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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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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Of Ticks and Shirtless Starfish

Had someone told me when I moved from Washington, that 2 and ½ years later, I would wake up one morning to find myself a single mom to two nearly teen boys, I would have laughed and maybe run away from home.  Then one Friday morning in May, I woke up and began the journey with my sons that I never dreamed of or even thought I could travel.

Bolt is in middle school, so his bus comes almost 2 hours before Messi’s elementary school bus.  That means, before first light most of the year, I must try to wake him up for school as alarms just don’t cut it.  I say try, because it is just that.  He is a very sound sleeper and waking him up has involved various alarms, me singing my Beauty and the Beast renditions, torturing him with Justin Bieber songs on playback, shaking his bed and anything else I can think of.  For those also on the journey of raising teen/tween boys, you may find this this article helpful.  If you don’t have the privilege of parenting a shirtless starfish (aka teen boy), read this and pray for all of those that face this daily battle.

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Starfish or sleeping teen boy? Image Credit

On this particular morning, I was nervous and a little on edge.  Just as I was beginning my wake-up attempts with Bolt, I hear a scream from Messi’s room.  He is yelling over and over “mom, mom”.  I panicked because neither of my son’s yells for me and given our current family situation, I had no idea what to expect.  I throw open his door to find him sitting up, sleepily and saying over and over “a tick is on me, help me find it”.  At first, I thought he must be dreaming as he had several ticks removed after a field trip the day before (we do live in the heart of tick and Lyme Disease country).  Then he yells “watch out mom, it is crawling up your neck” and again I think he is dreaming until I felt something crawl up my neck.  At that point, I believe I screamed or squealed and did some sort of exorcist dance that caused said tick to be launched across the room.

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We then captured the tick in a tissue and found several more ticks in Messi’s bed.  The sheets were then burned in holy water (or rather washed on the hot cycle).  Thankfully this entire tick event, provided the needed wake-up excitement for Bolt and we began our day.  Thinking back on that day, I smile with complete fondness and laughter.  It was like God was sitting up in heaven laughing at me and giving me the gift of “you got this girl”.  Today I needed a reminder that I can do this, ticks, shirtless starfish, and all.