Friday, February 18, 2011

Sometimes Strength is Restraint

                                                                                     {image from}

I read a heartbreaking, brutally honest article in the Huffington Post this morning.   It is about a divorced woman whose young daughter suffered from emotional issues so severe, she had to be hospitalized. 

"The one who really suffered was my adopted daughter, who, at age seven wound up in a psychiatric hospital diagnosed with a mood disorder. She felt abandoned both by me, since I was too depressed to be there for her emotionally, and also by her father who left me for another woman. He had been her primary caretaker as well, so that compounded the injury. She cried every night for a year, and then became progressively more angry, destructive, violent and even suicidal. The poor kid--whose birth mom had been an addict--really didn't have the inner emotional resources to deal with divorce. She desperately needed to be held together not torn apart.

One day while I was visiting her in the hospital she said, "Mommy, I wouldn't be here if you and daddy hadn't got divorced." My heart about stopped. Her therapist at the hospital concurred, saying that there wasn't a kid there who wasn't a child of divorce, and since our divorce was particularly high-conflict, she had suffered terribly. The hospital shrink virtually ordered us to get along for our daughter's sake. I wish I could report that we've managed to do that, but we haven't. We've managed to reach an uneasy truce, which sometimes blows up into all out war. My daughter, in middle school now, is lot better, but is still very troubled. She has forever lost that exuberance and love for life she had as a toddler, before divorce tore her life to shreds. She will never be the same--and neither will I." (see the entire story by Erica Manfred here)

One of the comments about her post was:
"You've never seen what people who hate each other do to the children they love".

The book Live Through This by Debra Gwartney, is the memoir of another Portland woman who went through a difficult divorce and had a hostile relationship with her ex husband.  Their oldest daughters ran away, and spent a year on the streets.  In the book, she laments the pull between the two camps that she attributes to the series of crises her daughters go through and put her through.  Reading it reminded me of what parents fighting can do to kids as they become teens, and the little signs that they are unhappy and acting out change from small temper tantrums and dipping grades to behavior that can alter their entire lives.

Readers of my book, Illumination - How One Woman Made Light of the Darkness, often ask me "how could you not react with anger?" or "How come you didn't freak out at your ex husband?"  My best friend even said the main character wasn't believable because she never went ballistic after her husband turned out to be such a volcanic asshole.  But even when I've wanted to, I haven't been able to blow up emotionally at anyone.  It's not me.  It's not how I am wired as a person.

In our society, it is almost expected for you to fight viciously after a breakup.  Parents punish each other with their words and actions after divorce.  They argue, they fight in court and out, and the children end up becoming the rope in a tug of war between the adults who are supposed to know better.  In the beginning of my divorced life, I made a conscious decision not to fight.  I didn't want divorce to make me into a bitter woman and more than that, I didn't want it to change my children too much.  I didn't for many years after my divorce, and even though I have lost a lot, I have, I think, salvaged the emotional well-being of my children as much as possible.  They are now emotionally intelligent and well-adjusted children, all of them in or near their teen years. 

Erica Manfred's essay this morning reminded me of exactly why I've done things the way I have.  There are so many very good reasons to be angry and to battle my ex husband and his wife. 
But there are three reasons why I didn't.

Those reasons are my three children.

I know there are times when we should stick up for ourselves and stand our ground.  I've been doing it more and more lately.  My children have been asking me to come to their defense against some of the things going on with their dad and stepmother, so NOW I will.  But I still want to do it my way.  Carefully, selectively, sanely, and consciously.  I'm stocking my arsenal and amassing my troops.  When I stop just deflecting the hits that have started to rain down on me frequently and summon my heavy artillery to the front line, the outcome will be decisive and quick, and will signal a sea change in the environment of their remaining years as children who are deserving of better parenting.  Every day we get closer to that moment, but I have to be patient, because I can't -- I won't -- allow my children into the battlefield of petty spit wad fights.

If I could give only one piece of advice to divorcing or divorced parents, it would simply be to always put your kids first and try to remember what they are going through.  Think about what today's argument or fight might do to them down the road. 

We are creating the blueprint of their future through our actions and words.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Mom vs Stepmom (Arch Enemy or Nemesis?)

                                                                                                  {image from ulike}

I have a tenuous relationship with my children's stepmother, to put it politely.
But the bottom line is, she takes care of my kids.

As much as it kills me to admit it, I have to rely on her for a lot of the "every day" care of my children.

And often, I think I couldn't hate anyone more than this woman.  Like when my youngest child told me that stepmom told her she loves her more than her mother does.  Like when the kids tell me she makes fun of the clothes I've bought them.  I hate hearing my children call her "Mom", which was a request she made after she married their dad.

And just a few weeks ago, I gnashed my teeth when I found out she'd blocked my phone number from my children's cell phones.

But again, she is with my children A LOT.
Since my ex husband has physical custody in our situation, (we have joint legal custody) she is with my kids more than I am -- actually, even more than their dad is.  Stepmom is, in many ways, raising my kids, whether I like it or not.  And most of the time, I don't like it.  It gnaws at me and I don't approve of a lot of the things she says and does, but the wierd thing is, because she's a strong, financially stable, educated woman, and also because my ex husband is not the sharpest tool in the shed and has trouble keeping a full time job, I actually trust her to take care of my children even more than I trust him.  At the very least, however much she might hate me, I know she loves my kids.

One of my favorite articles comparing the arch enemy to a nemesis is called "The Importance of Being Hated", that first appeared in Equire Magazine by Chuck Klosterman.  With a little creativity, I've used many of his ideas and words here to illustrate the relationship between step mom and mom... 

"A Superhero usually has an Arch Enemy, but in a separate category, a Nemesis.  There is a big difference:
if you were to perish, your Arch Enemy would dance on your grave then date your husband.  You hate your Arch Enemy so much, it's embarrassing and you don't want your Arch Enemy to have the satisfaction of knowing they've affected you so strongly.  If you ever meet anyone who has the same name as your Arch Enemy, you immediately like her less.  Your Arch Enemy would push you and your kids under a bus, and never blink.

In some ways, you may kind of respect your nemesis, despite the fact that you despise her.  If your Nemesis invited you out for a glass of wine to "hash things out", you might accept.  If your Arch Enemy was trying to attack you, your Nemesis might even come to your defense.  (like when Godzilla and King Kong fought Mothra together).  You and your Nemesis will never be best friends and tell each other that.  Your Nemesis would feed your children if they were hungry (but would not feed you)."

I figure my kids' happiness and fate depends a lot on the two main women in their lives... me, and, as much as I sometimes hate to admit it, their stepmother.  They spend a lot of time with both of us.  And ultimately, more than I dislike her, I love them.

And they deserve for me to at least try to talk things out with Man Hands.

And so, stay tuned...

                                                                                                                    {image from 55 Secret}

Thursday, February 10, 2011

and then... Life Blooms

                                                                                                                   {image from Best Cactus}

When you have gone through a divorce, especially if a lot has been taken away from you in the process, it's tempting to be bitter. 

It's practically expected. 

I've had my fair share of tears and rants. I've whined and felt sorry for myself for many different reasons. VALID reasons.   And I hear many other divorced women, single moms, and non-custodial moms vent about how awful things can be.  Their complaints are heartfelt and real.  The loss of a relationship or marriage, a home, a life that you once thought of as your own, is painful.
Many nights have I found myself in the fetal position on my couch, sustained by a pounder bag of M&M's and cheap wine, my face scrunched and blotchy, dripping tears onto my comfiest sweats (I don't cry pretty). I've cranked Annie Lennox and prayed for God to avenge me by making my ex find his new wife in bed beside him resemble Forrest Whittaker in drag.

But when the wallowing is done, it's time to get off the couch, brush the Doritos crumbs out of your hair and move on with your new life -- the "Part II" of being a woman, and a mother.  It's time to fight back temptation to vilify your ex and shout to the world how unfair life is.  It's time to declare a new fight. 

The way that I have chosen to fight back is to make my life into something new.

I've made it better than it was before.  I am a stronger woman than I was when I was with my ex husband.  I am finally confident and proud of myself.  I am writing again, doing photography, and embracing life in a way that I'd forgotten how.  Because I didn't melt into a puddle of grief, I found the opportunity to figure out who I really wanted to be.  And now I am loved by a man whom I respect, and who not only loves me for who I am, but he treats me well.

I am finally cherished.

After 17 years with the wrong man, I am finally an example of a kind, smart, self-sustaining woman who is probably a better role model for my daughters than I ever was before.  My new husband is a better role model for my son, and the relationship we have is something I am proud of and hope that all my children strive for.  Finally, after being married to a man for too long who didn't treat me well, I am able to show my kids what a good relationship looks like.  They now see how people who love each other work together, respect each other and bring out the best in one another.

I can't help but think that if I'd stayed with my kids dad, if I'd ducked my head and pretended it would get better, if I'd lowered my expectations and sacrificed what I knew was the "right thing," I would never be who I am to myself and to my children today.

Transition is hard and often painful.  In some ways, it's comparable to transplanting a garden, sowing seeds or tending roses.  Often you don't see the benefits of planting until many months of hard work.  It helps to have a plan or blueprint, and to keep in mind that the seasons do change.  No matter how cold the winter might be, spring is around the corner.  Think of it as a gardener's wisdom.

My mother is a Master Gardener.  Every winter, right around Valentine's Day, she tells me it's the very best time of year to prune the rose bushes.  When I first see her pull on her boots and ruthlessly cut the gangly and bare stalks to knee level with her pruning shears, I gasp. Her methods seem harsh.  How can a delicate rose ever come back from that kind of cut?  Being hacked nearly to knee level -- won't it die? 

But in the spring, new growth takes over.  The branches multiply.  Leaves appear a deeper green and thicker, healthier texture than the year before.  Buds appear and turn into flowers that are more profuse and beautiful.  By pruning her roses back, and doing what she needed to do, even though it's not the most fun of gardening chores, my mother gives her plants new life.

I can't help but think of this as a great metaphor for life.  It's a little like the shock and heartbreak of divorce.
A woman feels cut-off, cut down, and betrayed.  Her life is pruned back to the bare stalk.  But, sometimes, as difficult and cold as it seems to cut away and throw out an old part of our life, we finally begin to re-shape things into the way we want them to be. We stimulate new growth.  When diseased and overgrown branches are removed, we can finally have room to start fresh, to heal and bloom as women and mothers.

And when a new life begins, it can blossom into an even more beautiful life than it was before.