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 . . . shakes and sighs.

I drove my 75-year-old father to the eye doctor yesterday. He struggles with diabetes and the health complications that go along with it. He was also head-injured as a young man so there are no simple conversations. Every interaction is fraught with emotion and debate. As a child, I learned the strategies to work with him when he was unpredictable but since then I’ve spent decades unraveling those strategies as quickly as I could to give myself a fighting chance to have a healthy life of my own.

I’m hooked less and less these days by his inflammatory statements and dramatic way of sharing his concerns. After dropping him off at his house, I could not miss that my sighs were huge, and I don’t remember sighing so freely before.

A sigh is familiar, in fact my dogs sigh constantly. They lie down and heave a big sigh. Ten minutes later, there’s another sigh. It’s as if all the stuff they are thinking goes out the window and they lie quietly and in the next moment they are sleeping.

I let my next sigh grow bigger. It felt good. As if all the excess tension of keeping good boundaries and not over-reacting was released in a positive way. I sighed again.

My little dog shakes a lot when she is nervous, even when it seems there was a positive event. She might receive a very nice back rub or a good belly scratch from someone and when she walks away from that person, she shakes and her whole body joins in with a wiggle that shakes her from her head to her tail.

I’ve always been jealous of that shake. I’m convinced a shake like that could let humans shed their excess worry and tension. Maybe we wouldn’t have to take so many medications. And for sure, our spines would be more supple.

For me, I’m working my way away from is carrying around a frustrated mind. I’m working on letting things be the way they are without feeling like I’m the person designated to fix everything. You know what I’m talking about, whether it’s your parents or the worry you have for your stepkids, you cannot be the end-all, be-all, solver-all.

So what do you do in the years of witnessing, when life isn’t all pretty and nice and everyone gets along? I think you have to keep sighing and shaking. Copy my dogs or your dogs, they have it right. When there is too much stimulation and life is overwhelming, take a good shake. Or, wander to one of your favorite coffee shops to pause and sit down with a big, huge sigh.

Copy, as copying was meant to be.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . is not alone.

I went walking with a stepmom girlfriend very early this morning. We meet up every now and then in the dark of the morning, before dawn, and walk until the sun is coming up. Our schedules just work out that way and it’s a great way to start the day. Even when I think it’s awfully early to be up and out, by the time we’ve gone a few blocks I’m always glad I didn’t stay home.

Today, my friend’s pain and frustration with regard to her stepdaughters was bubbling over. She has tried and tried but eventually she gave up the trying. There are three more years before the girls graduate from high school. Three long years to endure indifference, insolence, sullen looks, and disrespect. Three long years to argue with the husband about what is the best way to deal with their actions.

I’m betting we’ve all been there with our teenage (and younger) stepkids, whether they are boys or girls. While my situation has softened and there is less angst among all of us, we’re not completely through that phase. And, I look back and see how far I’ve come.

First, I tried to change the situation and establish expectations. And, I tried to be good enough and creative enough to do the just-right things that would make all of us feel good and happy and all get along. Then, I found myself pouting because I was used to my efforts yielding results. In fact, while I was pouting, I think I also exclaimed how things were not fair and how painful it all was. Indeed, I was in excruciating pain, not seeing an end to the situation of being ignored, insulted, and disrepected.

Tug of war contested at the 1904 Summer Olympi...

Image via Wikipedia

Then, I disengaged and explored how that worked for awhile. It was better, but I didn’t get to stay connected to my husband and sometimes he really wanted to share those kid times with me. I found that sometimes I could be there with him and sometimes I couldn’t. I chose not to whenever I knew I would be crabby. Just knowing I had a choice was a huge, huge relief.

Finally, after I had disengaged long enough, I was able to realize that I didn’t care what the kids thought of me. It was clear that their dad and I were together and they could fight the idea or accept it, as they wished. I realized that if I didn’t need to be liked, then there was less concern for me about who said what and when. And, I let go of my end of the rope even more and ended the tug-of-war.

Fortunately, when I let go of my end of the tug-of-war, life did not end. In fact, my days became amazingly calm and I went around looking over my shoulder to see what was wrong. Where was the angst? Where was the feeling of enormity? Gone, it was all gone. I had let go and I was still in the family, still in my marriage, still involved with the kids. In fact, my relationship with them began to get better when I didn’t care and try so much. Now, every time I feel conflict, I look around to see what I’m hanging on to and I let it go. I set it down and move on to the things that matter to me even more.

As I listened to my friend this morning and her story of her stepdaughters, I made sure she knew she was alone. I reassured her that her husband was doing the best he could and that she was doing the best that she could. And, I reassured her that none of it was her fault. We’ve all lived through a teen who remains loyal to their mother and won’t let themselves get close to the stepmother. And, when there is a mother who can’t let go and who can’t let the child have relationships with others, then the situation deteriorates even more. Sadly, it’s going to be a long three years for my friend.

I will keep walking with her. But, I wanted to ask a favor. If you’ve been in this situation . . . if you’ve found yourself in frustration, gritting your teeth and agonizing over no end in sight, I wonder if you would leave a message so my friend knows that she is not alone. I know she is not, but I’d love to give her a tangible way of knowing that this is what we are all going through. You see, I’m pretty sure that all over the country, women are struggling with these feelings of frustration and pain and no woman is the only one going through this time. No woman is alone.

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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.

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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