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

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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Filed under adoption, healing, parenthood, relationships

why I hate being a stay-at-home mom

I hate being a stay-at-home mom.

There.  I said it.  Call me all the names you want.  It will still be true.

I hate having my daily life revolve completely around the care and upkeep of everyone else. I went to law school rather than medical school in part because I acknowledged to myself that caring for the basic needs of others could not be the central focus of my existence.

I hate that any achievement I make (A delicious dinner!  A clean bathroom! A watered garden!) is almost immediately undone or disappears. There is nothing that I do that is of lasting, tangible impact.  In my last job, I created things, I wrote things, I drafted new laws.  In this job, I make a pie that is gone in 36 hours and for which not a soul says anything, except a passing “that was good” from James, which is why he’s my favorite.

I hate that nothing I do merits more than a cursory “thank you” from anyone. Ever.  In my marriage, I tried everything I could think of to solicit some kudos for my cooking, baking, cleaning, painting, yard-tending, animal-keeping, laundering, etc.,  but nothing worked and I gradually learned the age-old lesson of all housewives:  if you’re really good at what you do, your family will take you for granted because people only notice the problems or mishaps in the minutiae of their lives, not the aspects that run smoothly.  A lack of complaints is really the highest compliment a housewife can expect.  And I hate that.

I hate that the harder I try to be seen, the more invisible I become.  Yesterday, I took the girls shopping.  I bought one girl a bike and another girl some clothes and some sports equipment, and another girl an accessory for one of her toys.  For the bike, I got a big hug (which I savored greedily), but the others prompted nothing in the form of recognition or gratitude.  It wasn’t a matter of the missing “thank you” as much as I was hoping that they would see that I cared for them and their needs.  But, of course, they are children and that was lost on them.  As soon as the goodies were placed in their hands, I receded into the ether, gone until the next time they need something.

I hate that I don’t have grown-ups to talk to about grown-up things.  I went to dinner last night with my friend Gwen, and found myself waiting at the table for her arrival, nervous that I wouldn’t have anything interesting to say.  I was fairly certain that she wouldn’t be enthralled with news that the big dog is shedding like a maniac or that our lawn has turned brown in patches and I’ve no idea why or that Jay’s bike tire has been flat for weeks and I can’t seem to get around to fixing it.  But when she sat down across from me and started talking, I could feel my innards begin to untwist and relax.  And before I knew it, we were gabbing away about work and men and kids and faith.  I can’t count the number of times she said to me, “I can’t believe how much you’re juggling right now!  I don’t think I could do it.”  It was like soaking in a warm bath of acceptance, validation, and understanding for a few hours.  But than I emerged, got into my car, and felt my guts tighten up again.

I hate feeling sorry for myself.  I know — really KNOW! — that I, and I alone, am responsible for my current lack of employment.  I knew when I sent the final email to the Mayor that I would likely be terminated for refusing to adhere to his way of doing things.  I also know that there are fateful reasons for my being unemployed right now; I know that it is necessary for me to be home with the children this summer, to ease their transition and grease the blending of our families.  I can easily appreciate that I am immensely selfish for resenting sacrificing one simple summer for the sake of 5 precious children.  But there are definitely days, like today, when resent it I do.

I hate feeling tired and frumpy.  No amount of exercise or nutrition or sleep helps me shake this low-energy mood.  The endorphin high from working out lasts only until the next “MOM!!!!!” is screamed amidst yet another sibling argument.  There is no need to dress nicely when I am simply chauffeuring and cleaning up after children, so I sport the de rigeur summer uniform for the stay-at-home mom — jeans shorts and a cotton t-shirt — each and every day.  Sometimes I even put in earrings, but that only prompts the children to ask why I’m so dressed up.

Being a working mom is really tough. This I know.  I’ve done it with babies and I’ve done it with bigger kids.  I’ve commuted almost an hour each way, through all kinds of weather, while worrying what I was going to get on the table in time for dinner.  I’ve missed school plays and soccer games and sick days for meager paychecks that barely covered the cost of child care.

During my first tour of duty as a stay-at-home mom, I was relieved beyond belief to be free of the guilt that hangs over the working mother like a London fog.  Finally, I thought, I will have the time and attention and focus to devote myself to my children and family and home!  Our lives will be unstructured and stress-free and full of laughter and fun.  But you know what?  I am no more qualified to be a stay-at-home mom than I am to be an astronaut.  I am simply not suited to it.  I don’t have the aptitude or the training or the fearlessness to embrace the challenges inherent in the job.  When I re-entered the salaried workforce after my divorce, I did so with a guilty pleasure about which I am still ashamed.

This second tour of duty as a stay-at-home mom was involuntary for the most part.  When I refused to turn a blind eye to the political corruption in my previous job, I failed to recognize that the absence of another job in the wings might result in my conscription in the Stay-at-Home Moms Corps.  Never, not once in all the time that I was unhappy under the new mayor and feeling increasingly put upon having to work for a foul administration for a pittance of a paycheck, never did I wish that I could be a stay-at-home mom again.  Yet, here I am.

To be honest, I’m not terrible at being a stay-at-home mom.  In fact, I’m actually pretty good at it.  But this is only the second job I’ve ever had that I was good at but didn’t like.  The first was being a waitress at Bob’s Big Boy when I was 15 and had to wear a brown plaid, polyester uniform and orthopedic shoes.  I have to say, in all seriousness, that the waitress job was only marginally worse.  At least I got tips.

I know that at some point, all the job applications I’ve completed, all the resumes and cover letters I’ve sent out, all the interviews I’ve smiled my way through, will eventually result in a new job coming my way.  And I am equally certain that said job will appear at precisely the correct time in the universe’s schedule.  But until then, I’ll make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while wearing my hair in a ponytail and repeating “Would someone please get this hairbrush off the kitchen counter?” for the 534th time.

Because I’m a stay-at-home mom.  And that’s what we do.

mom to-do list

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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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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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first crush

Yesterday afternoon my 11-year-old daughter, Sabrina, returned from three days of wilderness camp with the 5th-grade.  She perched on the Tiffany-blue stool in my bathroom as I sprawled on the floor, tools in hand, replacing the guts of my toilet tank.  I expected a play-by-play rundown about camp, but she answered my questions obliquely and distractedly.

And then it was revealed that something else entirely was on her mind.

A boy.

Turns out my little girl arrived at her dad’s a week ago to discover that a boy she likes, whom we’ll call “Justin,” had called a day or two earlier to ask her to play tennis. They take tennis lessons together each week and have known each other distantly since they were toddlers.  Since she’d been at my house that week and her dad was clueless that this boy was anything special, he’d  simply asked Jay to call back another time.  Which he didn’t.  And poor Sabrina was beside herself today, a week later, when she returned to my house.   I struggled with the wrench as Sabrina laid out for me her worries.

Sabrina: Mom, what if he doesn’t really like me and he was just bored?  And what if, since I didn’t call him back, he asked the new girl in our class to play instead and now he likes her?! (She is kinda pretty….)  Or what if he does like me but he thinks I don’t like him because I didn’t call back right away and so he’s given up on me?  Ugh!!!

Poor Sabrina is in the throes of her first real crush.  We talked about Jay and what it is that she likes about him (“he’s smart and goofy and funny”), and what she wants with him (“just to hang out with him and be his friend and maybe later when we’re older, he can be my boyfriend”).

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her rocking back and forth on the stool, face anxious, brow furrowed.  And I was struck by how our wants and our fears never really change.  No matter the age, we basically just want to be near that person — to share space with them and know more about them and feel the warmth of their attention on us.  And we worry about the unknowns —  Does he love me?  Does he love someone else more?  Will he love me tomorrow?  Does he know I love him?

So we tackled her concerns one at a time:  1) He wouldn’t have called to spend time with her if he didn’t like her; 5th grade boys don’t spend time with girls that they don’t like.  2) When we really like someone, we don’t change our mind in the span of a week, even at that age, and even if he did play tennis with the new girl, he might not end up liking her nearly as much as he likes Sabrina, because finding someone we really like is never easy.  3)  He probably does think that she’s not particularly interested in seeing him outside of tennis class, and I explained that it was her turn to call him back, acknowledge his phone call and see if he’d still like to play.  She visibly blanched at the idea, but I reminded her that she wasn’t having to ask him cold — he’d already taken the first step toward her and indicated that he’d like to be her friend.  She hesitantly agreed to the logic of that.   And then —

S — Maybe I should just ask him if he likes me.

Me — No, you won’t have to.  If he likes you, he’ll want to keep spending time with you.  You’ll know soon enough.  What he tells you won’t reveal nearly as much as how he behaves. He might not even know how to answer that.  He’s only 11.

S — But I just. want. to. know.now!

Me — <sighing>  I know sweetie.  Boy, do I know.

I withheld the obligatory and unhelpful lecture about how that feeling never changes and how she will be saddled with those uncertainties for the duration of her dating career, but I couldn’t help but wonder at how many variations on this precise conversation I’ve probably had in my life.  How much effort and energy do we expend toward trying to figure out the heart of another?

I also found that I was providing her with the same advice that I give myself (with varying degrees of success):  You can’t worry about that other girl or how he sees her; you can only be the best version of you and if he can’t see how amazing that is, or if it’s not what he wants, then that’s only his problem.   She received this advice with the same skepticism I sometimes feel when staring into the black hole of insecurity.  In fact, as she rolled her eyes, I couldn’t help but sympathize.

In the end, we agreed to obtain Jay’s phone number from her dad’s tennis club directory and Sabrina will call him for a friendly game of tennis.  I promised her I would help script her proposal so that she wouldn’t flub it.  She seemed satisfied with that resolution, but I could tell that it still sat heavily with her through dinner.

And she wasn’t alone.  I felt the heaviness of a different kind:  the realization that we had crossed yet another threshold on this journey to adulthood.  Somewhere in our shared future, she will revel in the soaring, overwhelming buoyancy of first love and the stunning, scintillating experience of sex.  She will discover new facets to herself and see her strengths and failings reflected back in the eyes of someone she wants to think her perfect.  And she will also suffer rejection and a broken heart and the disillusionment of the end of a fairytale.  All of these things are inevitable.  All of these things are life.

At this point, I am grateful that she so freely confides in me and allows me some entry into the affairs of her small, innocent heart.  I hope that this is always the case, but I know that in all likelihood, it will not be.  For now, though, I will do my very best to guide her, and protect her, and catch her, as she moves headlong toward the discovery of why crushes are called crushes.

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mama bear

I arrived home this evening to find a letter from the principal at my daughters’ school.  It opened by informing me that Sabrina (my 5th-grader) had been missing a lot of school recently, proceeded to explain that her absences would henceforth require a doctor’s note, and closed with a threat to file a petition in county court against myself and my ex-husband if Sabrina missed any more school.

Really?

Bring it on, sister.

Sabrina was born 5 1/2 weeks prematurely, before her lungs were fully formed.  Do you know what happens to humans when their lungs don’t fully form?  They have trouble breathing, and their immune systems are compromised because our lungs provide that necessary oxygen stuff that keeps us healthy… and… well, alive.   She spent the first three years of her life sick almost non-stop and I hauled her from doctor to doctor trying to find out what what wrong with my baby.  I fought with doctor after doctor who tried to tell me that she “just had a cold.”  We finally got a diagnosis — an unusual form of asthma known as “cough-variant asthma.”  Most likely not life-threatening in her case, but complications resulting from it could be.  And it was definitely compromising her ability to fight off even the smallest cold.  Thank goodness we live an hour from the best respiratory hospital in the country; we were so relieved when we finally got the diagnosis.  Now, we thought, she’ll finally be okay.

Boy, were we wrong.

Turns out the diagnosis was the easy part.  Developing an effective treatment plan proved to be much harder.

I can’t even remember how many specialists I saw, how many tests she was subjected to, how many alternative approaches we tried to no avail.  Sabrina and I met with doctors up and down the Front Range of Colorado, from Denver to Fort Collins, looking for solutions.  From October until May each year, she was sick on average of 5-7 days a month.  She did so many courses of steroids, the doctors warned us she could suffer stunted growth because of them.  On too many nights, I bundled her up and raced off the ER, to sit by her bed while they hooked her up to machines and pumped her body full of medicines, while she looked terrified and I choked back tears.

Her poor little body couldn’t fight off anything; every cold, every virus left her incredibly sick.  Almost every child gets the rotavirus at some point or other; Sabrina got it and landed in the hospital for three days, hooked up to all variety of monitors and IVs.  The worst was an illness that no one was able to identify.  Our hospital stay that time was four days, and the senior national expert on communicable diseases was brought in examine her after specialist after specialist and test after test brought us no closer to an answer.  SARS?  No.  H1N1?  Nope.   Cystic Fibrosis.  Thank God, no.  The virus — whatever it was — eventually went away, but not before it ravaged her small body.

When she was 3 1/2, I quit a job I loved, in part because I was missing so much work due to her illnesses.  Bryce and I decided that it was time to finally figure out her health.  I began keeping a binder of everything I could find out about her kind of asthma and what each of the doctors had said.  Gradually, I formed a team of doctors around Sabrina and coordinated her care in a manner that finally began to show some outcomes.

We were lucky in some regards.  She had wonderful doctors devoted to her.  Sabrina is the kind of child that hugs everyone, including the doctors who had just poked and prodded and hurt her.  I remember one evening, when she was in the hospital with the mysterious virus, her fever raging and her body expelling liquids almost faster than the machines could pump them into her.  It was 3:00AM and I was awake, worried about her, checking her breathing and sponging her fiery body.  I went out into the hallway to fight back the tears and discovered her primary care doctor, off-duty, pouring through Sabrina’s chart with a stack of medical journals and references spread out around her, desperately searching for something the experts had missed.  I suppose I should have been more frightened, seeing her like that, but I was so touched by her dedication that I actually felt better.  How could Sabrina not get well when so many people were working so hard for her?

It has been a long, long road.  Every year the doctors  adjust her medications, and we now combine traditional Western medicines with Eastern herbal remedies, acupuncture, and chiropractic adjustments to manage her illness.  By the time she was eight-years-old, Sabrina had had two surgeries;  each offered some relief but she still struggles.  Slowly — very, very slowly — her incidents have lessened in frequency, but not intensity.  Her doctors have speculated that she will likely outgrow her asthma eventually, and that is our greatest hope.  But every time I think we’ve made progress down that road, we have a month like this February, and I wonder if we have lost all the ground we gained….

When people first meet Sabrina, they usually assume that we must be exaggerating her health problems.  Contrary to the doctors’ early concerns, she is tall for her age — about 5’1″ at 11-years-old — all legs and arms and long chestnut hair and pink cheeks with a smattering of freckles.  But once someone has seen one of her attacks, or seen her when she is sick during one of those periods, they realize what she is fighting.  Her asthma attacks are not like the regular wheezing attacks.  They start slowly, with a dry cough and escalate over a period of hours.  When they are in full force, they can be very frightening to someone who has never seen one.  The first time my mom witnessed one, she became nearly hysterical and I had to make her leave the room.   Sabrina’s preschool teachers overcame their initial shock and became experts at trying to calm her down and help her with her medicines.  Indeed, throughout her school career, she has been blessed with caring and compassionate teachers who worked with us to keep her in school and learning whenever possible.  All the educators and administrators that we’ve had the pleasure to work with have collaborated with us and shown Sabrina incredible kindness.

Until now.

Tomorrow morning,  Bryce and I will go into the principal’s office.  I am taking Sabrina’s medical binder, with the names of the nine specialists involved in care written in Sharpie on the front.  I will ask the principal which doctor she would like a note from.  I will show her the peak flow meter — the device that alerts us to when Sabrina cannot breathe.  I will tell her how nice it would have been to have received a call from the school asking us if Sabrina was okay, rather than a letter implying that we are poor parents because we are “in violation of district attendance policy.”  I will explain to her that the next time she threatens me with a lawsuit over my daughter’s care, she had better do her research.  Because if there is one thing in this world that I am sure of, it is that I have been a good mother to Sabrina.  I have cried more tears over her and worried more over her and held her hand through more scary times than that principal can even imagine.

But she’ll find out.  Tomorrow morning, she’ll find out.

Wish her luck.  Because I won’t need it.

Blogger’s Note:  It took 9 minutes the following morning to go from a rebuff from the principal (“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to make an appointment.”  “Sure.  That’s fine.  Which of the 9 doctors on her medical care team would you like to attend that appointment?”), to an apology, to a commitment to work with us to develop a district medical plan for her on-going care.   After we left, Bryce told me I’d handled it well and that he was glad it was her I was angry with and not him.  😀

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a visit to my former life

Tonight I attended a fundraising dinner at my daughters’ school.  It is an event I have gone to every single year since Sabrina was in kindergarten and I was a stay-at-home mom, small business owner, and PTA member.

I remember how big and intimidating the school seemed that first year — so different from the daycare/preschool from which Sabrina had come and Bryn still attended.  The hallways seemed so wide and long, the furniture so large, the staff so foreign and unknown.  But when Sabrina started there, I threw myself into the Supermom role.  I volunteered in the classroom, I baked for the bake sales, I helped start the Brownie troop, I donated my business services to the silent auction.  The school became a home-away-from-home very quickly.  I’d breeze through the front door, waving at the office staff, on my way to one appointment or another.

I came to know the other moms (and some dads) really well.  We’d stand on the playground at the beginning and end of school and exchange news about our children or idle gossip about the school.   We arranged playdates and sleepovers and afterschool activities.  We compared notes about teachers and troublemakers and summer camps.  I felt a part of that community.  Known.  Appreciated.

When Bryn started kindergarten two years later, my marriage was coming apart at a rapid clip.  Little did I know when I kissed her off to her first day in that now-familiar room with that now-familiar teacher that life was about to change dramatically.  By the end of the school year, my husband and I were separated, and my place in that little community had shifted perceptibly.

I moved out of our family home in March of that year and so never really got to know the parents of Bryn’s school mates quite as well as Sabrina’s.  I worked part-time while Bryn was in first grade, so I was still there at drop-off and pick-up, waiting patiently with the other moms, but there was no more time for classroom volunteering or the PTA.   But it was a mixed blessing… not knowing the parents of Bryn’s classmates also meant that they didn’t have much emotional stake in my marital situation.  They didn’t know me or my family well enough to be shocked or upset by our divorce, so they received me, my ex, and the news of our divorce with more equanimity than the parents of Sabrina’s friends.  In fact, I think my divorce brought me closer to some of those women than I would have been otherwise.

But, perhaps not surprisingly, it is still some of the mothers of Sabrina’s classmates to which I gravitate at these school functions.  The ones who knew me before, supported me during, and accepted me after my divorce; these are the women who feel like old friends.  In truth, we probably hardly know each other, and yet there is something rich in watching your children grow up together, something bonding in moving through those early parenting years side by side. And I, of course, remember every small kindness paid and friendship given during the darkest times of my divorce.

Next year, Sabrina and her classmates will splinter off to multiple middle schools.  The easy familiarity of these school functions will be no longer as strange faces replace the well-known ones.  Some families I will likely never see again, which is an odd and discomforting thought.  This school, and these families, provided the context for the largest upheaval in my life to date.  For better or for worse, the drama of my divorce played out against the backdrop of the community built around this elementary school.   It was in those hallways that I was comforted by near strangers and dismissed by some I’d thought were friends.  It was those teachers and staff who sheltered and supported my children as they struggled to grasp their new reality.  It was that principal who called to check in with me every few months for the first year.

As I sat there tonight and wondered — for the sixth year — why the spaghetti was so bland and tasteless, I felt as if I were already a visitor to the school, rather than a current member of its community.  So much has changed since I was a PTA mom.  I looked around the room and remembered my old life.  I can’t say that I’d want to go back, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss parts of it, too.  So I savored those moments tonight, in easy conversation with the women who’ve watched me move through the wretched transitions of the last 3 years.  We shared memories of days past and fears of days to come and there was a bittersweet quality to all of it.   Or maybe that was just me.

When Sabrina goes to middle school next year, I’ll meet new parents, and they will only ever know me as Sabrina’s divorced mom.  Our seemingly-perfect intact family and the divorce that blew us apart will fade from collective memory.  Life will keep moving and changing and surprising us all.  And someday, probably very soon, the memories of those spaghetti dinners will be distant, treasured snippets of childhoods gone too soon, and a former life nearly forgotten.

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sucker punch

I took my labelmaker (yes, I’m the kind of mom who has a labelmaker) to work this morning so that our receptionist could label some things around the office.  But after only one label, it ran out of ribbon (yes, it was that kind of morning).

Arriving home late in evening after helping a work friend with an errand he needed to run, I headed to my craft box and began pawing through it, looking for the extra label ribbon that I knew was in there (yes, I’m the kind of mom who has extra label ribbon).   I couldn’t find it, so I took the box to the dining room table and dumped the contents across its surface.   Then, poking through the markers and paints and glues (aha!  I knew I had extra label ribbon!), my hand froze on a tube of paint, I felt the air sucked out of my lungs, and the memory washed over me….

It was Christmas Eve and I stood in front of James’s hearth, fingering the Christmas stockings hanging from the mantle.  Five identical stockings, plain and  unadorned.  I looked across the room at James and pointed to the stockings.  He crossed the room and explained that his ex-wife had taken all the stockings when she’d left.  “Well,” I said, “When Christmas is over, you need to let me take these and decorate them, personalize them.  This looks sad.  I’ll fix them up!”  He shrugged.  “Okay, sure.”

And so, in the days immediately after Christmas, still on a happiness high from my amazing holiday weekend, I went out and bought tubes of paints in Christmas colors, plus puffy white paint to mimic snow, and silver glittery paint to make them festive.  I found an old t-shirt and spread it on the dining room table and starting practicing all the letters in their names, drawing snow flakes and holly leaves, ornaments and gifts.  I was determined to make those stockings perfect.  When the kids arrived at their dad’s next Christmas, they’d find pretty stockings, decorated with love.

But I never decorated those stockings.  By the end of that week, my relationship with James was blown apart, all my hopes for shared holidays to come, dashed.

I don’t remember cleaning up the paints or the practice t-shirt.   I must have done it when I was still numb with pain.  I had forgotten about all those colorful tubes, about my silly plans, about my offer to James to help make things special for his children.

Until tonight.

It’s so unfair how life can sucker punch you.  There you are, moving along pretty much okay, trying to just put everything behind you, letting go of what you never really had, and WOOMPH!, a sucker punch from left field ushers in all the grief and loss all over again.

I wish that I had decorated those stockings.  I wish that those children had some tangible token of my love.  They would likely never realize, or probably care, who had decorated them or why, but I would know.  I would know that each Christmas, a little tiny piece of me would be there, loving on them still.

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Filed under healing, love, parenthood, relationships, sadness, single mom