A Healthy Stepmother . . . begins more gently.

If I could, I’d begin more gently.

I wouldn’t have fallen in love more gently with my amazing husband. The kind of love that sustains us has been strong enough to keep me from my old habit of wanting to pack my bag and head for the hills when the emotions escalated and strong enough to glue us together through several family crises.

I wouldn’t go slower with my stepkids, I purposely went slowly with them, choosing some way to relate to each of them. Whether it was weekly pick ups from practice and dinner on the way home or daily homework sessions, I offered invitations gently.

A Healthy Stepmother begins more gently.I wouldn’t go slower with rule-making and re-organizing a house. Nearly every book on stepfamilies and stepmothers tells you to get together with your spouse and establish house rules, set things up early, and be clear about your expectations. Some families might thrive in re-establishing rules, for us that wasn’t the case. Entering a family with teens was tenuous at best and over time I brought some great ideas from one or another of the books I was reading. My husband listened and acknowledged the ideas and by the time we’d talked them through, we both acknowledged they sounded great, but probably weren’t the way we wanted to interact with the kids in our situation.

I’d tread more gently in expecting happiness in my new life. I’d honor the new marriage and my new husband and participate in family activities, but I wouldn’t expect I’d be happy in the first year or even two years. I’d give myself as much time as I would if I had a new job, six months before I’d expect to belong. I’d give myself as much time to adjust as I would if I moved to a foreign country, a year before I’d begin to think it was a good move. Instead, initially I felt as if I’d moved to a foreign country and tried to behave like a native from day one. If I had it to do over again, I’d let go of that idea of instant happiness.

I’d look more gently at indifference toward me and not take it as a personal statement of my presence. It’s not personal took me five years to understand on a heart level. It’s not personal was true and I’m entirely grateful for all the folks who said it, over and over and over and over. I couldn’t hear their message early on because I was working so hard at fitting in and finding a place that felt like mine. When I could finally understand it’s not personal, I saw children uncomfortable with feelings and newness and strangers and came to a better understanding of how they struggled

I’d be gentle with my decisions. The advice for how to behave as a stepmother fills several shelves in any bookstore. I fell for some of it and got sidetracked from listening to myself. Fortunately, for me, it became very clear early on in my remarriage that no two stepfamilies are alike. We can lump all of us into a category, like we do, but each household contains a unique set of individuals who, together, make a unique system and require unique attention to work things through. The advice in each book worked for at least one family or the author wouldn’t have written it and even the books compiled of someone’s years of working with clients don’t offer the whole story. Those books offer lists of what many founds useful. They may still miss the mark for a majority of stepfamilies.

That’s just it, I can’t see into the real future. I can maybe see the future others paint for me or one other stepfamilies are living. But my future lies somewhere out there along the edge of the path I am on, somewhat blurry and indistinct. I’ll keep on gently and steadily, like I’ve learned to do, with all the fortitude I possess.

I’ll recognize my future when I get there.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . makes a guest appearance tonight on #MomsofBoysChat

It’s finally here, it’s today….after a few weeks of getting organized, I’m going to be a guest on the #momsofboyschat on Twitter.

Yup, I’ll be the guest on a Twitter chat. Today, Friday, August 23, 7pm Pacific time (10pm Eastern). The chat is hosted by Marie Roker-Jones over at raisinggreatmen.com. Her site is worth exploring!!

The topic of the #momsofboyschat tonight is Balance and Resilience with a regard for the back-to-school time we are in. Very fitting, I’m taking my stepson on our annual school shopping trip next week.

In my work as a Feldenkrais® teacher, I teach my clients to use self-awareness to improve balance and resilience and posture and overall well-being. We can think of good posture as being able to smoothly move in any direction, at any time, without a lot of concentration or effort. In many ways, that’s the same definition as balance. I know we think of balance as not falling over, but that’s such a limiting way to contemplate a vast and delicious concept.

Balance is not too much of this or too much of that. It’s about easily going this way OR that way. Color can be balanced. Your checking account can be balanced. So can your mood and your time and everything else. So, falling over is only one of the many ways to think of balance. It’s not the way I’m going to discuss on the chat, we’ll zero in on the sense of rushing vs resting, hurry vs leisure, getting it all done vs choosing a few things done well.

Resilience relates to balance. When you are off that center and when you are bouncing around from here to there and car pooling and getting to the board meeting and running, running, running, you need the ability to quickly and comfortably come back to your starting point, aka homeostasis. We could think of that starting point as neutral, or a place of balance. It is from there we go out and to there we come back. That is resilience. Can we return to the place we began and have the energy to go out from the center again? Rubber-bandish, if you know what I mean.

I also have a few ideas about what I’m calling our Legacy Behaviors. Legacy behaviors are those things we learned in our growing up homes, back when we didn’t have as many choices about our behavior. We were going to do what needed done in the situation to fit and survive. Children are at the mercy of their adults, even if it seems we’re at theirs. All the more reason for you to feel and find balance and resilience, you will be passing along those behaviors to your children.

You can look back to your childhood family to see what you learned about how to handle things not going well, how to handle the one more thing on your plate, how to handle when someone gets ill. It’s all there, the patterns you’ve gained and use over and over without even thinking. I’ve dug down deep in my family legacies to see what was there and with my father living with us now after his stroke, I am getting to see it even more up close and personal.

My message is: we can change the patterns. We can get past enough of our anxiety, or anger, or depression, or disappointment, that we will have an improved quality of life. We can learn to stay in a place of balance or return to it easier and quicker and smoother.

It takes time and practice, but the potential to live without struggle or conflict, it is there.

My favorite story about learning balance and resilience comes from a trip I took to England years ago to teach a workshop focused on walking.

On the opening Friday evening of the workshop, I asked the group to lie on their back and reach their right leg up in the air with the sole of the foot facing the ceiling. Everyone did this amidst many groans. One woman struggled and strained to hold her leg there. I walked over and took hold of her foot and ankle with soft hands and modeled with my hands the quality of how she might hold her leg. She softened in her knee a bit. I kept holding and began some minuscule movements to turn her foot left and right. After a few moments, she softened in her ankle. Her leg was still in the air, but she was supported by me taking some of the weight and she was beginning to understand there was a way she could release the holding all along her left leg. We worked with it a few more moments and she could hold her leg in the air with some improved degree of comfort. 
She went to bed and during the night had a muscle spasm. She described that when she had a spasm, normally she’d have to get up and take some medication or get up and do some elaborate stretches. Instead, she lay there in the dark noticing the spasm. She realized it was actually in her neck, but more to one side. She began noticing her arm and how she was holding it and returned to noticing her neck. Gradually, she noticed that the spasm was as strong and before she knew it she was waking up with the awareness she’d fallen back to sleep without getting out of bed.
Her comment to me the next morning was that she had learned to keep asking, what else is there to let go of, what is another way I can do this?

I find myself returning to that question over and over and over again in my life. Whether it’s as a stepmother, as a wife, or as a daughter who’s now the caregiver, there is always something else I can let go of. When I do, there is a huge expanse of possibility that opens before me and I can go left or right or forward or backwards, even up or down. All smoothly, all with balance, and very easily return to the starting place.

Practicing balance and resilience is worth every minute of time spent.

The chat tonight will be like dipping your toe into the process, but there’s a ton of information on this blog and over on my Feldenkrais Notes blog, where if you read the Reflections pieces, you’ll get a sense of how my work relates to everyday living. And, of course, not everyone is a stepmother ;-), but the process of integrating into my family and using these strategies was what helped me organize my thinking around the topic, so it’s still the best place to get my ideas. I could have called the blog, A Healthy Human.

If you can’t join us on the chat tonight, you can begin by reading the Soothing series on the blog. About 14 posts related to strategies to practice soothing, another way to talk about Balance and Resilience.

See you soon!

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . meets a kindred stepmother.

I met a stepmother a few months ago that immediately caught my attention because her story is so like my own. The ages of the kids. The age she was when she got married. The issues that clung like moss to the divorced couple, moss that resisted the scrubbing and sprinkling of moss remover.

My new stepmother friend, Alice, sent me email last week saying that she was dreading Mother’s Day. We met up for a walk and she told me her story.

When Alice met Mister-one-day-to-be-her-husband, his children had various reactions. The eldest wanted nothing to do with her, but the youngest became her buddy. The youngest opened her heart and wanted to connect. And connect they did. They played games together, they rode bikes together, they swam together, often with Mister-one-day-to-be-her-husband, often on their own.

After my new friend and her lovely man married, the great vibes continued between her and the youngest stepchild. In fact, they became great pals. The child learned that Alice was her champion and advocate. She understood she could talk to her about anything and there was safety in that conversation. Alice was careful to not take over the mom stuff and she listened respectfully but without criticism over the years.

Choosing: painting by first husband, George Fr...

Choosing: painting by first husband, George Frederic Watts, c. 1864 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alice had read that children will go through a questioning of the relationship with the stepmother at each phase of development and as if on cue, at age 13, her stepdaughter acted haughty and rejecting of Alice. She complained that Alice was telling her what to do, when the week before she had cooperated eagerly. From there on, their relationship went downhill.

Alice looked sad when she told me that early in the marriage her youngest stepchild had also, spontaneously and without urging from her father, insisted on stepmother celebrations on the weekend after Mother’s Day. But, for the last three years not only was there no stepmother celebration, there was no acknowledgement of any kind. Oh, the kids were polite enough when they were around Alice but they kept their feelings to themselves, unless they were complaining about something they didn’t like.

Alice told me her heart felt heavy and she felt as if she had to hide her feelings for the kids. It was as if somehow a huge cord that tied them to their mother’s home was reinforced and strengthened, almost like the umbilical cord still existed, and they were afraid their mother would know if they had been nice to Alice. Alice carried her hurts and the hurts of witnessing her husband as he was also marginalized and pushed out, little by little, from the kids’ lives. She said her husband kept a great attitude, determined his relationship was not going to be defined by what anyone else did or said.

Alice told me she felt better after we walked and talked and this morning she sent me a note to say she’d survived Mother’s Day, intact of body, mind, and spirit. I was glad for her sharing since I’ve felt many of those things, not in that order and not exactly like that, but similar in the sense of having a close relationship and then losing it because others couldn’t afford to let the closeness outside their group exist.

The issues are many, the process intricate and delicate. And, maybe the only cure for these loyalty binds is time. I know several stepmothers whose stepchildren are in their late 20s and 30s and the relationship has softened. The stepchildren can share their feelings because they live outside the shadow of the mother. The children feel safer and more adept at having their own feelings and the umbilical cord is thinner or has dissolved. Maybe those adult children understand they are honoring their father when they behave appropriately with his wife. Maybe they become mature enough to understand that caring and showing it to someone else in no way detracts from the love they have for their mother. It shouldn’t be an either/or. It could be an and.

So, here’s to time. Time and another day. Any day is just that, another day. Alice keeps herself together because she has learned to appreciate many different kinds of moments and not make a big deal out of the ones that aren’t stellar. She’s getting very good at it and her happiness level has skyrocketed.

I want to be just like her.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . on the cycle of pain and comfort.

The research on chronic pain is exploding with new ways to manage long-term pain without prescriptions of life-destroying pharmaceuticals. Because being a stepmother spans decades, we might consider applying some of these strategies to our situation.

In one scenario, pain is localized to one particular focal point, but the interwoven nerve endings are sensitized to notice what is going on in another area. It’s much like the sensitivity many of us bring to the emotional state of others in our families. It’s as if we have radar and can pick up the smallest uncomfortable moment or anxiety or anger or any other reaction. We know when our husbands are in pain, we know when they are distressed. Even though they tell us nothing is wrong, we know there’s something up.

Sigh. Often the stepmother is the one who verbalizes the pain, but it’s her husband who is feeling it. She might not even know she’s doing this, but I’m beginning to think this is more common than I originally thought. I wonder how much indignation comes from a stepmother witnessing the significant pain her spouse is enduring.

English: Illustration of the pain pathway in R...

English: Illustration of the pain pathway in René Descartes’ Traite de l’homme (Treatise of Man) 1664. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently accompanied my mother-in-law to a pain clinic where they systematically reviewed her pain response and experimented with different courses of treatment. As they began to peel away the layers and she found relief, they discovered an old, old, old injury on her low back that had been untreated for decades. She’s getting better and her pain levels have dropped dramatically.

One of the things I recall the nurse practitioner telling her was that they needed to teach her brain some new calming strategies. She needed to learn new reactions to pain, rather than the old anxiety reactions and alarm that pushed her into big adrenalin releases into her blood stream which in turn created havoc in her mental state.

I don’t think she was very impressed in the beginning. Talking wasn’t a familiar process for her, in her generation a person just pushed on through the difficulty, it’s how she got injured. Acupuncture was a little more familiar for her and she willingly tried that. She had massage and therapy in a warm water pool. As she got treatment for the actual problem, her overall pain response began to diminish, so that now she can tell exactly where the pain comes from. And, now she has ways to work with her reaction to the pain. Rather than tense up everywhere, she takes a bath and calms her nervous system. She lies on the floor and lets her muscles relax.

We stepmothers can borrow those strategies. We can teach ourselves a new reaction. We can begin to notice when we tense in reaction to painful emotional experiences and calm ourselves so the pain doesn’t spread like wildfire. If we get to the calming early before the pain is so loud and strong it causes us to think we’ll be consumed, we have a better quality of life ahead.

We can learn to calm by paying attention to the signals from our body. When we notice ourselves holding the breath, we let it out and take in another and keep on in that way. When we notice we’re tense, we let our hands loosen and our eyes open so we’re not squinting and we let our face soften and our tongue quit pressing so hard against the roof of our mouth. Basically, we unanchor. We still keep our feet on the ground, in fact, we want to rely even more on our feet on the ground or our butt on the chair. We keep track of where we are in space and we let everything else be less ready for defense.

By softening and unanchoring, we can actually get more prepared for whatever it is we need to do. We can lean toward this person in support of what he is saying, or leave the room because we need a momentary break, or walk back in and find the ground so we can stand in the space listening to words that don’t match our feelings.

In those less anxious, calmer, less painful observation states, we have a better chance of staying connected to our important people and a better chance of feeling like we’re okay, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

And, ultimately, each moment we spend in that unanchored, tongue not pressing, breath not holding, face not scrunched posture is another moment added to the collective pool of experience in knowing how to remain calm. The calm pool is the place we can return to over and over and over to remind ourselves how to recover from difficult interactions. The calm pool is a place we go to restore and rejuvenate.

It’s not that we’ll live in the calm pool every moment, that would be a rather zombie-esque life. But, the calm pool will help us become familiar with returning to an equilibrium or homeostasis throughout the physical self. When the calm is as easy to access as the anxious or worried response, we’ll find it easy to return to an emotional equilibrium.

That’s what is happening for my mother-in-law. A little pain is her signal to rest and calm. Fatigue doesn’t push her into anxiety for the bigger pain that might come. She’s getting stronger, she can walk farther, and she’s made some new friends.

We can do that too. We can build new reactions to these long-standing pains that will be with us the rest of our lives. We can learn to let go and enjoy the roller coaster that is this delicious life we’ve got an opportunity to enjoy.

Hey, let’s meet up in the calm pool.

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . on advice about holidays.

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

English: "The First Thanksgiving at Plymo...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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