Thankful for just being together

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My stepchildren are now in their early 20s and the struggle to negotiate where they are going to be when is on their plates rather than ours.  I listened this year when our oldest daughter shared her frustrations with her mother’s family for not deciding on a day and time for their Thanksgiving celebration and for not seeming to prioritize the family and travel considerations of she and her cousin, who are at school hours away.  I gave all those sounds that said I was listening and I understood what she was saying.  Until she said that this is her least favorite time of year because it is so hard to juggle everyone’s needs.  I told her that lots of people feel that struggle, even without multiple parents and grandparents.  At her age the in-law and my family issues begin for many.  Where will we go, how long will we stay, and will we enjoy any of it by the time it is over?  I also told her that I wished the scheduling struggles she was dealing with were new, but they were not.  What is new is that they are on her plate now.  The parents no longer argue over where she will be and then just tell her what they decided.  Now she has to decide and that, despite how difficult those childhood years were, is even more difficult.

Both she and our oldest son joined us for our extended family’s Thanksgiving.  They arrived before dinner, we had a chance to talk and catch up.  I had a chance to meet her new boyfriend.  We ate and laughed.  And then they packed up and headed to the next party, having received empathy from others that they were attending three Thanksgiving feasts today.

Why do we drive ourselves crazy to go to such lengths?  Why not just choose one and say someone else is in next year’s rotation?

Because, at least while we are young and believe we can do it all, we want to see everyone and hold onto the idea that it is all going to be possible for always.  Those crazy drives from one party to another can drive us crazy, but they also cement the bonds between lovers and siblings who are our partners in persecution.

As a stepparent, I had to sit down and take the time to write this post when I realized that a) I had no anxiety or inner struggles prior to today’s events and b) I only briefly had the thought that, while we were first, because their mother was last she was likely to end up with more of their time.  I only briefly thought it because the quantity of time was not important.  This year, what mattered was that they loved us enough to make the effort to attend each celebration and to share traditional dishes and some conversation.  I would have missed them were they not there, but I can look ahead and say that, when they come to their senses and realize they can no longer pull everything off in one afternoon, I will be okay missing them because I know I will see them next year or the next day. By then my aunts and uncles may no longer be with us and the extended family celebration will have changed into my mom, brothers, children, and (by then maybe) grandchildren.

Families are funny.  Who is in them changes.  People are born.  People die.  People join and people leave.  The circle expands and contracts, but as long as there is a circle, there is a family.  I also realized, as I walked into Thanksgiving this year, that for the first time since my father died, I was walking into a family gathering with more anticipation of seeing those still with us than dread at feeling his absence.

These are little moments for which I am thankful.  Today’s view from the step was mellow and colored by gratitude, if not exuberant joy.  Those days, I hope, are to come again.

Stepmothers Take Note–Another Step Forward for Steps

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In this week’s issue of Time, Susanna Schorbsdorff (@SusannaSchrobs) writes about the importance of graduation for her daughters and for all teenagers (and their parents) who have made it through those tough years.  I usually enjoy her essays and am sympathetic to her view of families and life, but I was particularly surprised to read this:

“Then there are the unexpected tragedies. For us, it was when the girls lost their beloved stepmother in a freak accident. At the time, my eldest had just finished a rocky entry into high school and her sister was in fifth grade navigating the maddening rules of tween cliques. The fragile bridge they were building to adulthood crumbled in a day.

Grief seemed to reshape my girls at a molecular level. One held tight to the tangible evidence of loss, cycling through photos and calling her stepmom’s cell phone just to hear her gentle voice until the account was shut down. The other turned inside herself, shutting out school, shielding herself from the outside pressures to counteract what was going on inside. It was a dark summer.”

Did you read that, stepmothers?  A biological mother not just admitting without being defensive or hurt, but highlighting, that a stepmother was beloved and important to their daughters.  Even more, she writes that just hearing her voice, her gentle voice, was important.

It is terrible that these girls lost a parent.  It is wonderful and awesome that they had such a wonderful relationship with their stepmother that they grieved deeply for her loss.  She clearly was an influential person in their lives.

Her loss, and the way Susanna Schrobsdorff writes about it, highlights one of the great gifts of stepparents.  Although the girls lost one of their mothers, they had another to help them through their grief and will still have a mother as they move beyond graduation to the rest of their lives.  I worry far less about my older (step)children because, no matter what happens to me, they will have a mother.  No matter what happens to their father, they will still have a father.  I hope their mother feels the same.  If I could get a stepmother for my younger children without having to go through divorce, I would wish the same for them.  Children today, and, I suspect, always, can never have enough adults that love them and are deeply invested in their happiness and well being.  I think, from what I have read of her work, Susanna Scrobsdorff would agree.

Mother’s Day Chillaxing

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I started this post a week ago, but life intervened and has been full steam every since.  It’s that kind of spring.

Years ago I came to dread Mother’s Day, not because I had to come up with a gift idea for my mother, but because I was a stepmother and the day seemed designed to rub my face in the fact that, although I mothered, I was not considered a real mom by much of the world.

How our world has changed in the last two decades.  I am not saying stepmothers have lost their evil fairy tale image or that they are universally recognized as parents who contribute to their children’s upbringing.  Our society does, however, recognize a wider variety of family structures.

Very importantly, my stepchildren are adults.  And so, finally, I think am I.

Our oldest shared Mother’s Day with me via text, but it was early in the morning.

Our second oldest called and left a voice mail, but the next day she gave me a card in which she referred to me as a mother.  Not the mother, but a mother.  I felt like an a ten-year-old girl who finally gets the pony she always wanted for her birthday.

My oldest biological child gave me a card that “Dad made me go get” and my youngest made the highlight of my morning by aging a character in her Sim game to include forehead wrinkled, crow’s feet, and laugh lines so it would like like me.

All those years I was hypersensitive to what I saw as my stepchildren’s slights

and, what slights there were either came from their being kids or were born of the horrid competitive atmosphere I helped create.  What I was missing was that every mom’s Mother’s Day is awful–awful gifts, awful breakfasts, awful stress, awful expectations.   I was also missing that every mom’s Mother’s Day is awesome–awesome that someone loves you enough to try to live up to unrealistic expectations of showing all of their appreciation all day one day a year when really their thanks comes in rare beautiful moments–when your teenage son squeezes into the rocking chair next to you when there are open seats in the living room–when your daughter throws her arms around your waist and says you’re the best–when your son says “I should have listened to you guys years ago”–when your daughter sends you ridiculous snapchats because she knows you’ll get the joke and won’t think she’s a dork.

Mother’s Day is still not my favorite day.  Most of us expect too much of it.  But Mother’s Day is no longer one of my dreaded days, either.  Like all days, it’s what you make of it.  Everyone else–ex-wives, mothers-in-law, haters of various types–they only have the power you give them.  Does that make me an adult?

Over It

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One of the more popular phrases among people in my social and familial circles is “I’m so over it.”  I admit to uttering this, too, in moments of frustration, but tonight, as I was repeating it as a mantra in my head, I was struck by how much that phrase is a wish more than a reality.  By saying “I’m so over it,” I am really advertising that I am, in fact, deeply mired in it to the point of not knowing how to get out of it, whatever it is.

Tonight “it” is my reproductive cycle.  I’m forty-two and for the last two years I have suffered from increasingly ridiculous periods.  If this sort of talk makes you squeamish, close the tab and walk away from the screen or put the screen down.

Still with me?  Here we go.

The flow is heavy.  It is clotty.  It is unpredictable and prone to geiser-like gushes that no “feminine hygiene” product can contain.

It is disgusting.  It has disgusted me.

It has made me intensely aware of how much our society denies the reality of the female reproductive cycle.  We can handle the sex part and the pregnancy and birth (sort of) part.  We cannot handle menstruation.  We no longer stay in huts excluded from all other (male) society while having our periods.  Instead, our huts travel with us in the form of tampons (do not even let that menstrual flow out.  Don’t you dare), pads (ultra thin so no one even knows it is there and that you are, indeed, a female of reproductive age), cups, and deodorizers of various sorts to mask the earthy salty smell of blood. Let that blood show to the world and the shame and disgust will make you long for the days when we could just be honest and get a week off in the hut.  Just look at Instagram’s recent reaction to photos of a woman with blood stains on her pajama pants (they were first removed as indecent and only restored after a fairly wide protest).  Our menstrual blood is indecent and meant to be hidden.

I have bled through my clothes and onto upholstery multiple times in the last two years.  I have stood in front of rooms full of people giving presentations and turned my back to them not realizing my hut was showing.  I have sat through meetings terrified to stand up for fear the gush I felt as I sat there had indeed broken through all of the barriers and absorbent layers of my hut and I would have to deal with the shame and disgust of my hut on the upholstery confronting us all with the absolutely “flesh and blood” nature of the female reproductive cycle.  It happened again today, prompting the mantra and the reflection that began this post.

When I was a younger woman and I heard the story of Jesus and the hemorrhaging woman, I first was proud of Jesus for not being grossed out, then angry with the crowd for isolating a woman for bleeding.  Now I identify with the woman and imagine the relief she must have felt when Jesus stopped her bleeding.  No more fear.  No more shame.

My reproductive tract has been fairly good to me.  It helped me produce two beautiful children.  It has helped me have some wonderful (and some just okay) sex over the last couple of decades.  It has done the reproductive portion of its job.  It is okay if it is ready to retire.  But just do it, for goodness sake.

This June, with the help of an ob/gyn, I am going to help usher my uterus’ lining off my stage through ablation.  I am counting down the days.

Because I am so ready to be over it.

Why have I stayed away so long?

I have been neglecting this blog.  There are multiple reasons.

1) I re-read some of the early posts and was ashamed at how selfish and angry I was.  Publicly.

2) I no longer wanted to focus on my woes as a stepparent, but that was part of the blog’s title.

3) I have been angry and selfish for different reasons and, unlike being a maligned stepparent, there is no human figure to rage against and railing against life or God or nature in a blog seemed very, very lame.

I love the whole idea of Daoism.  I have trouble reminding myself of it in a convincing way when things are going badly.  So keep in mind that I aspire to be the water going around the rocks rather than the jackhammer trying to crush them, but that I often behave first like the jackhammer, then try to flow like the water after I have to time to breathe and reflect.  So I bitch, then take it back or put it in context later.

Has anyone noticed that home school moms all seem to have their own blog?  And that they accumulate huge numbers of followers?  What is going on with that?  Yes, it is amazing that you are able to stay home with your children all day and not be pharmaceutically treated.  Or an alcoholic.  Or an inspiration for a character on Weeds.  But I am seriously considering starting a new blog that chronicles the adventures of a working mom trying to stay sane and meet everyone’s expectations while NOT being counter-cultural. Or are there blogs like that out there and I just do not have time to find them because I am busy working and raising my family and being some sort of wife and being something worthwhile outside all of those job descriptions?

Either way, I am going to try to confess to this blog more often.  Maybe weekly.  I am sure my 34 followers have long since forgotten they followed this blog or they have set it to auto-delete when the emails show up.  Maybe I will woo them back by the occasional interesting post.  If 1500 people can like a blog that rambles about changing diapers and trying to discern God while canning vegetables and baking organic non-GMO bread, there is hope for any one blog.  Right?

Sunshine on particles of water makes everyone happy–(Sorry, John Denver)

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It’s that time of year in the Midwest. The hours of daylight are shrinking, temperatures are dropping, and the the days are grayer and grayer. Our evolutionary drives tell us to start eating lots of carbs and to move slowly. We get a bit growly. We walk with our eyes to the ground, as if refusing to look Mother Nature in the face will stave off the onset of winter.

And then the gray clouds part and the beautiful fall evening sunshine hits the moisture in the air and creates a full technicolor rainbow with, yes, it sounds too good to be true, a second paler rainbow above.

double rainbow

People get out of their cars and stare at the sky. They point and chat with strangers also getting out of their cars. They stand and talk while they watch this magnificent double rainbow, certain it will not last long. People emerge from buildings, grim looks on their faces, but, rainbow spotted, they stop in their tracks and smile. Cars slow. Cell phones snap photos even though the owners know no camera can grab the majesty of what they are seeing in the sky.

We are a complex, technology-driven, overscheduled society. And yet, large groups of people stopped and stared at a rainbow. We are a society that would rather stare at our screens and converse with people we can’t see than those right in front of us. And yet, people reached out to strangers and held sustained conversations about sunlight hitting particles of water suspended in the air.

We are a society of scientific explanations. And yet, knowing the science of the rainbow does not diminish the sense of wonder and mystery, that feeling that this rainbow bestows a blessing or is a sign of the bestowal of a blessing. It’s a sign and that implies a someone or something trying to communicate with us through signs.

The rainbow lasted for nearly 30 minutes. Eventually people had to continue on their paths or get back in their cars, but they did so with lighter hearts. When their heads hit their pillows after the sun had set and the rainbow had disappeared, they dreamed of rainbows and a world in which there was light and hope and mystery.

Why I Write to My Dead Father on Facebook

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It’s a social media world, at least in 2014 America. Much of my life is on Facebook: the personal, the political, the professional, and now, the paranormal?

When my father died in December I wavered between certainty he was in somewhere I’ve called heaven with my grandparents and aunt and uncle who preceded him in death and my certainty that he was nowhere, just a collection of atoms that stopped breathing and now waited to rejoin the earth once they liberated themselves from the chemicals with which we embalmed them and the lead-lined box in which we placed them. I have not moved much beyond this wavering. For the longest time, I could not feel my father’s presence anywhere except in dreams. Then his headstone arrived and suddenly I could feel him in wind around the plot of ground that housed his atoms’ box. My hands on the granite created a connection with those atoms and brought together the wind so that he could hear me and I could feel him. Now I understood why my mother always rubs the headstone of her parents’ grave after kissing her hand and says she loves them. The granite is a conduit to that something our parents have become or to which they have transitioned.

This strangely medieval sense of the physical and spiritual brings me to my second node of contact, much more modern: my father’s Facebook page. My mother left his page as it was the day he died. She didn’t turn it into a legacy page. On Facebook, my father lives on. On his birthday, friends and family wrote on his wall to wish him the birthday for which he never tasted his cake or blew out his candles. And on this wall I talk to my father. Do I think spirits read Facebook? Wait for notifications to bing in the spirit world? I do not see my father, like God in Bruce Almighty, checking his email or watching his social media. But my heart feels a release when I type the words on his page much as it feels when I say words that have been too long pent up to a friend, a loved one, or my hairdresser/therapist. When I write on my father’s wall, I feel a connection akin to when I rub the granite of his headstone. I feel him hearing me differently than when I think and ramble in my own head before I fall asleep. The act of typing, of posting, brings my thoughts into focus and directs them toward him. I feel him hearing me, which means I feel him, which means he is, somewhere. This thought is far preferable to me than the feeling that he is nowhere, a breath here and then gone in a chaotic uncaring cosmos. Does this make me deluded? Weird? I don’t know and for now it doesn’t matter.

Communal Grief for a Man Who Made Us Laugh and Helped Us Cry

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I was riding in the car yesterday when I saw on my Facebook feed that Robin Williams had died. I scrolled madly to find a news story that would explain what had happened. What I saw was amazing. Friends of all ages, from all walks of life, had commented to honor or mourn his death. Friends my own age remembered him as Mork or from Dead Poets Society. My younger friends, the young adults, mourned the Genie from Aladdin. Robin’s impact on the world through his acting, his comedy, was clear from these posts. His larger impact was evident through the organizations that posted to honor his memory–gay rights organizations, St. Jude’s hospital, theater groups, USO, the British Museum, and many more. Twitter told stories from his friends, anecdotes of how he made them smile when they were down or used humor to bring perspective to the world. People were calling him a national treasure. 

I watched Mork and Mindy. I saw most of his movies. I followed him on Facebook and Twitter. I loved him. I hated it when people didn’t like his more serious movies and wanted to put him in his funny-man box. I loved his beautiful sparkling blue eyes.

But I didn’t know Robin Williams.

So why am I so sad to hear of his death? Why did the thought of his light going out bring me to tears in the shower, where tears and cleansing water mingle together to hide the shame of such grief?  Why do I want to watch all of his movies again, search YouTube for standup bits, listen to interviews?  Why this insatiable hunger to hear and see him?

My father died in December. He would have been 63 this July. I didn’t know he and Robin Williams were the same age until reading of Robin’s death. My father did not commit suicide, but I am/was angry at the world for losing him so early. I cannot imagine the feelings his family will go through as they wrestle with their grief at their loss and the way their loss happened. I cried for his daughter and cried for myself through her.

Is that enough to bring this grief?

Two years ago my uncle committed suicide. We knew he was depressed, but not that he was that depressed. My mother and aunt and uncle struggle with guilt that they didn’t know, weren’t able to do something. I cried for his wife and children, his friends, who will struggle with that guilt even while they know it was not their faults.

To my shame, I cried for all of us because we will not have the gift of his humor, his take on the world as we go on. I cried because I wanted more of him that he should not have had to give, but that he did give and so generously.

I also cried for the fact that life has to end. We all know this, but when we start to lose those we love, this intellectual fact becomes an inscribed fact, a physical reality that cannot be bargained or logiced away. Sixty-three is not nearly far enough away. No one says of a loss at 63, he lived a good life and makes peace with that loss.

Tonight my Facebook feed is still full of Robin Williams tributes–videos, memes, anecdotes, reminders of suicide hotlines, reflections on depression. Yahoo News reported in a single sentence the manner of his death. Our communal grief brings us together, ties us to our own losses, and offers us the kind of support we so rarely offer those close to us because we are a society that shares everything but fears intimacy.

At my father’s funeral, I was touched and lifted by the many stories told that demonstrated how many people had valued my father and how many people’s lives he had touched in meaningful ways. I hope Robin Williams’ family finds uplift in the celebrations of his impact on all of our lives.

Despite so many feeling as if they knew Robin Williams, I cannot help but call to mind the speech from Meryl Streep’s character at the end of Out of Africa at the funeral of her lover.

“Now take back the soul of Robin Williams, whom You have shared with us. He brought us joy…we loved him well.

He was not ours.

He was not mine.”

Thank you for the part of you you gave us, Mr. Williams.  I am sorry we could not give you back enough.

8/12/14