Monday, April 9, 2012

The Makeover

Jenny marched into the house with armloads of colorful and sensuous folds of luxurious fabric draped over her arms and piled up to her chin. A bulky Nordstrom Rack shopping bag hung on her wrist, filled with a mish-mash of expensive looking shoes.

I’d known Jenny since we were 14. In high school, she was my constant companion as sidekick, confidante, and best friend. We’d stayed friends over the years, even though our lives took decidedly different turns. She went away to college, joined a sorority, got a degree, and found a high-profile sales job downtown. She drove a shiny, black, vintage BMW convertible, had weekly pedicures and manicures, and her bleached blonde tresses tended to on a regular basis at a salon. She tanned, drank cosmopolitan martinis with wealthy businessmen at the downtown hot spots during happy hour, and vacationed in Europe.

She also had the most amazing boobs. Her chest investment had paid off over the years, and she was wined and dined often by some of Portland’s most powerful men. She even enjoyed a brief stint as the lover of a handsome and famous western-music troubadour. Compared to me, she was a celebrity and centerfold. Still, like her implants, we were the perfect pair. After several weeks of late night dinner parties and club socials, she’d come to my house to decompress. She would bring the wine, and I would provide the meatloaf and homemade mashed potatoes while she would regale me with her sex-in-the-city adventures.

After the kids kissed Auntie Jenny goodnight, we’d both slip into our sweats. Jenny’s sported a Nike swoosh on the hip and she’d wear a cleavage-flattering tank, whereas mine were usually Hanes sweatpants with the drawstring waistband and tight elastic gathered at the ankles that made my body resemble a Jimmy Dean sausage link. I topped it off with one of Mike’s XL hoodies emblazoned with a past softball team’s logo. Jenny usually used her attire to frame her bust as though it were a great work of art, or at least a really good replica. I hid mine as strategically as possible because I likened my profile to an apple on a stick.

Jenny and I would arrange ourselves on my couch and stay up late, laughing at movies she’d brought over and played on her projector laptop from work. Our lives were almost the direct opposite of each other’s, but our history and humor kept us tightly bound. She helped me remember how to laugh. She helped me remember what I was like before I became a wife and mother, what I was like when I had ideas and aspirations that went beyond figuring out which grocery store had the best coupons that week.

The kids were with my parents for the day, and Jenny had come over to be my stylist. Over the past few weeks of turmoil, she had come to my rescue. Her highly coiffed and polished exterior hid a heart of gold that far outshone her carefully gilded blonde highlights. She was always there for me, and her loyalty was unquestionable. One thing that always delighted and amazed me about our friendship was the intangible understanding, the almost psychic bond she had with me. Jenny knew things she shouldn’t have, things I’d never told her about. She always called when I needed her. She called me moments after Mike had confessed on that awful Valentine’s Day morning. After learning the devastating truth about Mike, I couldn’t bear to see anyone with my face puffed and swollen that night, so I hid in my darkened house. Jenny again knew what I needed and she delivered. I found a brown bag with Kung Pao chicken and M&M’s on my doorstep. Jenny didn’t intrude and beg for salacious details. Instead, she gave me much needed time to process the news alone, while somehow knowing I also needed Chinese take-out and chocolate.

We spread the garments across my bed. Jenny’s exquisite taste was apparent as I read the designer labels hidden inside the fully-lined, fitted jackets, blazers, cashmere sweaters, and perfectly tailored pants and skirts designed specifically to show off the feminine figure. Dana Buchman, Badgley Mischka, Elie Tahari, Banana Republic, and J.Crew were brands I’d only looked at before in catalogs, and if I was lucky, on the racks at Goodwill. Here they were, pressed and displayed across my bed as mix-and-match wardrobe essentials, and Jenny was guiding me through the process like a fairy-godmother-turned-personal-shopper. She tried everything on me, commenting on how different fabrics draped and hung on my slender, new figure and showed me how to piece together scarves, jewelry, shoes, and wraps. For the first time in a long time, I looked at myself in the mirror in my bathroom and was hopeful. With my friend’s expertise and loving touch, I was starting to come out of the frumpy shell that had cloaked me for the past 14 years.

In addition to a new wardrobe changing my appearance, weight loss was an unexpected side effect of going through the traumatic end of my marriage. When people asked how I lost weight so quickly, I explained that emotional stress was the ideal diet enhancer. Perhaps crying fits burned a lot of calories, but I also wasn’t eating like I used to. I had allowed myself to buy groceries at Trader Joe’s and was eating things like yogurt and fresh vegetables instead of Hamburger Helper and half-gallons of Western Family ice cream. Sometimes, I just plain forgot to eat. When it did occur to me, I would often decide to just push through the hunger, making it a challenge. Finally, there was something in my life that I could control.

I was down to a size four. I never imagined I could fit into sleek designer clothes. She dressed me in outfit after outfit that made me look elegant, professional, and even sexy. I tried on every shoe in the bag and realized quickly the difference a gorgeous heel can make to the silhouette of a woman’s leg, and how my feet looked much different in a peep-toe kitten heel and sheer seamed stockings than they had in secondhand Birkenstocks and tube socks. I couldn’t help but imagine scenes from Looney Tunes cartoons, when Bugs cinched in his waist, curled his ears into a movie-star hair helmet, and slathered on red lipstick to his instantly full lips. I felt like Bugs Bunny in drag, but I looked more like Jessica Rabbit.

As the closing act in my femme fatale makeover, Jenny fussed with my hair, cut short at the neighborhood Supercuts, and spiked it with product that smelled like Hawaiian flowers and banana. Wisps of playful red hair framed my face. I felt like an injured bird being let out of the cage back into the wild, taking flight after being nurtured back to health.

The next day, I was going to walk into the culinary school where Jenny worked to try to land a spontaneous interview. I desperately needed a job, and she let me know about an opening at the school she worked at in the admissions department. She had told me that about 350 other résumés, just like mine, were in a stack on the Director of Admissions’ desk, many of which had real sales and work experience and a full degree behind them. It didn't stop me, though. I had three children relying on me - three mouths to feed, three little heads to put a roof over, and most importantly, I wanted to finally provide my family with health insurance.

Mike had either been let go from or quit countless jobs since I'd known him. As a family, we never knew from one week to the next if the next ear infection, pink eye outbreak, or high fever would be covered by health insurance, and I was constantly fretting, not knowing for sure if I could call a doctor or take a child to the emergency room if necessary, due to Mike's erratic employment history. I remember applying for my family to be on the Oregon Health Plan emergency welfare insurance program a couple of times while married to him. It was embarrassing, but more importantly, it was necessary. Most of my neighbors and friends’ children were covered by their husband’s health insurance. I didn't know one parent that worried about that basic need other than me. It was a guilty secret, never knowing for sure if my children would be covered. Of course, I never knew for sure if I could pay the next utility bill, or even if I could afford milk, bread, and eggs. But not having health insurance for the kids petrified me more than anything else. I found myself, on more than one occasion, collecting the soda pop cans found in the neighborhood on walks with the children and trying to return Mike's empty Bud Light cans so I could afford a few groceries.

Never again, I told myself. To me, it would be a luxury not to worry about providing my family with the bare necessities like heat, food, a roof over our heads, health insurance, and dental insurance.

I needed my own job. I needed to be sure I could independently take care of myself and my children. The local culinary school was offering a salary of $34,000 per year, five thousand more than Mike had ever made at any of the multiple jobs he'd worked at since I'd been with him. I had to get it.

A week after Jenny had given the Director of Admissions my resumé, I still had not received a phone call. Desperate times called for desperate measures. I was going to visit him, unannounced, unexpected, and looking my best. I was determined to talk him into giving me the job. This unannounced visit to the Director of Admissions required an extra dose of audacity. I carefully wrapped my short and experience-slender resumé in a huge white gift box, tied it with an oversized royal blue ribbon, and begged my friend RJ to drive me to Portland for the day. I had never driven downtown, and the one-way streets and unfamiliar territory scared me. Not only did I need moral support, but I also needed a chauffer and someone to hang out with my children in the car while I pitched myself to a hiring executive in a borrowed suit. She graciously agreed, and arrived at my apartment with time to spare, smiling supportively.

RJ dropped me off at the front of the culinary school offices and hugged me reassuringly. Faith was asleep in her car-seat in the backseat of her minivan. Jackson and Claire sat looking out the window at the city they had never visited. I gave RJ a last squeeze, trying to glean any confidence from her that I could. Catching a reassuring look from her as we parted, I took a deep breath, threw back my shoulders, grabbed my enormous box with my tiny resumé, and stepped out onto the downtown city sidewalk.

Inside the twelve story office building, Margie, a middle-aged blonde, sparkly-eyed little lady, took an immediate liking to me for some reason. She giggled and ushered me into the Director’s office after offering me puff pastries from the tray at her desk that the students refreshed daily. When I walked into his office, even though I still felt like an overweight, undersexed housewife, he treated me like the confident and professional woman that I had disguised myself as. After all, I don't think it was every day that a doe-eyed, hyperventilating woman in spiky red hair and suit came rushing into the office carrying an enormous gift box wrapped in an oversized blue ribbon. Without a question, he welcomed me into his office.

"Hi there. You look like Annette Benning!"

I smiled broadly. This interview was off to a good start. Confidence filled me, and after the 30 minute interview I left feeling very positive. Even though I didn’t have a job offer, it wouldn’t take long for the phone to ring with good news.

Walking back to the minivan, I caught a glimpse of myself in the department store window and did an immediate double take. Subconsciously, I expected to see my old self, the predictable, safe, forest green minivan of the woman that I used to be. Instead, looking back at me was a sleek new sports car. I couldn’t help but stop and smile for a minute. I sashayed my hips and concentrated on walking in my borrowed high heels the rest of the way to the car where my kids were waiting for their smiling, and soon to be employed, mommy.

"The Makeover" is a chapter from my memoir Illumination - How One Woman Made Light of the Darkness.  (For information on independent bookstores to purchase the book from, please visit

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Big Bang, 10 Years Later

It was Valentine’s Day. Yet there I was, blubbering in the bathtub.

I’d spent a fabulous romantic 45th birthday in San Francisco with Noah, and chose to look at the 10 year anniversary of the Big Bang as a necessary evil that, in one fell swoop, practically catapulted me into a new life and later, the arms of a wonderful man who cherished me.

On the afternoon of February 14th, our plane landed back in Portland and Noah and I were picked up from the airport and taken to dinner at a small Italian restaurant in the St. John’s neighborhood. Noah’s parents graciously wished me a belated happy birthday and toasted Noah and I with glasses of red wine over calzone. Later that evening, as I relaxed in a bubble bath, my phone rang. The word “kids” flashed across the screen and I cheerfully answered.

My heart sank when I heard Mike’s voice on the line. Today of all days I didn’t want to even think of him much less speak to him.

“Hey, Soph, on Friday Faith is going to a slumber party then Wanda will drop her off at her dance practice in the morning."

It wasn’t a question. Mike was informing me of how Faith wouldn’t be dropped off on my weekend. Again.

This time, I didn’t push back. For the past several months I’d been firmly but politely telling the kids and Mike that there were going to be times I would veto a slumber party or volleyball practice on my weekends so I could spend time with my kids. The older kids get, the more challenging it is for any parent to count on face to face time with a teen or pre-teen and even harder to have that time as an every-other-weekend non custodial parent. My children are extremely social and athletic, which is good. But if I said “ok” every time they wanted to make other plans or their dad and Wanda insisted they go to a practice or game, I’d never see them other than on a field while I sat on the sidelines cheering from a distance.

I’d tried to express this to Mike in counseling. He’d simply reacted by blustering about the importance of sports. I knew exactly where he thought I fit into our children’s lives and it was several levels below athletics.

After eight years of acting against my maternal instincts and disdain for the habitual over scheduling of my kids, I finally stood my ground early one Saturday morning in September and for the first time, didn’t take Faith to her 3rd season in a row of “Fall Ball” softball. It was an all-day tournament 20 miles from home, in the rain, and she was too tired to begin with. That was definitely not the way I wanted to spend my precious time with my daughter that weekend. I told Faith she didn’t have to go. I emailed her coach, copied Mike, and let him know that since I’d only found out that Mike had obligated her to the tournament the day before, we were making other plans and the team would have to do without her that day at least.

Mike was furious. He pulled Faith off the team entirely and told her it was her mother’s fault for influencing her and he told her that she had to pay him back the money he’d spent signing her up. Our parenting plan states that we have joint legal custody and decisions about school and sports activities are meant to be discussed and agreed upon together, before obligating the other parents parenting time. He also told Wanda to block my telephone number, and Noah’s, from all three of my children’s cell phones as my “punishment,” which was even the word he used when we met once with a counselor about the level of difficulty between us.

“Damn straight, it is like punishment. She didn’t take Faith to her game that we paid for.”

He also said that the cell phones they’d bought my children as Christmas gifts the year before, and most likely used a portion of the child support I paid, was a “luxury” and that they didn’t buy the kids cell phones for my convenience therefore, they had every right to block my land line and cell phone numbers from them.

“You can just call the landline at night or go through me and Wanda if you need to talk to them.” The counselor just shook his head and nothing was accomplished by the end of our hour.
When I later insisted he be rational and fair and unblock my number after months of the blocking continued, he’d been so miffed at my audacity to ask instead of “dropping it” as he’d ordered me to do that he took the kids phones away from them completely, telling them it was their mother’s fault they’d lost the right to them.

Several heated conversations followed. I asked Mike and Wanda multiple times, week after week, in a fair and polite appeal, to please unblock my phone from my children’s.

Mike sneered at me and his voice was condescending as I crouched in the bathtub on Valentine’s Day, cringing as I heard myself wimpily asking him yet AGAIN to unblock me from my children’s phones.

“I’ll think about it,” he finally said.

On the exact 10 year anniversary of the day my ex husband did what he did to end our marriage, I finally felt something deep within me snap.

Not only did he not even fathom the fact that he was mocking and bullying me, but he didn’t realize or know it was exactly 10 years to the day that I had answered the door of our safe, suburban home to two policemen looking for my husband.

When I hung up the phone, instead of feeling hurt and helpless, a new emotion surfaced, and for once, I embraced it.


(To Be Continued)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Shower Confessional

"Shades of Gray" from Michelle DuPuis

Our bathroom is 11-year-old Faith’s confessional.  The combination of warm running water, steam, and the familiar smell of Suave Strawberry shampoo mingled with Johnson’s Baby Bath unhinge my youngest daughter’s emotions.  The shower curtain, drawn between us like a confessional screen, provides just enough privacy to unlock her inhibitions.  The warmth and security of the steam blanket wrapped around her often extracts long, pent up thoughts and fears from the darker corners of her mind and shoos them out into the open where I can help her turn them over and make sense of them.

Our ritual starts with me running her bath or shower and asking her to go upstairs for her robe and pajamas.  She returns and closes the door behind her.  After she’s settled cozily beneath a blanket of bubbles in the tub or has pulled the shower curtain and warmed up, she’ll often call for me to return.  We’ve had some of our most important conversations in this sanctuary.  
On a recent Sunday night, there was another installment in our running sessions, one that I was not prepared for.


“Yes Honey?”

“Can I talk to you about something?”

“Of course, Sweetie.  Always.”

“Mom, last time, in the summer, I talked to Ryan.  He’s a really good person to talk to about this stuff.  I trust him and he… he knows.”

I was caught off guard.  Not many of my daughter’s conversations begin with reference to her 29-year-old step brother, Mike’s oldest son and my former stepson.

At a loss for words, I waited, knowing that she was summoning her thoughts and feelings to the surface.

“He told me not to tell you because you’d probably call Children’s Protective Services again or something and get dad and Wanda in trouble.  He said it was okay and not a big deal and dad didn’t mean it.  He said it happened to him too when he was a little kid.”

My heart was caught in my throat.  I could barely breathe.


I was glad for the curtain between us.  I didn’t want Faith to see the apprehension in my face.  I worried that she might not have continued if she had.

“Ryan said, when he was a kid, dad scared him too.  He used to get super mad….like, remember?  When Dad yelled ‘Shut your face, Faith! Shut your face!’ And I didn’t even know who he was?  Well, like that.”

“What happened that Ryan said you shouldn’t tell me, Faith?”

The story, like a pent up stream of water, came gushing out.

“Well, when I was getting ready for Gospel Christmas last night, and I thought I looked cute.  I had on my leggings and this cute shirt and top.  But then Wanda came in.  She didn’t even knock.  I don’t like it mom, when she barges into my room.  All she says is ‘it’s just me, don’t mind me,’ but sometimes she just says nothing.  Even when I’m in the shower.  I don’t like it, mom.  It makes me uncomfortable.”
This was another subject I’d need to get back to with Faith.  For the time being, I steered her back to the story about her outfit, and Gospel Christmas.

“What happened after you got dressed?”

“Wanda hated my outfit.  Like usual.  She said I looked ‘weird.’  She got me jeans and a tee shirt, and Mom, it was Gospel Christmas.  I wanted to dress up for once.  It’s the holidays, and at night, and downtown.  I don’t get to get dressed up that much and I liked what I picked.  It wasn’t weird.  But oh no, Wanda had to tell me it was ugly.  I’m so tired of her telling me what to wear!  Why does she always care about how I look so much?”

Faith was fuming.  She was not timid or crying.  She was definitely mad.

“Then, I slammed my drawers when she went downstairs.  Then, dad stomped up the stairs REALLY loud and fast, like when he gets super mad.  He ran into my room and I was scared mom... he was scary.  He slapped my face.  Mom, I know I probably shouldn’t have acted so mad at Wanda.  I was having a temper.  I was having a meltdown.  But dad was so mad, and he just slapped me right on my face.”

Mike had hit the children before.  About a year ago I got a call from then 16-year-old Claire, telling me through sobs that her dad had spanked her after she had an argument with Wanda.  It had resulted from another yelling match between them, this time about an upper ear piercing Claire had not gotten permission for.  I’d called both my lawyer and our family counselor immediately.  They both asked the same thing:  “Did she call the police and is there any bruising?”  No, and no.  Again, they both said if there are no bruises, and the child did not call the police, there was nothing that could be done.  I made a mental note for future reference.

I hadn’t noticed any bruises on Faith’s face, but I’d double check after the shower.

“How hard did he slap you, Faith?”

“Not hard.  It wasn’t hard mom, it was just a slap.  But Mom, isn’t that not okay?  I don’t want to be one of those kids who gets abused.  God, Mom, it sounds so weird to say now, ‘my dad hit me.’  I shouldn’t have acted so mad mom, but he didn’t just talk to me.  A parent should act like a parent, you know, like talk to their kid about it.”

The last time Faith and I had a long conversation about parenting, I tried to give her some tools to use to make sense of the different parenting styles she’s encountered.  I used my sister-in-law as an example of how a good parent, who is firm but constructive and loving, handles discipline with her young boys.  She and her husband never lose their temper and would never hit or scream at their kids, no matter how stressful the situation.  They are always in control of their actions, no matter how carried away the boys might get.  When my kids have felt bad before, and come clean to me about things said in the heat of frustration and anger at their dad’s house, I’ve asked them - “Do you think Katie or Brian would ever scream at Evan to ‘shut your face’?  The last time Emma just laughed in understanding of the absurdity that such good parents would do such a thing.

Last December their stepmother’s mother, Grandma Crater, had dropped the kids off to Noah at the mall by the airport.  Noah had noticed that she was driving her daughter’s car, and asked me later, “Doesn’t she have a breathalyzer in her car?  I don’t think she can drive another car.”  We had driven to the beach that weekend with the kids and they openly dished on the matter, which appropriately ended up with an open Child Protective Services case and interviews with the kids.  Their dad and Wanda had accused the kids of lying about feeling afraid and disallowed them (attempted to, anyways) from talking to me at all about Wanda’s family.  I had taken the opportunity to use my sister-in-law and her husband again as parenting examples in discussions with my kids about this matter.

“Can you imagine Katie and Brian saying that their kids were lying about seeing liquor bottles in the front seat?  Or that the breathalyzer was just for asthma?”  They just laughed.  It was nice to realize that my kids were now old enough to see through most of the BS without any help.  I knew it stung Mike and Wanda because they rarely missed an opportunity to accuse me of fabricating stories, and their radio silence on this matter with me was surely due to the file sitting somewhere in a CPS office with their names on it.

“Faith, I’m so sorry, Honey.  But you’re right -- it’s not okay for him to slap you, even if it isn’t hard.”

In the past, Mike had made a big show of telling Ryan, and then later our son Jackson, that it’s never alright to hit a girl.  (I’d taken it farther and told all my kids - “Don’t ever hit anyone”).  Yet here he was, a 50-plus years old, 6’3, 230 lbs., breaking his only cardinal rule again.  He slapped our 11-year-old daughter right before taking the family to “Gospel Christmas.”  It seemed like an episode of a really bad Afternoon Special about child abuse.

“Ryan said, it happened to him too.  He said, when he was little, Dad poked him in the chest, like this” —she poked her head outside the shower curtain and pantomimed an angry, tightlipped face, bugged out eyes, and motioned a stiff, repetitive jab to the chest and throat.

“He said dad poked him so hard, he at first felt like he couldn’t breathe.  Then, dad saw he might have hurt him, and he felt bad.  He said he told him he was sorry, and hugged him and asked if he was okay.”

I was temporarily at a loss for words.

“But mom, Dad didn’t say anything like that to me.  I was so mad.  I was crying.  I was crying and crying like crazy.  But dad didn’t act like anything happened after that!  He just acted normal.  Not mad, not sad... like nothing even happened.  He ALWAYS does that!  I don’t get it!”

Her anger had bubbled over and Faith was now crying.  Tears were flowing as she stood in the shower, warm water pummeling her from above.  I knew what she was talking about.  I’d written down all my dreams, in a journal, when I was married to her dad.  They reflected what happened in my life with him.  Mike, in my experience, lacked the ability to know or acknowledge when he’d done something wrong.  To this day, I always wondered how he could do what he’d done to our family and marriage back then, and just seem to forget.  Or worse yet, he’d ended up blaming me for how I’d reacted to what he’d done.  When I made him move out, he’d been angry with me too.  He’d told me how selfish I was.  He was two people, A Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character -- a jovial, loving father one minute -- a swearing, angry, monster who could barely restrain himself the next.

I used to think (hope?) that it was just me.  Either I overreacted to his temper, or I’d done something that deserved that level of anger.  I hoped that he had since matured, and having gotten away from me as his wife, he wouldn’t lose his temper anymore.  Apparently, I was wrong, and my kids are stuck dealing with it.

I remembered something else Faith had said.

“Faith, what happened in the summer that you told Ryan about and he told you not to tell me?”

“Well, I was so scared of dad back then too.  I took a nap one day, you know, during softball, when I was on that team at State.  I woke up too late, and I was really tired, and dad was mad.  He was so mad.  He told me to hurry up, I was late for softball practice, and he pushed my face.”

She’d turned off the shower, wrapped up in a towel and showed me her open hand, fingers splayed straight and her arm locked, exaggeratedly stiff.  Again, her face was imitating a mask of seething anger.  I’d seen that face a long time ago myself, on my ex husband when he was frustrated with me.  Faith was sobbing now.

“Mom, I don’t know what to do.  Dad acts like it’s nothing.  Ryan told me not to tell you.  Most of the time, dad is nice.  Before he’s been nice, anyway.  But mom, he’s not my dad anymore.  I just don’t even want him to be my dad anymore.”

We sat together on the edge of the tub.  I held her shoulders as they shook.  I worried about what to do next.  The last time I took Claire to the counselor and called my lawyer, it didn’t sound like there was any way I could stop what I knew was going on at the other house.  If I said anything, I might be accused by my ex and the kids step mom that I was, to use a few of their favorite phrases -- “stirring things up,” “just trying to make us look bad,” and “trying to make yourself look good.”  If I confronted Mike, I was afraid that it would make things actually worse for the kids based on past experience.  A few years ago I’d urged Faith and Jackson to speak to their grade school counselor.  They were upset with some things going on at their other house and they kept saying that they want to live with Noah and me.  I’d told them to talk to her about the issues at their other house because she would listen and document the problems.  Instead, the counselor called their dad, without them knowing, and asked him to come to the school that day.  The kids walked into her office and saw him sitting there.  She proceeded to tell him what the kids had told her about Wanda, and how their step mom treated them and talked to them.  Mike told the counselor he didn’t know it was that bad, that he’d talk to Wanda and things would change.  Jackson and Faith told me when they got home that day, the first thing Mike did was tell Wanda that the kids had been talking about her to the school counselor.  She was furious.  They held a family meeting later that night, and their dad cried and told them he didn’t want them to someday move out, like Ryan had when he’d gone to live with his Grandma as a teen.  My kids didn’t want to hurt their dad.  They didn’t want to anger Wanda.  Wanda and their dad told them that if they moved in to live with their mom, they would leave their school, and neighborhood, sports teams and friends.  They were told not to go the counselor again.

“Faith, you have to help me so I can help our family.”

She nodded weakly.  I could tell she was exhausted.  Spent.

“Faith, I know you don’t want to get your dad in trouble.  I know you are not that comfortable talking to a counselor, but honey, it’s to help your dad too.  You have to think of how telling the truth can fix things.  It’s not being mean to your dad.  It’s not ‘telling on him.’  He shouldn’t hit.  You know that.  He’s the one who says that even.  Dads shouldn’t hit girls; not anyone.  YOU shouldn’t have to worry he’s going to hit at all when he’s mad.  It’s not okay.  I need you to talk to our counselor with me.  He knows your dad.  He will want to help him.  He remembers what we talked about with Claire last year when she moved out.  You can’t be afraid right now about hurting your dad’s feelings, or getting in trouble with Wanda.  Let’s at least meet him and he can give us some advice.  Maybe he’ll know what to do.”

I was also exhausted.  My kids were not in immediate physical danger that I knew of, but how close was the breaking point?  Things were not getting better.  The fact was, Mike was having a hard time staying appropriate and in control of himself.  His “Jekyll” character was still simmering just beneath the surface, and I’d be a bad parent if I waited for a bruising or a call to the police by one of the kids.  I would need to take another look at what it would take to get temporary custody.

Faith was limp.  She leaned against me.

“Mom?  I just want him to be away somewhere.  Put away.  Where he can’t touch me or see me or talk to me.  I want to tell him how I feel.  I want to just tell him how mad I am but not be afraid.”

My 11 year old daughter was saying what I’d thought but never been able to say, almost exactly
10 years ago, when our family first fell apart because of Mike’s lack of restraint and control.  Would my 13 year old son follow in his father’s footsteps?  With all the empty sermons his dad had spewed about not hitting girls, my tender, smart, loving son had told me recently that when his step mom had grabbed his arm, and he’d knocked her hand off of him, he’d told her, “Don’t touch me.”  He said she was furious.  “Then I’ll just have your dad touch you,” she said to him.  After telling me this story, he added:   “If Wanda ever does try to hit me, I’m going to punch her in the face.”   And with venom I’d never seen in Jackson’s calm blue eyes, little he belted a tight fisted punch into the air in our kitchen.

“No.  Jackson, I don’t care WHAT the circumstances, or HOW mad you are.   You don’t ever hit anyone.”

“I don’t care.  I’m going to hit her if she hits me.”

“Jackson, if you hit Wanda, YOU will be the one in trouble.  You are bigger now.  You are a teenager.  If you hurt or hit someone, it is called ‘assault,’ and you could go to Juvenile jail or have a record.  Or, worse yet, really hurt Wanda.  You cannot EVER hit. Violence is not the answer.”

“Mom.  I don‘t care.  She makes me so mad.  It’d be worth it.”

I called the counselor to set an appointment the following day.  As much as I worry about putting at risk the trust my kids put in me when they confide in me, I cannot stand by and not do take action to protect them, and maybe even Wanda and Mike, in the long run.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Unforced Errors in Co-Parenting


I resisted the urge to look up and scan the audience, but the temptation was just too great.  At least it didn’t take long to find her.  She was sitting alone and motionless in the stands about 30 rows above the high school gymnasium court.  For someone who I was accustomed to only seeing and hearing in action, usually barking orders at my kids or their father, this moment was surreal.  As I walked my daughter across the floor on “Senior Night” of her final home volleyball game, I couldn’t believe the emotion I was feeling for the woman – their stepmother – who over the course of the past eight years had done a formidable job of keeping as much distance between my children and me as possible.  That emotion?  Pity.

Only a few days earlier, Claire had called me in tears.

“Dad said he won’t walk me out onto the court for my last home volleyball game since I told him I didn’t want her out there with me.  Mom, I want you to do it.  Not her.”

To put it in volleyball terms, this was more than a side-out.

“Co-parenting” is just a slick new word for an old idea.  Cooperation (a word that even looks like a thinly veiled word scramble of “co-parenting”) is a concept most kids are introduced to at an early age.  From warming a sibling-to-be up to the idea that soon there will be a newborn in the house blindly expecting a share of limited resources, to songs on Sesame Street singing the praises of working together and getting along, cooperation and sharing are highly esteemed virtues in our society.

But in my situation (and from what I can tell, in far too many other divorced families), co-parenting has not really meant cooperation or a willingness to freely share the children.  As a non-custodial parent, my ex and his wife treat me as if I’m lucky to be involved at all in the lives of my children.  They’re constantly looking to spike the ball in my face.  In a word, they are bullies.  But instead of fighting with them, I tread lightly and try to complicate things as little as possible so as to avoid conflict for the benefit of my children.  My strength is in keeping the ball in the air, and when it comes to the situation with my children and my ex, it means I co-parent alone.

My daughter recently went on a little rant about this exact thing to my husband and me.

“It doesn’t have to be this way!  It doesn’t have to be this difficult!”

She was referring to the barriers that her father and stepmother are constantly building that gum up the machinery of a cooperative co-parenting relationship.

“I have a lot of other friends whose parents are now divorced and none of their situations are like this!”

She had a full head of steam that had been building, and she wasn’t going to stop until she got it all out.  In the early years, I told myself that this day would come if I was patient.  I wouldn’t fight, but I wouldn’t give up, either.  I’d just keep digging out spiked balls and lofting them back over the net.

My daughter was right about one thing – it didn’t have to be that difficult.  Yes, the dynamics of divorced and re-blended families are complex to say the least, and rarely perfect.  But common sense and calm heads must prevail in order for the game of parenting to not become playground chaos.  I urge divorced parents to observe just a few basic guidelines:

1. Don’t speak badly about your child/stepchild’s other parent, step parents or extended family.
2. Communicate with the other parent about important information on a regular basis without hostility.
3. Respect your child’s need to have equal contact with the other parent.

At my daughter’s volleyball game last week, as I sat on the bleachers waiting for her to signal me to join her, I saw her stepmother walk into the gym with her father.  I didn’t feel victorious watching stepmom start up the steps into the stands.  I didn’t feel like I’d “won” anything, even though for years she had acted like our relationship with each other was some kind of parenting contest.  I’ve never treated my relationship with my daughter like a contest, and in fact I tried for years to have a cooperative and sharing relationship with this woman.  As the evening unfolded, though, I only felt sorry for her.  She’d spent the last nine years of her life paying for my daughter’s volleyball uniforms, camps, weekend tournaments, and club team memberships.  She drove my daughter to her practices and watched almost every game.  I hadn’t.  In order to keep my job so that I could pay child support, I was only able to make the occasional game.  One could certainly make the argument that she deserved to stand on that court with my daughter that night, but she had undermined herself in the end.  When I had asked my 17-year-old daughter why she didn’t want her stepmother on the court with her that night, she responded,  “Because she’s been such an ass**** all these years.  I am not going to reward her.”  17-year-old girls can be mean and reactive, but this reaction was a long time coming.

I would openly discourage divorced parents from treating their children as pawns in an ongoing battle.  That will only do harm to the children.  But if there are divorced parents out there who just can’t see their situation in any other light, then maybe the story of the tortoise and the hare will help.   In the end of that story, the tortoise ends up winning the race because of his persistence, unwavering dedication, and most importantly, his patience.  The much speedier hare’s arrogance caused him to lose, even though he had all the qualities needed to win.  I missed out on a lot of memories with my children.  There’s no sugar-coating that fact.  But I am more confident than ever that the foundation for my relationships with my children, now 17, 13, and 11 years of age, will prove strong and enduring.  I can’t help but wonder if their father and stepmother feel very confident about the future of their relationships with the kids.

Kill shots can be effective in volleyball, but they don’t always land in the court, and if you’re not very good, unforced errors can prove your own undoing.

~This piece first appeared on Fathers and Families

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving Without My Kids

When you're divorced, usually you have to share your kids during the Holidays. 
For me, every other year is my year to celebrate in a very different way than when my kids are with me.  On Thanksgiving, this year at least, my children are celebrating with their father. 
It's hard.  But it's okay.  And, it's getting easier now that I've gotten more used to it.  I've adapted to this new way of living, and so have my kids.  Whether they are with me, or with their dad and step mom, they have definite staple traditions:  Turkey with all the trimmings, and family.
To be honest, there are moments when it hits me… that loneliness, the “missing them”, the reminder that things you thought would never change sometimes do.  The quiet of an empty house.   Sometimes I feel hollow, sorry for myself, and lonely.  My retreat during these darker times is to run a hot bath, light a few candles around it, and maybe even indulge in a little dark chocolate ice-cream and a glass of red wine.  (A beer and a pack of Red Vines do the trick for me as well).
I allow myself to wallow a little, feel the pain and sorrow of not having my children with me on the actual day of Thanksgiving, but then I make an absolute point of remembering what I am thankful for. 
·         My children’s and my health.
·         The fact that we all have many people in our lives that we love and who love us.
·         The knowledge that even when we spend time apart, we are still connected in the most important ways.
Maybe it’s easier for me now because I am used to it.  I’ve been apart from the “old version” of my family now for about nine years.  I have new traditions with my new (or as I call him, my “real”) husband and his family.  I still celebrate with my own parents, and even though the relationship with my ex and his new wife is not ideal, I know for sure that they love my kids and my children are safe, happy and will be well fed tomorrow night. 
Next year will be my year to celebrate Thanksgiving with them again.
But this year, I am quietly thankful for the things that really matter.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Real Cost of Custody Battles

This piece first appeared on Fathers and Families.

For the past eight years, I’ve adopted and grown into both the idea and reality of being a role reversal model of the mother as the non-custodial parent, but if current trends continue, the percentage of non-custodial parents will shrink.  That is because recent trends indicate that more progressive state laws are defaulting to split custody scenarios between divorced parents.  Of course there will be exceptions to this rule, but don’t children and their capable, loving, non-abusive parents deserve the right to equal parenting time?

That wasn’t the case seven years ago when my ex-husband and I agreed (with a handshake deal) that, based on our schedules and the better schools where he lived, it made sense for the kids to live with him during the week.  I failed to protect my legal interests in the matter.  I made the mistake of thinking that, because I believed it to be the status quo, one parent assumed the role of bread winner while the other parent filled the role of “main” or “custodial” parent.  I have joint legal custody of my children, but it really never occurred to me that I could (or should) have demanded and worked toward joint physical custody back when my ex and his new partner hired an attorney and put a very lopsided parenting plan in front of me to sign.

As my new reality sank in, I counted myself as one of the distraught and broken mothers who “lost custody” of their little ones.  I sought comfort online in forums and groups for mothers like me.  On those sites, I found comfort and camaraderie, but few solutions.  The women vented and prayed for each other, but there was little dialogue about a hardcore strategy for reshaping one’s co-parenting landscape into something more fair.   Frustrated, I recently turned to sites for divorced fathers who were trying to get shared custody of their children.

After finding a particularly noble and helpful forum for divorced fathers, I naively announced my arrival on their site.

“Hi guys!  I’m like you because I pay child support and only have my kids every other weekend and one night a week!” (I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the gist).

They swiftly corrected me.

“You are not like us.  Most of us have fought hard in court for the right to have our children at least 50% of the time.”

Oh, right.

To add insult to injury, even my kids’ stepmom reprimanded me for not starting a legal battle for custody years ago.  She took a verbal jab at me over dinner one evening as I tried to find a cooperative middle ground between us – the two women in my children’s lives.

“If they were my kids, I would have fought for them.”

She’s not alone – there’s an army of mommies out there incredulous at my adoption of the non-custodial mother role.  “How could you…?” is always at the root of their thinly veiled questions.

The parenting climate that my children are living in at their other house has deteriorated over the years.  I’ve always taken the high road in the co-parenting role to keep the peace for the sake of my children, but they now need my help, so I’ve had to figure out how to use my joint legal custody status for leverage in negotiating with my ex-husband.  The forum for divorced fathers that I found has provided what I need, and that is actionable advice.  In only two months time, I’ve picked up ideas, strategies, and tactics to employ in trying to level out the playing field in my co-parenting situation to bring it closer to what is fair and what is best for our children.

I believe in exhausting all avenues of negotiation before involving attorneys.  Once you “lawyer up,” even if the tone is civil, it’s hard to pretend that the peace process hasn’t been forsaken for all-out war.  For years, divorced parents have assumed it’s their duty to go to court to battle for custody.  Countless children have carried this cross, limping between broken homes as dinged and damaged trophies.

In the U.S., the divorce rate is commonly thought to be around 50% ( shows it being between 40% and 50%).  That divorce is such a hot button topic should be no surprise – it affects so many people in such a profound way.  Add to that (1) the way our legal system does not discourage, and essentially encourages, frivolous lawsuits, and (2) the 24-hour-sensational-news-cycle culture that pumps out books, blogs and news sites that splash titillating headlines on their covers about the who’s, why’s and how’s of every divorce from you to Maria Shriver – and it’s no surprise that so many divorcing and divorced people have a hard time turning off the noise and focusing on what is best for their children.

But if the nationwide trend towards shared custody continues, divorced parents could serve their children well by getting used to the concept and realities of cooperative co-parenting.  If the emotional well-being of the children is the agreed upon goal (and how can it not be, I have to remind myself with clenched teeth and fists quite often), then as adults and loving parents, we need to agree to terms and rules for a new reality – one in which our children are not the spoils of war.  The battlefield needs to give way to neutral ground where a broken family can lay the groundwork for fair and just terms that benefit, not hurt, the children involved.  Hopefully this trend towards shared physical custody will help pave the way.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Pearl of Wisdom

When I am stressed out or frustrated, wondering, like I often do, if I am doing the right thing for my children, I just look at them and a sense of calm washes over me.   They are all turning out well.

Really well, in fact.

The other day, Claire and I were hanging out, relaxing, catching up, and talking about what she might want to do with her future.  College, friendship, dating, driving, part-time job, fashion... My oldest daughter is now 17.  She's figuring out the world on her own, little by little.  She's smart and pretty, and a REALLY great kid all in all.  One thing that has turned out to be a real benefit to being an Every Other Weekend parent, is that when I spend time with my kids, we seem to know how precious it is, and we are fully engaged.  We talk about meaningful things, important life subjects.  Claire even asks my opinion every once in a while, and when I give it to her, she actually seems to listen.

At least sometimes, I am not just white noise to my teen daughter.

Claire is wise beyond her years.  And she is heading in the right direction.

I've worried about how divorce has tainted my children's lives.  I fretted that by not waging a legal battle and allowing myself to become a non custodial mother, I've damaged them somehow, or done something wrong even though it seemed the best option for my kids at the time.

But I think I've done some things right, too.  By putting your kids first, especially during times of trial and stress, you make choices that may be difficult, but that can end up making them into better people in the long run.

Our friend Fritz put it perfectly over the summer when I confided to him that I regularly worried that letting their father have physical custody of them without a fight was a big mistake.  Claire was at the tail end of a five week nannying stint for Fritz's young family with three children in Europe.  I valued this man's opinion and listened closely when he offered it.  He's an intelligent and successful auto executive in Europe and had come to know my daughter well.  She'd lived with the five of them at home and on travels to Hungary, Austria, and Germany.  Fritz was extremely impressed with Claire's work ethic, her positive attitude, and the intelligent way she conducted herself.  He reminded me of how "together" my Claire is, and what an unusually resilient person she's evolved into as a young woman.

"Sophia, think of a pearl," he started out.  "It is beautiful and valuable and rare because of all the irritation that it endures.  That irritation is exactly what creates it.  I really think that environment is a big reason why Claire is so mature.  She hasn't had it easy, but it's made her into a strong person."

Chances are, Claire would be the same Claire had I remained a stay-at-home mom.  I'd never know.  But maybe there was some truth to what Fritz had said.

It hasn't been easy, but my Claire is now as strong, well-rounded, and beautiful as a gleaming pearl.

Perhaps not in spite of how things in our life have gone, but because of it.