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Years ago, a friend gave me a small book titled Finite and Infinite Games, by James P. Carse. The book left a big impression on me and garnered a place on my bookshelf all these years. When I needed it the other day, there is was, unfolding the wisdom for me at exactly the time I needed it. Or, so I thought.

In fact, I wish I had remembered this book a decade ago when I began my life as a stepmother because when I opened the pages of the book again, the words leaped out of the page and into my stepmother consciousness and here I am, rushing to share with you.

Briefly, a few of the concepts of a finite game. The main purpose of a finite game is winning. Finite means it has an end. The rules are well-defined and serve the purpose of defining a winner and a loser and how you’ll know when the game has ended. These rules are externally defined and cannot change as the game progresses. You can also not play alone. You need an opponent. Think divorce court, settlements, child custody battles, and on and on. There is definitely that part of living in a stepfamily that involves living within a finite game.

On the other end of the spectrum is the infinite game. In an infinite game, the goal is not winning. In fact, infinite means the game goes on forever. The goal is continuing to play. Thus, rules serve to keep the play going. Rules get changed, get this . . . to prevent someone from winning. That’s where I had to stop reading and walk the dogs and let it soak in. That’s the part that made me think of our stepfamilies. Could there be a game with rules that accommodated and changed to keep everyone playing and keep someone from winning?

Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, James P. Carse

Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, James P. Carse

Life is the biggest infinite game there is and we get to choose whether we are going to play it like it’s a finite game, with a winner and a loser. Personally, I think the winner-loser mentality is the best way to increase blood pressure, heart rate, anxiety, and depression. Constantly comparing ourselves to someone else. Constantly jockeying for the best seat at the table. Constantly putting others down so they don’t appear better, in case we perceive ourselves as losing. Ugh. I have no time for it.

It’s true, you can’t waltz into the other house and say, hey, snap out of it, let’s all live with some respect. But, we can take ourselves away from the finite game and the game of winning and losing. You see, in the finite game, there must be an opponent. The game cannot be played when there is no opponent. Some might argue there could be a game called Who Can Give the Silent Treatment the Longest game, which sort of looks like there isn’t a finite game. But, that’s a finite game if you engage in the nastiness of it all. If your heart and mind get wrapped up in knots each time you think of that other person, yep, you’re playing a finite game, complete with winner-loser. If you’re practicing healthy boundaries (ala Karla McLaren) and you feel neutral when you hear this person’s name and don’t go off in a 30-minute tirade each time you think of him/her, then it’s likely you’ve taken yourself out of the game. In that moment, there is no finite game.

I don’t know if the game of life automatically becomes an infinite game when we stop playing the finite game. What I do know is that as soon as I laid down the worry of being enough, doing enough, what he or she was or wasn’t doing, and a whole ton of other stuff, the game felt different. Yes, it was like that. It was immediate. It felt like one moment a battle raged inside me and the next moment, when I focused on a different game, voila, there was no more winning and losing. I continue paying attention to boundaries focusing on the infinite game.

No, life isn’t perfect. But it’s better. Much better.

So, what is the game I’m playing? The infinite game I’m playing. Well, beside the overarching LIFE game, there is the hugely important Marriage to My Fabulous Guy game, the Growing and Maturing as a Human game, and the Who Can I Be When the Criticism Falls Off Me game.

I expect there are a few other games in my stepfamily future as we all mature and age up. As an infinite game teammate, I’m okay with that.

No matter the behavior of others, no matter your own behavior, you can practice living toward what feels better for your spirit. Kim Cottrell


Bold statement, to be sure. Hard to do if you’re a stepchild feeling guilty if you’re kind to your stepmother. Hard to consider if you’re a mother worried your children are having too much fun with the stepmother. Hard to do if you’re the stepmother and struggle in every new situation to find the place you belong.

Its a daily practice. It’s a spiritual quest. It doesn’t really matter who you are in the stepfamily equation, there could be a lot more kindness in every household. Is there ever enough? Kindness, that is.

My husband and I visited his youngest son at his college across the country. The roommate situation isn’t very good for him, nor for one of his friends and listening to them share their frustrations got me thinking about how we treat folks we don’t like. Sometimes, to inspire yourself, you need that quote to print and hang on the fridge. Here’s one for your kindness practice.

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You have no business bringing their pain into your body.

Karla McLaren

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Consider these words, “You have no business bringing their pain into your body.” Now, consider them again. And again.

Anyone’s pain. Everyone’s pain. Your child’s pain. Your husband’s pain. Your sister’s pain. Your father’s. Your mother’s. Your best friend’s.

Their pain belongs to them.

I’ve written before about making sure you don’t try to rescue your stepchildren.

I’ve written before about the hardest thing to do was to stand beside my husband and not interfere with his process of feeling and witnessing his pain when things didn’t go well.

“You have no business bringing their pain into your body.” Karla McLaren.

I want the bumper sticker. I want hundreds of bumper stickers. I want to give out bumper stickers to every stepmother, to every woman, including mothers. Especially mothers.

My women’s group was formed to examine the topic of giving up being The Great Healer (suggested by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in the chapter Homing: Returning to Oneself, in Women Who Run With the Wolves). You know, giving up on the paying attention to the noticing of someone’s pain/need and jumping in to fix it as if that were the sole purpose of life. 

In the women’s group, we have studied letting go of fixing things. We are successful, more or less, some of the time. But, we are committed to the process. And, the shared time together has become priceless. We have explored what it is to sit alongside someone, without bringing her pain into our body, to witness with her, to listen to her, to keep showing up for her. On both sides it’s an incredibly powerful process.

Sometimes when I see a stepmother spewing, I know she’s hurting. She’s hurting because she took the pain inside. She took the mother’s pain inside. She took her husband’s pain inside. Or, she took her stepchildren’s pain inside. Or, worst of all, she took all their pain inside.

When I see a Twitter post proclaiming the mother of the children a terrible person, I think the stepmother has more than her share of pain inside. She’s trying to get it out. Or, worse, she’s trying to ignore the pain and make it someone else’s fault.

When I hear a stepmother with an indignant tone describing in exquisite details the transgressions of the mother, I feel the pain of the teller. A stepmother who feels pain, deep pain. I wonder if all the pain she feels is her own or if she’s siphoning off other’s pain for the do-it-yourself gauntlet she’s taken on as her own, as if she alone can be the solution, resolution, and savior of the divorced family wandering in emotional turmoil.

How many stepmothers sacrifice themselves by taking on others’ pain? How many become depressed or anxious because there is too much of . . . well, everything? Too much of everything to make sense of anything.

I think it’s in those moments of too much that one could stop, eject the other’s pain, get it outside the self. Stop bringing other’s pain inside your own body. Then, and only then, sit back and re-establish boundaries and figure out your own business. Identify your business and then get to it. It is your business to self-soothe. It is your business to take care of your heart, body, spirit…..your self.

I’m starting to get clear that the more we can set good boundaries (not walls, boundaries) and practice living with them, the more sane our world might seem. For a most excellent description of boundaries, how anger helps set boundaries, and other startling insights into all emotions, see Karla McLaren’s book, The Language of Emotion.

There are now two books that belong on every stepmother’s bookshelf. The first is Wednesday Martin’s Stepmonster. The second is Karla McLaren’s The Language of Emotion.

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There is a time in our lives, usually in midlife, when a woman has to make a decision–possibly the most important psychic decision of her future life–about whether to be bitter or not. Women often come to this in their late thirties or early forties. They are at the point when they are full up to their ears with everything and they’ve “had it” and “the last straw has broken the camel’s back” and they’re “pissed off and pooped out.” Their dreams of their twenties may be lying in a crumple. There may be broken hearts, broken marriages, broken promises. (page 364, see footnote)

Being a stepmother means to live a constant daily practice of softening the heart away from bitterness. Or not. 

Some days I find myself more successful than not at keeping bitterness at bay, other days I fail miserably. On days when I can let bitterness relax it’s hold on my heart, I feel the most freedom and comfort in my stepfamily life. 

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes suggests a woman make a timeline of her life and “to mark with a cross the places along the graph, starting with her infancy all the way to the present, where parts and pieces of her self and her life have died.” (page 365, see footnote).  

Once you begin acknowledging those things that have been cut off or that have died because they never came to life or were pushed away, then you can begin working with them. Each of those losses leaves a scar and imperceptibly inches us toward a possible future bitterness. To remain unbitter, to exercise the bitterness muscle, means to work with the events that have led to the losses and release them into forgiveness. 

Ignoring the losses, not tending the forgiveness process, allows the bitterness moment to settle in, when after years and years, decades of a woman’s life, the things which have been cut off get added to the many things that have died, and to the many things that were pushed away. It suddenly becomes too much. Too many. One more and the scale tips toward bitterness. 

For me, there is a physical sensation that tells me when bitterness is encroaching. I get a feeling of a clutching in my chest, like fingers around my heart. Often my breathing is interrupted. Over the years, I’ve taken to keeping track of my heart, you know, to see if it can stay soft or whether it’s not. I breath while I pay attention to releasing the hand that clutches my heart. 

Artwork by Kim Cottrell, 2014.

Artwork by Kim Cottrell, 2014.

I’ve been practicing this letting go of the clutching for years. Years. Even before I was a stepmother. In the beginning the bitterness crept up on me before I could tell what was happening. Now, as soon as the bitterness clutching begins I’m aware I feel not quite myself and immediately my attention goes to the clutching and letting the clutching drain away. 

I exercise my bitterness muscles regularly. The first part of the workout requires noticing when there’s a potential insult, hurt, or ache that indicates a part of me is dying off, been cut off, or sent to the back burner once more. Then, the workout involves paying attention to the sensations associated with that dying off, cutting off, or putting on the back burner. The heart-clench is my sensation. You might notice something else. Maybe it’s a sinking sensation in your gut. Maybe it’s a knot in your stomach or a lump in your throat. No matter what sensation arises for you, you’ll know what it means, you’ll know because it’s a familiar feeling.  

The simple act of noticing, acknowledging, and naming the clutching and potential for bitterness brings enough movement to the area and enough awareness to effectively reverse the clutching behavior. You can reverse bitterness clutching. You can teach the bitterness muscle to release and relax. 

A bitterness workout is the opposite of lifting weights. It’s the opposite of running relays or hiking mountains. A bitterness workout is the releasing of the contraction, it’s the letting go of the need to do something different. It’s finding ways to take care of the psyche so the bitterness doesn’t have a chance to take up permanent residence. 

I was thirty-six years old, attending graduate school, living in my Pittsburgh apartment, alone, when the bitterness choice moment came upon me. It was as if someone rang a bell and announced it was “Time for Bitter.” I looked around and over my left shoulder to see what was there, then my right. I finished the dishes and sat on my floor to contemplate the offering. After an hour or so, with the light fading from the winter sky, a very clear “No, this is not the way it’s going to be, I will not accept the bitters,” came over me. 

I walked out on bitter and have kept it at bay ever since. Some days that is a great deal of work, but my heart reaps the rewards, running with abandon through the past and present and out into the future. May we meet there in the bitterless meadow. 

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Reference: Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, 1992, chapter titled Marking Territory: Marking the Boundaries of Rage and Forgiveness)

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Some days you wake up and the topic you wanted to explore takes too many words to describe. On those days, you just let your fingers fly and silence your thoughts. Whatever comes of it, well, it is what it is.

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EYES

by Kim Cottrell, 2014

Deep pools opening into a soul
Widening in surprise
Narrowing in concentration
Darkening in love or in heart-to-heart moments
Oh, the freedom in connecting with the eyes
Between those who share trust
Building understanding and shared commitment.

Not so with those who guards their eyes
Who horde their most casual gaze
Defining the boundaries of this and that
Withholding and averting eyes
Safety in hiding, subtly excluding
No you can’t see into me
No you can’t have that piece of me
That soul that resides in me is for this other person
This other person that I love more
Skillfully maneuvered, masterfully executed
Averted gaze becomes the castle wall.

Sadly, the walled off soul ends up walled off from self
Never knowing the freedom
Of expansive spirit and connected gazes
When many eyes, familiar and unfamiliar
Eyes of worry, eyes of care
Meet and become personal, become known.

Exactly the reason to avert eyes, avoiding
Not looking means never having to consider another.

Thus, if you seek adventure
Take your curious eyes with you
Seek out the eyes looking back
The eyes willing to be seen
Eyes willing to share
Open your eyes to these
And feel the door opening into the next room.

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And, this must be why we love our dogs and cats. They walk right up to us and look at us, full on into our eyes, down into those places we don’t even want to admit. We might shake ourselves, but we let them look in there.

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A Healthy Stepmother and the Eyes of Witness

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. . .

On Sunday, my husband and I took my dad to have a sandwich at the tiny pub down the road. We were eating when two women walked in and began sharing a few tribulations with the bartender.

Not meaning to eavesdrop, I couldn’t help but overhear the bartender say that the single, most difficult thing she’s ever done in her life was be a stepmother. It took me less than two seconds to blurt out a Hear Ye! I found so much angst in stepmothering I had to blog about it. We connected for a few minutes before the conversation turned to other things.

What about that instant recognition? We’re so relieved to meet another who’s been through the fire. In the moment of saying Hear Ye, I witnessed for those women and they didn’t need to say a word, nor did I. We simply looked into one another’s eyes, and we knew.

When I helped my dad get in the car, the three women waved at me and nodded goodbye. Maybe it’s like my brother and his Harley friends. Or, my husband camping with his Westfalia van friends. Once you’ve walked a path others have walked, you’re in, few questions asked.

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Once upon a time, there was a 10-year-married couple and their two children, Ivan, 8, and Hazel, 5. The family lived in an average house in the middle of an average town near an average river. They lived an average life-like most families. Both parents worked because money was necessary to pay the mortgage and put food on the table.

Sadly, one day they received a visit from the Divorce Harpie, a very damning omen since over 70% of the married couples visited by the Divorce Harpie ended their marriages within a year. One never knew the Divorce Harpie had come. He came in the middle of the night, sneering his way into their average house, bored with his own life and entertained by messing around in other’s lives. The Divorce Harpie loved watching the chaos and mayhem that came after one in the couple determined they needed to end the marriage. In fact, he always chose the woman of the couple to infect with discontent, and he always made sure the man of the couple never suspected a thing. In fact, it was worse than that. He erased all concerns and history from the man’s mind so he had no memory of the discontent in the marriage. When his wife asked for a divorce, it was always out of the blue. 

On the night the Divorce Harpie visited, the woman was up late working on the last of the Christmas cards so they could be mailed in the morning. The cruelty of the timing was lost on everyone, except the Divorce Harpie. He delighted in making sure the holidays were filled with conflict and sorrow. 

Sure enough, his visit produced the results he was looking for. His spell worked so well, not even the Fairy of Reconciliation could reclaim the marriage with her incredible skill at reconnecting hearts. The woman awoke the day after Christmas and when her husband came down for his morning coffee, she told him she wanted a divorce. 

The world stopped spinning for a few moments.

The Angel of Anxiety fluttered and flitted about, unsure whether to process the news, but doing her job. No one spoke, no one breathed, for a full 60 seconds. Finally, everyone exhaled and looked around, thinking it odd they couldn’t see very clearly. In the time it took them to let the news sink in, the Angel of Anxiety had outfitted everyone in the family with a pair of sunglasses. Each pair of sunglasses had smoky lenses, dark enough to impair vision and make it seem like perpetual dusk. 

Time went by and the divorce proceeded. The kids went to live with their dad, not because their mother didn’t want them, but because their father was more persuasive about why they should remain with him. He argued that children needed a father and there was plenty of evidence that showed when a father was present in the home the children had fewer educational issues. The smoky glasses gave him some cover for his story and reduced the number of questions about his plans for the future. He argued that he worked from home and was available in case the kids had difficulty in school. He also claimed to be the more stable of the two parents. 

The judges listened and ruled that the mother of the children needed to pay support payments for as long as the children were in high school and beyond. If they wanted to go to college, the mother was expected to pay because her job brought in more compensation. 

The kids lived with the dad and visited the mom. The dad tried to be neutral about the kids’ relationship with their mother but he resented that she made more money than he did. He resented that she went on trips here and there while he was home with the kids, forgetting that he had insisted the kids live with him and ignoring that she would take the kids any time she asked. She had consented to the kids living with him and hadn’t argued for half-time physical custody because she believed kids needed some consistency and it was better if they had one place to call home, like their dogs who relied on structure. Her concession had been that if he was going to take the kids that he be consistent and available for them and not change the plan every week. 

This plan worked out to varying degrees of success for a year and then they hit a speed bump. The Angel of Anxiety had a brother, The Lord of Depression, who visited the father one night when he was up late working on his latest sculpture wondering how he was going to buy groceries because he had spent all the money on clothes for the kids. Begrudgingly, he admitted to himself he had bought them more expensive clothes than they could afford, but he felt justified because they needed to keep up appearances for the neighborhood they lived in. 

Life went on in this push-me/pull-me kind of tug of war between the parents. Each time the anxiety got greater, one parent or another increased the smokiness of the sunglass lenses. One day, the father changed the tint to a green color and every time he said something the children agreed with him that their mother was mean and overbearing. Then, the mother changed the tint in the sunglasses to a purple color that caused the children to believe that her family, the mother’s side, was the only family  worth paying attention to. 

English: Tea shades

English: Tea shades (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tensions escalated. Ivan began shop-lifting in response to the tension and got caught. He spent the summer in juvenile detention. Hazel became depressed and wouldn’t come out of her room. She didn’t want to get caught up in the war between parents so it was easier to opt out. Even the love bestowed on her when she acted in ways her parents approved felt tainted. 

This pattern went on for years, growing more destructive as time went on. The alienation each child felt toward the mother one week, toward the father the next week, took a toll. 

Eventually, both children graduated from high school and moved away to another city to attend college. In college, they gradually lost the tint in the sunglasses and began to view the world through the lens of many others, often others they respected who had no vested interest in the outcome of their lives. The relief was palpable. Each of the children grew strong, resilient, and capable. They had never felt this strength before. Free from the pressure to behave a certain way, free from the strain of emotions within their divorced family, they blossomed and grew and matured. 

Holidays came and went and at first they didn’t go home for the ritual Thanksgiving or Christmas. Finally, in his junior year, Ivan decided to venture home and agreed with Hazel to meet up in their hometown. They seemed to have awakened one day with amnesia for their parents’ struggles. 

They traveled to their hometown and one of them stayed with their mother and one of them stayed with the father. By this time, each of the parents was doing fine, but with some residual resentment from years past. At the same time, they were also stronger and less needy. However, they hadn’t been around the children for a couple of years and each was eager to make his or her case justifying past behaviors. 

The first night passed with everyone on their best behavior. 

The second day came and the mother began darkening the tint on her son’s sunglasses. The father began darkening the tint on his daughter’s sunglasses. It began slowly, gradually, so gradually the children had little awareness they were not seeing with their own eyes. 

By day three, tensions were mounting again and Ivan and Hazel began arguing with one another about which parent was right and which one was wrong. On day four, they each flew back to college, angry with their sibling. 

Back on campus, as soon as each stepped through the door of the dormitory, the tinting in the glasses dropped away and they each grabbed the phone and called the other. 

Hazel began, “Did you notice how we couldn’t really see clearly? Do you think it’s been that way for a long time?” 

Ivan agreed, “Yeah, I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t see either purple or green. How did all that begin?” 

They ended the phone call agreeing their parents were being manipulative and they needed to find a way to end it. Or, not see them again. It just wasn’t worth the hassle and heartache of being twisted and torn one way and another. And, worse, they were pitted against one another. And even worse, it wasn’t just one of the parents, it was both of them. There was no way to have authentic relationships and now they each understood what those might look like. 

Summer vacation came and went and they didn’t go home despite many requests from the parents. Finally, they insisted the parents fly out and meet them, together, in Hazel’s town. As soon as the parents stepped off the plane, their children handed them clear sunglasses, the normal kind you buy in the store, not the kind issued by the Divorce Harpie. 

Immediately, the mother gasped. She could see what she had been doing trying to get them to love her family more, all in the name of love. She could see it wasn’t love. The father put his new glasses on slower, but with some curiosity after watching his ex-wife. He inhaled sharply. The clarity of his children’s innocence and vulnerability caused him pain to realize how his sarcasm and anxiety had caused them pain. 

They made a pact, then and there, each member of the family would carry normal sunglasses in a stash in their traveling case and when someone began with the criticism, superiority, bashing the other, or creating a negative story line about the other parent or any of the other kids and family members, they would be handed a fresh pair of glasses. They would acknowledge the legacy from the past and the way they couldn’t see clearly with the other glasses. They would understand what those things Anxiety and Depression looked like and offer a hand to the others. 

They would see the world with clarity and know the meaning of love, kindness, compassion, community, and connection. They would do the best they could to hand those things down to the next generation. 

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Mother’s Day.

It all started in the 1850s, when West Virginia women’s organizer Ann Reeves Jarvis held Mother’s Day work clubs to improve sanitary conditions and try to lower infant mortality by fighting disease and curbing milk contamination, according to historian Katharine Antolini of West Virginia Wesleyan College. The groups also tended wounded soldiers from both sides during the U.S. Civil War from 1861 to 1865. Brian Handwerk for National Geographic

Hardly recognizable with the consumeristic nature of our modern Mother’s Day celebrations. Mother’s Day with all its exclusions of non-mothers and the raising onto pedestals of women for a certain 24-hour period rather than leveling the playing field for women every day of the year. If it’s that a woman births a child that’s being celebrated, then maybe we should just admit we’re celebrating the female ability to bring life into the world because we know this to be important for the future of our species.

If we’re celebrating nurturing, then Mother’s Day misses the boat with all the humans of both genders excluded in the narrow definition of mother.

And, what about Stepmother’s Day, officially the Sunday after Mother’s Day? What’s up with that? A separate day because these two women can’t be acknowledged on the same day, even though they care for and love the same children? Because one of the women birthed the children, she must keep any other woman’s hands off their heart? Can that be true? We see example after example in our everyday lives showing us this is how it feels to some.

As for being a stepmother, I honored stepmothers in A Heathy Stepmother and the Holy Grail of Success. It was one of the most commented on blogposts, after the post A Healthy Stepmother is Not Alone.

The thing is, there are some incredible women on the planet, mothers and not mothers alike. They are able to see that the best possible future for any child involves loving and moving toward love. They see that love is expansive and includes everyone. They see that love has no boundaries and the more love is shared, the more love there is. They know love begets love.

Here’s an example of two such women . . .

Sistering On

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I want to hear more stories like this. Let’s shout these stepmother-mother stories from the mountaintops. Let’s put them on billboards as people enter our cities. Let’s feature these positive stories on the evening news. The more adults hear stories of women working together to love children, the more men and women will know it is possible to lay down the stories of the common culture and move toward peace.

A Healthy Stepmother . . . on Love-for-All

Peace Dog

These two women in the Sistering On story went against our current cultural story that tells mothers to not like stepmothers.

I’m glad they did.

Today, and every day, let’s practice peace. Peace for the adults. Peace for the children.

I’m thrilled to know of these peace-seekers who enter into the world of Love-for-All. Maybe this is the frontier we humans are always seeking, the frontier of letting go of fear and opening into the largely unexplored expanse of the heart.

Maybe the pioneers are these two Sistering On women who will lead us to the happy place we all dream of finding.

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