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.

Where to start, part deux

I had the strangest dream last night. My boy was little and we were on a double decker bus with Amanda Plummer. He was talking about his friends who traveled, who were the children of diplomats and lived all over the world. And then I left them behind but kept going on the roof of this bus. There was more, something about my old job, and grocery shopping with a cart that was ten times its normal size and I couldn’t reach to put in the sandwiches from the deli. But the sandwiches kept falling apart anyhow, they were stacked high and the lettuce was soggy. The store wasn’t open yet, actually, but I was trying to get food and I couldn’t reach or get what I needed but I was starving. And then there was a splash of walking by an abandoned amusement park with hundreds of people waiting in line for it to open. It was dark and strange and I tried to tell them they were closed but they couldn’t hear me. Like zombies except they weren’t, just ordinary people, with kids even, that wanted to ride the rides…

So. That’s what I woke up to. I had a good meditation session this morning – I cried and my mind went on a tangent. Something about facing my fears, I imagine but that’s the thing about dreams and monkey mind, you can never quite put your finger on what was the point.

I met some new Moms yesterday at the park with Jennifer. She didn’t have school because of Yom Kippur and I’ve become acquaintances with one of her friend’s Mom. Through her, she introduced me to three other Moms, one of whom I really liked. However, I find when I talk about my transition here, to living in NJ, I get depressed. I am funny, of course, but while they are laughing at my self-deprecating and honest jokes, are they also thinking, WTF or Let’s stay away from this one because she’s got lukewarm juju about our sweet home town? Prolly. And I don’t blame them. I bet by the time I actually embrace living here, we’ll be ready to leave. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a hell hole, its just not where I want to be. I don’t gravitate toward the monochrome, the vanilla, the all-look-same. Yeah yeah, this town has an area of affordable housing where the ‘poor people’ and ‘hobos’ live, this is all according to the girls, but that’s the most fucked up part. Despite there being a shred of diversity, which could add to the community, people here still see them as others. When I try and explain this to the girls, they put on sad, pouty faces and say how they feel sorry for the people in the projects, and its so sad they have to live like that, and on and on. While we are encouraging and teaching empathy, by our words and example, I fear that we are perpetuating pity also. ‘Those’ people are mostly smart, often educated, working men, women and children, just like us. While their opportunities have been different or non-existent, I don’t feel sorry for them. I don’t pity them. I feel for them, yes, but I don’t see them as less-than because of their circumstances. Also, what good is all the pity if we’re not doing anything to help them? The girls fear those kids because they are different. Its not that they don’t have a handful of black kids at their school, they do. And they always have a story to tell about them – they live in the projects, their Dads left and they have no money and its so so sad. This just isn’t the reality, though. Yes, I am sure this is true for some of them but its also true for some of the white kids! And the hispanic kids! Parents get divorced, people struggle with money, children are mistreated – and it is all awful. But how do we get our children to see that they are all the same… children? And what they need is friendship, not pity?

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.

It’s funny until it’s not.

When I picked the girls up from school yesterday, Dylan started in with her incessant talking. I could tell Jennifer really wanted to chime in about her day. Usually, I remember to say up front, each day, that we’ll take turns – each kid gets to talk for a block. Dylan has a tough time with this but she does love her sister, so tries very hard to let her speak. But yesterday I forgot, or was lazy, or god forbid just wanted a normal walk home. So after 10 minutes of non-stop talking, I asked her to take a break. I tried engaging with Jennifer but Dylan interrupted so I joked, out loud, that she had verbal diarrhea. She thought that was hilarious, thank god. She laughed (maniacally) about it for a good block. But then when she was done, she started talking faster and louder and more incessantly. I made the observation that perhaps not everyone wanted to hear everything she was saying at all times, that she was talking to hear herself talk. She then informed me that I was being very disrespectful towards her because yes, in fact, people DO want to hear what she says. Always. I asked her to see if she could go an entire block without talking. “Why would I do that? I have things to share. Important things, like how high a score I got on my game.” I asked her to see how it felt, to just be alone with her thoughts, inside her head for a block. But she couldn’t, and went on to tell me how awful I was that I didn’t want to listen to her, at which point Jennifer chimed in and came to her defense, as well. Anytime Jennifer sees ANY type of conflict, she jumps in to defend Dylan – even if Dylan is doing something wrong. They scream “We’re sisters, that’s what you do!” At some point, I felt disconnected to my mind and body because I said, “Fine, here’s how it feels when someone talks incessantly and you can’t get a word in edgewise.” So, I started rambling. I talked about the place in Italy I’ll live one day with their Dad. I talked about how we’d have to go back and visit the girls, still maybe teaching the older one how to take care of herself in her 40’s. I talked and talked. And you know what they did? They ran. So I ran to catch up, and I talked louder, and I tried to get in their faces and said “Hey, hey, that’s disrespectful to not listen to me.” Throwing words back in Dylan’s face doesn’t work because she doesn’t recognize any faults of her own. Ever. Did I mention this? Plus, shit, if I thought I could just run away every time I didn’t want to listen to her anymore… wow, my life would be different. And yes, very childish of me to just not disengage and move on. I’m an imperfect person.

By the time we got home, Dylan was telling Jennifer that they’d hate me forever. I don’t think they thought I’d hear them but I yelled up the stairs “Forever, ever??” They didn’t get the Kanye reference. Inside, they were mopey and quickly told their Dad that I pulled on Dylan’s backpack. I’m not sure how that would have happened since I had both hands on my handlebars, pushing my bike behind them all the way home. It didn’t happen but Dylan needs to be the victim, always. Plus, hello, what if I HAD pulled on her backpack. What is that, abuse?? Jennifer said she hadn’t even seen it but she believes Dylan and I’m just awful, end of story.

I made stir-fry for dinner and while the chicken pieces were tiny, small enough for her little sister to eat, Dylan insisted in cutting each piece into tinier pieces. Wouldn’t be a big deal except that using the knife was making an excruciating nails-on-chalkboard sound every single time. Her Dad asked her to stop, repeatedly. I suggested using the side of her fork instead. Nothing. When she went in for her second serving (yes, chicken is one of the things she eats,) she kept doing it and when her Dad asked her to stop again she said “Listen, this is really, really hard work. And its going to make a sound, every time, so you can’t be upset every time I do it. You just have to deal with it.” Sometimes I admire her complete lack of awareness for anyone else’s needs but her own. Girl is going to get what she wants, end of story. Because cutting chicken is really, really hard. But in those moments, I think, how are we helping her by letting her believe this. In the real world, she’s going to get a smackdown. And because she has no skill set, as well as real mental illnesses, she won’t succeed. Being overly-assertive and demanding and believing that people are there to serve her and only her, will. not. work.

Where to start?

It would be too difficult to start at the beginning, so I’ll start with yesterday.

When I picked the girls up from school, the older one, whom I’ll refer to as Dylan from here on out, started her usual onslaught of verbal diarrhea. This time it was about her visit to the nurse’s office. She started by telling me about her nosebleed (she has these chronically and yes, we know there is a procedure that can cauterize but if you keep reading, you’ll understand why it’s not possible.) Then she went on to explain that the reason she was at the nurse’s wasn’t because of the nosebleed but because she’d had a sore throat. It started the night before, it was ‘strep-y’ and in gym she was coughing and coughing, and then her breathing got really rattle-y, and on and on. The nurse saw a little irritation at the back of her throat, no doubt from coughing, but there was no fever, aches, pains etc. Dylan told me, though, that the nurse said she should see a doctor. So, when I could get in a word edgewise, I said, ok, I’ll see if I can make you an appointment this afternoon while Jennifer (her little sister) is at her acting class. That’s about when Dylan started losing it. “What?! No, no, no, I don’t need a doctor!” Yet, she’d spent 10 minutes explaining how very sick she was. She’s not, in fact, sick. This happens every month or so. Her biggest fear, actually, is to BE sick. She associates illness with throwing up and has a paranoia about vomiting. Its a long story, stemming from her mother lying to her about chocolate milk (that was really a protein shake because we were trying to get Dylan to gain weight, since she doesn’t eat anything. But that’s a story for another day.) Anyhow, I said we’d discuss a doctor’s appointment later with her Dad.

When Dylan is quiet, its unsettling. I’d love to believe its because she’s feeling peace or calm, but its usually because something is stirring. She is spinning so badly that she’s not even talking to herself. Later that afternoon, before dinner, we discovered Dylan had forgotten some homework at school. After some attempts at connecting with the teacher via email, she found she’d be responsible for doing it tomorrow instead. But because this is a chronic habit of hers (yes, yes, I know, school is very difficult, there is so much homework, yada yada,) her Dad said she couldn’t watch TV that evening. We are trying to implement rules around accountability and responsibility, of which she feels zero. Ever. Its part of her personality, brain chemistry, and upbringing. The knowledge that her little sister would get something that she wouldn’t started her in a woe-is-me tailspin. Mopey at dinner, which for her has consisted of bread and cheese for the last couple of months. Then its “Da-da, can we talk in private?” One of her attempts to manipulate (a skill she’s learned from her mother.) She puts on the baby talk, even though she’s 12 years old. Her Dad is learning not to cave anymore, and understand that love and boundaries are best – not giving her everything she wants. It turned into her calling her Mom and crying for pity because Dad is so mean and Jennifer gets what she wants, why can’t I blah blah. Poor, poor Dylan.

And yet, yes, I feel badly for her. I feel for her. OCD, high anxiety, oppositional defiance disorder, classic narcissism, and possibly ADHD are the most common diagnoses she’s received from two psychiatrists and two MFT/social workers, not to mention being under height and weight. It isn’t just an unwillingness on her part, its an inability. She can not feel empathy, she can not see beyond herself, her needs. She is most comfortable telling people what to do, keeping order and control within her grasp. And she is exhausting. I’ve spent the fast few years feeling badly about myself – not being a better role model, not being able to always be ‘on’ or even myself with her, for sometimes losing patience. But I am a human being. And while I love her, I don’t always like her. Yes, that does, in fact, make me feel like a shitty person. How can someone not like a child? And how can they admit to that fact? Am I terrible? Is she in a bad environment because of my feelings? Are we doing more harm than good because despite every single effort we make (therapist, medicine, consistent behavior training, love love love and positive affirmation,) she is about 3% better than when I met her. Now, don’t get me wrong, I hang on to that 3%. I pray that in another few years, she might actually recognize the need of another human being before hers, or even something simple like – not trying to trick or bait me in every conversation. That is a skill she doesn’t need to hone. I pray that she’ll choose to eat with a fork instead of her fingers, that she’ll be able to have dinner at a friend’s (oh and actually EAT the dinner.) I pray that she’ll be able to spend time on her own, without direction every moment. My biggest fear, though, is that she’ll never know how to keep a job, pay a bill, have a relationship, and worst of all – never love herself. And we, my wonderful, sweet, amazing husband and I, will continue to play ping pong with Dylan’s mother, well into our 60’s and 70’s, trying to figure out a way for her to exist without us.