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.