Milestones

It was six months ago this evening that my ex walked out of the door of our home for the last time.  It was six months ago that I embarked on the oft lonely journey of single parenthood.  At the time, I frequently said that I figured the first six months would be the hardest…and now how I wish that were true.  Maybe things will surprise me, but if the past few weeks is any indication, it will likely get harder before it gets easier.  I foolishly compared this situation to other times of transition such as the move across the country or adopting the boys.  However, I now realize that I spent three months running on adrenaline, and it wasn’t until the boys settled back into school that I began to understand the routine of single parenthood.

Being a single parent means I am the first one up in the morning and the last one up at night.  I am responsible for making sure my sons are up and ready for their first glimpses of morning and that the doors are locked, and the lights turned out, ushering them into sleep.  It is sometimes a wonder and a privilege to have such great responsibility for the two young men asleep in their bed.  When there are two parents present, it is easy to pass the buck, so to speak.  Now it is just me.  That isn’t to say that I take full responsibility for the men they become, but rather, I take full responsibility for what I teach them over the next few years.

So, how are my sons doing?  There are days, I feel like I have a good understanding, but the reality is that this transition is complicated by the own transition their bodies are experiencing.  I have two middle school boys, in the throngs of puberty, and it is hard to tell where the trauma of the past few months ends, and the puberty begins.  Probably, a lot of the challenges of the past few months are a combination of both.

Bolt has been a challenge to me from day one.  When he was finally diagnosed with autism, four years ago, it did provide some clarity to some of the issues that were so challenging, but it didn’t provide any solutions.  With autism, routine and structure are something that makes Bolt feel safe.  His own trauma has also made him extremely in need to have control over things in times of transition.  I feel like the past few months, he has latched onto one thing after another that he can control.  His latest fixation is hand hygiene for anyone preparing his food (which is me), so therefore he stalks me through the kitchen to snap at me the second he perceives that I have gone too long between hand washings (which means like every two minutes).  It helps to remind myself of the why behind the what, but let me just say that at six in the morning, I don’t want to be yelled at because he didn’t hear the water running.

Messi is in such an odd place and I am really struggling to figure out what is just typical teen angst and what is his own trauma.  He started middle school this fall and loves it.  I am getting the usual glowing reports from his teachers and peers. At home is another story.  He is downright rude and condescending to me more often than not.  He is very inpatient and critical of most things I do.  However, the second he wants something, he turns on the charm.  It actually reminds me a lot of the interactions I have had with my ex over the past year or two, so some of me wonders if he is just mimicking him.  At school and sports he is social, but at home he is withdrawn.  I routinely find him under his bed listening to music, with a dog curled at his side.  He won’t talk about what has transpired over the past few months and he says everything is wonderful between him and his dad, but…

So, those are some of the areas that are hard and I don’t have a magic wand to make it all better.  At the same time, there is some real freedom in being a single parent.  The decisions that are made are mine alone.  I also feel like because I have been forced to take on the role of only present parent, I have also had to learn to be both “good cop” and “bad cop”.  I can be the fun one and spontaneous. Just tonight, I agreed to let the boys go see the new “Thor” by themselves (gave me an opportunity to study).  I try and surprise them with pizza some nights or some special treat from the grocery store.  I also feel like I really know my sons better.  I know what will make them angry or frustrated, but I also know ways to make them smile.  Often when two parents are around, each parent takes on a different role to their children.

So, while initially, I thought the first six months would be the hardest, I now think it will probably be the first year, at minimum.  We are sitting on the ledge of the holiday season, after all.  We have not done Thanksgiving without dad.  I haven’t been without my sons at Christmas.  We have a vacation planned for February…one that was originally planned as a family of four.  The next six months will be full of more milestones as we begin to rebuild our lives as a family of three.  For now, all I can do is take it one milestone, and one day at a time.

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Embracing Fear

I think one of the struggles of those who identify as “control freaks” is fear.  I don’t like to do anything without thinking of variables and outcomes, so sometimes I avoid being spontaneous or overthink things.  Over the past few months, so much of my life has been out of control that I find myself embracing the unknown and embracing my fears.

I was a fearless kid, but around middle school something shifted.  There was some bullying and I sank into the safety of my mind.  I found myself diving into fictional worlds and with the internet, the worlds were expanded through chat groups.  I emerged in high school and developed a solid group of friends and the same in college.  I met my ex the beginning of my sophomore year and we were great friends and study mates for 6 months before we started dating.  In hindsight, I now see some of the disfunction of our relationship.  Rather than push me to be better, he fed off a lot of my insecurities.  It was a lot of “don’t worry about it, I will take care of it” (even when he didn’t). When we would go to group functions, he was the social butterfly and I just tagged along, but he never tried to actively include me in things.  I often felt like a third wheel when we went out, like I was holding him back.  Over the past few years, I dreaded going places because it was like watching his performance while I sat in the back ignored.  Again, this isn’t about bashing him, but rather seeing that this affair was the straw that broke us, but it was far from the only issue.  These subtle things had created a deep fear that I didn’t live up to expectations or I wasn’t capable of doing things without him.

Fast-forward to May, when I woke up one day a realized that I had to do it all.  I had to make those phone calls I hated making.  I had to be more social and meet the other soccer parents, so I could ask for rides!  I had to drive places when driving is not something I enjoy.  So, I started doing those things and what has emerged in me is something interesting.  No longer to I get anxious when I think about driving into New York.  The phone calls are now part of my day (and now my job).  I now socialize with the other soccer parents and don’t hesitate to ask for a ride (or give one).  I also just dive in without overthinking things.  I just managed to get my cat home from a shelter in Wyoming in a matter of weeks because I was willing to ask friends for help, make numerous phone calls, invite strangers into the story, and just trust that it would work out.

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I also have been finding my sense of adventure returning.  I walk every day at lunch and started looking around during my walks and, in the process, found a network of public trails in the woods behind my work, that I walk daily.  Rather than sit home and sulk over Christmas, I texted a friend and am going to spend it with her family (can we say time for a tea party!).  I just bought a ticket to go see P!nk by myself in Philly this spring!  I have also started thinking about my future and the things I look forward to doing.  Maybe a hiking trip in Africa or South America or whatever.  And guess what, it doesn’t scare me to think of doing it alone!

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Asking for What I Need

Why is it so hard to ask for what you need? For me, at least, there are many reasons I struggle to ask people for what I really need.  Probably the biggest one is that I often worry that people aren’t serious when they say, “if there is anything you need…”.  Well, guess what, if they aren’t serious, they won’t follow through and that is okay.  Often, though, I think people say that because they don’t really know how to help people in crisis.

I also worry that if I ask for help, I am seen as incapable of managing.  However, the reality is that no person can be 2 places at once and there are finite hours to the day, so sometimes asking for help is the only option.  Just tonight, I had to ask for help getting one son to team pictures on Saturday and, guess what, five minutes later he had a ride!

I think I often don’t ask for what I need because I don’t know what I need.  As I sat in my therapist’s office last week, she helped me formulate some practical things I could cut back or get help managing.  Due to this conversation, I went to my parents and asked them to pay for a housecleaner to come in twice a month so that I do not spend every weekend cleaning, rather than enjoying my sons.  I followed through and found a wonderful woman within a few days.  When she asked my needs, I started with “well, I am a newly single mom and there just aren’t enough hours in the day”.  I left it at that and, when my quote came in she added a “single mom discount”.  Wow!  This, again, comes back to the idea of being vulnerable.  I am not exploiting my situation, but rather just telling it like it is.  People are more willing to help if they know how much it is needed.

After saying all that, I think it is also important that as friends, we move past the obligatory, “I am praying for you” or “let me know how I can help” (both are great, but often in crisis people need practical support with the day to day life stuff).  Over the past few months, I have learned what it looks like for people to go above and beyond in providing support.  These are some of the things that have helped me the most.

  • A listening ear – to all those that have talked to me as I have cried and ranted…there was no judgement, just support. Also, sometimes it helps if you call the person as sometimes it is hard to believe that people really want to talk to you.
  • Spontaneous care baskets – it can be as simple as flowers or a card with some fresh cookies or a basket of treats or even a gift card for a massage. All these things acknowledge grief, while show the need for a little TLC.
  • Food – it could be Blue Apron gift cards or a hot meal delivered to the door. Both have blessed me in so many ways.
  • Household help – one friend came for the day and helped me clean, another has come over and helped with a car issue and other things around the house I know nothing about
  • Help with kids – for me, being the only driver at my house has necessitated the need for frequent rides my sons. For a parent of a younger child, it might be offering to babysit.
  • Providing needed items – My parents took my boys shopping for school clothes and my church sent us a gift card and some basic school supplies.
  • Be a liaison – I am new to this area, but I have friends that have reached out to their community to help me find child support or suggested where to look for a service I might need
  • Financial help – I am not saying to write a blank check, but sometimes the offer to pay for something (like housekeeping as my parents did) or the give a discounted service, is extremely valuable. It isn’t the option for everyone, but it is for some.

Over the past few months, I have had countless conversations at coffee shops and on the soccer field or late at night over the phone.  Never in my life, have I realized how loved I am and I am grateful to the friends and family who have taken the time to remind me of God’s love.

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Parenting Through Vulnerability

I am not a crier.  Sure, I will get teary during a moving part in a movie or book, but as for crying about my feelings, it just doesn’t happen much.  I am much more likely to lash out in anger over my grief than to cry.  However, over the past few months the tears find me during unexpected moments…driving home from the grocery store, seeing that empty seat at church, or trying to open a jar that refuses to budge.  Interestingly, I feel like writing has helped me release my anger, but has also left me feeling raw as I lay out my story for my friends (and the world) to read.  One unexpected result of this new vulnerability is the effect it has had on my parenting.

I think it would be fascinating to ask the boys to describe me as a parent, but I don’t know that they would be able to describe my parenting personality.  Prior to becoming a single parent, I think they would think of me as the facilitator.  I am the rule follower and like to have everything done before we have fun and have a tough time relaxing until things are done.  I like the dishes done when I get home from work and the house clean before we watch a movie. I also like to be prepared for serious conversations.  The past few months have been chaos as I struggle to juggle logistics through grief.  Through this process a new mom has emerged.

The boys have seen me cry, and not just silent tears, but my body wracked with sobs, more in the past 5 months than in the prior 8 years combined.  It isn’t like I do it on purpose, but sometimes I am just completely overwhelmed and they are sometimes present when that happens.  In the past two months or so, I have begun talking with them about it.  Sometimes I will come home from work and say, “it has been a really rough day and I need to just go into my room for a little bit”.  One night, in particular, something was triggered, and I began crying as I was making dinner.  As soon as I finished cooking, I told the boys I needed to go process alone.  I came back about 30 minutes later to find them having eaten, and now cooperating to put away dinner and clean up the kitchen.

I have been talking to both boys a lot about giving each other grace.  The frequent conversation is something like “we are all grieving in different ways and we need to give each other the grace to have a bad day”.  It has been amazing to see them respond to that…. sometimes Bolt will stop picking on Messi or they will clean up without being asked or stop arguing with each other.

Being vulnerable with my sons hasn’t really involved me laying out the specifics of what is on my heart and mind, but rather acknowledging that something is going on that is larger than what they may understand.  Sometimes I say, “oh, I got some sad news today” or “I had a phone call that upset me” and that is enough to make them pause.  Earlier this week, as I prepared to meet with my new therapist for the first time, I kind of laid out the plans for the night and said that I would be unavailable for an hour and when they pressed me on it, I explained I was seeing a therapist.  They asked me why and I didn’t spill the details, but did say “the news about your dad and the baby have upset me and I need to talk to someone about it”.  I have been careful to try not to bash their dad in front of them, while still acknowledging that his actions sometimes upset me.

I feel like it is through me being willing to show my emotions and talk about how they are affecting me, that both my sons have responded in a way where they are more willing to talk to me and ask me tough questions.  Remember, I do have two middle school boys, so having more serious conversations does somewhat reflect their developmental stage.   However, I don’t think they would be as willing to engage in these conversations with me if I was not exhibiting my own vulnerability.

I think there is the tendency as parents to try and be the strong, stable ones for children.  There is value in making our kids feel secure and safe.  However, I think there needs to be a balance.  My kids need to see me working through my own issues and asking the tough questions, so that they understand that this is a normal part of the human experience.  They need to see that mom does not have it all figured out, but is striving to keep growing.  So, I guess for me, this season is teaching me the value of living authentically and vulnerably, not just for myself, but for my sons.

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Juggling Hats

As the dust has settled over the latest news to rattle my world, I have settled into a deep fatigue.  I have been struggling to find enough hours in the day to do all that needs to be done from exercise, walking the pups, keeping house, working, cleaning, and mom-ing.  On top of that, I still need to work on the process of grieving and healing, because I know if I don’t do that work, then everything else will suffer.  The boys have returned from 10 days with the grandparents and we are getting ready for the upcoming school year.  I started up grad school again this week and my job is beginning to feel like less of a mystery.  It is hard to prioritize both what needs to be done on the practical level, while also prioritizing what my heart and soul need.  The past few days, I have actually done a lot for the latter…Saturday I spent the day in fellowship with an amazing group of women, all adoptive moms, as we talked and ate and laughed and got our first tattoos.  I remember sitting around the table that evening and feel some of my burden be lifted as I found a community willing to walk alongside me in my season of loss and grief.  Sunday, I braved meeting a woman I had never met from church, as we went to see Wicked in Philly.  It is not something I would have been comfortable doing a year ago, but now is the time for stepping out of my bubble.  Tonight, I did a much harder thing and went to see a therapist.  I saw one a few months ago, but didn’t feel like it helped much, but after last week, I knew I needed to find someone, and hopefully someone more skilled at the circumstances I am facing.  It was good and she already gave me some tools to help work through some of what I am experiencing.  Here is to hope that I can find a balance between all the hats I am juggling and am still able to find rest for both my body and soul.

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