Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Making Pain Work For You - A Stepmum's Story

Last weekend I had the privilege of speaking at Coffs Harbour for the launch of NSW's branch of STEPFAMILIES AUSTRALIA. Although the conference hall wasn't filled to the brim, those wise enough to take the opportunity to participate all reported to really having enjoyed the experience and being able to walk away with new information, new knowledge, new friends and renewed hope for a positive outcome of their individual stepfamily journeys.

Having spent many years travelling this journey myself and many more years in helping stepfamilies survive and thrive, I am alway thrilled to be able to share of my experience. My hope in doing so is to pass on as much as possible of the wisdom I gained for the benefit of others in this type of family. Why should they stumble over the same hurdles, fall into the same potholes and run into the same walls that I encountered at a time when there was virtually no help available?

Thus today's article, which was one of the many newsletters I wrote during those years when TheStepStop was a thriving web-community - before my site fell victim to cyber crime - will talk about how you can make pain work for you. For pain, as much as we'd rather ignore this reality, is and always will be part of the journey. As with all things in life, however, we can allow the pain we encounter in stepparenting to conquer us or we can conquer it.

So, welcome to part one of Making Pain Work For You.


When I began to write this month’s newsletter some days ago, I became aware that the topic I had chosen to explore just wasn’t right at this moment. So rather than sticking with my original plan, I decided to follow my gut-instinct and start over with a topic that is much colder to my heart right now. Why? Because it’s based on a current experience. A few days ago, as I was rushing around the supermarket - full of thoughts, ideas and plans for the following hours, days and weeks - I slipped on a wet floor and went crashing full force on to the so called funny bone of my left elbow. Let me assure you that there was nothing at all funny about landing on this bone. The pain was excruciating; the shock had me shaking from head to toe; I was feeling terribly nauseous from the pain and every thought, idea and plan I’d had in my head was quickly replaced by one thought and one thought only – “Someone stop the pain PLEASE!!!” Someone eventually did – by administering a shot of pethidine. Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh what relief that was! It helped me survive the trip to hospital and the hours I had to wait for the necessary surgery during which a number of pins were inserted to get my very unhappy and most certainly not at all funny ‘funny’ bone from its current position - having totally broken away from the bones to which it is usually attached - back to where it belongs.

So, this month’s newsletter is being typed with one hand (an interesting and somewhat frustrating experience); sitting propped up in my bed - left elbow encased in a rather massive plaster cast (more or less comfortably resting on a cushion); blessing my good fortune to be in the possession of a laptop (which has been a rather recent addition); hoping that my one-handed typing speed will increase rapidly so that I’ll at least be able make myself a little useful. As I was sitting there, struggling with my new typing mode and my pre-planned subject for the newsletter, it suddenly occurred to me that my unfortunate experience had a lot in common with some of the experiences we encounter on our stepfamily journey and, quick as a flash, I decided to share my thoughts with you. Now, don’t laugh or think that I broke my head as well as my elbow – it really does! Read on and you’ll see:


Most of us travel merrily through life, filled with ideas, hopes and dreams of how we would like our future to be. At some point we finally come across the prince or princess of our dreams - the one who makes our heart beat faster, our knees go weak and stars appear in our eyes. If cupid’s arrow has truly struck, what do we do??? – we fall head over heels, crash bang, full force for that person. All previous ideas, thoughts and considerations of what he of she should be like simply fly out of our head and all we are capable of thinking at that point is “HE IS THE ONE FOR ME”.

Once having exchanged wedding vows, however, it doesn't usually take all that long until we discover the realities of stepfamily life. The fact that he comes as a package deal hadn’t been a secret but in our starry-eyed state we didn’t consider this to be a problem. Not even the existence of an ‘ex’ lurking somewhere in the background deterred us from our course of action. We knew (beyond any doubt) that we are better, nicer, much more attractive, more sensible, more mature, less hateful, spiteful and vindictive than the ‘ex’ and that all our partner REALLY needs for a happy and fulfilled life is ME. Come on, be honest - it's true, isn't it???? …….UNTIL REALITY BITES.

His (her) kids visit too often (or not often enough). They don’t like us, criticize us, tell us in no uncertain terms that we have absolutely NO business telling THEM what do, because, after all, we are not their father (mother). Or they like us so much that we’ve just made the “most wanted” list on the ‘ex's’ agenda and before we can say “oh my gosh, how did this happen?” we find ourselves embroiled in a battle that seemed to have come out of nowhere. When we complain about it to our chosen one (hoping for some sympathy or back-up) s/he says, “well, I told you what he/she is like. Now you get to see for yourself!” Our parents tell us not to worry - love will overcome all obstacles. Our friends tell us that they would never have married someone with kids and other wellmeaners tell us that we should have thought about it before we tied the knot. And voila, here we are….in non-anticipated but, all the same, substantial pain.

You can use this simple scenario or any other that you can personally relate to. Unless you are one of the few super-lucky people who have no idea what I am talking about (and I don’t actually believe that those exist) you will benefit from the following points that I discovered to be as useful in dealing with a broken elbow as they are in dealing with painful step-situations:

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED – When I slipped, fell and hurt myself it certainly wasn’t something I’d expected would ever happen to me.

Living in a stepfamily it’s useful to expect the unexpected. For instance:

* One moment you barely know that you even have stepchildren (because the ‘nasty ex’ has 1001 excuses each time they are meant to visit or stay), the next moment they land on your doorstep, suitcase in hand saying: “Mum (dad) thought that I should move in with you for a while - PERHAPS A YEAR OR TWO – you don’t mind, do you?!

* One moment your stepkids seem to think you are super-cool but two months later after a few unpleasant incidents, run-ins and disagreements they now refer to you as the Wicked W(B)itch of the West or worse.

* One moment you are planning for Christmas with all the troops, next thing you know the ’ex’ has spirited your stepkids away with promises of Christmas in the snow/at the beach/or on the moon…..

Let me assure you, stepfamily life will bring a lot less unpleasant surprises if you expect the unexpected.

GO WITH THE FLOW – As I found myself writhing on the supermarket floor I quickly realized that despite all the plans I’d had for that day/week/month, I wasn’t going anywhere (at least for a while).

When the unexpected occurs in your life or things simply don’t work out the way you had envisaged, dreamed or planned - go with the flow. The more stubbornly you cling to your previous ideas, thoughts and plans, the harder reality will bite and the more it will hurt. Going with the flow means (as the phrase implies) that like water in a river you make your way under, over or around the obstacles in your path. If you encounter a really big obstacle your flow may even be interrupted for a while. That’s okay, it’s a normal human response. But like the flow of water in a river won’t be stopped for any length of time, going with the flow means that no obstacles will have the power to stop you for too long either.

BE TOUGH – just as I needed to be tough and not allow the excruciating pain to overwhelm me until it was finally relieved by a very welcome shot of pethidine (an hour and a half after the incident!), there will be times in a stepparent’s life when nothing short of being tough will stop them from becoming too overwhelmed, crumbling under the strain and buckling under the pressure.

Life requires a level of toughness - the ability to grit ones teeth and endure. No one who walks this earth has it easy. When we are in pain it’s easy to look around and see all the other people going about their business as normal – not a trace of pain to be seen on their faces and we long to be just like them. Guess what, they too have their struggles; they too have endured significant pain at some point or other and/or have their times of difficulty yet ahead. There is no such thing as an easy life…..and the older you get the more you will come to understand this. So, when you hit a tough spot, grit your teeth and hang in there!

ACCEPT SUPPORT – Although the customers and staff of the supermarket where I took my fall rallied around me, they couldn’t do much more than collect the bits and pieces that had fallen out of my hands (wallet, mobile, handbag) and make me as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. Despite their inability to change my situation, I really appreciated their kindness and concern. It was nice to know that I wasn’t alone.

As stepparents we need to accept any support we can get. Even if the support we are getting doesn’t change our situation, it can still be incredibly helpful. A stepparent’s support could be:

* A friend offering to look after the new baby whilst you make special one-on-one time for your distressed stepdaughter…or…take a well-deserved break…or…go shopping without appendages –yippeee!

* A step-dad mate suggesting a heart-to-heart when your stepson told you that he hates you and no matter what you’ll try you’ll never be his dad…or…the ‘ex’ is making yet another demand on your already strained financial resources and you just don’t know how to break the news to your wife…or…your partner turns yellow with jealousy every time you spend time with your biological kids.

* A parent who’ll take your kids and step kids off your hands so that you and your prince/ss can have a weekend away to sort out your differences…or…to catch up on some much needed sleep… or… to reconnect and just have fun.

Even if it doesn’t look like the supporting hand can do much to stop your pain, never say ‘no’ to someone offering help!

SEEK THE HELP YOU NEED – thankfully, just around the corner of the supermarket where I fell is a Medical Centre. As soon as I was able to be moved, I was taken to it and although between my arrival and my pain relief there were many questions asked, an oxygen mask forced on me, X-rays taken, more questions asked…….ultimately my pain was relieved.

Some step-situations can be too painful to deal with on your own. If you are in one of those do yourself a favour and seek professional assistance. Be assured that there is no shame in seeking help. It doesn’t mean that you are incompetent, weak or crazy. With many more professionals having greater awareness these days of issues that are commonly experienced by stepfamilies, seeking help merely means that you are wise enough not to struggle on your own when it isn’t necessary. Like me, you may have to undergo some painful prodding and it may take some time before your pain is relieved, but a step-savvy counsellor will assist you to get there.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this article which will follow next week.
If you live in the vicinity of Coffs Harbour and need help with stepfamily issues, click here.

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