single parenthood

all in all the time

It is mid-afternoon on Saturday, and the kids are away. I had to give a work-related presentation this morning, so this feels more like a Friday than a true weekend, and I am trying to think of all the ways I can find the fast track to relaxation. Maybe a bath or a slow dinner or a good soundtrack. But writing always gets me there faster than anything else does, so here I am.

The kids and I went away last weekend for the Labor Day holiday – back to one of our favorite spots in the mountains of northwest Georgia.  It was fun, and it was exhausting… which seems to be the theme of my time with these two lately.

Untitled

We spent three nights in the woods, and I more or less just let kids be kids. It was three days of loud noise and sweaty shirts and sticky hands and a body that was so bone-tired every night as we fell asleep in the darkness that I didn’t mind the hard surface beneath me.

Untitled

I’ve had a lot of frustrations with parenting lately, and it is like some grumbling thing that I cannot even entirely put words to very easily. It’s under the surface, and I never have time or space or silence to comb through it. I think it is mostly just exhaustion. The start of a school year is a shock to the system, and every year the demands grow a bit. The homework and the expectations and the after school clubs and activities and the big feelings that begin to brew in these years. They have likes and dislikes and blooming personalities and so many needs. It is not the same as the never-ending needs of a baby which are just physical mostly. This is different.

They need me to be all in all the time with them, and it’s hard to even finish typing this sentence through the mom guilt, but the truth is that I cannot be all in all the time. I need a rest sometimes. And of course other times it’s that I need to think about something else — like my own classes I’m planning for my students or my own writing goals or maybe even a personal or relational thought sometimes about the million other things that make me a human being. In short, I wish I had super powers to be on all the time with them … or maybe just a clone of myself to be at home stirring dinner on the stove while this self takes them to activities or stays in the office a couple extra hours to catch up.

Untitled

I tried to stop the clock last weekend, to run away to the woods and hit the pause button. There were some beautiful moments, but it wasn’t entirely a pause button. My brain hummed the whole time with other things as well. It pains me to write that, but it is true.

Untitled

I’ve been listening to a Ram Dass lecture series when I’m in my car or washing dishes, and in a portion I heard yesterday, he said something along the lines of taking something seriously doesn’t make it go away any faster. It made me laugh. It’s so pervasive in our society to see everything uncomfortable as a problem to be solved or as a pathology of some kind. His words encouraged me to try to look at my current feelings of overwhelm with some playful curiosity instead.

What would it look like to accept that this is life and this is single parenting and I cannot be all in all the time?

What would it look like to do the best I can and leave the rest well enough alone?

What would it look like to lessen the weights in my life that bring me chaos by just taking everything a little lighter, a little less seriously?

Yesterday morning, the kids were moving slowly and it took at least five commands of BRUSH YOUR TEETH to make that happen. I couldn’t find the right mate for Norah’s sock, and when I finally did, I came downstairs to see that the dog had thrown up twice in the middle of the kitchen floor. As I cleaned that up, I remembered that we didn’t do Norah’s reading homework the night before, so I told her to get started then and we’d get it done just in time for the bus. Jude had his backpack on and begged to walk out to his friends at the bus stop, and I told him no. He’d have to wait on his sister. He paced and huffed and asked again, but when he realized I was serious, he just sat down next to her and helped her. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that the three minutes of their quiet concentration and his gentle help was the absolute highlight of my entire week. It was over fast enough, and we rushed out the door, and the rest of Friday’s demands tumbled after.

I am Jude sometimes – pacing and hurrying and sighing and grumbling and wishing things were different. But I think maybe if I would just sit down it could make it all better and let the space settle around me. Perhaps I need to take a deep breath and know that I won’t miss the bus, that I am here and this is real and I am always right on time.

Advertisements
divorce

the time it takes to paint the canvas

A few days ago, my son came home with a paper invitation in his backpack that explained his artwork was featured in an exhibition at a local church’s annual Festival of the Arts. He’s in first grade, so I’ve only had a school-aged kid for a couple of years, but I have already figured out that it’s really impossible to tell with some of these functions if they are a big deal, so to speak, or if you will rearrange your schedule and drag kids out for something they would’ve hardly missed. There was no teacher email or mention on this one either, but I stuck it on the fridge and figured we’d go.

Wednesday rolled around, and it’s speech therapy after school which makes for a long day anyhow. Plus it’s the end of the month when my finances are always extraordinarily tight, so I didn’t want to splurge on dinner out when we had food at home. We race home, I make a quick dinner, and we turn around to race back out in the same general direction we came from. My mom was at my house the day before and saw the invitation on my fridge, so my parents wanted to check it out and were a little ahead of us and already there. She texted that there were A LOT of people there, and she wasn’t kidding. We arrived and took a while to find parking and shuffled in a line with everyone else to see the student exhibitions with work from 21 different elementary schools in the county – plus middle and high schools. There was visual art and ceramics and fashion design and sculpture. It was pretty amazing. And amazingly crowded. But we did spot his work along the wall with the others.

Untitled

At 6:45, they shuffled everyone upstairs to the sanctuary to list award winners, and they read a long list of 20 Honorable Mentions for elementary schools. They didn’t say his name, which did not really surprise me given the volume of art and participants, and he seemed a little disappointed, so I was whispering that it was an honor just to be included and don’t forget that your teacher chose only you for this event. Only you.

Then they listed winners for elementary school, and when they said his name for third place, both he and I perked up in surprise! I have his art cluttering my fridge and my coffee table and the back seat of my car and nearly every surface in my house, but that is mostly just because he’s my own kid and he loves to draw and paint and create. I never compare his work with others. It is such a fun experience and a rare moment of genuine surprise when you hear your kid’s name called and see them recognized in such a big way. He was competing alongside kids years older than him from 21 area schools, and it was such a special moment of pride for him. I’ll never forget the look on his face.

I emailed his art teacher early the next morning to say thank you, and she explained that she “knew it was special when she saw him painting it.” And Jude’s only mention of it weeks ago was to tell me that they were studying Van Gogh, that he kept working, working, working on it when all the other kids were done, and that his art teacher let him work slowly and take a long time to finish. (How seldom we do that, right? Such a reminder to have patience and let the canvas take shape — which is one big metaphor for raising kids and for watching your own life take shape, too.)

I’ve written a lot lately about being exhausted and pulled to my limits, which I am. The long days are the longest. But the good days feel like such a welcome break in the monotony sometimes. Wednesday was a really great moment.

As any divorced parent will tell you though, these moments do not ever look like what you’d once expected them to.

Jude’s dad was on the other side of the country, so neither of us told him when the initial invitation came home as there was no point. As we were walking out the door though, I think it dawned on Jude that this was a big deal and dad wasn’t able to see it, so he sent a hurried text message to his step-mom detailing the time and location. She dropped whatever it was that she was doing and hurried there, baby in tow.

I let him contact her without asking otherwise. We slid over in the crowded pew for her to have a place to sit. My family flagged her down in the crowded sanctuary so that she would feel less alone. We waved her off at the end of the event so that she felt included. I say all of this not to say look at me, I am amazing. I am not. We are not best friends. I say this to say that after months and months of practice, it really is not impossible to look at someone like a human being.

I wrote a little last fall about seeing her in a different light and feeling commonality and even sympathy for her in many ways. I do. And yet the hardest part of this is that, though she and I have stepped up to drop the bitterness and rise to a higher calling for the sake of my kids, there are bumps in the road beyond the two of us. My parents and I will sit down at a soccer game with folding chairs near my ex so that kids see us as one unit, and my children’s father and his own parents will stand up, fold theirs, and move to the other side of the field to make it clear we cannot do that. I will greet with a hello and get nothing back. When we are passing bags of clothing back and forth between households, I reach my hand out, but it gets placed on the ground at my feet though I am standing 3 feet in front of him and an outstretched arm would be the most respectful and least awkward way to do this. There is so much more I could say, but I will end there.

I worry a lot about how my kids absorb this as they are growing old enough to watch and observe with their own thoughts. I don’t write a lot about that dynamic here because it feels weird to do so, and I always write with the intention of revealing my own heart, but sometimes someone else’s actions and the effects on your own heart are so tangled that you cannot unwind them to talk about one without the other. I know so many readers here are coming from the same story, and I’m being transparent for the both of us. If you are in it too, I see you and I feel your sadness. If you have emerged to the other side where you are treated like a real person and a human being and not a ghost, please tell me how to get there.

Sometimes I think it’s just that women are capable of seeing complexity in a situation and rolling with it in all its gray areas so that we can put or children first. Sometimes I think that it’s because I took the time to clean up my own heart after my divorce so I can make eye contact and say hello and sit in a chair near them and it doesn’t hurt like it did at first. I know how it was in the beginning when I couldn’t look at them without tears in my eyes, but I don’t feel that anymore now that we are 2 years out and I did the hard work of cleaning up the mess inside my own self with time and reflection. If you cannot make eye contact or pass a clothing bag with an outstretched hand or answer a hello, is your heart anything but messy? Sometimes I wonder if I can be my own self without bitterness and shame and anger because I was not the one who stepped out of the marriage before it imploded. Is it actually easier in the long run when you are the one left behind in the beginning? That seems so ridiculous and counterintuitive to say, but there are ways I think it is true. I have nothing to hide or explain.

And in a literal sense, I know if I never once wrote the first word here, it would be very different. I have laid out all my fears and my sadness and my hurt and my confusion in this space, and it has only ever been my own perspective and my own heart. I have always said that. Many, many times, I have been told to be quiet and stop writing anyway, and yet I never did. This space has evolved to something else entirely where I have written about a million more things but always with the simple intention to tell the truth and lay it all bare as I feel it inside – whatever it may be.

I am revisiting some Marianne Williamson this week, and she says, “Women are still in emotional bondage as long as we need to worry that we might have to make a choice between being heard and being loved.” That passage slays me because I can glance back at every moment in my life when I felt that being heard did not equal being loved and feel how painfully that suffocates you. I think I finally realized that love is not real love anyway if it comes with the condition that you cannot be heard, so here I am still writing. And here I am still loving – even those who are hard to love. I can know that someone made choices I would not have made and maybe still has some mess left to work through, but my only ability to change anything at all is to be responsible for my own actions – whether that means making room on a church pew, recognizing my son’s desire to reach out for love from his other household, or looking someone in the eye to say hello. I think I will have to wait on the hand of time to soften all the rest, and if it doesn’t, it is still softening me. Maybe that is the other side I am meant to arrive at — not some sitcom reality where divorced parents have dinner together with their kids.

It’s our small daily choices that paint the whole canvas in the end. And though my kids don’t fully understand everything now when they see someone move a folding chair at a soccer game or decline a birthday party invitation or leave a hello hanging in the air between us without an answer, I know that they will look back and see that if nothing else, mom stayed open and soft and honest and real.

single parenthood

on the other side of where I came from

Life is finding a predictable rhythm with fewer surprises lately, it seems. I’m grateful for it. Atlanta weather is confused about the February calendar, and it feels like spring. The flowering trees have busted wide open a month early, and there are tulips springing up beside the sidewalk as I walk across campus to class this week. We’ll have another chill in a month or so – as we always do before Easter. But for now, newness is here, ready or not. It always feels good to see the seasons change and usher in something new.

The kids had a little break from school with an extended weekend, so I got some extra time to myself. I caught up with a friend Sunday afternoon, worked late on Monday, and carried my coffee back to bed with me yesterday morning in my last few hours before kids arrived back home. I’ve all but abandoned my usual cornerstones of sanity lately – the little things that ground me – like quiet mornings alone and writing and reading and podcasts. But I am making an effort to get back at it as the seasons change. I caught the latest episode of On Being as I drove to meet my friend on Sunday, and it won’t stop tumbling in my head.

Krista Tippet interviews Alain de Botton, the writer most well known for “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person” which was the most widely shared and read piece from the New York Times in all of 2016. The On Being episode features an hour-long conversation with him about life and love and the difficulties of being human.

I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships lately and choices and companionship and all of the things that go along with it. In so many ways, I am not the romantic I once was – or at least not as naive. But I think a strength lies in my realism in a way that I couldn’t exactly understand or articulate until I heard the conversation with Botton. He tells Tippet, “In a way, there’s a lot of mundanity in relationships. And one of the things that romanticism does is to teach us that the great love stories should be above the mundane. So in none of the great, say, 19th-century novels about love does anyone ever do the laundry, does anyone ever pick up the crumbs from the kitchen table, does anyone ever clean the bathroom. It just doesn’t happen because it’s assumed that what makes or breaks love are just feelings, passionate emotions, not the kind of day to day wear and tear.” That day to day wear and tear is no joke, is it? And it seems both liberating and depressing to realize that mundane and tiring details are often what makes and breaks love, not just feelings.

I’ve been teaching Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing this last few weeks in a composition class, and I’ve had a lot of conversations on these ideas with my students as well.  What is love and what is marriage and what is the difference between those two things? What does Shakespeare tell us about those topics, and is his view restricted to Elizabethan England or is it timeless? I think as much as we like to laugh at his comedies of crazy fictional characters flying from one idea to another as a result of feelings, so many people in the modern world are not all that different.

I’m seeing someone a bit these days, and it is a hard topic to write about. (I mean what a brave soul he must be, right? What scarier topic can exist on a first date than your side job as a blogger and a writer?) But it is also a hard topic not to write about as I share nearly everything else on this journal, and it feels weird to hide it among other words here when I know what is between the lines.

For now, I will say that it is good and it is simple and lucky, and it just feels like a rest for a while after such a long season of no rest at all. For once, I am not thinking much about the past or the future. We owe each other nothing except attention in any particular moment we are together, and for now, that is more than enough. My past few years have brought experience after experience that softened and opened my perspective in ways I never expected, and I can see already that this is much the same – regardless of where it lands.

It’s funny how relationships begin, isn’t it? (And I don’t mean only romantic ones but friendships as well.) We put our best foot forward, that face that perhaps only the bank teller or the coworker sees. We smile and talk and share carefully chosen pieces and act as though we have it all together, but the cracks make their way out eventually. I am less inclined to hide them now that I am on the other side of where I came from. It gets easier to let your real self be seen as you grow older. Or perhaps I am just tired and left without the energy to conceal the mess.

Alain de Botton mentions this in the interview as well: “Look, one of the first important truths is, you’re crazy. … all of us are deeply damaged people. The great enemy of love, good relationships, good friendships, is self-righteousness. If we start by accepting that of course we’re only just holding it together, and in many ways, really quite challenging people — I think if somebody thinks that they’re easy to live with, they’re by definition going to be pretty hard and don’t have much of an understanding of themselves. I think there’s a certain wisdom that begins by knowing that of course you, like everyone else, are pretty difficult.” 

I am difficult. Like anyone else, I am not easy to live with. I tire easily, and I crave time alone. I thrive on routine that probably drives others insane. I sometimes leave cabinet doors open, and I can be messy about the things I don’t care about and ridiculously picky about the things I do. I have lots of opinions, and sometimes I make judgments quickly. My kids are wild at times, and we have grown so used to life with just the three of us that I often wonder how I will ever fit anyone else into this shape we’ve come to know as home.

But as it turns out, I think I learned a lot about relationships by living through a very long and difficult one and watching it all dissolve. And in all the twists and turns of children and family in this past two years, I have learned even more. Love is love most clearly in the confines of a family. Botton expands on that best when he explains, “Families are at this kind of test bed of love because we can’t entirely quit them. And this is what makes families so fascinating because you’re thrown together with a group of people who you would never pick if you could simply pick on the grounds of compatibility. Compatibility is an achievement of love. It shouldn’t be the precondition of love as we nowadays, in a slightly spoiled way, imagine it must be.”

That last line blows my mind with all of my 21st century expectations. Compatibility is an achievement of love, not its precondition. I think what happens when you spend so much time alone and you grow and stretch and expand so much by sitting with the discomfort is that you eventually realize that self love is the best love and that the only person perfectly compatible with me is me. There is no perfect soul out there waiting to save me or complete me because I am already whole. But connection is still the best thing I can offer and the best thing I can receive.

The details of it all are just messy, aren’t they? You fumble and move along as best you can, and sometimes you are surprised with these most beautiful moments of connection and the simplest seconds of happiness without motive or reason. But underneath it all, there is still you. Still me. Same as I ever was, but flawed and true and real.

 

 

 

motherhood, single parenthood

reflecting and absorbing

My alarm rang at 5:30 yesterday morning to begin the daily grind, and the very first thought that bounced through my head was I’m so thankful it’s Friday. Jude barged in the bathroom soon after I got out of the shower and asked if he could go downstairs to watch television while I got dressed. He’s obsessed with these Minecraft tutorials on Youtube lately. I made coffee and took the dog out, and then soon enough Norah came down the stairs in her underwear. She claimed she was hot in the middle of the night and took off  her nightgown to throw it on the floor.

So there we were: tired mom with coffee in hand, kindergartener watching Minecraft tutorials, and almost-naked preschooler piled on the couch before sunrise. She picked It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown from the shelf – of all things – and asked me to read it. A Halloween book in April at 6:20am wearing nothing but underwear. It’s how we roll these days.

When you grow older and look back on your own childhood, the smallest details can bring nostalgia – the particular plates you ate dinner from every night, the music you listened to on a certain road trip one summer, the curtains that hung in a kitchen window for years, or that singular dish your mom would make in a way that only she can.

I wonder sometimes about the bizarre list of things my kids will one day remember about our daily lives together: the loud hum of the wheat grinder because it’s how I insist we make Saturday waffles, the predawn cuddles on the couch, my books scattered everywhere and stacked on every surface, the board games we always spill out in the same spot on the foyer rug after school, the lettuce pots we pick from on the patio in the spring, the lakeside spot we visit in the summer, the old graying dog that snores loudly enough to drown conversation and follows us from room to room.

Some routines are habits I’m happy to see them absorbing. Norah draws pictures on tiny scraps of paper sometimes to add to my gratitude jar and calls it her “happy thing,” knowing what it means for me as a nightly ritual. And I’m sure there are other habits that I don’t even realize they are observing and taking on as their own patterns. It’s one of the scariest things about parenthood, a concept you can’t dwell on too heavily. The notion that they are always mirrors, always sponges. Reflecting and absorbing.

Truthfully, this house feels like Crazytown more often than not. I cling to routines because they give me something to hold onto. But in between the daily milestones and markers on the clock and calendar, we walk a path that closely borders chaos.

Sometimes I would give my right arm for some help in this house. I crave the comfort and certainty of having a partner to discuss parenthood with, and more than that, a partner to lend a hand when bath time and dinner time and clean up and homework are all happening at the same time. Single parenthood is no joke – especially for the primary custodial parent doing the daily work required to get everyone where they need to be, literally and figuratively.

But sometimes I feel so clearly that this is a unique season. Even if I stay single forever, this is our only time that he will be 6 and she will be approaching 4 and I will be exactly where I am in my own life and it is just the three of us. Always, just the three of us. I’m grateful for this time and the memories it’s giving us.

We had something to do almost every night this week – a neighbor who stayed with us as his parents needed help one night, the usual speech therapy appointment, and an annual art show at Jude’s school. I pushed aside the usual dinner plans one night for an impulsive stop at a Chinese restaurant the kids love. It is greasy. And predictable. And mediocre at best. But it felt like a treat as I pulled in the parking lot unplanned on a school night and the kids fumbled out of the car and ran in to look at the fish tank while we waited on a booth. We indulged in whatever made us happy in that moment. It felt good.

Untitled

We were reading descriptions of all the Chinese zodiac signs that were printed on the place mat and assigning them to each other based on birth years. And Jude said of one of the descriptions (The rabbit, maybe? Now I’ve forgotten.) you are that one, mom. It says shy and a peacemaker and you are those things. It’s funny that he sees these things in me. I am not shy with them as I have to be the voice asking questions and moving and advocating for them, but he’s right in a sense. I’m an introvert at heart, and I hate conflict. When life’s demands calm down and I can breathe a minute, I am exactly as he sees me. I worry that they will only ever remember me as the frantic orchestra director, the air traffic controller, the drill sergeant, the one giving orders to everyone else to keep all the balls in the air in our crazy juggling act. But kids see your true nature, I think. Even when you have to push it aside to tend to all the fires that await you as a parent. I guess they can see it shining through a bit.

It’s tiring. And one day, I hope to arrive back on a sure footing with less worry and uncertainty and perfectly balanced meals on the table every night and a house that stays clean more than chaotic. But maybe that never happens until they leave home, and I’m starting to accept that with gratitude. I find the glimmers in the smallest seconds, pausing images in my own mind and recording them here. And I’m just going to trust that they can sometimes see the real me through the madness.