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.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sophia van Buren on the Radio

I mentioned in the last post, that often I feel like a nerd.  A dork.  A woman flying by the seat of her pants in terms of trying to co-parent with someone who is not all that interested in co-parenting. 
At first, I thought I'd be a rather lousy example of someone with the title "Co-Parent".  But then, I read a few posts by other divorced parents who want to do what is right by their kids, and seek cooperaton for the sake of their children, but who run up against ex-spouses who are bent on making things more difficult than necessary.   Some divorced couples almost seem to want to fight for the sake of the fight.

It's my current belief, that no matter how much of a loner you feel like, (an underdog even), and no matter how much your child's other parent or step-parent resists communicating and working things out in a positive way, we still must push ahead. 

Basically, suck it up. 

Put on a Kamikaze helmet and dive right in to doing the right thing for your kid.  Alone if you have to.
Someday it'll pay off.  It has begun to for me.  All those years of biting my lip, standing down from petty power-plays and arguments, and turning the other cheek is working for me, and more importantly, for my kids.  They are turning out beautifully, if I do say so myself, and somewhat unscathed.  My own friends and family, and so many others have been doubtful of my non-combative tendencies and my crazy desire to avoid conflict--so many times people told me "you are the mother!  Fight back!  Defend yourself!  Stick up to them and DEMAND your rights!"  Often, I wondered if they were right.  I doubted myself and wondered if standing down made me weak spirited, a pansy, a doormat, a wimp. 

But now I know I did the right thing.  It all comes out in the wash.  Good DOES trump bad when all is said and done... my 17 year old daughter summed it up beautifully last week.

And that's a story in itself.  so stay tuned.  It might make you cry. 
And hope.

For now, here is that radio show I didn't think I deserved to be a part of.  Turns out, it doesn't always take a cooperative spouse to Co-Parent:

Friday, October 21, 2011

Co-Parenting Alone

This piece originally appeared in the Non Custodial Mom Chronicles on Post Divorce Chronicles.

I dumped my work clothes unceremoniously in a pile onto the bathroom floor and set my beer bottle on the edge of the tub alongside a family-size package of Red Vines.   I’d had a bad day – no, a bad week, and one benefit of being a non custodial mom is the ability to wallow in self-pity every now and again without your children witnessing it.
Most of the time, I am a positive, optimistic person.  At least, I try to be.  I blog often about how to make the most of an odd or bad situation.  Over the past eight years, I’ve processed what happened to my family and dealt with it as best as I could.  I always put my children’s needs first and try like hell to do the right thing for them.  My default setting is to look for best in people and give them the benefit of the doubt, even when they repeatedly demonstrate that they don’t deserve it.
In my blog, A Non Custodial Mother, I recently wrote about how I made the decision to just sit down, face to face, with my kids stepmother and try to discuss our concerns and differences.  I truly want to work together with them for the benefit of the children.  Kids know when parents disagree with each other or don’t like each other very well, and it tears at them.  Their sense of loyalty is compromised and they are put into the awkward position of feeling like they have to defend someone they love.  As my youngest daughter put it so eloquently one day, “I feel like I’m in between two rocks, being squished.”
At dinner with the woman I (too often) refer to as “Man Hands,” I nodded and smiled reassuringly a lot.  When she insulted my husband Noah and said “You folded” in reference to my decision to let my children live with my ex husband, I didn’t argue even though inside I wanted to lean across the table, grab her by her unisex sweatshirt, and utter some magical phrase that would make her understand.   Instead, I took it on the chin.  I knew that fighting fire with fire would only make things more difficult on my children and lead to even less access to them because, unfortunately and unnecessarily, stepmother has successfully made herself their warden.
The first weekend for me to have the kids after our meeting was a marked improvement.  For the first time in eight years, my youngest daughter brought her favorite jacket to wear back to school the following Monday.  (Her insistence that the kids are never to bring or wear their clothes from the other house to mine is a major violation of co-parenting rules, written or unwritten, not to mention an indication of some serious control issues).  Wanda even emailed me to let me know the kids’ schedules for softball, baseball, and track practices that week, as well as the location and time of my youngest daughter’s Viola concert.  In the past, I’d had to email and call repeatedly before accessing this kind of information.
I had reason to believe that things really were getting better.
But my hope that we could all just get along was short lived.  We quickly fell back into the roles we were accustomed to before our dinner date.  The same day that I received a bitterly angry email from Wanda, I was asked to speak on a co-parenting radio show about being a non custodial mother.   I emailed the host and told her that I wasn’t sure I would be the best person to speak about co-parenting.  I didn’t feel like a very good “co-parent” at all.  The best trick up my sleeve was to just shut up as much as you can sometimes, and as long as it isn’t hurting anyone, to stand down from any battle with an ex or their new significant other.  It was less painful for the kids that way.
The email from Wanda sent me into a tailspin because I realized that sitting through almost three hours across the table from her, taking her insults on the chin, had equated to seven days of improvement in our relationship as co-parents before falling off the cliff again.  I spent an hour in the bathtub that night, furious and frustrated that no matter what I did, I could not create amodel co-parenting example for non custodial mothers.
Gnawing on red vines in between sips of beer, I thought about how I believed that I was upholding my part in the equation.  But as much as I might wish for my ex husband and his wife to fulfill their end of the deal, they are not on board with shared parenting.  They still hold the cards when it comes to majority time with my children and they are not willing to split time more evenly, even though I have asked them to, as have my children.  For them, having the kids full time instead of equally shared time leads them to believe that they are “better parents,” as my ex husband has told me.  Perhaps not coincidently, it also means that I pay them a considerable chunk of money in child support.
The next morning, my friend Aimee called.  She was excited because she’d heard that I’d been offered the opportunity to speak about being a non custodial mother on the radio, and she urged me to do it.
“But I don’t think I should.  I don’t have the ideal relationship with my ex and his wife.  Mostly, I just try to make it work however I have to.  All I care about is my kids not feeling like they are in the middle of a war.  Usually that means biting my lip and not disagreeing or fighting back.”
“Sophia,” she said, “if that’s really how it is, then that’s precisely why you should do the radio bit.  Show people that co-parenting sometimes means the best thing to do is to just get along—even if you don’t agree with each other. ”
She told me not to be afraid.  She was sure that there would be people who would relate.  Maybe others were giving up on co-parenting all together because they couldn’t get the other parent to go along with it.  Our co-parenting team was light years from perfect, but talking about this imperfection is a path to figuring out how to make things better.
By the time I’d hung up the phone, I’d decided to do the radio show and to just be up-front honest about the difficult task of trying to co-parent… even when the other parent isn’t willing to.
I’d co-parent alone.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Claire's Question

We sat on my bed early in the morning.  The children had been dropped off at my apartment Friday night by their dad and Wanda, and we’d stayed up late watching 13 Going on 30, eating Jiffy Pop popcorn, and relaxing together.  Jackson and Faith were still asleep in the living room on their airbeds, and the aromas of fresh coffee and hot chocolate mingled in the air.

Claire had woken up first, which was unusual.  She usually slept in, even when the sun was streaming in through the bay windows.  But this morning, we sipped our hot chocolate and coffee in the midst of a cushy nest of white pillows and linen.  My bedroom was like a sleep lab - a serene oasis - clear, uncluttered, and brilliantly white.  I’d bought all-white bedding, a down feather mattress pad, matching comforter, white cotton sheets, and down feather pillows, rendering my bed a cloud.  The room itself was purposefully spare and empty except for the island of a bed and a large, dark, antique wooden dresser.  From my window, I had a clear view of the Fremont Bridge, and on this morning, we watched the sky change from black to grey to pink to a clear blue.

“Mommy, why did you make Daddy leave?”

I caught my breath and reeled back to reality from the peaceful moment I’d been enjoying quietly with my oldest daughter, now ten years old.  The question caught me off guard.  It had come up before, but I had dodged the issue.  She obviously hadn’t let it go, not surprisingly.  After all, not only was Claire the oldest, but she was also the most hurt and irritated by the changes that had occurred in our lives over the past two years.  And even though she was thriving at her new school in Salem, having quickly moved to the top of her class while developing close friends, she seemed angry with me most of the time.

“Honey, it’s hard to explain.”  I took a deep breath and steeled myself.  “But I’ll try.” 

First though, I wanted to ask her a question.  I took a sip of coffee and turned to her intently, trying to make the eye contact that she was avoiding.

“I’d hoped your daddy might say something to you about this.  Have you asked him?” 

“No.  He doesn’t want to talk about it.  He just said you wanted to move.”

As much as this answer pissed me off, I wasn’t surprised by it one bit.  I chose my words carefully.  All the books and articles I’d read about divorce gave good, basic advice, but they never took into account what to say to kids if one spouse had messed up so royally there was nothing to be salvaged.  Our situation was definitely not typical.

“Well, the main thing is for you to know that you didn’t do anything.  When parents get divorced, it’s not because of the kids.”

 This really was going to be hard for me to explain.  Another sip, another deep breath. 
“When two people love each other, and when they are married, they make a promise to each other.  They promise only to love one another.  They promise not to date anyone else or have another boyfriend or girlfriend or love a different person other than their partner.  You know - their husband or their wife.”

“I know.”

“Well honey, your dad didn’t keep his promise to me.  He loved someone else too.  It broke my heart and I couldn’t trust him anymore.  You should not stay with someone you cannot trust.  I didn’t decide to move us just because I was tired of our old life or because I wanted to move to another house and work downtown.  It was a change I felt I had to make.  It was not just because of me, it was because of what your dad did, leaving me to make some hard decisions.”

I could tell she didn’t quite buy it.  She looked down at the comforter and picked at a feather escaping from the bright white pillow in her lap with a frown creasing her brow.  She didn’t say anything else.  She didn’t ask any other questions.

“Claire, I love you.  I’m sorry I made choices that you didn’t like.  I never thought I’d have to do what I did.”

A tear rolled down her cheek.

I silently cursed Mike for his negligent actions again, and I was furious that not only had he put me into the position of being the one to tell our children what had happened, but that he’d encouraged Claire to think I just changed our lives on a selfish whim, for no real reason.  I promised myself, no matter how hard these conversations might be with Claire, I’d never doubt the decisions I’d made in response to the course of events that our lives had taken so suddenly.

Later that year, the news leaked out from my old church that there had been a shocking and horrible incident involving people from our old circle of friends.  A few of the fathers had taken their children on a camping trip.  The wife of one of the fathers ran a daycare in her home, like me.  Their daughter, a friend of Claire’s, and another ten-year old girl, were molested on the trip by one of the other fathers, a member of Mike’s Men’s Accountability Group.  He was found out and swiftly imprisoned.

Because of the incident, both families’ lives were ruined.  The church community was in shock.  When I heard the news, I was dumbfounded, for many reasons.  But what I kept coming back to, more than anything else, was the thought that I had gotten my daughter out of there just in time.  Mike surely would have gone on that camping trip and surely would have taken Claire.  I never would have discouraged their going - in fact, I would have encouraged it.  After all, it was church-sanctioned.

I would not curse God for the unthinkable sin this man committed.  Instead, I prayed.  I prayed for the children and the mother of the girls who had been molested.  I couldn’t even imagine what she and her daughter were going through.  In addition to praying, I thanked God for putting our evacuation into motion.  My daughter had probably been rescued, without any of us even knowing it, by our preemptive departure.  Looking at it that way, Mike’s act of indiscretion was a backwards miracle.  It was perhaps the only thing bad enough to change our situation so immediately, for me to take action and pull my kids completely out of that environment.  No matter how mad she was at me, even if she was mad at me for the rest of my life, I felt surer than ever that I’d done the right thing for my family.

Mike called me at work the following Monday, furious and seething.

“I never loved anyone else, God damn it.  How could you tell her that?!”

What was I supposed to say?  “Oh, I mean, your Daddy (detailed spoiler removed).”

But I didn’t say that.  Instead, I shrank in my cubicle chair as he berated me, and when he finally let up long enough for me to speak, I quietly apologized.

Exerpt from ILLUMINATION: How One Woman Made Light of Darkness available now as an ebook on Amazon (only $.99 until 10/13/11).

Monday, September 12, 2011

Are You My Mother?

I recently received an email from a woman -- a mother -- in California; let’s call her “Melissa.”  It started out like many of the emails and messages I’ve received – “I happened to come across your blog while at work today, and have been reading it for a while. I have laughed, sighed and most of all felt the comfort of hearing from another Mother who has gone through my current situation. I do not know another Mother that has gone through divorce and sharing custody, or being a non-custodial Mother.

She launched into various questions about how I have handled different situations as a mother without physical custody of my children.  Her children are young and she’s grappling with many of the same issues I dealt with in that after the wheels came off my marriage and I had to navigate the rubble of our new reality.  She then posed a question that cuts to the core of a mother's essence. 

What would you say if your daughter was calling her Step Mom 'Mommy'?” 

Oh boy.  

She goes on:  “My daughter is 3 ½, and she took a liking to her new Step-Mom (who she knew for only 2 months).  Part of me wanted to gently explain to her that I am her ‘Real Mom’ now, before it went on too long, but my daughter didn’t seem to get it, or she is set in her ways. She just said ‘I have two Moms’ with excitement. I didn’t want to make her feel guilty, or in trouble, so I just gently said 'Yes, you have 2 women who love you. You have me, your real Mom, and then Mama Kathy.' She just smiled. I tried talking to her new Step Mom, and she said that she refers to herself as 'Mama Kathy' (which I am 100% fine with), but that my daughter started calling her 'Mom'/'Mommy' anyhow. A few friends have said ‘I would never let my kids call another woman Mom,’ but how can you argue with a 3 year old?  I don’t think she understands the sacredness of that title. I guess I worry that when she does understand it, it will be too late to reverse the title if she has been calling her Step Mom ‘Mom.’ For now, I am trying to focus on being grateful that there is another woman who seems to love and care for my kids, who is nice to me when I come to get them, etc. I try to remember it could be a lot worse, and that I need to be happy that my daughter feels fondly for her Step Mom. It just tugs at your heart. I hope I am not being a pushover, I just don’t want my daughter to feel guilty. I decided I will just smile and say ‘Oh you mean Mama Kathy?’ and hope she catches on. It's just difficult when you are at work all the time, and another woman is being called ‘Mom.’”

Author’s note:  In composing this entry, I debated between including only Melissa's initial question versus the entire passage from her email that illustrates the situation and shows the internal battle she is going through that I know is so common for many non custodial mothers.  As you can see, I decided to leave it in, specifically for the latter reason; that I think it will resonate with anyone who has been in a similar situation.  Clearly Melissa is a reasonable, loving mother, but her point about the title of "mother" or "mom" being "sacred" is, I believe, at the crux of her dilemma.

I remember going through what Melissa is going through.  To be in this position as a mother doing what you think is right for your child or children, but violates so many maternal instincts, feels unfair and unnatural.   And it's terrifying.  Then, to have your child referring to another woman as “mommy” only adds insult to injury.  But many moons have passed since I first found myself in Melissa’s situation, and I’ve grown accustomed to willing myself to be philosophical and practical, not emotional, in these matters, and my response to her reflected that.

"Melissa, let me ask you this question -- how is whatever name your child calls her stepmother adversely affecting the well-being of this child?  At this point, I encourage you to always use this lens to judge matters involving your kids and your situation.  Again, it's very difficult and it will take a while to get used to it, but that's what I've taught myself to do and I really believe it is a big reason why my kids are well-adjusted, when, on paper, you would think that they would be torn in half.  Your daughter is WAY too young to try to explain this matter to her.  I am not an expert on this stuff though, and perhaps if you can't get past it or really think that it's wrong, then I would encourage you to seek an expert's advice.  Continue to focus exactly what you are focusing on, that there is even more love in your children's lives.  That's the best advice I have for you.

Then I asked if she’d ever heard the story about King Solomon’s Wisdom. While an extreme example, it was only after I was forced to consider what was really best for my children when I entered the workforce (to provide health insurance for my kids) that I understood the saying "If you love something, set it free."  You might ask - but how can this apply to one's own children?  It's not easy.  In fact, it's a leap of faith.  

Although it’s been almost ten years since the night my family imploded, I’m not so far removed from this reality that I don’t still have to deal with situations like this.  But as long as my kids aren't harmed by the trivial posturing their "other parents" are prone to, I don't sweat it.  Most people are amazed at what I endure.  Here's one recent example:  My 11 year old daughter's state softball tournament was a month ago in a town four hours from where I live.  The "other parents" have more flexibility in their work schedules than I do and were able to immediately take the next six days off of work to go with the team and stay in a hotel for the whole week.  I went to an early game with my mother, then a game later in the week with my husband.  During the second game, my daughter got a key hit and drove in a run.  One of the team moms jumped up and turned to my kids' step mom and shouted - "Who's kid is that?!" My kids' step mom jumped up and the two women triumphantly and dramatically high-fived each other.  My husband squirmed ferociously.

"Will you please show her your C-section scar and ask if it's at least worth a fist bump?" he said to me under his breath.  

"No, but be sure to point her out to me one day so I can give her a copy of my book."  

After the game on the way to the car, he asked if it bothered me at all.  The truth was that of course it did, but only for a split-second, then I reminded myself that no matter how much I don't care for her father and stepmother, they love her and she loves them and she's getting a lot more out of life at this age than if I picked fights and made scenes over these types of things.  And I can see the benefits my children have received from their childhood not being marked by strife between their parents.  

Back to Melissa - two weeks passed after my email before I heard back from her. 

"I forgot to thank you for that story (The judgment of Solomon).  That was a great story, and I will always remember it.  I have decided to let go of the issue of my daughter calling her Step Mom 'Mommy.' I have to remember to look at it from the filter you told me about."

To complete the aforementioned saying -- "If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it's yours.”  It’s not a name or word that anchor us to our children -- its love.  Love, hope, faith – these things can’t always be seen or heard, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. On the contrary, these are the invisible, anchoring tethers that keep our children close to us as loving mothers, no matter how far away they are in either time or place. 

Authors Note:  This was the end of the blog post, but I want to give the last word to Melissa.  This was her response when I inquired if I could share some of her story for this entry.  May her words reach those who can find strength and guidance in them...

"I would not mind you use my story at all. If it can help other Moms relate, or feel not so alone I would be happy. Finding your blog and just writing with you has helped me a lot. It has really made me feel less alone, and stronger. It has helped me to accept my kids new Step Mom, and to put my own emotions aside a lot more. Even when I have a right to be angry/bitter/resentful at my ex for lots of reasons...this morning was my son’s first day of school and I was determined to meet my son’s Dad and Step Mom at his new school, and to smile and get along so that my son could have that. My own parents were divorced, and they would have never done this. I felt it was valuable and important for my kids to see the 3 of us together, all talking and peaceful with one another.

Some friends get protective of me, and defensive for me, including my FiancĂ© who feels my ex does not own up to any real responsibility (He will take my son to an arcade or to do fun things, but I paid for all this school clothes, new shoes, etc).  But I have decided that one day my kids will see this. For now, I want to be my best for the kids...and be confident that they will understand what went on one day. I knew before that you had to try to keep the peace and 'pick your battles' but I have learned that If I fight for what is fair, even if I have a right, it will hurt my kids and myself...And so I have to weigh that out in every situation."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Better, Not Bitter

This piece originally appeared in the Non Custodial Mom Chronicles on Post Divorce Chronicles.

Shortly after my ex husband and I separated, I plummeted into a darkness that I could not have imagined.   It wasn’t just the fact that I’d experienced the sucker punch of betrayal, but I was grieving for the life I knew I was losing.  I was strong on the outside during the day.  I went about my usual chores and daily rigmarole that was familiar and calming to my three children and tried to act normal.  But at night, the darkness swallowed me.  I couldn’t sleep.  I worried and felt angry and lost.  In those early days, I clung to my religion for dear life.  Sleeping alone in our king sized bed for the first time in 17 years, I used God like a dying person uses morphine to snuff out the pain.  I prayed.  I wept.  I read passages in the Bible, searching for wisdom and signs to tell me what to do.
In the mornings, I woke up early, before the kids even began to stir.  My ritual was to light a fire in the fireplace, wrap myself in a blanket and simply sit and stare at the flames.  Sometimes I cried.  Sometimes I prayed.  Mostly, I absorbed the silence.  It was in those hours I pulled myself together so I wouldn’t fall apart in front of my children.  Once the initial spells of weeping and grieving began to subside, I prayed less and listened to the quiet around me more.  It was in those hours that I made decisions about the life in front of me — the new life I was starting to let myself imagine…
What if life is a series of events and happenings that God (or Destiny) puts in front of us for our own good?  What if our purpose in life is to see the path in front of us and go along with it, even if it’s not what we planned for ourselves?
What if we are supposed to be quiet enough to pay attention to the signs along the way, and have the guts – and the faith — to follow the signs, no matter where they might lead us?
These sacred mornings allowed me that time and space I needed to start thinking about what I hadn’t thought of before — options.
At first, I never thought I would entertain the idea of letting my kids live with their dad, not even for half the time.  I kept thinking about how content I was with our old life — how comfortable, predictable, and cozy it was for our children.  How dare my husband do what he did!  It dismantled our family, and I didn’t want to share my kids with him.  I didn’t think he deserved them.  I just couldn’t imagine not being the same kind of mom as I had always been.  I had been raised by a traditional, baked-cookies-after-school type of homemaker mother, and this was the model that I knew and was comfortable with.
So when the idea to enter into a joint custody arrangement with my ex began to emerge as a real possibility, I thought there must be something wrong with me.  I really thought that maybe I’d flipped a switch or was going a little bit crazy from the pit of sorrow that I had been stuck in for so long.  I had doubts.  I felt guilt.  I knew I would miss my kids and they would miss me.  Even though it went against my upbringing, I asked myself — what if being a responsible and good mother now means that I need to work outside the home instead of flipping pancakes and shuttling the kids to school and practice every day? Ultimately, I decided that it was my turn to bring home the bacon, and their father’s turn to be the caregiver.  I decided that I would have to let go of what everyone else would think and pay attention to what my children’s practical needs were instead.
In all epic dramas, there is always a darkness that threatens to overwhelm the characters we identify with.   In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion are on the run from the Wicked Witch.  In the end, they learn that the reality they were seeking, the salvation, was right in front of them all along.  My life was changing abruptly – that was a fact.  But instead of feeling sorry for myself, I decided to take advantage of what, at first glance, looked a lot like a bad situation.  Instead, I looked at it like an engraved invitation to do something new while showing my children a stronger and more self-sufficient version of the Mom they knew.
I wasn’t sure at first how to go about designing this new version of our family.  I had no blueprint.  What I was sure of was that, even though, I was entering into uncharted territory, I was terrified and excited at the same time.  I began to realize this sure beat being bitter and paralyzed by the past.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Star Star

Thanks to those who have asked how I'm doing and when the next post is coming -- just trying to keep all the balls in the air lately and my writing has been the one ball I've dropped, but I'll be posting more soon!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

From Sweatpants to High Heels

After the terrific response from A Non Custodial Mother Article in the Huffington Post and the latest news about mothers who are redefining traditional roles (such as the recent piece by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto on, I thought I’d put a face on one non custodial mother – me.  This is the beginning of my story, and an unexpected new life:

From Sweatpants to High Heels

For a long time, I considered myself a proud member of The Mommy Sorority.

When it came to raising my children, I did everything “right,” and I held other moms to the same expectations I had for myself.  I stayed home with my children, first when they were babies, then as toddlers.  I bought the latest Baby Einstein crib mobiles and educational toys.  I never forgot to pack an extra hat and kept an ample supply of organic graham crackers in the diaper bag.  I would spend hours researching what kind of diapers or sunscreen to buy.  I made baby food and froze it in convenient serving sizes in the ice cube tray.  I subscribed to Family Fun magazine.  I felt confident in my role of Super Mama for over eight years. 

I was even smug about it.

When working mothers dropped their children off at my house for daycare, I didn’t envy them at all.  I contentedly breathed in the aroma of homemade play dough that wafted through my house and co-mingled with the familiar and comforting scents of homemade pancakes and maple syrup.  I felt superior to those mothers.  After all, I knew all the words to Kenny Login’s “Return to Pooh Corner” soundtrack and I was free to spend uninterrupted hours of the weekday at home with my kids.  I thought I was doing the noblest job of all, that of stay-at-home mom.  I decided I didn’t need to worry about make-up, stylish clothes (Hanes sweat pants did the trick!) and a career at an office.  I’d given up my dreams of writing and photography.  I figured that by being there 24/7 for my three children, writing about them in my journal, and photographing them at every stage, my dreams were being fulfilled in a more down-to-earth, practical way.

After all, sacrifice is the soul of parenting.

But in 2002, my suburban June Cleaver world turned upside down.   Little did I know, while I was nursing babies, flipping pancakes, planting bulbs in the backyard, folding mountains of laundry, and tending to our home, my husband was tending to other women.  On our 14th wedding anniversary, I learned in the most shocking of ways that he had been having an affair.   I was so caught up in my idealized suburban slice of heaven that I this possibility never dawned on me.   After all, he was a church-going man — a Promise Keeper and part of a “Men’s Accountability Prayer Group” on Thursdays.  Over the course of our 17 years together, he’d told me many times that he was “the Captain of our family’s ship.”  He was, he said, in charge of making sure we were taken care of, and I trusted him to navigate us through any choppy waters.  It never seemed possible that our marriage would become a shipwreck.

But when I found out what my husband had done, I immediately made the decision to make him leave.   He was not at all the husband I thought he was.  Maybe some couples survive the heartbreaking devastation of infidelity, but my husband’s version of it was too much for me to work through.  I would have put my health in jeopardy if I’d stayed with him.  To put it bluntly, not only had he been unfaithful, but he’d been extremely promiscuous with a high-risk person, and did not use protection.  That additional bit of information mattered to me a lot.  I wouldn’t risk my health by staying with him, and although I could eventually forgive him, I knew I would never be able to be intimate with him again.  I couldn’t stay married to a person I did not want to ever make love to again.  Not only had he betrayed me emotionally, but the physical repercussions of what he did were more than I was willing to overlook.  My logic was, if I stayed with him, and eventually became sick or contracted a disease because of his infidelity, what good would I be to my kids then?  In the end, I traded in my marriage and relationship.  I valued my long term health, and didn’t trust that he ever would.   It is my belief that a woman shouldn’t stay with a man who endangers her health and doesn’t cherish her enough to protect at least that part of her.

I also found myself deciding, out of necessity, to take over as “the Captain of our family’s ship” by going back to work (my husband also lost his job because of his indiscretions).  We couldn’t pay our bills or our mortgage.  In the aftermath, we even lost our health insurance.  Someone had to take over, and that someone, however unconventional it felt in the world I was familiar with, was me.

So I joined the ranks of the working mothers that I’d looked down my nose at.  Not only would I become a mother who worked full-time outside the home, but I would be a single mother.   The women from my church didn’t understand how I could make my husband leave and not work things out with him.  But they didn’t know the whole story.  My own family and friends thought I was crazy not to take my estranged husband to court for alimony and child support to “make him pay” for what he did.  I struggled with my own idea of how a mother should be.  I was in very new territory, and I privately wondered if I was making the right choices.   But I did know that my children missed their daddy.  They spent more time with him since he was not working much.  He became the parent that would take them to their soccer practice, doctor appointments, and help them with their homework after school before making them dinner.  I became the frazzled busy parent who would pick them up late at night at his apartment, then shuttle them to daycare early in the morning, hurriedly strapping them half asleep into their car seats with limp toaster waffles wrapped in napkins and warm juice boxes for breakfast.   It was a harrowing adjustment for all of us, and I wasn’t happy with what kind of mother I was turning into.  It seemed like I was exhausted, cranky, and in a hurry all the time.  My kids were tired and their performances at school were suffering.  I wasn’t giving them the kind of parenting they deserved, and it began to haunt me.  I felt guilty, angry, and sad.  Mostly, I felt overwhelmed.

Once my ex husband met the woman who would become his new wife, I found myself fantasizing about how nice it would be to share with them the responsibility of parenting.  She was a hard-working woman with an office at home.  She seemed to really like my children and volunteered to pick them up from school several times a week.  She stepped right in.  She packed their lunches and made cupcakes to take to baseball games when they were with their dad.  Their home environment was more of a traditional family existence than it was with me.  She seemed to be the perfect partner, not only for my ex husband, but for me.  I could finally rely on another woman to help me “mother” my children, since I didn’t have enough time to do it by myself.   Eventually, my ex and I came to a verbal agreement over a couple beers in a restaurant.  The kids would be with me on the weekends, then with their dad and his new girlfriend during the week.  My ex husband was more than happy to have our kids during the weekdays since he was working on the weekends, and I was willing to let go — just enough to give myself a little workweek breathing room.

Unfortunately, I failed to see the repercussions of what amounted to a handshake deal.  Our new set up would come to tear at the very fabric of my concept of motherhood and my identity.  I also hadn’t thought ahead about how other people would view me as a woman and mother.  Worst of all, I didn’t anticipate the legal repercussions of letting my children go to live with their dad without having a lawyer draw up an official parenting plan.

There are specific things I wish I would have planned for and thought about before making the crucial decision that I did.  Being a non custodial mother has been challenging and surprisingly rewarding as well, (which has been quite a pleasant surprise actually), so stay tuned!

My next blog article will feature off the cuff advice to other women and mothers who may be going through the difficult decision making process of how to divvy up time and finances with an ex, as well as some rather unexpected positive side-effects of divorce.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Birth of Faith

The paper crinkled underneath me as I lay back on the hospital bed in the maternity ward.  My third child was due.  Dr. Alder had delivered Claire and Jackson, but he was not able to be here today.  Lou Gehrig’s disease had forced him to take a sabbatical in the year 2000.

I put my hand behind my head and leaned back listening to the baby’s heart monitor.  I wore the monitor like a white elastic belt, low, around my enormous belly.  Mike casually looked out the window and drank out of a paper cup filled with water.

June 2nd.  It was sunny and warm.  Nothing notable, nothing spectacular but the anticipation of the life inside me ready to greet the world was excitement enough.  I felt like a pro.  I’d done this before, twice.  The monitor beeped away rhythmically, assuring and steady.  The nurse came in periodically to check.  She smiled and made small talk.  I was an easy patient, a veteran of the maternity ward.

My substitute doctor decided, after checking how dilated I was, to speed up the process by breaking my water.  Before I knew it, a long slender plastic thing that resembled a crochet hook was poked up into my body as the doctor pushed down firmly on my mountain of a belly and I felt a bit of a pop and a warm gush escape between my legs.  The doctor left the room.

The anesthesiologist visited and had me roll to my left side and hold my breath as he stuck a needle into my lower back for the epidural.


“Oops” is not the word you want to hear when someone is using a needle on your spine.  My legs went cold, and instantly became numb and heavy.  He told me he had accidentally given me a spinal tap, meaning he had punctured a tiny hole in my spine.

“In a few hours, maybe as long as a few days, you will be able to feel your legs again.”

It was not permanent.

“Okay, I can’t feel my legs, but at least I’m not going to be paralyzed for more than a day or two,” I thought to myself.

Still, though, something was not quite right.  I hurt.  My back hurt, my belly felt suddenly more uncomfortable and heavier than ever.  A twinge of pain inside me made it feel like something had come undone.  The monitor began to slow down, and I felt a certain sense of dread no mother wants to feel in this particular position or any other, for that matter.

A few moments later, I felt the twinge again, a sharp pang, searing through the numbness of the epidural.  Something pulled inside of me.

I looked up at Mike, still sipping his water out of a paper cup.

“It’s not right,” I urged.  “Call the nurse.”

“It’s fine,” he replied mockingly.  “Don’t get all upset.”

He didn’t even move from his position, his casual lean.  Mike had a knack for becoming exasperatingly calm when the kids were sick or when I was worried.  It didn’t help.

“No, something really is wrong,” I pleaded.

I usually listened to him.  I usually assumed I was overreacting, because Mike often teased me and told me that I did.  This time though, I knew in my gut it was up to me to get the help.  Fast.

I stretched as best I could, awkwardly, feeling like an enormous, numb turtle stuck on its back.  The monitor was beeping at an alarmingly slower and slower rhythm.  I pushed the nurse’s button.

Someone came in right away, saw the readings on the machine, and immediately called the doctor.  They called the emergency C-section room and, all in one motion, clicked my hospital bed into gear and started rolling me down the hall.  Coming at us was another pregnant woman being pushed on her bed, and for a moment we were heading for some sort of labor and delivery floor joust.  The nurse pushing me waved them off, simply stating “Emergency C-section” and propelled me through the door.  Once inside, I recognized Shirley, the nurse who had helped me deliver Claire and Jackson.  She was waiting for the scheduled C-section.  She squeezed my hand.  She remembered me and would be there for this baby too.  A little miracle -- one that I needed.

The lights were bright.  I was scared but knew I had to stay calm.  If I showed any signs of panic or was overly emotional, I worried they would put me out completely and I had to know what was happening to my baby.

Two male nurses on either side of me like bookends looked into my face and asked me how I was doing, gauging my level of alarm.  My eyes filled with tears, but I said in a low voice, “I’m okay.”

They asked me if I wanted something to make me go to sleep.  I vigorously shook my head “no.”  They put a clear plastic mask over my mouth and nose and hooked the little elastic straps over my ears.

“You are going to be numb from the neck down,” said a voice.

Suddenly, the rest of my body went cold.  I looked up at the silver disk reflecting like a fish-eye view mirror and saw my own image with the male nurses on either side of me.  I felt the long, slow, warm streams of tears running down my temples as I watched the doctor cut into me.  No pain, just pressure.  The sawing back and forth motion I would only compare to cutting meat.  Don’t panic.

There was hushed conversation in the blue-tented area of my lower abdomen.  I heard the doctor say something quietly to the nurse about a herniated uterus.  The placenta had burst and separated from the wall.  My baby had inhaled blood and could not breathe.  I heard someone say something about how this usually only happened to crack mothers.  I watched in the mirrored disk of light a still baby being lifted out gently.  No one said anything.

“Take her to the NCU, she’s not breathing,” the doctor said to what seemed like an army of nurses.  He stayed to sew me up as the door swung open and my baby was silently rushed out of the room, out of his hands.  Out of my hands.

I could not fathom that this was really happening.  I have never felt as helpless in my life.   At that moment, I made a deal with God.  I kept saying to myself and God, “It’s not in my control God, I know.  I’ll do whatever you need me to do.  I see it’s not in my control.”

I had always been the type to worry, to somehow think the more vigorously I worried, the more control I would have over the situation.  I could worry a problem into submission.

Inside I choked back sobs and they simply exited in the form of small, broken-hearted, little streams down the sides of my face, the only part of my body I could feel.  I was more helpless than I’d ever been and ached to run after the nurse who had taken my baby so I could see her, hold her, and know if she was alive.  The nurses kept watching my face to see if I would panic and need to be medicated.  I kept talking to God in my mind.

“I’ll take care of her.  Even if my fate is to take care of this child for the rest of her life hooked up to machines or needing constant care, I’ll do it, God.”

At the same time, another part of my brain was pleading in the background.

“Please let her be okay.  Please let my baby live.  Please let her be alright.”

Everyone was quiet.  I couldn’t ask any questions. This was not the typical delivery for me, the excitement and joy were missing.  The faces surrounding my bed were sad and empathetic, not smiling and warm like I had pictured this morning when I packed my overnight bag for the hospital.

Mike stood next to my bed and didn’t say a word.  There was nothing to say.

45 minutes passed.  I did not know if my little girl was alive or dead, let alone healthy.  Finally the nurse brought me a picture, a pastel Polaroid of a chubby, red baby with matted hair and tubes coming out her nose, face pinched and crying.  I clutched it and gasped out a series of controlled sobs.

She was alive.  The nurse told me they had resuscitated her.  She had already been pulling at the tubes to get them out of her nose with her tiny hands.  She was a fighter.  My Faith was alive, and she was kicking.

From the Illumination prequel Before the Light (not yet released).