Tag Archives: parenting

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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Filed under happy endings, parenthood, working mothers

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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Filed under blended families, parenthood

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. ❤

failure

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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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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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deleted.

Adoption is such a mixed bag of blessings.  The most valuable for me as an adopted child has always been the fluidity with which I view relationships.  Family is truly those who inhabit my heart, because any other definition would necessarily create a very lonely life.  This definition is expansive, endless with possibilities and rich beyond compare.

The flip side of this approach has sometimes been that I place more importance on a particular relationship than does someone who has ample and strong genetic family ties.  I have, on more than one occasion, realized that my sense of family with someone was misplaced; in the end, I was “just a friend” or “just a girlfriend” or whatever the small, definitive category was that I occupied.  I don’t begrudge these people their categories; indeed there have been occasions when I have envied them the clear distinctions of their lives, the ease of prioritizing relationships, the simplicity of explaining how one is related to another.  But that was not the hand I was dealt, and so I have bent and manipulated common categories to suit my own needs and life.  And that approach has mostly served me well.

After I was three weeks old, I didn’t lay eyes on a single soul possessing my genetic thread for nearly 29 years.  It was then that I met my birth mother, Kathleen, after a lengthy search.  Ours was a joyful telephone reunion, followed by pages and pages of emails, futilely trying fill in the missing years since she had held me as a screaming infant in her arms.  There were early morning and late night phone calls, exchanged photographs and small gifts, and a visit by her to the home I shared with Bryce, when I was newly pregnant with Sabrina.  Later, when Sabrina was 18 months old, I traveled with her to Kathleen’s home on the West Coast for a short visit.  Sabrina charmed her new “Gran” completely, and Kathleen seemed delighted by the prospect of a grand-baby, having missed so much with me.

Every relationship has its honeymoon period and, had I read any adoption reunion books I would have known that the same applies to adoption reconciliations.  Our honeymoon period lasted longer than most, but small fissures erupted and, without the grounding of a stronger or deeper friendship, they expanded into deep chasms.  There were so many parts of me that not only reminded Kathleen of her beloved younger brother, but also of her despised older brother.  She disagreed forcefully with many of my life choices and was unimpressed by my choice of husband.  But perhaps most damaging was the fact that, aside from my skin and hair coloring, I physically favor my birth father, a man who brutally hurt her and about whom she cannot speak. So perhaps the relationship was doomed from the beginning, or even from the second beginning, but I was determined to at least keep the line of communication open, even as she clearly withdrew from me.

My first inkling that perhaps I had been abandoned by her permanently came two years ago when Sabrina was in 5th grade and completing a family history project.  I had received lots of family stories and histories from Kathleen in emails during those early, breathless days, stories I had been waiting a lifetime to hear and she’d been hoping for the chance to share.  I’d compiled them all into binders that I stored with my photo albums, the closest thing I had to a family history.  Sabrina thumbed through them, amazed to discover the richness of Kathleen’s family history, the surprising realization that we were, in fact, a Western homesteading and ranching family, and the terrific tales of Irish lore handed down.  Then she sat down and wrote Kathleen a very sweet email, telling her of the family history project and asking more questions.

Kathleen never answered her.

I was more than a little stunned as the days dragged by and there was no response to Sabrina’s email.  We worked on her project as best we could without the additional information.  I offered, but Sabrina refused to abandon Kathleen’s family and instead do something about her dad’s side, which was equally interesting.  She completed her project and received an A, but I was still reeling from the silence.

I sent Kathleen an email via Facebook, where I know she is very active, asking her to please reply to Sabrina even if it was just to say that she couldn’t provide anything else.

Silence.

As an adult, I was able to cognitively process the rejection.  Kathleen is a woman who, at least since the harrowing and unfortunate circumstances of my conception and birth, has struggled and mostly failed at maintaining relationships.  She knew she would be a poor mother, having had a very cold and critical role model to follow, so she relinquished me rather than risk perpetuating the family problems.  The quirky and interesting commonalities we shared did not bridge our larger differences.  And basically, no amount of genetic material could make up for what was lacking between us.  I knew all of this.

But, still.

The adopted child in me cried out for her.  Wondered at how she could abandon me, again.  Wondered how I could be so very flawed that, even having gotten to know me, she could reject me so completely that her rejection would encompass my innocent children.  Wondered at how blood was so thick for some people, but apparently counted for nothing in my own life.

I accepted Kathleen’s complete retreat and did not pursue the family history issue again.  I did notice, however, that she did not unfriend me on Facebook, so I assumed that she had some lingering interest in me, my children, and our lives. I continued to send her school photos of the girls, Christmas cards and presents, and a Mother’s Day card that always read, simply, “Thank you.”  I thought we had reached some kind of plateau, in which I would continue keeping that thread alive between us, and she would continue to ignore me.  I rationalized to myself that there was no harm in it; after all, it wasn’t like she could actually hurt me anymore.  Right?

One day not long ago, she posted an interesting exercise on Facebook.  It was one of those cut-and-paste, perpetuating games in which the poster asks each of her Facebook friends to leave a one-word comment below the post, describing how the poster and the friend met.  I don’t usually comment on Kathleen’s posts, but they are not usually an invitation to participate, as she is more fond of political diatribes and humorous videos.  This time, though, I thought I had a very clever contribution.  And so, because I am apparently a pathetically slow learner, in the comments section, I wrote “Birth.”

Later that day, I noticed her post on my timeline again, as our sole mutual friend had also provided her one-word answer.  I clicked on Kathleen’s post, and as it filled the screen, I saw it.  The void.  The emptiness where my comment had been.  It was gone.  Deleted.

I should not have been surprised.  You, reading this, are not surprised.  But I was.  I truly was.

I stared at it for a long time, the obvious irony settling in.  She had deleted me.  She had deleted my birth.  So swiftly and easily, with merely the click of a mouse.  And I knew, for what was probably the first time, that if she could do that for real, she would.  She really would.

I know that getting pregnant with me changed her life dramatically and my birth father’s cowardly response to the pregnancy demolished her in ways I can’t fully appreciate.  And I know that my birth nearly killed her and did disable her for a year, and that she never had a family of her own after that for reasons that only she knows.  And I know that I am not what she had hoped I would be.

But I am her only child in this whole world.  Her blood.  And she deleted me.

In the days that followed, I felt foolish for the photos and the Christmas cards and gifts that have likely met the trashcan unopened, but not too much.  I offered her as much love as I knew how and I considered her as much a part of my family as the other wonderful parents I have.  I shared the most precious part of my life with her, my children, and encouraged them to pray for her and offer her love, too.

In short, I did nothing wrong.  It was not my fault that I was conceived under such ugly circumstances.  It was not my doing that she suffered an aneurysm during my birth.  I cannot apologize for how I have turned out or who I have loved.

I wish that we could have been family.  Some kind of family.  But I know now that we will not be.  So this holiday season, I instead turned my attention fully and completely to the family that does love me, truly and deeply and without reservation.  Some ties are actually thicker than blood.  And for that I shall be forever grateful.

photo

Me, at about 2 1/2 years old.

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the fractured family

The last time I wrote, my life was floating in an odd kind of limbo, awaiting resolution of a judge’s decision on whether James’ three young children would be sent back to their mother in Georgia — the object of an abuse and neglect investigation prompted by the kids’ therapist — or whether they would stay here with us, a family complete, a family whole.

On August 12, 2013, we went to court and showed the judge everything we had.  Professionals took the stand to lay out our case, and witnesses (including one from Georgia) substantiated the claims the children had made to their therapist.  But the judge chose to disregard all of that, and instead believed their mother, who swore under oath that the children’s claims were lies fabricated by James and me.  It was her word — and her word alone — against multiple witnesses on our side.  But she pulled it off.  And so the children were sent back to Florida.

It was a stunning, unexpected defeat.  Everyone following the case, including sitting and former judges, were shocked and amazed that Carnie, the children’s mother, had managed to convince a judge to ignore all expert testimony to the contrary.  But that’s how powerful a liar she is.

The judge’s ruling came down late in the evening after a 3 1/2 hour hearing.  I will never forget reading the verdict on my iPhone while out to dinner with James and our Georgia witness, and knowing that when I turned to show it to James, I would be delivering a crushing blow.  The children were already with Carnie, as the court had ordered parenting time for her after court adjourned, and she was to regain custody, effective immediately.  She was not even required to let the children say goodbye to us.

James texted her to ask if we could bring the children some of their things from our house, and she agreed, upon the condition that she wanted to speak to him, alone, with the children.  At first he resisted, but I convinced him to go and hear what she had to say, while I waited nearby, within sight. The meeting was wrenching to watch from the sidelines, as the kids clung to him and Carnie pleaded with James to get back together with her, going so far as to get down on one knee.  He blanched, and I honestly wondered if he was going to lose his dinner all over the pool deck, but he held it together long enough to make clear that such an idea was preposterous and to end the conversation. She didn’t want to allow the children to say goodbye to me, but James insisted. I had but seconds with each of them, time enough for a few whispered words of encouragement and endearment, before she ordered them back to her side. And then we left, hearing their whimpered tears behind us, and leaving pieces of our hearts there on the pool deck.

I don’t remember much from that night after our goodbyes.  I remember calling my girls (who were at their dad’s) to tell them the outcome, and Bryn’s anguished cry when she realized that Chelsea had been ripped away from her.  Sabrina was furious, wondering how a judge could ignore the videotaped interviews of the kids, their earnest pleas to the social workers that they be allowed to live here with us and not be returned to Florida.  My girls wanted answers, and I had none.

The next morning — and many mornings thereafter — I awoke and immediately felt the heaviness of grief press down upon me.   The first few days after the hearing were nearly unbearable.  Our house was so quiet and our pain so palatable, that James and could hardly stand to be there.  We tried to distract ourselves.  We shut the doors to their rooms — left disheveled because no one expected that they wouldn’t be coming back — and tried to block out the memories of the summer.  We got random texts from them as they made their way back to Florida.  Short phrases, pregnant with their ache and loss.  And we felt helpless.

James and I both cried a lot at first.  Small reminders would reduce one of us to tears.  I had to avoid music altogether, as it brought back too many memories of riding in the car with the kids, going here or there, with the music blasting, the windows down, and all of us singing along together.  I framed lots of the art the girls had made for us over the summer, crying each time I placed another piece between glass.

We had set up new email addresses for the two oldest, Chelsea and Jay, for them to communicate with us, and during their first two weeks back in Florida, we heard from them frequently.  They used the email portal just as we’d intended — as a small way to touch back to us, to connect and feel our love without the filters their mom tries to impose.

The allegations and evidence presented at the hearing clearly frightened Carnie.  She quit her bartending job, began spending much more time at home on the weeknights, and started trying to connect with the kids in more positive ways.  The court ordered that she be randomly tested for alcohol, and as far as we know, she is complying with that order, but we have yet to see any test results.  The court also ordered another parental evaluation, to be conducted by a licensed Child-Family Investigator (CFI).  Carnie’s attorneys tried mightily to get the court to approve a CFI in Florida, but our attorneys prevailed and a local CFI was assigned.  The CFI begins her investigation next week, which will include interviewing licensed professionals associated with the case, family, and even the children.  She’ll travel to Florida to see the circumstances there and conduct interviews, and will visit our house and us as well.  It’s an intrusive, long process, designed to overturn every stone in search of any deep and dark secrets hidden beneath.  The judge — thankfully, a different one from our earlier hearing — will likely follow the CFI’s recommendation, so the outcome of the case might ultimately hinge on this one person’s conclusion of how to serve the children’s best interests.

Whether Carnie’s new-found persona as Devoted Mother will hold up over time or even convince the CFI in the short term is anyone’s guess, but for now it is having its desired effect on the children.  They have pulled away from us, for reasons we can only guess at.  Perhaps they feel let down that we couldn’t win the case and allow them live in Colorado.  Perhaps they believe their mom that we somehow manipulated them to say awful things about her.  Perhaps they are tired of all the drama and have resigned themselves to their situation.  It’s impossible to know, and heartbreaking to wonder at.

In the meantime, our home continues to heal.  The first weekend my girls spent here without James’ kids, they cried quite a bit.  Things were solemn and we spent even more time than usual together as a family.   But they are now becoming accustomed again to the relative peace and quiet of the house, as are we.  School has started and life has fallen into its familiar rhythms again, so that sometimes I can almost forget how close we came to being a whole family.

The case will likely not be fully resolved until early Winter, but I am no longer feeling certain in the outcome.  August reminded me that even “slam-dunk” cases can be lost, and those things we count as certain, upended.  So for now, we try to find the good in the moment and pray deeply for the future. And a time when we might not be a fractured family any longer.

Snowy Owl, by Chelsea, age 10, Summer 2013

Snowy Owl, by Chelsea, age 10, Summer 2013

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mother as a verb

mother: (v.) to care for or protect like a mother; act maternally toward.

I have not been able to find a job in five months.  This is radically unusual for me.  I would be even more confused and concerned were it not becoming increasingly clear to me that the universe has assigned me a job — right now my job is to mother.  And, more specifically, to mother James’ three children — Jay, a 13-year-old boy; Chelsea, who is almost-11-years-old: and Chloe, aged 7 1/2.

Now, in a blended family situation, the step-mother necessarily assumes some mothering responsibilities, which are easily enumerated and the focus of countless books.  But there is no book for the kind of mothering I am providing to these children.

For the last six years, since their parents’ divorce, the children have lived with their mother in another state — let’s say Georgia — for most of the year, returning to their hometown and Dad for eight weeks in the summer and every school vacation.  Despite this pathetically small amount of time in Colorado, they consider it their real home and their dad to be their primary parent.  Unfortunately the courts don’t agree.  At least not yet.

For the last five years, the children have been seeing a well-known and respected child psychologist when they come to Colorado, and she has been quietly wringing her hands as their situation out-of-state with their mother has become more difficult, more dangerous, and more heartbreaking. Their therapist has listened to their sad and angry young voices detail their mother’s neglect, selfishness, and abusive boyfriends, all the while knowing that she didn’t quite have a legal basis to file a report.

Until this summer.

This summer, the children arrived as usual and went to see their therapist to unload several months’ worth of private angst, frustration, and disappointment.  As usual, they begged her not to make them go back to their mom’s house.  As usual, they all reported, separately, the same sad stories of her parties and drinking and how they feel that they are the lowest priority in her life.   But this time, they also must have said something a bit different… shared something slightly worse than was typical… revealed an infraction that was, finally, a firm basis for a report under mandatory reporting laws.

The therapist wasted no time filing a report with the mother’s state department of social services.  The intake worker at first seemed fairly nonchalant while receiving the therapist’s report, but very shortly, most likely after a review of police calls to the home, the investigation kicked into high gear.  And we and the children were thrust into the frightening and bureaucratic world of child abuse investigations.

It was what we had been waiting for all along.  The allegations were no surprise to us, but they were heart-wrenching and sickening.  And the matter-of-fact way in which all three children were able to detail the nature and frequency of their mother’s infractions was breathtaking.  Yesterday, James and I sat in a child advocacy center for several hours while, downstairs, his children did for themselves what we have not been able to do for them:  they demanded the attention of authorities tasked with protecting their well-being.  They were forthright and honest and composed.  And they likely changed their futures, one way or another.

And now, as the legal repercussions swirl around us, we fiercely try to maintain some kind of “normal” for the children.  My daughters know what is happening, and they are as protective and nurturing of Jay, Chelsea, and Chloe as James and I are.  As a family, we are completely focused on validating and supporting these three achingly-young children as they enter a governmental system that is more powerful and more arbitrary than they can possibly realize.  Should they be required to return to Georgia at the end of the summer, they will face a mother whose fury and vindictiveness they are well-acquainted with and terrified of.  If they are forced to go back, after all they revealed and all the trust they placed in anonymous adults who promised to help them, I fear they are likely to give up.  I fear she will finally break their amazing, resilient spirits.

And if they stay, every single aspect of their lives would change:  schools, friends, everything.  Their mother would likely fly into a rage and spew all sorts of venom and hatefulness at them.  James and I would do our best to protect them, of course, but the allegations are unlikely to warrant a complete termination of parental rights, so the force of her anger would likely be felt.

So this is where I am living this summer:  in emotional limbo.  I love these children as if they were my own, and they love me back.  Before James and I even moved in together, Chelsea asked if she could call me “Mom.”  I responded that she could call me anything she wanted, as long as it was kind.  She beamed.  Chloe quickly followed suit.  I have watched them, as they call me “Mommy,” trying the word on their tongues.  I have seen their little grins of pleasure when I respond as I would to my own girls, and those grins make my heart ache.  Jay, when he’s not busy with his friends, hovers around me, telling me about music and movies and pretends to be appalled at my lack of coolness.  But he also asks me to visit him to when he’s getting ready for bed (not to tuck him in, of course, because “that’s for babies and little kids”), and we play basketball whenever we can.  Chelsea is my little shadow — a recent target of her mother’s derision, she blossoms when I tell her how smart and accomplished she is.  And then there’s Chloe.  Little Chloe.  Despite being her mother’s favorite and avoiding the worst of her actions, Chloe cried to James recently, telling him that I am the only “real mother” she has and she doesn’t want to have to leave us.

What am I to do with these children?  I have so very little control over their fates.  And if things between James and I don’t improve, I could lose them forever regardless of the court’s decision.  I am not their mother, and I do not endeavor to replace her.  But I would like very much to take those spaces in their lives into which she pours fear and uncertainty and sadness and backfill them with kindness and support and affirmation.  So I do the only thing I really can:  I love them fiercely.  I kiss and hug them often.  I point out special and amazing and important attributes they have and accomplishments they achieve.  I discipline them with love and honesty.  I say prayers with them at night and talk to them about the guardian angels who I know guard them always, and especially when they are in Georgia.  I tell them, over and over again, how much I love and admire them, even when they make me angry.  And I hope and I pray that some small morsel of my mothering will sink in and carry them forward through the difficult days that lie ahead.

I feel helpless when I stare at the road before them.  But then I remember that I have these weeks, these few precious weeks, to pour as much good stuff into them as I can, before the hurricane blowing towards us sucks them in.   I try to be present and aware in each moment we have together.  I ignore my phone and email.  My house gets messy.  My only goal is to never look back and regret that I could have done more.

As I’ve been writing this, the kids have been playing near me in my office, all five of them.  Now it’s bedtime and there are five small foreheads to kiss, and five small bodies to hug, and five small souls to pray over.

Five small people to mother.

My favorite Madonna, envisioned as the "Queen of the Rodeo."  Denver Art Museum

My favorite Madonna, envisioned as the “Queen of the Rodeo.” Denver Art Museum

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