Stress Management

If I Were You … I Wouldn’t Give that Advice

Getting Real With Mary Swan-Bell

Once I read an article that said there are only two conditions under which you should offer advice: If you are asked and/or if it is a matter of life and death. I had a small child at the time, so that reinforced what I already felt since everyone from my mother-in-law to old ladies at Wal-Mart were weighing in on my abilities as a mother (or lack of abilities depending who you asked.)

“You really should put a hat on that baby.” “You should really take that baby’s hat off; she’ll get too warm in here.” “I don’t know why you want to breastfeed, I gave all my kids bottles of formula, and they turned out fine.”

Since this was a formative time, I remembered that. I rarely offer advice. I can usually put myself in other people’s shoes and know what I would do, but that’s me not them. So, I am hesitant to offer advice for fear of the “If I were you, I would…” gene.

See, that was one of my mother’s favorite intros. As in: “If I were you, I would wear black shoes with that dress.” “If I were you, I’d put a girdle on.” “If I were you, I would give that baby a little cereal, she’s starving.” “If I were you, I would be a nurse. What in the world are you going to do with that professional writing degree?” (She might’ve been right there, but that is beside the point.)

But I am a grown up woman with a wonderful marriage, three great kids, and a happy life, so I no longer let my mother’s unsolicited advice bother me.

Except when it pertains to my weight.

My mom is extremely thin; I am not. For the past 6 months, I have been trying–mostly unsuccessfully–to lose 20 pounds, by eating healthy and going to the gym nearly every day. Upon one trip to the gym, I saw that they were offering a senior citizen’s class and thought it would be a good way for my recently widowed and relocated mom to get a little exercise and maybe meet some friends.

She agreed, joined and has been going for about a month.

Last week, during week three of the Fast Metabolism Diet when I was enjoying a nice dinner of cucumbers and oysters, while my family scarfed down pizza, my mom said…”You know, if I were you, I’d quit that diet. You could just come to exercise class with me…” and she proceeded to show me how she no longer had excess skin under her arms or any flab on her 81-year-old stomach.

You might think I’m writing this from jail, but I promise, I held my temper and responded with grace and dignity: GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!! I AM NOT COMING TO YOUR OLD LADY EXERCISE CLASS! She shrugged her shoulders and responded with her second favorite line, “Suit yourself,” but I’ll tell you about that one another day.

Creating Balance Let's Talk

Overcome Mom Guilt by Connecting with Your Kids

Getting Real With Shadra Bruce

The guilt weighs on me sometimes…

I’m a good mom and I love my kids, but the economy has created a situation where I am the primary breadwinner. My husband does much of the homework help, all of the cooking, and the laundry. Oh, I try to do laundry, but the first load is often enough forgotten in the washing machine that Dave actually prefers it if I don’t help.

Dinner time used to be when I bonded with my mom. I would sit on a stool at the counter and watch her cook. The kids do that with Dave, not me. To be sure, it’s better for all of us. The food he prepares is delicious and nutritious. When I cook, we would most likely be ordering pizza after whatever I was preparing was rendered inedible with my talent.

But I still want my kids to know I care, that I am there for them, and that I want to know everything that has happened with their days – even when I’m worried about picking up a new contract or making a client happy. I’m lucky that I work from home, so I’m here, and that’s half  the battle. At least they are no longer playing tug of war for my attention with my atrocious corporate boss.

Lately, we’ve been bonding a different way – a way that soothes my guilt and helps my kids understand how much I love them. We’ve been watching our family videos. We were pretty consumed with videotaping the kids, our family, and family events when the kids were younger, and we’ve had a blast going back in time to when the kids were babies and letting them see what life was like before they could remember.

It’s a fun way to connect and the kids get to see how much I’ve been involved in their lives, so that if I can’t take the time to work on spelling words, they understand.

Let's Talk Raising Healthy Kids

Conversation Starter: Healthy Eating

When hot lunch for your school-age kids starts costing more than a typical utility bill, it’s time to start thinking of other options. Changing your approach to your children’s lunch menu is about more than money, though. It’s an opportunity to talk to your kids about making healthy food choices.

Schools are responsible for educating our kids, and they’re also supposed to provide a healthy lunch. Unfortunately, there is no way to guarantee how healthy a lunch is when your child either refuses to eat it and it ends up in the trash, or the school serves something questionable. Worse yet, the pressure to provide the right kind of lunch may force schools into taking shortcuts.

Regardless of your children’s school hot lunch offerings, if you are concerned about your child developing healthy habits, want them to be more actively involved in making conscious decisions about what they eat and why, and want to teach them about nutrition, packing lunch together is an ideal time to focus on teaching them nutrition without it sounding like a lecture and without your child feeling sensitive about their own body image. You wouldn’t hesitate to talk to your kids about the dangers of smoking or drinking, but consuming the wrong kinds of foods on a regular basis is just as harmful and can have just as many negative affects.

Your kids don’t have to be unhealthy or overweight for conversations about nutrition to be a good idea, but because childhood obesity is a growing problem, it’s never too early to start talking about healthy habits and eating right. In fact, if you have toddlers at home who have not yet started school but have started developing preferences for certain foods, talk to them, too. It’s never too early to start teaching your kids how to be in control of their health.


Conversation Starters: Connecting with Your Kids

It’s dinner time, you’re exhausted after work, your kids are clamoring for attention and starving. You want to spend time with your kids, feed them and wind up your night. What do you do? Spending time together in the kitchen kills all kinds of birds, beyond the one you’re roasting for dinner! You get the help you need, you spend time with your family, and they are proud to help. Whether it is holiday baking or nightly dinner and cleanup, food is the best way to keep the family involved with each other, regardless of the ages of your kids. Mealtimes are important, but dinner doesn’t have to be about mom or dad doing all the work while the kids watch TV.

If you have older kids, you can be helping them prepare for adulthood while enjoying the extra pair of hands in the kitchen.  It’s a good time (while you’re there to supervise) to put older kids to work cutting, chopping and following recipes. With a little guidance, your teen can put together a family meal.

Elementary age kids love to use their newly-acquired reading and math skills to help with recipes. Let your child read the recipe and help put in the ingredients. Double the recipe and let your child do the math to determine how much of each ingredient you’ll need. They’ll be having so much fun they’ll forget they’re learning.

Even young children can be involved and do their part by setting the table. Show your preschooler how to fold a square paper napkin into a simple diagonal half-fold. Voila! The square is now a triangle! Your toddler gets to practice identifying shapes while adding a special touch to the table setting. Everyone can play a part, whether it’s soup and sandwiches or a five course holiday extravaganza.


No Half Ways

Our mom’s parents divorced when she was 11 years old. Her mom remarried a few years later, and my mom and her three brothers were joined less than a year later by a new baby sister. Theirs was not always an easy adjustment, having a step dad and a new sister who seemed (by virtue of the fact that she was much younger than her siblings) to get a lot of attention.

Sometimes, if my mom’s brothers were angry with their baby sister or hurt by a perceived imbalance between the treatment she was getting from their mom and the treatment they were getting, they would rub it in to her that she was only a “half” sister. It was cruel and hurtful, and of course the boys knew that, but at the time, they were still feeling the effects of their lives being uprooted by the divorce and subsequent remarriage of their mom. My aunt was a natural target, albeit an unfair one.

My aunt and I are only five years apart in age, so I was around for most of her childhood. I remember the sadness she would feel whenever she felt only “half” connected to her siblings. Even though she was the one with both parents there, it was painful for her to be singled out the way she was, and I never forgot that.

This is an excerpt from Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle. Read more or request a review copy.


It’s Not About Blood – It’s About Heart

The most common response I get when introducing my children is behind-the-scenes calculation while they try to figure out just how young I was when the oldest was born. Depending on who it is and how much time I have, I sometimes just let them think I was a mere 15-year old sophomore in high school when Derek was born, and that I’m the one who gave birth to him. It’s even worse now that he is off in the Army. I don’t care that they think I was a young mom, honestly. Sometimes that is better than them thinking I am not a “real” mom because I didn’t carry him for nine months in my body.

Have you ever had that happen?  Someone finds out you’re “just” the stepparent and you suddenly haven’t had the experiences that make you a mom?  It’s the worst feeling, I think, to be disregarded so terribly.  No, I wasn’t there when Derek was born 23 years ago.  I wasn’t with him that first week in the hospital when he almost died of a blood infection in a hospital on an Air Force base in Germany.

By the time I came into the kids’ lives, Derek was 10. Way too old, in his opinion, to need “mothering.”  I wasn’t there from the beginning. I guess in some peoples’ eyes, it means I am not the “real” mom. I was there, though, when Derek needed a soccer coach, was there when he broke his arm, was the one who helped him write his first resume. I was the one who watched him graduate from high school, and cried when he left for basic training. I am the one who lost sleep at night thinking about him being in Iraq – the one who waits impatiently for each phone call, email, and letter to come now that he’s stationed in the safer but oh-so-far away Japan.

It wasn’t my body that carried the twins, or had to be on bed rest the last two months awaiting their arrival.  I wasn’t the one who had to have a c-section and then learn within hours of the birth we had a perfectly healthy little girl but that our little boy had Down syndrome.  I wasn’t the one who laid in bed those first few months and wondered what kind of life Kyle would have with the challenges he would have to face.

When I did enter his life, Kyle was 6 years old chronologically but no more than 12 months old developmentally. He was a baby—still in diapers, still needing help being fed, still needing to be lifted into the car and pushed in a stroller. I wasn’t there from the beginning, but I was there when he had surgery that allowed him to hear for the first time. I was there when he broke his leg and I had to push him in a wheel chair because he couldn’t walk on crutches. I was there when he learned how to write his name and have been there to watch him grow and watch him struggle as he’s dealt with some of the effects of his disability.

Kira was 6, too. She made my heart ache for how much she missed her mom and how desperately she wanted me to like her — but how threatened she was that I might take her Dad, her only lifeline. She was so sweet and so insecure and so unsure of her future. I wasn’t there from the beginning, but I was there when she worried over her looks, when she cried for her mother — and when she stopped crying for her.  I was there for the first boyfriend, the first bra, her first period. I was there when she joined her first cheer team, had her first fight with her best friend, and when she lost someone she loved to an early death.

Even more important than being there for all the major events, like other stepmoms, I was there for all the mundane parts of life too.  I was there when the kids were sick and we had to cancel our plans at the last minute.  I was there when Mom flashed back into their lives for a moment and all they wanted was her.

The great thing, though, is that I am still here. I am the one Derek writes to when he is homesick. I am the one Kira comes to when she has big decisions to make about her life. I am the one Kyle trusts, and the only mom he remembers. I’ve been there for the food fights (and started some), for the laughter and joy, for all of the small moments that count so much. I’ve watched my two biological children bond with my stepchildren without even a thought of different lineage. We’re family. We eat at the same table, share the same home, and have the same mannerisms. It’s not about the blood. It’s about heart.

The next time someone makes you feel like you’re not “real” because you didn’t give birth, just remember that.

Read Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle. Read more or request a review copy.


Mom’s Legacy

It’s almost Mother’s Day again. These years, Mother’s Day is very different for us. Our mom, Linda, died in 2006 after a long battle against cancer. Mother’s Day 2006 we could barely force ourselves to acknowledge the day because we were still grieving so terribly. The past years have been easier, but never without their moments of longing for just one more afternoon with mom. We’ve spent the beginning of each of the past three Mother’s Days at the cemetery, spending a moment connecting with mom by leaving flowers at her grave and telling her how much we miss her.  Now, Tiana is in Utah and I’m in New York – 2,500 miles away from where she was laid to rest.  We’ve realized over the last few years, though, that mom is with us all the time…and we owe her a debt of gratitude for the success we’ve had as moms and as stepmoms.

When mom was 11, her parents split up. This was in 1961, when divorce was not common. Technically, our grandpa took off, leaving our grandma with four kids, of whom our mom was the oldest. The youngest, our uncle, was only six weeks old.  Our grandma didn’t have any money, and our mom lived in poverty. After a time, she also got a step dad and a new sister (shortly after her 16th birthday), along with a long-distance move that left her spending her senior year in a high school full of strangers. She knew all about being a stepkid, about what it felt like to have a parent abandon her, and about how lost and lonely you can feel when your family disintegrates.

When I got married, not only did mom welcome my stepkids with the open, loving arms of a grandmother (Nana, the kids all called her) but she took a particular interest in trying to fill them up with love to wash away the pain they had experienced from having a parent choose a life away from them. As Tiana and I added kids of our own, she cherished them in ways that have left a lasting impression on all of her grandkids, all of whom remember her with joy and happy memories.

When I was first learning to be a stepmom, it was our mom who helped me do better. When I was exasperated because Dave and I couldn’t get a babysitter and get any time alone, she reminded me how much the kids needed to feel like I wanted them there. When I was frustrated because I felt like an outsider, she helped me understand what it must be like for the kids to have a stranger suddenly living with them. When I felt like my stepdaughter was trying to undermine my authority, she helped me realize how terrified Kira must have been to have her mom gone and only her dad to cling to.

When Tiana was having her babies, our mom was at her side. When her marriage fell apart, mom helped her deal with having four kids under 7 years old on her own. Whenever either of us needed advice, mom was the one we turned to first. With her gone, we rely on each other. I share with Tiana what I’ve learned about being a stepmom. We share memories of her and strive to honor her.

Our mom died because her heart gave out. The chemotherapy treatment was too much for her heart to handle. But we always think about how much her heart gave in the time she was with us…how she helped me open my heart and transform a little group of virtual strangers into a strong and loving family, how even my youngest daughter, who was only four when Mom died, still sings the songs she learned from Nana and still remembers cuddling with her, how each of us have inherited some of her strengths. She may be gone, but her gift of love lives on in us, in our children, and in the many people whose lives she touched.

It is in her spirit and memory that we have started MomsGetReal™.com … we want to share with others the joy that comes from motherhood – and share the laughter, tears, frustrations, and tear-your-hair-out moments that happen along the way. We hope you’ll join us.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom (Nana). We love you and miss you so very much.