New Year’s Day: A Divorce History

On New Year’s Day 2011, the year I discovered that my NPD/sociopath ex-husband was living a double life, I woke up at a friend’s house with a hangover and the discovery that my her sweet puppy had died during the night.

After hot coffee and tears, we all trudged out into the January rain, probably a dozen of us, to bury the dog in a field behind the barn. I had no proper shoes, and my toes froze, and red Virginia mud covered my fancy party boots.

It was a grim beginning to a grim year. Back in the city, my ex-husband would become more elusive and stranger than ever, disappearing on business trips where hotel operators could never locate his name on their guest lists. Distracted by my two little children, I couldn’t keep up with all his lies. By September, things would reach a fever pitch, until the day I opened up his secret email account and everything became perfectly clear.

2011 was not a good year, and it was followed by several agonizing ones.

***

But by 2014, things started turning around. On New Year’s Eve, a friend turned to me and announced it was going to be a good year, and an interesting one. I smiled. “Perhaps, I said. Life is long and mysterious.”

Several hours later, at midnight, this same friend received some big news. Her 47-year-old bachelor brother had gotten engaged that night. This was an event no one predicted. “Life is mysterious,” we laughed.

For him, I suppose, it was a year filled with love and light. And for me, it was a good year, a good start to a good new life.

***

This year, New Year’s Day didn’t start out well  – my brother and his family left for a tourist attraction without us. I was packing our car to go home, and I took too long. They did not offer to help as I took trip after trip up and down the stairs of my parents old colonial, carrying my children’s suitcases and toys and hair dryers and stray boots. It took me forever to load our little SUV, and I got angry and furious and raised my voice and said some truthful but not very kind things about a certain relative or two.

I couldn’t fit everything into the car. I was furious.

But then I looked at my children’s faces, teary because they were missing this precious time with their cousins. I took a deep breath and pulled all the packages out of the car. I placed them on the driveway and slowly started all over again until everything finally fit.

We salvaged the day by skipping the tourist attraction and meeting my brother and his kids for lunch in the city before setting out for our long trip home.

In 2017, I will have to remember that sometimes we need a break. And I might need to redo the simplest of things – thankful that I have a second chance to make things right.

But also, I can’t depend too much on undependable people, even if I love them and my kids adore them. Make my own plans and stick to them if they are important. Sway, but don’t bend to theirs. Don’t agree to do things that make me angry and resentful.

***

But the drama wasn’t over yet. As we pulled into our driveway in the dark that evening, I noticed a light in our garage. I said something about it.

And then it went out.

We all gasped. We had been away for a week, the house should have been empty.

Very reluctantly and apologetically, I called the police. On New Year’s Day, I thought. What did this foreshadow for 2017?

One officer arrived, listened, and told me that others were on the way. Out here in the suburbs, the officers park up and down the block, no flashing lights, silent helpers in the dark. I started adding them up then lost count. They brought a dog. They fanned out across the yard and finally went into the house. I sent my children to a friend’s house. And I sat in the car alone and watched the flashlight beams in my house. Ah, they’re up in the attic, I thought. They’re in the basement. My bedroom. My closet.

And finally, laughter, as the officers came outside, ducking under the plastic sheeting protecting the newly painted door from the rain. For me, relief, and complete embarrassment.

Was someone in there? We don’t know. The officers were nice. Really nice. They told me I did the right thing. They said it could have been my painter, and I could have just missed him by a moment or two – the light stays on for exactly 4.5 minutes. Or it could have been a thief who slipped out the back door and jumped over our fence and into the darkness.

I thanked them, and it was over. My children came back, a friend came over, we poured wine and ordered pizza, and somehow the evening was saved in our bright, warm house.

***

When I think about our start to 2017, I will think about the helpers – those solid men and women in the night. I will marvel at the courage to walk into a house where danger might be waiting. I will remember that we all need help sometimes. And we are ridiculously thankful when people arrive to offer it, even if we’re also embarrassed.

For better or for worse, 2017 probably won’t be dull. I’m guessing another year of moving forward, falling back a bit, trying to do it myself, having to re-do it, and asking for help sometimes. Hopefully offering help too – and maybe even some happy endings.

 

Letting Go: How I Talk to My Children

Like every big revelation in my life, it came out of nowhere.

One day I woke up and realized that I’m doing my children a disservice by treating them like babies, trying to protect them from the big, bad, scary world out there. I have some serious helicopter mom tendencies, which I try to hide from my cooler, more freewheeling mommy friends.

Plus there’s the divorce, which breaks my heart a million times every single day for my beautiful children; makes every, single cell in my body want to grab my babies and protect them from any more pain and vulnerability.

But this summer my nine-year-old son asked to go to sleep away camp for a week with his friends. I agreed.  I hoped it would give him some male bonding time, which he sorely needs after spending three years with me and his eight-year-old sister. I also believed that this particular camp would have good male role models, another thing my son desperately needs.

And for once, I was right. When he arrived back home, he seemed more confident, more secure, more grown-up in the very best and most healthy grown-up way. I find myself standing back to watch him interact with his peers and grown-ups, and I feel awe of who my son has already become and who he may someday be.

I made the right decision by letting go.

It made me realize, with a terrible pang, that I need to keep pushing my children off into the world instead of holding them back. Within reason of course. And at the same time, I need to tell them the truth about things, so that they can protect themselves and learn how to make good decisions all on their own as they grow up.

So now my children Know Things. They know that there is a Big Mess in the Middle East. They are not allowed to watch images of dead babies and bombed-out schools on television, but they understand the basic facts about the history of Israel and Palestine. I don’t answer questions about who is right, and who is wrong. Instead we discuss how we would feel if we lived other people’s lives.

Today my children learned that because I’ve gone back to work, I sometimes have to carry my laptop over to the playground to finish up a project. They got bored after a while and started hanging over my shoulder. When they saw I was writing about a John F. Kennedy speech, they started interrupting each other to tell me they knew that speech. And then my son paraphrased the following words:

So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

We rushed home to find the speech excerpted in my children’s favorite JFK bio. They opened the book and read the president’s words out loud to me. I could barely breathe. My children are so wise, and it has nothing to do with me. They teach me.

And then my son looped President Kennedy’s words back to the situation in the Middle East. I hug him, and because he’s not quite ten yet, he hugs me back.

My children leaned other things recently. They know that their mom is tired at the end of the night. If they stay up too late, she will snap at them – she is no longer “nice mom” after 10 pm. They know that they must load their dishes in the dishwasher after lunch and dinner and they must empty the dishwasher while I’m at work. They must clean up after themselves. If they don’t put their dirty clothes in the hamper – rightside out only! – the cleaning ladies will not wash them and put them away in their drawers, all nice and folded, every Wednesday. They also know that the weekly “ladies” are a big luxury for our family, but that they help their mom keep the house running as normal while she works.

Maybe it’s terrible for my children to know these things. Maybe it’s even child abuse, or something that more privileged and enlightened people would never force their children to do, as someone recently insinuated to me. She told me that she expected her children to do “better things” like sessions with their tutors or lacrosse traveling team practice. Things to improve their bodies and minds. But what about their character, I wondered? What about cultivating grit and responsibility and a strong work ethic in our children? It’s only a few chores, I thought. But most of my children’s friends are encouraged to leave dishes on the table and would never dream of taking care of laundry. A friend recently told me that she didn’t know how to do laundry until she went away to college, and this is pretty much how she is raising her own children.

For now I’m betting that my way is what works best for my little family of three.

My children also learned this week that the funny scratchy thing on my arm is another squamous cell cancer – in situ. “Which means it won’t spread, right,” asked my son. “Absolutely,” I answered before explaining that it’s no big deal, really, and that my doctor will take care of it. Oh, and this is why I drive them crazy about rash guards and sunblock.

The next day my babysitter innocently remarks that both children put on their sunblock at the pool without any reminders from her – and they did it cheerfully.

I just smile. I think we’re finding our groove again.

Thanksgiving: Not the Day For

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.

Tomorrow is not the day to worry about my feisty, independent aunt with the beautiful hair and perfect posture who went into hospice yesterday, defeated and hunched over, and received her last rites today. Tomorrow is not the day to feel bitter because she is dying of lung cancer but never smoked a day in her life.

Tomorrow is the day to be thankful that I visited her two days ago, one day before she took such a terrible turn. Tomorrow is the day to be grateful that I’ve spent quality time with her during the past two years and that she has told things to me straight when no one else would.

Tomorrow is the day to be thankful that one of my children got to see his great aunt several weeks ago when she still felt well and appeared her vigorous and vivacious self. Tomorrow is the day to remember my son sharing barbecue pizza with her and telling her that he loves math, just like her. It is the day to remember her famous tins of homemade Christmas cookies and how she never met a child she didn’t love — and who didn’t love and adore her right back.

Tomorrow is not the day to dwell on my father’s other sister and how she will have open heart surgery in a week. It is not the day to worry about the health of a man in his seventies who is watching his two sisters struggle between life and death. It is the day to be thankful for this man in our lives — a man who worked his entire life selflessly to provide for his family, and who finally retired, only to spend all of his free time taking care of his daughter and providing for his grandchildren when their father falls short.

Tomorrow is not the day to worry about divorce finances and declines in standards of living, and looking for a job after staying home for years, and children leaving schools they love. Tomorrow is the day to be grateful we are in our family’s warm house, all together, with children running around and spilling milk and getting into a lot of trouble.

Tomorrow is not the day to wonder why God throws everything at us at once until the stress and utter unfairness of it all starts sitting in your chest like a physical pain and makes you start wondering if it has affected your health in insidious and permanent ways. Tomorrow is the day to search for gratitude and things to be thankful for. It’s the day to realize that no one can sail through life unscathed. And mostly, for me, tomorrow is the day to remember that this too shall pass. Nothing lasts forever, and as my aunt told me recently, “Unlike me, you are about to turn a corner. Your divorce will eventually be over. And you’ll hardly remember it in a few years.”

So tomorrow is the day to be thankful for happy and healthy children, cousins and grandparents, snowflakes, mashed potatoes and stuffing and hot gravy, crackling fireplaces and green-and-red M&Ms in jars, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and knock-knock jokes, a warm house and great books, funny uncles and creative aunts, football and fantasy football, Christmas music before we all get tired of it, big California cabernets with apple and blueberry pies, the puppy down the street, silly dancing and LEGOs and Zengo, and the hope that we might be able to scrape together enough snow to make a snowman before it’s all over.

Grace
Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you for the birds that sing,
Thank you, God, for everything!

by Edith Rutter Leatham

“All cities are mad…

“All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful, but the beauty is grim.”
― Christopher Morley

Halloween in the City, 2013

Harry Potter, the cat, the soldier and the monster went trick or treating tonight in the city. At the first house, they forgot to say trick-or-treat and thank you. At the second house, Harry Potter rudely asked how many pieces of candy he could have. At the end of the first block, the soldier dashed out into the street without looking to see if any cars were coming.

Six blocks later, it started to drizzle. The monster decided to go home early. The soldier just got more determined to fill his bag to the breaking point, and he began to run between houses. The cat got lost. And found.

It was a night of excess. Harry Potter and friends ran down brick sidewalks, filling sacks with candy. They chomped on fresh Krispy Kreme donuts outside one famous historic mansion, and paused at a popcorn machine outside another. They accepted huge Hershey bars from a strange taciturn man, and light-up necklaces from a lovely old couple who wanted them to stop and chat for a while.

They never thought it was odd that grown-ups were trick-or-treating alongside them, and they didn’t notice any public intoxication. They were indifferent to other people’s costumes. They took the decorations and noise and lavish excess in stride. It was really just about the candy.

They finally split up and walked home. The cat realized she had lost her tail. The soldier wanted to count his candy. They  took baths and got into their pajamas. They talked about donating candy to real soldiers. Then their room was filled with red, white and blue flashing lights and sirens. The cat and the solider ran to the window to watch police fill their little street. They watched the police throw a man up against a police car. The police parked their police cars and motorcycles on the sidewalks and talked loudly about a missing weapon.

The cat said Halloween was a 10 out of 10. The soldier said it was a 30 our of 10 because he got to see an arrest. He is going to tell his entire class about it tomorrow.

This is Halloween in our mad, gallant, beautiful and grim city.

I Need a House Manager . . .

I went walking with a friend to get my mind off my worries: divorce worries, money worries, lack-of-job worries, children worries, custody worries, attorney worries, parental evaluation worries – you name it.

Halfway through my walk, I found the answer to all my worries: I need a house manager.

And what is a house manager?

House managers are the new thing for certain people. If you already have a nanny and a cleaning lady, and a tutor and several college-aged babysitters on call, then you will probably find yourself needing a house manager. My friend’s friend apparently needs a house manager because her cleaning lady doesn’t FOLD HER CHILDREN’S UNDERWEAR NEATLY ENOUGH.

I was informed that the house manager is working out quite well. He makes sure everything is working smoothly in her home, no staff members are slacking off, all sheets are ironed, and all underwear is folded properly. I am happy for her, really I am, though I secretly wonder what this mom (with two children in school full-time) is really doing all day while the house manager manages everything.

Sadly, my post-separation home works a little differently. I have no staff to manage. I have never ironed a sheet in my life – isn’t that why Target makes no-iron sheets? And I throw my children’s underwear into piles and dump it into their drawers. Sometimes I even throw my son’s underwear into my daughter’s drawer when I’m too tired to think anymore at the end of the night.

And I can’t afford a house manager. To say the least.

However, I did talk to a parenting expert recently. Thankfully she didn’t tell me anything like, “You need a house manager.” In fact, she told me just the opposite. She told me that my children weren’t doing enough around the house. She said they should be doing some of the work of a house manager.

Not only did she tell me that my kids should be helping out more, but she told me how to get them to do it. And most importantly, she told me that doing more work around the house is good for my children.

I jumped on the Internet to confirm this good news. And of course she was correct:

First of all, doing chores teaches children new skills.

Doing chores makes children feel competent and builds their self-esteem.

Chores make them feel that they are contributing to the family, that they are part of the family “team.”

Doing chores shows children that family members need to help teach other.

Chores help children understand the importance of finishing assignments.

And when children help out with chores, it gives single moms a chance to sit down and breathe. And let’s face it: having a more relaxed mom is good for everyone in the family.

So starting tonight, my children will be helping out by clearing and setting the table. They can also start sorting their laundry and emptying the dishwasher, but I don’t want to throw too much at them at once. They’ve done all these chores before, just not regularly enough.

One of the reasons I do most of the work around here is because it’s really really hard to teach my kids how to do things my way. Sure they can load the dishwasher, but half the dishes end up facing the wrong way and the glasses end up where the silverware should be. It’s just easier to do it myself than to teach my kids how to do things. I find it nearly impossible to just relax and look the other way when they don’t do them perfectly at first.

So I guess some plates are going to break, and some laundry will be lost. But for my good, and for my children’s good, I’ve got to move out of my role of doing everything around here and move “into a support role.”

Hallelujah! Who needs a house manager when you’ve got kids?