Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bathtub Confessional

She took in a breath before slipping underneath the blanket of pristine white bubbles.  She resurfaced a split second later and let out an exaggerated gasp.  I watched Faith’s silhouette clear the bubbles from her eyes through the fog-like steam, now fragrant with familiar baby-powder scent. 
I sat on the toilet seat, on the other side of the shower curtain, waiting and listening for my youngest daughter to continue her rant about having two families.
Throughout my children’s lives, long soaks in a hot bathtub filled with bubbles or Epsom salts and essential oils has been a tradition.  They take after me that way.  When they were babies, all three of them seemed to take to the warm, soapy water with relish, and as a busy stay-at-home mom, bath time, whether for me or them, was sacred.
Now, even at the age of 10, my youngest daughter clings to this ritual every other weekend when she comes home to me.  Even on her mid week visits (known simply as “Faith Night”), she will often ask me to run her a hot bath so she can soak and unwind.
And confess.
I’ve told Noah that I believe our old, cast iron tub has magical, medicinal qualities.  It is not only where I go to unwind and relax and think at the end of a busy work day, but it works wonders on the disposition of my children when they’re cranky or tired.  But there’s more magic in it than that most fundamental quality that even the Romans cherished -- my bathtub, in a way, is a time machine.  Days and sometimes (though rarely) even weeks can pass when I don’t see one of my children.  Bridging that kind of time and distance is hard on a mother (this mother, at least), but once they emerge from the hot bath I’ll draw for them, they will emerge, warm and glowing red from the pool of life, and cradling any of them to me is like the first time. 
In my home, the mother and child reunion is only a hot bath soak away. 
As for Faith, my youngest, she’s always wanted my company while she bathes.  It’s her opportunity to have my undivided attention.  It’s the occasion where we’ve consistently had the most endearing, sometimes painful, and always heartfelt conversations.  I long ago dubbed these sessions “Faith’s Bathtub Confessional.”
We’ve developed a routine.  After I run the hot water and set out her favorite, fluffy, orange beach towel (which I will have warmed from the dryer), I step out and make tea while she steps into the tub and pulls the curtain -- the confessional screen.  She usually insists on Baby Magic bath soap.  I love the fresh clean baby smell of it -- I think it reminds both of us of when we were together all the time and I used it on her as shampoo, molding her thin red hair into a single Unicorn spike on top of her head.  At ten, she is much more discreet and serious than even just a couple of years ago, so of course she washes her own hair and doesn’t play with the stiff-haired Barbie dolls during her bath.  But she still wants her mommy an arm’s length away.
While in the tub, she has asked me the hardest and most profound questions, like “Who is God?” and “What if I don’t turn out the way I want to when I’m grown up?”  It should be no surprise that it was in the Bathtub Confessional that she first asked me (a few  years ago but countless times since) why her daddy and I got divorced.  My textbook answers were appropriately vague for the seven-year-old that she -- “Mommy and Daddy decided we needed to divorce because of grown-up reasons, Honey."  But as she's gotten older, the more complicated her questions have become.  Some are so difficult that I don’t know how to answer.  Even though that is hard to admit to my daughter and to myself, I too confess. 
Recently, I agreed to meet my children’s stepmother for dinner.  What triggered my dedication to this idea was Faith’s tearful and out-of-the-blue confession in the tub.  She was talking about having two families and she spelled out for me, in no uncertain terms, what it was like for her when our two households don’t get along. 
“I feel like I’m up against a big rock, getting squished in the middle by another big rock.” 
It hit me like a lightning bolt.  I thought I’d been careful, but words slip out in front of the children sometimes, even when I don’t realize it.  Noah and I know better, but now and then we are guilty of rolling our eyes and issuing sarcastic comments about things the kids tell us about their dad and step mom.  Having said that, our behavior doesn’t hold a candle to the other household, where there are much more vociferously negative comments about Noah and me.  Step mom has been known to show my emails to the kids while saying “she’s so stupid” or “your mom is shady.”  She’s referred to my husband as an asshole in front of the kids and makes condescending comments about me and the food blog I write that she seems to stalk.  Most telling, perhaps, is the line she’s said to Faith more than once – “I love you more than your mommy because she gave you up.”

Sitting in the sauna-like bathroom, everything was suddenly clear to me.  None of the details of my divorce mattered as much as what my daughter was telling me just then.
“I feel like I’m being squished between two big rocks.”

She went on to explain that when she’s at her dad's house, she feels like she shouldn’t like me, or Noah, or our home.  She said she feels like a traitor to her dad and Wanda if she says something nice about us.  And I did not come out as the perfect saint myself.  She said when she’s at my house, she feels angry at her dad and stepmom, but then feels guilty about that.
Sometimes, it takes and innocent child’s simple words to make you realize the truth.
Who cares about our petty disagreements and fights as adults?  All of our battles are not as important as my children’s peace of mind.  It was that day that I decided to fix things for Faith. 
My shoulders slumped.  I let go of the animosity and decided to talk it through with the other adults who were “squishing” my kids’ hearts and minds.  My job is to protect my children.  All of my decisions, especially the toughest ones, I make so that they have the best opportunity to grow up to be healthy and happy adults.  When you are told by your child that they are hurting, or that they are feeling pressure, the only thing you want to do is fix it.

Faith slipped back under the water momentarily.  By the time she resurfaced I had silently accepted my penance of meeting her stepmom and making a good Faith effort at doing what would make me a better mother in these circumstances. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

When Mommy has to Man Up

This story was recently featured on my new friend and Huffington Post writer, Lee Block's website, "The Post Divorce Chronicles"...

To ‘Man Up’ – For someone to stop being self –centered and to look at what they are doing, or how they are acting—for them to change viewpoints, and perspective on the situation and move forward to correct direction in their lives and/or others lives.  – Urbandictionary.com

Nine years ago, on the night of my 14th wedding anniversary, which was also my 35th birthday, I stood in my living room in front my husband and listened as he revealed the dark truth about his indiscretions to me for the first time.  I felt like I was in the middle of an overly dramatic movie.  In slow motion my life was unraveling before my eyes, and I felt as though everything I thought I’d known was slipping like sand through my fingers and out from under my feet.  In just those few moments of his confession, I knew I had lost my husband and that our relationship for the past 17 years was not at all what I had thought it was.  In one fell swoop, he lost his job, our children lost their health benefits, and to top it off, we would soon lose our home.  My mind spun.  I wasn’t sure how to react.  The slumped and tired looking husband standing in front of me was suddenly broken and empty shell of a man – a man who was not, and probably wouldn’t be again, the kind of man who could save our family.

In the first few months after the “Big Bang” (the name of the chapter in my book that describes these events) that destroyed our world, I had every reason to be furious and to be cruel, but he had his own demons to battle.  My friends all told me to make him leave and not let him even see the children.  I was told to make him pay alimony and child support, and by all means, I should stay in the house and make him pay the mortgage.  But he was Humpty Dumpty – broken and useless.  He didn’t have the motivation or wherewithal to rebuild.  Additionally, for as much harm as he’d done to our family, I was not the kind of person who would kick someone when they are down, no matter what they had done to me.  Lastly, and most importantly, he was the father of my children.  They were going to need him in their lives once he pulled himself together from this.  Not only was it up to me to “fix” and clean up the mess my ex had made of our family, home, and finances, but I couldn’t let my personal feelings get in the way.  There was too much work to be done.  My husband could not be counted on for help.  His tremendous indiscretions at work had lost him his job and there was no indication as to whether or not he would ever be able to the take care of our family again financially.  Common sense told me that, since he couldn’t do it, I would have to.  As the mother, it was up to me to put my feelings aside and simply make sure I could feed, shelter, clothe, protect, and insure our children. 

I would have to “man up.”

There are plenty of men throughout history, and in literature, who have set aside their own emotions in order to overcome the odds and to rise above their situation.  When I was a dorky fourth grader, I lost myself in the pages of books reading amazing tales of valor about gods, superheroes, saints, and legends of the male persuasion… Hercules, Apollo, Batman, Superman, Saint Christopher, King Arthur and Odysseus are all men who are defined by their selfless and heroic acts.  All are men who protected the weak and oppressed.  At the time of my separation and in the middle of losing our family home, I remembered how these heroes reacted in the face of disaster.  I knew it was up to me to protect my children.   I imagined myself in a heroes shoes.  Or better yet, cape and tights.

I wrote letters to the utility companies.  I spent hours on the phone negotiating with the bank that owned the second mortgage on our home.  I found someone to help me short sell the house.  I polished up my resume, dusty from ten years of working at home and teaching preschool, so I could get a job in an office downtown.  I went with my ex husband to his counseling sessions.  I was worried about his emotional stability and I did what I needed to do – told him what I thought he needed to hear – to ensure that my kids would get their father back in one piece.  I made sure he had a place to stay with his brother until he could find an apartment of his own.  I tried to fix our family as best I could.

Little by little, my ex seemed to be pulling himself together.  He found a part time job.  He became more involved than ever in our children’s day to day lives.  Perhaps he wanted to make it up to them by spending as much time as possible with them.  Within a year, we had reversed our roles.  He would pick the kids up from daycare and school, make them dinner, and help them with their homework.  When they were sick, he stayed home with them.  When they joined sports teams, he would shuttle them around.  He began dating a woman who helped him with the daily responsibilities of taking care of our three young children.   I was working nearly 50 hours a week.  I had secured health insurance again for my kids – something I took great pride in.

When we decided to split physical custody in an atypical fashion, with me being the non custodial mother (joint custody actually, but their father having physical custody), I felt tremendous guilt at first.  Although the solution made sense on paper and based on our situation, I couldn’t stop thinking – What will people think if I am not the full time mom?  In the end, it simply didn’t matter – I couldn’t let it.  What did matter for my family was that one parent would be there for my kids on a day-to-day basis to pick them up after school and practice while the other provided health insurance and an income for food and necessities.  We worked together and did what was best for our kids.

It should have been no surprise that there were many eyebrows raised about our arrangement.  People thought I was nuts to not go to court to battle my ex for full physical custody and to make him pay me child support.  But I had to be practical.  On the one hand, I was simply doing what I had to do to support my family.  My ex just wasn’t in the position to fulfill the role of income and insurance provider.  I took on the role of ‘divorced dad’,  even paying child support before we had a parenting plan or divorce decree in place, so that my ex could move to a bigger place to accommodate more time with the kids, while I moved to a smaller, less expensive one since they were really only with me anymore on the weekends.  I did it because my kids needed it.  I did it because it was the logical choice.  I saw it as being a responsible parent, no matter my gender or what society said my “traditional” role should be.

There were few female heroes in the books I read as a kid.  It was rare to read fairy tales or legends about women who would “take control of the situation and rise to the moment” (another definition of “Man Up” on Urban Dictionary).  Mostly, I read about men rescuing the damsel in distress and vanquishing the dragon while balancing the world on their shoulders as they went about their quest to find golden apples.  Many of the women were princesses locked in towers, maidens in need of protection or vain and vengeful Goddesses, bent on destroying men with jealousy.  It was hard to find a female hero.
Sadly, my critics, more often than not, were other women who said to me, “How could a mother abandon her children?”  This is a question I read about on Huffington Post and Salon.com in response to stories on and from women who have chosen a non traditional role in their families.  The anger, hostility, and backlash towards mothers who do not have residential custody of their children can reach a dizzying crescendo.  But the assumption that the only reason a woman would not have her children full time is that she is crazy, irresponsible, and/or selfish is, many times, not accurate.  I am an example of a woman who does not have physical custody of her kids because she is selfless enough to look past those stereotypes and simply do what is best or necessary for her children.  In no way shape or form did I abandon them.  I was still there for my children, just in a different way than I’d been before.  I was in the background, but still playing an important role.  The supporting role.

Men who come through for their families, who have the integrity to do what is best for their children even when it’s not the stereotypical scenario, are generally revered.  A man who has custody of his children is often considered a hero because he is seen to not be shirking his responsibilities, like he is somehow going over and above his male duties.  But sometimes women who share or give custody to their children’s father should be given this same consideration.  Even though they are playing a non-traditional parental role, consider the possibility that these women are enabling their children to have a better life, as it was in my family’s case.

Perhaps it’s time to submit a new term and definition to Urban Dictionary:

“Mom Up.”

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dinner Date with Man Hands

I've decided to take my own advice.

For the past few weeks, I've been preaching my ideal philosophy to anyone who would listen.  In comments on Huffington Post, in my guest post about non custodial mothers on Lee Block's Post Divorce Chronicles, to my new lovely writer friend Pauline, and right here on my own little blog.  I've  waxed poetic about how divorced parents "should be."  The awesome Rocker Guy who cuts my hair made me feel super self-confident when he told me my hairstyle made me look a bit like Sharon Stone, but even more so, when he told me he wished ALL divorced parents would live by my accidental mantra:

We shouldn't hate each other more than we love our kids.

He became teary eyed when I said it, halfway through cutting my hair, and told me he came from a broken family with two other siblings.  He's been through the sawmill of divorce, and years later, he's still piecing himself back together.  He said his mother was so angry with his father, that in a way, she took it out on him when he was just a little boy.  "I bet she didn't mean to," I said.  "I don't think she did," he replied, "but I didn't know that back then.  It sort of ruined me.  I wished she'd loved me more than she hated my dad."

And so...I decided to take another look at myself.  I think I'm a fairly gracious person, and I think I'm logical and fair.  But I still get mad.  I still feel vindictive and mean, and sometimes I feel like I should not be such a push-over and I should stand up against The Man.  And The Man, in my divorced family situation, is not even my ex husband.  It's his wife.  She makes the decisions in his family now.  She's always rude to me.  I'm a little nervous around her and I wouldn't even be too surprised if she throws a drink in my face tonight at some point.

But I shouldn't be mad at anything, quite frankly, until I've at least tried to simply talk to her.

As a blended and highly non-traditional family, we've done things fairly rationally and have always made it a point to focus on the kids and do what is in their best interest.  But even so, there have been times when we've disagreed, even ending up in court recently.  And I've been tempted to take my disgruntlement to Family Court a few times.  My friends and family have always wondered why I haven't.

After concentrating on that very fact for the last few weeks, I have to say, I'm glad I haven't.  It's not what's best for my kids -- to spend their college money on court and lawyer fees.  It's not in their best interest to be at war with their father and stepmother.  Instead of all out war, or fighting in court, I'm going to try to do this my way.  At least at first.

And I'm starting with having dinner with Man Hands.  My kids step mom.  After all, it is International Women's Day.  We are the women who are raising my kids together, she and I. 

Am I trying to defy gravity?  I think I'm about to find out.

                                                                                                         {image by Lissy Elle}

I'll let you know how it turns out.