A Healthy Stepmother . . . lays down the blame.

Maybe you can’t become a seasoned stepmother without blaming the others in your extended stepfamily. It’s easy when things aren’t going well, to blame the parents, the in-laws, the kids. In fact, blaming is nearly irresistible. At the time, I felt completely justified as though blaming would somehow solve the problem or help me feel okay about myself.

In a blaming stance, when I suggested the kids needed to behave in a different way, my husband heard me saying he hadn’t done his job, and it drove a wedge between us. But—and here’s the mark of flexible, adaptable humans—even though I did the blame thing two or three or ten times, I knew I needed to attempt something different.

I decided the something different was to stop blaming. I stopped and waited and listened. Regardless of who was behaving in what way, I knew deep down that blaming my spouse or the kids’ mother was not good for me, for my heart, or for my well-being. I continued to identify boundaries that needed respect and brought voice to things that needed saying, but I found non-blaming ways to say them.

Initially, my experience was that I thought I would be invisible if I gave up my expectations of how each situation should play out. For sure, I was so upset at what I felt forced to endure that internally I freaked out. I’m sure my face was a sour mass of something I don’t even want to witness. But, I hung on, ungraceful as I was, and struggled to wait it out.

Then, when I thought I couldn’t wait any more, when I was sure I’d have to find a volunteer job for those special occasions so I didn’t have to be present for the gift exchanges and the family meals, just when I was sure I would lose my mind and my marriage, that’s when things began to shift.

One day, my husband began to ask different things of the kids. Small, tiny things. Changes so imperceptible they didn’t balk at them. Little bits of inching toward a different outcome. Without my voice in his ear and him in defensive mode, he went about rebuilding the atmosphere in our home we had agreed we wanted.

One of the hardest things I did was lay down the expectations of who did what, how they acted, and what the outcome would be. Even married to the most fabulous man on the planet, I had to remember he is human, in a difficult situation, and that his pace at doing things isn’t my pace. From there I went into the self-soothing practice that I later blogged about. You can find those posts here, here, and here . . . to be read in no particular order.

Of the half-dozen stepmothers on my immediate friend list, 5 of 6 who are still married found a way to soften and lay down the blame. Laying down the blame means that those flashes and flares of blame still occur but they are more fleeting, almost like a lightning storm. They build up and are released. After each lightning storm, life goes on with a softer heart.

In my case, at first laying down the blame felt like the other side had won and the idea of surrendering seemed impossible. The layers and complexity of our situation led me to feel the blaming was somehow justified. But the blaming others distracted me from the main issue. The main issue was the riff that built between my husband and I, a riff that had begun growing and tainting the most beautiful relationship of my life.

For me to shift, I had to take one of those I’m-going-to-my-room moments where I admitted to myself that it was sometimes very important to me to be right and that being right was completely irrelevant in my current situation. Simply put, if I embraced blaming, I couldn’t embrace my husband. I could still stand tall and have my voice and I could find ways to do so without the blame.

I decided I wanted to be with him more than I wanted to be right.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . carves out a summer.

It was a hot and windy day in August of 1973 in my small southern Oregon town, the kind of weather that would’ve kicked the dust up in the streets if they hadn’t been paved. My brother and I rode our bikes to the creek where we spent the greatest part of the day swimming, eating blackberries, and playing with friends. We were too young to have jobs and just old enough to go swimming without our parents, according to at least one of our parents. We returned home in time for dinner and chores, played a little kick-the-can, and slept out on the wrap-around porch of our 1895 house whose upstairs bedrooms were sweltering in the mid-summer heat. This went on for 2 1/2 months of summer, but it felt like 2 1/2 years. Time warped in a stretching-on-forever way, much like the ribbons of country roads that we roamed on our bikes.

When I look back at those years, I realize there’s still a place in me that thinks that’s what summer is and I wonder if others have a particular experience or memory that defines summer. For me it’s blackberries. We spent hours picking blackberries and selling them to our neighbors who put up quart after quart of jam.

English: Chehalem blackberries

English: Chehalem blackberries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My husband associates summer with popsicles. He is like a kid about them. When he wants to feel that summer feeling, he gets a big bag of popsicles and passes them out to the neighbor kids and parents and we all sit around on someone’s lawn under a shady tree and drip our popsicles while we talk and catch up. It’s a beautiful sight, the grinning kids, the calm among the adults, and the togetherness. That’s really what my guy is after, he’s all about the community spirit and togetherness. Popsicles are a beautiful thing, they require no cooking and they can even be homemade. We made them from Kool-Aid when I was a kid, but juice is just as good, likely better.

The point of this blogpost is that expectations of summer and what will happen in summer can be as unrealistic as the expectations we wrap around the winter holidays. We can set ourselves up for unnecessary hurts and troubled hearts. We can end up stressed and in conflict with our husbands and partners.

We don’t have to spend our time that way.

We can relax our idea of what should happen and let happen what will. We can let go of all kinds of things, even when we didn’t know we could. Once we take our emotional energy away from the worry and upset and feeling frustrated, we can turn that energy to the connection and relational thinking that we’d really like to have.

So, you don’t get to the library every day this summer. So, you don’t go on a trip. So, summer consists of the kids playing in the wading pool in the front yard with the dog and the neighbor kids. So, you roast marshmallows with the neighbors instead of going to a movie.

So.

Sometimes I think we think summer is the big trip, the Grand Canyon of adventures. I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s about the scent and taste of blackberries that bring back years of memories that involve brothers and neighbors and riding bikes. I think it’s about the texture and temperature of a popsicle as it melts in your mouth and you recall all the laughter and good times.

Summer is a feeling. It is a moment. Summer holds the greatest potency when it stretches out in front of you forever without a bunch of obligations blocking the way.

I say let your kids get bored. Let them figure out something new to do on their own. Let yourself get a little bit bored. Your brain needs that time as a rest from being filled full of facts and figures that you spend the rest of your days in. Even if you’re working through the summer and the kids are with someone else during the day, use these long evenings to gather for a picnic and see what happens when you’ve all had a chance to slow down. Just changing where you eat your evening meal will change something. We eat most of our summer meals on our front porch or on the back deck. Either way, it feels glamorous because we are outside.

And, of course, we have blackberries for dessert.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the soothing of connection. (Self-Soothing series #10)

I’m coming to the end of my 10 posts about self-soothing and I can think of about 5 more ways to look at the issue, so keep an eye out since I’m keeping this topic open to add more.

Let’s assume we’re still thinking of self-soothing as the ability to work with yourself until you can find a place of calm to make a decision, aka the use of multiple strategies to take care of the self so the self isn’t left hanging out to dry on the line, helplessly wafting in the wind when the rain and storm approach.

I’ve been studying lately but I’m always studying. I study human behavior for a living and I help people to shift out of old habits. I study my own behavior and work toward letting go of the legacy left to me by my family. This time, I’m studying Dr. Brené Brown’s work on power and vulnerability, connection and resilience, and shame. It’s amazing work that has so many parallels to what we stepmothers need in order to come into our new lives and find our place.

I’m still processing what I’ve learned from Dr. Brown’s work, I Thought I Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame and The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, but I’ll do my best to describe what it is that is so valuable.

First, it’s all about connection. Everything we humans do is toward seeking a connection or feeling a connection to what is going on around us.

Sound familiar?

All that angst, panic, or anxiety that you feel in your stepfamily home, it’s likely brought on by your gut level reactions to the fear of the disconnection. I’ve often thought that our ability to navigate the first few years of a re-marriage is all about how comfortable we are with not knowing where we stand in the family constellation. It’s all about our ability to handle the disconnections.

The fear of disconnection and the shame that comes when feeling the disconnection can explain our drive toward perfectionism and wanting to make everything okay, at least according to Dr. Brown. She does not speak directly about stepmothers, but that is the anatomy of the process. In fact, she says perfectionism is “the birthplace of shame.”

Think of it . . . why does it cut so deep when his child tells you you’re not his mother? I finally get it, it’s the shame of not being chosen first, the shame of not being connected. The shame of being rejected. There’s more, so much more, but if you’re a stepmother reading this, you know what I’m referring to. There’s a very long list of what cuts deep.

If we’re all looking for a sense of connection and our indignation is about not finding a way in, that might explain our frustration and distress when the counselor says, “you knew what you were getting into.” It’s okay to go ballistic. That counselor is not even close to considering what is going on for you. You are sitting there in the shame of not doing it right, even if your outward behavior is toward anger and blaming. Dr. Brown cites anger and blame as two of the most common reactions when someone feels shame. We immediately begin to offload onto whoever is the closest to us.

I used to think that a stepfamily was born out of grief, the grief of the dissolved marriage that the children came from. Now, I think there is a ton of grief and also a ton of shame. The shame that things didn’t work out. The shame that the children have to go through this. A shame so intense it needs to be put off onto others because we don’t live in a culture that talks about this shame. We don’t live in a place that acknowledges that everyone is trying and everyone needs reassurance and comfort.

This post isn’t going to wrap up with a catchy moral for you to consider. It will just leave you with the processing of the issues, that shame is universal and every has it, that if we work with ourselves and bring things out into the open, shame has a chance to calm down and lessen. There are so many reasons for a stepmother to feel alienated and alone and there is plenty of shame wrapped up inside it, whether or not we are comfortable labeling it as such.

Just knowing that our reactions are normal goes a long way toward helping loosen the shame bonds (and move toward self-soothing). What if you could loosen these bonds by even three-quarters of an inch? How would your life feel if you had that much room to move around?

Note: I strongly urge you to check out the work of Dr. Brené Brown. She can be found in countless YouTube videos. All worth watching. 

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 . . . leaves the big stuff on the table. (Self-Soothing series, #6)

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.”

If 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 . . . 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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