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

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.