Tight chest. Lump in throat. Catastrophic thoughts. Worry. Nausea. Feelings of anger, sadness, confusion, frustration, all at once. Sound familiar? It does to me too.
Everyone’s experience with anxiety, whether you live with an anxiety disorder–Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), OCD, Panic Disorder, PTSD, or Social Anxiety Disorder (HHS.gov)–or suddenly occurring anxiety attacks, the symptoms and triggers can vary from person to person. In this post I will be referring to my own triggers and symptoms, but I know this does not represent everyone’s experience.
Anxiety: A Stepmom’s Kryptonite
I first became aware of my anxiety in middle school when I wasn’t capable of focusing during timed tests and needed to be moved to the hallway. This showed up again in high school with timed standardized testing and again in college after a series of failed grades on timed quizzes, while my regular exam grade remained at an A average.
Possibly my biggest struggle was attempting to focus during my career dependent TIMED board examination. Why timed? Why was this the caveat that derailed my previously logical train of thought? According to adaa.org, reasons for test anxiety include fear of failure and lack of preparation. As an only child that experienced parental loss at a very young age, I understood I had one job, and that job was to work hard, behave, follow the rules and make my mother proud. This leaves me with “fear of failure.” Yep. That fits. Anyone else fear failure?
The Stepmom Anxiety
But what does this have to do with being a stepmom? If you’re like me, this isn’t the first stepmom blog you’ve read and you’ve probably seen it said a thousand times, this is a role we “chose.” It’s not natural or biological. There is nothing in us that “clicks” to help us cope when bio mom sends a nasty text or your coveted date night is put on hold because your stepkid’s coach scheduled a last minute practice, or your vacation plans are put off due to financial restraints totally out of your budgeting control.
There’s no guide, there’s no cute book to read for 9 months, there’s just you starting a new relationship with the love of your life, someone else’s children you’re learning to love, and an ex wife you have zero control over. I think the reason WHY we experience is anxiety is not a huge surprise. It’s the HOW we have anxiety that I am trying to focus on these days.
It’s true my life-long challenge with state anxiety is at an all-time high in this role. It seems more accessible because the triggers are more prevalent. These triggers have always been things that made me feel out of control. Timing, environment, schedules, finances, conflict. These are all things that stepmoms deal with that are completely out of their control. My anxiety can be as asinine as “I need a glass of wine” and as severe as digging up decade-old drama. Why? I wish I knew.
Living with Anxiety
While I may not know the reasons why I say the things I say when feeling “threatened” in an anxious state, I have learned how to avoid this with resiliency. According to a quick Google search, resilience appears to correlate very pointedly to “toughness.” I don’t know about you, but when I’ve had my 5th curve ball for the week and haven’t been alone with my husband in days, the last thing I feel is “tough.” I feel soft and vulnerable and disappointed and that creates a very thin boundary between my anxiety and my actions. Not a good scenario for my partnership.
So what does resiliency look like? Again, another very personal question. For me, it looks like check ins with my girlfriends, being on top of my game at work, taking care of my personal appearance and having a creative outlet. If I’m not taking care of myself personally and professionally, the family life will suffer. Correction- my family will go on without me, and I will suffer. Unlike a biological mother, I am not crucial to the forward movement of this family so if I don’t get on board, I will be left behind. And it will have been my choice.
Obviously, like any relationship, even if your partner is busy assuming his role as a caring and devoted dad, it still takes two. Open communication is key in coping with anxiety. Being able to talk about triggers and symptoms openly and without shame is crucial. It’s not going to make them go away, but it will build resiliency and lessen the blow. It will also create a culture of understanding.
I can’t change our culture’s obsession with standardized tests and the “faster is smarter” mentality, but I can change my responses to change and unpredictability in my home. It starts with me and it’s nourished in partnership. Anxiety is not failure, it’s an option. It’s one option. Patience, love, trust, grace, faith and openness are other options.
Some days are better than others. Some months are better than others. That’s okay. Pause, breathe, communicate, and learn. Remember why you chose your life. Remember why you decided that this was your forever.