Sunday, August 14, 2011

It's a wonderful life

This week I lived one of the single mother nightmares. I went to the grocery store and my debit card was declined in front of my kids.
The clerk looked at me and said, “Give me another card.”
 I don’t have another card.
 One of the lovely parts of my divorce was bankruptcy: one of my middle class nightmares. In fact this year I lived out just about all of my nightmares. Over the course of one week, the week between Christmas and New Year I learned my marriage was over, my husband had a secret life, he racked up thousands of dollars in debt, and he was in love with an avatar he met on an adult internet site.
I kicked myself for not following my widowed grandmother’s advice: stay on top of your finances, don’t let your husband run them. Over the course of 15 years and two children it was easy to just let him pay the bills. After all I was cooking, cleaning, working, and raising two kids and a dog. He could take out the garbage and pay the bills.
So there I was standing in the grocery store in my bucolic town with my children looking at me wondering what I was going to do.
I had some cash. Not enough to buy the food, but I could probably buy milk, eggs and bread. If I went home and scraped up the change that accumulates in different rooms of the house I might be able to get some form of meat.
I calmly said to the checkout woman, “I have to go to the ATM to get some cash.”  She wasn’t pleased. The young man bagging the groceries was kind. “I can put these in the fridge for you. We can keep them until 7.”
It was 6 p.m. I had one hour to get the cash.
We went out to the car and I told my kids they needed to be quiet while I made a plan. A simple request. It must have been opposite day because they picked that moment to start fighting with each other. So there I was driving through affluent subdivisions with two children screaming at the top of their lungs; tears of humiliation pouring down my cheeks; and my mind wondering “how did I get here?”
Despite their fighting, I left the girls home so I could run down to the ATM. I put the fear of God in the girls about the fighting. I got to the ATM and learned that my child support check had a hold on it. The money was there in theory. My paycheck was hours away from being deposited. In theory I had money. In reality I was broke.
I went home with swollen tear stained eyes and Psalm 22 in my head, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
I pulled into the driveway and my kids were joyous. “Mom, someone left a present in the mailbox,” the youngest said.  My oldest presented me with a book tied up in orange ribbon.
First I opened the “Thinking of You card.” Out spilled coupons for the expensive milk my children drink because of the lactose intolerance they inherited from their Dad. The card had kind words and sentiments from my dear friend Anne.
The book was entitled, “God Never Blinks.” It was written by Regina Brett, a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the newspaper I often imagined myself as a columnist for as I am a native of Cleveland.
I was overwhelmed with emotion. As I was lamenting being abandoned by God and all things good, God, through Anne, reminded me that I was not alone and I was loved.
Soon another messenger from heaven arrived, my sister with cash for my groceries.
The next night my coworkers were over and I shared with them the events of the day before. The book had sat unopened as I had been too emotional to read it.
My one coworker has pointed out that I expect fairness too much. His theory is that if I let go of the manmade concept of fairness I would be disappointed less. He picked up the book and looked at the table of contents. The first chapter, “Life isn’t fair but life is good.”
“You need to read this,” he said.
God got me again: the right message with the right messenger.
This has been a horrible year, but a year filled with blessings. I met wonderful people at my new job. A job that has nothing to do with any of my interests and uses little of my talents, that screams it’s the wrong job for me. But for this year, it was the right job.
There were two wonderful ladies who shared their strong faith, made me laugh, found little things to celebrate, and helped me with my kids. There was the coworker who challenged my beliefs on fairness and regularly gave me pep talks.
This year was filled with moments when my mother gave me all of the love I ever wanted, but always thought I wasn’t getting.
My siblings and their spouses showered my children with affection and attention.
My friends brought casseroles, and gift cards to get me through those first few months of shock.
My amazing neighbor walks his lawn mower down every ten days and mows my yard.
I will never forget that evening of my card being declined as it will serve to remind me how overflowing my life is in blessings.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mother Ocean

I recently had the opportunity to watch on the shore as my two daughters played in the Ocean.  
It was a remarkable to me for many reasons.
First, I have a lifelong fear of water. I remember being six going down the slide into a cousin’s pool and going under water. The time it took to hit the bottom and reach the surface was an eternity. I coughed and choked on the chlorinated water. The sound of the water rushing past my ears was a sound I will never forget. I was sure at that moment I was dying. Perhaps it’s the Jungian idea of the collective unconscious that caused me to think I was dying. Or perhaps, if there are past lives, I drowned in one of them.
My childhood and teens are filled with memories of me avoiding the water at all costs, much to my father’s chagrin. My father grew up on the shores of Lake Erie and loves everything about the water; swimming, boating, waterskiing, fishing. I do not share his joy.
That I had reached the point in parenting that I could watch my children enjoy the ocean while I sat on the shore was a miracle in itself. Somehow I managed not to pass on my fear of water to them. Last summer my youngest decided to try out for the town swim team. She brought home a slew of blue ribbons. This summer her older sister joined her on the team. So far she’s taken second place in each meet she’s competed in. If they could they would spend the summer in the water.
This was the first summer I was confident in their aquatic skills and their ability to judge what was safe to do and what was unsafe. During past vacations their father or I would take turns playing with them in the waves. Of course they always had more fun with their dad as he would go out further than I.
This year, it was all different. Their father ended our 15 year marriage the day after Christmas. This year I was vacationing with my girls solo. We were at my sister’s condo on the Jersey Shore not our time share in Myrtle Beach.
This year I was also forbidden to go in the water as I was recovering from major surgery. The steri-strips were still firmly adhered to my abdomen. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t go in the ocean.
So I sat on the shore and watched my girls’ body surf, jump, splash, and laugh in the ocean. I couldn’t hear a word they said. I could see them laugh and beam at one another. I could see them reach out for the other’s hand; I could see each of them help the other get up after they were knocked down.
Watching them knocked down by the waves and help each other up gave me confidence about their future. I wasn’t with them in the ocean, but they were fine. Someday they wouldn’t live in my house, but they would be fine. One day I will leave this world, and they will be okay because they have each other.
Life will hit them with waves just as it had hit me and my siblings. This year I was hit with a tidal wave when my marriage ended. But there was my sister picking me up. She took a day off from work to take me in for surgery; waited for the surgeon to come out and give a prognosis; helped me get settled in my room; made sure I had pain meds.
My brother was there too as was his wonderful wife. (Sister-in-law does not adequately describe what she means to me.) She was there daily with food, magazines, and inspiration. My younger sister assisted after the tidal wave by providing financial planning advice and by lending the girls and I her vacation home.
I’d like to think I helped my older sister with her own tsunami the year before when her husband was diagnosed with cancer. I did my best to listen, coordinate food and other assistance. I’m not sure though, if anyone can really help someone through something as awful as what she and her husband went through.
Sitting in the warm July sun with my feet firmly planted in the sand I felt part of some great motherhood continuum.  My mother was just a phone call away, but I felt as if she were sitting a few feet behind me on the beach, and her mother behind her, and so on. We do our best to raise decent, resilient people. We know that they will be knocked down by waves and we know we won’t always be there to pick them up.
My parents gave me a gift in my siblings. They are my lifejackets buoying me as I navigate the challenging Atlantic.
I have made many mistakes as a parent, but as I watched the July sun dot my girls with freckles I knew I had done something right. They know that they are a team; a package deal; a duo; a family. They will take care of each other through high tide and low and I will forever watch them with wonder from the shore.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What Kind of Woman Stays at Home for 10 Years?

A high powered female attorney recently asked my dearest friend and I “What kind of woman stays home for ten years with her kids?”
My friend and I, both home with our children for ten years and recently putting our toes into the waters of outside employment, wanted to disappear in that moment. Having believed that women had a choice in whether to work outside of the home or not, we never expected to be looked down upon by one of our own gender.
Unfortunately in that moment I didn’t have answer to what kind of woman stays home.
As I think about what kind of woman stays home, I realize I spent some of that time at home, but I didn’t spend much time at home. I spent a lot of time in the community, in the mini van, and at various meetings.
 I won’t even begin to touch upon the whole motherhood thing, because women who work outside of the home and those who are home with their children have the same responsibilities of caring for their children. Sleep deprived years, thousands of dirty diapers disposed of, clothing covered with spit up, enough said.
During my years at home with my girls I assisted my elderly grandparents. I took them grocery shopping, to doctor’s appointments, and cleaned their home. I even rototilled their garden plot while in my last trimester of pregnancy, so that the hobby my grandparents enjoyed could continue even though my grandfather wasn’t strong enough to plow. My time with my grandparents was beneficial to all parties involved. My children were fussed over by their wonderful great grandparents, I benefited from their words of wisdom, and they benefited from the social interaction and extra help around the house.
While “home” with my children I found myself a member of our school district’s Committee on Preschool Special Education. This committee made up of members of the county and the school district decides if preschool children with developmental delays qualify for services like speech, occupational and physical therapy. As a parent representative on the committee I often helped parents accept services. Many times parents came in not wanting their three-year-old to be placed in a program for children with developmental delays. I made countless phone calls offering support, assuring parents that these services would help their nonverbal child blossom. As early intervention can significantly reduce the need for services down the road, I wonder how many tax dollars I helped save. I know I helped those families send their children to kindergarten ready to learn and on par with their peers.
I helped create an integrated preschool program at a local private school. I brought together and Early Intervention Service program with the private school and we created a dynamic, year round learning environment. This program helped both the children with developmental delays and the typical children. It was one of the happiest classrooms in that building.
While at “home” I helped raised millions of dollars for our local chapter of the Autism Society of America by working on their annual fund raiser. In my previous life as a career person I had been a professional fund raiser. This was a win- win situation as I got to feel “professional” again, and they got a “professional” without having to pay me.
I met other at home mothers who were doing similar things. The former special ed teacher would consult with families looking for tutors or ideas for helping their child succeed at school; the former nurse was our first call when a strange medical problem arose and we weren’t sure if we should call the doctor.
Those of us who were at home tended to the mothers with breast cancer who were fighting the disease while raising their families. Unfortunately we also had to keep bedside vigils for one dear friend as she died. The brigade of women who cared for her on her journey, carried her coffin into the church as we buried her.
Another group of us made a quilt for a friend whose baby was born with a fatal condition and lived for a few short months. The baby was buried wrapped up in the quilt that was made lovingly at my dining room table.
Those of us at home ran school events and raised funds for the school as tax dollars dwindled. Because of our efforts early literacy programs continued, enrichment programs were offered, and supplies that had been slashed in the budgets were purchased.
We fed each other’s families and watched each other’s children when one of us got sick or dealt with the death of a parent. We were a safety net for each other.
What kind of woman stays at home? A strong, kick ass woman who knows how to get things done, a woman with nerves of steel, and a heart full of love.
My time as an at home mother was in hindsight too short, and nothing like I anticipated – my house was still never clean. It was the most challenging and the most rewarding job ever.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Advice to the Girl in the Red Convertible

Would she listen to the middle aged woman doing mundane chores?
Here is what every young college girl driving a red convertible needs to know. Wear sunscreen every day. Because I wore sunscreen my face does not have the wrinkles and age spots it could after years of driving said convertible.
Do not color your hair at home. Sure a semi-permanent highlight kit every now and then would be fine. But really at your age your hair is perfect and needs no help. Wait for the coloring when the greys come out. And when they do come make sure you see a professional or you may end up with aubergine hair instead of chestnut.
Listen to your grandparents. Your grandparents have lived a long life and made many mistakes. They can save you the pain of making the same mistakes as them which will allow you to make your own different mistakes, and you will then pass your lessons on to your grandchildren. They say that a grandparent’s love is the most like God’s love. Listen to your grandparents, because like God they won’t steer you wrong. They can see things that you can’t even imagine.
Pick your friends wisely. Really you only need a few. You don’t need a sorority house full of them and you certainly don’t have to jump through hoops to gain entrance to the sisterhood of friendship. If you’re lucky your friends will be with you your whole life. They will be there when you get your first job, get married, have a baby, find out your husband has a brain tumor, and when your father dies. They will make you casseroles to feed your family when you are too sick or too sad to do so.
Be true to your friends. Sure boyfriends are nice, but don’t blow off your friends because of some boy. Don’t let any relationship take you away from your friends. If your love interest doesn’t allow you time to be with your girls, it’s not a healthy relationship.
Make decisions about your life based on what you want not what your boyfriend wants. If you’ve dreamed of being an improve actor in New York don’t look for a job in human resources in Cheboygan because your boyfriend got a job there. It is more important to wake up every day and have a job you can’t wait to get to than have a boyfriend.  Love and marriage are hard enough, if you give up your dreams for someone love and marriage are almost impossible.
When it’s time to break up- BREAK UP. Don’t try to “stay friends.”  It doesn’t work. It makes the heartache long and drawn out for both of you. Some day at your 20th high school reunion you can meet and chat with him and his wife and share stories from back in the day.  Now is not the time to do that. You must move on without him.
As much as you love your career don’t let it interfere with your personal life. You will have good bosses and bad bosses. Do not lose one night’s sleep over work because unless you’re a brain surgeon it really doesn’t matter. The company you work for will get on without you; life will go on when you leave that job. Worry and sleep deprivation help no one. Leave work at work.
If you become a mother consider having a girlfriend or sister in the delivery room should complications arise. Your spouse may be in a state of shock by the whole process that when your face is swollen like a pumpkin and the doctor asks him if you always look like that he’ll respond yes. Your sister or girlfriend will be able to answer “No she’s retaining water and it looks like she’s losing consciousness.”
Once you bring that baby home from the hospital listen to everyone who says “Sleep when the baby sleeps.” Sleep deprivation will make you miss some of the most fleeting and precious moments of motherhood. When your baby sleeps do not fold laundry or do the dishes. Eat off paper plates for a month or two and let your friends help with the laundry as they truly want to.
Do not beat yourself up. You are beautiful right now. You are too young to know it. You think you are too fat, and your skin is too red, and your chest is too small. You will one day look at pictures of yourself taken in this moment and think “I was pretty and I didn’t know it.”
Learn to accept compliments. Oddly enough you will not be complimented on the things you think you should be – the things that are hard for you to do. The things that come easy to you are the things that will amaze others. They will thank you for your organization skills, the visit to the hospital, or the letter you wrote. These things come easy to you – they don’t come easy to others. Give the other person the benefit of accepting the compliment.
When a friend loses someone to death go to the wake. No one likes wakes; you aren’t supposed to like them. However, like going to the dentist, there are certain things you have to do even if it makes you uncomfortable. At the wake you say to your friend or coworker or neighbor, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Don’t’ say anything else except maybe “This is horrible.” No one wants to hear “It’s all for the best” or “There’s a reason for this.” When someone is grieving they want people to acknowledge the pain. The whole process for you will take about ten minutes. For the one in grief those ten minutes you gave will be worth more than any flower arrangement you could send.
Finally, some day you won’t drive a convertible. That will be okay. When that day comes you need to be ready to pass on your wisdom to the next girl in the red convertible.