the sins of my past

In case you had any doubts, I’m here to tell you that there isn’t much good about being broke with no financial or professional prospects. It pretty much sucks just as much you might imagine.  Watching what was once an impressive career draw its last, dying breath is uncomfortable under any circumstances but horrible beyond belief when that career is your own.

Of course, I can’t speak for anyone else who has crashed and burned her own shining career, but in my case, it didn’t happen overnight.  But sometimes it sure does seem that way. One day I had a big office near the Potomac River and the next time I took a good, long look at my career, I was scraping by and teetering on the brink of being Terminally Unemployable.  I spent many, many quiet moments of panic and self-loathing, contemplating my slow reversal of fortune, and my own complicity in it.

I think that it is objectively fair to say that my career peaked when I was 27-years-old and working DC for a national non-profit. I was flying around the country, appearing on national morning news shows, and pulling in more money than before or since. From there, my career involved a series of choices that took me further from power and money and ambition, including a six-year stint as a Stay At Home Mom with a part-time small business.

When I was fired from my last full-time job in February of 2013, I found myself involuntarily unemployed for the first time in my life, but the funny thing was, I wasn’t worried. At all. Seriously.  I had never, ever had to worry about finding work. Or money, for that matter. Whenever I needed an opportunity, one had always presented itself, and, even at my youngest and poorest, I had always been able to pay my bills. I felt confident that everything would be just fine.

Well.

Days turned to weeks. Weeks gave way to months. Months somehow slid into a year, and I was not any closer to a full-time job with benefits. I tried, honestly I did. I sent out resume after resume and tried all kinds of networking groups, online and off. I wrote and rewrote my resume to tailor it for every job I was conceivably qualified to do. I considered going back to school (!) to get some kind of certification or degree that would better position me. Caving to pressure from nearly everyone around me, I seriously explored hanging out my shingle as a sole practioner of law, only to suffer a few sleepless nights that made me realize that I’d be happier as a Starbucks barista than as an attorney. I completed the online application for Target and then realized that the shifts I would be given initially would require me to hire a nanny who would be making more per hour than I would.

In almost two years, I had two interviews and no offers.

I hid my despair from nearly everyone, putting on a brave front and reassuring my friends and family that something would surely come up. But I saw my own doubts reflected back to me in their eyes, and heard the silent question echoing in the space between us: “What happened to you? You used to have so much… promise.” Some of the younger women I had mentored for years fell away, and many of my professional contacts subtly distanced themselves from me. After all, it was fine to be fired from a politically appointed position, but to be unemployed for more than a year, well, surely there must be something wrong, no?

I didn’t blame them. I had the same doubts about myself. I cobbled together some writing work and interior design projects that, along with semi-regular withdrawals from my 401(k), kept me afloat. I worked every moment I could and literally said a prayer of thanks every time I deposited a check. (I was probably quite a picture at the ATM.) On the outside, I was “being creative” and “taking initiative” and “carving out an interesting little niche for myself.” But inside, I was terrified and couldn’t even admit it to myself, except in the middle of the night as I lay in bed and imagined losing my home and everything in it.

One of the things about working for yourself is that you have lots of time alone. And I used all of it to try and answer that silent question that hung in the air. What had happened to me? Where had my promising career gone? Who would I be professionally if I wasn’t the sharp, young wiz that everyone admired and respected?

What the hell had happened to me??

And I gradually realized that, for nearly 20 years, I had been apologizing, in one form or another, for my career choices. Offering justifications and explanations and reasons to assure everyone – including myself – that I hadn’t just made one sad mistake after another. I felt foolish as I accepted the truth: the question wasn’t new at all; only my conscious awareness of it was.

And then one day, as a bitterly cold 2014 melted into a milder 2015, I found my answer.

Life. Life had happened to me. Except that it wasn’t a passive thing. It didn’t just “happen.” I had engaged my life and made my decisions to the best of my abilities at the time. Each and every one was made with the best of intentions and with the best information I had at the time. I revisited my decision to leave DC and move to Colorado, knowing now that that single move downshifted my career in very obvious and meaningful ways. I examined my decisions to hop around, trying this job and then that one, and the experiences I gained from each. I remembered the heartache and fear of having a sick toddler, and the relief at watching her get well. I noted for myself some of the friendships I made being a Stay At Home Mom and how well those friendships served me later during my divorce. But overall, what I really did was simple: I forgave myself.

I forgave myself for essentially throwing away a very expensive education to follow my fancy down other paths.

I forgave myself for sacrificing my career altogether at the altar of motherhood.

I forgave myself for not having the driving ambition to match the opportunities provided to me.

I forgave myself for getting older and surrendering the Young Crackerjack title to other, younger, less seasoned people who are just as likely to make dubious choices as I was.

And I cannot tell you how wonderful that was. I felt so free from guilt and explanation and justification and that incredibly heavy burden of “What If.”

Surely there will always be people who hear about my career and wonder, “What the hell happened to you?” but the people who seek an explanation will never truly understand, because they will always judge me by the words on my resume instead of the life I’ve created and the lessons I’ve learned. And the ones who do understand me don’t ask for or need an explanation.

Remember how I said that some of the young women I mentored drifted away slowly after my firing? Well, there were some exceptions, and one in particular inadvertently helped me reach my peace with my past. For some reason, we had become much closer as my unemployment dragged on, and I confided occasionally in her of my fears. At the last lunch we had in 2014, she said to me, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you’re much more interesting and inspiring now than when you supposedly had it all together. Or at least, you are to me.”

Her words stayed with me, sitting lightly on my heart, and made me wonder if maybe there was something better than having it all together.

I don’t know for sure what I was supposed to gain from my long, terrifying journey through unemployment and self-employment, but I think it’s pretty clear that in order to find any real professional satisfaction again I was going to have to make peace with my past. I couldn’t spend the rest of my life apologizing to others and myself for choices that were not inherently wrong. I had to forgive myself for making the decisions I had and fully acknowledge the realities of the circumstances that had created those choices.

I don’t know if I’ve fully forgiven myself yet, but I have deliberately replaced my self-loathing with a renewed appreciation for what I gained from all those years. I have a job now that I love and want to do for a long time. I am not ashamed to tell people what I do, even when I see a glint of surprise or superiority in their eyes. I am grateful for the opportunity I have and the work I am given and the paycheck that accompanies it. But most of all, I am at peace with all that has gone before in my professional life. It has been a wild and unpredictable ride, but it has been my ride. And that’s really the best thing that any of us can say at the end of the day, isn’t it?

I Am

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judgey, judgey me

I have noticed myself being very judgmental lately.  Not in general, but in particular.  And the person in particular who has been the subject of my judgment is my ex-husband’s new wife.

I know, I know, I know.  This story is as old as divorce and remarriage.  The first wife resenting the second wife, feeling that she doesn’t measure up, that she is the recipient of everything denied in the first marriage, that she does not deserve the opportunity to raise the children of the first marriage.  Honestly, I know the song and dance, and I get it.

But I still want to shake her sometimes.  Hard.

I didn’t always feel this way.  One thing I credited my ex-husband with was the propensity to select a suitable woman to enter my daughters’ lives.  Bryce has always valued smart, capable, successful women; he is not a man predisposed to bimbos, tramps, or gold-diggers.  So after our divorce, I really didn’t worry at all about whom he might bring into the lives of our daughters.

Indeed, his very first girlfriend after (or before?) our separation was a woman I knew from our tennis and swim club and liked very well.  I told my friends that it was shame that she was the Rebound Woman because I would have been very happy with him settling down with her.  But, of course, she didn’t last.  Then there was Debbie, Bryce’s foray into the Younger Woman category.  She seemed very nice, and I thought my daughters liked her very well, but I found out differently once she and Bryce broke up.  And then came “Mariah.”  At first I was grateful for her presence.  She is older than Bryce, with one child in college and another about to graduate high school.  She’s a successful career woman and seemingly smart, attractive, and classy. When they got engaged in late 2013, I was genuinely happy for them both, and I told them so.  But that was before she shared a house with my children…

I am of the firm belief that Mariah married Bryce in spite of his children, not because she loved them as well as him.  This sad truth is blatantly apparent in the choices that she and Bryce have made as they’ve blended their families into a single home:  from creating a bedroom for my daughters to share out of a dark basement space, to refusing to buy foods that my daughters in like in favor of shopping lists prepared around their step-sister’s preferences (and, no, she doesn’t have food intolerances or allergies), to a strict dress-code that I’m sure Mariah borrowed from the Mormons, to taking a “family trip” to Europe over the summer without my girls (who are being shipped off to their grandparents for a week instead).  My daughters are not a high priority for their step-mother, nor, it would seem, for their own dad sometimes.  Sabrina has informed me that her dad rationalizes his refusal to challenge Mariah on her dictates because he wants to make her happy, something he believes he had failed at with me. So, my girls know that they are not a priority at his house, and I know it, and it makes all of us sad.

I’m not naive about divorce and blended families.  I expected different rules at the two homes, and I knew that some new and different values would be at tension with how Bryce and I had originally raised our girls together.  But I honestly never anticipated a step-mother who so obviously did her best to tolerate them only.  In all their lives, I have so rarely run into adults who didn’t seem to genuinely like my girls; the idea that I now have to share them with a woman who doesn’t is heartbreaking.

But, really, it should be okay that she doesn’t like them.  I remind myself that we all connect differently and with different people.  Just because I like (or love) someone does not mean that you would equally as well or even at all.  My girls are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea anymore than I am, and that I know and accept fully. Or at least theoretically. But what I simply can’t get my head around is this:  Why in the world would you marry someone who had two relatively young children (ages 11 and 13 at the time) with whom you don’t want to be involved and maybe don’t even particularly like?

I try — SINCERELY! — to remember that not everyone approaches relationships and blended families as I do.  Even James has struggled to care for my daughters in the same manner and with the same depth of emotion as I care for his children.  But if I didn’t like his kids, if I’d just been biding my time until they grew up and moved out, if I found their behaviors, habits, and manners so irritating and aggravating, I couldn’t have made a life with him.  So Mariah’s decisions and motivations are a mystery to me.

People who know both Bryce and I have speculated that Mariah married him to enjoy the financially comfortable lifestyle he is so capable of providing, and perhaps this is true to some extent.  They do have a newly renovated showcase home on an acre of land in an expensive enclave of an expensive town.  Bryce did purchase Mariah a ring just this side of Kardashian-land.  And she is enjoying lavish vacations.  But still, how is that enough if you don’t want his kids around fifty percent of the time?

I remind myself that I do not know her whole story.  I do not know what her own childhood was like.  I do not know if her formal and rigid nature is a vestige of the way she was raised or maybe a defense mechanism acquired later.  I remember to be glad that she is not outright mean or cruel or vindictive toward my children.  Because even if she were, my options would be meager.  But she’s not.  She’s really not.  She’s more indifferent than anything.

So why can’t I just accept that she is different from me and different from my girls and that’s okay?  Why am I so disturbed by the fact that she is marginalizing them when it could be so much worse?  I mean, seriously, who died and made me judge of anything? What right do I have to cast stones in anyone’s direction?  Why am I so decidedly unable to practice the values of no judgment and bountiful compassion toward her?

I have examined my feelings from multiple angles.  I have questioned whether I am jealous of her relationship with my ex, and concluded that while it is occasionally painful to my ego to have it confirmed for me that Bryce’s depth of love for me was no deeper than mine for him, I do not begrudge her anything that she shares with him.  I am grateful that he is happy and settled, and equally grateful that I am no longer with him but with James.  I have also wondered if I am jealous that she is another “mother” to my girls and concluded that that is not it, either.  My relationships with my daughters are secure and stable and deep and mutual; no one in the world can take that or change that but us.  Everyone else who might love them can only be a good thing in their lives.  And so, I am left feeling icky and judgey and petty without fully knowing why. I wish that I did not dislike her.  I wish that I were, at least, indifferent to her.  But if I’m honest with myself, I know that I’m not.

I’m just not.

And it makes me want to shake her sometimes.  Hard.

Love is the absence of judgment

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the ability to fail

Last night, I went to my daughters’ middle school for Bryn’s 6th grade choir concert.  My girls love to sing, so I’ve sat through my share of school choir concerts.  Sabrina also takes private voice instruction and has performed solo in recitals that I have never missed.

In my experience, middle school choir concerts are typically a crap shoot.  Generally there is lots of semi-off-key singing, a few solos that you can hardly hear because the singers are too nervous to breathe, and the occasional stand-out voice that catches the audience by surprise and generates more than polite applause.   So, when I settled into my seat next to Sabrina, I figured I knew what was coming.  This wasn’t my first rodeo, after all.

The first two songs the 6th grade choir sang were typical – a folk medley, followed by a musical version of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  The next song was the choir’s hotly anticipated interpretation of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” made all the more exciting because Bryn had her first ever solo.  As the singing started and my spunky ginger-haired daughter made her way to the microphone at the front and center of the stage, I leaned forward and held my breath.  And then it happened.  Bryn opened her little mouth and, loudly, clearly began singing her solo part.

And she was terrible.

Not just terrible in the way that most 6th grade singers are terrible, but truly atrocious.  From her mouth emanated sounds for which there are no words.  Tones that are not associated with musical notes except in the loosest terms.  My little girl was completely, hopelessly tone deaf.

In the 30 seconds or so that it took for Bryn to finish her solo, I consciously worked to keep my face neutral and avoid Sabrina’s eyes.  I didn’t breathe and sat stiffly waiting for the aural torture to end.  When it did, I promptly got up and made my planned exit, shaking my head incredulously as I made my way across the parking lot.

See, the thing is, Bryn is the kind of person who, when she applies herself to a task, is nearly always highly successful.  Her smarts, determination, and sheer Irish stubbornness serve her well.  She has not yet encountered an academic subject, sport, or hobby that she couldn’t master, and I have always admired her for it.  She may not be the best, or the fastest, or the most knowledgeable, but she has always managed to acquit herself admirably.  It’s something that I’ve come to love and expect from her.

But singing, that which comes so easily and naturally to her sister, is clearly out of reach for Bryn.  She has spent nearly three years now singing in choirs, but without making any recognizable improvement in her voice techniques.

On the drive home, I began to wonder how Bryn would handle this realization when it finally dawned on her.  How would she take it?  Would she collapse in tears and shame?  Would she promptly give up singing, despite her love of it, in order to avoid future embarrassment?  Or would she be galvanized and apply herself even more vigorously to singing?

To be truthful, it won’t matter.  My beautiful daughter has many, many talents, but after last night, I am positively certain that singing is not one of them.  It is clear to me that inasmuch as Sabrina was blessed with perfect pitch, the ability to sight read, and a delicate, clear tone that sails through the air and settles on the heart, Bryn was gifted by nature with none of these things.  She can sing songs, yes, but she will never be the songbird her sister is.  No amount of training or practice will close the gap between them.  And, really, truly, that’s totally okay.  In most everything else that they have mutually attempted, Bryn easily surpasses her sister’s achievements.  So it is perfectly just for Sabrina to have this one thing at which she is plainly superior.

I’m not sharing this to shame Bryn, or to unfairly compare my daughters. But it caused me to consider the power and potential value of failure.  What happens when we want so much to be good at something, to excel in a particular direction or at a particular skill, but we are faced with the reality that we may eventually be okay at it, but we’ll never truly master it?  How many of us are able to be bad at something and still enjoy it?  How many of us can acknowledge and accept shortcomings in our abilities or natural talents that are other than we might wish? How do we perceive a failure to achieve and how does it affect our future efforts to achieve?  Do we embrace the opportunity to develop resiliency or become annoyed, frustrated or dismayed and give up.

In our society, we are told to never, ever give up.  We are supplied ample examples of people who refused to accept a limitation and overcame monstrous obstacles to achieve miracles.  I am inspired by those stories as much as the next person, and I know myself capable of substantial perseverance.  But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t learned through the years that there are some things that I am simply no good at.  Rollerblading, grilling steaks, and doing the splits, for example.

I, for one, have definitely been guilty of discarding or giving up on something once I discover that it’s truly not in my wheelhouse.  If it doesn’t come relatively easily, I’m likely to drop it.  The exception to this is when I derive so much pleasure from the act itself that my success at it is irrelevant.  However, if I don’t love it deeply and I have applied myself to the best of my abilities and I still haven’t achieved anywhere close to the success I would have liked, I move on.

And what of the people who fail and fail again and still persist at something until they become leaders above everyone else in their field, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs?  Is their persistence the reason for their success?  I actually think not.  I have this little theory that there is some deep intuition that drives us when everything else seems to suggest we won’t succeed, some sense that we are meant to do this thing and do it well.  I, for one, do not have the natural aptitude to be a master computer programmer – my brain simply doesn’t work that way.  But then again, I can take words and convey meanings that others can’t, so I tend to think that life balances out.

I also know that there are plenty of things that I can do but not do especially well, and that I still enjoy.  Just because I’m not good at them doesn’t stop me from quietly enjoying them on my own time.  Gardening and cooking are in this category for me. With age, I have decided that this is what hobbies are for – those things we can do and enjoy, but not do well enough to ever do it professionally or to really shine at it.  In this vein of thinking, I hope that when Bryn is forced to relinquish her dream of being the next Katy Perry, she does not also set aside her true love of music and singing. I hope that she is able to enjoy singing for her own pleasure, even if no one ever pays to hear her.  And I hope, sincerely, that she confines her singing to the shower, car, and her bedroom, sparing the poor ears of those of us who love her deeply but never, ever, ever need to hear her sing publicly again. <3

failure

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retrospective.

5 Months and 26 Days.

That’s how long it’s been since I last curled up with my little MacBook Air and poured my thoughts into this blog. Writing used to be habit, meditation, and prayer all melted into one, a late-night respite and means of organizing the thoughts colliding in my head all day. Since I’ve been writing for a living, however, I have found myself hard-pressed to embrace it after a long day of working, parenting, and partnering.

But my soul misses this blog. I miss the self-discovery. I miss the insights that unfold. I miss the marking of time passing and lessons being learned. And I miss the human connections with my readers through the gossamer threads of the internet.

As my regular readers know, I have never been one to simply journal here. In part because I am not comfortable sharing every corner of my life and in (bigger) part because I don’t believe that my life provides enough interesting tidbits to justify writing about. Having said that, however, i believe that readers of future posts will benefit from some contextual background.  So please bear with me, as this is a spectacularly long post.  So, grab yourself a cup of coffee and a Danish and settle in. Here we go…

Love Story

James and I have been in couples counseling with a new therapist since August. As indicated in my last post, all those months ago, we’d hit the make-or-break point and threw a Hail Mary pass in the direction of a couples therapist who came highly recommended. We had worked for a full year with our previous counselor, but with very limited long-term success. We agreed it wasn’t her fault, but we also agreed that we weren’t making enough progress to justify continuing. So we stopped in January of 2014 and gradually watched our relationship take two steps forward, three steps back over the next eight months. By the time August came around, it really did feel as if we’d lost our way and were hanging by a fraying thread.

But then a strange thing happened. Still madly imperfect, but using some of the understanding and tools that we acquired during our counseling sessions with the new therapist, we began to recover from mutually-inflicted wounds more quickly and more completely. There were definitely difficult disagreements and hurts during the fall and holiday season, but I noticed that we seemed better able to find our way back to each other. Our commitment seemed more solid beneath us, and I felt like fewer small things were blowing up into big things.

I have consciously wondered to myself if this is what it’s like for couples who stay contentedly married for many years… Perhaps they have the same grievances and difficulties as the rest of us, but they recover from them more quickly and without inflicting the deep cuts that are so very hard to heal later. I don’t know really because I wasn’t in one of those couples in my marriage. But I do know that what I have with James feels completely different from what I had with Bryce. I think Bryce and I worked at it because it was the right thing to do and because we so desperately didn’t want to end up divorced, like our parents. But I think that James and I work at it because we just plain love each other. Corny, I know, but sometimes the simplest answer is the best one.

Family Affair

2014 was, for me, a year of extended family drama. It began before 2014 actually did, in December of 2013, when James and I decided to offer my young cousin Brady the opportunity to move from Southern California to Colorado and work for James at his company. Brady has always been special to me, having arrived in this world on my 20th birthday. He had a tough time of it as a kid. Born to two addicts (one recovering and one not), he was raised mostly by my dear aunt, but was nonetheless an addict himself by his early teens. For nearly 10 years, he was almost completely lost to our family, but then, at 22, he asked a judge to order him to rehab. The judge obliged and Brady spent many months locked in a room at a low-grade state rehab facility, reading and praying and avoiding the drugs that were more plentiful inside the facility than out. When he got out, clean for the first time in about a decade, I sent him tickets to visit me in Colorado. He spent three weeks with us and fell in love with the area. And I was delighted to see the sweet boy I’d once known re-appear in his clear blue eyes. So, in December of 2014, when James said he was having a hard time finding good workers for his company, I proffered Brady, and after some consideration, James agreed.

Now, we all know it’s a bad thing to mix family and business, right? And it’s also a bad idea to mix business and homelife, right? Sure, we do. But that didn’t stop James and I from inviting Brady to move to Colorado, work for James, and live with us until he got on his feet.

Yeah, I know, I know. But it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Brady arrived in mid-March, but within a few short months, James and Brady’s relationship had rapidly deteriorated at work, spilling over into things at home. I increasingly found myself feeling caught between my soulmate and my little cousin. It was frustrating for all of us. Brady finally moved out, with considerable prodding from me and James, in June, after James’ kids arrived for the summer. Brady continued working for James, but even that crumbled by the mid-fall. James eventually asked Brady to move on to another job, and we made the difficult transition of separating from him professionally and staying close to him emotionally. That’s not easy in the best of circumstances, but in the midst of this painful separation, Brady had a serious car accident, totaling his car. To say it was a stressful period is a gross understatement.

Right after Brady arrived to work for James, my dad’s health took a very serious turn for the worse, and by April, I was heading to Seattle to be with him for three weeks and help my poor step-mom, who was exhausted and barely keeping things afloat. His situation was so serous that on the plane ride to Seattle, I prayed that my dad wouldn’t die before I got there. Three weeks, five doctor appointments, one surgery, and 1½ weeks in a rehabilitation care center later, my dad was well on the road to recovery and I was back on a plane for Denver. But the emotional roller coaster of it all, including the ever-possible drama with my step-brother, left my tank on empty.

As it turned out, my Seattle trip had repercussions through the rest of my year. Within weeks of my return home, my mother’s health seemed to nosedive. Her phone calls became increasingly alarming. She was in so much pain. She was depressed. She was lonely. She missed her granddaughters and wanted to be near them. She hated Southern California. She felt that she was probably going to die soon. Gravely concerned, I booked a flight in October to my mom’s dusty town outside Palm Springs to ascertain the situation in person. When I arrived, my mom was pale, achingly frail, and seemingly in constant pain. As an only child, I had always known the day would come when I would have to step in and take care of my mother. Apparently that fateful day had arrived.

I began making plans to move my mom to Colorado. We reviewed her finances, talked about putting her tiny house up for sale, and discussed the necessary medical care she would need. I lined up various doctors, a home health nurse, and a realtor to make my mom’s transition as seamless as possible. I moved James’ youngest daughter Chloe out of her room and prepared it for my mom to occupy until she found a permanent place of her own. After her house sold unexpectedly quickly in November, she packed up the rest of her belongings, but refused to ship her car to Colorado after hearing horror stories of cars that were shipped but never arrived at their intended destination. At her request, James and I flew to California and drove her car back to Colorado in advance of her arrival. It should have been a fun and restive road trip, but the timing and circumstances mostly prevented that. Even so, we got her 20-year-old Honda to our house 24 hours before she arrived by plane in mid-December. I took a deep breath and thought that the hardest part was surely over.

Exactly 26 days later, my mother boarded a plane and moved back to California. Don’t underestimate her, though. In those 26 days, She had inconvenienced me, James, and the kids, threw a few obligatory tantrums at various holiday functions, and then floored us all by announcing that was moving back. Less than a week later, she was gone. And I was left wondering what the hell had just happened.

In the days immediately before and after her departure, I began to unravel the craziness that had just blown through my life, leaving a swath of wounded feelings, bewilderment, and exhaustion a mile wide. Based on things my mother said to James during her final days in Colorado, I abruptly realized that the drama around her health had originated, consciously or not, with my trip to Seattle. My mother’s intense resentment of my dad and anger at my relationship with him prompted nothing less than outrage that I had spent three weeks in Seattle and only a few days visiting her during the same calendar year. So, consciously or not (and I choose to think, not), she had created a whirlwind of need and anxiety around her, prompting us all to figuratively and sometimes literally drop everything and focus on her. It was, of course, the kind of drama she had been concocting for much of her life, but I, in my distracted state, had failed to recognize it for what it was. My mom likes to tell people now that she “simply made a mistake,” as if she’d worn unmatched socks for a day. But the truth is, at some point in our lives, each of us has to be responsible and cognizant of the effects our actions have on others. Apparently that time has yet to come for my mother.

So, since her departure, I have worked to remind myself that she is on a different journey from me; to forgive myself for being taken in, yet again, by her ridiculousness; and to recreate the healthy boundaries that protected me from her machinations through most of my adult life. I manage these things with more or less success, depending on the day. And so it goes.

A Penny Earned

For me, 2014 was the year of living dangerously. At least in a financial sense. Never in my life did I have so many financial responsibilities and so little certainty that I could meet them. While in Seattle, I read a fascinating article about women who crafted a “career” out of several small jobs (in some cases, as many 15), rather than relying on a single job for financial security. Most of these women were stay at home moms, had been laid off in middle age, or had personal constraints on their lives that necessitated a high degree of flexibility. Inspired, I spent many late nights in my dad’s guest room in Seattle brainstorming about how I could do something similar, and when I returned home, I set my plan into action. I created a new umbrella LLC and spent the rest of 2014 freelance writing, providing life skills coaching for a young woman with substantial ADHD issues, and doing the occasional interior design job. I had a selection of business cards for different tasks and mostly worked non-stop. And when I say non-stop, I really mean it. My family became accustomed to me sitting in front of the TV at night, typing away as we all watched TV or they played games.

In fairness, however, my ex-husband Bryce ended up helping me out financially, although not exactly by choice. At the end of 2013, as my unemployment benefits were winding down, I attempted to engage my ex in some re-negotiations about child support. He brushed me off, and I reluctantly let it go. But then he did the thing that he shouldn’t have: he suggested that I wasn’t pulling my weight financially with the children and asked me to contribute more. Now, let’s remember, folks: I had been unemployed (and actively looking for a job!) for nearly a year, I’d run through my savings, and had begun to dip into my retirement accounts on a too-regular basis. Bryce earns a healthy salary in the six figures, and he wanted more money from me? I was incredulous.

Now, my ex-husband’s mistake was understandable, in a way. When I was married to him, I pretty much caved to his demands, so perhaps it was natural for him to assume that what he said, would go. But things had changed. I had changed. Unbeknownst to either of us at that point, in the time it had taken him to consider and refuse my initial request for a small increase in child support,  a new law had taken effect that completely revised the child support guidelines. In my favor. So, instead of being a good girl and going along nicely, I gathered all my legal wits about me and filed for an increase in child support. After my attorney buckled to Bryce’s demands (Bryce is a far superior attorney), I fired him and spent most of a weekend negotiating the fine print with Bryce directly. When the smoke cleared, I was set to receive nearly double the amount of child support to which I had previously been entitled, and significantly more than I had originally asked for. Bryce was annoyed, but resigned. After all, if he had simply acquiesced to my initial request and/or not insinuated that I was somehow financially negligent toward my children, he would be paying considerably less. But he didn’t. And my children and I gained.

And so I paid my bills. Not without a little anxiety and a lot of creativity, but hey, what does that matter? They got paid.

Kali Comes

For my birthday last month, just days after my mother left us, my 11-year-old daughter Bryn gave me a pendant of the Hindu goddess Kali. She mistook Kali for Sarasvarti, the Hindu goddess of music, writing, and creativity, who is something of a totem for me. As it turns out, Kali was a more appropriate choice given my circumstances, because she is the goddess of destruction, transition, and new beginnings. I wasn’t sure how or why this beautiful Kali pendant had found its way to me, but I embraced it, slipping it on a silver chain and wearing it next to my heart.

Within days, I had my first job offer since my firing in February of 2013. After careful consideration, I concluded that by accepting the position, I would actually be in a worse position financially than I was on my own. I had built a strong client base with good job security, and, while it wasn’t making me rich, I was paying my bills and enjoying a lot of flexibility that enabled me to spend time with my girls and James’ kids. That realization gave me a renewed confidence and sense that perhaps, finally, the worst really was over.

And then two weeks ago, I received another job offer, this time for a position that was a truly perfect fit for me right now. It’s 75% time, with good pay and benefits, doing creative and interesting work. I will still be able to keep my favorite freelance writing client, doing the work some evenings and weekends. And, maybe best of all, I probably won’t have to hire a nanny to be with my kids.

Ever since I got the offer, I have been walking on clouds. My first week of work – precisely two years after my firing – was challenging and exhausting but also fun and dynamic. I truly cannot imagine a job I would want more right now. After wondering, off and on for two years, if I might have become one of the terminally unemployable, I now find myself like a child on Christmas as I head to work in the mornings.

So, life at the moment, perhaps courtesy of Kali, appears to be in transition, but for the first time in a very, very long time, my intuition is at peace. And now that I am no longer writing nonstop for money, I am hoping to return to writing for the sheer joy of it.

If you’ve actually read this whole saga that I call a post, thank you.

Next time we’ll return to our regularly scheduled program.

My Kali pendant from Bryn.

My Kali pendant from Bryn.

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after the fairy tale

Some lessons are harder to learn than others.

And some of us are just slow learners.

Or perhaps we’re stubborn, or maybe it’s persistence, or optimism, or hopeless romanticism.  Whatever it is, some of us seem biologically incapable of letting go sometimes.

Like me.

I wish more than anything that I could write of how wonderful and perfect my life with James is now.  How happily we have merged our families and how blissfully in love we are.  How I now have everything I ever dreamed of when I broke my marriage apart.  But of course I can’t do that.  Because Cinderella isn’t real and neither is Prince Charming.

I have not written much since James and I reunited and moved in together.  At first, it was because I genuinely was so blissfully happy I didn’t want to sound like a horrid braggart at my good fortune.  Then, later, it became about not wanting to disappoint my readers, and later still, about not wanting to admit that I might have made an enormous mistake.  The conclusion I have reached now, however, is that I love writing and I love this interaction with all of you, and I love knowing that — just possibly! — I might put something into words that someone else can relate to and feel understood by or reassured by or empowered by.

And so I am picking up my keyboard again and going to try to write about a love that is terribly flawed, potentially damaging, and possibly beyond salvation.


With age has come the wisdom that it’s usually pretty impossible to pinpoint the precise moment that signals the beginning of the end of something.  I cannot exactly remember when I first wondered if James and I had made an awful mistake buying the house and moving in together.  But I know that, as often happens, that unwelcome thought has become more and more present and persistent in my head, culminating this summer with me making plans to move out and going so far as to look at several houses and inquire about financing. (That was an adventure in itself.  I was reminded that when a rental ad says that a property “needs some love,” you’d best expect broken floor boards, inoperable windows, and peeling paint.)  It was sad to admit defeat and contemplate separating, yes, but things were so very bad that there was also some relief in the idea of a small place of my own for me and my girls and the assurance of peace in my life.

The rub was that I still love him.  Perhaps I shouldn’t, given the things he has said over the past year, but I’ve never been a big fan of “shoulds.”  So before I took the leap into one of the houses that needed some love, I sat down and examined what it would take for me to stay.  I examined this question from a very pragmatic perspective — not what would I have to feel, but what he (and I) need to do in order for me to stay.  Actual, concrete steps or actions or promises.  So, because I’m a list-maker and addicted to my iPhone, I made a note on my phone containing my list.  Then I slept on it for a couple of days, revised it, and finally told James (via text because we were hardly speaking) that I had a final proposal to make to save our relationship, and if he was interested in discussing it, he should let me know.  I sent the text just days before his children left us to return to their mom’s for the school year, so I didn’t expect to hear anything back right away, and I didn’t.

The day his children left, I spent the day back-to-school shopping with my girls and returned home just before dinnertime.  James said he’d like to talk, made us some cocktails, and we went out to our balcony.  Then, using my iPhone list as a guide, I walked him through my proposal.  It included some relatively easy demands, including “No serious discussions before I’ve had caffeine in the morning,” as well as some more difficult ones, including couples counseling with a therapist of his choosing, and if he didn’t seem engaged in the process, I would not go or pay for it.  Given that James is quintessentially the man who does not like being told what to do, I was fully prepared for him to say, essentially, “No way, no how.”  I really was.  I had absolutely no expectations beyond being able to know that I had played my best hand at the end.

But he didn’t say no way, no how.  He agreed to my proposal, and I agreed to halt my moving plans.

It has been a long enough road for us that I knew not to be too optimistic about our commitment to this new path.  But, we did find some equanimity after that conversation.  We went away for the weekend to his eldest daughter’s college graduation and had a truly nice time together.  So nice, in fact, that I dreaded coming home.  I just wanted to stay in that warm cocoon of ease and peace for as a long as possible.  But when we returned, I was further heartened when James found the name of a counselor we had interviewed back in March and ended up not revisiting because she doesn’t take insurance, and called her for an appointment.  He also located the paperwork she’d given us at the time and started completing it.  So I did, too.

The first time we saw the counselor, Liz, she talked to us briefly about our goals for the therapy and how she typically works.  Some of it we remembered from our appointment in the spring.  At the end, she asked us to take two online tests that would help her understand our personalities better, how we probably relate to one another, and how she could best support us.  She wanted us to complete them and send her the results before our next meeting, four days later.  I could tell that James was loath to take the tests, but was pleased when he did the very next day.  The results were fascinating and we spent the better part of that day comparing our results and discussing how they made us feel.***  Again, I was heartened — this alone was progress!

Our next meeting with Liz — our first real counseling session with her — also went well, and we left feeling, I think, like we might be able to actually do this.  That perhaps we could be one of the couples who bucks the odds and saves our relationship!  I think we both knew how dire our straits were, so I don’t mean to make light or understate the depth of concern and fear that our relationship was beyond saving, but I also think that we were increasingly hopeful.  Unfortunately, she was leaving to spend a month back East and so our next session seemed far away.

My friend Annie has always described my relationship with James as taking two steps forward and one step back, and James and I are apparently slaves to our pattern, for not long after that counseling session we had another disagreement that culminated in him suggesting that we sell the house.

And that is where things sit, my friends.

Over the past six months or so, I have had some personal growth spurts unrelated to my situation with James, but those have served to better inform me of my own short-comings and blind spots.  I have tried to figure out what the wisest course of action is with regard to me and James.  I have tried to analyze what is right for my girls.  I have tried to dig deep and ask my heart what it truly wants.

But I don’t have any clear answers.  Because here is all I know:  No one ever said it was supposed to easy, but it shouldn’t be too hard, either.  I know that if we manage to make this work and grow old together, we will be one of those couples that signifies the value of hard work in a relationship, and this whole period will be told and re-told of evidence that relationships require work to survive. But if we don’t make it, we will both likely be saying, to others sometime in the future, that we should have pulled the plug sooner and not wasted so much time.

In my marriage, I knew when it was time to go, and once I knew, I hardly glanced back.  That almost unwavering certainty was of enormous comfort to me during the darkest days of my divorce, and the lack of it is what paralyzes me now.

So I wait.  I wait for a signpost signaling the next right path.  I wait for my heart and mind to synch up.  I wait for a certainty that won’t betray me later on.

amazing-trees-1-1


*** The personality tests that James and I took are called the RHETI Enneagram test and the Instinctual Variant Questionnaire (IVQ).  They are similar to the Myers-Briggs tests, but simpler and, for us, more accurate.   They can be found on the Enneagram Institute’s website.   The full RHETI Enneagram test is 145 questions and costs $10.  The IVQ is much shorter and costs $8.  The results can be emailed to you and do not require a therapist’s interpretation to be useful.

 

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me, too.

When I began this blog in February of 2011, my mantra was to live an authentic life and to manifest that intention here, in writing and sharing.  Living authentically sounds nice and good and pretty simple, and it is all those things, but it is not easy.  Or, rather, it was not easy for me.  The mask was more familiar.  And much safer.

When I was married, it was very important to my husband that we not “air our dirty laundry” with others.  This included sharing our problems with friends, or really anybody at all.  He saw my tendency to share as a weakness, as a means to seek validation or sympathy or… something.  No matter how minor it was, it always felt like oversharing to him.

So I stopped sharing my true self.  I became the world’s best listener and advice-giver.  Our friendships were based on shared interests, our children’s friendships, and our work connections. Is it so  surprising that over time, no one really knew us?  True, they didn’t know our problems, but they also didn’t know us.  We were simply the construct that we created for them, the masks we wore, the facade we carefully maintained.  The perfectly matched couple with the peaceful, supportive, and easy marriage.  Our children were well-behaved and lovely, our home warm and welcoming.  Our friends had problems that they confided to us openly, and we counseled them with the confidence and self-assurance of the righteous.

But all of that was unreal, fake, a fraud that we were so accustomed to and so frightened to let go of that at some point we genuinely began to believe in it as much or more so than those close to us.

It was neat.  It was tidy.  It was pretty.

And it was so god-awful lonely.

What a relief after my separation to finally begin to make friends again to whom I could confide!  That I could tell my darkest, dirtiest, most horrible thoughts to!  Who could truly know me and still love me! How wonderful to no longer put so much energy toward the impression of a perfect life, to throw open the windows and let the truth pour out…  How liberating, inspiring, and energizing to be real, authentic, and open again!

It seems to me that there are a lot of studies being released recently proving that social media is our latest means of crafting the perfect image to those around us.  The smiling family photos, the perpetually-happy status updates, the tweets cataloging all the wonderful, perfect moments in our lives.  And there also seem to be an equal number of studies telling us that the more time we spend on social media, the worse we feel about our own lives.

Ugh.  That kind of news is very sobering to me and very discouraging, too.  Why do we do this to each other?  I honestly understand not wanting to be the Twitter Debbie Downer or Chronic Facebook Complainer.  I get that nobody wants to log on to be force-fed negativity.  But what happened to authenticity or balance?  Why are we so afraid to show people the messy parts of our life?  What exactly are we so afraid of?

I can answer my own questions, of course, because I was long one of those people.  I can only imagine how some people must have felt sickened by me and my “perfect” little family, and I don’t blame them at all.  I realize now that at some point I’d bought into my husband’s flawed dogma that if people see your mess, they will judge you and they will discount you and they will no longer respect you.

That’s true, of course.  People do all those things when you show them your messy life.  But not all people.  And not all the time.  And the ones left in the room after we dump our mess all over the place are the ones that we need to fight for and hang on to.  The rest were just taking up space anyway.

I know that some mothers will suffer bouts of maternal envy on this Mother’s Day.  I know that because I have been one of them.  I have a long history of difficult, discouraging, and frustrating Mother’s Days.  I even wrote a post about it last year that called the anti-mother’s day.  And I am here to tell you that that post generated a massive amount of hits.  I think it’s because, if we’re being honest, we can all relate.  Kids aren’t perfect, and parenting is a lesson in imperfection, so the odds are against having a great Mother’s Day each and every single year.

Similarly, my rant why I hate being a stay-at-home-mom is poised to become my visited post ever.  That means it will surpass worst. sex. ever. and all the salacious thomas murray posts I’ve written.  Go figure, right?

Well, actually, it makes perfect sense if you think about it.  Because I genuinely believe that what we all want, more than anything else in this world, is to be known and understood.  We don’t really need someone to tell us what we’re doing wrong; I think most of us have a pretty decent grasp on that.  And we don’t really need someone to lecture us about how we can do better; deep down, I think we have that one figured out, too.  What we need, what we crave, what drives us to turn to the internet late at night or when we’re all alone, is to have someone say to us, “Me, too.”

I am having an unexpectedly amazing Mother’s Day today.  Truly.  I can’t remember ever having had a better one.  So, to those moms breathing a sigh of relief that you’re not facing a trip to the ER today or having to clean dog puke off your new rug, I say, “Me, too.”  But to those moms who are wondering why the hell they ever got out of bed today and why isn’t it bedtime yet, I say, “Me, too.”  Because I’ve been there.  For sure.  It’s no fun, but it’s okay.  It doesn’t mean anything except that you had a bad day that happened to fall on the second Sunday of May.

Life is messy, and that’s really okay, too.  It’s supposed to be.  And anyone that tells you otherwise or tries to sell you an air-brushed version of their life has deeper problems than you can probably imagine.  So be authentic.  Embrace the mess.  Say “Me, too.”  I think you’ll be glad you did.

life-is-messy

 

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the blessing of oblivion

My stepbrother hates me.

Or, maybe that’s not entirely accurate, since he’s not really my step-brother and I’m not sure “hates” is the optimum word.  You see, he is the natural son of my former step-father.  So what does that make him to me, exactly?  My former step-brother?  But that sounds too much like he’s dead, and he’s not. Also, hate might not be the exactly right word.  Perhaps “resents” is better.  Or “misunderstands”?  Or “begrudges”?  I guess I don’t really know, since the one conversation we had about his feelings was years ago, and true to form, was characterized by naive honesty on my part and guarded suspicion on his.  So who really knows how deeply his negative feelings for me fester.

But the fact remains that we are somehow at odds.

The situation sounds like something out of a nighttime soap opera (think Dallas or Dynasty for point of reference):  My mother was my dad’s fourth (yes, fourth) wife and I was my mom’s adoptive daughter, aged 13 at the time of marriage.  Their marriage lasted five L-O-N-G years and culminated in a nasty divorce in which my step-dad lost a significant percentage of his net worth despite a good prenuptial.  None of this was my fault; in fact, I disapproved of my mom’s marriage.  Not because I didn’t like my step-dad, but because any primate with a 50 IQ could see that they were not destined to a bright future.    Any primate, of course, except for an primate in love.

So, their marriage was  a disaster but my step-father was a terrific dad, and the only one I’d ever had, since my adoptive father died when I was 9-months-old.  Indeed, my step-dad has since told many people that he married my mom because he felt that I “deserved to have a real father.”  That’s a pretty noble undertaking, I think.

Their marriage didn’t survive, but my relationship with my step-dad, who after their divorce became just my “dad,” did.  In the 27 years since my parents’ divorce, he has done everything for me a dad does for a kid:  sent me money when I was broke, offered advice (solicited and unsolicited), invited me to family functions, visited me from out-of-state, sent presents and cards at appropriate anniversaries, and called “just to check in” on a regular, if not frequent, basis.  He has been, in every regard and every part of my heart, my dad.

And my former step-brother hates me for it.

My dad had four kids from his first wife — two girls and two boys.  The other three have mostly accepted my strange place in their dad’s life.  They seem to understand (mostly) that our relationship has brought both of us a lot of happiness and is no threat to them, so they let it be.  My oldest step-brother, however, is not so generous.  No, he views me as an interloper, a gold-digger, someone who has no right to his father’s time or love.

But he’s wrong.

My dad, Dex, and I have a deep connection that goes beyond words.  We understand each other in the way that only soul mates do.  My dad’s current wife, Meri (his 5th and last wife and true soulmate) understands this and has welcomed me with open arms from the first day I met her.  But Dex’s kids have struggled more. I think the other three have gradually realized that I am not in competition with them in anyway.  Indeed, I easily cede my position to them at any opportunity.  But Richie, my oldest step-brother, cannot abide my presence in his dad’s life.  I am threat to him that neither he nor I understands and he would like nothing better than for me to disappear forever.

I am in dad’s last will and testament.  It reads that after Meri dies, all proceeds (because she has no children of her own) shall go to Dex’s three other children and me in equal 20% measures, with Richie’s two girls receiving his share divided between them as 10% each.  This was constructed many years ago, when Richie’s obstinate insistence that my dad disavow me resulted in Dex’s cutting Richie out of his will altogether and apportioning Richie’s share to his daughters instead.  When I found out about the Will Drama, I asked my dad — twice — to rewrite the will and leave me out of it.  Both times he replied that it was “none of my business” and that he would do what he damn well pleased.  But he also knew his son and made me promise that I would respect his wishes and defend his will — in court, if necessary — after he was gone.  I reluctantly agreed.

At the time all of this was going on  (many years ago), I really had no appreciation for how intensely my step-brother disliked me.  It has only been my most recent trip to Seattle, spending time in their home and with my former step-sisters that I have fully appreciated how deeply resentful Richie is.

Apparently, unbeknownst to me, Richie has been waging a war against me for many years, with both my dad and my former step-siblings as the targets.  The mere mention of my name is supposedly enough to send him into a diatribe, and his siblings have grown weary of the conflict.

When my step-mother, whom Richie also does not like, called to ask me to come help her, Richie was away in Africa on a medical missionary.  I have since learned that this was fortunate timing, because if he had been in the country, the call would have been nearly impossible for my step-mom to make as the other three siblings are so intent on avoiding the “conflict” between us that they would have likely begged her to reconsider.

I guess I am fortunate that he was on his mission and I, states away in Colorado, was oblivious to the family politics swirling around me.  Had I know,  I would have approached this trip with far more trepidation.

Richie and I are the only children who don’t live in or right outside my dad’s hometown of Seattle.  I am in Colorado, and Richie and his family live in southern Idaho.  I suppose his distance from his family gives him some cause for anxiety and me some cause for oblivion, for I have been mostly unaware of the family politics at play.

True, my dad had hinted that Richie resented me and did not respect his marriage to Meri, and he had made me promise to defend his will and protect Meri from whatever predatory interests Richie has after his death.  But the extent to which Richie had complained to his siblings was not clear to me until this trip to the Pacific Northwest.

Here’s what I mean:

I have been here for 12 days now and in Richie’s group emails to the family about my dad’s illness, he refuses to acknowledged my existence or anything I have been doing for his father or step-mom.  To be honest, though, he basically refuses to acknowledge his step-mom at all.  Richie sends daily emails to his dad, which we have to read to him since Dex can’t operate a computer at the moment, with strong “suggestions” for his care (Richie is a doctor, and one with a “healthy” doctor ego).  I know that Richie knows that I’m here because he apparently has said various things to his sisters which they have relayed to Meri in aggravated and hushed tones, and she has related to me in annoyed and angry tones.

It is very strange to learn that you are the object of someone’s intense emotions, when they mean so little to you.

I honestly do not think of Richie but a few times a year when he comes up in conversation with my dad or step-mom.  He is completely inconsequential to me.  The fact that he does not understand why my dad stayed my dad after he divorced my mom is of no concern to me; my dad and Meri and I understand it, and, in my mind, that’s all that matters.  But I am clearly the object of much negative emotion on his part and likely have been for years.

But what I’ve come to realize over the last ten days is that my oblivion has been a blessing.  Had I fully realized the amount of tension and conflict my presence had caused in my dad’s life, I would have likely gradually receded from him, so naturally conflict-averse and prone to keeping the peace am I.  I am so averse to wanting to cause trouble for those I love that, had I known, I would have probably, gradually, but resolutely, left his life.

And what a shame that would have been!  I would have deprived myself of precious moments of parenting from a father who so sincerely wanted the job that he held onto it even after being fired by my mother.  And I would have deprived him of a daughter who knew him — dark secrets and all — and loved him completely and unconditionally and defended his character and integrity from anyone who dared to question it.

With the benefit of age and the certainty of my dad’s love, I can acknowledge that my former step-brother’s animosity is his journey to wrangle with, not mine.  My dad and I, we understand and accept our unique relationship, even if some of those around us do not.  And we are both willing to make sacrifices and defend that relationship when necessary.  Until this month, I had not realized the full nature of his sacrifice or his struggle, and he will likely never know the nature of mine, but we have both fought for and protected this relationship in ways that have cost us dearly.

But what a life lesson that has been for me.  I have not bothered to defend this relationship to others; if they do not understand it after my best effort at explanation, then I leave that as their struggle, not mine.  And I have been grateful every single day that a man with no obligation chose to be a father to a young woman who desperately needed his guidance and love and reassurance.  I am different woman for his care-taking, and I hope that he is a different man for my love and devotion.

As for my step-brother, I am determined to return to Colorado and sink back into my oblivion.  Let him emotionally rail against me.  Let him target me with all his resentment and animosity.  Let him assign all blame to me for the relationship with his father that is so much less than what I share with him.

Because I know — and my dad knows — what is true and what is real and what is right.  And my step-brother can wrestle his demons all night long, while my dad and I sleep peacefully, secure in the knowledge that a love that is pure and well-intentioned and generous is never wrong.

coelho quote

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always the gentleman

Eleven days ago I got a phone call I’d been anticipating and dreading.  It was my stepmom Meri calling to stay that I needed to come to Seattle because my 85-year-old dad, Dex, was very ill and possibly dying.  That afternoon, I booked a flight with my frequent flyer miles, and I was on a plane less than 24 hours later.

When I arrived at their house, it did indeed appear as dire a picture as Meri had painted over the phone.  My dad could not walk and could barely stand, his mental faculties were equally unsteady, and it was clear from the state of the house that they had been living in Crisis Mode for quite some time.  Fortunately, I am good in Crisis Mode, so I put on my metaphorical hard hat and got to work organizing their lives and providing support and respite for my emotionally and physically fatigued step-mom.

My dad is now in the hospital recovering from surgery received at the hands of a nationally-known specialist, we are making plans for his rehabilitation and eventual return home, and the home he will next see is scrubbed and organized and nearly back to its usual orderly condition.  And poor Meri has stopped looking as if she might fall asleep standing up at any moment.

It has been a long and tiring 10 days here, but I have been grateful for the occupation of my lengthy to-do list.  I do not do well sitting idly when sadness and loss are hovering nearby.  So I have kept busy.  When Dex slept or was lost in his tv shows, I attacked all manner of assignments with a kind of furious energy and determination that seems solely reserved for these situations.  Many of the things on my to-do list had nothing to do with my dad’s illness or recovery and everything to do with maintaining some semblance of normality around the house.

And throughout my fixing and painting and scrubbing and laundering, my mind has spun backward and reviewed, much like a movie reel, the intersection of my life with the man I consider my father.  The story of our relationship and how my former step-father has stayed my “dad” is recounted in this post from two years ago:  http://thatprecariousgait.com/2012/06/17/volunteer-dads/.

But what has struck me most during these 10 days is that the biggest lesson he taught me was one that he delivered by example.  Dex is an unfailing gentleman.  He is the kind of man who, even after  sweating in the yard pruning the shrubs, can sit on the patio with a scotch on the rocks and appear ready to greet the Queen of England for tea.  He would come off the court after a long tennis match with perfectly white clothes and not a hair out of place.   Some have thought him stiff, or snobby, but he’s truly not.  He loves a bawdy joke, “in the appropriate context,” and his sexual conquests are legendary.  But he also felt that being a gentleman wasn’t a suit you put on for special occasions, it was simply who you are (or aren’t, as the case may be).  I never heard him be petty or sexist, and in his older age, he struggled to keep up with technology and understand and accept ideas like gay marriage.  He never forgot a “please” or a “thank you,” and he always believed in helping a friend or neighbor in need.  He adored my mother’s mother, a simple woman with an 8th-grade education, and always called her “one of the finest ladies I’ve had the honor to know.”

Now, all of that is well and good and not altogether remarkable in a younger, healthy man.  But what I’ve seen this month is the proof of how deeply those convictions run in him.

When he fell in the bathroom over a week ago and couldn’t get up, Meri and I had to call over a neighbor to help.  Dex was sprawled, completely undignified and in terrible pain, on the floor of the bathroom when the neighbor arrived.  Dex worked mightily to help us help him into his wheelchair, and when we’d all grunted and pushed and finally launched him into the chair, he turned to the neighbor and said, through teeth gritted by pain, “Thank you kindly, John.  That was much appreciated.”  Later, in the hospital the evening after his surgery, the nurse came by to run some tests for what had to have felt like the 30 millionith time, but Dex just quietly cooperated and then thanked her for taking care of him.   And that’s how it’s been.  No complaining, no being irritable and taking it out on us, just appreciation for our care-giving and companionship.  Really, it’s kind of mind-blowing.

As I’ve been organizing and making phone calls and cooking, I have willed myself to remember this, to allow what was his earliest lesson to me also be his legacy:  just as he was a gentleman, he wanted me to be a lady.  Not a stiff prude or a humorless shrew, but the kind of woman that other people respected and whose reputation among those who knew her spoke for itself.   I have not always lived up to that ideal, but I have done better than I might have without his strong influence in my life.  I’m not foolish enough to make those kind of emotional, deathbed resolutions that none of us can possibly keep, but I know that  I will return home later this week and try to hold tight to his example.

Thanks to this skilled surgeon, it is likely that my dad will survive this particular crisis.  But he is 85 and I have no illusions of his future.  Regardless of how much time he has left on this earth, I am simply glad that I had the opportunity to be here, with him and Mary, during this time, to see him and soak up the essence of his nature, and provide some re-payment of the comfort he has provided me so many times in my life.

My dad loves the Pacific Northwest.   It is his ancestral home. He loves to ride the ferries and watch the water.  We talk about the colors of the sky here and how different they are from Colorado.  We talk about the orcas and the otters and what a blessing it is to catch glimpses of them.  We talk about how deeply spiritual this place is and how you can almost feel the native ancestors infusing the air and water with meaning.

But mostly we just sit.  And hold hands.  And remember.

ferry

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the virtual family

Last night, my step-daughter Chelsea, who is living out of state at the moment with James’ ex-wife, stopped by for dinner.  Actually, she arrived before dinner, in time to help Bryn with her homework, and say hi to all of us, including the dogs, who were confused but overjoyed to hear the sound of her sweet voice.  When we sat down for dinner, Chelsea said grace with us and joined in the conversation around the table.  It would have been a perfectly ordinary, unexceptional family evening, but for one thing:

Chelsea was still in Florida.

Her presence among us was made possible by the extraordinary technology known as Facetime, her image delivered into our home courtesy of Bryn’s iPad screen.

Throughout the evening, James and I just kept looking at each other and shaking our heads — how strange and wondrous that Chelsea should be there in our kitchen, watching me cook, talking to her dad, prompting Bryn when she hit a difficult part of her homework, when, in fact, she is almost 2,000 miles away from us.  We talked to her as if she were perched on one of the kitchen barstools, hearing about her day and telling her of ours.  Not in the conventional back-and-forth that is the natural structure for a telephone conversation, but in a messy, lots of overlapping voices and laughter manner that is better-suited to an in-face dialogue.  And when we sat down to eat, Chelsea brought her own snack along, to join in the eating ritual.

I have Facetimed and Skyped before, but never for that duration or in that casual manner.  Bryn carried Chelsea’s bodyless head in her iPad from room to room as she prepared for dinner, and I was constantly aware of Chelsea’s voice as it moved from room to room, as if any minute she would come bounding down the stairs to help me set the table.  It was remarkable.

When I was a teenager, I had a long-distance relationship with a boy who lived five hours away in my grandmother’s town.  We wrote letters almost constantly, and saved pennies to accommodate our long telephone conversations.  It was not uncommon for my share of the family long-distance bill to surpass $300 per month.  It was a serious financial burden, but one we willingly bore, as it was also the only way to keep our romance alive.  In fact, for a year we managed to survive on weekly letters and phone calls and less than a handful of in-person visits, but ultimately our fledgling relationship was undone — not by the expense or hassle of the distance, but by the simple nature of teenage hormones.  He found someone there in his town, and I moved on to someone in mine.

I marvel at all the ways that we can stay connected these days.  I know a lot of adults denigrate or downplay the value of technology as a means of connection for those too young to hop a plane or get in a car, but sometimes I am overcome with gratitude that these vehicles exist.  Bryn and Chelsea have a bond that is indescribable and would likely survive with or without the technological assists they get from their devices.  But those devices enable them to be more than long-distance friends; they enable them to remain in each other’s lives on a nearly daily basis.  To hear the ups and downs of a day.  To support each other when challenges are faced.  To confide in one another when adults aren’t available for whatever reason.

And for James and I, those precious Facetime moments with his children tell us so much about how they are doing and feeling than a telephone possibly could.  Their body language, the brightness of their eyes, the way they engage — those pictures far surpass the information we can glean from phone conversations.

I know that as adults we are often frustrated with the ways that our children communicate.  We decry the loss of the face-t0-face conversation and the immersion in texting.  But hasn’t that always been the case?  I remember my own parents screaming at the teenage me to get off the telephone before I gave myself a cauliflower ear.  And none of us can forget the brouhaha that ensued when email began to replace snail mail as the preferred method of written communication.   It makes me feel certain that when the telephone first came into general acceptance, there must have been elders who bemoaned the end of written correspondence and the accompanying demise of civilization.  All of this is not to say that I don’t monitor my children’s media usage and consumption, but I think sometimes it’s important to notice the value, as well as the dangers.

And I, for one, am ridiculously grateful to the creators of Facetime, for allowing  my precious Chelsea to warm our home on such a cold winter’s night.   It’s definitely not as good as a real hug, but it’s far, far better than nothing.

long distance love

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recipe for happier holidays: blend well

During the holiday season, I am typically addicted to the sappy, predictable, sugary holiday fare that runs 24/7 on the Hallmark Channel that time of year.  From Thanksgiving to Christmas, I watch one perfect holiday-themed love story after another, sighing at the snow and the romance and the ease with which all the characters cheerfully handle the holiday drudgery that turns most of us into Grinches.

I really need to stop watching those movies.  I really do.

Because we all know that the holidays hardly ever actually resemble a Currier & Ives painting, let alone a Hollywood movie.  And when you factor in six kids and two parents trying to figure out how to successfully blend our family traditions, the results are often stressful and sometimes comical.

Maybe there’s a family out there that can pull off their first blended holiday season without an argument or a mishap, but ours is not that family.  Definitely not.  We love each other.  We want to be together.  But we also want to kill each other once in a while. That’s just the plain truth.

And because I consider it my duty to help inform those who might follow me of the snares and missteps along this post-divorce path I have taken, I feel obligated to share some of my discoveries.  So, purely for your edification, I offer you a list of things that James and I had to negotiate as we celebrated our first holiday season as a blended family:

1. What to stuff the turkey with.  He was used to sliced potatoes and bacon, while I favored the more traditional bread stuffing.

2. When to put up the Christmas decorations.

3.  Whether to get a live Christmas tree or an artificial one.

4.  Whether said Christmas tree should have white lights or colored lights.

5.  How much money to spend on each child for Christmas presents.

6. Who should do most of the Christmas present shopping.

7. Whether the Christmas presents from Santa should be wrapped or unwrapped.

8.  Whether the whole family should attend church on Christmas Eve or only those who choose to.

9.  Whether and how many gifts should be opened on Christmas Eve.

And so on.

Some of these points were more easily agreed upon than others.  Surprisingly, the question of how much money to spend on presents was pretty much a non-starter, but James and I worked out the issue of which lights to put on the tree while standing in the garage screaming at each other.  Go figure.

What this holiday season taught me about blended families is this:  you’ll never know until you try.  Most of the things on the list above we could never have anticipated prior to experiencing them this year.  I mean, sure you realize that blending families and holiday traditions might be difficult, but I think most of us think about those difficulties in terms of the Big Stuff:  how well the children will get along, or whether anyone will feel left out, or if the presents will be just right on Christmas morning.  But, like in a marriage, it’s more often the little things that open up the biggest holes.  And in a post-divorce relationship, preserving some of your previous traditions, particularly for the sake of the children, can feel more important than you’d ever thought.

I found it interesting that I most easily sacrificed the traditions that Bryce and I had made together and clung fast to the ones my girls and I had constructed since my divorce.  Those were important to me — and, I learned, to them — in ways that I hadn’t fully appreciated when we were stumbling along together after the divorce.  But what made them special to me was exactly that — we had created those small traditions together, in the midst of our early pain and uncertainty about the future.  We three had drawn together and made holiday patterns that felt good and right and reflected us.  And those were the ones that I fought over with James.  For him, it was the traditions that he’d carried with him from his childhood that he held most dear.

On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised at how easily our sense of what the holidays should be dovetailed.  It occurred to me that our common values around family and togetherness likely drove those similarities, and that was gratifying to discover.    And it was amazing and heartwarming to see the kids all acting like siblings during Christmas break.  But I think the best confirmation of how far we have come was delivered by my mom, the day after Christmas, when she said “You all really are a family.  No one who sees you all together could doubt it now.”

And, as for me and James, you could say we came through all the frustrations and negotiations and ended up full circle again.  Quite literally.  Perhaps a bit emotionally bruised from all the high drama of our non-Hollywood holidays, but none the worse for the wear as it turns out.  Because on Christmas morning, he surprised me with a beautiful ring that I have not taken off since.

I make no pretense that any of this is easy, because I can’t honestly say that it is.  Not for us, anyway.  But it has its moments of such pure sweetness and grace that I do not doubt that it is worth it.  Even with our struggles to make a family holiday that is uniquely and completely us, even with the arguments and the silences, I would not trade this holiday season for any one that came before it.  Sincerely.

So I will continue my journey down this path for another — likely eventful — year.  I welcome you to join me in creating my on-going happy ending.

Just don’t expect a Hollywood script.

ring 2

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