Category Archives: parenthood

the anti-mother’s day

Ah, Mother’s Day.

It conjures up images of beautiful brunches, adoring children, and thoughtful gifts honoring all that mothers sacrifice and do on behalf of their families.

My reality is a bit different.

Mother’s Day is a holiday I approach with more than a small amount of trepidation.  Possibly without exception (and I only say “possibly” because there might be an exception, but I honestly can’t think of one), every Mother’s Day has been an opportunity for my girls to roundly remind me of all the parts of being mother that I don’t like.  It’s like they spend the day parading their ugly sides in order that I  might, for the rest of the year, appreciate how wonderful they are and how blessed I am to be their mother.  And the universe conveniently conspires to add its own dose of mayhem, lest I get a moment’s respite from their antics.

This year’s Mother’s Day was the perfect example.  Amend the details, and it could stand in for just about any Mother’s Day I’ve had in 12 years:

Sabrina had a good friend who inexplicably had planned a very big, very expensive, and very fun birthday party for the better part of Mother’s Day, so we shifted most of our celebration to the Saturday evening before.  James had to be out of town at his parents’ ranch and asked the girls and I to join him on Saturday and stay the night so we could be together Mother’s Day morning.  Bryn had a birthday party on Saturday that was supposed to end at 4:30 but ran much later, so we were a little late getting to the ranch. On our drive out of town, the girls bickered and poked at each other, setting my teeth on edge.  Then Bryn announced that she’d need to go to the craft store the next day (Mother’s Day) for a school project on Monday. Seriously??  I promptly told her “No.” and, given the tone of my voice, she didn’t ask a second time.

James’ parents have a dog, Gus, who is hardly older than a puppy, although he is probably at least 50 lbs, and James’ giant mastiff, Roxy, was also at the ranch, where she’s been staying until we get a a fence at the new house.  The girls and I had brought along our whippet/terrier mix, Gertie, and Bryn’s mini-dachshund, Bella.  As soon as we  pulled in the driveway and got out of the car, Gus began harassing Bella, which frightened her and set her to whining and yapping, so Bryn started screaming and crying hysterically, causing Bella to amp up the yapping and Roxy to come over to see what the noise was.  Roxy’s method of calming the other dogs down was to nip at them, so Bryn and Sabrina were screaming at Roxy, thinking Bella or Gertier were being hurt.  This is a scenario that played out multiple times over the next 12 hours. I’ve drawn the conclusion that the dogs will never be besties…

Later, with the dogs separated and the girls calmed down, James started the grill for dinner. He had purchased flowers for me, ostensibly from my girls, but when I thanked them for the flowers, neither daughter even bothered to respond.  A summer storm appeared suddenly, drenching the deck and chilling the air.  We waited for it to pass, then ate outside — but quickly because the girls were clamoring for us to start the movie they’d picked — The Hulk.  So into the house and onto the movie.  As soon as we started the movie, Sabrina (who had picked it out and pressed so vigorously for us to start it), promptly left to go get ready for bed.  Realizing that she’d then require us to reiterate for her in vivid detail every bit of the plot she’d missed, James hit the pause button and we all waited.  Just before Sabrina returned, Bryn decided that she, too, needed to change for bed, so we waited some more.  Finally, on to the movie!  Except that the DVD player seemed to have difficulty coordinating with the TV, so the action sequences and background music were VERY LOUD while the dialogue was nearly inaudible.  James kept the remote handy and tuned the volume up and down, up and down, up and down throughout the movie. Perhaps surprisingly, The Hulk has a fairly convoluted plot, and it was actually difficult to follow when you missed the first part of every dialogue.

Even without the technical difficulties, the movie wouldn’t have been the relaxing family time I’d been looking forward to.  Bryn was hopped up on sugar from the birthday party she’d attended, and Sabrina had had too many caffeinated iced teas to sit still.  So, there was a lot of fidgeting, mixed in with arguing over who got to sit next to me.  I’m pretty sure I said “Enough, already!” at least a half dozen times.

The drama of the evening was further enhanced by Gertie and Bella’s discovery of Wobbles, James’ parents’ enormous tabby cat.  I’d neglected to consider the presence of Wobbles in my plans for us all to hang out at the ranch, primarily because I’d never before laid eyes on him.  He’s like a phantom blur — an enormous cat who wanders the canyons, returns with small animals bigger than Bella, and avoids all human contact.  Of course, on this particular night, he had found his way indoors and was located by the enthusiastic noses of my dogs, who then proceeded to chase him all around the house while the bigger dogs chased them to protect the cat, and the girls, James, and I screamed and ran after them all, trying to insure that neither of the small dogs was shredded by Wobbles’ considerable claws or Roxy’s massive jaws.  Twice during the movie, my dogs tracked down Wobbles and a mad dash through the house ensued, interrupting our attempts to follow the movie despite the volume control issues.  By the time the credits rolled, even with three glasses of wine, my nerves were completely frayed.

We put the girls to bed, in the midst of arguments around who had to sleep on the top bunk.  Even after James and I thought we might be done parenting for the night, Bella and Wobbles went for round 3, woke everyone up, and brought Bryn to our bedroom door in tears.  At that point, James and I discussed whether the girls, dogs, and I should just head back home for the night.  Too tired to carry out that plan, we collapsed in bed.

The next morning — Mother’s Day — James helped Sabrina make me breakfast in bed while Bryn pouted and whined about various injustices. As I sat in bed to eat and open my little presents, the girls traded barbs and promoted their superiority as the better daughter.  Honestly, I was exhausted before I got out of bed.  When I did, there wasn’t much time to get cleaned up and out the door in order to start the hour-long drive to take Sabrina to her friend’s birthday party.   Before we left the ranch, I asked the girls if they’d made the beds and tidied the room they’d slept in.  They solemnly assured me they had, but when James went in for a quick inspection, he reported that they’d left it messy.  They know better, for sure.  I made no attempt to conceal my annoyance as the girls and I got in the car and headed down the hills.  I lectured my daughters on their behaviors during this short trip and informed them that they’d really killed my Mother’s Day buzz.  After some strong chiding from me, they both apologized. Once we were out of the canyons and again in cell range, Sabrina texted her friend to find out exactly where the partygoers were meeting, only to be told that the party was postponed until the next Saturday.  So, we’d gotten up and on the road for nothing.  Lovely.

At that point, I steered the car toward home and firmly decided that I was done with Mother’s Day.  No more.  As I told James, I will no longer be “celebrating” Mother’s Day.  From now on, I just want a normal Sunday in my wonderful home with my family that I love.  That would definitely make me happier than whatever “specialness” might mark the day for me.

The good news is that once I threw off the Mother’s Day mantle, I had a nice day.  A good long nap, followed by some time in my yard weeding, and capped off with a welcome home party for James’ eldest daughter.  A perfectly quiet, relaxing, renewing day.

Yes, indeed, I think I’ve finally figured out how to thwart the Mother’s Day goblins that ruin my day each year —  no longer give them a day to ruin.  I am happier in my everyday life than most people, so I believe I’ll just take another everyday, thankyouverymuch.

And to the rest of you, Happy Mother’s Day.  I hope it was everything you wanted and nothing that you didn’t.  And I hope you still like your children now that it’s over. Mine are starting to grow on me again.

giraffe-mother-kisses-baby

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in the line of fire

Ladies, think back to middle-school or high-school… Do you remember that one girl who seemed to hate your guts? Who hardly knew you but always said horrible, nasty things about you behind your back, making your mutual friends uncomfortable and those unacquainted with you desiring to remain so? Remember how, even though you KNEW that she didn’t really know you and even though you KNEW that what she was saying wasn’t true, it still hurt like the dickens?

And then remember how you thought that when you grew up it would all be over?

Haha. Me, too.

And then I moved in with James and found myself squarely caught in the crosshairs of the ex-wife who left him 6 years ago and has been trying to get him back ever since.

James’ ex-wife, whom I’ll call “Carnie”*, is a 42-year-old who spent her youth trading on, as James likes to put it, “her boobs and her smile.” And he’s not exaggerating. Despite being very intelligent, she has leveraged her body and her willingness to share it her whole adult life. She is a cruel, vindictive, conniving, manipulative partygirl who has spent considerable time and energy wrapping men around her fingers and screaming at the top of her lungs about how victimized she is. She has difficulty holding a job, but no difficulty spending money (in 5 years she helped the economy to the tune of more than $500,000). She alternately sends James texts telling him what a horrendous father he is, and how much she wishes they were still together. Therapists who have weighed in on the situation suspect that Carnie is either a schizoid or borderline personality, or, at the very least, suffering from bi-polar disorder. Regardless, she is a font of negative energy and the manifestation of all that is an embarrassment to our gender. And she’s now a permanent part of my life.

Lucky me.

Now, before you assume that I am simply conveniently trashing the ex-wife who is not here to defend herself, let me say this: my regular readers know that I rarely attack other women. Be they my ex-husband’s girlfriends or my boyfriends’ ex-wives or the friends who dropped me like a hot potato because I left my husband, I generally make it a rule not to bash other women. My theory is that women do enough self-degrading that we don’t need it from each other, too. So I choose to assume that nearly all women are truly doing their best and learning their own lessons and making their own best choices.

I also learned very, very early in my post-divorce dating cycle, not to believe most of what men say about their ex-wives (Sorry, guys, but it’s true.). I sat through too many dates listening to how awful and demanding and needy and selfish these former wives were, only to discover, by the second date, that for the most part I actually agreed with the former wife and couldn’t wait to put the guy in my rear-view mirror. So, I don’t simply accept James’ version of events with Carnie, and I never did. Over the last nearly 3 years, I stood back and observed. I watched her behaviors and his reactions. I drew my own conclusions, some of which differed from his in details. But ultimately I had to agree with his overall assessment of her: She’s a Bitch, and yes, that’s a capital B.

The clincher for me was when their son (who was 11-years-old at the time) started expressing an interest to live full-time with his father. Carnie’s method of squashing that discussion? To tell her sensitive 11-year-old that she had cancer, was possibly dying, and needed him to stay with her. The distraught boy went to school and confided in officials there, who called James, who frantically called Carnie, only to be told, “Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t have cancer and I never said I did. He’s lying.” To this day, their son earnestly stands by his story and insists his fear for her life was real. And we believe him.

I wish I could say that this kind of How-To-Really-Fuck-Up-Your-Kids method of parenting is rare for her, but it’s sadly not. She does not hesitate to openly use the children to manipulate James. Three of the 4 are generally too young to understand that they’re being pawned in this fashion, and the eldest has begun distancing herself from the chaos, but Carnie is undeterred. She soldiers on – telling the children terrible, untrue things about their father and testing their loyalty to her at every turn.

Some have suggested to me that, since I am now filling something like the step-mother role to the children, that her behavior will make it all the easier for me to “win them over.” But I don’t see it this way. I think her behavior, and the impacts of it on the children, is heartbreaking. I am not, nor will I ever be, in any kind of competition with their mother. I simply want them to be healthy and happy and well-adjusted. If, alongside that, we can be something special to each other, then great. But my designation in their life is not primary over their general mental health and well-being. I genuinely love James’ children, so I want them to be content, productive, and in love with life, regardless of what they think of me. And fortunately, they have enough healthy, grounded people surrounding them that they are remarkably stable and emotionally solid, despite their mother’s chaos and instability.

Until recently, I was a silent observer on the sidelines of the drama Carnie plays out with James and the kids. She knew about me, of course, but apparently deemed me too unimportant to devote any time to me. But that changed when James and I moved in together, permanently thwarting her long-term goal of reuniting her family. I feel fairly certain in my gut that, until now, she truly believed that James was still, somewhere deep down, in love with her and that’s why he’d only casually dated in the years since their divorce. As recently as March, Carnie was sending him sweet texts telling him that she was sorry that they’d “lost each other.” It boggles my mind that she has failed to realize that the actual reason he hadn’t gotten close to anyone was because he was terrified of a repeat of his marriage to her. She so damaged his ability to trust and be close to someone that he’d resigned himself to a life with only superficial romantic relationships. He wasn’t waiting for her; he was avoiding a repeat of her.

James and I both knew that once Carnie realized how serious we were, she’d get upset, and she hasn’t disappointed. I was prepared to be tolerant of her jealousy and likely outbursts. I was ready to indulge her tantrums and ignore her jibes. I was awaiting the inevitable maelstrom of insults.

But then she went after my kids. And that I was not prepared for. Nor willing to tolerate with alacrity.

In the last few weeks,  we’ve received some disturbing phone calls from James’ kids.  The first was from “Jay,” James’ 13-year-old son, telling his dad that his mom had been “saying bad things” about me and my daughters. Jay is a good kid, with a strong sense of right and wrong, and he was obviously dismayed that his mom was attacking people that he likes and that his dad loves. Then James’ middle daughter, “Chelsea,” got on the phone and confirmed Jay’s story. Each time we’ve heard from Jay since, he reports that the nastiness has escalated, making him angry and frustrated with this mom.  James has handled the situation well. He talked to the kids about how their mom had never met me or my girls, and how that kind of name-calling is more appropriate on elementary school playgrounds than out of the mouths of adults. He has reassured them that they didn’t have to agree with their mom. And then he’s gotten off the phone and laughed at her childishness.

I wish I could.

Honestly, I didn’t have much respect for her previously, and I’ve always known that she’s not a woman I’d have chosen for a friend, but now I’m not sure I could even be civil to Carnie. It was bad enough to hear the nasty things she was saying about me, although, truth be told, she was clearly struggling to find a good put-down, and I took some small gratification in that fact. But when she started being snide and snarky and rotten to my innocent daughters, any sympathy or patience I had for her burned up in the rage that blinded me. The things she said about my girls were not only unkind and unfair, they were untrue.

I know I should dismiss Carnie’s meanness the way James does, but I’m struggling with it. The power of suggestion is strong, and sometimes people’s opinions color our own despite our recognition of their immaturity or mean-spiritedness or ignorance. For instance, consider this example: Let’s say someone that you love comments to you that someone else you love is “dumb.” Initially, you will likely discard that comment as unkind and untrue, but the seed is planted. And the next time the person labeled as “dumb” says or does something that suggests less-than-Einsteinian intelligence, the little voice in your head might just pipe up and wonder…. And before you know it, the evidence of this person’s “dumbness” is piling up and your opinion of him or her is shifting, ever so subtly. As cogent, thoughtful adults, we like to think that we are immune to this kind of negative influence, but multiple social science studies have supported what we already know to be true: a strong suggestion, when delivered from a beloved or trusted source, is indeed powerful. And I would imagine (although I haven’t seen such research) that children are even more susceptible. So, I worry that Carnie’s flippant meanness could ultimately achieve it’s desired result – an alienation of her children from me and mine.

Only time will tell, of course, and so I must be patient. I will simply continue being exactly who I am and encourage my girls to do the same. Overall, I have a history of winning people over as they get to know me, so I am hopeful that Carnie’s assaults will not completely undermine what her children have learned and will continue to see of me and my girls. James and I want very much to find a way to create a loving, cohesive family out of our various pieces, and for Carnie to thwart that would be unbelievably frustrating, sad, and completely in character for her.

I know that I am not alone on this part of the post-divorce journey, but sometimes it really feels that way. I don’t have any friends or acquaintances in this position at the moment, and I’ve given some thought to joining a step-parents’ group in order to find some understanding and support. I definitely don’t want to allow Carnie’s fierce negativity to infect me with bitterness; that alone could undermine the small dream I have for my fledgling family.

And so we will just keep loving, and being there, and waiting and seeing. But that’s pretty much life in a nutshell, isn’t it?

crosshairs

**Blogger’s Note:  I have a general “rule” on my blog to name those individuals I deem guilty of misbehavior (it’s my blog, so I’m judge and jury…), but out of love and respect for James’ children, I’ve granted their mother a pseudonym.  Reluctantly.

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“the lonely girl with no friends”

Honestly, sometimes I think parenting is God’s biggest antidote to conceit.  Just when you’ve put one crisis to bed, congratulated yourself on navigating yet another challenge, and have the foolish temerity to think you’ll get a little break from the endless rollercoaster, Life shows up to say, “Oh wait!  Did I forget to mention this one little thing?  Yes, you’ll need to attend to this now, and be sure to do it well, lest you forever ruin this small person I’ve entrusted to you.”  And so, with a sigh, you put on your battle gear again and wade into the guerilla warfare that is  Parenting.

I’ve written a bit about Sabrina’s struggles as she’s transitioned to middle school from elementary school this year.  She is at a school of her selection (with our agreement, after a pretty exhausting consideration of possible schools), but not the one most of her elementary school friends and acquaintances attend.  She loves her school, her teachers, and the academic successes she has worked hard for and achieved.  But middle school these days is, for young girls at least, a snake pit of vipers clothed in Forever 21.  I think it might possibly be even harder to navigate than I remember from my own experiences at her age.  Sabrina is a quiet girl who is very reserved unless she is around those she knows well, socially awkward and emotionally immature — a bookworm who still prefers her American Girl dolls to chasing boys.  Needless to say, the social soup of middle school has not been kind to her.

One night recently, as I was tucking Sabrina into bed and only a few hours after telling a friend how peaceful things currently were with my kids (can you say, “WHAMMY!”?), Sabrina broke down crying.  She confided in me that her social situation at school had become so bad that she’d been reduced to eating by herself at a solitary table during lunch.  Lonely and rock-solid certain that every child in the cafeteria noticed her alienation, her pain was capped off when a teacher approached and asked if Sabrina would like help finding a table of other kids to sit with.  Well-intentioned, for sure, but also concrete evidence in Sabrina’s mind that her social deficiencies were obvious to all.

I was at a loss.  I don’t remember this part of middle school; I’m not sure I ever experienced it.  I held her while she cried and soothed her with sincere words of reassurance that she is a brilliant, special, amazing girl that the other children have simply not discovered yet.  She pulled away from me, stared at me skeptically and with disappointment, and said, “No, Mom.  They just see me as that lonely girl with no friends.”

I sucked my breath in and fought tears of panic.  I saw very clearly the danger in what she had just done — she had just labeled herself with a powerful, negative, demoralizing label, and, if she embraced it for very long, it would surely damage her, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy with enormous ramifications for all kinds of relationships she might have, or not have.

As adults, we can see the harm inflicted by negative labels — both those we place on ourselves, and those we place on others.   We see it in young girls who decide they are simply “bad at math” and therefore give up on it, and in adult women who sell themselves short because they can’t see that they deserve more than they have.  I knew immediately that, while the lunch table issue was temporally painful, it was the label that could emotionally cripple my sweet girl over the longer term.  And it scared me to death.

I often acknowledge that I see parenting as a series of hits and misses — sometimes we are solidly on our game, and hit the ball straight out of the park; but other times we swing and swing, failing to connect with the ball at all, impotent in our attempts to meet the challenges tossed at us.  That night with Sabrina, I was striking out, and I could feel it clearly.  I could see it in her eyes and feel it in her pain.  My inadequacy to address the problem was palpable.

I finally left her upstairs, returning to the living room, where I deposited the whole mess in James’ lap.  He listened, acknowledged that my words would have been empty to her — how many of us believe our mothers when they tell us how wonderful and special we are? — and then set off upstairs to talk to her himself.

For the second time that night, my breath caught in my throat.  Should I stop him?  This was my child, after all.  What if he said something wrong?  But I did not stop him, and many minutes later he returned, having given her a pep talk I could not have, and in doing so, taught me a lesson as well.

James told Sabrina that she is a truly beautiful girl with a good heart and a sweet nature.  He told her it was perfectly okay to be exactly who she is right now; that she is not less than the other kids, maybe just a little different.  And then he told her that when he was a teenager — handsome and athletic and popular — he’d done what boys like him did and dated the pretty, popular girls, but it was the girls like her — the quietly beautiful, smart, and sweet ones that he’d always noticed and wondered about.  And that he’d always wished he’d have had the courage to approach them, get to know them, ask them out on a date.  This last part, coming from the person who is currently Sabrina’s masculine ideal of a man, was gratifying in a way that nothing that I could have said ever would have been.  In short, he said exactly what she needed to hear.

The next morning, Sabrina came downstairs after James had already left for work.  She was a different girl from the night before — smiling and chattering about what was on tap at school that day.  I asked about James’ pep talk, and she beamed, rattling off what he’d said about her, blushing and squirming with delight.

I was enormously grateful to James that morning.  Not just for the precious words he gave to my struggling daughter, but for reminding me that parenting is, if you’re lucky, a team sport.  So, even if you’re having a off-day and can’t seem to score, your teammate can step up to the plate and save the day.  In the years since my divorce, I had missed and then nearly forgotten the sweet benefit of having a teammate — someone with whom to talk over these things, share these little burdens, help you find the right strategy when you’re stuck.

It’s a cliche that parenting is the hardest job in the world, and the most gratifying.  But it’s also a great opportunity to help one another make better decisions and tackle the hard stuff and ultimately make the world a better place by leaving behind better people.  Especially if you work as a team.

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Sabrina’s gift to me

On December 30, 2000, my eldest daughter, Sabrina, was born.  She came to us  5 1/2 weeks premature and via an emergency c-section after it was discovered that she was in a full breach position that a century ago would likely have resulted in both of us dying during her birth.  Nurses were scrambling, doctors were shouting, my poor ex-husband was whiter than the bleached sheets covering the gurney.  But in the midst of it, I knew she would be okay.  I could just feel it.

After she was born, they said she would likely need to be incubated.  They were wrong.  They said she probably wouldn’t be able to nurse.  They were wrong.  They said she might suffer physical and/or developmental delays.  They were wrong.

Instead, she ate and grew and ate and grew and ate some more.  By her 6th month check-up, she was in the 50% for her weight and 90% percentile for her height.  As the years passed, she struggled with some physical ailments from her prematurity, but nothing that ever held her back in any meaningful way.  She welcomed the world with a smile and hug that could win over even the coldest-hearted, and her compassion and grace taught many adults the value of random kindness.  Her teachers spoke of how she lit up a room and how gentle she was with the other children.

Parenthood is such an incredible journey, isn’t it?  This very small person is bestowed upon you, to nurture and guide and raise to the best of your abilities.   There is no owner’s manual, and all the advice books contradict each other.  You’re basically winging it, every single day, hoping against hope that you manage to get it right more than you get it wrong.  And all the while, you are witness to this person evolving and developing and growing into something indescribable in its complexity and uniqueness.

Sabrina has given me many, many sweet and thoughtful gifts through the years.  Pottery that sits in the dining room breakfront.  Handmade cards that are tucked away and cherished.  Scrawled artwork adorning my office walls.  But, as I tell her every time she has birthday, nothing can surpass the gift she gave me that morning in December.  Because in that instant, when she emerged and screamed lustily, she gave me the gift of motherhood.  Just moments before that, I was simply me as I’d always been.  But moments after, I was mother, on a lifelong journey of caring and worrying and protecting.

Nothing in the world could have prepared me for any of it, least of all for all the things she has taught me in her 12 years on this earth.  I have been alternately astounded by her wisdom and shocked by her most unfiltered words and behaviors.  I have discovered a fierce protectiveness I never imagined when she has been threatened, and a fear beyond my wildest nightmares when she has been gravely ill.  I have known my biggest successes and failures in this life in my role as her mother — nothing in the professional arena even begins to approach them.

In my spiritual book club, we briefly explored the concept that souls pick their parents — that they, from some other plane of existence, select which of us to be born through and experience life with.  I am, of course, unable to say with any certainty whether this is true, but I find the idea humbling and awesome.  For whatever divine plan brought Sabrina to me, one thing I do know is that her birth was a the greatest, life-changing gift I shall likely ever receive.

Happy Birthday, my darling daughter.  Thank you for all you have taught me and for all you have given me.  But most of all, thank you for making me a mother and for blessing me with the incredible opportunity to to be your mother.  When you exited my body, you took a big chunk of my heart with you.  I love you dearly.

newborn baby

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the angel tree

I had a date this weekend with my daughters.  It was not my usual weekend to have them, but in the bustle of the holiday season, one important bit of Christmas shopping hadn’t gotten done yet.  And, because of some custody adjustments to account for holiday plans, I won’t get them back until Christmas Day.  So, my ex granted me Saturday afternoon with the girls and off we went.

To do my favorite Christmas shopping of the season — the Angel Tree.

For those of you unfamiliar with an Angel Tree, it is a Christmas tree decorated with paper ornaments.  Each of those ornaments has the name of a needy child (or family, or senior, depending on the tree), their age, and a short list of the things they’d like or need most for Christmas.  You select an ornament (after reading heartbreaking lists that have included things like underwear, “a doll, any doll,” and a winter coat “for walking to school.”)   Every year since 1996, my family and I have selected at least one ornament — sometimes more, depending on our own financial security — and had the honor of playing Santa for someone who truly needs these things in ways that we are fortunate enough to not understand.

The tradition started simply enough:  Bryce and I had been dating for nearly a year when we were Christmas shopping at a local mall near our home in DC.  We came upon an Angel Tree, which neither of us had ever heard of, and I, being the sentimentalist that I am, immediately had to stop.  But when I began looking at the ornaments, I froze and tears sprang to my eyes.  Bryce, seeing my distress, came to my arm and looked at the ornament in my hand and then at my face, still not understanding.  But how could he?  The name of the organization meant nothing to him and everything to me.  It was the orphanage where I spent the first month of my life, parentless.  Here was a whole tree full of infants, toddlers and children who, for one reason or another, were spending a Christmas without a forever family.  When I explained this to Bryce, he shifted into “Fix It Mode,” as I came to call it over the years.  He pulled me over to a bench and sat me down.  Then he said, “Get as many as you want to.  We’ll find a way to pay for them.”  I knew we didn’t have much money. Both of us were in our first jobs after law school and paying down my crushing student loan debt.  I was working at a non-profit, while he was slaving away as a first-year associate.  The hours were long, the money okay, and the stress enormous.   So, I chose carefully.  I’m pretty sure we read every single ornament on that tree.  Eventually we picked 3 ornaments, and spent the rest of the day imagining what the children on our ornaments were like and stretching every penny we had to grant every single wish on those lists.  And we did.  Then we went back to our little apartment, spread out our treasures, and took photos of each child’s haul.  That Christmas, someone gave me a photo album with a Christmas tree on the front and our Angel Tree book was born.  Every year we have taken photos of the things we bought and put them in the album, along with whatever we knew about our recipients.  It is so amazing to look back on the photos and remember all those shopping trips, all those children, and all the Christmas spirit the Angel Tree gifted to us.

But it hasn’t always been fun and games.  When our girls were younger, there were a couple of years that were so discouraging they were nearly unbearable.  Too young and self-centered to appreciate the neediness of others, my girls whined and complained their way through the mall: “This is so boring!”  “How come we’re buying her better toys than we have?”  “I’m hungry!  Are we almost done?”  “Why do we have to do this again?”  Ugh.

Bryce and I discussed possibly stopping the tradition after two years in a row of that experience, recognizing that the girls’ abhorrent behavior was killing any enthusiasm we had for our Angel Tree trips, as well.  But we quickly decided that, no, this was important to us and it was an important lesson that we were determined to teach our children, come hell or high water.  Sure, they didn’t see the checks we wrote each month to various charities now that we were financially comfortable.  And sure, they didn’t appreciate the volunteering that we did for local organizations we cared about.  But they could damn well give up one Saturday a year to a child who probably had a tenth of what they were blessed with.  Yes, we were resolute.  The tradition would continue.  And so it did.

The last two years have seen the fruits of our labor and patience.  Now the girls start reminding me after Thanksgiving not to forget the Angel Tree.  Last week, they sat together on the chaise in front of the fire and paged through the Angel Tree album, remembering the various trips through the years.  And on Saturday, they thoughtfully and carefully chose each gift for Maribel, the 9-year-old girl they selected off the Angel Tree.  They laughed and argued about what she would like, selecting various clothes and putting them back until they had the exactly perfect gifts.  They have learned over the years that the needs of these children are somewhat different from their own — they pick shoes that are sturdy as well as fashionable, clothes that can be layered for multiple seasons, and how to bargain shop for toys to get that one extra thing she’ll love but didn’t ask for.

I am so grateful that Bryce and I didn’t give up when the girls were younger.  They still complain, but now it’s to lobby for the more expensive bike or an extra doll for our Angel Tree child.  And when we got home, they argued, but it was over how to arrange the goodies for the photo, each exclaiming that it had to be perfect and the other was ruining it.

After the girls returned to Bryce’s on Saturday, I sat down for a moment with the Angel Tree album and thumbed through the photos and descriptions, marveling at how one heartwrenching moment in a mall 16 years ago and 7 states away has led to a family tradition that might, quite possibly, be the best gift of all.

merry christmas tree

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two daddies

Last evening, while I was driving my little family to an elementary school fundraiser, my 9-year-old daughter, Bryn, piped up from the back seat and said, a propos of nothing, “You know, Mommy, when you get remarried, it’s going to be awkward at first because we’ll have to get used to having two daddies.”

Well.

As is typical of our most serious discussions, my daughter had caught me completely off-guard.  My head was pre-occupied with work issues and worries about finding parking at the mall amidst the onslaught of holiday shoppers, and this was when she chose to have this all-important conversation?  Very well.  I drew a long, deep breath, slowed down to give us more time to talk, and thought to myself, “Stay focused.  Here we go.”

First, I tackled the question of “two daddies,” by pointing out that she already had one really good dad and no one coming into her life was ever, ever going to replace him. That’s simply not how it works.  I used myself as an example, pointing out that I have a variety of mothers — a birthmother, an adoptive mother, and a step-mother — all of whom I love in very different ways and with whom I have varying degrees of closeness.

At this point in the conversation, something surprising happened — my elder daughter, Sabrina, interjected and began explaining to Bryn that any man in my life (and by necessity, theirs) would be their good friend and maybe even super-close friend, like an uncle or something, but not a dad.  Because their daddy was and always would be their dad, but they could have lots of great friends who cared about them and supported them and taught them things.  Furthermore, she pointed out to Bryn, the girls have a couple of step-grandfathers and that doesn’t make them love their other grandfathers any less.

I was rendered temporarily speechless.  Clearly, Sabrina had given this considerable thought, and reached some remarkably mature conclusions.  To be honest, she was handling it better than I.

Next, Bryn expressed her fear that I would marry someone that she didn’t know very well, and what if she ended up disliking him?  This is, of course, a common fear of children in divorced families.  And here, I again, had my own example to share with her, since my mom had married my step-dad after knowing him for all of 9 (yes, that’s a 9) months total.  While he is a good man and she a good woman, it was a terrible match, and certainly set my 13-year-old world a-spinning.  My daughters know the story of my parents’ marriage and how miserable it was, both during and as it came apart.  So, once more, Sabrina spoke up and reminded Bryn that, having gone through that, I would never do that to them.  Sabrina and I also reminded Bryn, by way of concrete example, that James and I had dated for nearly 9 months before he spent any real time with my girls and it was a whole year before he spent the night at the house with all of us.  Going “too fast” is not in my nature.

I could feel Bryn relax in the seat behind me, but not entirely.

“But Mommy,” she insisted, “it would still be awkward at first, wouldn’t it? I mean, it would be strange to get used to a whole new member of our family.  It would change things.”

I paused, trying to figure out how to address this.  She was right, of course.  Anyone who’s been through the effort of blending families knows that it has its very specific challenges.  The Brady Bunch it is definitely not.  So how to acknowledge the validity of her concerns while still assuaging her anxiety?

Again, it was Sabrina to the rescue:

“Bryn, of course it would be a little strange at first.  But if Mommy marries someone, chances are good that we’ll like him.  And we’ll just figure it out as we go along.  Together. like we always do.  Because we’re a family.”

I reinforced what Sabrina had said and noted that I couldn’t have said it better.  I could feel and hear Bryn relax completely.

The girls then spent the remainder of the ride contemplating whether their parents would ever get married again to other people (they decided probably yes), and, if so, which one would be the first to do so (they decided their dad would).

I drove the rest of the way through the dark, saying a silent prayer of gratitude.  That we had come so far since the divorce.  That we could talk so openly and comfort each other about the big, hard questions.  That it seems that I was doing an okay job of this whole “mothering” thing. And that the universe had allowed me a hand in raising these two amazing little humans.

Yes, especially that last one.

stepparents

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mommy martyrdom

I like that this blogger offers an alternative concept of what it means to be a “good mother.” As a woman who was, for too many years, sequestered in her roles of wife and mother, this really resonates with me. My post divorce life is full of meaningful friendships that I make a genuine priority in my life, and what a difference they make to my soul. I am definitely a better mother, daughter, employee, and partner when I have the warmth of girl time in my life.

Views from the Couch

Some friends and I were chatting and the the above meme card came up, which has been posted around Facebook, and we discovered that we were unanimously annoyed with the implied sentiment. Listen up ladies, this isn’t the 1950’s! Your goal in life no longer has to be landing a husband so you can spend the rest of your life finding shoes to compliment your newest apron or dedicate yourself solely to dispensing little humans out of your vagina like Pez. Supposedly, the sky is the limit–okay, well the glass ceiling is the limit (wink, wink). You can go to college, and not just for your M.R.S. degree. You can have a career. You can have an active social life and go out with friends. The world is your oyster! That is, until you have a child. At that point, you are only supposed to concern yourself with all things…

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blossoming

As every parent knows, transitions are hard.  We learn pretty quickly from our newborns that small humans do not like change.  Oh no, they like structure and predictability and safety.  But, later, some of them grow into risk-takers, adrenaline-junkies who push the envelope and seek the kinds of challenges that make a mother’s heart stop beating for a few seconds.  Those children face change straight-on, with gusto, even.

My 11-year-old daughter, Sabrina, is not one of those children.

Sabrina has always resisted change of any sort.  Even good change is not good change to Sabrina.  My former mother-in-law likes to tell the story of how she offered to buy my daughters a new playhouse to replace the decrepit hand-me-down one in backyard at the time.  My then-husband’s only pre-requisite:  that the existing playhouse would have to go to make room for the new one.  The new playhouse was amazing — big enough for all their friends and with lots of bells and whistles — while the old playhouse was small and faded and broken-down.  Bryn, Sabrina’s younger sister, was on-board immediately.  But not Sabrina.  She dug her heels in and refused.  She absolutely did not want to replace the old playhouse, even though she rarely played in it because she was already getting too tall to stand comfortably.  But she did not want it changed out.  No siree.  Not happening.  No way.  No how.  And the old playhouse still sits there, more than 4 years later.

So, when Sabrina went off to middle school last week, I braced myself. This was a huge change.  She wouldn’t have anyone she knew in her classes, would be riding her bike to school, and would have to navigate all the daunting aspects of middle school — lockers, switching classes, changing for gym class — all on her own.  I wondered what would happen, what emotional drama would ensue, how badly this change would set back her fragile self-confidence.

Instead, my little girl has faced her challenges with a grace I had not known she possessed.

Middle school is, almost by definition, an in-between, back-and-forth, mixed-up, confusing place.  Throw in a brainy young girl who prefers books to most people and it becomes positively cringe-worthy.  Sabrina is tall and awkward, and very, very aware of her awkwardness, especially by comparison to the “popular girls” she has quickly identified and is giving wide berth to.  And with only 8 days of school under her belt, she has already suffered one of the worst nightmares imaginable to a girl her age:  her Spanish teacher asked the children to pair up for an assignment.  My sweet Sabrina asked three kids to be her partner, and they each declined, including the one who chose to work alone.  When she told me the story, it took everything I had not to cry for her, and the mean part of me hated those children for hurting her that way.  I felt broken, but she, amazingly, persevered.

Sabrina is negotiating the treacherous world of Girl Politics, managing her much longer homework list, and making tentative forays to things outside her comfort zone.  She is genuinely trying to proactively command her own destiny, in her shy but determined manner, and she is positively in love with her new teachers, her new classes, and her new routine.  She is bubbly and glowing and excited about everything.  Somehow, someway, my quiet, cautious, sensitive little girl is heady with the thrill of her latest adventure.  She has even found her way to shrugging ruefully about her Spanish class mortification, and today she set off for school an hour early to try out for an elite girls’ choir that she stands little chance of making as 6th-grader.  But she is putting herself out there and trying and testing her personal boundaries.  And in between waves of feeling so grateful I could cry, I’m astonished.

Sabrina has been on a roll, actually.  She shocked me a couple of weeks ago, when we attended her first private voice lesson.  Her dad and I insist that the girls do a sport and an art or music activity.  After a few years of flute, Sabrina gave it up, claiming she was bored.  All last year, she resisted taking up another instrument, until finally, reluctantly, agreeing to play the guitar.  Then, just as I was shopping for a guitar for her, she hesitantly asked me if voice lessons would count towards music.  Assured that they would, she was then adamant:  voice or nothing.  Her dad and I were skeptical. True, Sabrina had done well enough with flute, but neither of us had ever heard Sabrina really sing.

But again, she surprised us.

Who knew that my daughter has nearly perfect pitch and the ability to sight-read music?  Who knew that she possessed such a lovely, clear, strong singing voice?  Who knew that her range was so broad?

Sabrina bounces out of her voice lessons as if she has springs in her sneakers.  “I love, love, LOVE voice lessons, Mommy!” she sings to me.  She is so visibly elated and pleased with herself that I can’t help but laugh out loud.  This is my child who so often stands in the shadow of her charismatic and out-going sister, my sweet girl who struggles with self-esteem and self-identity, my precious baby who clings to all that is safe and known.

One of the things that I love about parenting is how often it kicks my butt and shows me how much I don’t know.  No matter how certain I may be that I understand my children, can predict their behaviors, know all their talents and short-comings, they always seem to be able to surprise me.  Nothing pulls me up short more than to discover something new and unexpected in my children.  Sometimes it’s a delightful discovery, like Bryn’s writing ability, while other times it’s discouraging, like Sabrina’s capacity for lying.  But no matter what it is, I’m always left a little dumbfounded, wondering how the hell I hadn’t known this about someone that I literally manufactured from my own cells.

Watching Sabrina blossom over the last month has reminded me that none of us truly knows how much we are capable of or what we might accomplish if we only try.  We can never be fully known because there are always new pieces to discover, new aspects to explore.  Even at 11, Sabrina had begun to define herself in static and not often flattering terms, and yet she has surprised all of us, including herself, again and again this month.  And she has faced her setbacks with grace and determination, which is all that any of us can hope.

I have often found myself in awe of my children, wondering at their talents that I do not possess, admiring their attributes that I would do well to emulate.  I am overjoyed to watch my little Sabrina bloom into the fine young woman she is becoming, and so very grateful to be along for the ride.

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dating in the shadow of the Disney princesses

When my daughters were toddlers, my then-husband and I tried our best to resist the Disney princess phenomenon, but faced with the marketing juggernaut that is Disney, coupled with 5 sets of grandparents (you read that correctly), it was a losing battle from the outset.  So we surrendered and decided to fight the battles we could win, like potty-training and eating food with utensils instead of fingers.

For those of you who have not raised daughters in the last 15 years or who did so while living under a rock, the Disney princesses reign supreme among preschool and early elementary girls.  Their stories, songs, personalities, and clothes are committed to memory and little girls’ fascination with and loyalty to them eclipses anything witnessed during the Beatles or N*Sync crazes.  The princesses are a pastel brigade to be reckoned with.  Truly.

My ex-husband and I have spent countless hours correcting the values, norms, and expectations spoon-fed to my daughters by the Disney marketing division, and we ultimately agreed that surrounding them with strong, authentic, amazing women who lead lives that do not involve tiaras or talking animals was probably the best antidote to the Disney Kool-Aid.  I still believe that, but there are times when I realize the dizzying power of the tulle and fairy godmother set.

Case in point:

On the way to the airport for our family vacation a couple of weeks ago, my 9-year-old daughter Bryn announced that she and her BFF, Amanda, Pete’s daughter, had decided that Pete and I should date now.  Furthermore, she revealed, in order that she and Amanda could become sisters, we should also marry.  This would, apparently, create no hardship on either Pete or me, because the girls had already planned the wedding.  Nine-year-olds are selfless that way, I suppose.  Unbeknownst to them, of course, Pete and I had already had our first date without any facilitation on their part.  (Surprisingly enough, sometimes grown-ups manage this without the help of 4th-graders….)

Then earlier this week, Pete’s daughter Amanda asked why I was being invited to yet another family dinner.  In his typical matter-of-fact way, Pete replied that it was because we were dating.  Amanda made an “icky” face and that was the end of that.  Or at least until after dinner, when we were parting ways and Pete, in full view of his parents and children, planted a sweet kiss goodbye on my lips.  His 7-year-old daughter, Amber, squealed and commenced teasing him as I walked away, smiling to myself.

The following day, I received a phone call from my daughter Bryn, who is with her dad this week.  She was breathless and so excited her voice reached pitches that surely only a dog could hear.  She was, of course, calling for confirmation that Pete and I were dating, having heard the news from Amanda.  I confirmed the news to her, and then experienced the ear-drum piercing scream that is unique to 9-year-old girls who are exceptionally happy.  I allowed her to revel in her joy for a minute and then tried to remind her that dating is merely about two grown-ups trying to decide if they like each other in the way and to the degree that would cause them to want to a be a real couple.  She acknowledged my words, but I could hear her mind already planning wedding gowns and horse-drawn carriages.

The next day, Bryn was at Pete’s house (again) playing with Amanda, and they treated to Pete to a performance of a hip-hop routine they’d composed called, appropriately enough, “My Mom and My Dad Are Dating.”  Poor Pete.  Thank goodness he’s not the kind of guy who gets scared off easily, or these two would have him in a dead sprint away from me for sure.  Fortunately, I had warned him that this would happen, having been through it once with James.  “Remember the Disney princesses,” I told him.  “Right,” he replied, “they fall in love at the ball and get married the next day.  Happily ever after.”

Yep.

Once I get my kids back, I’ll remind them about my many lectures on dating and falling in love and choosing a mate.  It will likely have little consequence at this juncture, but it certainly bears repeating.  After all, I’m competing with years of animated bliss and immediate devotion.  No amount of repetition is too much.

In all seriousness, though, one of the silver linings of being a divorced, dating mother, is the opportunity to show my girls first-hand the trials and tribulations of dating.  Obviously, I don’t share the nitty-gritty details, but the general outlines of what dating is, how it plays out, the risks we take and why we take them — all of these things are useful lessons to young girls who will someday experience the same joys and heartbreaks they witness in me now.  And, hopefully, their memories of my experiences will lend me a credibility when providing dating advice, guidance, and rules that I would be less likely to have were they to think I had met their father an eon ago across a crowded ballroom and married him the next day.  Their friends are already more likely to confide in me their crushes than to tell their own mothers.  Apparently my dating status assures them that I’ll better understand the fragile happiness and humiliation of crushes, and I honestly think I probably do.

So, while Bryn and Amanda are busy overseeing the animal menagerie that is creating my wedding dress and selecting the palace we shall all reside in after the happy day, Pete and I will continue to laugh about it and get to know each other the way real people do — one date a time.  No glass slippers needed.

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volunteer dads

Photo credit: Boulder Daily Camera.

When I was in kindergarten, I was a Bluebird.   It was a junior-level Campfire Girl, like a Brownie is for the Girl Scouts, but with blue uniforms and sashes.  I was abundantly proud of my uniform and of being part of my troop.  As a freckly-faced, redheaded, adopted, only child, with the only single parent in the whole school, fitting in did not come easily for me at that time, to say the least.

Our troop met at Mrs. Longo’s house for our meetings, where we would have the kinds of sugary snacks that my mom didn’t allow, then play games and do crafts.  It was all very exciting and grown-up, I thought.

One day, Mrs. Longo announced that our troop would be having a Father/Daughter Picnic. Everyone was very excited, but I was perplexed.  My dad had died before my first birthday, and I was uncertain of the protocol around a Father/Daughter picnic when one didn’t have a father.  I sat for a moment, feeling sad and confused and then had a great idea.  I approached Mrs. Longo and asked if my mom’s boyfriend could escort me to the Father/Daughter Picnic.  It made perfect sense to me.  He’d been with my mom for several years and was a lot of fun and liked me a whole lot.  I felt sure he’d be up for the job.

Mrs. Longo looked me, tilted her head quizzically to one side, and said, “But it’s a picnic for daddies and their little girls.  I don’t think boyfriends are the same thing, do you?”

Nearly 40 years later, I can still remember the way her brown hair was styled (in a 1960’s-style flip, even though it was 1974), the color of the carpeting in her den (burnt orange), and the way my mouth went suddenly dry.  “No,” I said clearly.  Then I turned around and walked out of the den, into the foyer, where I retrieved my little school bag, and then straight out the front door and the 1/2 mile home.  When I got home to my mother, I calmly explained what had happened.  And then I never went back to Bluebirds.

Some of us didn’t have the luxury of the kind of dad who married our mom, got her pregnant, and raised us.  When my birth mother sprung the news of my impending arrival on my birth father, she was met with a stammering confession that he actually already had a wife and four kids living in another state.  So much for  our happily ever after.

My adoptive parents certainly loved me, and my adoptive father didn’t want to die, but that was his destiny, and nobody could change it.  He left an amazing legacy a mile wide and twice as deep, but nonetheless, he is someone I know only through photos and related stories.  I wish I had had the good fortune to have known him, but our lives intersected for such a brief time, I can’t really say that I do.

But I was one of the lucky ones.  One after another, men lined up to fill the void.  To assume the role and all its attendant responsibilities.  My bear-like grandfather with his burly chest and loud bark, who allowed the six-year-old me to put rollers in his remaining hair and take pictures of it.   My mom’s boyfriend, Van, who taught me to build the best snowmen (and ladies — his even had boobs), and read me the Sunday comics in different voices for all the characters.  Countless uncles who doted on me and gave me advice and told me I was pretty and smart and wonderful.

And then, finally, there was my dad.  Insane enough to volunteer for the job when I was 13 and in real danger of becoming a bitchy, know-it-all teenager, he didn’t just tolerate my presence in his relationship with my mom, he embraced it.  He has told me, on more than one occasion, that he didn’t marry my mom in spite of me, but — in large part — because of me.   “You deserved to have a dad, and I knew I could be that for you, ” he told me a couple of years ago.

My dad didn’t tell me what to think, he taught me to think for myself, even when it meant that we had bitter political arguments.  He didn’t tell me what to do, he showed me how to make good decisions.  He taught me about consequences and apologies and changing a flat tire and cooking a cream sauce without burning it.  He gave me solid, honest advice about men, and never judged me for the unworthy ones — “All part of the learning experience,” he’d say.  During my first month of college, he sent me a box of condoms and pamphlets about AIDS and STDs  (I became the Safe Sex Dispensary for my dorm floor…), and after my separation, he sent me a care package of tools and related DIY books, because “Every single mom has to take care of herself.”  And when people tell me that I’m a lady, I know that it’s his influence they’re seeing.

When he left my mom, he refused to leave me.  I was confused, and angry, and would have let him go, but he stayed in touch, even when it fueled my mom’s anger and cost him in more ways than one.  As the years went by he continued to introduce me as his daughter, and kept me in his will (even over my step-brother’s strenuous objections), and wrote me long letters in his perfect penmanship about the books he was reading and the boats he was sailing.

We have talked plainly and openly about the irony of our relationship and how it confounds a lot of people.  But to us, it makes sense.  I am his daughter and he is my dad.

I opened my local paper today and discovered an editorial opinion piece poached from the Seattle Times — my dad’s local paper — along with the cartoon drawing posted here.  And I took a moment to be thankful for all the men along the way who worked extra hard to make sure I know what it means to have a father.  To all of them, wherever they are now, I say thank you from the deepest, darkest parts of my heart.  Not every guy will sign on to change the life of a little girl who is not even his own, but the ones who do re-define “Dad.”

Here’s the op-ed piece:

It’s Also the Day to Remember the Fathers Who Stepped In.

Happy Father’s Day.

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