A Healthy Stepmother . . . creates space for self-soothing. Self-Soothing, Week 1.

Self-soothing is the exact opposite of other-soothing, or what most of us refer to as helping. Think of other-soothing as the flow of energy toward others and self-soothing is the flow of energy and nourishment toward the self. Too much outward flow and the person is off-balance. Too much inward flow and the person is not functional in the world. Neither, in too large a proportion, is a good thing.

As a stepmother, you most likely entered into an environment where the grieving of the lost family was not done. It was likely so palpable that any sane woman would do the natural thing and try to better the situation. Of course, that wasn’t possible. The process of grieving had to run it’s painful and difficult course. When considered in that light, it is really, really easy to get stuck in other-soothing.

I invite you to immediately let yourself off the hook of what you could and couldn’t accomplish by this point in your stepfamily. Let it go. Turn now, over here, and begin to create space to practice the strategies that you will need in order to find, develop, and keep your internal balance between other and self. You cannot simultaneously other-soothe and self-soothe. They are not compatible. Self-soothing is a quiet, personal, sometimes tear-inducing reflection that requires your brain, heart, solar plexus, and pelvic floor. You will need to make space for self-soothing in your thoughts, feelings, and actions.

You don’t need large spans of time to practice self-soothing. You can take advantage of being stopped at a traffic light. You can soothe yourself while pushing the cart through the grocery store or by shifting weight from one foot to the other in line at the post office. And, you can tune in to the rhythm of your walk while taking the dogs out. Read the following scenarios and see how these women managed.

Scenario 1
Sue was exhausted. She worried about the kids constantly, most recently because they were struggling in school and didn’t seem to know how to study. When she mentioned her worries to her husband, he took her concerns as criticism of his parenting. But, Sue felt in a bind, the conversation pattern was very negative with her husband and she knew she would not be able to stop caring about how they did in school.

She decided to put some limits on her worry and developed Homework Hours. The kids had always asked for her help and she made herself available during hours that she determined. It took months to finally transition, but eventually the kids found a rhythm with the Homework Hour and to use their study time more productively. She hadn’t stopped helping completely, but the predictability of those hours took the pressure off for all of them.

She felt such a great sense of relief that the negativity about being the only one helping them dissipated. In the hours Sue freed up, she began to focus on herself.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . renews her boundaries.

She closed the book with a thud and tossed it onto the chair beside the bed. The book had been no more helpful than the last three titles she’d brought home, each of them overflowing with ideas about how a woman should behave who had married a man with children and strident opinions about what a stepmother should and shouldn’t do.

She had wished someone would lay out the rules so she could just follow them, that’s why she’d made the investment in countless books. But she knew that a prescriptive way to live would not respect the different needs of members of the family who were all in different stages and ages of life.

To some degree the books were helpful, but these were largely targeted to stepmothers and not to a broader audience, as if the problems in a stepfamily were a stepmother’s fault. Where were the books being written to the entire family, as if they were a system that functioned together? Even in the way the books were written, stepmothers were being kept separate and admonished to get over it.

Initially, she hadn’t known where to begin so she hadn’t set any boundaries. Then, when she began to voice her concerns there came a tidal wave for her to be quiet.

Life had gone on that way, somewhat aimless-feeling, not structured, not tidy. In fact, it had felt messy and uncontrolled and unpredictable and unnerving.

But, she had let it be and waited and watched and during that time she studied. She took in information and processed it. She paid attention and learned who her family members were. She listened to all kinds of stories she hadn’t really wanted to hear, but learned information she later put to use.

Gradually, she began voicing her thoughts. If you want to swear, go outside. In this house, we respect one another. No, you may not go into my bedroom and search the sock drawer.

Gradually, what began as a shadowy form took shape into the same reasonable request that any adult might make. When we enter a room or a home, we say hello. When we need something from someone else, we say please and thank you. When we are struggling, we say so out loud instead of lashing out with angry words.

Almost overnight, she began to feel better, as if a weight had lifted off her shoulders. It was as if she began to be herself again and regain her footing in her own life.

She began to say whatever was on her mind. She thought it through first and maintained compassion and kindness as her guide, but she spoke from the heart to give testimony when things in the world felt good and when they needed an adjustment. And, she opened to what everyone else needed from her. She willingly made changes when others spoke what was in their heart.

Together they could see what came next, but someone had to go first. She decided she would.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and what we really need.

A recent article in StepMom magazine stirred these thoughts in me. The article is about what it takes to live Happily Ever After in a stepfamily, likely an attempt to help, to assist, to offer advice, to give the pearl-of-wisdom that could soothe us. That’s an admirable goal, I think our need for soothing goes deeper.

Let’s consider two questions: What is this need for reassurance?, and, What is the form of the reassurance?

First, there is no such thing as “happily-ever-after” regardless of your life situation. I feel like the kid who shouts out in the car pool of first graders, “I found out there isn’t a Santa Claus, it’s just your parents.”

Happily-ever-after is the label we use to keep ourselves from being mortified at the real-life humanity going on around us. I spent many years working in a trauma hospital and learned first-hand there is no such thing as happily-ever-after. I watched too many people who live on the street struggle with their lives to think that there is a way that some of us can live happily-ever-after while the rest of us aren’t.

Sadly most reassurances for stepmothers come in the form of, if you just do these certain things then your life will be happily-ever-after. These are basically edicts that if you behave as a good woman and do these certain things that good women do, then your life will be okay. If your life is not okay, you were not a good enough woman. And, these reassurances build further walls between the very women who need the reassurances. They create more of a feeling of isolation and the feeling that everyone else has it figured out except you.

We don’t need more isolation or the feeling of being isolated.

What about the need? What reassurance does a stepmother need? Does she need reassurances that she didn’t make one big huge mistake by marrying a man who had children from his previous marriage? In fact, some of us did make that mistake. Some of us were drinking the love elixir and we didn’t assess the situation well enough to know if our guy was someone who could really, truly be on this journey with us. There are some of us that can be as good as we can, we can kill ourselves trying to be good, we can become depressed or anxious trying to do the right thing. But, no amount of goodness can overcome the fact that the particular alchemy that lives within a couple is sometimes not enough to make a remarriage work.

The rest of us who have relationships that survive though they might suffer from time to time, we are not looking for reassurance of a happily-ever-after. If you’re like me, over 50, you understand that life is good enough when there is no conflict, in your heart and in your house. It’s good enough when the argument only lasts an hour. It’s good enough that you can work together to get the kids what they need, even if you sometimes fight about it.

So, what do we need?

What do we stepmothers who struggle with feeling okay, with feeling disenfranchised, with being rejected, with broken hearts, with exclusion, what do we need?

We need to know we’re not alone.

We need to know that this is a spiritual path and that others have gone before us and left us some guideposts. The guideposts aren’t there for us to aspire to a level of achievement of what a fabulous person we are. The guideposts aren’t there to cause us to overcome our supposed pettiness and put our own feelings aside.

The guideposts are there to show us that we will be okay. The guideposts are there as a reassurance that we can make it. If we can keep putting one foot in front of the other. If we can keep getting out of bed in the morning. If we can keep finding ways to soothe our frayed nerves and broken hearts. If we can keep finding ways to love ourselves and our husbands. If we can keep in touch with the woman who lives inside us and not forget her and not forsake her and not become a martyr.

I think we need reassurance that we are seen. We need reassurance that we matter. We need to know someone cares that we are there. We need to know that we will wake up in the morning and this beautiful man will be there beside us. We need to know that our hearts are important.

We need reassurance that our messy life tale, covered and layered as it is in hurt, harmony, aching hearts, and hopeful moments is all about being human.

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.