Family, Learning, Parenting

Nine Days

Those of us who experience ugliness in our family dynamics often prefer to remain concealed. There is less shame when one stays underground.

– Tracey Watts, “The Explosive Child” in Brain, Child Magazine

In two months, the school year ends. I’ve scheduled the vacation from work. I’ve cancelled the trip to Myrtle Beach. My son and I will have nine uninterrupted days together.

This is a luxury. Most working parents crave time like this, time with our over-scheduled and growing-too-fast kids. Be grateful, Smirk.

Gratitude yes, it is here. It just happens to be mixed with a shot of dread. I am mystified about how to make the nine days anything but miserable for us both.

How many parents are sitting on a locked vault of tangled up feelings? It can’t just be me.

(Maybe it is just me.)

I’m not very skilled as a parent. Loving, sure. Dedicated and creative and willing to learn. But bumbling, too. Perplexed. The issues that arise are rarely what I predict and never what I’m prepared to face. My responses miss the mark. I careen around our home, swinging between tight-lipped and screeching, in the face of my boy’s constantly shifting needs.

The loving bond that grows dense and loose in my friends’ families is, in ours, a stunted thing. At the end of our weeknights together, when Bug finally stops arguing about homework, bath time, and how many chapters we’re reading, when he finally conks out, I’m sapped. The thought of facing a mere weekend together wears me out.

Nine days?

The thing is, I’m willing to learn. I’ll eagerly dedicate these next two months to preparing for those nine days. My son is nearing tween-hood.  This may be our last best chance to cultivate the trust and connection that he’ll need as he slogs through the tar pit of adolescence. I have a stack of books. And blogs. And habits to practice both in anticipation of what might come and in response to what does. When I turn to it and start learning, it all makes sense. The way forward is clear.

Then almost as soon as it appears, that clarity begins to blur. In creep the other responsibilities. Up goes the volume on their demands. The fact is, only so much of the strife in our home is a result of “parenting” as some discrete set of techniques. Of our troubles, far more than I’d like to admit, arise from me.

I live 23-1/2 of every 24 hours in a state of low-level panic. A thirty minute cardio high is the only thing that reminds me of the world outside my hall of mirrors.

Unresolved financial concerns haunt me. How can I leverage my skills and energy to move into a higher-paying position? With this question nagging, I push harder at work. I submit a conference proposal, step up on a search committee, and get involved in the new DC undergrad internship initiative. None of this I have time for, of course, but I do it because I need to ensure that Bug and I stay a few feet back from the financial cliff.

The anemia of my social life concerns me. How can I give Bug a strong community of peers if I don’t build one around us? With this question tugging, I reach out to the people around me. I schedule a walk with a girlfriend, volunteer at the Unitarian church auction night, plan a weekend playdate, and put a potluck on the calendar. None of this I have time for, of course, but I do it because I need to ensure that Bug and I are woven into a rich and supportive community.

The paucity of my creative efforts prick at me.  So, too, the half-assed attempts at mindfulness, the chaotic closets and filthy windows, the short shrift I give to the relationship with my Mister, the public meetings I fail to attend for the condo association and local school board and VDOT as they make decisions that upend the value of my home,  the urgent call to action for racial and economic justice, the runaway bad habits of eating too much and staying up too late that destroy my sleep and mood and ability to manage any of this with grace. . .

Does growing into a better parent begin with focusing on “parenting”?

Or with 10 minutes of morning journaling? Or with a commitment to a professional development plan?

With daily exercise and 8 hours of sleep?

With a counselor?

With breath?

With less?

What heals a frayed bond between a 9-year-old boy and his mama?

We love each other, of course. All of this begins and ends in love. This hard work, these questions about how to proceed, they pull at me to build a home that can be my son’s sanctuary and his launch pad. Every question comes down to love.

In its most active, living form, what does love need? As it tries to push itself up from the root, how do we cultivate it?

This question churns under all the others. Sometimes I forget this simple truth, and the details topple me. That is when I roar until my throat fills with mud, and I am swamped with shame. That is when I want to sink into the earth.

And that is precisely when I most need to remember that my love for my son is under everything. It won’t let me sink. It catches me and helps me find my way back to the surface.

Then I — then we — get to keep on learning.

In two months, my son and I will have nine uninterrupted days together.

I have no idea what to do to prepare.

My son and I have nine uncertain years left together.

I have no idea what to do.

I guess I’ll do it anyway.



A and Not A

Pulling into our driveway last week, Bug said to me, “When you and Daddy aren’t divorced anymore, he can live in this house with us.”

This is where the breathing comes in handy. “Sorry, babe. Daddy and I aren’t ever going to live together again.”

“Well, but when you do live together again, he can live here with us.”

Inhale, exhale. Just the facts, ma’am. “You will always have two homes. Daddy and Mommy aren’t going to have one home ever again.”

“Yes you will. You will live together again.” He unbuckled himself and was out the door, banging into the house.

These declarations from my kid rattle me. If I were truly certain that this was the right thing, or if Tee were gone from our lives for other reasons, maybe I could make these statements without feeling so blown apart. Maybe. How would I know? Friends who have been widowed or abandoned have their own struggles with explanations. My shakiness is my own, and it comes from lacking an unshakable faith in my own judgment.

What if I am wrong here?

The lawyer emailed me yesterday. She filed the paperwork with the court, and it landed on the clerk’s desk on December 8th.  She wrote, “I know you would like to be divorced by the end of the year.  I think we can do it.  I will keep checking back with the courthouse.”

End of the year?  This year?

What started as an idea became a word. It then grew to a living thing the size of a meteor, moving at its own momentum along a trajectory we can barely track let alone control. Divorce is an eclipse, blocking the sun. It seems to go on for years.

But it does not. It is finite. This one might even meet its end this year.

What if, what if, what if. Is this the wrong choice? What if Tee and I could muddle along, be decent enough companions and good enough parents to our son? In the absence of the awful things, infidelity and abuse and the unspeakables, identifying a right course of action is hopeless. Even attempting to narrow the field of “right” choices down to something manageable becomes a Sisyphean task. Push it up, watch it fall. Repeat. This is especially true for a person with such a remarkable history of poor judgment where men are concerned.

Stay, but how? Go, but how? Maybe a little of both?

Without a clear right way, I choose to trust my instincts. (Yes, those very selfsame instincts that so often lead me astray.) I am unwilling to put Bug through the ups and downs of my loss of faith in his father. Muddling through in a marriage is all good and well, but even that is unfeasible where respect has dried up and disdain has pushed through the cracks. Tee does not need that form of partnership, and Bug certainly does not need to see his folks living that way.

So I tell myself.

Over the weekend, Bug had a neighborhood buddy over for a play date. While they were leaping off the couch cushions in the living room, I overheard this conversation:

Bug: “Did you know I have two houses?”

Friend: “You do?”

Bug: “Uh-huh. My daddy lives down the road and my mommy lives here.”

Friend: “That’s weird.”

Bug: “My parents got divorced, so I get to live in two houses.”

Friend: “Okay. Are you the good pirate or the bad pirate?”

Bug: “We’ll both be bad pirates.”

Grownups are not so different from children. We swing between acceptance and resistance. We sip on sweet lies as we work our way up to taking a big gulp of truth. And we all come around to what we need to face in our own meandering way.

Perhaps, though, acceptance and resistance are a false dichotomy. I don’t know about you, but I want so badly to want what is in front of me. I command myself to want it. I try to force blinders on my imagination and open my arms and will myself to choose this because it should be my desire. This here is what I have so it must be what I wanted. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Unearthing the reasons these things landed before me may require a more exacting instrument than the logical fallacy. Acceptance is complicated by the desire to see with clear eyes and adjust my course for the next leg of the journey.

Meanwhile, I ache for the impossible. Just like my son, I fixate on things that were or that seemed to be or that might have been, if, if.

A different version of the fantasy appeals depending on the day. This is why the resistance is not so far removed from acceptance. Sometimes the wanting is for the iconic man of the house out in the front yard hefting the axe to chop the wood to warm us in winter. Sometimes it is for cruising down an open road that preceded even the notion of family. Sometimes it is for tucking into a warm hug and hearing a story from a mystical world in which good and evil are cast in gold and shadow, and justice follows its prescribed path, and the triumph of the proper virtue is never more than a page or two away.

From time to time, I wonder if friends and loved ones on the outside of this can see more clearly than I can. Are these hurling shards of planet and moon on a predictable collision course? Do these witnesses stand back biting their nails and holding their breath and hoping for minimal damage, all the while thinking, Thank heaven that’s not me? Or is something else happening, something no one quite knows or understands, like a supernova where a star once burned? Like an earthquake along a forgotten fault line?

I have to admit, I haven’t the foggiest idea how to proceed. The divorce is happening, but it is only one hurdle, not a finish line. Crossing it opens the field to far more questions than it answers. I do not need to list them here. If you have been through it, you know. If you have not, then for goodness sake, don’t waste your brain power imagining.

Bug and I sat down this weekend and drafted a letter to the North Pole. He wrote the “Dear Santa” part and then dictated the rest to me. It was a lengthy correspondence. He only asked for a single Pirates of the Caribbean Lego set. From there, he went on to describe in great detail how he lives in two houses, so Santa should visit both, and in what order on which mornings. He then explained he would be in Massachusetts at Christmas, so Santa must also remember the two cousins. And, yes, Santa please dress warmly and wear a hat.

I cannot give my kid certainty about his future. I cannot even give him a mom free from stupidity and impulsiveness when it comes to men. Unfortunately, Bug is going to suffer a bit of the fallout from the more volatile parts of my unfinished self.

I can, however, give him my best shot at an honest answer. A story from a magical place, a few songs, and a hug when he needs one.

I can also give him two houses.

Maybe he will learn to want what he’s got. Maybe he will always have a taste for something different.

If he is anything like me, maybe a little of both.