I Will Never Be The Mother I Want To Be…

I had the best childhood. It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty darn close. My parents were together and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. We got off the bus and my friends would come over to my house to eat popcorn or cookies that my mom made before we arrived. Even during the holidays when we were in college, everyone came to my house to congregate before going out. She would always have pimento cheese and other appetizers for us to eat.

My mother was ever-present. I can’t always remember everything about my childhood, but I know my mother was always there. Even if she was giving us our space when I had friends over (which was a lot), her presence was still known. She would pop in every once in a while to see if we needed anything or to ask if we needed her to take us somewhere.

Even through boarding school and college, my mom was there for me. It was before cell phones (well, unless you call a bag phone a cell phone), so she wrote me a lot of letters and we talked a lot. I would look forward to the holidays when I would go home and we would sit around the dinner table laughing and telling stories until at least midnight!

Because of this pretty idyllic childhood, I have had expectations of the kind of mother that I wanted to be. I too wanted to be the mom who was able to be home when my kids got home, with popcorn and cookies for their friends. I had full intentions of being that same “ever-present mom” that my mother was.

Divorce robbed that from me.

I have never written about this because the emotions have been so raw, but my world turned upside down when my son casually said, “Mom, can we talk about something?” He was finishing up 8th grade and had lived primarily with me for the past ten years of his life. He said he wanted to go live with his dad for high school. I was devastated and I did not handle it with the grace and calmness that I would have liked. After visiting the school, his dad and I took him to lunch to discuss the decision with him. As I held back my tears, I told him that I would support him.

Since that time, my son has thrived in this new environment. He is a sophomore and he has a high GPA and excels in basketball. I thought I had come to terms with it all until recently when my daughter expressed her desire to also go to high school where her brother is. All of the emotions, hurt, and rejection came flooding back to me. Everything I had just tucked away so that I wouldn’t have to think about it or feel it was fresh and raw and painful.

I was devastated yet again. When asked why I was so upset about it, I said I felt rejected. I felt like my children didn’t want to be with me. I couldn’t stand the thought of another woman spending more time with my children than I would. I FELT LIKE A BAD MOTHER.

There it is. I felt like a bad mother. I felt like I was losing my children. Although I would still have them one night a week and every other weekend (and can still see them at practices and games), I felt like I was a bad mom because I couldn’t be the “ever-present mother” I wanted to be. I questioned why I had worked so hard to ensure my children had a good relationship with their father, only to have him take them from me. Why had I driven an hour and a half every Wednesday night for five years for the kids to have dinner with their dad? I did what any other crazy mother would do and I started searching MLS to find a house out in the country where their dad lives.

Then one night I talked to my daughter about my feelings and she said, “Mom, you will always be my mom, no matter what!” And something clicked in me… She was right.

A few days later, Joe and I walked on the beach together and talked about everything. We were deep in conversation and walked a lot longer than we anticipated, but I needed that walk. And it was appropriate that it happened on the beach because for me the beach represents our future and hopefulness. Joe and I look forward to the day when it’s just the two of us and we can move to the beach full-time.

On the beach, Joe helped me come to the realization that I WILL NEVER BE THE MOTHER I WANT TO BE. That’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s true. Things change in divorce – custody, remarriage, and new families – but the one thing that didn’t change was my expectation of what kind of mother I wanted to be.

That expectation was killing me inside.

I realized that day that although I will never be the mother that I want to be, I can be the best mother that I can be in the situation that I am in.

I must say that since I released those expectations of what a “mother” looks like, I have been so much happier, but more importantly, I have been able to be a better mother to my kids. I have started working on me and how to be the best I can to help our kids through the circumstances they face with divorced parents. My kids aren’t CHOOSING to be away from me, they just want to be fair since they have spent so much time so far in their lives away from their dad.

I’m looking forward to the day when they come home from college and we can sit around the table and laugh until midnight, but I now recognize that it may not happen as often as I would like since we will be sharing time with another set of parents. But that’s ok… I now have realistic expectations and a confidence that I will ALWAYS be their mom. No matter what.

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There are NO Winners…

A common theme I have noticed in divorce situations is the desire between the exes to prove who is “the winner” and who is “the loser.” The conclusion I have reached is that if there are two parents who want to prove that they are the winner, then although the winner may be inconclusive… the loser is certain.

The KIDS are the losers.

Why do people have this innate desire to WIN? I know winning brings a feeling of euphoria, but why do these people choose this particular circumstance to try to win when the balance in the lives of their own children is the high price that is at stake?

The truth of the matter is that in divorce there are no winners. As I have written numerous times in the past, we are adults and we can get over ourselves and the situation. However, our ENTIRE focus should be on keeping things as balanced and normal as possible for our kids.

When I hear a child say, “I don’t want both parents there because that’s just weird,” then I immediately know that his or her parents handled the divorce wrong. Of course, this is assuming that there is no abuse present and that both parents are otherwise well-functioning people. The kids whose parents have put their own agendas aside for their kids are the kids who are comfortable loving both mom and dad, even in the same place – school performances, games, birthday parties. It’s the kids whose parents have tried their best to alienate their ex or undermine their ex who just want to avoid any contact between their parents because they know it won’t end well.

I get angry even as I type that because I just can’t understand how anyone who is any kind of a parent at all can purposefully put themselves and their own agenda above the happiness and security of their own children. I think those sad individuals are the ones who were probably never given role models on how to correctly behave in divorce situations. And I’ll take that even further to say they probably had no role model on how to be a respectable adult either.

Listen to your children. If they are not comfortable being near you both or they try to avoid situations where they have to invite you both to events, then YOU HAVE FAILED. You may feel like a winner because you have successfully convinced anyone who will listen how terribly you were wronged and how they too should despise your ex. Sorry, you can hang up your white hat because you don’t deserve it.

With that being said, it’s never too late to right the wrongs of the past.

Seek help. Even if your ex is unwilling, then you and your spouse need to attend co-parenting counseling on how to best help return some normalcy in the lives of your children. Therapists can be a great resource. I’ve gotten calls from two different friends who have recently started going to counseling with their ex and they both bring their spouses. If you can’t imagine doing that, then you need to rethink your priorities. In my opinion, those four couples are WINNERS. They are putting aside their own comfort to ensure the happiness of their children.

I’m excited about the future in our lives as we work hard to right the wrongs. At least I can go to bed at night and know that through it all we have given it our best. I’m hopeful. The kids deserve normalcy since they didn’t ask to go on this roller coaster with us. I want our kids to be the winners… even if it’s our expense.

What are you willing to do to fix your parenting failures??????

What Co-Parenting SHOULD Look Like

It’s a typical Friday morning and Johnny wakes up to the sound of his alarm clock.  After getting dressed, he goes to the kitchen where his dad is up already packing lunches and his stepmom is making eggs and bacon for breakfast.  His step-brother comes in and pushes him jokingly – teasing him about a girl.  Smiles abound.

Johnny’s dad reminds Johnny, “It’s your weekend with your mom, so if you have anything you want to take, you need to throw it in a bag now.  She is picking you up from school, but we will see you tonight at your brother’s baseball game.”  They load up the car and head to school.

Three class periods into school, Johnny realizes he forgot his lunch.  He calls his dad, but his dad works too far away from the school to get there quickly.  Johnny’s dad texts mom, “J forgot his lunch.  Do you have time to run something to him?”  After a minute or two his phone buzzes and Johnny’s mom says, “I can head there in a few minutes.  No problem.”

At the end of school, Johnny and his brother walk out to see their mother’s smiling face in the carpool line.  They haven’t seen her since they went to school Wednesday morning, but they have spoken to her each day and talked about their schoolwork and their after school activities.  She has been a consistent part of their days even though they have not physically been in her custody.  That contact is encouraged on both sides.

On the way home from school, dad texts Johnny saying, “How was your big science test?”  So Johnny calls dad and proudly tells him about how well he did on his test.  His dad tells him, “Tell your brother I love him and I will see y’all at the game.”

Later, when they pull up to baseball, their mother pulls into the spot next to their dad’s truck.  Johnny’s brother runs to join his team while Johnny and his mother look for a place to sit.  They see Johnny’s dad, his wife and Johnny’s step-siblings, so they go sit by them so that Johnny can sit with his whole family without feeling the anxiety of trying to decide who to sit with.  They all laugh and joke and cheer on the team.

While this whole scenario may seem too unrealistic to you, it is absolutely possible and in the best interests of all of the children involved.  As you know, this could have gone completely differently with only a few small changes.

When Johnny walked into the kitchen first thing in the morning, his father could have said, “You’re going to your mom’s tonight, but don’t take anything to that black hole, because nothing EVER comes back.” His stepmom would then hug him and say, “I love you Johnny.  Sorry I can’t come to the game tonight, but you know how your mom gets…”  Johnny would start his day feeling torn between his parents.

When Johnny realized he had forgotten his lunch, his call to his dad could have been brutal.  His dad could have breathed hard and chastised him for causing trouble.  It could then spawn a cruel text exchange between Johnny’s mom and dad as they argue over who will take the lunch – reminding each other of past ineptitudes and transgressions and fueling more anger for future arguments.

On the way home from school, when dad texts Johnny, his mom (still angry over the lunch exchange) could say, “Why is HE texting you?  You have been with him for the past two days.  Can’t you focus on us when you are actually with ME?”  Johnny would feel terribly guilty for loving his father and would not feel comfortable calling because he wouldn’t want to upset his mom.

At the game, Johnny would have anxiety deciding who he should sit with.  His brother would have to search the crowd twice to find his parents since they try to stay as far away from each other as possible.

Johnny’s day could go one of two ways and all too often parents poison their children and burden them with undue anxiety solely based on their anger toward their ex-spouse.  It’s clear that everyone in the second scenario is angry.  The worst part is the overwhelming anxiety that Johnny feels all because of his parents’ behavior.

WE control how our children survive following a divorce.   You may call your friends and complain about how hard your divorce is, but the only true victims in divorce are the children.  They didn’t ask for it and they are completely out of control.

There is no winner in this situation, but the one true consolation prize you can give your children is to be the best co-parents that you can be.

Essential Tips to Being a Smart Parent in Divorce – Hot Topic Tuesday

I work for the Federal Government, so all of this shutdown nonsense is always right on the forefront of my mind.  Thankfully, my office is considered “essential,” so it is business as usual for us right now, but that could change depending on how long this shutdown continues.

All of this talk has got me thinking a lot about what it means to be “essential.”  The definition of essential on Dictionary.com is “absolutely necessary; indispensable.”

Since it is Hot Topic Tuesday, I thought a good topic would be to talk about what is essential in being a smart parent during a divorce.  So many parents THINK they are doing everything right, but it’s hard to see the true extent of the damage you are doing when you are too caught up in your own anger and pain to realize what is really happening.

In the words of Eminem in one of my new favorite songs, “Question is are you… smart enough to feel stupid.”  I LOVE THAT LINE… because I have said many times that I believe the most dangerous kinds of people are those who THINK they are smart, but who are NOT.  If you aren’t smart enough to feel stupid, then you are obviously oblivious to everything.

That obliviousness is clear in a lot of parenting techniques that are common right in the throes of divorce.  However, below I have listed five tips that are the essentials you must do to be a smart parent in a divorce:

1) Put the children first.  That means take your nose out of your iPhone and actually focus on listening to your kids.  It’s hard to reassure the children of your love when you are constantly texting your friends or checking your Facebook.  And THEY NOTICE.  It’s very obvious to them when a parent is not a good listener.

Putting the children first also means not using the children as pawns.  Yes, YOU.  STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING!!  This is probably the biggest mistake parents make when divorcing.  Sadly, most of the time they may not even realize they are doing it.  If you notice that most of your emails are complaining about things that your ex is doing during “YOUR time,” then you have already fallen into the trap.  Whose time is it, really?  It is THEIR time (the kids’) and they should be able to enjoy both parents without having to have a divisive line drawn based on what day of the week it is.

2) Communicate with your ex.  I talk about this A LOT, but that is because communication is so important in every relationship – especially in a co-parenting relationship.  Being willing and able to communicate with your ex is also an extension of putting your children first.  You may not WANT to communicate, but you know that it is about the kids and NOT about your desires.

Do not ignore emails and/or pick and choose what you feel deserves a response.  Refusal to discuss issues does not help anyone and is merely a trick used by intellectually feeble people who are attempting to look smart or better than someone else.  Just respond and move on.  It feels much better than to have something hanging over your head.

3) Try to be consistent and give the kids the structure and routine they need.  A lot of times when a couple is newly divorced/separated, the parents do whatever they can to be the “fun parent.”  They may allow the kids to stay up ridiculously late, eat out all the time, or let them skip their commitments and/or homework.  While this kind of behavior can be temporarily fun (and communal living can give a parent a nice therapy session with friends while the kids play until all hours) it is only doing your children a disservice if you are not teaching them responsibility and modeling good habits.

Structure and routine is very important at this crucial time anyway to help get the kids through any anxiety they may feel due to the divorce.  I know when we were newly separated, I made a calendar for the children to look at so they could see just how many days it would be before they would see dad again, etc.  That structure was just what they needed to feel secure in an otherwise chaotic time.

4) Encourage the kids’ relationship with the other parent and foster love and respect for that parent.  What happens so often is a mom or dad will be having a few drinks with friends and they fail to realize that the kids can hear them as they lament on how awful the other parent is.  You have to be very aware of avoiding those kinds of situations.

I remember my young children going to their dad’s house for the weekend and they would always say something about leaving me and I rather than go on and on about how much I would miss them or how sad I would be, I would just say something like, “You are going to have SO MUCH FUN with daddy this weekend!! You are such lucky kids to have SO MANY PEOPLE who love you!  What do you think your favorite thing you will do this weekend will be???”  Crisis averted and the kids would feel encouraged and not scared to discuss what they do with their dad.

If you do everything you can to encourage a loving, engaging and healthy relationship with the other parent, then they will always remember that.  They learn about forgiveness and love through seeing our interactions with the other person they love more than anything in the world.

5) Finally, and this may be the most important essential considering it makes a difference in how you react and handle the rest of these on the list… TAKE CARE OF YOU.  If you are not in a good place since your divorce, then seek help.  You cannot possibly be the best parent you can be if you have nothing left to give your kids.  If you think you are too angry or you are depressed, seek help.  Even if it is just seeking out a friend or two who you can bounce things off of.  Just find something.

Just like happiness begets happiness, misery begets misery.  If you are incurably unhappy, then you are going to share that unhappiness with your kids.  This in no way gives you the right to be selfish.  There is no place for selfishness in parenthood.  Sure you sometimes feel like a taxi cab driver and a line cook and a housekeeper and a dry cleaner… all with NO gratefulness from the kids… but that is called BEING A PARENT.  You may have to miss the big ball game for a dance recital or you may have to miss a fun concert because your child has a fever.  But that’s just life.  So you have to learn to deal with the hand you have been dealt and take care of YOU.

All five of the tips above are essential to being a smart parent.  Don’t suffer from the double curse – performing horribly as a parent, while being completely unaware of your incompetence.  You must be smarter than that and admit when things aren’t working.  Take a hard look at how you are currently handling things and you may realize that there are some things you need to change.  You may take a hard look at your life and realize that you are inept at giving routine and structure.  You may feel like an idiot, but that just means you need to work harder.  At least you are smart enough to recognize it.

Eminem would be proud of you for being smart enough to feel stupid.

Co-Parenting as a Successful Business Partnership – Hot Topic Tuesday

Co-Parenting following a divorce is very possibly the most challenging thing you will experience in your life.  You feel like you have finally broken the ties of marriage with your ex, but there is no clean break.  You feel trapped because you have to constantly communicate regarding the children.  I have people ask me on a regular basis how my ex and I co-parent so well and I always tell them that you have to treat co-parenting like a business partnership.

My ex and I are in a business partnership and our shared vision is raising responsible children who can think for themselves and follow through on their commitments.  Thankfully we compliment each other well in how we work to achieve that shared vision. He has some strengths and I have some strengths so we work together well in achieving our goals.  We also have the benefit of time since we have been co-parenting for nine years.

Not everyone is able to stay focused on that shared vision so I have come up with a list of five tips that relate to a successful business partnership but can also be essential when co-parenting with your ex.  Hopefully these five tips will help you keep your focus and avoid unnecessary conflict.  Your children will benefit when they see you are both able to put your own feelings aside to focus on their well-being.

Tip #1 – Have a Strong Partnership Agreement.

If you do not have a Custody Order in place, then YOU SHOULD.  You would never enter into a business partnership without having the right agreements in place.  The same is true for your co-parenting partnership.

YOU WILL NOT ALWAYS AGREE ON THINGS.

Let me say that again, YOU WILL NOT ALWAYS AGREE ON THINGS.  Because of this, it is of the utmost importance that you have something on paper that you can resort to as a means to settle a dispute.  For example, let’s say that mom wants Little Johnny to try out for the dance team, but dad doesn’t.  They look at their Order and it says that they will split the cost 50/50 for mutually agreed upon activities.  So dad doesn’t have to pay for dance team if he doesn’t want to.  (I am not saying this is right per se, but the Order clearly speaks about it.)

Some states have Parenting Coordinators who the Court can put into place to be a “tie-breaker” of sorts who makes a decision when parents cannot agree.  While helpful in the short term, that’s like bowling with the bumpers up.  It will help keep the ball in play, but once the bumpers are removed, the bowler still hasn’t learned to bowl and even more restrictions are in place than before.

Having an Order in place will help settle disputes that may arise.  And if your “business partner” is not following the Order, then there is always the option to take them to Court and ask for the Court to order your ex to actually perform the promise on paper as closely as possible.

Tip #2 – Put the Clients First!

It’s very common for single parents to put themselves ahead of their children.  They claim they have to focus on their work first and foremost because they have to have the income to take care of the kids, so they drag the kids around while they work or drop them with a friend.  Many of these same parents would rather hang upside down by their toenails before they call their ex and said, “I have a work function tonight, would you like to have the kids?”

This is because someone who is putting themself first would think, “I can’t call her/him because he/she will be all up in my business and know I am doing something tonight.  I am sure they would like to go stay with MeMaw.”

Someone who THINKS they are putting the kids first, but with conditions, is not much better.  They may think, “I’ll call her/him and offer the kids, but he/she will have to trade days with me so that the days work out to be even.  Because that’s what we agreed to.”

However, someone who is putting the kids first would think, “I don’t really want him/her knowing my business, but the kids would probably rather be with dad/mom.  And this is about their happiness, not my own comfort.  I’ll just call him/her and see if we can work it out.”

Putting yourself first is a behavior fueled by fear.  But when you put the kids first and your needs second, then everything else will start to fall into place.  Decisions become easier and your relationship with your ex will improve as a result.  And over time, your “clients” will want to take care of you like you have taken care of them.  They will remember that you were more focused on them during all of this and not selfishly pursuing your own agenda to hurt the other parent by using the kids as the weapon.

Tip #3 – Remove Emotion from the Equation.

It seems that the parents who really focus on their own agenda or refuse to cooperate with the other parent are the ones who are still harboring a great deal of resentment or anger over the divorce.  Just like in business, you must remain professional and remove emotion from the equation all together.

From my experience I have learned that who initiated the divorce is not predictive of who harbors the most anger.  And I think that the pendulum can swing based on certain life changes.  My ex was certainly the one with the most anger when my children and I moved over an hour away.  However, when he started dating, the anger invaded my heart.  I remember thinking, “I was supposed to be happy first!”

The problem with allowing emotion in is that when emotion is involved, LOGIC is NOT.  You cannot have a reasonable discussion or think logically when you are caught up in your own internal emotional war.

And you can claim to be unemotional, but if you resort to name calling or hanging up on your ex or refusing to respond, then you are clearly working on emotions rather than focusing on your shared vision for your children.

In order to put the kids first you have to release your anger.  You may feel anger over the events in the past that led to the divorce.  You may feel anger over what is going on in your ex’s life now.  You may feel anger about how your ex treats you now.  All of this anger is a natural part of the grieving process, but just like grieving, you have to work through the feelings to move on with your life.

If you find yourself playing the victim role, then you are basically declaring that you are not strong enough to move forward.  If you find yourself repeating the story about how you were wronged over and over to anyone who will listen, then you are stuck.

Letting go of your anger and emotions all starts with your thoughts.  Turning those thoughts around is something that you can change, but changing your ex is out of your control.  So take control of YOU and start the process of releasing.

Tip #4 – OPEN COMMUNICATION.

Communication is a HUGE part of a business relationship and it is also a huge part in a co-parenting relationship.  It’s important to have ongoing dialogue to ensure you are on the same page and you each know what is going on with the kids.  It helps both parties to stay focused on your shared vision.

Of course there will be miscommunication and disagreement, but that’s okay.  You disagreed when you were married too.  You discuss it and come up with a solution based on what is best for your kids.

I encourage newly divorced couples to do this constant communication by email.  Sometimes emotions are kept at bay best when you are typing rather than talking.  Of course one of the biggest pitfalls to this communication is someone who says they are communicating, but they aren’t really saying anything.

When anger is still being harbored, then every response by email will be defensive and will still have the victim mentality.  Even if you are trying to have a discussion, your ex could take it personally and begin lashing out.  The best thing to do is not engage.  Ask to discuss it when they have calmed down.  Again, you cannot control them, but you CAN choose to leave the conversation if they are deflecting and name calling rather than actually discussing the children.

Responding with brief, cryptic answers does not qualify as good communication either.  You have to discuss the topic as you would if you were still married.  You present your thoughts and ask questions and then your ex answers the questions and presents his/her thoughts and asks his/her questions.  It will be such a pleasant surprise when you begin open communication and you feel how good it feels to not feel so guarded and suspicious when dealing with your ex.  Once you remove those emotions and thereby the fear, communication should be much easier for both of you.

Tip #5 – Argue but Don’t Fight.

Yes, there is a difference.  You are going to disagree and you will probably disagree a lot.  If you agreed on everything, then you wouldn’t be divorced!  So it’s certain that arguments are going to happen.  Arguments are calm and a good opportunity to air grievances and problem solve together.  Your partnership can grow when these arguments are handled with a level head.

A fight however is easily identified once you find yourself raising your voice, cursing, blaming, name-calling, dwelling on something that happened years ago or focusing on what is wrong with each other rather than what you should be discussing regarding the children.  There is no place for fighting in a business partnership.

Don’t view an argument as a failure at co-parenting.  There will not be a perfect outcome, so let go of who is right and who is wrong.  They have no place in this venue.  You have to be able to listen to each other and take turns talking.  This is where a LOT of parents go wrong.  Because of their anger at their ex, they have no trust in that person and they just assume that anything he/she says is wrong.  As a result, the conversation turns sour quickly and a fight ensues.

Most importantly, keep the conversation civil and constructive by keeping the focus on your shared vision – the children.  Trust in the fact that you both are truly looking out for the best interest of the children.  There are no conflicts of interest in this – unless you allow your own needs and your emotions to remain involved.  If you do, then you are not in the mindset you need to be for your children.

When you feel the conversation escalating to a fight, try to talk it down.  I remember years ago emailing with my ex and the argument started to become a fight.  I said something along the lines of, “I know you think I am attacking you, but I am not.  You can’t read tone in email and I am just trying to figure out the best way to handle this because I feel strongly about it.”  We both settled back down and a fight was avoided.

As I have written before, this will involve getting over yourself and admitting when you are wrong or too emotional.  Everyone can be a good business partner and advocate for their children if they try to focus on these tips.

One of My Biggest Weaknesses May Actually Be One of My Biggest Strengths

I think my biggest weakness is that I require structure and routine.  And when I say “require,” I mean CANNOT survive without it.  Like EVER.

As much as I would like everyone to believe that I am a free-spirit, someone who can hop on a jet on a whim and travel wherever the hot deals will take me, I’m just not.  I thrive on predictability.  I like deadlines and schedules and consistency.  My favorite time of the year?  When the new calendars come out and I can start filling each box in with all of our “stuff.”  My second favorite time of the year? Back to school.

When I was a first year law student at the ripe age of 35, my young classmates looked over my shoulder in awe at my calendar.  One of the 22 year old guys behind me said incredulously, “Is your calendar (cough, cough) COLOR CODED?”

Yes, I am THAT girl.

And now that I have two more kids and a husband to keep track of, my obsessive need for planning and scheduling is in overdrive.  This whole fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants summer may work for some people, but I am craving order and structure.  Chaos makes me want to run and hide.  It’s especially daunting right now since two kids are back in school but the other two are still living the carefree life of summer.

Yeah, I even have a copy of the tide chart when I go to the beach.  Predictability...

Yeah, I even have a copy of the tide chart when I go to the beach. Predictability…

I just want life to get back to normal.  Is that too much to ask???

If you’re an anxious person, then you know what I am talking about.  Predictability and structure and guidelines are what get you through the day.  I have been like this since I was a child.  All of my friends went to Camp Seafarer and loved it, but I went to Camp Thunderbird.  At Thunderbird, you were given a schedule and they would tell you when you were supposed to move to the next activity.  I thrived in that environment!  One summer I decided to try Seafarer since it was closer to home and all of my friends went there.  Seafarer, however, did not have the schedule.  I was let loose and could do whatever activity I enjoyed.  I was a wreck.  I didn’t know where to go and I absolutely floundered.  I couldn’t wait to get back to Camp Thunderbird the following summer.

My first summer at Camp Thunderbird

My first summer at Camp Thunderbird

In high school, my roommate at boarding school can confirm that I was up until the wee hours of the night before a big paper was due, typing in the closet on my word processor.  I would still be working on the paper right up until class time and then I would turn it in and get a good grade.  If I attempted to write the paper well before it was due, then I could not focus.  I needed the impending deadline to make myself get it done.

As an adult, I see this anxiousness come out when I do not have a plan.  My mood is much better when there is a weekly menu and I would never in my life go to the grocery store without a list.  I plan dinner parties or invite people over because that’s the best way to make me clean the house (gotta have that deadline!).  As I have written previously, Joe knows that I need to know what time we are leaving the house, whether it’s for church or dinner or heading out of town on a trip.  If I don’t have a schedule to work with, then I cannot possibly be ready on time.  The absolute worst thing to say to me if you want something done is, “Just get to it when you can…”  Because if I do not have a timeline, then it likely will not get done.

Weekly menu...

Weekly menu…

Over time though, I have learned that this structure I require is not always a bad thing.  Although I often consider it a weakness, structure doesn’t have to be oppressive.  There is a great sense of security that comes from a structured environment.  There is little “unknown,” and it’s the “unknown” that can cause a great deal of anxiety for a person like me.

In January of 2012, I fainted in my driveway.  When I say the word “faint” you may envision me crumbling to the ground, but that would be far from reality.  I fell like a tree and my face was the only thing to break my fall – not my body or my shoulder – MY FACE.  Straight into the pavement.  I looked like someone had dragged me behind a car.  The doctors ran all sorts of tests from MRI’s to CAT Scans to blood tests, but they never definitively could say why I fainted.  As a result, the next few months of my life were truly my rock bottom.  I lived every minute of every day afraid that I may faint again.  Driving on the highway was terrible because I feared I would faint while driving and wreck.  I had terrible anxiety during that time period all due to the “unknown.”

The unknown can be an exceptionally scary thing to face.  For kids, the unknowns associated with the divorce of their parents can send them into a tailspin.  This structure and routine that I have often viewed as my weakness can actually be a strength when viewed as a way to help people through situations where there is an unknown factor.  For example, structure and routine can give children the ability to structure their own lives.  If they know what is going to happen next, then they can take ownership of their schedule.  It can become their own.

Having something that is their own can certainly be a major achievement when the chaos of divorce takes over in a family.  We have found that in our home having regular routines – dinner together at the table, homework, calling their other parent, bedtime – gives the children confidence in what comes next.  It’s like giving a three year old the countdown at the park, “We are leaving in TEN minutes,” “We are leaving in FIVE minutes,” “Wrap it up, we are leaving in one minute.”  It helps to eliminate the stress of the unexpected.  Children from an early age show that they respond better when they understand what is going to happen next.  If you walk up to a three year old and say, “We are leaving the park NOW,” then you will be dragging a kicking and screaming child to the car.

I’m hoping that my need for structure and routine will be a comfort to all four of our kids as we transition into our new normal.  Knowing what to expect and knowing what will happen next gives them less to worry about in an already stressful time.  Our predictability can make them feel loved without fear of any more loss.  We eliminate the unknowns and just focus on our family.

Maybe what I perceive as one of my biggest weaknesses can actually be my biggest strength in parenting our kids.

Let Them Be Kids

IMG_5663Our trip to the beach last week was absolutely perfect.  We stayed in an old cottage that belongs to some dear friends of my parents.  I love everything about that place.  There is only one television, which I believe was turned on only once very briefly during the entire week.  The remainder of the week was spent rocking in the rocking chairs on the front porch or just laughing around the table together as a family.  I imagine that cottage has seen many nights of endless laughter and bottomless wine bottles.

The kids were happy and they didn’t even need all of the modern conveniences that we are all so accustomed to in our lives today… we just needed our family.  They never even asked to watch television.

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We spent a LOT of time rocking on the front porch

When we first got to the cottage, I went upstairs to put our stuff in our rooms and I made a quick stop in the little upstairs bathroom.  First off, this little bathroom is UHHHH-MAZING!!!!  It has a claw-foot tub and has wood paneled walls.  There is a cute little brick doorstop that is decorated with some fancy needlework, but what really caught my eye was that the door lock did not work, so there was a small hook and eye lock.  Just like the bathroom at my grandmother’s cottage in Minnesott Beach.

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Brings back a lot of good memories…

Then I went downstairs and saw the little closed in back porch with a clothesline across the room and I felt like I had been teleported back to my childhood.  All of a sudden I could visualize myself at my grandmother’s cottage.  I could even smell the smells.  And those were the smells of summer…

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Back porch of Gran & Mammy’s cottage in Minnesott Beach

Waking up early in the morning the cottage always smelled of bacon.  What an amazing way to wake up in the morning to the sound of bacon frying in the frying pan in the room with you!  The cottage had two small bedrooms, but my brother and I slept on the twin beds that were in the family room which was open with the kitchen.  There was no air conditioning, so the blowing fans would increase the tasty smell of bacon as it oscillated back and forth.

Midafternoon, after spending the entire day swimming in the tide or fishing on the pier, the house would most likely smell of crab.  Mammy would usually boil a pot of crabs every day and cocktail hour would be spent on the front porch looking at the gorgeous view of the Neuse River while picking crabmeat.  Mammy knew that I loved to help but my labor was more selfish than anything else and there would not be much left in my bowl once my task was complete.

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It wasn’t that color, but that’s the cottage!

I recall that it would be warm at times, but most of the time the breeze coming off the river would keep the cottage a moderate temperature.  Of course we were typically sunburned after a day on the beach, so we may have felt a chill because of that anyway.  If a storm blew in it would cool down quickly… I remember learning how to tell when a storm was coming by how far we could see down the river.

Our summers were spent with freezer pops and sand spurs and catching fish off the dock.   If the wind was blowing in the right direction then we could spend all day filling holes in the sand with jellyfish to make our own homemade “jelly.”  A day without a jellyfish sting was a lucky day in our book, but if we were stung we always knew there was someone nearby with a cigarette so we could rub tobacco on the sting.

Our feet were tough like leather from the hot pavement, our skin on our backs was peeling, and our hands had cuts from crab shells, but the memories I have of my childhood will be carried in my heart for the rest of my days.  Childhood is supposed to be just like that… carefree and fun.  When parents divorce, we feel like we have “robbed” the childhood from our kids.

I think that the theory that divorce robs a child of his/her childhood is not definitive.   I agree that it is certainly possible since some parents choose to burden their children with “adult issues.”  Divorce in and of itself does not have to rob anything from the children if the parents behave correctly.  Talking about money issues or trying to explain your divorce reasoning to a child is not appropriate.  If you focus on the children and making sure their innocence remains, then they can grow through a divorce just the same as we can.  They can even be better than before.

In our case, we have not robbed our kids of their childhoods.  Joe’s kids have memories of their lives with their mom and dad together just like my kids have memories we made before Joe and I got together.  We all enjoy sharing our memories and in no way do we minimize time that was spent or is spent with the other parents.  My stepchildren like telling stories about when their parents were together and rather than get quiet when they do, I engage them in conversation and smile and listen to their stories.  Those stories are what have made them who they are.  And I LOVE who they are.

More importantly now, we focus on making new memories as a new family.  We are still new to this, but we have already established new traditions that we want to continue to do each year.  We focus on our kids BEING KIDS…

When they are my age, I want them to remember how much fun it was being kids.  I want them to talk about fishing on the lake across the street or running on the greenway with Joe and me or our yearly trips to the mountains and the beach.  I want them to fondly remember going to concerts together and Durham Bulls baseball games.  I want them to think about how much fun we had at supper club cookouts and church and eating together at the table.  I know they will never forget when Joe asked me to marry him during a fun game of flashlight tag on the golf course.

If you are divorced, don’t let parental guilt creep in to make you think you are robbing childhood from your kids.  Just spend all of your energy in making sure you focus on your kids and make new memories with them.   No one ever says on their deathbed, “I sure wish I spent more time working,” but they do say, “I wish I spent more time with my kids.”

Even as a single parent, you can do plenty of things to create memories that don’t cost money.  You don’t have to go on extravagant trips to create memories.  One of my children’s favorite memories so far is when I woke them up in the middle of the night and we climbed out onto the roof with blankets and watched a meteor shower.  It didn’t cost a thing but they will remember it for the rest of their lives.

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Fishing is free

And never minimize the memories they have of you with their other parent and never minimize the new memories they are creating with their other parent.  Show interest if they want to talk about fun things they do with the other parent, but do not be intrusive.   Show them you love them and are interested in everything about them and they will be able to enjoy their childhood in spite of the divorce.   They should never feel like certain topics are taboo.  They should be able to talk to you about anything without fear of your reaction.

LET THEM BE KIDS… they will have their chance to worry about adult problems when they are adults.

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Silly girl