Children You are Loved: The Gift of Divorce

I always teach them that they are loved and chosen, no matter what; that God’s got it, no matter how hard and unfair things seem; that all we have to do is take care of the poor, the hungry and thirsty, including ourselves, and give thanks for the tender mercies of our lives. -Anne Lamott

These are Anne Lamott’s beautiful words yesterday. I’m taking them a bit out of context because she is referring to three children that she teaches in Sunday school. Two of them have brain cancer, an extraordinary coincidence in a class of three children, within a church of only thirty regular parishioners. Imagine that. Two little children out of three with brain cancer.

It certainly puts divorce into perspective.

Lamott puts into words the things that children need to know while going through divorce or other difficulties: you are loved, you were chosen. No matter what, God (and at least one grown-up) is in charge, even if it doesn’t seem that way sometimes.

Yet life is sometimes hard and unfair. And so we must keep moving forward, laughing as much as we can, loving each other, while we wait it out.

And sooner or later, things will get better.

These are the lessons my children have finally learned this year, after the three-year divorce from hell. They waited it out until things got better, much better, finally blissfully better once again. Perhaps not perfect, but my children know that life isn’t perfect. It’s up and down and wonderful and secure and joyful and sometimes scary and sad. pst people are good but some may disappoint you, and some could even hurt you.

And as my little ten-year-old told me, “If you don’t know what sad means, you don’t appreciate happy.”

When I grew up, bad feelings were not allowed. We were the perfect family, on our way up in the world. Of course this was an illusion, but one that was highly encouraged in my world of country clubs and sororities and The Preppy Handbook. And thus I learned to stuff down any unpleasant feelings or doubt or hurt – anything less than perfect. And that left me looking great on the surface but woefully unprepared for the world. It allowed me to ignore the red flags flapping all over the place before my marriage. It allowed my ex-husband to gaslight me for years while I ignored my instincts and looked the other way. I thought everything was perfect: I did not know any better.

Now when I see my children, I realize that they are way better prepared for the big world ahead of them: the good, the bad, the joy, and the pain. The honesty.

Are there easier ways for my children to learn these lessons than through a three-year divorce? Of course, and just writing these words fills me with sadness. But in some ways, this a gift nonetheless, and I’ll take it.

I Reserve the Right to Change My Mind

My kids want a dog. Really really want a dog. As in, “if we just got a dog, our divorced family would be complete and perfect, mom!”

A good yank on the divorce guilt heartstrings.

Recently I started considering it. Now that the divorce has forced me from my awesomely fabulous city neighborhood and into the boring old burbs, we have more space. We have a fenced-in yard. And I can work from home once a week.

It’s a good time for a dog.

Or is it?

I asked three friends to be dog references for me. One enthusiastically stepped up to the plate and easily won over the doggie rescue folks. They loved her so much it was scary.

But the other two friends independently called me and begged me not to get a dog.

They are too nice to say, “Madness, you don’t like dogs. You don’t even like my dog!” Or “Madness, you are a neat freak and would lose your mind if your dog ever smelled or messed up your furniture.”

Instead, they said, “This is your time to shine! You’re finally relaxed and happy! A dog will keep you chained to the house, and you need to get out there!” (Or something to that effect.) One bluntly told me that she was a stay at home mom, and even she needed her husband’s help at night with the dog. Then she started describing her dog’s “delicate stomach” and I imagined all my future rugs soiled and destroyed. My other friend asked me what I would do on my rare nights off from the kids: “What about the time when you went to work, got your hair cut, and then met me for drinks? You couldn’t have done that if you had to go home to walk a dog,” she pointed out. And then the first friend reminded me that dog walkers around here charge something like $25 a visit. I cringed. I could buy a lot of wine for $25 a day!

My friends are right. And it’s not really that I don’t like dogs. I like some dogs very much. (At least a few of them, anyhow.) And its not even my house. I think I could manage the mess, maybe. But it’s the commitment. I’ve spent the last decade or more managing the unmanageable: a mentally ill, addicted, serial cheater  husband. Then I spent three years fighting him like a dog in court to protect my children. Now that I’ve finally escaped from him, I can finally begin to breathe for the first time in probably 15 years.

So I told my children tonight that we must wait to get a dog. They wailed, they sobbed, they made me cry. But I already have a full plate: I’m a single mom with primary physical custody who works full-time and constantly needs a break. Someone who couldn’t recover from the flu in less than ten full days. Someone who is now worried about pneumonia and what would happen to her job and kids if this comes next.

It’s my time to hang out in bed on Saturday mornings when my children are with their dad, to go to long yoga classes and meet friends for coffee afterwards. To go to the gym  after work when my kids aren’t around and then to go out for drinks or dinner. To actually make it to a book reading or a museum instead of school fundraisers and mommy nights out. To pull together a life, independent of my children, for the first time in a decade.

I’m so sorry, but I made a mistake. I’m not ready for a dog. Not this, not now.

The Journey Back

My son got sick on Tuesday morning, really sick, with a nearly 104 degree temperature. Burning up, hacking, crying that his head hurt.

My daughter got sick, but not as bad, on Wednesday.

Last night I got it. I haven’t been this sick in ages and ages. I wanted to just lay in bed and sleep until the pain went away. I lost track of time.

And today was another snow day. My children, 8 and 10, made themselves soup and read books and watched tv. They did not fight once, as far as I know. I knew that some of their friends were probably out sledding, but I didn’t want to call in any favors today. I just wanted to sleep and wake up better tomorrow.

About halfway through the afternoon, my son came up and opened my blinds. Pale winter light entered my sick room, and I sat up to watch the fat, happy flakes come down. My children helped to clean up the kitchen tonight, and for a while, they sat on the sofa singing a song from school together. They both hugged me good night and said, “I hope you feel better, mom.”

Perfection is not the goal. Perfection is in the journey.

My Son, the Bruiser

The school called me at work. My ten-year-old was involved in a “scuffle” on the playground.

The details were murky. Three boys were involved, my son jumped in last to “defend his teammate.”

When I picked up my son on carpool line and asked him how his day went, he chirped, “GREAT.” His face was bright red and he refused to make eye contact with me. Apparently he wasn’t going to spill the beans. I know the parenting experts would tell me to wait it out, but I don’t have the time or patience for that anymore.

“So, you got into a fight with N and M, huh?”

His eyes widened and then filled with tears. I listened to his side of the story. I got it. And then I told him:

“I don’t care who is doing what to your teammate. You never, ever get involved in a fight like that. You find a teacher. You never, ever touch another person in anger.”

I thought more about it.

“Okay, unless your friend is being hurt. I would understand if the bigger kid was beating up M and you felt like you needed to help. And of course you would only do this if no teacher was around.”

I don’t know if this was the right answer. In our schools today, fights are serious business. I’m lucky that the teachers know my son well – and that adults were close enough to jump in. It’s the kind of school that understands that three good kids can get into a scuffle over a football play.

But for a moment, I wished I could rent a husband for a few hours. A strong and positive male role model who would know what to do and say.

Instead, I called up one of the moms of the boys involved.

Within minutes, we were laughing. “Well, you know,” she said, “they’re BOYS.”

“The most competitive group of boys I’ve ever seen,” I said.

“Yeah and they were playing football when it happened,” she said.

“Ummmhmmmm,” we both said at the same time.

The boys will be all good with each other again. It’s okay, it’s normal, it’s not something that happened because of the divorce.

And I didn’t need to rent a husband after all. It would be good for my son to have a strong male role model in his life (a better one than this dad, obviously). But I think it’s time that we stop believing that only men can instill values in their sons. Women have been raising children alone for centuries. If they could do it, so can I.

Please Let’s ALL Try to Do Good

It happened last Friday at 6:12 pm. I know this because I was stopped at a traffic light, chatting with a friend on Bluetooth. The police would later ask me exactly what time everything occurred.

I saw it all. I predicted it. I willed it not to happen. But the car didn’t slow down after running a red light and making a left turn, and then the man kept innocently walking in the crosswalk, and then I saw a flash of arms or something dark fly up into the air.

More than that, I heard it, across a huge intersection of city traffic. A thump that made me start screaming, three long, crazy screams. No one could survive that. The speed of the car, the sound of the impact. The air-tight windows of my new car were shut, but the thump was unbelievably loud.

After the screams, I jumped out of my car, leaving the door open, and ran across the lanes of traffic, holding my hand up lamely, a nobody, a single mom on the way to the gym, all black LuluLemon and a white vest with no medical training, not even basic CPR.

As for the two men who leaned out of the car windows and said rude things to me, I excuse you because you don’t know any better. It’s not worth telling someone like you that I didn’t cause the accident, or if you didn’t like how fast I was feverishly calling 911, then perhaps you should have pulled over yourselves and tried to help. I wonder what you told your wives or significant others afterwards: “Oh, I saw a man hit by a car going 30 mph, and he probably died and I didn’t stop, but I DID yell shit at the woman who did.”

As for everyone else who didn’t stop, I hope it’s because you didn’t see the accident in the dark and around the corner, or because I fooled you and looked like I actually knew what I was doing.

As for me, I didn’t do the right thing either. I did manage to turn off the bluetooth on my phone in less than a minute, and I have the records to prove this, despite the ugly man yelling out of his Saab at me. I called 911 in less than a minute, and I thanked God I was standing under two road signs. I was at the exact intersection of two states, and I was able to tell the operator which side of the street I was standing on. I hope to God it was the right decision, and I believe it was. I believe the man got help faster and got to a better hospital faster on the more urban, south side of the street, in the southern state.

He was so young, and conscious. A little bit of blood was coming from somewhere around his ear. One side of his face already had a huge contusion. The windshield of the car that hit  him was completely shattered. I stood over the man and tried to say as much as possible, in the fewest words as possible. I tried to stay calm for him. I sat next to this young man, sprawled on the sidewalk, and tried to think of him as a slightly older version of my son, as he asked me if he was bleeding and told me that his head hurt. I kept wondering how he was still alive. I don’t believe he moved. I kept touching his shoulder, afraid I would  hurt him more, this young man in so much pain.

When an official person (unique to where I live) showed up by coincidence with lights flashing, I told her what happened and ran back to my car. I don’t know why I left, and I feel like crap about it. She seemed vaguely in charge, and I felt at the time that it was my duty to turn things over to people who knew what they were doing. At the time it seemed like I should’t stay; it would be strange or unseemly to seem too interested in the injured man on the sidewalk.

But I was wrong. I shouldn’t I left him.

I drove only two blocks before the police and fire engines drove past me towards the accident.

I was already talking to my friend again on the phone. She told me to go back. To give my name, to find out if the man would be okay. I raced back.

It was exactly eight minutes later, and he was already being put into an ambulance, and I knew I had lost the window to find out if he would be okay. More than that, I knew I left him. I know that I was in shock; I made a poor decision. I hope the “official person” had sat with him and been kind to him, but I know in my heart she didn’t and wasn’t. In talking to her for less than a minute, I knew she wasn’t the kind of person who would sit with him.

I failed this man. And when I called the police station the next day, they told me – unsurprisingly – that they don’t get updates on car accidents, I knew I would never know what happened to this man, so young and tall and polite. So far, there have been no news reports about a pedestrian death, and for that I am grateful. I wonder if he or a family member will eventually call me about the accident. I welcome it, because I want to know what happened to him.

I learned so many lessons: Slow down! Being late is better than killing someone. Never, ever run a yellow light to make a lefthand turn. Even better, slow down at yellow lights. And stop.

At any accident. pull over and try to help. Especially if no one else does so. If everyone who saw the accident on Friday night pulled over, I believe that the young man would feel the force around him. The good. And hopefully someone would know more than me about what to do.

I also learned that life is so short, and even if it seems impossibly difficult at times, it can be taken away from you in a second.

And the most important lesson: Just try to do good.

Life Happens at Safeway

I was told tonight by someone, a lovely stay-at-home-mom, that she would never dream of bringing her children to a supermarket. Her children never entered a supermarket until they were 8 and 10 years old. Bringing them to a supermarket, she said, would have just made “everyone miserable, cranky, and mad.”

I had to bite.

“What did you do with your kids when you shopped?” I asked.

“My nanny watched them,” she explained.

And then I remember my own early stay-at-home-days, running up and down the aisles of Safeway, screeching for my toddler son to stop running away. God he was fast. The second I turned my back to reach for cereal or flour, he unbuckled himself, slipped under the bar of our double-wide stroller, and bolted as fast as possible. Sometimes I ran after him, dragging the stroller behind me. Sometimes I just left my infant daughter sitting in the middle of the aisle. I knew she was safe: no one but me could maneuver that stroller out of the store.

The lovely mom tonight also told me she would never dream of bringing her children clothes shopping – for herself, or for them.

And then I remember the time we went to the Gap and my son spotted a Darth Vader tee-shirt. He couldn’t have been older than three.

He took it.

I found it much later. While I returned it to a sales clerk with absolutely no sense of humor, my son and his little sister hid under a rack of clothes until a stranger heard them giggling. I lectured them about running away, and about hiding, and about stealing. A man passing by remarked, “wow, they look a little young for jail.”

And then there was the ill-fated time we went Christmas shopping to LL Bean at the mall and my son decided to hide. To this day, I don’t know how he disappeared into the crowd so fast. I ran around, panicking, yelling his name, and soon other shoppers were doing the same. When the store management heard, they started screaming “Code Adam” into their microphones and told me they would lock down the entire store.

That’s when an old lady showed up, dragging my little boy behind her. “Does he belong to you?” she asked. For a moment, I considered saying no. Then my son looked at me, put his arms out so I could pick him up, and started to bawl. I scooped him up, and he [hardly] ever ran away after that – at least in large public places.

I don’t know, I guess it might have been nice to pay a nanny and go shopping by myself a few days a week. To have lots of help. But I don’t know, think of all the moments that would be lost. My children singing in the car. Pointing and asking, “What’s dat?” Explaining why Cocoa Puffs are not okay. Sitting quietly and reading a board book while I pick out shirts for school. Talking. Hugs. Lessons and love.

Life happens in the most unlikely places.