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 . . . Knows Thyself, Pt 3: Shoulders

Several of you are with me on this adventure of standing more firmly in your skin, or more precisely, focusing your attention to your skeleton to give yourself more stability and resilience. I’m thrilled you’re here. If you missed Know Thyself, Pt 1: Breath or Know Thyself, Pt 2: Spine, you can still join in.

By the time you’ve come this far, maybe it’s getting easier to notice what you are doing with your body posture while you go through your day. Maybe you’re finding it’s easier to bring your attention to all those details?

This week, we’ll zero in on our shoulders, for if there’s a vulnerable aspect of our skeleton, the shoulders win the prize. Anatomically, the shoulders are almost entirely anchored in place by muscle, tendon, and connective tissue. The only bony attachment of your entire shoulder and arm is at the joint between the collar-bone (clavicle) and breast bone (sternum). This little joint, less than 1” in diameter is the hinge from which your entire arm and shoulder rotate. Pretty impressive, if you ask me. But, this is also the problem. There is greater risk of injury and more ability to sink into not-great postures.

Crouching Aphrodite. Marble, Roman variant of ...

Crouching Aphrodite. Marble, Roman variant of the Imperial Era after a Hellenistic type: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And ask yourself . . . In what posture are my shoulders? Are they rounded forward? Are they lifted toward my ears? As I look at the keyboard of my computer, do my shoulders slump and my hands awkwardly punch on the keys while my shoulders turn in?

Often when we think of posture, we think of our shoulders thrust back and our chest out. Or, we don’t want to put our chest out and we let ourselves sink in and thus we walk around with a rounded back. Neither of these postures is ideal. There is something in between.

Before we get to what to do or what is in between, you need to study and learn what you do. And when. And for how long. You need to become an expert on the posture of your shoulders. Are you sucking your shoulders in closer to your body as if you were cold? Are you tense and use lots of force with your hands, as if softening your grip might cause you to lose hold? When you do that, the pressure on your shoulders and neck is phenomenal. Are you using your cell phone so much that you end up with pain in your arms, shoulders, wrists or hands?

This week, I want you to notice where your shoulders rest. In any given moment, ask that question, “Where are my shoulders?” If you notice they rest close to your ears, then hold them there and wait a few moments. Just wait. Finally, slowly, let your shoulders return to a comfortable posture.

And, I want you to ask “Where are my shoulders?” again. If you answer “They are caved in, rounded forward, and feel pretty crummy,” you know your posture contributes to your discomfort. The good news? You have the power to shift it. Round your shoulders even more, cave in a bit more. Breath if you can, into those stuck places.

If your shoulders are thrust back in “good posture mode,” keep them there for a few moments. Note how much tension you have in your neck and whether your breathing is free. The let your attention wander away and don’t try to hold your shoulders in that way.

After you’ve spent a couple of days studying and detailing the position of your shoulders, then take a day or two to play with one of the other postures. If you are a shoulder thruster and stand at attention, try rounding and slumping forward. Don’t do it all at once, you’ll need some time to really get used to it. And, once you can round and slump, then alternate between thrusting shoulders back and rounding/slumping. This isn’t as vigorous a movement as it sounds when it’s written here, it is definitely slow and easy moves, nothing abrupt.

If you are a rounder/slumper, try lifting your shoulders toward your ears. See if you can move as smoothly going toward your ears as you do going away from the ears. The focus is on getting rid of any glitches in the bringing shoulders to ears and returning to a resting posture. You could think of it as sanding out the bumps in a table top or stirring the pudding until there are no lumps. Attend to the details.

One thing we know about posture is that poor posture can contribute to all kinds of health problems. It is easy to disrupt the breathing, inhibit the motions of the internal organs, or experience back and neck pain, to name a few. Over time, poor posture takes a toll.

And, one thing your movement teacher knows is that good posture isn’t static, it is dynamic. Healthy humans move freely, not stiffly or hesitantly. When an unexpected situation comes up, your responsiveness will depend on whether you have to re-organize yourself to move, or freeze until you are over the shock.

Finally, after you’ve studied and then experimented, go find a cat you can spend some time observing. Copy the cat. Walk like the cat. Move your back like the cat. Note how natural movement is fluid, sinewy, and languid. Once you have an idea of how the cat moves, then go back to copying humans. You’ll learn so much about your spine and being more comfortable.

You are looking for comfort. Why not find some?

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . on the cycle of pain and comfort.

The research on chronic pain is exploding with new ways to manage long-term pain without prescriptions of life-destroying pharmaceuticals. Because being a stepmother spans decades, we might consider applying some of these strategies to our situation.

In one scenario, pain is localized to one particular focal point, but the interwoven nerve endings are sensitized to notice what is going on in another area. It’s much like the sensitivity many of us bring to the emotional state of others in our families. It’s as if we have radar and can pick up the smallest uncomfortable moment or anxiety or anger or any other reaction. We know when our husbands are in pain, we know when they are distressed. Even though they tell us nothing is wrong, we know there’s something up.

Sigh. Often the stepmother is the one who verbalizes the pain, but it’s her husband who is feeling it. She might not even know she’s doing this, but I’m beginning to think this is more common than I originally thought. I wonder how much indignation comes from a stepmother witnessing the significant pain her spouse is enduring.

English: Illustration of the pain pathway in R...

English: Illustration of the pain pathway in René Descartes’ Traite de l’homme (Treatise of Man) 1664. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently accompanied my mother-in-law to a pain clinic where they systematically reviewed her pain response and experimented with different courses of treatment. As they began to peel away the layers and she found relief, they discovered an old, old, old injury on her low back that had been untreated for decades. She’s getting better and her pain levels have dropped dramatically.

One of the things I recall the nurse practitioner telling her was that they needed to teach her brain some new calming strategies. She needed to learn new reactions to pain, rather than the old anxiety reactions and alarm that pushed her into big adrenalin releases into her blood stream which in turn created havoc in her mental state.

I don’t think she was very impressed in the beginning. Talking wasn’t a familiar process for her, in her generation a person just pushed on through the difficulty, it’s how she got injured. Acupuncture was a little more familiar for her and she willingly tried that. She had massage and therapy in a warm water pool. As she got treatment for the actual problem, her overall pain response began to diminish, so that now she can tell exactly where the pain comes from. And, now she has ways to work with her reaction to the pain. Rather than tense up everywhere, she takes a bath and calms her nervous system. She lies on the floor and lets her muscles relax.

We stepmothers can borrow those strategies. We can teach ourselves a new reaction. We can begin to notice when we tense in reaction to painful emotional experiences and calm ourselves so the pain doesn’t spread like wildfire. If we get to the calming early before the pain is so loud and strong it causes us to think we’ll be consumed, we have a better quality of life ahead.

We can learn to calm by paying attention to the signals from our body. When we notice ourselves holding the breath, we let it out and take in another and keep on in that way. When we notice we’re tense, we let our hands loosen and our eyes open so we’re not squinting and we let our face soften and our tongue quit pressing so hard against the roof of our mouth. Basically, we unanchor. We still keep our feet on the ground, in fact, we want to rely even more on our feet on the ground or our butt on the chair. We keep track of where we are in space and we let everything else be less ready for defense.

By softening and unanchoring, we can actually get more prepared for whatever it is we need to do. We can lean toward this person in support of what he is saying, or leave the room because we need a momentary break, or walk back in and find the ground so we can stand in the space listening to words that don’t match our feelings.

In those less anxious, calmer, less painful observation states, we have a better chance of staying connected to our important people and a better chance of feeling like we’re okay, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

And, ultimately, each moment we spend in that unanchored, tongue not pressing, breath not holding, face not scrunched posture is another moment added to the collective pool of experience in knowing how to remain calm. The calm pool is the place we can return to over and over and over to remind ourselves how to recover from difficult interactions. The calm pool is a place we go to restore and rejuvenate.

It’s not that we’ll live in the calm pool every moment, that would be a rather zombie-esque life. But, the calm pool will help us become familiar with returning to an equilibrium or homeostasis throughout the physical self. When the calm is as easy to access as the anxious or worried response, we’ll find it easy to return to an emotional equilibrium.

That’s what is happening for my mother-in-law. A little pain is her signal to rest and calm. Fatigue doesn’t push her into anxiety for the bigger pain that might come. She’s getting stronger, she can walk farther, and she’s made some new friends.

We can do that too. We can build new reactions to these long-standing pains that will be with us the rest of our lives. We can learn to let go and enjoy the roller coaster that is this delicious life we’ve got an opportunity to enjoy.

Hey, let’s meet up in the calm pool.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the gauntlet of adjustment.

Today, as the year ends, I’m reflecting back on how stepmothers adjust to life in a stepfamily. In this final post of the year, I leave you with my interpretation of the stages of adjustment a stepmother makes to her new stepmother life. I call this process of integration, the gauntlet of adjustment, which is an apt description of many a stepmother’s walk through the initiation into a family.

In the beginning, there is a period of Generosity when the father of the children feels generous, the stepmother feels generous, the kids might even feel generous. This is the stage when forgiving someone for their daily fears and foibles is easy and most family members feel magnanimous and free.

Angers Castle

Angers Castle (Photo credit: stevec77)

Within the first year or so, maybe sooner, there begins an inkling of the dawning of a realization that it just might be that we’ve gotten in over our heads. This is the Dismay period where we look around in disbelief and say to ourselves, say this isn’t so! I didn’t just marry a man who’s children hate me. I didn’t just move away from my friends and family to be treated this way. But, at the Dismay stage of the game, our brains still won’t wrap around the fact that we said I DO and this is the end result. So, we go into survival mode, we keep smiling and going through the motions of being generous. Eventually, we realize these worries coming up in the Dismay phase are real.

After Dismay, comes the Double-Take phase. We can’t believe all the things we have walked right by, even though these problems weren’t evident in the Generous stage. Everyone behaved generously and real personality styles weren’t on display when we first got involved. But then, in the Double-Take phase, what we see is the real, true, real-life way our new family members behave.

Still, even then, we are human and our human nature sends us into a process of survival. We go into Denial. We tell ourselves it’s really not as bad as we think it is and we try to talk ourselves out of thinking that our lives are anything other than fine, just fine. We don’t want to be seen as a party-pooper and we don’t want to sound negative. For a brief time we convince ourselves we’ll be fine and that it just takes time to adjust. Denial can last a long time.

We live like this with our dismay, double-take, and denial for a while and one day we wake up and discover we are Indignant. We bring our Indignant selves to wonder why in the world our husband is not doing this and not doing that. If only he would do something, anything, life would be better. If only we could be a better woman, all would be well. We start worrying we aren’t woman enough and at the same time we are so mad and sometimes crazy indignant at our husband. By this time, the cumulative effect of the Dismay, Denial, and Indignant phase begins to affect our marriages.

Of course, not far behind the indignation is the Anger. Anger is that place where some of us feel most uncomfortable. We might want to yell, but we stifle. Or, we yell and feel tons of guilt or oceans of shame. This is the stage at which we can no longer pretend it doesn’t matter that our stepchildren don’t like us. It’s the stage we recognize that we’ve been doing the proverbial pissing into the wind and it has made no difference in our adjustment to our family. At this stage, it is so easy to feel that love is lost and there’s absolutely no hope of our lives improving.

For the women who stay (and some who go) there often follows a period of feeling Bereft. Numb. With a sense of not caring for the people with which one shares a home and a life. In this phase, we stepmothers often walk around zombie-ish and apologetic, often listening to our internal dialogue more than the dialogue between us and family members.

After Bereft-ness, comes the feeling sorry for ourselves, aka the Martyr. Personally, I think by the time we become aware of being a Martyr, we are faced with a choice of whether to dig our heels in and accept martyrdom as a role that may be played successfully, or not. My own grandmother was a martyr. I never found it particularly pretty, but she was surrounded by her children until the end of her life.

After many years, when we’re appropriately sick of feeling angry, bereft, indignant, and victimized, we might become able to shift away from the martyr. Often, this is the moment when we can truly let go of whatever it was we hope to gain, including being seen in a favorable light by anyone in our extended stepfamily. In that moment, when we admit there isn’t a story-book life to be found, in that moment we can back up and begin a process of Acceptance.

In Acceptance, we can acknowledge that our life is different than it might have been if we were still single. We can accept that we are a partner-member of a family that may never fully accept us but that we can still find a way to have a nice life, filled with satisfaction and peace. Acceptance is an amazing process. It’s the time when you look back outside yourself and see that you are a pretty amazing person, just the way you are. You realize you don’t need to change yourself or worry about being successful, nor do you need to change your husband. You can still stay in dialogue, but you let go of the need for change. Acceptance includes affirmations of who you are as a woman, the woman your husband fell in love with. You regain your sense of self and strength and begin again.

After Acceptance comes the Blossoming, and a renewal of the feeling that you are the perfect person to be with this perfect husband. Perfect being tongue-in-cheek, of course. It’s just that you realize if you had bailed in Year 2 or Year 5, you’d have missed out on this amazing journey to the heart of trust and love and understanding and compassion that you’re building with your guy in Year 7 and Year 9 and beyond.

These stages proceed at different paces for everyone, depending how many kids, how old you are and your life goals, what your husband thinks about himself, and, it’s so complicated! And, of course, women choose to exit the process at many different stages. Their pain makes so much sense given this process which is messy and never smooth sailing. The pain involved in this process inspires me to write and challenge the status quo.

When all is said and done, what you will find is that you have built your personal Resilience. Together, you and your husband can now handle almost anything and when things go wrong, you’ll look at each other and shrug and not get too worried when you don’t have a perfect reaction. One of you might say, yeah, that was pretty tricky. The other nods and you move on, together, in a way that feels connected and builds even more trust and resilience.

Here’s to our future contented lives, may we listen to ourselves, strengthen our soothing skills, and grow into more resilience!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . shakes and sighs.

I drove my 75-year-old father to the eye doctor yesterday. He struggles with diabetes and the health complications that go along with it. He was also head-injured as a young man so there are no simple conversations. Every interaction is fraught with emotion and debate. As a child, I learned the strategies to work with him when he was unpredictable but since then I’ve spent decades unraveling those strategies as quickly as I could to give myself a fighting chance to have a healthy life of my own.

I’m hooked less and less these days by his inflammatory statements and dramatic way of sharing his concerns. After dropping him off at his house, I could not miss that my sighs were huge, and I don’t remember sighing so freely before.

A sigh is familiar, in fact my dogs sigh constantly. They lie down and heave a big sigh. Ten minutes later, there’s another sigh. It’s as if all the stuff they are thinking goes out the window and they lie quietly and in the next moment they are sleeping.

I let my next sigh grow bigger. It felt good. As if all the excess tension of keeping good boundaries and not over-reacting was released in a positive way. I sighed again.

My little dog shakes a lot when she is nervous, even when it seems there was a positive event. She might receive a very nice back rub or a good belly scratch from someone and when she walks away from that person, she shakes and her whole body joins in with a wiggle that shakes her from her head to her tail.

I’ve always been jealous of that shake. I’m convinced a shake like that could let humans shed their excess worry and tension. Maybe we wouldn’t have to take so many medications. And for sure, our spines would be more supple.

For me, I’m working my way away from is carrying around a frustrated mind. I’m working on letting things be the way they are without feeling like I’m the person designated to fix everything. You know what I’m talking about, whether it’s your parents or the worry you have for your stepkids, you cannot be the end-all, be-all, solver-all.

So what do you do in the years of witnessing, when life isn’t all pretty and nice and everyone gets along? I think you have to keep sighing and shaking. Copy my dogs or your dogs, they have it right. When there is too much stimulation and life is overwhelming, take a good shake. Or, wander to one of your favorite coffee shops to pause and sit down with a big, huge sigh.

Copy, as copying was meant to be.

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.
Continue reading