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.

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.

Does it Spark Joy? (a post-divorce primer)

Home organizer Marie Kondo sparked a little controversy last week when she was quoted in a New York Times article saying that people should clear out their closets by looking at each item and discarding it if it does not “spark joy.”

The article has created a little sensation – and some outrage. But I get Ms. Kondo. In fact, I will take it further. There are a lot of things that we can discard in our lives if they don’t spark joy. I don’t mean a job, or a house, or the bills, or exercise. I’m talking about the little things in life that drain your spirits and drag you down.

My high-conflict divorce bulldozed through my existing life, creating intense havoc and chaos. My old normal is gone. I am no longer a stay-at-home-mom. I have no hopes of joining the famous country club where friends spend their days beating each other up on the tennis courts. (Okay, this is a blessing in disguise.) My children will need to leave their sweet, wonderful school. My children have no college funds; my retirement money was long ago passed over to divorce attorneys.

Most of us lose a lot. But at the same time, I’ve learned that something has to move in to replace the loss – at least if we want to move ahead and rebuild a better life. Things must be discarded; new things must take their place.

So I like Ms. Condo’s philosophy: Does it spark joy?

In fact, I’ve been following her philosophy unwittingly, dropping the things that I really hate in my life, and also the little things that cause me stress or a very distinctive lack of joy.

So here’s my Spark of Joy Manifesto – a work in progress.

  • I will no longer buy ugly wrapping paper from the PTA. It is cheap and it rips, and I resent the shakedown and all the emails I receive about it. I will use the money towards my annual contribution to the school instead.
  • I will no longer fill every awkward pause in a conversation with babble, just to make someone else feel less uncomfortable. I have been doing this since childhood, and I’m done.
  • I will take my children out of town on an occasional weekend – even if my nine-year-old has to miss a soccer game. (I know, I know, the horrors!)
  • I will no longer listen to gossip about people that I haven’t even met. I will no longer listen to tirades against people, period. And I will go out of my way to stand up for every single working mom and divorced mom when someone starts dishing on them.
  • I will say no. No, I can’t give 20 percent more to the school fund than last year. No, I can’t leave early from work to drive your child home from soccer. No, I cannot find 20 bottles of authentic Japanese soda for Japan Day for a bunch of seven-year-olds.
  • I will be more honest with friends. “Yes, I’m still going through a bit of a difficult time in terms of finding enough hours in the day to do everything I need to do,” would be a good start. “Yes, I do need help.” And, “Yes, thank you for the offer of help.”
  • I will no longer attend any parties or social events unless I want to. And I will leave when I want to leave, even if I’m the first one out the door.
  • I will no longer be the first person to volunteer to bring all the food to every school and sporting event because of working mom guilt.
  • I will not even consider doing a joint parent-teacher conference with my ex. Ever.
  • I will start taking an hour of lunch at work every day – for a run, for a yoga class, for a lunch with friends, or even just a drive.
  • I will do everything I can in life for my children, but I will also start taking better care of myself. And that might mean that I miss a game or two. It might mean that I can’t stay at an event if their crazy father is there. And it might mean that we need more babysitter help around here so I can go for a run after work or take a writing class one night a week.

And here is the biggie: I will stop the guilt. I did the best I could. I am deeply and truly sorry that I married this man in my twenties and had children with him. I did not understand. I was fooled. He fooled me. I did not see through him until it was too late.

But I did not cause the problems in the marriage. I did not cause his issues with addiction or mental illness or serial infidelity. I did not cause the divorce. I will do whatever I can do for my children to make this the best possible life for them. But I will no longer live in shame and a constant state of feeling like I can never do enough for my sweet children because I failed them by getting a divorce.

I am working overtime at discarding most everything in my own secret closet, which consists of layers and layers of shame and guilt – if only Ms. Kondo could find a way to show us divorced moms how to do that. But for now, I’m sticking with her philosophy. If it’s not necessary and if it does not spark any joy, it’s going out with the trash.


Kissing Your Socks Goodbye, New York Times


One Crap Day in the Life of a Divorced Working Mom: A Vent

I’m still new to this. It was always so easy to get babysitters. I live in the shadow of one of the best colleges in the country, which gives me an ever-evolving group of cute, eager babysitters. 

But I didn’t anticipate that the vast majority of students don’t have cars and don’t really want to babysit every day in the afternoon. And that competition for girls who do have cars and want to babysit every day is fierce, especially when you get a very late start on your babysitting ads because you assumed it would be so easy. Like back when you were a SAHM.

So I’m in between babysitters. My new babysitter starts next week, just in time for school. But today I had no one. So I did what any working single mother would do: I cobbled together a mess of a day.

7:00 am  Dragged the kids out of bed. They are still jet-lagged from our trip to California a week ago because their father allowed them to stay up each night until 11 pm since that trip. They actually called me at 11:30 pm last week, making me realize that I can no longer always control my children’s schedules or health or welfare. 

8:30 am  Dropped the children off at my friend’s house. She is a pediatrician and at work, but her nanny will watch them. A fun double playdate. They are thrilled; I am thankful.  

8:45 am  Mystery traffic. I will be late for work. I think inappropriately mean thoughts about the cute young stay-at-home-moms pushing strollers along the sidewalks. I think appropriately mean thoughts about why every other person in my neighborhood suddenly seems to have a white Mercedes SUV. I try not to beep because my children’s school sticker is prominently displayed the back of my car. It’s a small city and I don’t want any Mercedes drivers to start talking about the crazy divorced beeping mom. 

9:15 am  Had to park on the roof of the university parking lot because I’m late. I worry that I might have been tailgating a very important workplace person all the way up to the roof. I hustle out of my car and hope that she doesn’t spot me.

10:50 am  My friend calls me, breathless. She tells me that her nanny just contacted her, and that my son is terribly sick. The nanny says he became blind for a few moments and had no pulse before vomiting. Oh my god, I think. It’s Ebola. Or meningitis. I babble something incoherent to my thirty-something, childless boss and rush out of work. She seems sympathetic but somewhat skeptical.

11:20 am  I pull up to my friend’s house. From a block away, I have spotted my dying son running around in the street with the other kids. He looks pretty healthy to me.

11:30 am I finally get my son in the car after listening to my friend’s nanny describe the situation in detail. She wants me to bring my son to the emergency room immediately. She will later tell my friend, the pediatrician, that my son has blood pressure problems and had a stroke. (Meanwhile, my daughter chooses to stay there with her friend. She is unimpressed with her brother’s illness or by the nanny’s panic.)

11:34 am  My friend calls, mortified, and tells me that her nanny is a little crazy. And that there is probably no medical rhyme or reason behind why my child’s heart would stop beating and then start back up frenetically, and he would be blinded by vomit and then have a stroke at the age of nine. But it’s too late. I’ve already called my own pediatrician’s office and put them all in a panic. They will squeeze us in at 2:30, even though I promised to be back at work by 1:15.

Noon: It’s quiet in my house. My perfectly healthy son with no fever son plays Minecraft. I edit something and send it off to my colleague. And then there are suddenly voices downstairs and I realize that today is cleaning lady day. It’s usually my favorite day of the week because I cannot afford these wonderful ladies but their weekly work keeps me sane. I explain the situation and they laugh, relieved that they don’t have to change the sheets or clean my children’s shared bedroom. I start feeling better.

1 pm  My sweet college, car-less babysitter shows up with my daughter. She has obviously heard the story from Crazy Nanny. I explain that my son isn’t really sick. It’s all a big misunderstanding. Her eyes grow large, but she has perfect manners and doesn’t say a thing. 

1:30 pm  I roll back into work, into my same spot on the roof. When I arrive, there are workmen in my office. They want to know if I smell garlic in the mornings in my office. I think about it. “Not today,” I say. They ask me if there were any other odors around breakfast time. “Yes, today it was eggs and some sort of spicy meat,” I tell them. They wrinkle their noses in disgust, and I somehow feel responsible. You see, my office is above a massive venting systems that vents the entire complex of buildings where I work, including several areas with cafeterias and fast food restaurants. The men advise me to never, ever open my windows. I tell them that it’s necessary because the average temperature in my office is 58 degrees, and I need some warmer air. They ask if I want them to turn off the air-conditioning, and I nearly scream NO, just thinking about the last time they did that. I worked in a swampy 88 degrees for days. They leave, telling me that the exhaust system is emitting “very dangerous” fumes and warn me not to ever open my windows again. As soon as they leave, I shiver and want to open the windows despite the fumes that would make me sick. But then I remember I can’t die, because then my EX will raise my sweet children. I leave the windows closed and take out my illegal space heater and plug it in.

2:50 pm  My pediatrician’s office calls. I forgot to cancel the appointment. I tell that they he’s perfectly okay now. That I am back at work. There is a long pause on the other end. 

4:45 pm  I ask my childless boss in her thirties if I can work at home tomorrow. She says yes, because she knows she’s only in charge for two more days, and because she is a very nice person. Our real boss starts on Tuesday. I suspect that my temporary boss is worried about me and whether I can pull it together in time before the new boss realizes that I’m a mess right now.

5:15 pm I get to my car and realize it’s filled with moving boxes. I had packed them up last night, ready for the storage space I rented. I need to declutter my house and stage it for sale in a few weeks. I had meant to drop off the boxes at lunchtime. Now I know I can’t leave them in my car overnight, or someone will break into the car. Sigh.

6 pm  Home to my healthy children and my sweet babysitter, I give her $100 in cash and think about all the things I could buy with that money. 

7 pm I feed my children microwaved chicken fingers, an heirloom tomato, an avocado, and organic raspberries. NOTE: I did not expect them home tonight; Wednesdays are their night with EX, but apparently he is traveling. Again. (Which is fine.)

7:30 pm  Off to the storage space. Fun! The office is closed, and there is no moving cart visible. I give my son my cell phone and some vague and hopefully non-threatening safety directions, ask my daughter to hold open the door, and I start carrying boxes into the deserted complex. My daughter holds her nose and keeps asking why our particular storage unit smells so bad. My son tells her he bets that homeless people sleep there. He seems sure of it, and my danger instincts kick in – something is wrong in that place. I know that a civics lesson is in order, but I’m scared, which happens very rarely, and we all hustle to the car. 

8:15 pm  My daughter tells me she’ll never take a shower again. She hates them. I smile calmly and try to convince her.

8: 35 pm  Standoff. I let my son explain Minecraft to me and ignore my daughter who keeps telling me how much she hates soap and water and that soap is bad for the environment. She is eight.

8:45 pm  I give in. “Fine, don’t take a shower, ever again, I don’t really care,” I tell her. She looks at me and shrugs her shoulders and finally turns on the water.

9:15 pm  I read two chapters of a Judy Blume Fudge book. I wonder if it’s a little sassy for them, but they like it. I like it too. We laugh and my kids ask for a dog. And a parrot. I realize that my daughter used no shampoo in her hair and probably no soap on her body. I put everyone to bed anyhow. Hugs all around – showers or no showers, parrot or no parrot, divorce or no divorce.

10 pm  My daughter comes downstairs and tells me she can’t sleep. I walk her back up, tuck her in, and hug her again.

10:15 pm  See 10 pm.

10:30 pm  See 10 pm, but I’m writing this vent, and I tell her to go and sleep in my bed. It’s been a long day, and I know it will work. She will be asleep within minutes. 

10:40 pm  She’s asleep. I drink a glass of wine. I’m working from home tomorrow. 

Getting Ready to Walk

Getting Ready to Walk

Status: 2 1/2+ years of Separation, and the Divorce of the Century is nowhere near finished. Update: Job interviews have started for me, after staying at home with my children for nearly ten years. The Good: The jobs aren’t bad. … Continue reading