The Closeted Map

In 2011, when I got the job offer that would change my life, the one thing I knew for sure was that I wouldn’t squander the opportunity. That’s what I thought then, anyway. I moved to Brooklyn and got my one bedroom apartment in a then-borderline neighborhood, where I would live gloriously and terrifyingly alone for the first time in my life. At 41 years old.

The apartment had one long wall of mirrors in the living room, which reminded me of something out of a porno or a cheesy romantic hotel in the Poconos. I’d recently been reminded of the ‘change your mind, change your life’ Oprah manifesto and started a massive vision board. Even though I think vision boarding is for people with too much time on their hands and not enough guts to just go and do. So, I ended up with a 10 foot wide wall of maps and modern houses and sexy, handsome men and ocean vistas. (A month after I moved, I got a Facebook message from someone I’d met more than 10 years earlier. She wanted to set me up on a blind date with her brother. Last month I married him. But that’s a story for another day.)

The thing I liked most about my stupid vision board was that I had many different maps. A World map, a U.S. map, a map of the West Indies, a map of the Middle East. I wanted, and want, to go everywhere. For everywhere that I’d already been, I put a purple dot and for everywhere I wanted to go, I put a red dot. I loved wondering which dot I would turn from red to purple. When I moved to NJ, into our new home, a sweet condo that accommodated our mixed family, I realized that my man’s sense of style was very different than mine. I’m not a messy person, at all, but he’s anal. He’s sloppy sometimes but he’s compulsive about clutter. Now that I’ve pointed it out, he’s more relaxed and can let things lie but when it came to decorating our home, there would be no paper maps on our bedroom walls. So, I put them in our closet. They are piled on top of each other, with the World map facing my clothes and laundry. In order to find room for my jewelry, I thought I would put tacks on the wall and hang my necklaces there. Space saver! I decided to put tacks in all of the red and purple dots, and now my jewelry hangs from Paris and Harare and Tokyo and Bali.

But today, when I went to put a necklace away, I noticed that there was no dot or tack on Israel, which is where we’re taking our honeymoon over Christmas. I remember occasionally thinking about going there, the way I thought about seeing the ballet in St. Petersburg. Not high on the list, and apparently, not on the list at all.

I wonder lately about that vision board. In the last four years, I found my man, we traveled to many beautiful beaches and cities, and we have decorated our home in a lovely modern style that we both like. But lately, I’ve felt stuck. Probably because I was laid off a year ago and I’m in a ‘what-am-I-doing-with-my-life’ crisis, and my son is off to college in a year, and I live with two girls who don’t particularly like me on any given day, one of whom has serious mental health issues, etc. I’m feeling like I need to take the map out, as well as any other dreams that I have tucked away. Its difficult to stay focused on my goals when I have to go into a closet to find them.

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.