Monday, March 30, 2009

When divorce comes calling

I got divorced from my first husband 22 years ago this month. My two oldest sons - products of that short-lived and mostly unfortunate union - seem to have gotten through the two decades-long aftermath pretty unscathed. But then again, this is just my opinion; I imagine having to forever explain "my parents are divorced" must carry with it some baggage.

Not to sound trite, but divorce happens; we've all seen the statistics. Sometimes all the best efforts to avoid a dissolution of a marriage aren't fruitful. And then there are vague attempts made at staying married, and, of course, steps to prevent it not even ventured: adultery, domestic abuse or abandonment may yield no forgiveness whatsoever. It goes without saying that the adults involved are cut to the core, especially when there are children as a result of the marriage. Those children are unequivocally the collateral damage of a failed relationship.

Kenny and Blake were too young - ages two and three-and-a-half, respectively - to have had the all-too-common child reaction that perhaps the decision to divorce was somehow their fault. Blake claims to have had memories of us together (not always happy), and Kenny - none. I always maintained the feeling that I wouldn't have to get into the reasons behind the split, that their father would make it clear as to why by his actions (chronically unemployed, among a few other things), and that notion did, in fact, come to fruition. As they got older, I did explain a cause or two, leaving myself in the equation; it takes two to tango after all.

Reassuring your child that a separation or divorce was none of their doing and that their relationship with both parents should remain intact is important. As much honesty as possible or, rather, as appropriate, is also key. Trying to hide the conflict may drive the child away, convinced that their parents lie and aren't to be trusted. Yet again, don't give them details that are better kept between adults, especially when the children are young.

One common by-product in separation is that of the angry or resentful parent (or parents) unwittingly taking that anger out on or through the children. To use the vernacular: "That ain't cool." Yet were my ex-husband and I 100-percent successful on that score? Sadly and uncomfortably: No.
And I have heard the same, and observed it as well, from more than a dozen divorcing or divorced people over the years. The goal, nonetheless, is to keep one's frustrations between yourself and your ex. Another suggestion among the professionals (i.e. lawyers, mediators, those in the mental health field) is to help your children through the difficult task of family change with a therapist, or via support groups targeted at children of divorce. Schools may offer such groups through the guidance department - Blake and Kenny attended several of those discussion gatherings at their elementary school - and your local youth services department is another source of information. Although its been over 20 years since I divorced, it still stings somewhat; the stigma of it. Nobody enters into marriage imagining that it will collapse. My older two obviously have a different last name than myself and, of course, their two half-siblings, and I am still a tad ill-at-ease while explaining the dissimilar names to new friends. Oh - I won't even get into how I had to explain to my younger two why I was married before, and who that guy was that Blake and Kenny would spend every-other-weekend with, and why. Sure, some anecdotes are comical, but mostly it was uncomfortable for me. That and handling their pre-school and elementary-school thinking that since I divorced once, I could easily act that out again with their father. Suffice it to say that explaining a broken marriage to children is a tricky business. Sometimes, such as in my case, kids may simply be too young to truly notice a significant change in their family unit. As a friend of mine, Erin, shared with me, her now teenagers were but one and three years old when she divorced: "They didn't know any different; they don't know any different." Whether a divorce comes after five, 15, or 25 years of marriage, the end of a marriage is still uncharted territory. It is a life-altering event to be sure, but it needn't be eyed as a "life-ending" one. On the contrary, both parent and child can view - or grow to view it - as a positive solution to a chronic problem.
"Someone may have stolen your dream when it was young and fresh and you were innocent. Anger is natural. Grief is appropriate. Healing is mandatory. Restoration is possible."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Did you ever think you'd say...? Part 2

Yes, there are many things we never imagined ourselves saying or doing. And then there are words that come out of our mouths which seem to make sense to us (unlike "poopie" which was discussed last column). Until they are examined at close range. We parents - we adults, regardless of our parenting status - can utter the darndest things.

When Blake was home this past Christmas, we ran into some old family friends who had not seen him for at least 10 years. They exclaimed, as we all are wont to do: "Wow! Look at you! You got so big and grown-up!" Later on Blake commented, "Why do older people always say that?! Of course I grew up... did they actually think I'd stay a kid forever?" And his observation made me ponder, yes, why do we say those kinds of things?

All adults are guilty of crying out, "Oh, Sam! I can't believe how tall you are!" We may not have seen someones child in years or maybe just months. And it seems a natural observation to make, for in our mind's eye they are frozen at toddlerhood, or maybe third grade, or perhaps as an awkward adolescent. Now imagine them spouting back: "I'm tall Mrs. Evans because you're just getting shorter with age." What?! It could happen.

Kids usually don't know quite how to respond to our preoccupation with their bodily maturation. They will smile politely, with maybe a hint of a blush. Just as we did when we were younger. As the adult, we mistake that slight pinkening of the cheeks as modesty or even pride. But if you think back to when you were the recipient of those verdicts of appearance, the hot cheeks may have been more accurately a result of the snippy comeback we were saying to ourselves. Like, "Geez lady, no duh!"

Can you imagine a kid making some of the following analysis of us: "Holy crap, Mrs. Evans! You've gotten so many wrinkles since I saw you last; you're really getting older;" "Look at that belly pouch Mr. Evans. Guess that's what your 40's will do;" or "I can't believe you're 50! How did that happen?"

And turnabout is fair play in other ways. We love to squeeze a chubby baby's cheeks or legs. So what if a 12 -year-old we hadn't seen since infancy grabbed onto our triceps and cooed, "Look at those chubby arms. They're so cute!"

Then there are the comments we make, innocently, that teens - probably girls in particular - take the wrong way. On the occasion of my daughter Jessie's 14th birthday I cried, "You're getting so big!"

"Big?!" she wailed. "Are you saying that I've gotten fat?"

"No! No! It's just an expression," I stammered. "You know... it just means you're not a little girl anymore... not my baby." And I can't win with these observations, because when I mentioned last week that it looked as though she was getting skinnier, she spat back the whole so-you-think-I-was-fat-before thing. "That's not what I was implying," I began and then just shrugged and stopped while I was ahead. Well, not ahead, but inserting foot into mouth more didn't seem appetizing.

It just seems impossible not to chirp to a 13-year-old boy that you didn't recognize him because he's turning into a young man. I was in good company with those sort of remarks during a recent baseball evaluation, when several of us moms lamented aloud that little boy's faces were morphing into men's before our very eyes.

"Is that Justin?;" "That can't be Chris, he's not that tall!;" and "Who is that? No! How can that be Ryan?"

Their faces begin to fill out, becoming more chiseled, less adorable and decidedly handsome. Suddenly, we parents have gone from patting a boy on top of his head, to patting his shoulder, to finally a light punch in the arm because the head and shoulders are head and shoulders above us. The objects of our gushing, prodding and disbelief chuckle inside while slowly backing away from the crazy old people.

Yes, of course, time marches on. Children grow up, grow older; while adults just do the growing older part.

I leave you with two quotes:

"It kills you to see them grow up. But I guess it would kill you quicker if they didn't." ~Barbara Kingsolver

"There are only two things a child will share willingly - communicable disease and his mother's age." ~ Dr. Benjamin Spock

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Did You Ever Think You'd Say...?

For no reason in particular, I have been looking back at my 25 years of being a parent and I cannot believe the words and phrases that have jumped from my lips over the years in this job. I have also acted in ways and performed duties that I never, ever pictured myself doing pre-motherhood.

I mean ask yourself: When you were a free-wheeling single person, hip or edgy, did you ever think you would one day say "poopie?" As in, "Honey, did you make a poopie in your pants?" or "Don't touch the poopie!" Back when you used the F-bomb as a noun, adjective, verb and adverb at will, could you have guessed you would be using the "P" word as a noun, adjective, verb or adverb dozens of times a day? For years?! But there you are, or were. And if you are well beyond needing to employ that word in your daily vocabulary, don't get complacent about that fact. Because one day you will be a grandparent when your former poopie-provider begets one of their own, and you will need to pitch in when the child's nether regions explode.

When you were first married, perhaps mulling over the idea of becoming a parent, did you ever watch seemingly intelligent adults carrying their infants around on their hips and asking them -
usually in a high-pitched voice - the following kinds of questions: "Should we buy this bread?" or "Mommy wants a coffee... do you think mommy should get a coffee?" or "Daddy wants to go to the car wash now. What do you think? What do you think?" And when you observed this, did you wonder why these parents were asking a bald, toothless, drooling tiny person their opinion? Did they really think the baby was going to pipe up with an answer, like, "No, no bread. You really need to cut back on the carbs, mom." You may have smugly promised yourself not to ever engage in that kind of insane banter. And then inexplicably found yourself having a million such conversations with your own infant and toddler: "Mommy's going to check her email now... do you want to watch? Do you? Do you?" The kid's a captive audience, and it's an excellent way to not appear like a crazy person talking to yourself; people look and see that you are actually speaking to a baby, so on a very odd level it's acceptable. Even if the questions and statements directed at said baby are well beyond that small being's comprehension. For the life of me, I never pictured myself as one of those parents who would be sniffing their teenage son or daughter from stem to stern. Like a hunting dog. "Come here," I say when my kid gets home from a night out. I start with the hair sniff, then work south demanding they open their mouth so I can take a whiff, trying to determine if there is alcohol or smoke - nicotine-tinged or sweet - on their breath. I breathe deep of their clothes for the same odors. I look ridiculous and trust me, my kids agree. But you have to do it, am I right? The same way -- going back to the beginning of this column - you have to actually pick your child up, or kneel at their tush - and thrust your nose onto the hind-end of their pants to smell if there has been an "accident." Same sort of theory when they're teens. If a mess is there, you have to clean it up. Unknowingly wearing vomit on your shoulder; standing in the chilly spring rain to watch your nine-year-old play baseball; hiding tiny teeth in your sock drawer; blotting chocolate off your child's face with your own saliva; going from rocking out to the Allman Brothers to the Jonas Brothers, or eating out of a jar of pureed bananas to show a wee one how it's done... these are just some of the things we may never expect we will do before becoming a parent. Yet, we do and we are. And just as we never pictured ourselves uttering what we do, touching things we normally would have no business touching, we also may not have counted on being able to love another human being with depth that we bestow upon our child. It almost makes up for those years of smelling things we hoped never to have smelled. Almost.