Warm or Cold

I talk a lot about my “modern family” situation, which after six years feels normal, stable and healthy. Sometimes, though, things happen to remind me how difficult and painful it was to get to this point. Our modern family was once typical and traditional; the transition to where we are now did not come without enormous loss. A few months ago, one of my older daughter’s classmates was killed in a car accident on her way to high school. Our experience is a fraction of the pain her friends and family are enduring. The tragedy of that child’s life ending has sparked my memories of the time my family as I knew it disintegrated. One person’s sorrow does not exist in relativity to another’s, and it is fruitless to compare my experience to the death of a child. But it has renewed my memories of loss, and even more so my gratitude for what replaced my “lost” family.

My memory of the evening our family said good bye is at once rife with clear details and a surreal blur of the most intense emotions I ever experienced… my children, my heart, their arms wrapped around my neck holding on as if for dear life…the four of us (my husband, myself, and our two daughters) wracked with sobs so deep and overpowering we could not move…my soon-to-be ex-husband and me, clinging one last time to each other and the children we both love so much, awash in the regret of having hurt each other, overpoweringly sorry for not having been able to figure out how to keep it together.

We sat as a family for the last time on the stairway of our empty house, holding each other, crying for hours. Every few minutes one of us would verbalize some detail or feature of the “old” life we would miss, sending us into a fresh spasm of collective sorrow. So much passed between us during that evening on the stairway of the house where we had spent our final months as “The Coleman Family”. Four hearts shattered that night as we came face to face the profundity of our loss.

They moved to Vermont the next day, and there I was in that vacant house in Colorado for one last day before moving to my new place. The echoes of the quotidian life of a “normal” family where everywhere. I could almost hear my six-year-old daughter yelling down the hallway, “Mom, is it going to be warm or cold out today?” as she had done every day while picking out her clothes for school. The absence of that humdrum question to punctuate the morning felt like a gaping hole in my life; the silence roared at IMG_0569me. I missed their mismatched socks littering the house, their bickering, the barbie doll graveyard they always left in the living room. I missed them asking me what we would be having for dinner, even though I had hated the drudgery of responding. I missed waking up before they did in the morning and admiring my sleeping beauties. A big part of me was gone. I was not sure I would survive that grief.

Over time, a new rhythm emerged for our family and gradually it became less painful. We are a distance family, enabled by technology, airplanes, substantial disposable income, and our love for one another. At some point several years into this configuration, we all realized it was working and that we were happy. I don’t think any of us will ever say this is an easy way to live, but we all appreciate the fact that we are, in fact, still a family. The conventional features of a “normal” family are nowhere to be seen, but we have not lost the heart of it; we have not lost each other.

13880366_10210351357206522_5432846519791015578_nThe death of a child in the community reminds us to hold our own tighter and not take them for granted. While I still miss the daily “warm or cold” question ritual, I cherish the new things that have replaced it – the daily FaceTime calls, the weeks we spend together in Vermont, the adventures we have traveling, and all the little ways we have found to continue as a family of our own design. I am on a plane to spend the next few days with my daughters in Vermont as I write this.  I will hug and kiss my children tonight, and I am blessed.

 

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The Other Woman

There is a person in my life who occupies a very dark place in my heart and mind; my thoughts and feelings about her make me question my integrity. Every time I hear her name, a hard nugget of bitterness rises in my chest. I feel anger and disdain at the mention of her. Sometimes I catalogue her faults; everything from her annoyingly frizzy hair and bushy eyebrows, to her outdated fashion choices, to her self-righteous smugness, to her pollyanna way of rejecting anything that is even slightly “inappropriate”. The problem with all of this is that I KNOW she is a perfectly decent person, her hair is just fine, and she has never really done anything to me. But, as the girlfriend of my ex-husband, she is a daily presence in my children’s lives while I am not. My irrational resentment of this fact is sometimes unbearable, and sometimes it consumes me. I know I must reframe this in the interest of my own emotional well-being, as well as for my children.

As I consider the patterns of my reactions to The Other Woman over the past couple of years, I notice that there are layers. The outermost layer is like a wild animal, primitive and raw, wanting to eliminate the threat she poses by tearing her apart, limb by limb. My daughter mentions over the phone that The Other Woman braided her hair before bed last night, and my mind is flooded with a vision of slamming The Other Woman’s face into a wall. My blood is boiling, but I say, “Oh, that was nice of her,” as matter-of-factly as I can manage and change the subject. Once the visceral initial reaction passes, the next layer is like the reaction of a petulant child. I run through the index of The Other Woman’s failings that I have stored in my brain and assure myself that although she is with my children (in my fucking place!), she is inferior in every way, so her presence cannot possibly pose a threat to my relationship with my daughters. Her weakness of character, bad taste, and poor sense of humor cannot hold a candle to me, right? The final layer is where my civilized adult mind steps in and returns me to a state of acceptance, albeit reluctant and tenuous. I remind myself that this situation is of my own design, and that The Other Woman really is a good person, and that she has no intention of taking my place or interfering with my relationship with my daughters. In fact, she is a positive influence in their lives.

My typical approach to problem solving involves casting the brightest flood light I can find on an issue. This is my way of disarming things; I feel compelled to remove as much of the unknown as possible so I can clearly assess and handle things. I tried to apply this to my relationship with The Other Woman, thinking that if I could have a candid conversation with her, we could clear the air and I could stop this cycle. I even had a little hope that we could have some kind of ongoing rapport. I initiated the conversation, she told me what I already knew; she doesn’t want to take a motherly role with my kids. That was the extent of her interest in interacting with me. It was profoundly unsatisfying. She was completely oblivious to the drama and emotional energy that was happening on my side of this relationship. I got the impression that to her, dealing with me was a mundane incidental interaction like you have with the receptionist at the dentist’s office; a polite and utilitarian transaction with no import beyond the exchange itself. My attempt to shine a light on the problem revealed what felt like bare white walls with nothing but a smooth unyielding surface, no texture, no warmth, no softness.

Clearly, my standard tools were not right for the job of finding peace with the presence of The Other Woman in my life, and I have since returned to the repeating loop of vitriolic anger followed by petty bitterness and unquiet settling. One thing I learned from my initial attempt to change this was that the problem is mine alone. The Other Woman is not impacted by nor concerned with the difficulty I experience around her existence. In some ways, this gives me a bit of satisfaction, as it supports my paradigm of her inferiority and allows me to cast myself as the bigger person, and even a bit of a martyr. But, that satisfaction is artificial and hollow. As they say, “anger harms the vessel,” and my search for a way to gracefully empty this vessel continues.

My Firing Squad

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Three years ago my kids moved to another state across the country from me with their dad. He and I realized it was time to release one another to build separate lives. With a great deal of respect and love for one another, we carefully constructed a new arrangement for our family. I live in Colorado, they live in Vermont. I travel to Vermont every month to spend time with them, staying in the house where they live with their dad, my ex-husband. They spend summers with me in Colorado. Aside from the obvious heartache of being apart from my children, the hardest thing about this is the constant self-doubt which is inextricably combined with judgement (both real and perceived) of others.

 

I wish I didn’t give a fuck what you think, but I do. I don’t give enouimagegh of a fuck to change the way I live my life to gain your approval. But I do care enough to try to convince you that it’s all good. If I could carry on without hesitation, I would spend zero time or energy worrying about how the world might view my choices. But here I am, desperately searching for the words that will make you understand that I AM a good mother.

Every time someone asks me if I have children, I feel like I am standing naked in front of a firing squad whose bullets are judgments with the power to strip away my validity as a mother. In order to preempt the bullets, I feel the urgent need to simultaneously apologize for and justify myself as I describe my family situation to anyone. I want you to know that I love my kids as fiercely and deeply as any mom out there, and that the way I am defining motherhood is good for my daughters. If I can somehow find the right words for the 30-second elevator spiel about my family, you will see that my beautiful daughters are thriving. You will know that there is a functional and love-filled partnership between their dad and me, and you will be happy for us. If I don’t paint the picture just right, you will shake your head and lament the sadness of the situation. Then I will have to re-convince myself that it doesn’t matter what you think and that I am not a failure.

I am exceedingly grateful to my ex-husband for the grace and care he puts forth to make this work. He is a full-time single parent 75% of the time, and he is spectacular. He lets his ex-wife stay in his house for a week every month, for pete’s sake! He makes it possible for me to have an active role in the daily lives of our children. He solicits my input on things like bedtimes, food choices, and talking to the kids about sex. He makes sure we Skype every day, and he makes it possible for me to attend parent-teacher conferences and doctor appointments by phone. He could easily cut me out of these things. He is doing the heavy lifting, and I am chiming in from 2,000 miles away without any of the the toil or hassle.

The scenario we are living is exhausting, difficult, and expensive. It is also healthy and beneficial to all of us. Ironically, I am a much better parent under these circumstances than I was when we were living as an intact-white-picket-fence family that could have been the poster child for the American dream. Unhappiness, fed by alcohol and denial, plagued our “perfect” life. We successfully carved out a better way of being. I am proud of us for making this work. Someday, I will stand before the firing squad and be impervious to its bullets because I will have found a way to stop giving a fuck.