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 Salon.com), 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).

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Sun and The Wind (and the space in between)

Faith snuggled against me as I lay down next to her after tucking her in.  Since her infancy, I have put my youngest to sleep with bedtime stories and mommy/daughter talks about life, our day together, feelings, ideas, and most recently, stories about fairy tales, myths, parables, fables, and legends.

One benefit of being a non custodial parent is that you realize some of the most important moments with your child are not necessarily in the day-to-day things.  Although I miss that part of parenting, the hours spent sitting on the sidelines of their sports events or hustling them out of bed and to school aren’t always the most formative experiences for them.  Although those duties and tasks are undoubtedly a building block in the relationship bond with our children, it's the space in between those moments that is often most precious.  Like a spring garden, when we stop manicuring and pruning so intensely and slow down to give life a chance to breathe is when our blooms often appear. 

Tonight, Faith wanted me to tell her a fable.  We've begun telling stories to each other, then taking turns guessing what the moral of it is. 

“What’s a ‘moral,’ mommy?”

"You know, a lesson about what was learned and how you should live your life."

Faith patiently waits until I get to the end, knowing that I’ll be quizzing her on what the moral is.  I recently shared this fable with her...

The Sun and The Wind

"Once upon a time, the Wind challenged the Sun to a contest in order to find out who was stronger.  The Wind insisted that it was all powerful and wanted to prove it.

"Tell you what... " boasted the Wind, "whichever one of us can get the coat and hat off that man walking below will win."  He snickered to himself, certain that his brute strength and gusts of cold air would force the man’s clothing right off his body.  The Sun sat back calmly to watch the Winds' effort.

The powerful wind blew and blew.  Gusts of swirling cold wind scattered leaves and tossed papers about, and made the branches of the trees bend and groan from its pressure.  The man pulled his coat tighter around himself and gripped the brim of his hat, fighting off the chill and making sure he would not lose his possessions. 

Soon it was obvious that for all the Wind’s boasting and angry gusts, the man's coat and hat would not budge.  The more the wind blew and tried to force them off, the tighter the man clutched them to himself.

"Harrumph," said the Wind.  "If I cannot make the man's coat come off, then neither can you."

The Sun smiled and didn't say a thing.  Rays of light radiated downward, washing the man in heat.  The man raised his face toward the Sun, and feeling the temperature rise, he took off his coat happily and removed the hat from his head, welcoming the warmth.

Faith sleepily smiled and yawned, then, as our custom, ended my story with her version of the moral:

"The wind thought it could force someone to do something, but the sun helped the man and made him feel good, so he did it on his own."

I am not with my children every day or close to as much as I’d like, and that is something I've had to live with.  But what helps and seems to make it a little easier is knowing that I still have them during these times that are "the space in between."  And it's those times I cherish and try to make the most of.

Hopefully when they are grown up, my warmth and love will outshine the coolness towards me that they are exposed to at their other household, and no matter where they are, we will always be connected in our hearts and minds.  And their blooms will be radiant.