Stress Management

5 03 2009

Living in a stepfamily can create the kind of constant stress to the body and mind that astronauts and soldiers are trained to handle. But as far as I know there isn’t a boot camp for stepmoms that teaches you how to handle living with daily stress in the very place that most people consider a place to relax–home.

It can bring a good woman down.

We’ve had flair ups in our stepfamily lately and the stress has started to show up in my body. Tight shoulders, aching neck, shallow breathing, difficultly sleeping. And so, m’ladies, once again I offer you a list of stress busters because we all need them. If you have any you’d like to share, please do!

Read for total escapism. Whatever your favorite reads are, I say go for them, even if you feel like you have to hide them behind a book cover or in your Kindle. Buy the book cover. Download away. Right now I’m reading the classic Glitter Baby by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. It’s good old-fashioned fun.

Watch a movie. One you picked, not one the skids fought over or your husband thought you might like. Pick one that’s just for you.

Find out where stress lives in your body. Close your eyes and think of the most stressful thing in your life right now. What happens to your body? Where do you tighten up? Use breathing, stretching, or massage to get those knots out of your system.

Don’t try to pretend you’re okay when you’re not.If you’re feeling crappy, don’t slap a fake smile on your face. Tell your family you’re having a rough patch and need their compassion. Or if you don’t have that level of openness yet with your stepfamily, head out for a mini vacay to a place where you don’t have to put on your smile like a suit.

Play. Bring out your inner kid with a toy pottery wheel, finger paints, a trip to the ice skating rink.

Allow your anger. Get it out ladies. That stuff is poison if you let it sit. And as you all know, most of us have been trained since birth that anger isn’t lady-like. We’re supposed to be nice, play nice, share, bite our tongues, keep our voices down etc. etc. etc. With that kind of training how are we supposed to know how to deal with our anger in a healthy way? Try screaming at the top of your lungs when you’re alone in the house. Beat a pillow. Throw glassware. Trash your room. Rip something to pieces.

Can romance last?

25 11 2008

The popular notion that romantic love fades after you’ve been married a while is so pervasive in our culture that we almost expect it. Ask people if they think married couples who have been together for several decades can still feel the powerful feelings fore each other that they had as newlyweds and I’d bet that most people would answer an emphatic no.

Journalist Sharon Jayson of USA Today recently reported on some new research that is just emerging that may prove that you can maintain those strong feelings over time. A team of scientists including lead author Bianca Acevedo, researcher Arthur Aron, at the State University of New York-Stony Brook, anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, and neuroscientist Lucy Brown of Albert Einstein College of Medicine used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to scan the brains of people who said they were in love after two-plus decades of marraige.

According to a presentation the team did at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C., the brain scans of the people who had been married for a long time lit up in the same places as those of newlyweds. “If you ask people around the world whether romantic love can last, they’ll roll their eyes and say ‘probably not,’ and most textbooks say that, too. We’re proving them wrong,” says Helen Fisher.

This has major impact on stepfamilies, ladies. As I have said over and over again in my book, in radio and print interviews, our first priority is to develop a strong relationship with our partners. Why? Because the relationship between you and your husband is the weakest link in a stepfamily. Without maintaining that strong bond, you might as well sign the divorce papers now. Seriously. It’s that important.

So what are some things you can do to build a bond with your partner that can withstand the onslaught of stepfamily stress? How can you make your romance last?

Declare that you’ll always be newlyweds.
Arne and I did this early on. I know, I know. It sounds cheesy, but look! Now I have research to back me up! When one of our friends asked us how long we could call ourselves newlyweds, we answered, “Forever.”

Be civil to your spouse.
For a story I wrote called Civil Unions for Experience Life magazine, I interviewed P. M. Forni, PhD, author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct and cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. Here’s what he had to say: “Many people think good manners aren’t needed among family and friends, that manners are like a formal jacket that you only put on when you leave home. This is unfortunate, because by using good manners – which is to say by being polite, considerate and kind – you show that your respect and love for your spouse are not just empty words but rather a daily commitment to action.”

Go beyond the golden rule.
Dr. Forni’s advice was so good, I have to include another one of his ideas here. We’re taught to “Do unto others as you would have done unto you,” as children, but there’s a problem. What I might want done unto me, might not be what my husband would want done unto him and vice versa. “Sometimes, for example, a husband may not have a clue that one of his behaviors is bothering his wife,” says Forni. “It doesn’t bother him, so from the point of view of the golden rule, he’s blameless. But he’s completely unaware that she has a different sensitivity.” Instead, listen to each other and found out how your partner wants you to show your love.

Take breaks from talking about stressful topics.
I mentioned this briefly in a post last week: Don’t let talking about the ex consume you and your partner. If you find yourself discussing bio mom repeatedly, reserve a specific time each week to negotiate issues that involve her. This is especially hard to do if you’re involved in a custody battle or fights over money as one reader commented on last week’s post. But if you’re in a high-conflict situation between households, this is important. A stepmom I interviewed for my book talked about how the first year of her marriage was so stressful due to a custody battle that she nearly didn’t make it to her first anniversary. Bio mom is not in your marriage. Don’t let her have that kind of power.

Spend time together.
This one is the most important. Need I say more?

So how do you make sure your bond with your partner is a strong one? What things do you do together? What rituals do you have? Share them with your stepmom sisters can we can benefit from your wisdom!


S.M.A.C.K.s for Stepmoms: Let it be

27 10 2008

Are there any unsolvable issues in your stepfamily that you simply have no control over? What coping strategies have you used to move to a place of acceptance? Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a teacher of mindfulness meditation and the author of Wherever You Go There You Are, suggests that when we have resolved issues, instead of “letting go,” which is impossible sometimes, we instead choose to “let it be.” To accept our reality and stop giving problems so much attention and emotional power over us. This month, turn on the old Beatles tune and practice letting a recurring issue just be. (For stepmoms this is also known as disengaging.)

Visit my other blog for more about how to S.M.A.C.K. your Inner Critic.

Reduce Stepmom Stress

27 10 2008

1) Meditation. Sitting down for 10 minutes or an hour a day to clear your mind of clutter can be a powerful way to reduce stress. You can simply listen to your breathing or try a guided meditation.

2) Music. Listening to your favorite music can lighten your mood. Jam to some ridiculously loud dance music or put on an aria that’s so exquisite it gives you chills.

3) Appreciation. It’s easy to cruise through life forgetting to notice beauty. But paying attention to things that give you pleasure is an effective stress-buster. Head to the store to smell perfumes. Surround yourself with your favorite colors. Tear gorgeous pictures out of magazines. Wear clothing with textures that are wonderful to touch.

4) Exercise. Moving your body is an immensely beneficial way to feel better. Whether you run on a treadmill or sweat in a power yoga class, the endorphins will give you a boost of energy and a feeling of well-being.

5) Connection. Sometimes all we need to feel better is the knowledge that someone else understands and cares about us.

How do you chill when you’re home life is what’s stressing you out?

Stepmoms Speak

27 10 2008

I asked Laura Ruby, author of the novel I’m Not Julia Roberts (, to answer some questions about her experience being a stepmom.  

What is your greatest challenge as a stepmom? 
I think it’s the general lack of control. I’m a custodial stepmom and my husband’s two girls live with us, so I’m responsible for all the day-to-day stuff that happens with kids – meals, lessons, doctors’ appointments, help with homework, discipline etc. Yet I didn’t choose this house, the neighborhood we live in, the schools they attend, the doctors they visit, etc. I do have influence, but it’s not the same. I liken the job of a stepmom to an adjunct faculty member at a college: You have all the same responsibilities as a professor, but without the respect or the benefits. 
How do you deal with it? 
There’s the general stress-relieving activities: going for a run or a walk, taking myself to a movie, watching endless Law & Order reruns, talking to my cats, muttering darkly to myself. Mostly though, I try to remind myself that despite the frustrations, both my stepkids are happy and healthy and I enjoy them. 
Also, I redecorate a lot. : ) 
What is your greatest reward as a stepmom? 
Funny, it’s the little things that feel most rewarding to me. Like when my older stepdaughter, who’s away at school, calls me because she’s not feeling well and wants comforting. Chatting with my younger stepdaughter while we make dinner. Helping both of them dye their hair funny colors; a) it grows out and b) my hair was pink when I was a teen. 
For a stepfamily to work, everyone has to compromise. I had to get used to a new family, a new city and a new job, my stepkids had to make room for a new person in their lives, and my husband had to keep us all on an even keel. None of us has had it easy. But after more than a decade of living together, I can say that we did a pretty good job. I’m proud of us. 
How do you maintain your boundaries? 
One of the first things my husband did when I moved in is to clean out an extra bedroom, load it up with bookshelves, and call it my office. He taught the girls to knock before entering, and they always did. Whenever I felt overwhelmed or angry or resentful, I would retreat to my office to work, read, or just regroup. Having “a room of one’s own” saved my sanity. I think everyone should have one. 
What do you do to relieve stress? 
I call up a friend and talk it through. When that doesn’t work, I put on my iPod and dance around like a maniac. Hard to be stressed out when “Dancing Queen” is blasting out your eardrums.