A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Being Good

I wonder if the remarried woman has more pressure on her to be a good wife than in a first marriage. I wonder if the stakes feel higher to be good because the odds of a remarriage succeeding are so dismal.

And how good does a good wife have to be? How good does a stepmother-wife have to be?

Does going from good wife to divorced woman have something to do with how mothers reach for their children? Is there something about reclaiming and emboldening the image of good mother that will somehow compensate for the loss of good wife? And if good mothers and good wives are good women, can there be two good women in an extended stepfamily? 

Is there a limited amount of good?

Is the label good necessary, is it automatic?

test-clip-art-7iakpmratI can argue no one needs it. Good feels like a set up for doing too much, for over-doing, and for over-extending. Good feels like a great way to start a competition.

Think of it. Someone needs to find that misplaced coat because the weather turned cold overnight and it’s raining outside. The child can’t walk to school in the cold without a coat. So someone must find the coat. Who jumps to go find the coat? 

And I wonder, is there more pressure to be the good stepmother from the children, more from the husband, or more from the ex-wife? Or are we trying so hard to prove we are worthy of this man because others lay claim to him as father, son, or ex-husband that we impose the good label on ourselves.

Do we feel we have to prove we are good enough to justify him marrying us in the first place? To justify him wanting his children to get along with us? To justify him trusting us enough to leave the children with us?

And so we bend, mold, flex, double-over, curl up, make ourselves smaller, make ourselves stronger, do more, be more, try to be prettier, try to solve all problems. We aspire to become female Macgyvers, able to do anything, be anywhere, and love anyone.

How do we decide who establishes the measure of a good stepmother? Who do we let apply this measure to us?

And finally, how is our good earned?

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Reflects on Anniversaries

A Healthy Stepmother . . . Reflects on Anniversaries

Happy Anniversary! My friend exclaimed as she got in her car to leave our lunch date. My husband and I had celebrated our tenth anniversary as a remarried couple over the weekend and my friend has been a staunch supporter of ours.

Happy Anniversary! The card arrived from my in-laws and my husband’s sister. They have been strong supporters of our marriage, opening the family circle to make space from the very first time they met me.

Friends and extended family, the ones intimate enough to know us, all congratulated us on our milestone, a decade. A decade is nothing in the life of my women’s circle. I’m the only one who’s been divorced and remarried. The rest of them have been married nearly forty years and counting.

When I say a decade is like thirty years in a remarriage, some of you know what I mean. You know there has been a lot of water under the bridge. You know the adjustments and integrations taking place. You know.

Ironically, our celebration is the anniversary of the death of the marriage my husband was in before me.

“For the child, the parents are always together.” Suzi Tucker, Constellations Facilitator, said these words as we worked through one woman’s story.

img_1243“Amen.” I said it to myself as I stood in the place of one of the woman’s children. I know this to be true from my own experience as a child and from my experience married to a man with children.

In the early years of my remarriage, it was difficult to respect a child’s perspective while so many emotions churned and the past loomed larger than the future. These days, now ten years into the married part, it feels less foreign.

“For the child, the parents are always together.” It makes more sense now that there have been more memories laid down that support a sense of community. The funny thing is, you can’t create those memories or supports immediately. It really does take time, years in fact. Seven to twelve years according to the experts.

And, that’s what settles my heart. No one is expected to get it right the first try. No one is to know what a child needs until that person knows and understands the child in a deeper way than one or two years brings. And no child is expected to know how to handle a new person in his or her life. There’s an evolution to relationships. There’s a developmental process to relationships.

For me, the evolution was in the letting go of every single expectation I had carried over the threshold with me. For me, it was in the letting myself off the hook for not being some superhero. Maybe that’s the title of a stepmother book, “No Superheroes Needed.”

Because there’s nothing to be saved.

I do mean that literally. No one needs saving. Sure, some people in the extended stepfamily might be misbehaving. Some of them might be misbehaving a lot. Still, in those chaotic and crazy moments when it seems the world has ended, you are an idea person, you are a problem-solver, and you are your spouse’s deepest support. But it isn’t yours to go wading into the fray and set the boundaries or fight the fires. You can do that together with your partner, but it isn’t yours to lead the way or make the definitions of what will be best for children that aren’t your own.

That’s the harsh part. That’s the part that makes us feel vulnerable. That’s the point where we want to stomp our foot and shake a fist to express our frustration with our disenfranchisement. It’s the part that makes us get on our high horse which isn’t the same as taking the high road.

There are no simple answers. There are no easy solutions. Some of us have husbands and partners who are not as good at solving these problems or at even acknowledging they exist. Some of us have partners who would rather bury their head in the sand and watch a child struggle than deal with an ex-spouse. And, some of us have husbands who do a great job of boundary setting and take care of the emotional work with their children and ex-partner. So many differences within families and no easy answers.

I hope you make it to the happy anniversary stage. I hope you wade and slog your way through those days that make you want to stay in bed. I hope the many edges of your self haven’t been chipped away so that you no longer recognize yourself. I hope you come out on the other side of that swamp with your heart intact and your marriage stronger.

I hope you find ways to soothe your feelings so you can take on less and less of the goings ons as a personal affront to you. This family was going to survive, or not, before you came along.

I hope you realize your priority is your relationship to that person to whom you said “I do.” 

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 . . . and Three Radical, Un-Lofty Goals for the Holidays

Quick, it’s time for you to remind yourself to step back, sit back, fall back, get back, lay back, and pay back. Pay yourself back for every time you’ve ever over-extended and pretended.

Holiday gatherings at this time of year aren’t that different from holidays at other times of the year, in general. They are a thousand times different from other holidays, in specific. Decades of tradition, ritual, and cultural meaning ascribed to a certain song, a favorite dish, or a secret handshake create a recipe for exclusion of stepmothers.

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you know my pet project is convincing all of you to refrain from doing other people’s work. And, I don’t mean sweeping the sidewalk to your front door when the kids forget to do the chores.

I mean letting children do what they are capable of doing, which is much, much, much (please, add another much) more than we think they can.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . radical, un-lofty goalsI mean letting adults do what they are capable of doing (i.e. feel pain, worry, take care of others, consider and plan for the day, and advocate for children). Especially, when it comes to their own children. Yes, I do mean letting parents take care of their children.

The father, presumably your husband or partner, takes care of his children on his time. If he needs your help, you wait for him to ask you. You refrain from jumping in simply because you see what needs doing next.

The mother, presumably your husband/partner’s ex-spouse, takes care of her children on her time. You refrain from jumping in simply because you see what needs doing next.

Just because you can see it, doesn’t mean it belongs to you. 

Are you with me? The following ideas are things I wish I had considered ten years ago, but please use your knowledge of yourself, your spouse/partner, and the circumstances in your relationship to decide if these things will be helpful for you. Making your own decision will be good practice for you, especially when you’re feeling pressured into helping others.

Three radical, un-lofty Goals for the rest of 2014.

  1. Stay home for one of every three family outings. Sleep. Meet up with girlfriends. Read. Fume. Write in your journal. Surf Facebook. Or, stay home for two of every three and dance to loud music throughout the house. Hell, dance to loud music in the park or at the mall. Walk the dog. But, resist the urge to attend every family outing between now and January 1st. While you’re at it, let your spouse know he/she can play hooky for one of the family outings, what the heck.
  2. Spend one hour together without clothing, under the covers, every week between now and the end of the year. Just be there, no agenda. Agree you will leave the agenda out of it. You are there to meet up, eye to eye, safe and warm under the blankets, and say hello. Talk. Worry. Cry. Hug. Fight….no, wait, I don’t mean that, you do too much of that already, skip that one. If there isn’t a time in your day or evening without children around, wake in the middle of the night and take your clothes off. Spending an hour with no clothes on under the covers with your partner will, at the very least, remind you there are things in life more important than arguing, even if that is simply being held. At the very most, you will have shared intimacy at a time when you need it most. It’s preferable that you touch skin to skin, even a foot or a toe or holding hands, or whatever else you can can agree is being called for at the moment. Ahem. And, if the ahem doesn’t take very long, STAY under the covers for the whole hour, even if you fall asleep. 
  3. Answer all requests with Can I get back to you on that? In your impulse to belong, join, and be seen as generous, you can get stuck in the yes. In reality, you’ve got a choice. You are not the end-all, be-all for anyone. Not even your children. Write this down, Can I get back to you on that? Use it, every single time someone asks for your time, attention, or help. Can you help me with raking the leaves? Can I get back to you on that? Can you mend these pants for me? Can I get back to you on that? Can you meet me for coffee on Thursday? Can I get back to you on that? Mommy, I need treats for the school party. Can I get back to you on that? And, of course, what you do while you’re getting back to them is check your calendar and make sure you don’t have back-to-back appointments, double-bookings, or too many things on one day. During the holidays, make fewer appointments. And, of course, some of the kid requests get a higher priority, they are children. But, not everything is urgent, not even the treats for the school party. This is why the gods and goddesses made Trader Joe’s.

Un-lofty goals? Yes indeedy! Who said all the good goals were lofty goals involving getting our needs met by serving everyone else? The words maid, servant, janitor, dishwasher, or [fill-in-the-blank] come to mind. Doing all those things perfectly simply leads to anxiety and depression and the feeling you’re never good enough.

Un-lofty goals, on the other hand, are decadent and yummy. Although, in most families, un-lofty goals will be seen as radical, they are exactly what is needed. Un-lofty goals will help you feel like you are playing hooky. Which is good, since this is the kind of hooky you were meant to take. This is the kind of hooky that will restore your spirit, tickle your fancy, and open the doors and windows of your thinking so you can create your own top-three list for the next family outing.

There you go, three radical, un-lofty goals, and all. Clothing required for blog reading and commenting.

10 Essentials* for A Healthy Stepmother

Updated from December 16, 2009.

Regardless of whether you’re preparing for your first trip into the Stepmother Wilderness or you’ve been there before, you need some essentials. Being a stepmother is a process: first, you learn the basics, then you gain skill and strength for longer trips, and finally, you become an experienced stepmother, expert in handling emergencies and traumas along the wilderness trail.

Ideally,  we would be oriented to venturing into the wilderness, but honestly, life often thrusts us full-on into the long-distance hike with little to sustain us except our love for the man to whom we said “I do.” Thus, whether you are an experienced stepmother or recently married, living with someone, or contemplating marriage, you can benefit from the 10 Essentials.

1. Navigation (map and compass)

Do not leave home without a map of your direction and a compass to track your coordinates. Time and again, stepmothers get stranded, lost and confused, dehydrated, or overexposed to freezing temperatures that caught them unprepared. Had they known where they were going and which path to take, they might have returned to safety quickly and without much ado.

Take out your compass, get your map . . . plot your course. Make plans with your husband so you know you’re both on the same trail and where you’ll meet up each night if you get separated. If you get mad and stomp off, not letting him know where you’re going, you’ll have a long wait before you are found.

2. Sun protection

Prevention is the first step in protection. Rub a thin, invisible layer of sunscreen on one’s skin to keep the invisible rays from harming the skin, especially during times of long exposure. Once there’s been too much exposure, it’s difficult to do anything other than wait until the burn has healed. In our stepmother lives, the sunscreen of choice is the detachment many experts suggest. Detachment helps many stepmothers do less and avoid over-exposure, fatigue, and burning. Note: detachment is best used when needed and then shelved for times when the flow of connection feels mutual and comfortable. 

3. Insulation (extra clothing)

Take insulation no matter where and what season you venture out. Insulation could be a warm layer, a dry layer, or a wicking layer. At the very least, a layer next to the skin to reduce chafing. With the right layering, you can go out in almost any weather.

Early in our marriage, my husband advised me to use insulation . . . don’t leave yourself vulnerable . . . and, be sure to take care of yourself. My enthusiastic, brave front did little insulate me from the grief that naturally occurred when he and I got married and my feelings ended up trampled and bruised. He knew how to move among those family dynamics, but my anxiety-motivated efforts to join in took me feet first, with no insulation to protect me from the cold.

4. Illumination (flashlight/headlamp)

If you can’t see where you’re going, you can’t get where you want to go. So, take a flashlight. If the weather changes for the worst and you’re stranded, you might need to signal for rescue. You might need a light to find your way back to your campsite. 

And, consider a headlamp. They leave your hands free, giving you flexibility and light where you need it. Sometimes you need that focused light to shine on a problem, so you can find a solution. Knowing when to use the light comes with experience and a healthy stepmother knows when to not shine the light.

5. First-aid supplies

When you get hurt, you need help. Your stepmother first-aid kit should include a range of supplies, everything from taking a nap to going on a beach retreat with stepmother girlfriends. It should also include a stepmother support group, formal or informal, and the name of a good therapist, if you don’t already have one. In addition, learning to stand in your own skin, to show up fully and not vacate the premises, is one of the most effective first-aid supplies to carry in your kit.  

10 Essentials for A Healthy StepmotherYou should build up a strong kit of options for nurturing yourself over the long haul. Even when stepkids don’t mean to brush you aside, they do. Even when they want to like you, their mother stands between them and you and she may or may not let them have the freedom to approach you with an open heart. In those cases, get out the first aid kit. Patch up the cuts, blisters, and bruises and move on. Unless you have a broken bone or need bed rest, there is a lot that a good long walk with the dogs will do for you.

6. Fire

The fire you take into the stepmother wilderness fuels your creativity, shores up your spirit, and solidifies the love you share with your husband. Without that fire, the stepmother wilderness gets dark, cold, and more than a little scary. You need fire as a vital aspect of your relationship with your husband so that you can continue to build up your history of successful interactions, memories, and stories. The fire protects you from the challenges to your union you’re sure to encounter. You are building a house of connectedness and the fire is a central element to withstand the test of time.

7. Repair kit and tools

Taking care of oneself outdoors means that sometimes you have to dig a hole to properly dispose of the waste. Sometimes you have to chop wood or haul water or build a temporary shelter. Gather up your personal stepmother repair kit and be sure to include the following items . . . you should have a cozy blanket to wrap up in when you need some nurturing, a room to escape to where you can shut the door and have some alone time, a computer so you can go online and chat with other stepmothers even in the wee hours of the night, and a Mardi Gras mask to wear when your own smile just won’t do. A pedicure, or maybe even a new hairstyle, might qualify as a repair kit, but it’s a great idea to have a few tools that don’t require going and doing. Sometimes you need repairs in the here and now and can’t get away from your obligations.

Read. You’ll soon find out that you are not alone and many others share the same concerns. There is a growing supply of books that give ideas for how to approach the stepmother role and it’s no secret that there are many different philosophies growing out there. Hands down, the best overview of stepmothering lies in the pages of Stepmonster, by Wednesday Martin. Get a copy. 

8. Nutrition (extra food)

Meals are a vulnerable time for a stepmother because everyone sits face-to-face, struggling with what to say or do. One strategy to nourish your self is to let your husband cook meals for his children. This takes you out of being judged for what you cook or don’t cook and whether they like it or don’t like it. If you are the custodial stepmother, let the kids sign up for a night to fix the family meal. Independently, if they are old enough, or in teams with a parent if they are too young. Let them be in charge of food choices, preparation, and clean-up. Let them offer nourishment to others.

Nutrition also comes in the form of you and your husband getting time alone and you taking time with close friends and your own family. This could be the most neglected aspect of being a stepmother, often because stepmothers carry guilt about not being present for every moment. Special Note: Dig a hole and bury the guilt right beside the waste. Then, without further ado, resume your life.

9. Hydration (extra water)

Water, coffee, tea, juice, or cocktails. Any experienced stepmother-hiker knows that she needs to choose carefully how she hydrates. Essential is remaining hydrated, whether the conditions are warm or cold. Take enough water and take electrolytes to prevent against dehydration. 

An experienced stepmother chooses a safe and appropriate environment when occasionally letting loose with friends. She doesn’t want to end up like the guy who was drinking and after a fight with his fiancé decided to swim in the Colorado River, and drowned. To summarize: drinking and the stepmother wilderness don’t mix. Use your good navigation skills and knowledge of the terrain to plan for each day, and behave accordingly. No prudish lectures here, just common sense and good wishes for the long haul.

10. Emergency shelter

Sometimes, regardless of the abilities of an experienced wilderness stepmother, the situation can fall apart. When a sudden storm comes up, grab your emergency supplies and get busy building a shelter to wait out the storm. This might include building a barrier (real or imagined) to withstand the hurricane of feelings being hurled in your direction. Hurricanes come up during most holiday and special events for the kids, or following times of transition between homes. Stormy weather can, and will, be brought into your home without warning. Practice when the winds are less intense and soon you’ll be able to quickly assemble shelter around you so you can breathe and watch and interact, without feeling assaulted by the storm going on around you.

With these essentials in your pack and knowledge of how to use them, over time you’ll learn to use them in a preventive way. Please . . . don’t venture into the Stepmother Wilderness without your 10 Essentials.

*Adapted from the 10 Essentials, The Mountaineers, Seattle.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Bitter to Better

If you’ve been in your remarriage more than three years, you know exactly what I mean when I refer to bitter versus better. Maybe you arrived at such a stepmother moment late at night wondering what the hell happened and what you were thinking. Maybe you sat in the dark, heart-broken, diving down into the depths, wallowing in the pity, feeling it in every fiber.

It’s in a moment like that, maybe not the first moment or the second, but at some point a little voice came. The little voice was soft, only perceived by you. The voice whispered, Is this the hill you want to die on? Is this the thing that’s going to tip you away from being your indomitable enthusiastic self to some kind of bitter, resentful, heart-broken shell of your former self? And, are you willingly giving up yourself? 

And, finally, another whisper, Why?

A Healthy Stepmother . . . bitter into better.For me, there was a very clear moment of weighing the bitter versus better choice. I didn’t want to keep marching on as though there was only one way. I didn’t want to keep fighting about who controlled whom. I didn’t want to live my life resenting anyone or anything, most of all the decisions I had made when actually I was stone-cold-sober and in my right mind, including marrying my wonderful guy. 

For me, it felt completely obvious. 

For once. 

It was the first time in my life I was glad for all my years and all my experience with chaos and pain and agony. I was grateful I wasn’t in my 30s, a time when it would have taken me much longer to reach the point where I said, Hey wait, I’m working too hard at this and I’m exhausted. I was a good girl and I would go until the bell rang, just like in the movie The Fighter. Mark Wahlberg’s character was exhausted, bleeding, and almost knocked out. Then, he shook his head and acknowledged he was about to lose and that he needed to do something different. He wasn’t strong at that point in the fight, in fact he almost fell over, so he held his arms in a more protective place and he punched with different timing. He knocked out the other guy, and won. 

I’m not suggesting you knock anyone out. I am suggesting you figure out a new place to hold your arms to protect yourself and to look and see when to push and move forward. I’m no expert on boxing, but clearly there is strategy and it’s not a free-for-all despite how it looks. There is strategy for early in the fight, for mid-way through the fight, and for late in the fight. There’s the mental psychology of being hit and hitting, of how to take the blows and bounce back. There’s the mental talk, that silent pep rally only the fighter knows and hears. 

When I got smarter and decided I wasn’t going to let bitterness be my best friend, it became a lot easier to decide when to let something go. Often that looked like not even getting in the ring. I took a day, or many days, off from the fight. It became easier to let things go and to even miss out on some things so I could remain outside the fight. 

Eventually, life didn’t feel like a fight any more. I had more peace and more energy for other things. I took on fewer battles that weren’t my own. 

Choosing better over bitter, it’s a practice. A daily practice.  

Getting in the ring less and less often, and eventually never, is better. Even if it’s hard, it’s better to have some difficulty in life for a short time to gain the long-term payoff of life without bitter. 

Life without bitter opens to life connected to you, you connected to your important people. Life without bitter is sweeter. 

Life without bitter is, simply, better. 

 

 

A Healthy Stepmother . . . sheds her single story.

Maybe you’ve read my recent post in which I describe being so moved by current events I wrote an article that got posted to The Broad Side on February 5, just a month ago. I have plans to do more writing on the subject of child sexual abuse, not necessarily on this blog.

Since the February 5 post on The Broad Side and since my post here last week, I’ve considered why it is I hadn’t felt moved to say anything sooner. Reaction from others is part of it, but that’s only a part. What I know now is that I carried my story within me until it was no longer the single story. Let me explain.

We stepmothers have told the single story. At least for a time. We say, I am a stepmother. But that is never enough to say about ourselves, nor enough for others to know about us. The single story, I am a woman, is never enough to know about me, nor enough for others to know about me. Nor is I am from the United States, tall, college-graduate, small town raised, or a marathon walker. Any single story that gets told is just that, a single story.

I watched a Ted Talk, by Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story, the other day and knew that’s why I’d been waiting to share my story of childhood sexual abuse. I am not my abuse. I am not my height. I am not my college graduate degree. I am not my small town. To know me is to include every single thing that has ever happened to me in my life. Travel, food, books I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, music I listen to, and the color of the skin of those I know or don’t know.

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Upon further reflection, it seems to me that we go into the single story mode when we are new at something.

Once upon a time, I learned to sail. My sailing story is that I took a class and I went out the first time on the lake and capsized the boat. It took me a decade to return to sailing but I was smart enough to go out and crew on a boat that wasn’t in danger of capsizing. We had a fabulous time and I’m still a big fan. If I’d stopped at the capsizing, I’d have a story of myself as a lousy sailor and I’d probably still be avoiding it.

I remember in my late 20s and early 30s, when I was doing the hardest work on my family history and unearthing all the horror stories and bringing them out into the open, I walked around with child abuse survivor on my forehead. I didn’t relate to that word, survivor, but at least it felt better than victim. Needless to say, it was a difficult time since it seemed like the abuse was the only thing I could see about myself.

Fortunately, I enrolled in my Feldenkrais training and immersed myself in the questions: Is there another way of doing this? Is there another way to think about this? What is a second way, and now a third? And, finally, do I have more than three ways to do something (anything) so that I’m not behaving compulsively? That would mean that when the word stepmother comes up in me I have a flash of a woman who is in a difficult situation, maybe even with a powerless feeling. Then, a second flash of a woman who cares and needs to be careful about her caring. Then, a third image of a woman married to a man she loves deeply, dedicated to helping him raise his children with the opportunity grow into healthy and fulfilled adults. And, maybe there’s an image of a woman surrounded by other women who are also stepmothers and there’s a club of stepmothers growing in number by the day, week, month, and year.

I’ll admit that it took me at least 5 years to completely shed the societal image of the wicked stepmother. The image dominated the first years of my marriage to my husband even though I would have professed that wasn’t so. Now, I see so much of my resistance to the label was about denying that the label could in any way be related to me. As soon as I lost the negativity of actually being a stepmother and who I was in that role, I embraced stepmother and now flaunt it for all to see.

Since we can’t control what others think about us, how about we reach down in there and drag the other stories about us up to the surface, right there beside the stepmother label. Woman, wife, mother, lover, author, co-worker, worrier, nature-lover, rich, poor, healthy, struggling, depressed, and on and on and on. We carry so many stories, we will be here a mighty long time telling each of them. We have the grandmother story, the 5-year-old kid story, the picking beans story, throwing up in the strawberry fields story, the meeting the man story, the how-many-men-I-dated-before-I-got-it-right story, and the year I knew my first marriage was over story. On and on. Rich, textured, beautiful stories whether the events in them were beautiful or not.

As Chimamanda says so eloquently, you are not a single story.

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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 . . . publishes a Manifesto!

Everyone is on the manifesto bandwagon and, though I’ll admit to being a late adopter for many key cultural phenomenon, I’m pretty excited to create a Manifesto. I hated saddle shoes until they were almost out of style and then I longed for a pair. Same with the Beatles. Instead, this then-9-year-old was roaming around the house belting Wayne Newton’s version of Little Green Apples.

Long-time readers of the blog will recognize the Manifesto revolves around the titles of the blog posts themselves. Thus, if you’d like to remind yourself of the post for that topic, simply enter the key phrase into the search window on the blog.

When you click on the Manifesto image, it’ll pop out into a size you can print on an 8.5×11 piece of paper.

Enjoy!

A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the importance of place.

Have you adjusted to your place in your stepfamily?

I purposely say place because I don’t like how role sounds or feels. A role is a prescribed set of behaviors designed to fit a certain circumstance. A place is yours. You will find it or build it or discover it or create it. Your place will be there when you get confused and struggle to find where you belong.

I didn’t always see that. I struggled. And, I haven’t met a stepmother yet who hasn’t struggled to feel there is a place for her.

I’m not talking about adjusting to the easy stuff, the time when it’s just you and one of your stepchildren and you both let your guard down and the joy flows. The time when the child is uncensored and unwatched by adults or other children who carry the word back about who is doing what. This time of one adult and one child is the easy time.

No, when I ask if you’ve adjusted to your place in your stepfamily, I’m referring to the place you hold when the holidays are in full swing, when there’s a graduation going on, when a birthday needs celebrating, or when someone is getting married. These big stuff occasions require a place in order to feel comfortable in one’s skin.

This will sound funny . . . you have to take your place. I don’t mean with elbows shoving like my Portland Trailblazers determined to win the rebound. I don’t mean dictating how things will go for the Sunday dinner. I don’t mean cataloguing the mental list of all the things you’d like to see changed about your new home.

In fact, hopefully you’ll take your place in your own style, gently some days, more assertively on others, benignly much of the time, and supportively as often as you can. But the place, the where of you, is there. Constant.

What happens when you are in your place and feel it and live in it, even from it, is that the children learn where you are. They know what to expect on a given day. They begin to trust and that trust seeps in, past the bravado, past the scorn or rejection. They begin to assume you will be there. And you will, it’s your place. It’s not negotiable, it just is.

Eventually, your place is no longer up for discussion and even though you might be tempted to think a flare up or difficulty or trouble will cause you to not have a place, think again. In fact, in confused and chaotic moments it’s even more critical that you are simply where you are, in your place.

And, I don’t mean your place is the same as my place or that there’s only one place for stepmothers, any more than there’s one place for mothers. For sure, one aspect of the place is beside your husband, but the other aspects of the place are as different as we women are different. Our interests, our style, our mannerisms, our humor, our strengths and weakness, each of these shapes the place we take up.

When enough time has passed, there you are in your place, firmly ensconced in a way that makes you a fixture as much as anyone else in the family. At that moment, you’ve become a place the child can turn to when he or she needs the things you offer from your place.

In January of 2012, I was thinking of this idea of place in terms of belonging. Now I think you can’t belong until you have a place. But, the place isn’t a place in the sense of a physical place. While it’s important to have your bed be yours, a certain chair that is yours or a room you retreat to, what I’m thinking of is intrinsic. It is the space you occupy when you are being you, when you are fully engaged in the living in your stepfamily, when you are giving and receiving what is there to be given and received.

Place cards being calligraphed before a state ...

Place cards being calligraphed before a state dinner. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because your place is something you take, it will seem in the beginning you need to be invited in, as you would be around the table at a friend’s dinner party. However in your stepfamily, there won’t be name cards so you won’t know exactly where to place yourself. A lack of name cards is one of the things that makes adjusting to your stepfamily take a good amount of time. The order of things, something as simple as who sits where around the table, has shuffled and everyone is likely uncomfortable. The potential is high for every awkward thing to happen, and it most often does.

And that’s true for every other activity where there is an order and a process and turn-taking. When does your turn come? Do you take the last turn? Are you thrust in the first turn? Who decides?

If you accept that the place isn’t automatically assigned and that no one else can create it for you and it isn’t handed out after a certain initiation period, then you’ll know you can get our bearings as a new stepmother and do the work of peeling back the layers of expectations and dashed hopes and find what the place can be.

Once you work through and get to the place, remain there. Live from there. Relax in there. Be curious and look around from there.

This place is worth knowing and having.

In many ways, this place is you.

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