Putting the Train Together Again

Perhaps the hardest thing about being a divorced parent are the moments you feel real, powerful grief when your child is with you and you can’t show it.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!
For months after I sold the house, it remained inside a large plastic bag in the loft. One of my daughter’s toys. The pieces were disorganized, and I was not certain that we had them all.
One day I began to organize the loft. Christmas was on the horizon, and our artificial tree was in the corner behind too many items for it to be accessible for the holidays. I got to work. My five-year-old daughter was with me.
“Daddy!”
“Yes, sweety?”
“Is that the pirate train?”
“I think so. Let me check.”
It was.
“Can we build it again?”
“I don’t know, honey. But we can try.”
“Oh Daddy, please let’s do that right now!”
“Maybe once we get the loft better organized. Okay?”
“Okay.”
The toy was a plastic pirate ship. A train track circled around it. As the train made its way up towards the mast, it reached a smooth part of the track where it would invert on its rapid descent down. Katie loved it. We had kept it outside on the covered portion of our pool deck, since it took up so much space in our small home.
Now that home was gone, one of many casualties of the divorce I had filed for nearly two years before.
Losing your first and only home feels like parting with one of your internal organs. A part of your life is over, and it isn’t coming back. And just like the body that must live and go on post-operation, you have to thrive once more though it may not immediately apparent how to do so.
I pondered the pirate train and its current state of affairs. I knew we had to be missing a few pieces. I didn’t see the train itself anywhere, just the caboose that attached to it, and while I may possess certain talents building things without a clear plan isn’t one of them. I saw all these obstacles before we started, but I didn’t want to disappoint my daughter. We spread the pieces out on the living room floor.
“Alright, sweetheart. Let’s see. I think this is the mast.”
“What does that mean?”
“The part that goes on top. Here.”
I fixed the mast to the topmost portion of the pirate ship.
“Daddy, look. The track goes together here.”
My champion puzzle-maker was right.
“Katie, that’s really smart. Good job. Let’s see how to do the rest of it.”
We set up the rest of the track. There were a few long plastic arms that didn’t seem to fit anywhere.
“What about these, Katie?”
“I don’t know, Daddy.”
“Me either. Let’s think about it.”
We both looked at the half-completed structure in silence. Then I had an idea.
“Look, Katie. This one goes here.”
“You’re right, Daddy.”
Then one of the arms connected and made a support for the other.
“That’s it, Daddy!”
As I enjoyed our success building together, I felt a tinge of sadness. I knew we couldn’t completely rebuild her toy. It wasn’t that it was broken, precisely. It was incomplete and destined to remain so. That’s why the pirate train could never be put together again.
Realizing that the same thing had happened to our family, a shudder went through me. I couldn’t put our home or my marriage back together, either. It didn’t matter what I did. I didn’t have all the pieces. Our old life was gone and more for my daughter than myself, I grieved. I was the one who filed for divorce and I still believe that I had to do it, that there was no other choice. But that didn’t make it easier.
Perhaps the hardest thing about being a divorced parent are the moments that you feel real, powerful grief when your child is present with you and you cannot show it. It takes every ounce of restraint you possess.
Sometimes, if we can learn from their unique form of wisdom our children lead the way. This was my daughter Katie. Her attitude was constructive. Absolutely, she wanted to build the entire train. She regretted that we couldn’t do so. But she has enjoyed playing with the mostly-finished structure for weeks. She didn’t regret, she just moved forward. She epitomized determination.
I may be a dummy, but watching her I knew she was showing me exactly how to move on and that I had the internal resources to do it.
“Besides, Daddy, maybe Santa will bring me something better for Christmas.”
“He just might, Katie. Christmas is only a couple of months away.”
Hope for the future that has every reason to be better than the past, no matter what is behind you. That’s what my daughter taught me. I hope I can teach her half as much.

Teaching Children to Carry On, Through Grief

Last fall, as our beloved family dog faded quickly into his final weeks, I tried to prepare my children gently for his passing.

Last fall, as our beloved family dog faded quickly into his final weeks, I tried to prepare my children gently for his passing. It seemed unfair that they would have to endure this flagrant loss in the very same year during which their parents had separated and were heading for divorce.
With one hit still fresh and our recovery scarcely in progress, we were faced with a stark and painful illustration of how significantly our family was changing.
At first, I wanted desperately to protect my children – if one narrow column of time could bulge with such excess grief, then what would my children begin to believe about the rest of their lives, sprawled out before them like an open, lawless range?
The end was inevitable, of course. Our dog was 13 years old, ailing, and miserable – visibly ashamed by all the accidents he was having in the house, by all the falling down, by the not getting up again. He was still my dog, my loyal pard, but he was not my dog anymore.
I found a veterinarian who would perform euthanasia at home; I tried to use the time leading up to our appointment wisely.
I talked to my children in the morning, snuggling under blankets on the couch while I sipped my coffee and reflected, out loud, that death was the sad underside of the things we loved. I didn’t mention the appointment for euthanasia – that concept, I thought, was more than they could bear. I only told them that our dog was sick, and that his death was imminent. I brought it up at dinner, in the car on the way to piano lessons, while reading books before bed.
“It’s coming and it’s awful, but it’s going to be okay,” I said. It was a common refrain that particular year.
For my four year-old son, it helped when we spotted death as a natural part of life wherever we could. One afternoon in late September, we sat together outside on the patio.
“You see that tree out there, buddy? The dead one?” I asked, pointing to a slender elm at the back of the yard, silenced by disease.
“Yeah, I do,” he said, “The one that’s naked, you mean?”
I nodded.
“So leaves are clothes for trees?” he imagined.
“Yes,” I said, “and that one doesn’t need them anymore.”
I explained that the tree’s body was no longer working and it might fall on its own, but its roots would always remain in our soil.
In contrast, my older two children entered the maze of grief in their own ways. My 11-year old daughter simply wanted to turn back time and allow our dog to be a puppy again. My eight-year old son wanted me to please stop talking about it and let it be over with – he had only the exit sign in mind.
What were any of us supposed to be feeling and doing during that time? Anything, really.
Standing in the middle of grief is agony, but if we step back and look over it – a corn maze in autumn, if you will – it is only the process of transition between the living and the dying of something we love. It has both an entry and an exit point, with a myriad of routes from one to the other. Around each corner lies yet another component: anger, sadness, despair, and even love at its most overwhelming, for when we lose a thing, or decide we must let it go, we begin to see its value more clearly. Grief evolves, therefore, over time. As a mother, I am grateful for this simple fact.
Together, my children and I recorded our pup’s paw print, first with poster paint, and then with a plaster mold. Neither project emerged perfectly: capturing an outline of a dog’s paw in any medium is like trying to catch everyone smiling using a camera obscura. It didn’t matter – the project itself was part of our process of letting go.
Finally, when the dog’s last full day was upon us and my children were all tucked away at school, I began to focus on my own process. How much time could I actually spend that day, lying next to my old friend, cradling his head, draping my leg over his side, sobbing?
I had ordered a set of palm-sized memory stones, each of them etched with a paw print on one side and our dog’s name on the other. I laid all five stones on the kitchen floor in front of him. Curious, he sniffed them, wetting each one with his velvety nose. An hour later, the veterinarian arrived, and a quarter of an hour after that, it was over.
When our children came home that day and their father and I told them our dog was gone, they began to buckle and wail. We held them – on the floor, on the couch, wherever they landed – all five of us awash.
Then, we remembered: once, I had to break him out of the dog pound with a carpool of preschoolers in tow. Twice, he got his head stuck in a garbage can.
We laughed, and I offered everyone a memory stone. Our youngest child took his and closed his fingers around it. Each of our three children could drop their stone into a pocket, bring it in the car, tuck it under a pillow. They were tactile, intimate charms that my children would carry with them everywhere, as the grieving do. They would each do so, that is, until such time as they didn’t need to anymore.

Finding Beauty in the Brokenness

This brokenness, these outward signs of our experience so far, doesn’t make us less than others with different worries or heartbreak.

The accident was barely worth talking about.
I’d taken the trash out one night, early in the summer. I was 12. I hummed and bounced the bag against my knee. When I came back into the house, my mother gasped in horror. I looked down and saw my leg soaked in blood. A broken glass in the bag had acted like a knife, stabbing me deeply each time I bounced the bag. I never felt it because the first cut damaged a nerve.
The aftermath of that night was far more painful.
I had a large, angry red scar that the soaring temperatures made nearly impossible to hide. The scar criss-crossed my left knee – six separate scars actually – working together to form a garish butterfly.
In my black-and-white 12-year-old mind, my leg was ruined. Up until then, I hadn’t had plans to be a swimsuit model or star athlete, but my options were now severely limited. I was broken.
I confessed this to my grandfather one evening, sitting in the now-vintage rockers on his back porch, safe in the dimming of the day.
“I can’t dance anymore,” I said.
“But you’re so good at it! Why not?” he asked, curious. He was wildly enthusiastic about any grandchild hobby, quickly assessing our abilities as, in his expert opinion, far superior to those of the average population.
“People will see my leg,” I replied.
“They’ll see them both,” he agreed.
I huffed. Clearly he didn’t understand.
“They’ll see my scar, Grampa. The tights don’t hide it. I can’t dance because everyone will be looking at my leg. It’s awful.”
He smiled in the face of my earnest pre-teen angst.
“It’s unique,” he said. “If you’re ever lost and frozen on a mountain with your double, your scar will identify your body.”
I’ll pause and confirm: yes, he really said this. He was a colorful man and a terrific storyteller.
He continued.
“Everyone starts out exactly the same way. We are born perfect and boring. Then life starts, and we get stories and scars and begin to forge our own path. Your scar is beautiful. It is yours alone.”
I just looked at him.
I’d like to say that I understood, but I’d be lying. I was 12 and he was hopelessly old. What did he know about scars and brokenness and mourning a once-perfect leg?
I understand now.

We are all a little bit broken

My friend’s daughter, a cancer survivor, panics at the sight of a needle. A relic of her years of chemotherapy, she hyperventilates and nearly passes out while waiting for her flu shot. My sister, like me, spent years in Spanish-speaking countries. Too nervous and shy to answer the phone or venture out alone, she never learned the language.
My children carry the scars of our divorce. Like my the marks on my leg, they have faded to silver now, but they still exist. Caden fixates on our schedule, carefully checking to make sure the days are indeed even. Simon started to have friends over again in high school – for years our family was “too confusing to explain.” Transition days are still bumpy for Lottie.
Our blended family feels broken as often as it doesn’t: loyalty binds and pre-existing cultures and stepfamily dynamics are complicated.
This brokenness, these outward signs of our experience so far, doesn’t make us less than others with different worries or heartbreak.

This brokenness tells our story

In his masterpiece “Anthem,” the songwriter Leonard Cohen urges us to forget our “perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I played that song over and over and over again in the darkest days of our divorce and separation. That image is powerful. It became a kind of mantra, and created an idea I carry close to this day.
I think of the scars we carry, visible and invisible, as cracks in the glass of a window. Light shines through the glass, shifted and altered by the cracks. The light casts patterns on the wall, shaped by the cracks but not dimmed. Light through a perfect window? No pattern, no story.
I know this analogy isn’t perfect.
I know sometimes things are so broken no light gets in at all. I know that sometimes people carry scars and stories so heavy they can’t bear the weight of them. I know that some people escape life unscathed, and their light shines brightly unaltered on the floor.
I sometimes wish we didn’t carry these scars. I still sometimes consider the possibility of a perfect left leg. I sometimes sit with what if’s and if only’s.
But I have a choice.
This is our story. This is one of the ways our window cracked. And I can choose to stare up at the window or down at my leg and wish the cracks away, or I can look at what happened next. I can see Simon’s adaptability and watch Caden sharpen his wit, coping with humor. I can be grateful for the lesson my children learn as they watch their parents move forward after everything fell apart. I can appreciate the path our lives have taken and admire the pattern the light casts on the wall.
I choose to find the beauty in our brokenness.
This article was originally published on This Life in Progress.

What Does Single Motherhood Mean for Kids?

Surprise! A growing body of research finds kids in single parent households aren’t sentenced to lives of poverty, crime, or addiction.

The most common message to parents of all family types is that divorce is horrible for children, and all social ills are rooted in the recent surge in single motherhood, most especially unwed mothers (eek! Unmarried women having sex and babies!). If you’re inclined to unconsciously buy into this thinking (and therefore hold yourself back unnecessarily), do not under any circumstances google “Ann Coulter + single mothers.” Also, remove from your mind President Reagan’s admonishment of the “welfare queen” (whom no one was ever able to find, and who in fact was a propaganda construct), or George W. Bush’s $1.5 billion failed Healthy Marriage Initiative, aimed at curbing all the supposed misfortune rooted in the upward trend of unmarried moms.

Instead, a growing body of research finds that children who grow up in single parent households are not sentenced to lives of poverty, crime, or addiction simply by way of their parents’ marital status. In fact, by many metrics, the majority of kids who grow up with single mothers fare just as well as their peers raised in traditional, nuclear, two-parent households. For example, in one study of 1,700 children by Cornell University researchers, found that single mothers’ education levels and abilities as parents had far more influence on their children’s academic abilities than their relationship statuses or even incomes – and this was true for all races.

In fact, lots of research comes to the same surprising conclusion: It matters little the family structure that a child grows up in, though it matters a lot the dynamics of that family. For example, children whose parents have a high-conflict marriage fare better after their parents break up, and the vast majority of children of divorce do just fine within a few years of the split. One nationally representative study of all kinds of family types found that it didn’t matter if the children were adopted or if the parents were married, single, or remarried. What does matter, found the study, published in the National Journal of Marriage and Family, was whether the home was ruled mostly by harmony or by acrimony, and whether the children experienced a warm, secure environment or a cold and neglectful one. Research also found that children raised by single mothers tended to have closer relationships with extended family like cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, and other adults in their lives. This, I will argue, is something most Americans could use more of.

In other words, family is indeed what you make it, and you can create that warm, secure, and loving home life that is the springboard for a healthy child, regardless of what your family looks like. Just as you have countless opportunities to build a career and earn, you also have the freedom to build a family that you are proud of, to raise wise, thoughtful, hardworking, loving, and kind children. You can and will build not only a home life in which you and your children thrive, but a larger web of loved ones and community members who rise up and support you – and whom you support in return.

That said, I won’t sugarcoat this: There is plenty of very legitimate research that finds that children raised by single mothers are more prone to not-great outcomes, including teen pregnancy, dropping out of school, and incarceration. However, studies also point out that correlation does not automatically equal causation. In the most stark contrasts between kids raised by single mothers and those raised in two-parent households, when controlled for poverty, maternal depression, and lack of support, outcomes are more or less the same.

Another factor in the outcome for kids: All children fare better when both parents are actively involved and co-parent amicably. Many studies found that poverty associated with single motherhood is the common thread in families that fare worse than two-parent households – not the solo parenting in and of itself. It’s not rocket science why. With just one income and no second parent to help with childcare, single parents have to work more to pay for the basics, and have higher child care costs and fewer dollars for music and sports lessons, SAT prep tests, healthy food, or real estate in safe neighborhoods. Plus, poverty, or any financial hardship, is tied to depression, anxiety, and generally being a stressed-out mom with less patience for her kids and more arguments with the adults in her life.

One of the most cited studies about single mothers is the harm caused to children by the instability of boyfriends moving in and out of their home and lives. Leading researcher on single mother families Sarah S. McLanahan, of Princeton University, found that children raised by single mothers (who tend to be younger and poorer than married moms) are more likely to struggle academically because these single moms have less stable relationships with their children’s fathers, and men overall, with new boyfriends and their children moving in and out of the family home.

This research is important, and I urge you to heed it. However, do not let it scare you into celibacy, or shame you into sneaking or lying about your romantic life, or keep you up late worrying that decisions that led to this point have sentenced your children to a crappy life. Far from it.

Instead, this research highlights a mother’s relationship instability, which is within your control. The research is not about financially independent, unmarried moms who date a bunch of people without committing to them. The risks associated with partner instability have little to do with men who do not live in your house, who are not automatically designated boyfriends, and do not move in with their children or spur other major life changes that come with serious, committed relationships. The risk of negative outcomes for your kids, we can assume, plummets if you have a healthy attitude about romance, and if you are financially stable enough that you’re not compulsively tempted to cohabit out of financial destitution rather than healthy commitment to a shared future with a person you love.

Excerpted from THE KICKASS SINGLE MOM by Emma Johnson with the permission of TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2017 by Emma Johnson.

Navigating the Tricky Waters of Kids and New Partners

Once you’re divorced with a child, that is a background fact for the rest of your life. Nothing will change it.

I was scheduling a business lunch when I saw it – a reminder I’d placed in my calendar 10 months ago. I hadn’t thought about her in a while.

I never write in capital letters, but there it was, all in caps. A note setting a reminder for me, in capitals, marking the first anniversary of our meeting. I didn’t know at the time that it would be reduced to a mere forgotten event, a part of my past, but that’s what had happened. My first post-divorce relationship of consequence, and like many such relationships, it had failed. In spectacular fashion.

That wasn’t really what I had in mind when things started up between us.

What would have been our one-year anniversary fell on Friday, October 13th. I guess if I’d looked ahead and noticed that, I may have had a better sense of what was coming.

It began with one of those meetings that felt like kismet. I had a buddy who worked in a men’s store that featured high-end watches and pens. His new boss was tall, polite, and lovely to behold. Her best friend was less tall, more my type, and taking photographs of an event I’d been invited to attend. I had my four-year-old daughter in my arms and the last thing on my mind that night was romance.

Of course, that’s always when those things happen.

We started to talk. She was not a photographer by trade but was helping out her best friend for just the one event. Conversation flowed naturally, and I could sense her innate intelligence. I introduced my daughter, who can be very shy, and that didn’t seem to put her off even though not everyone wants to date a single dad. So far, so good.

Three days later, we went out for the first time. It was a pleasant meeting that morphed into a five-hour conversation. Our dialogue wasn’t hard to keep up, just the opposite. That gave me a bit of hope. I left with her telephone number in my cell phone.

We met each other again for dinner and drinks in downtown St. Petersburg, taking a long walk afterwards. We stayed around the parking garage talking before we went our separate ways. After that, we spent a lot of time on the phone at night during the work week. All this was building up to something and, finally, it did.

I’d been so busy laying a foundation for a relationship, balancing it with my work and the rest of life being a single dad, that I hadn’t yet worked out the full implications of my new romance for my little daughter. Now, I had to pivot and think on the fly.

In one sense, nothing changes. You’re still you. You’re just you with a young child.

In another sense, this is the moment when the pas de trois begins. You, your significant other, and your child are together in an emotional ballet, striving for balance in a world of complexity. You’re not sure when your child should meet your new love interest for the first time. You’re not sure how that will go. Do the three of you stay over at her place? If so, when and under what circumstances? Will they like each other, or just tolerate each other, or neither? Will there be cooperation or competition? Will you be able to successfully triangulate any tense moments and convert them into domestic harmony?

Questions like these don’t normally come with easy, let alone definitive, answers. You feel your way through as you go along. Much depends on the personalities involved.

Culture can also play a role in today’s increasingly mixed society. I found myself eating Polish food, decorating a Christmas tree in the traditional red and white Polish colors, and otherwise pivoting towards a culture not my own as I performed my own parental and relationship balancing act. That I had a great-grandfather named Zubrzycki didn’t help. If anything, it probably raised expectations of a cultural fluency that I plainly did not possess. And there I was, in the middle.

Once you’re divorced with a child, that is a background fact for the rest of your life. Nothing will change it. Complexities may vary in their extent, but they’re always going to be there and will never go away. Your life is now officially complicated. By definition.

In this relationship, a pattern quickly emerged that was not of my making nor consistent with my intentions.

After an initial, apparently-positive acquaintance with my daughter, my girlfriend and I spent most of our time together without my daughter and very little time as a group of three. That didn’t strike me as much of a template for the future, even if I saw and recognized the value of our private time together. I couldn’t see why things evolved that way, and in the end I wasn’t able to fix it.

In my next relationship, my daughter got on famously with the lovely woman I was dating. That relationship didn’t work out either, but she and I remain good friends and always will, I suspect. You can have an abundant respect for a person and not have the chemistry with one another that will carry you through time and challenges for years to come. That’s just how it is.

Between the two relationships, I ask myself why the daddy-daughter combination didn’t work in one instance and posed no obstacle in the other. I don’t really have an answer.

One thing I do know: the best relationship will surmount any challenge. Life is long and filled with them. Being a single parent isn’t something you have to be nervous about. It may even be an advantage, when viewed in a certain light. The relationship that was not going to work will self-destruct faster when you have a child of your own. The less-than-meaningful-or-ideal partnership will conclude much more quickly that the game is not worth the candle, so to speak. You’ll be furnished with a pretext to depart even if there isn’t a good reason ready to hand. That can be really good for you. You won’t waste time on a person who wasn’t going to be right for you anyway, and you’ll just find out sooner. That leaves you free to seek a better destiny with the right person. Then, maybe, with a bit of luck, your family can grow and even blossom again.

There’s another thing I learned that I will never forget. My daughter has incredible radar. It’s spot-on. She has a better sense of who is a good person than I do. Perhaps that’s a benefit of the young, uncomplicated mind. I don’t know for certain. But the next time I see that radar go up, I’ll take notice. Adults should learn from children, most of all their own.

The Alternating Happiness and Grief of Life 2.0

I’m becoming more comfortable with the “both and-ness” of this life. I am both homesick for the life I once had and filled with joy at the life I am living.

It was well past midnight when my phone dinged urgently from the nightstand next to me. I debated not checking it: the kids were tucked safely in their beds upstairs and my work rarely requires an immediate response to client issues. I’m not a live organ transplant surgeon, after all. No message I get after midnight needs an answer before dawn.
But my curiosity got the better of me, and I rolled over to check my messages. And there it was, a note from a reader, also up much too late:
“I had to ask you this one question … I wonder when I will stop secretly grieving the loss of my ‘first family?’ It’s been four years and every now and again it hits me like a freight train that it’s over … that this ‘post first family, blended family life’ is really happening. Trying to coparent and trying to bond with step children and trying to ensure that everybody is ‘getting along’ is so overwhelming sometimes … nights like tonight, I just secretly wish that my ‘first family’ was still intact.”
I read it twice, quickly, and then once more as I thought about what to say.

I could’ve written the message myself

Yesterday I called my children to say goodnight and listened to their stories of the day at the beach on vacation with their father. Simon is relishing his freedom, old enough now to spend the afternoon at the pier eating ice cream and talking to girls with the casual, laid back attitude I also perfected at home in the mirror when I was 16. Lottie spent the day in the pool, practicing hand stands, and Caden continued his beach trench digging. For as long as I can remember, that child has spent his week at the beach digging a trench so long and straight it makes me wonder how long it will be before the army recruits him off the sand.
I know where they are and what they had for lunch and how it feels to sit on the deck of their family beach condo, salty air blowing softly at the end of a long day in the sun. I spent my 20th birthday with my beach chair sitting in that low tide, lost in a book before heading to the very restaurant where they ate dinner last night. I know the pattern of the cracks in the bathroom ceiling, and the soft murmured cadence of adult conversation after the children fall, sandy and exhausted, into their beds in the back bunk room.
But I’m not there. Someone else is now.
It was the background conversation that stayed with me longest after I hung up the phone last night. I could hear their father, Billy, laughing with his dad, and his mother’s murmured response. Suddenly, the adults all started laughing, sharing a joke I’m not a part of any longer and in that instant I felt overwhelmingly homesick.
Homesick for a time and place where I belonged, simply and wholly. Where I didn’t have to add a prefix and no one had come before me. Where people were free to love me unencumbered by grief and heartbreak. Where I didn’t yet understand what those words meant, really.
And yet, I wouldn’t choose to be there. I didn’t choose that, after all.
As I hung up the phone, I took Gabe’s outstretched hand and we left for dinner, hand in hand, walking in our now-familiar rhythm. We spend the night working through an investment strategy, diving deep into the details of our latest television obsession, and thinking about where we might find ourselves a year from now.
We spend the meal as we’ve spent our day: enjoying each other’s company and exploring the world around us. We are, like our stride, perfectly in sync. The joy I feel when I am with Gabe, secure in our partnership and overwhelmed by his love, is something I’d never experienced before. I wouldn’t have even said it existed.

I’m becoming more comfortable with the “both and-ness” of this life

I am both homesick for the life I once had and filled with joy at the life I am living. I am both overwhelmed by the complexity of raising six children and on-my-knees-grateful at the chance to bear witness to the miracle of their transition to adulthood. I both miss my first husband’s quick wit and remember its sting. I both worry about the effects of our choice to separate and know deep in my bones it was the right choice for my family.

I spent the morning on a new beach today

I watched the older couples walking, hand in hand, some deep in conversation, some silent. I watched the teen girls primp and preen, carefully adjusting their pose as they captured and posted the perfect candid moment. I watched the young moms and dads slather sunscreen and chase down lost yellow shovels and explain for the fourth time that sand is not for eating.
For just a moment, I want one more chubby toddler. One I share with the man next to me, one who will eat sand and learn to ride a bike in our driveway and belong to just the two of us. And in that same moment I remember that I never want to own another swim diaper or blue plastic bathtub or attend another endless kindergarten orientation.
I both want to wear that teenage-girl black crocheted bikini and not think twice about it and also know I never, ever want to be 16 again.
I both want to walk on the beach with someone I loved as a girl and also know the person I want beside me today joined me much later in my life.
Both, and.

Grief and sadness and gratitude and giddy joy wrap around me

They weave intertwined through my memory, tangled so closely I sometimes can’t separate the two. I’ve stopped trying. I’m learning the experience of one often highlights the other, and this swirling life in progress has enough room for both.
I’ve slowly stopped trying to rationalize or make sense of how I feel in any given moment, and just accept where I am. Feelings are not right or wrong or good or bad. Sometimes I am still sad about a decision we made I know to be the right one. Sometimes I am filled with joy I found only after making a decision that caused people I love pain. A complicated path sometimes yields complicated feelings.
And so, late that night, I respond to my new friend with the truth, the only wisdom I have to offer:
“I get that. I sometimes feel that way too.”
This article was originally published on This Life in Progress.

The Other Side

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!
We decided to get pregnant.
As younger adults, my husband and I had thought about this for a three-year period. What with the state of the world being so awry, having a child seemed akin to abuse. Violence, poverty, and a myriad of all types of conflicts on this planet held off this particular journey for quite some time.
As decent, intelligent, intuitive, and diligent people, we finally felt that our offspring would have stability and most importantly, love. Our son was born and all seemed right with our little family. The state of the world be damned!
Motherhood suited me. I had made a pact with my God that I would try to never demean my little Michael, nor would I ever strike him in anger. I held to that agreement and Michael was nurtured as he grew into an awesome person in his own right.
Divorce.
I was lost in a sea of sludge, barely able to tell the day or time. I had been absolutely caught off guard and try as I might, I was incapable of caring for my nine-year-old son. A broken heart leaves little for one to function with. My ex had custody, yet living in the same town allowed me to spend time with our son. That poor little guy did suffer, though. He had night terrors, occasionally wet his bed and wore a constant frown.
Of course, we made it clear to Michael that he was not responsible or to blame for this trauma. I bit my tongue over and over again so as not to share with my little guy the heartbreak that was all encompassing. I walked in a daze however, cried round the clock and was convinced that I would never feel happiness again. Not an environment for the well-being of a child. The world, per say, had not kicked in Michael’s door – we, his parents, had.
Surprisingly, with the guidance of a child psychologist, Michael continued to do well in school, maintained his friendships and was an appealing child. He developed a transient tongue clicking tic about six months after the divorce was finalized but was young enough to not feel self-conscious. (A zealot neurologist led me to believe that this tic was the onset of Tourette’s syndrome, but thankfully his diagnosis was incorrect.)
Eventually I rallied. I worked part time, connected with several ladies who became dear friends, and found my smile again. Michael earned his black belt in Karate, was constantly an honor roll student, and had a mind full of curiosity and wonder. He is an avid reader, personable, and funny.
Children are not necessarily fragile. Most have an innate strength that a crisis can’t squash. The author, Graham Green said, “There is always a moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
And the future did well by us all.
We got to the other side.

6 Guiding Principles for A Successful Co-Parenting Partnership

There is no miracle solution to co-parenting after a divorce, but a good place to start is consistently treating your ex with respect and love.

Getting divorced is never part of anyone’s five-year plan. How many women have walked down the aisle, gazed at their handsome groom, and thought, “I can’t believe I am going to be the future ex-Mrs. Jones? He is going to be a great ex-husband!” How many dads have locked eyes with their newborn sons in the hospital room and thought, “That’s my boy. I can’t wait to throw the ball around with him every other weekend.”
Zero, I imagine.
Divorce was never supposed to happen to us or to our kids. It takes us off the path we envisioned for our families. Once we get through the initial shock and awe that follows the divorce, divorcees struggle to define the new family relationships, including the ones with our ex-spouses. We are also left to learn new ways of co-parenting and to create a new village, or rebuild our existing ones, to help us care for our families. Co-parenting is no simple task.
I have had periods of extremely successful co-parenting with my ex. So much so that other parents are shocked to learn that we are indeed divorced. I have also been that mom who has been (embarrassingly) engaged in full-on verbal battle with my ex at a school event. There is no miracle solution to co-parenting after a divorce, but a good place to start is consistently treating your ex with respect and love. Not romantic love, of course, but human-to-human, parent-to-parent, we-share-amazing-children-and-always-will love. How do we accomplish this post-divorce, even in the most contentious relationships? We keep it simple, start small, and remember it is all for the children. As you continue on your journey of co-parenting, consider adopting the following behaviors:

1 | Accept what is

“Happiness can exist only in acceptance.” – George Orwell
We must accept the end of the marriage before we can enter into a healthy co-parenting relationship. This means no more what-iffing, no more blaming, and no more hating. If you are still trying to figure out why or how the marriage ended, it will blur your ability to treat your ex in a loving way. Do not rush yourself through this important process. You will come to acceptance at your own pace. When you are at acceptance you will feel it in your soul. Your children will mention something about your ex-spouse and you will not shudder at the sound of their name, you will not feel defensive or competitive, and you will recognize and appreciate the love in your child’s eyes for your ex.

2 | Make a conscious decision to put the children first every day

“That was the day she made herself the promise to live more from intention and less from habit.” – Amy Rubin Flett
Live with intention. Find a way to remind yourself that today you will put the children first and you will treat your co-parent with love and respect. Create a mantra and repeat it as needed. “Model loving behavior” is my newest mantra and I repeat it to myself over and over throughout the day. It is a simple reminder that I want my children to see me as an instrument of love.

3 | Compliment your ex

“Anyone can find the dirt in someone. Be the one that finds the gold.” – Proverbs 11:27
When your children share a story with you about your ex, challenge yourself to complement your ex’s parenting. My son shared a story with me about a fun game he played at soccer practice. His dad is the coach and I took this as an opportunity to model loving behavior. “Wow, Dad seems like a really fun coach. You are so lucky to have such a great dad.” Emmet’s eyes lit up. There are so many opportunities to show your kids that you see good in their other parent.

4 | Say sorry

“Pride is concerned with who is right. Humility is concerned with what is right.” – Ezra T. Benson
If you mess up and talk down to or about your ex in front of the kids, do the right thing and apologize. The ego must be set aside when co-parenting. My children recently witnessed me yelling at my ex about the soccer uniform he forgot to pack for the upcoming weekend. I later said to my ex in front of the kids, “I am sorry I lost my patience before and talked to you disrespectfully.” I apologized for one reason and one reason only: the kids. It did not matter who was at fault. I wanted to set a good example for my children and ease any tension that the previous argument may have caused their adolescent, yet complex minds.

5 | Keep some pre-divorce traditions

“Family traditions counter alienation and confusion. They help us define who we are; they provide something steady, reliable and safe in a confusing world.” – Susan Lieberman
My ex and I still celebrate our children’s birthdays together. We meet up in one of our homes to celebrate the birthday child together with smiles, laughs and memories. It is a priceless gift to the birthday child. It offers a full family tradition for their memory bank and it models loving behavior and well-placed priorities.

6 | Learn from your mistakes

“Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intellectually.” – Henry Ford
It is okay to mess up as a parent and an ex-spouse. It is an opportunity for growth. When you find yourself breaking one of you own personal co-parenting commandments, hold yourself accountable. Spend some time before bed, reviewing your behavior for the day. Where did you go wrong and how do you feel about it? Acknowledge it, determine how you could have handled things better, and let it go. Be aware and be willing to change, but do not beat yourself up.
My 13-year-old daughter recently commented in the car, “Mom, I feel so lucky because even though you guys are divorced, you are still good friends.” This simple comment serves as concrete evidence that we have been doing something right for the past six years. Behind the scenes, we are not actually the best of friends and there is a lot of tension and
conflict regarding finances, rides to sporting events, and medical and educational decisions. Children are resilient and their love is unconditional. They hold on so tightly to the positive and are quick to release the negative. They love us for us and they forgive fully and easily with a heart full of love. We can learn so much from them if we remain open-minded.
Post-divorce parenting is a challenge, but it sure does build character, strength, and resilience. No matter what, you are doing something right. And if you begin to question that, look at those beautiful children. They are that pat-on-your-back that you so deserve. It is not easy, my divorced comrade, but remember, you are not alone and it is worth it!

If You Do Divorce Right, Your Kids Will Thank You in 30 Years

I knew deep down that my parents really did care for our best interests because of the way they treated each other in front of us.

My parents divorced when I was 10 years old. They sat my big brother and me down on the couch and told us together. They told us that they’d always do what was best for us, even if it was hard. I wasn’t completely shocked but, of course, I was sad. Life changed after that, we all moved around to different homes and apartments, and visitation schedules were put in place without our input. I remember feeling fairly calm throughout it all. My ten-year-old self perceived my parents to be in control and organized. I know now that probably wasn’t really the case, but they put their brave faces on and I bought it.

From the very beginning, special days were spent together. My dad would come over to Mom’s house for our birthday dinners. He was always with us on Christmas morning when Mom would make a big brunch and we’d open presents together. We walked out together, one parent on each arm, at halftime in the Homecoming football game when I was a member of the court. Everyone was present and sitting together at my graduations.

This isn’t to say there was never tension, or that everything was perfect. Even so, I knew deep down that my parents really did care for our best interests and were trying hard for us kids. I knew because of the way they treated each other in front of us.

My dad remarried in the spring of my senior year of college. I was married just a few months later. All three of my parents, Mom, Dad, and my new stepmom, were a part of my wedding. We have a family picture with all of us together. The thought of any drama between them never even crossed my mind. I knew they’d be civil to each other.

After my wedding, I was technically a grown woman. At that point, my parents lived in different cities. During the holidays I often wished it were easier to visit everyone at the same time, or wished I could call just one house, instead of two, to check in and chat. It could be hard to schedule get-togethers and divide time equally between everyone. We made it work as best as we all could.

When my husband and I had babies, all three grandparents were there to help. All three are active in my daughters’ lives. I can send a group text to Mom, Dad, and my stepmom of the girls’ first days of school, or of the girls in their Halloween costumes. I can send group emails and not worry about any awkwardness between the recipients. I hadn’t really given much thought to the beautiful divorce my parents continue to have until just a few months ago when my mom’s father died.

There I was, 38 years old, sitting in the church for Grandpa’s funeral. In walked my dad, stepmom, stepbrother, my dad’s mother, and two of dad’s sisters. I was so touched to see them all there, supporting my brother and me, but also showing us that divorce didn’t sever the relationships within our extended families. I listened as my mom told them all to “sit up front with the family.”

My parents have been divorced for almost 30 years and yet they still strive to do their divorce right. I can look back and sincerely thank them for sticking to their word and doing what is best for their kids and now their grandkids. I know it couldn’t have always been easy. I feel so abundantly loved through all that they do to maintain a relationship for our sake. Doing divorce right, working hard to create a beautiful divorce despite the mess and hurt, is something children like me will thank their parents for. Especially in 30 years.

My Life as A Home Shopping Addict

This is not a tale of the dynamics of addiction. Although there wasn’t a doubt that I was a shopaholic, my story is one of disclosure.

For far too many years, I found myself shopping with QSN*, one of the several popular home shopping TV networks. I didn’t buy the occasional blouse or crock pot, I bought a myriad of items that I absolutely did not need. Sadly, I often bought products that I didn’t even want.

This is not a tale of the dynamics of addiction or a guide to a Twelve Step Program. Although there wasn’t a doubt that I was a shopaholic, my story is one of disclosure, my step one perhaps: “Admitted that I was a shopaholic and that I had lost all control.”

I knew the hosts intimately. Don* was also a farmer when not in front of the camera. Karen* is a size medium and a pet lover. All in all, I could give you background on a dozen hosts, which included those I liked and others that I wouldn’t care to have lunch with.

Speaking of food, us diehard “Q” fans came to know all the cooking wares (only this club of chronic shoppers used the term Q). “Hey Ronda, Today’s Great Value at the Q is a Keurig coffee maker, complete with an assortment of k cups. You can choose from a selection of 11 colors.” I was family, you see, as I consorted with other Q fans.

Kyle, my UPS guy, would deliver up to four packages daily. I delighted in his visits and gleefully opened each box. At my home, Christmas was five days weekly, year round. The act of tearing into said parcels was delightful, however the ultimate thrill came when ordering by phone.

“Good morning, Sarah. This is Kathy. I’d like to purchase item number S7492 in cranberry. Come to think of it, I’ll take another in sunflower yellow.” Now the proud owner of two new sets of dinner dishes, I could have my choice of salad plates from one of the many sets I owned. After all, I reasoned, one tires of the same crockery day after day.

I bought clothes that I rarely wore, electronic devices that I didn’t or couldn’t use, jewelry, shoes, food products, and more. I was in debt up to my eyeballs, but that wasn’t a sound reason to stop. I also spent gobs of money on friends and family. If a Q box was delivered to your door, chances were it was a gift from me.

Regardless of his chronic chastisements, my son owned a scuba diving watch even though he didn’t partake in that activity. My BFF had more winter frocks than she could shake a stick at and my brother was a monument to fashion as he skied.

Indeed, I had a problem, a problem that arose from boredom, loneliness, and a sense of entitlement. Raised in a wealthy geographic environment, I was used to having it all. “It” was horses and cars and renowned, well-off friends. If your father was somebody, then so were you. I was cool, as was fitting to my wonderfulness. That was until I reached the black years of 25 on.

By 48, I was newly divorced and friendless, and my loneliness cut to the core. My son had begun his life, freed from the umbilical cord at last. As well as shopping excessively, I drank too much, smoked too much, and cried too much. A kind therapist guided me as I saw the light and after a three-year stint in therapy, I could say that I was done.

During those three years, I banned myself from this shopping channel and withdrew painfully. Selling my home to pay off my debt, I spent days in bed, paralyzed by the Ghost of Times Past. Could I ever function? Would I learn that I was a valid person in my own right, regardless of being destitute?

Depressed, OCD-ish, anxious, and fearful of life, I was truly one large mess of symptoms. Change was paramount and, on a fall day, I figuratively began putting one foot in front of the other. Literally, I began to take walks and eventually became acquainted with my neighbors. Several friendships formed and life had new meaning. Joining a Twelve Step Program to address my alcoholism, I learned even more.

I learned that I wasn’t the greatest thing since sliced bread. I learned that my symptoms were a way in which my psyche said, “Whoa.” Finally, I learned that I had merit, regardless of my financial status.

I also journaled, a lot. As the author Dorothy Parker stated, “I hate writing, I loved having written.” I leapt from journaler to writer to author in a matter of time. I found my niche.

I have been sober for 19 years and I no longer shop obsessively. More importantly, I became a tolerant and patient person for the most part. I saw the merits in being a giver and I cut down my demanding persona. I would love to feel worthy of love, and I’m working toward that dream.

As I look back, my metamorphosis began with the Q.

Kyle still delivers the occasional package which contain necessary items such as a winter coat. Kyle has said, “You’ve come a long way, Kath. You wouldn’t believe how many people have homes full of these things. I’m proud of you.”

Now, as I conclude my confession, I will add, “Kathy, you are okay.”

[*The names are fictional so that I won’t get sued.]