stories and bringing them out into the open, I walked around with child abuse survivor on my forehead. I didn’t relate to that word, survivor, but at least it felt better than victim. Needless to say, it was a difficult time since it seemed like the abuse was the only thing I could see about myself.

Fortunately, I enrolled in my Feldenkrais training and immersed myself in the questions: Is there another way of doing this? Is there another way to think about this? What is a second way, and now a third? And, finally, do I have more than three ways to do something (anything) so that I’m not behaving compulsively? That would mean that when the word stepmother comes up in me I have a flash of a woman who is in a difficult situation, maybe even with a powerless feeling. Then, a second flash of a woman who cares and needs to be careful about her caring. Then, a third image of a woman married to a man she loves deeply, dedicated to helping him raise his children with the opportunity grow into healthy and fulfilled adults. And, maybe there’s an image of a woman surrounded by other women who are also stepmothers and there’s a club of stepmothers growing in number by the day, week, month, and year.

I’ll admit that it took me at least 5 years to completely shed the societal image of the wicked stepmother. The image dominated the first years of my marriage to my husband even though I would have professed that wasn’t so. Now, I see so much of my resistance to the label was about denying that the label could in any way be related to me. As soon as I lost the negativity of actually being a stepmother and who I was in that role, I embraced stepmother and now flaunt it for all to see.

Since we can’t control what others think about us, how about we reach down in there and drag the other stories about us up to the surface, right there beside the stepmother label. Woman, wife, mother, lover, author, co-worker, worrier, nature-lover, rich, poor, healthy, struggling, depressed, and on and on and on. We carry so many stories, we will be here a mighty long time telling each of them. We have the grandmother story, the 5-year-old kid story, the picking beans story, throwing up in the strawberry fields story, the meeting the man story, the how-many-men-I-dated-before-I-got-it-right story, and the year I knew my first marriage was over story. On and on. Rich, textured, beautiful stories whether the events in them were beautiful or not.

As Chimamanda says so eloquently, you are not a single story.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Knows Thyself, Part 5: Thoughts

If you’ve been following along the Know Thyself series, then you’re beginning to get the hang of tracking where your attention goes and how to use it to notice the shape of your spine, your overall posture, how you hold your shoulders, and where you plant your feet to give yourself support. Oh, and you’re aware of your breathing, right?

It’s time to turn our attention to our thoughts!

This article was posted the other day on a friend’s Facebook page. Of course, I reposted, and am posting it here. Share it widely, this is so important.

The Neuroscience of Suffering – And Its End 

Thoughts flow and wriggle and pause and get stuck, just like your posture. You can hold tightly to thoughts that don’t serve, you can review over and over and over again, just like you can find yourself sitting at your computer hunched over wondering how you got there, again and again and again.

"Idle Thoughts", 1898

“Idle Thoughts”, 1898 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We could pay more attention to the pattern of the thoughts. If we did, we’d learn something about letting them go. And, if we could find the way to go with them and leave off fighting with them, we’d be at peace.

And, we can teach ourselves to have different thought patterns. Clearly. The article gives good evidence that this is so. People with no previous training learned in a couple of hours to have less rumination and more calm, i.e., to quiet the mind.

This week, pay attention to your thoughts. Notice what you’re thinking and how often you’ve had that thought. Is it a new variation of the same thought you’ve carried all day? Is it a variation of a thought from a week ago? Is it the same exact thought, repeated over and over?

Is there variability in your thoughts? Do you think of what you are doing at the moment or about something from the past? Do you worry about the future? Without worrying about what you should or shouldn’t be doing, what do you find yourself doing?

Some of us need to write our observations down to track them, some of us avoid writing things down. Do whatever works for you. But, if you can, keep track. Study the patterns. Take note if the pace is fast, slow, too hurried to even notice. Is the pace of your thoughts comfortable or do you feel rushed?

If this type of noticing your thoughts is already a familiar study for you, then pay attention to the thought/posture connection. What posture is on your face when you are thinking about yesterday’s disagreement with your spouse? Where do your shoulders land when you have thoughts about Christmas morning? Again, see if you can link a thought and a posture and keep track of what you notice. Not to change it. Just to notice it.

This entire Know Thyself series is about noticing what we do, not about changing what we do. It is about learning the patterns and the threads that tie one thing to another. It is about noticing the self, over and over and over. Something may change in the process of that, but if you can resist thinking you’ll be all better by the time the Know Thyself series wraps up next week, you’ll avoid some disappointment.

This practice of noticing and noticing more is a lifelong practice. You will get better at it and it will support your human life, but this is not a practice you learn and then stop. In fact, just like many other practices, it is a good idea to use snippets of attention practice daily or weekly.

Finally, do your thoughts have a posture? Are they bouncy, heavy, dull, airy, fluid, pell mell, or chaotic? Are they something not named here? Name them, if you will. Follow them and keep naming what they are in the moment. How many different postures do your thoughts have?

Keep noticing. Keep returning to the noticing. When the holiday stress ramps into high gear, such as when everyone in the stepfamily is at your house for a meal, keep noticing.

Hang on to the physical noticings with your attention, as if that action is a lifeline. And, keep noticing.

That is all you need to do. Show up and keep noticing.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Knows Thyself, Pt 4: Feet

Let’s check in with how the first three focuses of our Know Thyself series have gone (Catch up with us here, here, and here.). Do you now find you have increased ability to share the focus of your attention between what is going on around you and some aspect of your physical self? Can you more easily hold the thought-thread of your comfort in your mind as you go about your days?

The good news is that you can come back to these ideas over and over and focus on the one (at a time) that piques your interest on that day or week.

This week, let’s focus on what it means to stand on our own two feet. It’s cliché to talk about the stress of the holidays, but in many ways it’s true. Usually this time of year finds us valiantly smiling as we manage task after task and feeling more overwhelmed than that many other times of the year.

Maybe if we felt more solid, it would be easier to manage the busyness. Maybe if we could feel stable on the ground, we could bring our focus more clearly to observing how our feet connect to the ground.

Let’s run through a simple awareness activity.

Remove your socks and shoes and stand on a floor that doesn’t have carpet. Pay attention to which parts of your feet press the most on the floor. Do your heels press more than the front of your feet? Do the balls of your feet press more than your heels? Do you lean more on the inside edges of your feet or more on the outside edges of your feet? Are your toes positioned on the floor closer together than your heels? Are your knees closer together than your feet? How tall do you feel standing here?

Walk around your house with your bare feet and pay attention to where the line of force travels when you touch the ground. In other words, how does your foot touch the floor? Do you come on to your heel first or on the outside edge of your foot? Do you roll off the big toe or the second toe when your foot comes off the ground? Many people think you shouldn’t walk on the outside of your feet at all. This is not true. There is a fabulous description of how the bare foot contacts the ground in The Barefoot Book by Daniel Howell. This book is well worth the read since it explains everything you ever wanted to know about healthy feet and how to make them even healthier.

Now, put your socks on and stand in the same place that you were standing when you were bare-footed. Notice how much you can sense of your foot touching the ground compared to how you noticed the pressure when you had bare feet. Now put your shoes back on and look for the same things. Do you lean more on your heels or more on the front of your feet? More on the inside edges or more on the outside edges? Do you find it’s easier to notice these things when you stand without socks and shoes?

Now…..what to do this week.

Spend some time with bare feet. Five minutes in the morning before work. Ten minutes after work while you’re getting dinner ready. If you can sneak around the block with the dogs and it’s not too cold to go barefoot, that is the super duper bonus time. Each time you walk with your shoes off, pay attention to the shape and texture of the ground. Let this way of your foot touching the ground without shoes become comfortable. Invite the kids to do walk barefoot with you.

Once you are paying attention to the comfort of your feet whether you have shoes on or not, you can begin to pay attention to which of your shoes are most comfortable and whether they fit well. You can find a guide to fitting your shoes on my website, kimcottrell.com.

There’s no need to think you have to go barefoot 100% of the time, however spending some amount of time barefoot each day will improve the health of your feet and your overall health. It will also increase your sense of being surefooted and solid in everything in your life. I know some of you live in climates where bare feet would be fantastic year-round. You are the lucky ones. Those of us who live in the northern states and other places in the world where it’s cold have greater challenges when it comes to barefoot experiences. I would love to live in a place where I could go barefoot every day the year.

As you can imagine, the metaphors are numerous about how you use your feet to walk on the earth and how you live your life. I have written about going barefoot on several occasions. One of them about noticing I was stomping when I was angry and how barefoot walking helped me calm is here. Another one about finding center is here. These might be useful.

This examination of how we stand in our own skin is a favorite topic of mine. Let me know if you want more of it and more of how your healthy feet keep your whole self healthy. Personally, I think the people who will inherit the earth are the ones who can move quickly. Pssst, limit the amount of time you spend in heels and in shoes that don’t bend when you hold the heel and the toe and twist. Each morning, ask yourself, “Which pair of shoes will allow me to run fast, jump high, and get me where I want to go?”

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