On Functionality and Punchlines

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“A little rain never stopped anyone…except of course those who never learned to dance through puddles…”

The other night my ex came by after work to drop off some stuff for the kids. The kind of belongings they always carelessly leave behind: that one crucial page of homework, the stuffed animal they can’t sleep without, or the warmest jacket they own (the night before the temperature happens to drop 10 degrees). It’s a good thing we live 4 blocks apart from each other.

On this particular evening, he walked in to find me running around the kitchen, attempting to balance a phone between ear and shoulder, while halfway  participating in a conference call. I might have been simultaneously loading the dishwasher. Or perhaps I was finishing yet another load of laundry. Actually I think I was doing all of these things. What I do recall though, is that there was a half chopped pile of vegetables on the counter waiting to be thrown into the chili which was patiently simmering away on the stove. I nodded toward the cutting board and he instinctively jumped in, finishing what was left of the dinner prep and confidently putting the lid on the pot while muttering a few cooking tips under his breath. This was the kind of thing that used to irk the hell out of me. Not the help, of course, but the constant need to correct whatever I was doing. Nowadays, it doesn’t irritate me in the least. In fact, it’s become a running joke between us, and I often find myself looking over at him during our interactions and thinking, “You know? I’ve really come to like this guy.”

Sometimes it takes prolonged distance to learn how to appreciate someone all over again. Years ago (long before ex and I separated) I had picked up a copy of Iris Krasnow’s “The Secret Lives of Wives“, which explores the many ways in which women find happiness in their relationships over the long term. The wives interviewed tell of everything from separate summer routines in order to maintain space and individuality, to open relationships and affairs. But the passage that I remember most was the one in which the author almost jokingly states,”I am like many aging wives, content for two days, sulking for four, frequently perched on the flimsy line that separates love from hate from a fistfight.”

Yes, oh yes. We knew that feeling well. And I despised it. No one wants to live in a state of constant fluctuation between frustration and contentment. Married or not.

Prior to our split, I had never known adult life as a single woman. And to be fair, at 22, he was almost as young when he met me. This isn’t me saying that people shouldn’t commit when they are of that age, or that couples aren’t capable of overcoming some of the obstacles we faced in our relationship. This is simply me stating that, for us perhaps, we didn’t have the space, opportunity, and freedom for growth that we both needed in order to self-actualize.

Now that we do, we’ve become better parents, and co-parents as a result. Which, if you ask me, is a really nice perk as it makes all interactions much more pleasant. We both trust each other’s parenting choices and decisions, as we know that we act with the children in mind. We’ve learned to check in with each other frequently throughout the day in order to remain on the same page as to their comings and goings, upcoming events, and small daily triumphs. There is no arguing, or resentment, or battles over insignificant things. Thankfully, we’ve moved past that. And I do mean thankfully.

Sometimes I start to think about how unconventional our situation is. It might, from the outside, seem impossible and foreign. But a few weeks ago, during a family reunion, I turned to see my parents (who have been divorced for 13 years), waltzing away on the dance floor. My mom’s head was tilted back, mid laughter. My dad wore his giant cheesy smile, the one that indicates that he’s about to drop a groan worthy punchline to some variation of a joke we’ve all heard before. I watched them dance past tables filled with extended family—all of whom are unique and non-traditional in their own way— and I realized why it’s perfectly normal for me to proceed in this co-parenting relationship the only way I know how: with love, and laughter, and cheesy punchlines to get us through.

You know, some parents get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time and they can become better people. Much better mommies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear.

-Mrs. Doubtfire

Roles & Realizations: Mother’s Day 2013

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“there are different ways to make a family. It just takes love.”

Several nights ago, my youngest children came home from an evening with their father a little later than expected. It was a school night, and I was irritated that they would be getting to bed late, thus making it likely that the morning routine would be difficult– as it is much more challenging to wake a tired child than it is a well rested one. The drop-off exchange was curt,  and as soon as I closed the front door behind him, I began directing each of my boys through their nightly routine…”Isaac, get in the shower, Jacob, make sure your homework folder is in your backpack!” As I turned to my littlest one, I saw that she was already bathed, and in clean pajamas, all she needed was to be tucked in. I instantly felt relief (one less task to be completed in an already rushed night), then, a profound sense of bitter-sweet gratefulness. “Who brushed your hair, Ava?” My daughter turned to me with those wide, round eyes of hers and answered, “Sarah.” I held her little head against my cheek and took in the scent of her freshly washed hair, holding back tears. “That was very nice of her.” And I meant it.

Since my ex-husband and I seperated, I have considered many things in regards to our newly aquired roles as co-parents. But until recently, I had not given much thought to the notion that someday, I would likely be faced with with the task of turning over the mothering reins, should he begin a new relationship. 

Before I continue, I want to reiterate what I wrote in an earlier post regarding our split…the decision to separate was ultimately made by me. Though in recent discussions, my ex-husband has also expressed his feeling that the split was a necessary move in light of our ongoing struggles. But with 14 years of history & 3 children between us, life after break-up has not always been easy. That said, the one part of this that has been much less trying for me than one might expect, is my acceptance of his dating. Simply put, my one desire in the aftermath of our spilt is that we come out happier and more balanced than we were before. If that means finding love with another person, so be it. 

So when my children began  coming home from their dad’s, chattering about Sarah and her daughter—whom they adore, by the way— I began to come to terms with the fact that there was a new someone in my children’s inner circle.

Im sorry, but initially, I was not as graceful about this new development as I’d like to think I was. It brought about feelings of defensiveness that I quickly had to put in check. There is nothing productive that comes from being at odds with your ex’s significant other, especially when there are children in the picture. 

When I picked up my little ones from their dad this evening, I brought along a small gift for the new woman in their lives. Not only is she the mother of a young daughter, but she has also bravely taken on the task of welcoming my three little ones into her life, into her home, into her heart. 

This Mothers Day, I am humbled, as I come to accept that there will be another set of hands to care for my children when I am not around. Another voice to soothe them, another shoulder to bear their weight when they fall asleep after a long summer’s day in the sun. It’s challenging…but in a strange way, it’s not. I have always lived in a community where women step in to support each other in the role of mothering. Sisters, cousins, friends, neighbors…they have all played a part in the rearing of my children. 

But the smell of an unfamiliar shampoo in my baby girl’s hair awakened the realization that there is a new mother figure in the cast of caregivers. A significant one. And I’d be lying if I denied that the thought alone can bring me to tears. But I also speak the truth when I say that I wish her the best as she becomes accustomed to this new reality of ours.

Timelines & Triumphs

Vanessa & her son, Nathan

Tonight, a new season of MTV’s Teen Mom 2 is set to begin. I was reminded of this the other day as I thumbed through a tabloid (a rare occurrence… that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!) while in the checkout line during yet another late night milk run. The gossip piece I happened upon focused on the shameful fact that Leah, a mother of twins who is featured on the show, is pregnant with yet another child at the ripe old age of 20. Never mind the fact that she is married to the father of her baby-to-be,  and obviously has means to care for her children (can you say MTV six-figure income?) Despite all this, she is still being paraded down the societal hall of shame because, well…beacuse she failed to do things in accordance with the accepted social timeline. What, exactly, is this timeline I speak of? Surely you remember the old school-yard chant, “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage…?” THAT timeline. Well, what if someone ventures off that path to happily ever after? Are they doomed to become a failure, a burden on society? Does it make you uncomfortable to consider that maybe, perhaps, just maybe, things can work out when life is lived “out of order” so to speak? When milestones are reached a little earlier than society deems acceptable?

In the months to come, I’d like to share with you the stories of  young women who have struggled against great odds to live successful, productive lives. Young women who, despite becoming mothers a bit earlier than expected, have completed degrees, begun careers, and are raising happy, well-adjusted children…

And without further delay, I’d like to introduce you to Vanessa…

Vanessa found out she was pregnant when she was all of 16 years old. At the time, she was a junior in high school, & her boyfriend was a senior. Though she had a hunch that she was pregnant, she waited more than a month to finally take a test. Once confirmed, the first people Vanessa told were her close friends and a trusted teacher. But even after confiding to her friends and mentor, the reality of the pregnancy did not hit home until she broke the news to her mom and dad. It’s a funny thing, when a young mother begins to share news of her pregnancy with those she loves. On the one hand, she fully realizes the undesirable nature of her circumstances and yet often a part of her is defensive and – dare I say it?- proud of the new life that has taken root. It’s difficult to share the secret that is both your curse and your joy, and even more painful as you began to grapple with the disappointed response from those around you. Vanessa’s family was  no different in their initial reaction; her mother cried, her father promptly hung up on her and did not speak to her for days. Though her boyfriend (at the time) was excited, Vanessa felt the only people who were happy for her were her close  friends. Eventually, as often is the case, her family came to embrace her  pregnancy and the baby she was carrying. However, like many other teen mothers before her, she had to endure a rocky period before the acceptance stage set in.

Vanessa finished high school earlier than anticipated on independent studies. Though happy to receive her diploma, she regrets missing out on those final years of high school that were filled with traditions such as homecoming games and proms. Rather than finishing out her senior year with her peers, Vanessa spent her days working and wishing she could join her friends on beach outings and school events. When her son, Nathan, was a year old, she began taking courses full-time at a local community college. Thankfully, one of the counselors there who was a former teen mom herself, helped her to navigate through the college process while at the same time providing encouragement & emotional support. Through all of this, Vanessa remembers people often questioning how she was able to balance work, school, and the demands of motherhood. Her response? “I just kept going, day by day, without thinking about it.” As she continued on through college, she realized how much she enjoyed the stimulation of the classroom environment and the rush of accomplishment that came with achieving good grades. She ultimately decided to major in Sociology with the goal of working toward a masters in social work. Vanessa applied to many universities, & was accepted into UCSB, Cal Poly, Northridge, CSULA, and CSUCI. She ultimately decided to stay close to home and attend CSUCI with her older sister who helped her out tremendously as she struggled to maintain her grades while providing for her son. As Nathan got older, Vanessa recalls how she felt she was treated differently by his preschool & kindergarten teachers:

“When it came to discussing issues regarding my son, I got the impression I was being scolded, which was a lot different from the way I’d witness teachers interacting with older or married parents.”

Vanessa’s perception of how she was treated is one shared by many teen mothers. Young parents often report being treated in a condescending manner by their children’s teachers, doctors, or other authoritative figures. The common attitude seems to be that a young parent is in need of schooling themselves, especially when it comes to child-rearing. What is overlooked is that the quality of an individual’s parenthood has little to do with their age and education. Older parents need guidance and support just as much as younger ones do… and ALL parents deserve to be treated with respect whether they are in the classroom, the Dr.’s office, or at the playground. Teen parents are perfectly capable of raising well-rounded children who succeed in school. By all accounts, Vanessa is doing just that. Nathan is now in first grade and his teachers report that he is one of their brightest students. He is surrounded by a loving family who dotes on him and provides him with extra-curricular enrichment, as well as a nurturing environment.

Vanessa graduated with her bachelors in Sociology in May of 2011. She would like to go back to school in the near future, when it is financially feasible for her to do so. For the time being, she works with at-risk and foster youth. The children she works with have many family and behavioral issues and she finds it rewarding that she is able to establish meaningful relationships with them while offering hope and guidance; just as her college counselor did for her. Upon reflection, Vanessa recounts that one of the biggest hurdles she faced as a young mother/student were the exhausting all-nighters spent studying and caring for her son. This coupled with the loneliness that set in  as her relationship with her son’s father had ended made it more difficult to get through it all. To get by, she focused on classes, her job as a student aide for the county, and most importantly, being a dedicated mother.

“Though I was always supported by my family in my decisions, I felt as if I grew up on my own. I was the youngest of three girls (and though I was mature for my age), it sometimes felt that my parents forgot that even though I was a mom, employee and a student, I was still their teenage daughter.”

There is a popular meme floating around the internet that reads, “16 and pregnant ? What about 18 and graduated? 22 and successful ?”, as if a pregnancy at 16 automatically rules out a diploma at 18, or a degree at 22. I get the fact that statistics are not in favor of young mothers, especially in regards to their educational outcomes but that has more to do with trending socioeconomics and environment; not the circumstance of being a parent itself. Just do me a favor: the next time you feel tempted to give a teen mother a discouraging look or a harsh word, consider that she’s probably already encountered adversity countless times that day. Switch it up a bit. Offer support where you can. The fact that she strayed from the timeline does not sentence her to a future of failure. Who knows? Someday she may end up being your child’s teacher, or guidance counselor, or doctor. Don’t write her off just yet…because a bend in the road is not the end of the road until one fails to make the turn…

Transitions

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“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.”
-Mary Anne Radmacher

Sometimes there is no eloquent way to begin a story, especially when you already know the nature of its ending. And so I find myself today, at a loss for words when it comes to starting this tale. So I’ll just be blunt: My husband and I split up. Those closest to me had seen indications of a problem for quite some time, though they were unsure if we would continue along as we were, or make the momentous decision to go our separate ways. I say separate ways, purely in the figurative sense, as we all know that, once there are children involved in a marriage, the couple is bound to a common path indefinitely—and rightly so. More on that later…

I once read a quote that stated, “No one knows what goes on inside a marriage, except for the two people who are in it.’ But as I reflect upon the past 14 years spent with my ex-husband, I realize that sometimes, two people in a marriage can exsist side-by-side, and  still have wildly contrasting perceptions about the relationship. In the end, the dissolution of a marriage is almost always met with sadness and resistance from the friends and family surrounding the couple. I get the sense that people not only mourn the existence of the couple itself, but that each time they are faced with a divorce in their inner-circle, it forces them to look closely at their own relationships, and their beliefs about matrimony.

I know this because I’ve suddenly become privy to the confessions of countless people—friends and otherwise–as news of our break-up spreads. It’s as if my circumstance compels people to both offer and seek advice, sometimes in the same conversation. I don’t mind it, really, but it makes me realize that something bigger is at work here. That my decision to leave my marriage has stirred discomfort in those around me, as it brings to light the reality of every relationship. And that reality is this: beneath the surface of every intimacy, no matter how lovely the beginning or sweet the presentation, there lies the possibility of betrayal, hurt, and painful misunderstandings. Though I know how quickly the balance of a (seemingly) stable couple can be tipped, I am also still very much a firm believer in the power of love. If trust, understanding, mutual respect, and spiritual connection are present, a relationship can overcome great hurdles. Without those key components, there is much room for error.

When I was in labor with my 2nd son, one of the few memories I have of the intense transition stage was that my assigned nurse kept trying to get me to tell her my level of agony by using the faces pain rating scale. For those unfamiliar with this scale, it’s widely used in hospitals as a self-reporting measure of a patient’s pain intensity or other features. I suppose they are in place to help the hospital staff gauge a patients discomfort in an effort to adequately manage the pain. In my case, it really seemed the nurse was just trying to break me down every time she shoved the little happy faces into my space and asked, “NOW what level of pain are you feeling?” Because I am a private person, in terms of my struggles and discomfort, and because I believe in mind over matter when it comes to overcoming physical discomfort in labor, I continually reported to the nurse that I was feeling a level one happy face, while all the while it was really like a level 15 grimace/agony face. I knew that the second I admitted I was in excruciating pain, I would lose my composure altogether.

And so it was in my relationship during the past few years or more. On the surface, I held it together, occasionally confiding bits and pieces of my concerns to close family & friends. But my fear was that once I began to tell more, I would lose control of the situation all together. Underneath it all, there was serious discord on a day-to-day basis. In the end, I decided that the pain of staying far exceeded the discomfort of leaving. Our family is now adjusting to a new norm. But based on the overall sense of peace in the household since we split, I think I am prepared to gather the pieces of everything broken, and lay a new foundation for myself and my children…

Fairy Godmothers

Co-Mommies

Parenthood is tough, but I’m convinced that young parenthood comes with a slew of unique trials that older parents are exempt from. In addition to the usual teething woes and toddler tantrums, teen & 20-something parents are often juggling continuing education, budding careers, and the oh-so-common identity/soul searching that comes with the territory of early adulthood. For young parents true friends are hard to come by. Your “typically developing” peers are living the dorm life, and enjoying the new-found freedoms of  the 21 & over social scene, and can’t relate to you when your main source of excitement is an uninterrupted nights sleep and a toddler who has been pull-up free for a week with no accidents. What’s rougher than young parenthood? Try being a young STEP parent…
When my oldest son’s father met his (now) wife, he was 23 and she was 21. “Baby Dad” and I had already been separated for  five years, and me & my (now) husband had been together for several years and had had our first son by this time. (I was 22). I knew her through work…she and I were both employed at a private school in the infant/toddler room. We were friends, and worked well together in the fast-paced, often stressful environment of the daycare center. For years they dated, and we cautiously maintained a cordial relationship when it came to negotiating the schedule and needs of our shared son. It’s not that I didn’t like her, it’s just that it’s difficult to sort through the feelings of ambiguity, jealousy, protectiveness, and role-assertiveness that come with co-parenting- especially when you’re just coming of age yourself. Thinking back, I think there were things about their relationship that irked me-particularly that they had the freedom to travel up & down the state, stay out late, and otherwise enjoy the benefits of young adulthood that I- as custodial parent- could not. They were not wrong in doing so, it’s just that I secretly envied the spontaneity of that lifestyle. Other than that, I had few complaints. She was accommodating,  even overly so at times, so I rarely felt like my role as  the mother was being encroached upon.
Fast forward ten years…Often, I think of her randomly throughout the day, only to find she has sent a  text at that exact moment. We share a love of history, a passion for social justice, an obsession with anything Pride & Prejudice—and, in another interesting twist of fate, we also happen to share the same first name. She attends sports games, doctor’s appointments, and back-to school nights with me (you should see the looks of confusion we get when we try to explain our relationship, and shared child…but hey, this is the 21st century, get over it people!) This last year, she was also there for the birth of my fourth child. Her daughter,  my son’s little curly-haired, brown-eyed beauty of a sister- is MY god-daughter, and I adore that little girl to pieces. 
I am lucky…no, actually, I am BLESSED to have a step-mother for my son who is as attentive and selfless in regards to his needs, as I am. She picks up where I leave off, and fills in where I cannot. I can’t imagine what parenting would be like without her as my co-mommy…and I have no doubt my son will someday come to realize just how special his family situation is. Our co-parenting utopia did not happen overnight. It took effort, maturity, and compromise on all ends. But the fruits of our labors are priceless. I often listen to other parents’ complain about custody battles, child support issues, and Baby Daddy drama with sympathy. I cannot relate, nor would I ever want to. My son gets to enjoy a family life free of parental tug-of-war, mental, or otherwise. I could not ask for anything more. 
I’m a fan of fairy tales, but I must say, I do not like the bad rap that step-mothers have gotten. So from this day forward, I crown my son’s step mother ‘Fairy Godmother’…because, according to Wikipedia, a fairy godmother is a fairy with “magical powers who acts as a mentor or parent to someone…” and that’s nothing short of a fitting description for my son’s other mother. She magically sailed through young step-parenthood with the grace & maturity of an old soul. And that, my friends, is the stuff that happily ever-afters are made of. 
Fairy Godmother in the making…