Being a Stepmother Can Weigh You Down–Special Guest Post on Standing Tall by Kim Cottrell
In researching my book Stepmonster, I came across dozens of studies in the sociological and psychological literature on stepfamily adjustment concluding that stepmothers have the toughest adjustment trajectory; experience high levels of anxiety; and are prone to burn-out, depletion, and even clinical depression at rates higher than mothers or stepfathers.
There’s plenty to do about it. Seek out social support–whether that means other women with stepchildren who can offer compassion in a way perhaps no one else can, a therapist, rabbi or minister who can hear and advise without judging–learn to fight in a way that strengthens rather than destroys your bond with your partner, and educate yourself about what’s NORMAL in a remarriage or repartnership with kids so you don’t go crazy thinking it’s all your fault and you’re all alone.
I could go on, and in other posts, I have. But today I want to let Kim Cottrell, a Feldenkrais practitioner and blogger, talk about how stress affects not just our minds but our bodies. You all have written me about how the pressures of remarriage with children keep you from enjoying a good night’s sleep for months on end; about panic attacks; about hair loss and weight loss and weight gain; and about other disorders your doctors have told you are stress-related. Kim’s words about standing tall might help, and inspire you.
Standing Inside Your Life
by Kim Cottrell
Remember when you met your husband? You floated along as light as a feather, standing tall in the face of the love you shared and the hope in your heart. And then step-life happened and with it came the weight of what it is to be a stepmother in a family with unresolved conflicts, active grief, and outright rejection.
Many a strong, independent, self-assured woman has lost her postures of confidence somewhere along the way. In my own experience, the overwhelm of becoming a part of a stepfamily felt like one of my brothers had pulled a big joke on me, lying in wait and pulling my legs out from under me when I rounded the corner. I fell down, heart thumping with disbelief and dismay.
Even if you were overflowing with bliss when you fell in love, completely convinced that you’d be different from every other stepmother, there came at least one day when you curled up on the bed, sobbed into the pillow, tissues bunched in both hands, and remembered your life before this man and these children. According to the experts, you have a high likelihood of developing depression or anxiety.
I had no idea being a stepmother would bring such a challenge. My legs were swept out from under me and I struggled to find where to stand in the face of negativity and disenfranchisement. I gradually came to my senses and applied the learning strategies I’ve gained from 16 years as a Feldenkrais practitioner to my role as a stepmother. And, now, four years into the marriage and six years into the relationship, I can see where to stand so my feet are on solid ground. I know that even when life feels overwhelmingly heavy I am still flexible and resilient to what may come. And, this same resiliency is available to every one of you, no matter what your role.
Every stepmother needs three things to be and live her fullest potential. First, she needs to live inside her own skin and not vacate the premises when the trauma comes. Second, she needs to use good posture to her every advantage. And, third, she needs to remain steady with an ability to wait.
One way that I teach a woman to stay inside her skin is to help her find her feet in standing. Every woman needs to be able to balance on her own feet and know how to find her center so she can return there as needed. She cannot feel her feet when she lives in her thoughts, feelings, or judgments. She has to return to the kinesthetic sensation of what it is to draw in a breath, to push against the ground to stand up, or to look around herself to find her direction. If there is a place to work with yourself, it is in this not abandoning ship or vacating body as you do when you feel threatened or anxious.
Once you know how to find your feet then you can direct your attention to come back home in any situation. Practice while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store or brushing your teeth in the morning. Every time you find yourself ruminating or going through your laundry list, pause and bring your attention to the contact your feet make with the ground. Don’t ask yourself to change, just notice. After those types of practice, you’ll more easily access your homing in those high stress situations such as family dinners and weekends with kids. Over time, you can focus on other aspects of your experience, but for now keep it simple. Just notice how you stand on your feet.
Think about your posture when you leave your body. Admittedly, that’s a trick question because you can’t think about posture when you aren’t in your body. You can only know what happens to your posture when you are inside your own experience, living inside that skin. If that’s true, then every time a stepfamily trauma happens and you leave your body, you have no idea what occurs. It’s essential that you find a way to stick around and see what happens.
Now then, about your posture? In order to change posture, you first have to know more about what you do. Do you feel tall and solid in your calmest state? Do you feel clunky as you move through your day? And, think back to your reactions in the face of criticism, complaint, or rejection. What do you do? How do you respond? Do you collapse? Do you puff up and get defensive? Do you go silent and purse your lips and walk out? Do you begin screaming in your effort to get them to stop? Can you breathe in that moment? Do you know your name in that moment?
You might think of healthy posture as a stool with three or four legs. A strong stool has legs that are arranged to balance and support the weight of a person. If one of those legs is damaged, then the stool cannot hold up the weight of the person and the person falls down. If a stepmother has poor posture or isn’t paying attention to herself, then literally, her legs are not solid under her and she may struggle very hard to stay upright. In those circumstances, the next family drama might well be the the weight that brings her to the ground.
The lesson here is to learn to let the ground hold you up. Don’t struggle with it or against it. Just let yourself be held up. The mysterious dance of strength and fluidity is what helps us organize against gravity, remain upright, stand comfortably, and not collapse in the face of a stepfamily storm. With a little attention to finding your feet in standing, you’ll be in a better position to access your strength and fluidity with just enough of one and not too much of the other. Go back to the lesson on finding your center. Within that are all the elements you need to figure out how to give your weight to the ground.
With a healthy posture, free breath, and the ability to move in any direction at any time, you can be resilient in the face of strain and pressure. You can wait. It’s inevitable that sometimes you’ll hold your breath and brace for what is to come, but you’ll recover and return to your resilient posture with grace and ease. In this way, your posture will more closely matches that posture you had when you first got married. The one where you floated along on that cloud.
If you can you find a way to live inside your own skin and stand on your own feet, then you can remain present in the face of anything. Not for someone else, but for yourself. If you can do that, you can be the strong, resilient, competent person you were in the beginning of your relationship. That person is still there, she has only temporarily been set aside in the way women set themselves aside. She needs to stand up and come into her body and take her space. That can happen quietly, without words. Or, it can happen suddenly, in a swoop and a whoop. Most importantly, it needs to happen.
Stay. Stand. Wait.
Tags: blended family, divorce, divorce with children, family, Feldenkrais, Kim Cottrell, remarriage, remarriage with children, step mother, stepfamily, stepmonster, stepmother, stepmother advice, stepmother support, wednesday martin, woman with stepchildren