A Healthy Stepmother . . . Amidst the Chaos

Is it just me or is there chaos in nearly every direction. Is it harder and harder to find peace, let alone peace and quiet? Is it now just as noisy inside your home as it is outside your home? Which came first, the inside noise or the outside noise? Though, maybe it doesn’t matter.

The cumulative effect of the busy-ness and rushing and roaring takes a toll. It wears you down and begins to lay heavy on your actions and your heart.

All of which means you work harder to keep your center and find a sense of things being right with the world.

Now, what helps us feel right with the world is different for everyone. For some, its religion. For others, running or cycling or taking part in sports. For others, it’s being in nature. Still others get lost in a book. And there can be combinations of all those.

The thing is, that toll it’s taking on you, it can cause you to snap at your loved one. It can cause you to doubt yourself. It can cause you to be less tolerant of the children you help support.

There aren’t new words of wisdom, I didn’t just wake up and find a new solution and rush to share it with you. If there was a solution, it wouldn’t be called our human condition.

But, I did listen to a podcast this week that seemed so very relevant. Rebecca Tippett, in her On Being podcast, interviewed Pauline Boss on The Myth of Closure. What ensued was a wonderful conversation about grief and unresolved loss and complicated loss. Divorce is one of the life events that qualifies to be labeled complicated loss.

You’re nodding your head. You know. Yeah, I know you do.

May you find space for some peace, and for some peace and quiet, amidst this complicated and chaotic life.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . meets an Omama.

Here in Portland, Oregon, we have the daily newspaper, the Oregonian. One section of the Oregonian is called Omamas, as in Oregonian Mamas. It’s about all things related to families.

Today, I was so happy to meet Heidi Williams of the Omama staff in person. In addition to her other duties with the paper, Heidi has begun writing about stepfamilies, often focused on stepmothers. It is wonderful to have that aspect of family life represented, especially since the number of families with children living in two homes is growing each decade.

We spent a great hour exchanging viewpoints on the big issues and I know I came away inspired and encouraged and even more committed to this path that has led me to writing and bringing voice to the stepmother journey.

Here’s a sampling of the topics Heidi has written:

That’s My Evil Stepmom

Honoring Stepfathers

Blended Family Portrait

and

Stepfamilies Around the World 

You can also follow Heidi on Twitter @by_heidi.

I’m very excited to have met Heidi, not just because she’s local, but because every story about a woman engaged in healthy and constructive lives with her husband and stepchildren is another story we can add to a growing narrative of caring, compassionate, and concerned stepmothers.

Stepmothers everywhere have an opportunity to influence how stepmothers are perceived in our culture by building good content online. Have you ever gone to YouTube and searched for stepmother? You will find some things there I can’t even say here, they are so disgusting. We need to begin to add story after story to that medium and build up a catalog so the positive stories are the ones that float to the top. (If you do go there, maybe you’ll find Santa Sophia, a Christmas story I wrote about a stepmother and recorded in my voice.)

The same with Google or any other search engine. The more we blog, the more we use Facebook or Twitter, the more real-life positive stories will be found. Gradually and slowly, we can replace the negative content about stepmothers with a more fair and balanced viewpoint.

So, today when I met Heidi, I was excited for the big, long-term future that stretches out there into a time when our children are adults and having families of their own. Their lives hold the same statistical odds as our own, with a 50/50 chance they could become stepmothers and stepfathers. It would be so wonderful to imagine that we are cleaning up the cultural image, opening a healthy dialogue, and creating a more supportive environment so they will have an easier time of it than we are having.

I can dream.

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 . . . takes off her shoes. (Self-soothing series #7)

First of all, let’s all take a breather. Sometimes in the journey toward self-soothing it might be useful to stop self-soothing, stop placating, stop worrying, and stop anything. Relax, take off your shoes, let your toes wiggle and sigh deeply while you sip some nice cold seltzer with lime. Nothing more refreshing, unless perhaps you toss in a couple of mint leaves or rosemary. Ahhhhh……

The last post was pretty intense. Who wants to admit they have judged the children’s mother? Who wants to admit they were trying to win over the love of a child? Who wants to declare they were trying to save the child and got lost in the drama of it all? No one. It’s hard to acknowledge even in our hearts, we don’t need to say it out loud. And that’s okay. No harm, no foul. We are human. We were trying. And, it’s not too late to let it go and turn your focus elsewhere.

I’ve mentioned before that one of the ways I’ve soothed, for decades now, is by walking. I walked all through my mother’s dying process. I walked during my grief. I’ve walked to stay conditioned and for my mental health. I’ve also walked just because it feels good. I’ve walked because I was angry and I’ve walked to soothe. And boy, oh boy, I walked a lot in the beginning of my remarriage.
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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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A Healthy Stepmother . . . takes inventory. Self-Soothing, Week 2

(Note: Week 2 of a 10-week series on self-soothing. This series is a self-paced guide that you come back to over and over and over and over for the rest of your wondering. See also A Healthy Stepmother . . . introduces the self-soothing series.)

By now, you’ve figured out how to clear space for yourself to ponder and listen and examine and study your self in relationship to yourself. Remember, that’s what this Self-Soothing Series is about. It’s all about how to soothe yourself so you can have a solid, resilient experience within you that helps you recognize and rejuvenate yourself and enlivens your sense of being involved in your own life.

Regardless of the issues you grapple with, the path to soothing remains the same. Even if your stepchildren’s mother has upset you. Even if you’ve been slighted and rejected by your stepfamily.  Even if you are in the middle of a major disagreement with your spouse, the process of returning to yourself is best if cultivated and honed and practiced and mastered. Then, you gain access to the beneficial responses that lie within you.

We can replace our startled, hurt, frustrated, angry, worried, righteous, indignant, or alarmed response with a more soothing response when we know how to access our sensing, thinking, feeling, and responding. It takes months, maybe years, to practice accessing thinking, sensing, feeling, and responding. No doubt, that’s why we most often reach for the phone to call someone or go shopping. But, it’s also possible to cultivate another way of working with the self, a way that lasts longer and feels more soul-filling.

Sensing
The next time you are in the space you cleared for yourself, even if it’s in the middle of a room full of other people, turn your attention to your body. Investigate the sensations you feel in your body. Are you warm or cold? Are there parts of you that are warm and other parts that are cold? Are you tense? Where? Is this a place you remember noticing tension in the past? Is this a new tension? Are there other places in your body that you find yourself holding tension but hadn’t noticed before? If there is a sound inside you, what is it? Do you sense taste or texture? In what way? Is there a thickness in one part of your sensation and not in others?

Then, pause and wait……….and let your attention wander so you can have a rest. Keep the wandering soft so you don’t get engaged in anything new whether it’s something in the room or something in your thinking.

Thinking
Now, bring your attention to your thoughts? How easy was it to keep focused on investigating your sensations? Did you find your inquiry interrupted by thoughts that popped into your attention? Did you feel uncomfortable paying attention to sensations instead of thinking of ways to solve your stepson’s problem with his friend? Did you think the sensation scanning was so easy that it didn’t fully capture your interest and then your attention wandered? How comfortable was it to let your mind become quiet? Take note of the strength of the thoughts and notice how often a new one pops into your attention.

Rest again please, with  a casual and loose attention to your comfort.

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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 . . . introduces the self-soothing series.

soothe/so͞oT͟H/Verb
1. Gently calm (a person or their feelings).
2. Reduce pain or discomfort in (a part of the body).

My husband and I are approaching our fifth wedding anniversary. We’ve been together over seven years. When we married, I grabbed all the stepmother books I could find. I combed the stepmother chat rooms on the internet. I was looking for someone to tell me we would be alright. I wanted to know we would be one of the 33% of the remarriages that succeed.

When I read that it takes seven to 12 years for a remarried couple with children to adjust, to advance through all the stages of a family adjusting to new constellations of alliances, I freaked out. That seemed like such a long time. I was 46 when we married and we weren’t getting any younger.

We did indeed go through all those stages, just like the researchers suggest. Apparently, we are pretty average, though we’d like to think we’re amazing and special and awesome. We are amazing, special, and awesome, but we have also been hurt and it has taken us time to find our way back to feeling whole again. Today, we are much stronger and in many ways, I feel like our honeymoon is just beginning.

I was recently talking to my stepmom-girlfriend and she commented on this calm place in which I had settled. I promised her I’d blog about the idea of self-soothing and this self-soothing series was born, but first a couple of disclaimers. Continue reading