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 . . . 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 . . . gets wet. (Self-Soothing Series #9)

Do you remember when you were a child and your mother bathed you in the tub? She lovingly washed your skin with a soapy washcloth and made sure to clean behind your ears and the other hard-to-reach places. The washcloth felt good as it took off dirt and old skin and your feet and hands wrinkled up from being in the tub so long the water went cold.

If taking a bath is such a very soothing experience, why then has it disappeared?

When was the last time you took a bath? How long did you linger in the water? Did you notice that each time you moved, the water made lapping noises and soothed your frayed nerves.

The sensory experience of a bath is one made all the nicer when there is no rush. In the sanctuary of the tub, water laps, washcloths scrub, and aromas invite. In the tub there is temperature and texture and buoyancy and lifted spirits.

Just south of Seattle, there is a Korean bath house for women. My friends and I have gone there and enjoyed the soaking pools and the heated rooms with canvas-covered sand floors. We’d lie in the dry heat until we were sweating and we soak in the pools until our skin wrinkled, just as we did as a child. Then, we’d lie on a table and a Korean woman scrubbed our skin until we think it would all fall off. It didn’t, but the dead skin did and when we were done, our skin felt baby-soft and baby-smooth.

There are women who use the spa daily and go through a ritual soaking and doing their own scrubbing. This is their bath house, just like they had at home in Korea. No one cares about appearance and no one worries about shape and size. The experience is about the water and the healing and the clean spirit that one carries home.

I am not close enough to that bath house any more that I can go there daily, let alone weekly. But, the idea of soothing in a bath came back in my mind the other day when a friend gave me some lavender bath salts from a lavender farm. I’m re-inspired to run a warm bath and settle in to let the water restore my nerves and thoughts until I am once again still.

A water bath is only one kind of a bath, however. There is also a sun bath, when even if the weather is not warm enough for a bathing suit you can get benefit from 5 minutes of taking in the sun. I met a woman recently who likes to moon bathe. For her, that means taking off her clothes and letting the moonlight touch her body. I haven’t tried moon bathing, not having a place that feels comfortable to do so, but it’s an intriguing thought.

The gist of any type of bathing is that the elements can come into contact with your skin and your experience can change. Nature is not limited to the dog that follows you around or the birds that love your flower garden. It is in the sunlight, moonlight, and buoyancy of water that touches our every moment.

If you can’t sneak in 5 minutes in the sun or strip down to moon bathe, there is also great merit in locking oneself in the bathroom for a time out. Why save closing the door and locking it only for those times when you need to relieve yourself? No, locking the door is the escape you need for those 30-seconds of deep breathing so you can pull things together. And, if you train your family to leave you undisturbed, the tub is right there and only takes a few moments to fill.

If you’re worried that bathing is not environmentally friendly, consider that a long shower takes as much water as a bath so it’s definitely more earth-friendly to bathe than run the water for-eeeever.

My vote is to bring back bathing and let the water do the healing.

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.

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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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.

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.

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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