Category Archives: Parenting

Love now; look forward; live with grief

I canceled today’s visit with my shrink because I didn’t want to pay him. He kindly offered to meet with me now and bill me later, but that would have defeated my intent to not spend money at all. I rescheduled our appointment for next month. In the meantime, our new insurance will kick in, and I’ll go and find a psychiatrist who can prescribe my meds at a fraction of the price. He’s a great guy, my psychiatrist—old-school shrink and counselor all rolled into one. Four years ago, the old man put me on the right path. Now, I’ve outgrown him.

I outgrew many things this autumn. Amidst the grief and the sadness, opportunities have presented themselves. It just took me some time to read the signs.

My husband and I take “signs” quite seriously. The week after I met him, I sent him a goodbye email on a Saturday morning, only to run into him later downtown on his way to a free concert. Ten or eleven blissful hours after that, I warned him not to read his email. We’ve been together ever since, thankful that, at that time, he didn’t have an internet connection at his place, and I didn’t go out of town that day like I had planned. What would our lives be like now if he had read that email, if I had left town? I shudder at the thought. These are the signs we reflect upon when life doesn’t work out as planned.

Over the years, more signs came our way, inspiring bold decisions. Big changes in our lives came in clusters. 2011 was a pivotal year. During that year, we moved to a new city, thus solidifying fifty-percent custody of his young children who had moved there with their mother three years prior. I became certified to teach ESL, opening up a new path of career possibilities for me in this new city. And I got my Master’s degree in Nonfiction Writing, something I didn’t necessarily need in my field (most teachers went for the subsidized M.Ed.s), but something that I wanted, and something that allowed me to teach at the college level. It was a big year, marking a complete shift in my lifestyle and my thinking—I became a parent, for real, not just on Wednesdays and every other weekend; I set myself up to leave public school teaching for good (big sigh); and I made peace with the suburbs and a quieter life.

Just as everything changed after 2011, this year looks like it’s gonna be another big one.

In the fall, four things happened: my mother was diagnosed with and quickly died from pancreatic cancer; my husband started a new job; we bought another house; and I was offered a full-time position at my college.

My husband’s last job was going south quickly. He was unhappy, and he took a risk with another company doing work outside of his comfort zone. Because he knew that the first six months of this job, at least, would require tons of travel and training and meetings, he told me he was thankful that I had a light and flexible schedule at the community college where I teach ESL. He would need me to be around more often to help him get the kids to one of their many lessons, practices, games, or activities. I was secretly happy to put off looking for a full-time teaching job to help out at home.

When I taught full-time, I did it because I needed to. I didn’t want to arrive at work at before the sun rose and stay until it went down again. Even when I could get out of there on the earlier side, I paid the price by taking the work with me. While a full-time community college position would not demand as many physical hours of my time as a public high school, I’d been part-time too long to appreciate the difference. Some people, when they’re underemployed, don’t feel busy enough or whole enough, or (I don’t know, I’ve never felt that way)… something… when they’re not immersed in their career. I’m not one of those people.

Then there’s the house. We didn’t buy it to move into it. We bought it to be an investment property. For nine years, I have been stalking real estate as a hobby, watching prices rise, noting flips and changing values. I tried to get my husband on board with the real estate thing after we moved, when the prices in our expensive suburb were comparatively low, but he thought real estate was a fool’s game. Suddenly, over the summer, he became obsessed with real estate investment (Note on his personality: He has two extremes—all in or all out and nothing in between.). I won’t go into detail on how that happened, I’ll just say that now, he relies on my time and my interest to legitimately pursue this risky venture.

These days, when I’m not teaching or cleaning, working out or cooking, or writing, I’m learning about licenses and inspections, tweaking leases, new software for landlords, value-estimating spreadsheet calculations, gleaning private money. And I like it. My work with this house, with establishing new social networks of real estate investors, and with researching the business has felt like earning another degree, except this one is hands-on, complete with the debt and the with the potential for financial growth that come with conventional degrees.

Finally, that opportunity I had thought I always wanted came my way—a full-time teaching position at my college. Full-time positions at the college-level, even non-tenure-track positions like this one, are rare these days. And even more rare is one invited into the position. I’ve spent four years at this college demonstrating my worth. My students respect me. My colleagues respect me, and for at least the past two of those four years, they have encouraged me to try for full-time. That is why I got the TESOL degree—it was the one last step to a full-time position in this field. I was finally getting what I had said I wanted for six years. Except I didn’t want it anymore.

For twelve years, I worked long hours and lived for a paycheck. Then I moved here, and I began to explore life outside of constant work. The new path that I have chosen by reading the signs this fall is a riskier one. I’ll be doing all kinds of work from now on—teaching, raising the kids, writing, researching investments. I won’t have a single career to point to when people ask me “what I do,” which I think is a stupid question to begin with. So much more defines us than our careers—the opportunity, for instance, to watch our oldest disappear through neighbors’ yards on his way to the bus stop as the sun rises; or to drop our youngest off at school in the morning because his cello is bigger than he is, and he can’t manage it on the bus. That’s what I signed up for years ago when we moved away from my urban life as I knew it, to this quieter, slower suburban life. No more excitement, no more regular happy hours and foody hotspots with tattooed waitstaff and disturbing art on the walls. And no more road rage, no more anger and prejudice, no more living only for the weekend, and resenting the kids for ruining it. These days, I look forward to our weekends with the kids as much as I look forward to those weekends without them. I just look forward to being here, period.

When I received that full-time job offer and realized that I had the opportunity to turn it down, to pursue anything that made me tick, I felt very, very fortunate. Since then, I’ve gone to bed sober every night and awakened every morning without a headache, feeling optimistic instead of rundown. Because I can be happy.

Yes, I still burst into tears at random when I, say, look at the Christmas gift list that I had started for my mother, or even when people ask me about her. I still can’t keep it together if I really think about her. But grief can’t define life, just affect it. And while it affects my life every day, I believe I can live with that. I wouldn’t want to forget mom, and I wouldn’t want to stop feeling that sense of loss. It’s a tattoo. And while my father would think I was crazy for turning down a full-time job, security, benefits, to be a part-time housewife, part-time teacher, part-time writer, and part-time investor, my mom would toast me with one of her special alcoholic drinks that she only drank on cruises or on New Year’s Eve, a “Dark and Stormy” or something else that’s more sugar than booze. She never had to articulate it. She was always in my corner.

A Week in the Life

This has been a heck of a 40something week.  A friend sent me a thank-you letter for driving six hours to attend her mother’s funeral a year ago this Monday; one of my mom’s closest frenemies passed away the day my mother got back to town from her month-long visit to relatives’ houses.  Mom had her knock-off Michael Kors on her arm and the car keys in her hand when she checked her email for the hospice address and found a follow-up:  “Don’t bother.”

What else happened this week?  Well, I realized that my self-prescribed 40mg. dose of Flouxetine is a bit much in sobriety.  On 40mg. of Flu, I don’t sleep the very rewarding-because-I-gotta-get-something-out-of-this deep sleep of the non-drinker.   Instead, I wake up 100 times and stare at the ceiling fan or rearrange my arms and legs around my blankets and pillows, just like I used to do when I’d wake up at 4 in the morning with a sugar high after a long night of designer beer with high alcohol content.

(And not to be tangential, but remember when designer beer first started appearing on the shelves?  Prior to those years, I had thought that Molsen Golden was a beer as fine as a seven-and-a-half dollar glass of some local microbrew.  Now the shelves are glutted with choices, and consumers are bored, so they’re making it themselves.)

Which brings me back to my week—friends, death, sleeping, friends.  These are the worries of this 40something woman.  Oh, and then there’s the kids’ growing up and roaming aimlessly after school and not calling you to tell you where they are and then, after you finally track them down right before calling the police, having to have “that talk” about trust and responsibility.   Fuuuuuuuuck.

I didn’t sign up for that part (well, I actually did.), but it’s a hoot compared to my Mom’s stage in her life.  I sent her a sympathy card for her friend, too, because why should only the family mourn the loss of someone they care about?  Even if those friends were co-dependently bonded and sometimes hung up on the other and bitched about the other and then turned around and stepped up for each other, they were still friends.  Some of my earliest living memories include this woman’s children, who are all forty-somethings like me now.  My mother’s and this woman’s friendship has existed as long as we have.

So, friends… I’m still not done with the week.  My dog had a seizure for the first time ever, on a hiking trail.  That’s the first time I realized that if something happened to an 87 pound dog on my watch then I would have to be the one to carry him to the car.  I’m gonna start lifting weights for real.  Luckily, the dog recovered, and I got him to the vet.  His declining health is not the subject of the story, though, but the fact that I used his declining health as an excuse to cancel plans with a friend.

My husband and I are the lord and lady of canceling plans.  We’re building up quite a rep these days.  I know why we do it, though.  We’re NOT in our thirties anymore, and I don’t mean for that to sound like we’ve become geriatric.   We just understand the benefit-cost ratio of honoring certain plans and canceling others.  We want to be active participants in all of them, but when it comes time to accept what participating means—driving forever to someone’s place, not being able to find a parking spot, wandering the Saturday streets full of loud drunks, and then driving home—we recognize the moments ahead of us are finite and decide it isn’t worth the aggravation.  Plus, I’m not drinking, so why go to a bar?  The benefit-cost-ratio is very high in favor of staying home.

And that’s my week, my unedited, written version of my heavily-edited week.  Somehow, I suspect I’m not the only one of my peers to have weeks like this from time-to-time.

Repeating history

I realize that I don’t contribute much to this blog, my only blog, my only writing outlet, in fact. I write a lot of entries that don’t get posted because I don’t know what kind of a point I’m trying to make. I write a lot of entries that don’t get posted because they’re for-real-and-for-true too revealing to the few parties that occasionally read the blog.   I write a lot of entries that just trail off… my boredom revealed in the white spaces at the end.

I’ve decided that I will post this particular entry in whatever state that it becomes. It will address a topic that I believe applies to the theme of 40s are the new 40s—depression, addiction, divorce, adult ADD, children, aging parents, politics, wrinkles, you name it. Everything applies to us, doesn’t it? We’re adults, and as a consequence of our age and our growing cache of wisdom and experience, we can come up with something to say about anything. We’ve been there, done that. And the younger generations that follow us will feel the same way after they’ve stopped believing that they can figure everything out.

Speaking of the younger generations, I have no hostility, some envy, and a whole lot of curiosity about what’s going on there. I have spoken to few people my age who don’t have a fantasy “do-over.” My husband would have been a medical doctor. I would have been a lawyer. My cousin would have been a boat mechanic on a pier someplace where the sun always shines. This is normal to us, and we see the younger people around us as simply younger versions of ourselves—people on the verge of making that one bad decision that will alter their lives. But what if these younger people aren’t like that? What if they don’t have the time that we had in the eighties and nineties to enjoy relative national peace, prosperity, and opportunity?

We know that people decades younger than us have one distinct advantage, and that’s time on their sides, time to figure it out, time to make mistakes, and time to revel in their youth. We did that. But I don’t see them doing that. I don’t see little “mes” in the twenty-something women I interact with and work with. I see women in their teens and twenties moving quickly, being savvy, and getting on with it in ways that make me wonder if these generations are exquisitely different. Did my mother see that in me?

Just like my mother and I are alien to one another and yet familiar, young people today are both alien and familiar to me. I wish them well because “times they are a changin’.” They will confront the new. I’ll observe it. They’ll fight to secure their survival. I’ll fight to secure my old age.   And sure, I’ll fight injustice where I can, and sure, I’ll continue to grow and develop as a human being. Maybe I’ll even write that pilot that I’ve been talking about since 2004. But they have decades and decades of a future to navigate. They’re gonna see some shit that we never will, just like we saw some shit that they can’t imagine (life without an Internet connection? How did we do it?). I wish them well, and I hope—I really hope—that they let us in and ask questions and respect our perspective.

Isn’t there some famous aphorism about history? About how if you don’t know what happened before you knew it all, then you’ll just become a tool to someone else who does?

I’m Taking Over Now

The cool thing about being a stepparent is that I can opt in or out.  Today I’m in.

See, I went to bed early (for a Friday), and dragged my ass out of bed even earlier (for a Saturday) only to discover all the lights on in the rec room, one kid planning his next move in Seafarers of Cataan, and another playing games on the iPad. At 6:15. I’m taking over for a few moments today and declaring an across-the-board 8:30 bedtime. If they’re going to get up at six anyway, they’ll have to be forced to go to sleep earlier. I don’t want miserable, unrested kids on my watch. My husband’s last words to them last night, around ten, after “I love you,” after they’d watched the entire NHL All-Star Fantasy draft and a couple episodes of Seinfeld, and then played one more round of Seafarers, was, “No need to get up early.” Uh huh.

You can’t give little people who aren’t programmed to sleep-in your permission to sleep-in. What he was doing, crafty adult male that he is, was giving himself permission to sleep in, while I spent my precious, still-dark early-morning writing time listening to Cataan scenarios and cheers of victory over whatever rigged team was losing on the iPad. Well, I foiled his plan and sent the kids back to bed with the option of reading under their book lights if they still insisted on being awake before daylight (Let’s organize a return to reading books while we’re at it, before their brains turn to Jell-o.).

I’m holding my ground until 7:00. Even though I hear their voices downstairs, probably discussing how crazy I am for making them sit in the dark for 45 minutes while bacon is probably sizzling over there in the alternate reality, I’m not budging. It’s the adults in this world who are burdened with crafting order out of chaos. The children in this world need it, crave it; although children can’t always express that need except in poor performance later on in the day after a short, sleepless night. My sweet husband had his chance, and he blew it with a no-need-to-get-up-early. I’m taking over now.

I’ll Take a Good Compromise

I grind my teeth.

I don’t know for how long I’ve been doing it. I just know that when my teeth began to fall apart (after forty, of course), my dentist’s hygienist told me quite bluntly that I had the teeth of a seventy year-old.

Neither my dentist nor his candid hygienist explained to me why I grind my teeth. It isn’t their job to explain why. There is no room for preventative psychoanalysis in the straightforward dental profession.  That part, I’ve learned, is my job. And I blame kids.

Here, I could try to go in the direction of one those sadly amusing Mommy blogs, but I’m not a mommy. I’m a stepmother, and that’s a very different experience. I didn’t carry these kids to term, I didn’t breastfeed them. As I neared the big 4-0, I just became a parent to two human beings who had already traveled with their biological parents through the delirium of those early months.

As a consequence, I don’t have a parent’s delusional filter that spares me from taking a child’s behavior too personally. I don’t have that inexplicable love coupled with guilt for bringing them into my mess, the emotional combo that ultimately engenders forgiveness. I feel and think every bump and pothole on the road to these kids’ maturation. And I dread the end of it.

I tried writing about this topic last night, in the heat of my frustration, and the result was just embarrassing. I just can’t do it at night. Correction: I can’t do it well at night. I wrote something, but it wasn’t an idea. There was no resolution. I just vented and then went to bed upset. I still am. I don’t need to explain the action that brought me here. I just think that kids, by virtue of their immaturity and confusion about life, are capable of being hurtful in all kinds of creative ways. You don’t need to be a stepparent to know that.

So I’m doing poorly today in general. I have a slight headache. I didn’t wake up feeling refreshed and thrilled about the daybreak. Rather, I woke up sick and tired from odd dreams, probably a result of the sixteen sandwich cookies I ate in lieu of an alcoholic bender (my trusty, thirty-something method of solving these problems).

One positive spin on this morning, though, is that there are no kids to wake up with me at 6:15, no little people milling around helplessly while I try to process my coffee and bring whatever I’m writing to an abrupt end. I’m not for sharing in the morning, at least until not until I’ve drunk that coffee and sat in the dark in front of a glowing monitor (That’s a side of me that I’m sure the kids’ll remember well into their eighties.). Meanwhile, in an alternate reality about three blocks down the street, their mom is cooking them a wholesome breakfast and showering them with her guilt-love.

Actually, they are good kids. One is a particularly agreeable little soul, sensitive and polite and highly empathetic. The other one, well, he’s a little more “complicated.” But he behaves well, and he plays the part. Whether he’s feeling the love or not (and who knows what he’s feeling), he usually acts like an obedient child. And you know what? That’s something. That’s a lot, in fact. Kids all around us these days, from the store to the soccer games and into our TVs, are acting like disrespectful, entitled little turds. I’m glad to be half-raising kids who don’t act like that.

I’ve often heard from parents and teachers that children at certain stages in their development don’t have to like you, shouldn’t like you, in fact. They just have to respect your rules and your wishes, your sometimes batshit ways of achieving order and routine around the house. And these kids do. They accept me and my vision, even tease me about it. My husband insists that they even like me, even love me, but who knows.

I can’t have it all, so why complain about what I do have? Anger and protests are for those decades past. Mine is, I suppose, for compromise. Because everyone likes an agreeable little soul, even if she is sometimes playing a part. And grinding her teeth.