It’s been a year, now what?

Last time I posted, I was talking about how I was going to focus on my health in 2016.

Bwahahahahahaha!

Except I did, sort of.  The truth is that I was reminded of how there is no silver bullet for anything (save maybe rest and liquids for a cold, and Berocca for a hangover.) Every effort I make to improve some aspect of my health has a trade off. For instance – lose that extra 5 pounds? No more cake. Want less GI grumbling? No more hummus. More sex with my husband? Get up earlier since he’s asleep by 8pm. Now, I get it – all of these things are worth it, right? If the goal is to live a long, healthy life, then yes. But if the goal is just to live… that’s different – and there’s a lot of grey area there.

In other news, a year has passed since I’ve written about my bonus daughter with mental health issues. She is now a full fledged almost-14-year old. And what a complete bitch sometimes. I know. Its not polite to speak that way – about a child, about a woman, yada yada. But y’all don’t live with her. Even her Mom and Dad refer to her that way. Not to her face, of course. To her face, we are all kinds of calm, and say the things we’re supposed to say… the prep from the therapists, the parenting books, etc. We tell her we love her but no, its not ok to continue to berate us just for existing. Some stuff – the not flushing the toilet EVER, leaving all doors open, not putting her shoes away – I think its a byproduct of being raised like a princess and the last few years of asking her to change isn’t going well. She is honestly the laziest human being I’ve ever met. Again – this is not a secret in our homes. She genuinely has no desire to do anything better. The only motivators she has are using her iPod and walking herself to school. Her Mom is constantly fixing or ‘helping’ her with homework. The girl has never failed. When she does poorly, she complains to the teachers, who call her Mom, who works with the teachers to re-test and re-work and give more chances. I can’t see how that’s setting her up to succeed in life, but I can see how its setting her up to believe everyone else is going to clean up her messes.

Ah. Sweet release.

Be the adult.

I joined a meet-up for Stepparents. I’m not a joiner, so this was difficult for me. I like to try new things, see what sticks, but once I decide to do something with regularity (re: yoga for the last 25 years,) I end up hating the joiner culture that surrounds it. Most would call this community, I do recognize that.

So, last night, I went back and forth in my mind of all the reasons why I wasn’t going to go – I would have to drag my ass at night to Manhattan, it was in a crap part of town, I didn’t know anyone, they would surely be lame, or god forbid, they would think I was lame (I wasn’t, FYI, I was hilarious.) And then, like magic, Jason called from his business trip to ask my what my plans were. I had a choice to lie, which in these circumstances I just call not-sharing-every-detail, but decided to tell him I was conflicted about going. He reminded me, as always, that it is good to push ourselves out of our comfort zone yada yada. He wasn’t the one going into a room full of strangers. But he is my mirror and he was right, so I went.

They weren’t lame. I mean, they were a little weird, some of them, but not lame. I did my brutally honest, self-deprecating schtick and they laughed out loud at points. Over the course of the two hours, though, I realized that despite all of our stories and backgrounds being very different, we did actually have a connection. A feeling of not being at home in our homes. A feeling of selfishness and helplessness. And a desire to learn skills and hear advice to make it work.

One thing that resonated with me was the moderator relaying a story about the conflict between her and her step-daughter. She was feeling frustrated and petulant (the stepmom,) and things were deteriorating, and she had to keep reminding herself of the golden rule – Always be the adult. Be. The. Adult.  I heard those words and immediately got grumpy and defensive. But I don’t waaaaaaant to always be the adult. I am, always, the adult! I had to be an adult before I was an adult, before I had a child of my own to parent. I am independent and responsible (despite what my ex always feared,) and now, at 45, when I’m constantly having my buttons pushed by a 12 year old who mostly hates me (and herself,) I don’t want to be the adult!

And yet. I have to. I will continue to fuck up. My relationship with the girls may or may not get better or worse, but I still have to remember that until they are adults, I have to be the adult. Their mom and dad don’t actually have to be the adults all the time, because they are forgiven for their indiscretions and foibles and even their resentment or antagonism. Its built in, this forgiveness as children. Not me, though, not the stepmother. Even when I apologize, I am not forgiven. It is remembered, and it is shaping our relationship. So, do I continue to start each week with them walking on eggshells? Deciding to see how long I can not engage with them, for fear of saying the wrong thing? Forgetting how to be myself because I know the person I am isn’t the person they choose to be with?

I don’t know. I do know better, though.

Just the two of us.

Last night I had a dream that my boy surprised me with a visit. Technically, he stole my credit card to come visit his pseudo-girlfriend and happened to bump into me on the street but its my dream and I can interpret it however I wish. In the dream, though, I remember feeling so elated. I wanted to show him everything. There was a humpback whale in the Hudson, there were horses running wild, there was a huge kitchen with a wood fired oven and plenty of space for cooking, there were trees and fresh air and also beautiful little homes and all the people we loved, looking for adventure. And then I woke up at 6:30am because my husband is not here next to me. He’s traveling for work and whenever he’s gone, I wake up early, even though I hate that he wakes up early every day.  I’m sure there’s a psychological term for this. Anyhow, what I loved most about the dream is that while it was outlandish, it was also exciting and hopeful. Or maybe it was sad. Maybe it was about me letting go of my 17-year-old and recognizing that I have shown him what I can, that his motivations are his own. Maybe that’s not a sadness but a resignation on my part. Maybe the outlandish nature was really for me, to see that I have more life ahead of me that can be wonderful, even without him.

I spend a good deal of each day fighting the guilty feeling of leaving my son. Not just four years ago when I moved to NYC for a job but 16 years ago when I left his father. At the time, I had nothing, no money, no support, no full-time job, and my father had just died. I remember watching Oprah in the afternoons when my boy napped. One day, she was talking about how you can’t change your life if you can’t change your mind. Change your mind, change your life. I don’t know what it was about that moment but I believed that if I stayed with my ex, my soul would wither away. I would die there. So, I left. We shared custody of our boy, but we were never married and I never filed for child support, despite the vast difference in our incomes. I was a pushover and my ex was a bully. Neither of those qualities are admirable but I don’t regret my decision. Except, every day, I feel the weight of missing my son. Of course all parents miss parts of their children’s lives… they go to school, go to friends’ houses, take piano lessons and play soccer games. But its different when you can’t kiss your child on the forehead every night before bed. When you can’t ask them about their dreams every morning. When you see a bruise or a cut on them and have to ask how it happened. When you make all sorts of excuses why its necessary to stop by their school during the day, just to see them for a minute. I don’t know if my ex has ever felt these things. Some people say that mothers feel differently, have different needs, but I’m not sure about that. I think the difference is a willingness to acknowledge the sadness, the missing out, and the choices we’ve made that create our circumstances.

Fortunately, technology has allowed us to stay close. I don’t know how people did it in decades past. My son and I text daily, FaceTime a couple times each week, and use the old phone, as well. Still, these conversations aren’t natural. They are sometimes forced as opposed to the organic flow of conversation when spending time in a room with someone. Technology isn’t nuanced, its very black and white. People can be misunderstood, especially when we can’t see a facial expression or reaction. If we hadn’t had 13 years before I left to create a solid foundation, I’d be more worried about our relationship. But despite everything, our distance, his teenage years, my worries and guilt, we are good. I like to pat myself on the back occasionally for how well he turned out. He’s communicative, emotional, and honest. And we are often acknowledging how grateful we are to have each other, to be perhaps non-traditional (most of his friends never talk to their parents about anything substantive,) and to have the right amount of parent-teen friction. I hope he will always know how much he is loved, that even when the world seems to be against him, I will always have his back. And that despite being a family of five now, somewhere in my heart and mind, it will always be just the two of us.

Progress not perfection.

The only way to know there has been progress is to look back and see how far we’ve come. Or not.

When I met my man, Jennifer had just turned five and Dylan was eight and a half. One of the first things I noticed about them was how ridiculously cute they were. I had a boy, so girls were something new. They seemed sweet as pie, loved having me around. Of course, that was when we were dating and I was a novelty. Even then, though, I noticed some things about Dylan – anxiety and OCD behaviors. I recognized them because I had a mild level growing up, and I’d seen it in my own son briefly around the same age. At the time, I sent him to a psychiatrist friend who said, he’s just now processing your separation and that with some conditioning and assurance, he’d likely grow out of it. He did. (He does, however, still have a nasty habit of biting his fingernails.) Anyhow, there were things Dylan did… needing the same exact towel, the same nightgown, hopping three times before getting into bed, always asking if everything was safe to eat but then not eating it even if we said its fine. Dylan has trust issues and needs to feel safe, in control, always – as we all do on some level – but never vulnerable, or connected to her emotion. Bedtime was a nightmare, a lot of screaming and crying – every. single. night. I suggested to my man that he break out that Super Nanny book he had on the bookshelf and start implementing some structure. The girls were flailing. And he was exhausted. No one was being accountable for the situation. Those things have changed somewhat since my man really stepped up as a Dad, and also when Dylan began taking Prozac about a year ago. I was never a fan of medicating children. That is, until I was up with her at 3am while she was having a panic attack, punching herself in the face, biting her fingers until they bled, and screaming “Someone please help me!” Prozac works. And the girls have structure now around bedtime. Yes, we still need to get Jennifer to fall asleep on her own, but at least Dylan isn’t losing her shit anymore at bedtime. She does, however, need both the fan and the book-light on to fall asleep to, as well as actually reading to fall asleep. What do they say, progress not perfection?

I realize that I sound heartless sometimes when I speak about the divorced child. I’m not. Far from it. My son experienced being a child of separated parents. Maybe he’s ‘easier’, its all relative. My point is, though, that like it or not, this is the reality of many, many households for numerous reasons. We can have empathy for the children that they don’t have both parents under one roof but we can also set up a life that has love and boundaries. Just because someone is upset, or ill, or a victim (especially in their own mind,) doesn’t mean they get to be an asshole. And allowing that behavior does no one any favors, least of all the child who will grow into an adult, believing a.) the world is out to get them b.) the world owes them c.) everyone will feel sorry for them d.) they won’t have to be accountable for anything because poor them, their parents got divorced.

I had a friend who blamed her parents for her unhappiness well into her 40’s because they divorced 20 years earlier. She had a weird marriage of her own, more of a business arrangement. And her own mother had never remarried. She hated her stepmother, yada yada. Its so cliche. I say this also as someone whose child has had a stepmother (and two other women in his life who were stepmother models until his dad traded them in.)

I was raised in the school of hard knocks. Do I wish that my mother had been a little more present while I was growing up? TOTALLY. But she was grieving the death of her little boy. Do I wish that my father wasn’t a traveling salesman while I was growing up? TOTALLY. But learning how to verbally spar and push boundaries with my father compelled me to take action in my life, both then and now. In my 20’s, I know I went through a phase of forgiving them, maybe not to their faces but for myself. They did the best they could with what they had. But they didn’t know better. WE DO. We are educated, affluent, white people with every resource available to us. It seems irresponsible to me for us not to use those resources, and get our houses in order. Those kids will become adults (mine is already 17) and I want to be proud of the parenting we did that allows them to be in the world without us.