A Healthy Stepmother . . . Leaves the Big Stuff on the Table

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Leaves the Big Stuff on the Table

This post was originally part of a series on self-soothing from the summer of 2011. While the big stuff topics for stepmothers are relevant every day, they can be even more important to remember and reflect upon during the holidays. May you find many moments of peace in these last few weeks of 2015.

I struggled a long time to write this blog post because we’re headed into discussions of the big stuff and how to self-soothe. The big stuff stirs up our internal stuff. Self-soothing is all about how we manage our emotions and what we do with our actions in the face of the big stuff in our stepfamily. Remember, I’m not a psychologist or a counselor or a stepmother coach. I am a stepmother who has studied human behavior for many decades and is now shining the “patterns of behavior” light on this issue of being a stepmother.

The last few weeks, when you were practicing making space, taking inventory, paying attention to your patterns, all of those studies were to lay the groundwork upon which to process your big stuff. The stronger your groundwork practice, the stronger your self-soothing in the internal stuff.

One of the simplest ways to self-soothe is to leave the big stuff where it belongs. That’s it . . . leave it sitting there on the sofa or the table. Don’t even pick it up. You can walk all around it. You can look at it. You can even touch it, but it’s best if you can leave it lying there while you do.

I’ve thought we need those intermittent warnings that you hear at the airport . . . “please do not leave your luggage unattended, any luggage left unattended will be destroyed.” Our stepmother version could be . . . “please do not take on the big stuff that isn’t yours, any big stuff you take on that doesn’t belong to you could explode at any moment.”

FullSizeRender 2If you have picked up a big stuff issue, you’ve noticed how hot it gets. The three really big stuff issues that come up for most stepmothers? One is the pursuing of the child’s love. Another is the judging of the mother. And the third is the rescuing of the child. Any one of these can burn you, all three together and you’ve got a bonfire. Continue reading

A Healthy Stepmother . . . reflects on Santa.

In 2010, I wrote the first version of Santa Sophia, a Christmas poem for stepmothers. I’ve been tinkering with it since, each year knowing another truth about this process or thinking of another word here and there that shape the message more like it happens in our hearts and in our homes.

Whatever your plans this year, whatever your family constellation, whatever your burdens, my wish for you is to know the hope of connection and the sanity of shared experience. In many families, a stepmother is isolated from her own people, estranged from them, or so engaged with her stepfamily she forgets to be with family and friends.

She can drift and float along, with nothing to anchor her experience and her heart.

Maybe this year you will reach out, outside the silence of aloneness, out past the rejection, and beyond the pain. Open yourself to letting another stepmother into your life, or reaching out to one newer than you. Let your vulnerability be a connection with someone you can trust.

There is no rushing. We are not in a race to get somewhere. We can take our time, cultivate deeper relationships, and go back to heal pieces that will help us move forward.

Santa Sophia: A Christmas Poem for Stepmothers
©2014 K.Cottrell 

Twas two nights before Christmas, when all through the land
Not a stepmother was sleeping, not even on demand.
The fireplace was lit in the living room there,
A sign of the peace we prayed we’d soon share.

The children were texting all snug in their beds,
While Netflix and Instagram danced in their heads.
With hubby cat-napping, and I with my book,
We’d just settled in to our warm winter nook.

When out in the drive there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my Kindle to see what was the matter.
Over to the window, I was pulled by a feeling,
And gazed through the glass with open-mouthed reeling.

The stars they did shine on the occupants inside,
And lit up the house where worries collide.
When, what to my sleep-deprived eyes should appear,
But one electric car and eight rambling black bear.

Opening doors they did bound, bringing anchoring ideas,
I knew in a moment, it was Santa Sophia.
Warm fur, curious noses, the black bear they came,
And she whispered and encouraged, and called them by name.

“Now, Baloo! Now Brer! Now, Ben and Ted-ster!
On, Humphrey! On, Bamse! On Bruin and Buster!
They went into the house, to the young, to the old.
Shuffling here and now there, finding hearts that were cold.

As old memories of pre-divorce family repeat,
The pain and the loss, bitter pills children eat.
Into the house, the black bears they did amble,
With satchels of honey, and hurts to unscramble.

And then, in a twinkling, in the rooms up above,
The soothing and healing of each warming love.
As I listened in silence, afraid to turn around,
Into the living room Sophia came with a bound.

She was dressed all in tencel, from her head to her toes,
And her clothes were all silvered with buttons and bows.
A bundle of sticks she had flung on her back,
She could have built fire, without even a match.

Her eyes, how they shone! Her laugh, a delight.
Her smile so warm and so absolutely right.
With capable hands, she reached for my heart,
And began to transform my pain into art.

A stick of gum she chewed loudly, and then gave a sneeze,
And the noise of it told me, she’d do as she please.
She had a kind face and a whole bunch of chutzpah,
She nodded when she laughed, as if saying … good’on ya.

She was darling and strong, a right sassy old self,
And I sighed when I saw her, and gave in to myself.
A wink of her eye and a twist of her head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

She spoke not a word, but went straight to work,
And filled all their hearts, even cleared out the murk.
And laying her hands alongside temporal lobes,
She called forth a wish for peace round the globe.

She summoned the black bear, to me gave a nod,
And away they all drove to the next of stepmoms.
And I heard her exclaim, as they disappeared from view,
“Stepmother, take heart … this year you’ll see through.”

 

 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . life is not a caravan of despair!

Come, come, whoever you are!

Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving!

This is not a caravan of despair.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve broken 

Your vow a thousand times, still 

And yet again, Come!

          Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks 

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So, yes, dear stepmother. Here you are, poised on the precipice of another holiday season. Wondering how you’ve hung on to your self and your life since the last holiday season.

Maybe the clouds don’t hang over your head the way they used to? Maybe you see the clearing and can reach out and offer that to another stepmother who is drowning in the deluge of the storm? Maybe you’ll have a story to share in the comments to contribute to our collective witnessing of one another’s lives?

Some of us have it easier than others.

Just because some of us have it easier doesn’t mean we’ve got it all figured out. It might mean we are in the eye of the storm. It might mean the storm has passed. It might mean our lives have settled and integrated and we can focus on other things.

I urge you to focus on other things even if you are still in the storm. The storm will rage whether you focus on it or not, so why not get a book and settle into another time and space while it rages on around you.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . life is not a caravan of despair!And, contemplate that leaving takes many shapes. Leaving is not bad. We’re conditioned to think it is.

I’m at a beach town on the Oregon Coast as I write this, working on my fairy tales for stepmothers. Yes, I can now say that out loud. The stories are taking shape and I’m getting so excited. 

I was walking down the street and across my path went a woman with whom I used to share much closeness. Things happened that caused there to be uncloseness. Was that a leaving? Was that an ending? It doesn’t feel it, since there was no official ending. It’s more like it’s suspended out there in time, nebulous, not clear, super muddy. But okay.

I don’t need to run after it. It can sit there, in all the messiness. Maybe like some of the relationships we have with our stepchildren.

It’s easy to think a muddy or unclear relationship is a negative thing. Does it have to be? Could it just be sitting there, somewhat dormant, neutral, without judgment? Could that be okay?

Inspired by Rumi, I wrote this…

Leaving. Leaving.

Left. 

I have been left and I have left others.

Hundreds of times, maybe thousands. 

Was it error? 

Was it my ill-thought-out-ways? 

Or, was it simply the learning of whom to go toward? 

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Examine your leavings and letting go. This life is not a caravan of despair!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Knows Thyself (Part 1, Breath)

Recently, my husband and I were planning for the upcoming holidays and our idea to manage one of the events created a bit of space in our juggling of connections. At the thought of this extra space, I felt my shoulders soften and fall away from my ears. My brow unfurled and my breathing lengthened, all signs I was feeling more at ease.

Another of our family events holds a greater risk of being difficult. At the thought of this other event, I noticed myself clench. My entire torso stiffened and my breathing became more shallow. I drew my shoulders and arms closer to my body and set my jaw as if I was preparing to defend myself in my clenched-ness.

Maybe you’re like me and you enjoy the idea of a holiday with your spouse where you don’t have to armor up or spend your time alone. As soon as I felt the clench, I said to myself, “Yup, time to ramp up the paying attention to my skeleton and how I’m holding myself.” Every stepmother who secretly dreads the upcoming holiday shuffle, raise her hand!

Even though my stepfamily now finds ways to soften into shared experience, I still remember the difficult years and can’t help but brace just thinking of some of them. My memories aren’t of how awful someone else was, they are of how difficult it was for me to hold on to myself amidst the turmoil. This year, I want something different for myself, so I decided to share.

For the next six weeks on this blog, I’ll guide you through the process I use in my daily life to pay attention to what I am doing so I can shift my experience and remain living inside my skin! The flow of these observations will ease your way as you navigate sticky situations. Once you feel comfortable with the process of paying attention to your posture, the benefits are yours to take along to graduations, weddings, or family vacations.

I’m naming the series, Know Thyself, because understanding what we are doing is the first step to accepting or changing it. I can’t think of a better way to prepare for turbulence in the coming weeks.

You’ll need a place to sit, stand, or lie down. You will also need to suspend judgment about what you find in your observations and a willingness to stay with it when it doesn’t seem like anything is happening in the first hours, days, and weeks.

Week One: Know Thy Breath

Sit, stand, or lie down. Put your feet shoulder distance apart and place your hands in a comfortable position. First, notice how long it takes you to draw in a breath? Watch many breaths to get the sense if they are similar or your breathing is inconsistent. It may change while you are watching it. That is normal.

How long does the breath stay inside you? Moments? One? Many? Is it comfortable? Do you feel stressed when the breath is full inside you? Do you hold it as if you don’t dare let it go? Do you hold it in case you make noise as you let it out and draw attention to yourself? Do your ribs move when you inhale? Do they expand forward, out to the sides, backward? Do you feel the air pushing on your internal organs, downward toward your pelvis. Does your belly get soft when you inhale or do you hold it tightly and the inhalation strains against the abdominal muscles?

A circa 1884 poster for William Shakespeare's ...

Polonius: This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell, my blessing season this in thee! Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How long does an exhalation take to leave you? Do you find yourself releasing the breath in a sigh, messaging your disapproval or disagreement? Do you have to push to get the air out, or does it leave with no restriction? Is the amount of air leaving you the same as the amount of air that came in on the inhalation? Is it more? Is it less? Do you feel the shape of your torso change when you exhale? Do you get shorter or taller with an exhalation?

Can you sense the effects of your breath on your sternum, your ribs, your belly, your back, your shoulders, or your neck? The rest of your body?

The next time you are sitting at the dinner table with your stepfamily and things aren’t going so well, or even if they are fine, bring your attention to your breath. Pay attention to the inhaling, exhaling, length of the breath, how much air, the way your ribs move or don’t move when you take air in and let it out.

Every time you can over the next week, pay attention to your breathing. Make a game of it. See if you can pay attention to your breathing while you sit at a stoplight, have coffee with a friend, get your child ready for school, debate the merits of bedtime with your spouse, write out and mail holiday greetings, or spend time reading this blog.

Your work is to pay attention. For now, please don’t try to change anything. This exercise is not to see if you can change your breathing. You are not to make the breathing longer or shorter or purposely expand your ribs or stop holding your breath. You are simply paying attention.

Of course, once you turn your attention to something it will change. But, it will be best if you think of yourself as an observer, simply cataloging, in as many situations as you can, what it is that you do with your breathing.

You can write your observations on paper or just remember. Whatever you remember is enough. This activity is you, shifting your attention from time to time to observe your breathing patterns.

That is all.

It will be enough, one week of paying attention to the anatomy of your breathing.

Ready . . . set . . . notice!

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Disclaimer: For some of us, noticing ourselves is exactly what we are trying to avoid. If that is you, please read along with us and use your resources to support you as you work through each week’s activities. Seek professional help if you have any questions about your readiness. If in doubt, wait and take part later when you feel more prepared.  

Note: I’d love to know if you are participating. You can message me privately or you can comment here to say, “I’m in” or “I’m in, in Portland (or, the name of your city).” That way, we’ll all know we are breathing together.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . on advice about holidays.

In many ways, the holidays are simply our daily lives on steroids, an intensive twist for a month. So, whether it’s the physical doing, the emotional hurricane, or the worry exhaustion, it’s a good idea to start by getting grounded in the day-to-day with books like Stepmonster, Wednesday Martin, and The Happy Stepmother, Rachelle Katz (I wish the title was The Happy Enough Stepmother, less pressure). That said, Katz beautifully describes the difference between what stepmothers hope and a realistic expectation. Throughout the book she offers examples, and plenty of them. Thank you, we needed that!

English: "The First Thanksgiving at Plymo...

English: “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Advice about how to survive the holidays abounds. My favorites are from Wednesday Martin in her 10 Day Countdown to the Holidays from 2009. Start with Holiday Tip #1 and work your way through.

My holiday strategies from years past are herehere, and here (my favorite).

This year, I’d like to encourage you to ramp up the self-soothing to your maximum levels. Here in the U.S., we’ve just come through one of the most anxiety-provoking presidential races in our time and the general tone of daily life remains edgy, to say the least. Combine the traumatic events around the world with the growing list of folks we know who are losing jobs or looking, add a few major healthcare issues and a difficulty with an ex-spouse or a child, and the fact we’re doing as good as we’re doing is a minor miracle.

Maybe there are ways to streamline the holidays or do less, but we haven’t found them at our house. Every year, my husband and I think we will have fewer events, we will cook less, and we will worry less. We never do. It’s a complicated situation, we’re a stepfamily and he and I are both children of divorce. If we do less, we cut out our important people. That’s not going to happen.

So, we’ve become realistic. We’ve changed our expectations from having a great time to simply gathering and letting things go as they will. And really, the point of this post is to say that perfect holidays, whatever they are, are undefinable. What is perfect for one person is awful for someone else. In fact, we now deem a messy holiday that turns out fairly decent to be successful. There have been some that surprised us, when the kids insisted that we open our presents first and they paid close attention to our reactions. And, we stay connected in our hearts by working together to make the days and events what they are.

Given the difficulty society has with coping with stepfamilies, the difficulties stepfamilies have with coming to peaceful interactions, for us to hang on to the idea that we could somehow just be good enough or do things just-right enough for everyone to have a nice time . . . well, we decided to let that go. There was nothing left to do but increase self-care. My husband and I do that in different ways, but we support one another 100% in getting self-care needs met.

My strategy is to practice what I teach. Yesterday, my client reminded me of the first class she attended just before Thanksgiving a year ago. We were doing a lesson on posture and scanning the position of the head and legs and arms while lying on the floor. Not long after that class she found herself serving dinner to a houseful of relatives with all levels of closeness and difficulties. At one point, she realized she was struggling so she slipped upstairs to lie on the floor in her bedroom. Her husband came to find her about 10 minutes later. As he looked down at her, he asked her if she was doing okay. I am now, she replied.

I love her story and I use a number of strategies (see the self-soothing series). I love when slowing down, noticing posture, and becoming more aware of my physical nature calms me. It’s as simple as tracking my breath in and out. It’s as elegant as noticing where one foot is on the ground and if I am using the whole foot to support me in standing. It’s as obvious as wearing comfortable clothing and shoes so I can breathe and feel like the woman I know myself to be.

Maybe you won’t have time to go lie down on the floor. Maybe you won’t have time to lock yourself in the bathroom, stand against the door, and let your weight be held up by the door and your feet. Maybe you won’t be able to walk the dogs around the block and get some fresh air. But, maybe you can imagine you are breathing. Maybe you can imagine you are walking tall.

As soon as you imagine yourself with tall posture, full breath, and a calm voice, you’ll notice that not so much later, those things are there, for real.

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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 . . . musical guide to remarriage.

I’m obsessed with the movie, Love Actually. The music is as much a part of the movie as the vignettes themselves and since I had to drive to the other end of my state for a teaching engagement, I had lots of time to listen to the entire soundtrack. Somewhere between Jump and Too Lost in You, it occurred to me all these songs represent some part of a journey of falling in love, losing illusions, grappling with disappointment and falling back in love.

Years ago, I heard a woman’s voice on NPR radio tell me that she saw marriage as a process of falling in and out of love with the same person over and over and over again. Since I didn’t hear who she was, I can’t give you the source material on that, but I love the sentiment. In my experience, it’s true. But, we don’t have much patience for the falling out of love part, we most often hold strong to our disdain of anything that’s not perfect and work as fast as we can to get back to the happily-ever-after moment. I don’t think that’s reality. I think much of life is ho-hum, if we are lucky, and a good bit of it is excruciating in some way or another.

But, let’s start at the beginning…..you remember that feeling . . . you met him, fell head over heels, and dove in. Deep. If you don’t remember that feeling and the event, my recommendation is that you go back and dust it off and renew the feeling. Holding that time as a shining light in the darkness is worth a lot. I’ll get back to that later. For now . . . Jump For My Love

When the magic softens and the day-to-day messiness and angst and jockeying for who’s going to be closest to daddy gets into full swing, the distance between you and your guy can grow and grow. It can be terrifying. You try to hang on, you try to show him what needs to happen. He feels like he’s trying his best and all he can hear is you yelling at him. Magic turns to dust . . . The Trouble With Love

Sometimes you hope someone (usually the man you married) will sweep in and rescue you. That fantasy is one that dies hard. Most often, in a remarriage, you’re both stuck inside your tormented box of pain, hoping it will somehow miraculously end. . . . Wherever You Will Go

And then, you step back and take some time to sink into the inner parts of yourself and assess your situation. Only you know what you need, only you know what you are willing to let go of and what is essential to your survival. Tricky part is that we can let go of much, much, much, much more than we think and it’s often going to turn out for the best when we do. You know what I’m talking about . . . all those expectations, if only he would….if only she would. Let them go to this lovely lullaby. . . . The Glasgow Love Theme

After you’ve taken those hours, days, weeks, or months to sort it all through . . . once you’ve made your decision that YES, this is the man I’m meant to be with, then you get to the place where you surrender and discover you didn’t die. You discover you can keep your integrity and wholeness, maybe even more of it than before. . . . Both Sides Now

Acceptance of a real and natural relationship might take months and maybe even years, but for those of us who are fortunate enough to stick it out, there comes a day you wake up and feel at peace. At peace with your decision and at peace with your man.

I’m going to whisper when I say this, in some ways that’s what felt like the beginning of my marriage to my husband. We finally arrived at a whole new level of relationship and I fell in love with him all over again, just as meaningful as before, with even more trust and understanding. And the memories of how we met and how we got to here, in this precise place in our relationship, are worth so much. We are grateful, we are together, and I’d do this all over again, not something I’d have said four years ago. . . . Lost in You

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Maybe you don’t have a road trip waiting for you that allows you to turn up the volume and sing out loud to these songs, but you might have a moment on a walk or when the kids are gone to school, or late at night with the headphones on. For me, this particular music (and the movie) is a salve on sore thoughts, a smoothing out of the bumps and bruises from earlier struggles. No doubt, we’ll struggle again, but at the moment, we’re both still singing!

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Update:
Listening again to the soundtrack and can hardly believe I forgot these amazing songs . . .  I’ll See It Through . . . Songbird.

Enjoy!