motherhood

making it up as we go along

The semester began with a bang, as it always does. I assumed I’d get started a little more gradually, but it didn’t work out that way. I’ve still got another week before students are sitting in front of me, but in the meantime, there is so much to do. It’s hard to feel anything but overwhelmed. Even as I type this sentence, I am thinking about how I really should be working on a syllabus instead. But I know the value that comes from sitting a minute to write, so I’m ignoring the screaming to-do list for just a little while today.

The kids are more or less settled into the groove of their school year, so now it’s my turn to move past that rocky transition. Working + mothering is crazy-making, and I know that. And yet still here we are always, wondering how it will all get done and if I can juggle all of the things all of the time.

I caught an interview with Mary Catherine Bateson this week during my commute, and her words have been tumbling in my head ever since. She spoke a bit about her book, Composing a Life, and a bit about her background growing up as the daughter of famous anthropologist Margaret Mead.  So much of what she said had me nodding in agreement and feeling a little light bulb inside, but I know better than to pick up a new book in August when I am knee-deep in reading for classes. (I did find a little summary and commentary over here on Brain Pickings that you can check out if you find a quiet moment.)

We always hear about moms “juggling” working life and home life, but Bateson insists that word evokes a “terribly anxiety-producing metaphor” to her ears, and the more I think about it, she’s right. It’s how so many of us feel though – and how society tells us it works – like we are just barely holding all these balls in the air and if we look away for a minute or don’t move fast enough, we drop something and it all comes crashing down. Bateson suggests that she decided to use composing a life rather than juggling a life because she “was looking for a metaphor that would allow [women] to realize that the effort they were making to work out a new kind of woman’s role was creative. That it was an art form.” What a difference that one perspective makes – to compose rather than juggle.

I’m composing all the time, and most of it is improvisational. I have to remind myself of that sometimes, that I’ve never lived this exact life before. This phase for my kids, this season, these demands. I respond to each challenge as I feel I should with the energy and resources I have in that moment, and I learn new skills along the way. But I think I do the same thing that a lot of other women do and feel like maybe things are less valuable if they aren’t working in a predictable straight line. In my married life, I assumed I’d be on the way to a PhD by now, but that is a remote and distant thought in my current world.  But other paths and opportunities have opened up that are far beyond anything a classroom or dissertation could give me, so sometimes I wonder if derailed plans are really all that bad, or if they have a way of showing us what we need to see in order to create our most fulfilling lives. Maybe interruption and unexpected detours are the very best thing that could happen.

In this age of women-can-do-anything pressures, Bateson claims, “It is time now to explore the creative potential of interrupted and conflicted lives, where energies are not narrowly focused or permanently pointed toward a single ambition. These are not lives without commitment, but rather lives in which commitments are continually refocused and redefined. … How does creativity flourish on distraction? What insights arise from the experience of multiplicity and ambiguity? And at what point does desperate improvisation become significant achievement? These are important questions in a world in which we are all increasingly strangers and sojourners.” 

Let that sink in for a minute if you are juggling composing like I am. These are not lives without commitment, but rather lives in which commitments are continually refocused and redefined. I move from project to project, it seems. My typical approach lately is to sit down on a Sunday and assess what my short list of priorities are and try my best to tackle them. It changes week-by-week, and I flutter from one thing to the next, but as she reminds me, at what point does desperate improvisation become significant achievement? I feel like I am desperately improvising all the time, but as I look back at the past few years of my life, I still see something taking shape. Maybe even some significant achievements.

Aging is such a gift. As my kids are growing a little more independent, and I finally have the time to think about what I want for my own self professionally and not just personally, I think I need to continually remind myself that perhaps circles and winding paths are better than straight lines and that composing is always better than juggling. Who knows what the final piece of music will sound like, but what I’m picking up along the way promises it will be some version of beautiful.

It reminds me of that Parker Palmer quote, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.” None of us even know, do we? Or if you think you do know, maybe you should shut off the external noise and listen a little harder to the ways you can bend and flow.  Otherwise you wake up living someone else’s version of success which is not success at all but misery instead.

It is early Sunday morning, but the sun is already bright outside my window. My list is a mile long today – laundry to finish and soccer gear to buy and meal prep to do and a syllabus to write. But I’m vowing to let that subtle internal miracle happen when you change your perspective. Changing my lens from juggling to composing, moving forward to create something beautiful among the chaos.

 

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divorce, single parenthood

boundaries

In that famous Pema Chodrom quote that everyone knows, she explains that “nothing ever goes away until it has taught you what you need to know.” And yet so many times in our lives, we tend to wonder why something is happening to us again and again. As though luck throws us the same problems and it’s all due to chance.

Yesterday officially marked the date of one year ago that I signed divorce documents. By the time a judge stamped it, the calendar read April, so I never know which date to recognize. But yesterday marked the signing which seems more official than the state-mandated official date for some reason.

You can look back at this journal and see the ways I have changed, the ways my entire life has changed. I was driving home from the grocery store this weekend and listening to the latest Dear Sugar, and this week’s guest noted a passage from an Edith Wharton letter when she stated that the cure for loneliness is “to make one’s center of life inside oneself, not selfishly or exceedingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity — to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.” It resonated so much that I smiled and laughed in a way that was so genuine and so loud that it would have been embarrassing had someone been in the car with me. That “unassailable serenity” was such a foreign concept to me when I shakily signed those documents a year ago. I get it now.

I am finally at a place when I whisper thank you, thank you, thank you at least once a day for the life I lead. For being alone and free and no longer tied to anyone who does not understand me and see me for who I really am. It took me a really long time – the better part of the past year – to come to terms with this, to be able to say it aloud. You grow so used to how someone treats you, what they do or don’t recognize about you, that you neglect to see the writing on the wall. You don’t even recognize that love isn’t being served at the table anymore until that concept walks through the door in a body ten years younger than yours and leaves with your wedding china.

The universe speaks to us in whispers, and when we don’t listen, we get a scream. If there’s a path you are not meant to be on, God will find a way to place you on another road. Sometimes it just takes a drastic measure to get your attention.

I’m listening now. I see it. I hear it. I’m better for it.

Marriage is a beautiful thing when it is done well and two thinking and feeling people show mutual respect for one another, but as the host on Dear Sugar said last night (even as the happily married man that he is), there is a very small circle drawn around what you can do when you are married, even happily so. I’m finally understanding that circle became even smaller and smaller for me with the passage of time, and it is nothing but relief as I emerge from it a year later. Grateful and hopeful and stronger for the pain.

These simple, obvious things – the freedom to make decisions without consulting anyone, the freedom to take my time as I move forward and choose someone else to spend time with, the freedom to pursue my own interests and not have to explain myself to anyone else – these little things feel so unbelievably cherished and special to me in my present season. Like I can finally breathe after years of swimming underwater.

Still though, there are bits that remain. Lessons that, to reference Chodron’s quote again, just aren’t finished with me yet.

Every week, I flip a new card from my affirmation deck on Sundays and pin it on a board near my bathroom mirror. Sometimes it feels like that particular card found me on that particular day. It often works together with the rest of my life to drive that message in my head so that as I read it each morning, it becomes clearer and clearer.

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We all know the Golden Rule to love one another, but the part we forget is to love ourselves. To treat ourselves how we’d want to be treated. To respect ourselves.

This week that idea was finally a lightbulb moment for me. The simplest of concepts that I should have accepted many years ago, but I am just now figuring it out: You show people how to treat you. If someone repeatedly steps in my personal space or pierces my own sense of worthiness, it is not his responsibility to fix that. It is mine.

As I look back on my life as a married woman, I can now see so clearly that an affair did not come out of nowhere. I taught him how to treat me. Every time we swallow an insult or accept something that bothers our spirit and insults our deepest sensibilities, we tell that person that it’s okay to treat us that way. I’m seeing this now – looking back at the hundreds of times I absorbed something as my lot in life, what I had to accept. When in reality, I didn’t have to accept it, but it was simply laying the groundwork for what was to come. I felt shocked when it all dissolved in such an explosion, but in actuality, it was the most logical next step on the journey. The universe whispered, and I ignored it, but then it screams so loudly that you can’t run the other way.

My therapist has noted (another concept that never dawned on me but is incredibly obvious) that I don’t permit myself to feel anger and I essentially skipped over the anger stage of the grief process in this past year of my life. She’s right. Denial, shock, sadness – I did all of those. Anger? It never emerged. My friends would comment on how they were angrier than I was about it, and they were right. How I never saw I was skipping that and why I never let myself feel it is something I don’t understand.

But I know for certain that the world gives you what you need to learn when you are finally ready to work through it. Anger has a purpose. It puts that fire in your belly that grants you the resolve to demand respect. I think I’m finally there. I’m reaching a place where I can recognize when someone is not respecting me, and I’m finally learning to establish boundaries. “No” is a complete sentence.

It is incredibly hard to teach someone how you can be treated when you accepted something else for a decade. (And this is something that causes the most pain and conflict of anything else in my life – my family hated you for fifteen years, you are selfish, screenshots of my blog with highlighted sections and commentary that I need to “learn how to write.” It’s a continued source of unbelievably difficult conflict, but I’m still working to correct damage resulting from what I accepted for far too long.)

I read once that you really know you have forgiven someone when you can say thank you for the lesson he taught you. I’m not certain that I have arrived at full forgiveness, as expected only one year out. That notion takes years and years to fully develop. But I’m not certain it’s a straight line either because the thank you part is where it begins for me, not where it ends. It’s hard to correct these things after years without boundaries, but it’s easy for me to grasp this moving forward. I can say no without apology now. And most importantly, I can see those red flags now. When I set a boundary or explain that something hurts my feelings and causes me pain and someone disregards that feeling or dismisses it, or worse yet insults it by calling me too sensitive, it is a sign to run the other way.

Why do women forget this? We neglect to realize that we can decide when something is unacceptable – whether that’s in personal or professional life. Our plates are too full and our minds are preoccupied with the thousand ways we should do everything better when in reality the only thing we can do better is to recognize where we end and where another person begins.

 

 

 

 

 

divorce, single parenthood

some thoughts on dating

I’ve hesitated to write a post on this because it is such a complicated issue and because I feel like my comments here are usually centered on my own perspective (as memoir always is) and not others’ actions, and it is incredibly hard to discuss this topic in specific without reflecting on others.

But it’s such a central issue to everyone’s questions, and I occasionally get an email from a reader who is encountering a new chapter of unattachment and wondering what my thoughts are on dating. It’s a central issue to my own path right now, so I decided to finally type a few words on the screen — though I don’t know where this will end.

I’ll begin by asserting that I think everyone’s path to healing is different. I have met divorced women who dated every single weekend that they were away from their kids. I’ve met divorced women (and men as well) who didn’t leave their house much at all the first year and elected to hardly speak to the opposite sex for quite a while. I hold no judgment for either of those approaches. I will say, based on my personal experience and the advice of every therapist and book on the planet, that I think an actual committed and serious relationship is highly complicated and dangerous territory as you deal with the wreckage of what is left in that first year or so. But whether you choose to casually date or not? That scenario is entirely up to the person herself and what she feels brings the most healing in that moment.

Some people have flat out asked me if I’m dating yet (the best approach). Some have just asked others if I am, and then that gets back to me. Some have encouraged me to date and others have completely assumed that of course I wouldn’t go on a date “this soon” and that the idea itself is preposterous.

The answer to all of these questions is somewhat complicated. I know enough about myself to know that if I went a substantial length of time without going on a date, I could lock myself in a pattern of fear and inhibition. That is not the case with everyone, but it is with me. I’m shy, always have been. I am introverted at first meeting someone. And of course, I emerged from a situation where I’d spent 15 years with the same person, and a sudden betrayal ended it.  And, to be honest, for a while it abruptly ended my faith in men in general. (I’m still working on that one.) Combine all of these factors – personality and history – and I could easily become a homebody who reads and writes and knits and has a rich inner life but feels scared to connect and share that with anyone else. I think that type of life has its place and brings a certain kind of comfort and happiness, but as humans, we are wired to have connection with others.

I made a promise to myself last February that if someone asked me out, I’d say yes. Simply because I knew that this year would be stretching and growing, and I knew that dating again after 15 years in a relationship is an incredibly frightening thing. You only grow when you do scary things. I wish it was different, but sadly, that’s the way it is.

Truthfully, the act of sitting across a table from someone I do not know well and answering his million questions about me as we eat is pretty much the definition of the scariest thing I can do. But I am getting braver, and I’m figuring things out little-by-little.

A single friend of mine suggested I join a popular dating app to “boost my confidence” and “see what’s out there.” (You know the one with 12 million users.) That experience alone could be a post itself because it was eye-opening and hilarious, and while I don’t think it has restored my faith in men (not at all) and it was a short-lived experience, it has shown me that I am emerging quite well on my own, and there is a wide world of possibilities beyond the horizon.

So anyway, fast forward a few weeks, and word leaked out that I had a profile there. I was pretty shocked to receive written messages from someone from my former life insisting that I must be “screwing random people” and that I have a “big internet sign saying open for business” and please “don’t put yourself on Craig’s List, ok?”

I’ve been a feminist for all of my adult life, but for anyone who needs a quick refresher, I want to talk about something for a minute.

 

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The glory of slut shaming, if you are not familiar with that term from Gender Studies courses or modern culture, is that you don’t even have to actually be having the sexual relationships to be chastised; you just have to behave in a way that makes someone assume you are.

And those assumptions can come from lots of things: being attractive, being secretive (aka private) about your dating life, actually going on dates with someone when he asks, showing any remote interest in the opposite sex, not abiding my cultural norms on age and marriage, and apparently even having a profile on a dating site with more than 12 million other people.

What’s interesting to note is that these rules don’t apply to men.

When men divorce, they are expected to date immediately, I’ve noticed. Friends set them up; their own mothers encourage them to find a suitable girl as quickly as possible. And most interestingly, if nothing is said or revealed, people assume that they must be dating. And are completely okay with that.

The rules are different for us, I’m finding. Can you imagine a single man encountering judgment that he is wearing a huge internet sign that says “open for business” if he has an online dating profile? Me either. Because it doesn’t happen. That phrase alone is a reference to prostitution which is one of the oldest insults in the book used to shame women for assumed sexual relationships – real or imagined.

My past year has changed me in a million ways.  One of these ways is that I’m painfully aware of the many times in my own past that I’ve listened to someone shame a woman for presumed romantic interests when the speaker likely knows nothing of the woman’s situation at all.

So here’s a quick list of questions I ask myself before I open my mouth to comment on someone’s dating life… Is she currently in a committed relationship so that her romantic actions are secretive and could hurt someone else? …. Is she involved with a man who appears to be controlling, demoralizing, or bad for her? … Are her actions hurting herself or someone else?  …. If the answer to any of these questions is yes, and you are friends with the woman, by all means, open the conversation with her. If the answers are no, shut your mouth. Her private life is none of your business. Period.

There are a thousand things to worry about as a single mom in the 21st century. We think about our kids and how they weigh in on the already-hefty equation. We are more mindful of safety and personal agency than ever before. And as women, we are finally simply expecting to receive the respect we deserve. So if I’m conversing with someone new, I’m turning so many things around in my own mind to see how it feels with me. Which is the point, you know. How does this person make me feel? How does he appear to treat others? How does it all sit with my own soul and my own sensibilities? The last thing that we should be adding to that list is the expectation that women abide by some arbitrary rules that men are not expected to adhere to.  If it insults your soul, dismiss it. If you want to spend time with someone, do. If you don’t enjoy it, decline his invitation. That’s all that really matters in that moment.

I’ve always claimed the label of feminist, but I think it’s only recently that it is being made real in my personal life. I’ve spent my last decade walking exactly in line with the expectation of society. I was married and mothering small children and doing all of the things expected for me during my late twenties and early thirties. It’s when we step out of the cultural norm that our ideas of feminism are tested. And sadly, I’m finding that it’s also when the misguided patriarchal judgment comes out from both men and women. When you don’t follow that path expected of you, people simply don’t know what to do with you. And sometimes they deal with that confusion by revealing completely unfair and ridiculous judgment.

My friend Elizabeth and I email often, and last winter, she wrote to me, (and I’ve quoted this before when I wrote about Imposter Syndrome) “Breaking out of the molds others have made for us or the narrow minds of loved ones we once trusted is extraordinarily painful – and so necessary in order to become your best self.” I’m feeling this now as I move forward to uncharted waters, and I will feel it for many years to come, I think. Once you see things through that lens, you can’t un-see it.

I think those narrow minds and constricting molds often come from a place of fear or inexperience. Mohadesa Najumi is a British-Afghan writer whose words are hanging on my bathroom wall: “The woman who does not require validation from anyone is the most feared individual on the planet.” Seeing rude comments or judgment as springing from a place of fear and ignorance softens my response to it and certainly lessens the blow – which is helpful. Because truth be told, it is hard to shake these ideas from our own minds as women. It is hard to unlearn what you have spent decades absorbing. It is hard to see yourself through your own eyes without acquiring the filter of someone else.

So you see what’s happened here? I’ve started writing without knowing where it will end, and I have ended in the exact same place I always do.

It is my still, small voice that matters. It is my body I am living in. It is my ship I’m steering. And though it is scary at times and it’s hard to drown any voices that shout behind me, it’s a beautiful place to be. This in-between space. This moment where I don’t owe anyone anything and I answer only to my own calling.