They’re called Bug Out Bags, GOOD (Get Out of Dodge) bags, INCH (I’m Never Coming Home) bags, or Battle Boxes.
Step-parents need one of these.
I’m not talking about the zombie apocalypse. I’m talking about what every step-parent needs right at hand when things get rough. To clarify: I’m definitely not talking about the 72 hours that these bags are supposed to cover according to preppers, because I believe that when we commit to being step-parents, we give up that one-foot-out-the-door mentality that tends to characterize us when we’re single. But when the shit hits the fan and you need a moment, what’s in your Battle Box?
A couple of weeks ago, we were at Sunday dinner and everything was going along fine. I don’t really know what happened, except that there was an eye roll, one too many excuses, one too many apathetic teens trying to pretend like they had no investment in the family, one too many days that week that I came home and no chores were done, as if I had written those chore lists merely to practice my penmanship, one too many kids continuing to leave chocolate and tampons where the dogs eat them… well, I guess I know exactly what happened, come to think of it.
That teen-angst-stifled sigh and eye roll, that specific tightening of the jaw into the nearly permanent teen sulk is what set me off. I snapped. I shut them down, shouted out a to-do list and went into my room.
Step-parents need coping skills. When you’re so overwhelmed with emotion that you can’t properly think, you need automatic go-to points that require no thought. Accept that you’re going to lose it periodically, and make a plan. Make a metaphorical Battle Box.
A friend of mine shared with me recently that she has a checklist in a tiny notebook she carries in her purse of what to do when she finds herself in the midst of chaos. Number one is 1) Envision yourself dealing with the situation.
I love that.
It’s also way too much for me in the moment.
The first item in my Battle Box is:
1) REMOVE MYSELF FROM THE SITUATION
Sometimes just going into the bedroom is enough. But sometimes I need to leave the house. I know when I’m not fit for my family. I can keep just calm enough that I am able to tell my husband I have to leave, and that I’ll be back as soon as possible. He knows me well enough to not start to analyze what just happened. He knows I’m coming home within a couple of hours, tops.
The next thing in the box is:
2) SOMETHING THAT WILL CALM ME DOWN.
I’ll admit it: I’m envious of people that can have a glass of wine and “take the edge off”. That’s not an option for me and hasn’t been for over fifteen years, so I branch out. Taking a bath, driving, or going to the gym are all options that have worked for me. I’ve also gone for coffee, tea, or ice cream.
Next in the box is:
3) SOMETHING ELSE TO FOCUS MY MIND ON.
Early on in my stepmom career, I made the mistake of sitting down to analyze the situation at this point in the battle. It was entirely fruitless. At this stage, you’re still too fired up from what just happened to detach yourself from all the emotions- your and theirs. You can think, analyze, and write about it til the cows come home, but it will largely be all rationalization and justification. What you need right now is distraction: a movie, a book, people watching, Words with Friends, holding wiggling puppies in a pet store, flipping through a magazine, trying on dresses that you would never buy in a million years, whatever– just as long as it occupies your mind for a while.
Your distraction is like a working meditation, and it wicks away your over-exerted emotions so that you can move on calmly to the next thing in your Battle Box:
4) THE TRUTH.
The truth is that whatever confrontation just happened between you and your step kids, the obligation to make things right lies with you, not them. Why? Because you’re the grown-up. You’re going to have to suck it up and own up to your part in it, no matter how small it is compared to theirs. Then you have to find constructive words to express the thing that is bothering you- if, in fact, it still is, and you have decided it can’t be simply dropped.
When I left this particular Sunday, I was in a right state. I went to Starbucks. I brought Gone With the Wind with me and ordered a gigantic tea. I read from before Scarlett made the dress from her mother’s curtains all the way past where she stole her sister’s fiancée, and I drank every last drop of tea. My husband texted me that he had dealt with what the kids needed to do around the house, and that it was safe to come home. I texted back that I was safe to come home too.
Sometimes as step-parents we feel like abject failures when we have a disagreement or a confrontation with one of the kids, but it’s really just part of life. No family gets along all the time. That’s part of what makes a family: getting through all life’s situations, both enjoyable and uncomfortable, as intact as possible. It makes us who we are. Knowing that is half the battle.
JM Randolph became a step-mom in 2006, when her boyfriend at the time got temporary emergency custody of his five (yes, five!) children and she moved in to help out. Temporary turned permanent when they were married in 2008. She and her husband both work as stagehands and enjoy (most days) their houseful of teen girls, one 11-year-old boy and two Puggles. She blogs at accidentalstepmom.com. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jmrandolph.writer Twitter: @JM_Randolph