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).