Ask Not What My Child Can Do For You…

My daughter is a talented cellist. I knew from the moment she first held a bow that she’d found her instrument. She started playing two years ago, but to hear her play, you’d think she’s been studying music for much, much longer. She’s talented, yes. More importantly, she’s passionately committed to mastering her instrument. She practices for at least an hour every day after school, and she works with her private teacher every Saturday. I occasionally have to remind her to clean the cat’s litter box, but I never have to remind her to practice her cello.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’re probably aware that I am new to parenting. I’ve been a stepmom for about three years, and I’ve only been a full-time mom for a little over a year and a half. Although it’s been quite a challenge to get a handle on being a parent, one major advantage I think I have is that I’ve not been completely desensitized to the dysfunction of our public education system. Most parents I know are resigned to the fact that their children aren’t getting a solid education. Those who are fully engaged in parenting try to fill in the gaps where they can, but so many more parents just send their kids off to school and hope for the best.

My husband and I have taken a more proactive approach to our daughter’s education. We’ve gone so far as to relocate to another city just to get her into a particular school that we feel will give her the best opportunity to achieve her full potential. It’s a charter school with a classical approach to education and a rigorous curriculum. Unlike our current public school system where the bar is set so low that no child can possibly be left behind, the standards at our daughter’s new school are set so high that even the best and brightest will have to stretch to hit the mark.

I may be new to parenting, but I am certainly not new to teaching or learning. I’ve trained dogs and people for decades. I’m also a self-taught jewelry artisan and a life-long learner. It’s been my observation that, whether you set the bar high or set it low, any student (quadruped or biped) will almost always hit the mark. So, why not set the bar high?

That said, I’ll get back to my original point about my daughter’s musical ability. We had an unusual experience at her recent solo and ensemble competition, and it’s been bothering me for weeks. This was her second solo and ensemble competition, and (just as we expected) she did extremely well. She received a superior rating for her solo. Last year she also achieved a superior score for her first solo, and we were able to collect her blue medal on site after her score was posted.

Being in a different school district this year, we weren’t sure how or where she would get her medal as there were no vendors present at the competition. So, we stopped one of the district orchestra conductors in the hallway and asked him how our daughter could get her medal. He explained that the district buys the blue medals for those students who received superior scores, and that parents could purchase medals online from the vendor for lower scores. I mentioned that our daughter achieved a superior score, and then I watched the man transform, right before my eyes, from helpful educator to hard-core recruiter. He immediately started grilling my daughter with questions about where she planned to go to high school, and then he pitched his high school to us.

I could sense his frustration when I informed him that our daughter would be transferring to a charter school next year, and as that she would be completing her secondary education there (the charter school serves students from sixth through twelfth grade). I get it. Public school teachers hate seeing their best and brightest transfer out of the public education system into charter schools and private schools.

It must be incredibly disheartening for those teachers who love to teach to lose the few students in their classrooms who love to learn. But as a parent, my only concern is for my daughter’s best interests. She’s a straight-A student at her current school. She’s in advanced classes across the board, yet she’s not being challenged academically. Frankly, the bar at her current public middle school isn’t set high enough to stretch our daughter’s mind or her imagination. She readily admits that she’s not challenged, and this is where I think the public education system is truly failing our children. The commitment to leaving no child behind is admirable and well-intentioned, I’m sure, but it comes at the expense of smart kids like my daughter.

The talents and intellects of our best and brightest aren’t being challenged in public schools because of a bizarre national obsession with leveling the playing field. As parents with an obligation to prepare our daughter to face the real world, where the playing field is most certainly not level, we’ve opted to raise the bar considerably when it comes to her education. I’d much rather see her struggle to get Bs and Cs in calculus and Socratic seminars than watch her get straight As in her current school’s curriculum with little to no effort.

My daughter already has a strong work ethic. I see it every day in her commitment to cello practice. Her work ethic alone will take her far in life, but imagine how much further she can go with a strong work ethic and a great education. Our public education system is irretrievably broken, and I understand that that’s not the fault of the teachers alone. I’m weary, though, of seeing teachers greedily eyeing my daughter as if she’s some sort of solution to the deficiencies in their classrooms. The same education system that is failing to challenge my daughter desperately wants her to remain in that system–not so she can be educated, but so she can elevate test scores and win awards and scholarships that will reflect positively on the school.

Again, I get it. But my job as a parent is to make sure my daughter is adequately prepared for a future that, frankly, is looking pretty bleak given the current political state of this country. I’m not at all interested in boosting the ego of a high school orchestra conductor by allowing him to lay claim to her musical talent and prodigious ability. Nor am I interested in boosting the test scores of a public school by allowing my daughter to languish in an unstimulating environment for the next six years.

Education is not supposed to be about what our kids can do for the system. It’s about what the system can do for our kids. My daughter’s new school understands the difference, and it’s committed to doing precisely what public schools have failed to do: educate the best and brightest by providing a challenging environment and maintaining high academic standards.

 

 

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I Have a Thing for Connections

For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt compelled to connect the dots all around me. As a child, I remember observing strange and erratic behavior in many of the adults in my life. My childhood was, well… let’s just say it was chaotic at best. The way that I coped with the chaos is that I learned to order it.

I started paying attention to the nature of cause and effect, and the more I paid attention to those things, the more I began to see how all things are connected. The more I understood those connections, the more I was able to create some semblance of order in a world that could erupt in chaos at any moment.

Creating jewelry is, for me, a personal expression of my understanding of connections. I suppose that’s why I’m so intensely (perhaps even compulsively) drawn to art forms that involve connections. As I look around at my workspace and the materials I choose to work with, what jumps out at me is that they all have one thing in common: they’re all used for various forms of weaving.

The chains I weave are intricately connected together, link by link, in various forms that are as pleasing to the eye and to touch as they are mechanically strong and sound. The wire work that I do is similar to basket weaving in that it allows me to create forms that are both functional and beautiful. More importantly, it allows me to create forms that will last. Pieces that are timeless.

As I begin my foray into working with knotting cords and micro macramé, I find myself once again exploring an art form that centers on connections. What starts out on my workbench as a chaotic jumble of individual cords gradually comes together to form a cohesive, ordered design. The sum of those once chaotic and disconnected individual parts join together as one to create a beautifully ordered and functional whole.

 

I create jewelry in order to make sense of the chaos around me. And through the process of creating, I rediscover daily how I am connected to everything and everyone else around me. When you like a piece of Door 44 Jewelry that you see on Facebook, Pinterest or Twitter, I feel an instant connection to you. When you buy a piece of Door 44 Jewelry, I’m acutely aware of all the connections that might come from that single exchange–from my hands to yours–for better or worse.

Perhaps that piece will go on to form another link in a chain of sisterhood, from your hands to those of someone you love. Maybe even on through multiple generations from you to a daughter, granddaughter, or niece who may pass it on again to the next generation of women of your family–all of whom will be irrevocably connected to me and perhaps my own daughter, should she choose to follow in my footsteps.

Jewelry, as it turns out, is a wonderful means for me to connect with my 12-year-old stepdaughter. We’ve only known one another for about three years now, and we still have a great deal to learn about each other. But I do know for certain that we share a common love of jewelry. Teaching her to make jewelry and to appreciate it is proving to be perhaps the most powerful path toward an unbreakable bond that we share at this fragile phase of our mother/daughter relationship.

A dear friend got me thinking today about why I make jewelry, and what (ultimately) I hope to achieve by sharing my jewelry with you. I realized that the heart of the matter is this: Our mutual love and appreciation for beauty is what binds us together. We may have disparate political ideologies or wildly different world views that seem to divide us. What inevitably binds us together, though–what restores our sense of connectedness–is a return to those essential elements of life for which we all share a mutual appreciation: love, beauty and harmony. Sisterhood. Compassion…

 

Jewelry is all about connections, and I have a thing for connections.

Thanks for allowing me to connect with you today.

Five Important Things I’ve Learned About Myself Since Getting Married

My husband Matt and I are celebrating our second wedding anniversary today. Our marriage has been a bit of a wild ride, thus far. Not in a bad way, but we’ve dealt with an awful lot of change in what seems to be (at least in theory) a pretty short span of time.

The following are a few surprising things I’ve learned about myself along the way:

I can cook!

I don’t mean that in the sarcastic sense that I can order takeout or heat up a processed box of chemicals that sort of resembles food. I mean I have a genuine knack for cooking delicious and healthy meals from scratch. Who knew?!

Cooking was never a priority for me while I was single. I regarded food largely as an inconvenient necessity that I had to address two or three times a day. Since getting married, though, I’ve discovered the joys of both cooking and eating. Dinners at the Reamys’ house are pretty spectacular.

I love being part of something greater than myself.

This one really wasn’t a huge revelation. I’ve always wanted to be part of something bigger. I’ve always been a company girl wherever I worked. I’ve always worked for the greatest good of whatever organization I was a part of at any point in my life. What’s always been missing, though, is the sense that my commitment was reciprocated.

It wasn’t until I married my husband that I fully understood what it means to be part of something bigger than myself. Before Matt, I knew what it was to be a cog in a machine, a means to an end, a decoration on an arm, and a crutch. With Matt, I’m finally part of something that really is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s pretty amazing. And a little daunting at times, which brings me to my next point.

I’m not as emotionally mature and rational as I like to think I am.

Not having good role models as a kid made for a pretty tumultuous start to my career. I was headstrong and inflexible; and being a naturally strong personality, I wasn’t always the easiest person to get along with. It took a few years and a lot of hard knocks for me to develop the emotional maturity necessary to work well in a professional environment, but I eventually learned how to keep my cool when dealing with difficult coworkers.

Dealing with my husband and stepdaughter are an entirely different ballgame, though. It’s easy to keep your cool with coworkers when you’re not emotionally vested in those relationships. Conflicts with people you love are infinitely more difficult to handle. Jobs will come and go, but the stakes are so much higher when the two most important relationships in your life depend on your ability to behave like an adult twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

I have a far greater capacity for love than I ever imagined.

I’ve been told all my life that I’m a selfish, self-absorbed, spoiled rotten brat. My own sis… um… a female relative who’s insisted she not be named on my “worldwide bully pulpit” called me a narcissist (among other poison barbs) recently. You hear those things often enough from people close to you, and you start to believe them. I’ve also been told that I’m not a team player by a few managers and supervisors in the past who didn’t like anyone challenging their authority.

Let me tell you something about those statements: they’re wake-up calls. That’s the universe telling you, in no uncertain terms, that it’s time to do some interpersonal housekeeping. We are social creatures by nature. Thus, it is our nature to love and to collaborate in ways that are mutually beneficial—not one sided. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

If someone accuses you of not being a team player, it’s because you’re on the wrong team. If someone close to you spews toxic venom without provocation, it’s because they’re so filled with self-hatred and rage that they’re incapable of love.

Walk away. Cut the cord, and give yourself permission to find the people you are meant to love—the ones who will love and appreciate you for who you are rather than who they need or want you to be. Find those people, and you will be amazed by your own capacity for love. You will undoubtedly discover, as I have, that to truly love and to be truly loved is an experience like no other. Finding it isn’t easy, but there’s no mistaking it once you do find your way back to the love that is your birthright.

I am incredibly blessed.

IMG_6633I always knew I’d ultimately marry the right man for me, but it took me a really long time to find him. Every time I walked away from someone I knew wasn’t The One, people would tell me that I’m too picky and that I’d never meet anyone who was perfect. They were wrong.

They were wrong in so many ways, I can’t begin to count them. Matt isn’t perfect. Neither am I, but we’re perfect for one another; and that makes all the difference. Thank God I trusted myself and chose to ignore the naysayers because it was my own intuition that lead me to my husband.

Great risk brings great reward, they say. It’s also true, then, that unwavering faith brings tremendous blessings.

Happy anniversary, Matt. I love you.

Mastering the Impetuous, Impulsive Id

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I grew up in an abusive home dominated by a violent alcoholic. Certain friends and family members have expressed concern (and in some cases, extreme displeasure), that I am “airing dirty laundry” here on my blog, and I get it. I understand their concern, and I respect their view. I share neither their concern nor their view, however. I believe that the only way to effectively address our darkest impulses and behaviors is to shine a light on them and examine them objectively.

I vividly recall a certain argument I once had with my (then) fiancé way back in 1995. I was just 25 years old at the time, and I’d very recently moved to Seward, Alaska to be with the man I planned to marry. The image of that argument is so clearly etched in my mind that I can literally close my eyes and watch the replay like a movie. Occasionally I’ll experience something in my present life that will bring that memory flooding back to the forefront of my mind.  I had one of those experiences yesterday, and that memory is now keeping me awake—compelling me to write about it at 3:48 AM.

We’d only been ‘home’ in Seward for three days after spending the three days prior driving from Fort Collins, CO to Alaska. The trip was extremely stressful, and I found myself continually on edge from the moment “Sam” (not his real name) arrived at Denver International Airport. We fought a lot on the drive to Alaska. We were completely out of synch with one another, and it seemed that the more we tried to get back in synch, the further out of phase we ended up. I finally resorted to sleep as a means of escape. The 3-day drive (which should really have taken more like 5-6 days) was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting. So much so that I was basically reduced to a petulant toddler ready to throw a raging tantrum at the slightest provocation.

My third day as a resident of Seward, AK was gloriously sunny and clear—a rarity in that tiny coastal town. I woke up that morning determined to get back on the same page with Sam, and we got off to a really good start. I made breakfast and promised to help him do some work in the yard as soon as I tidied up the kitchen. Meanwhile, he went out and washed my Bronco, which was still caked with mud and road grime from the long drive to Alaska. We were both clearly trying, and the bright sunny day seemed like a positive sign that things were going to be okay. Almost immediately after I joined Sam outside, however, the energy between us shifted back out of phase. We were stacking some wood together when my approach to the job prompted Sam to mildly criticize my technique. He wasn’t particularly tactful with his criticism, but he wasn’t malicious about it either. Yet, the fact that he had (what I assumed was) the audacity to criticize me at all ignited the hair-triggered temper I had back then, and I flew into a rage.

We both started shouting over one other, and then he suddenly lowered his voice and asked me, “Why are you so angry?” I was stunned silent because I didn’t have an answer to his question. I racked my brain to come up with a particular slight he’d made that was at the root of my rage, but I couldn’t pinpoint anything specific. So, with all the maturity and grace of a petulant toddler, I stormed off into the house and refused to speak to him for the rest of the day.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that moment marked a major turning point in my life. It was in that moment that my quest to truly understand myself, my past, and the ways in which my upbringing influenced my behavior began. Until Sam stumped me with that very pointed question, I’d never seriously questioned my past or how it shaped me. Once the urgency to break away from my father’s tyranny had passed when I first moved 250 miles away from home, I naively assumed that I was free of my past. I later realized, of course, that I had a lot of work to do in order to shake the influence of my volatile father.

Things didn’t work out with Sam. We struggled to hold it together for about three months before we finally gave up and went our separate ways. When I reflect back on that experience, however, I’m incredibly grateful to him for asking me that crucially important question at a critical juncture in my life:

Why are you so angry?

Those words became sort of a mantra for me from that day forward. I began to monitor my moods and my behavior, and whenever I became aware that I might be overreacting to something trivial, I’d ask myself that question. Gradually I realize that the perceived slights that ignited my temper—someone cutting me off in traffic, a snarky remark from a coworker, bad service at a restaurant, etc.—were not worth the energy I gave them. Yet I still struggled to come up with an answer to that question. Why was I so angry, anyway?

To this day I can’t put my finger on it. The rage that I’d unconsciously internalized at some point in my life, and that I’d been blind to until Sam called it to my attention, couldn’t be tied to a specific person, place, or thing. The closest I ever came to identifying the root of my internal rage was acknowledging that I’d experienced more betrayals of trust than the average individual. I was betrayed by several family members in early childhood and later by friends, classmates and peers. My first boyfriend cruelly executed a malicious act of revenge against me that I think stunned even him once he realized how badly he’d wounded me. My discomfort with vulnerability can be clearly traced to that very specific event, but not my anger. So, where does the anger come from?

I don’t know. I spent years seeking a definitive answer to that question, but somewhere along the way I realized that it ultimately doesn’t matter. All that really does matter is that I’m willing and self-aware enough to ask myself that pointed question (which, to this day, I still hear in in Sam’s voice in my mind) in the heat of a moment so I can re-balance my perspective and behave accordingly.

Why are you so angry?

I’m able to recognize that the things that make me angry today aren’t big enough to allow my impetuous, impulsive id to throw a temper tantrum. And now that I’m a parent and a role model for a very perceptive preteen who grows more independent every day, I’m acutely aware that I may be influencing her through my own reactions to the perceived slights we all encounter daily on the road, at work, and in our daily interactions with random strangers.

The next time you find yourself seething with rage because someone cut in front of you in the checkout line or because they weren’t driving fast enough for you to make it through an intersection before the light turned yellow, ask yourself:

Why are you so angry?

I’ll bet you’ll learn that the answer to that question has nothing to do with the woman who cut in line or the driver who was more engaged in conversation with his passenger than he was with the act of driving at the moment you happened to be behind him. Like me, you may never be able to pinpoint a specific answer to that question, but in this instance, just asking the question is far more important than answering it.

Internalized anger is like a ticking time bomb waiting to explode at the slightest provocation. Take it from someone who survived the volatile temper of a raging alcoholic as a child and then spent a lifetime working to master her own impetuous, impulsive id as a result: get a grip on your internalized anger before it turns destructive.

Don’t allow it to hurt someone you love or to destroy your relationships. It’s just not worth it.

Selective Compassion

I heard a great phrase today: selective compassion.

These words resonate with me for a couple of reasons. First of all, I have to admit that I’m guilty of selective compassion. I have a strong tendency to identify with those I feel are innocent victims of circumstance—children, the elderly, animals, etc. Compassion for the innocent comes easily and naturally to me. I am far less inclined to feel compassion for grown adults whose circumstances are purely the result of their personal choices, however. This is perhaps most evident in my lack of compassion for The Ex.

The second reason selective compassion resonated with me today is because my last two blog posts were met with highly irrational and verbally abusive responses from an angry reader. This reader left a long, rambling response to one of those blog posts. I moderate all initial comments from readers, and I chose not to approve this particular response for publication because I don’t feel it adds any value to the conversation. I did respond to the comment privately, however, and my reply was met with more bitterness and hatefulness. Among other things, this angry reader (who is not The Ex, in case you’re wondering) accused me of being a narcissist and a lousy parent.

Being the introspective sort, I’ve given a great deal of thought to these accusations. I’ve examined them from every angle in order to determine if there’s any truth to those remarks. Although I’m far from perfect, I am definitely not a narcissist. On the contrary, I was consistently cast in the role of Echo to many a Narcissus prior to meeting my husband, Matt. My attraction to men who couldn’t love me was actually the subject of many therapy sessions during my late 20s and early 30s. Even though I know I’m not a narcissist by any stretch of the definition, being accused as such stung nonetheless.

As for the quality of my parenting, I’ve questioned this myself in an earlier blog post. I am nowhere near perfect in that role, either. I have so much to learn, and I’ll be the first to admit that I struggle with parenting daily. It’s easy to believe that I am a “lousy parent” because I already doubt myself in that regard, but it’s much too early to make any firm conclusions about my parenting. I’ve only been a full-time parent for just over one year, after all. By all indications, however, my husband and I seem to be doing a pretty good job thus far.

Over the course of the past year, our daughter seems increasingly happier and more confident. She’s blossomed socially and makes friends more easily than ever. She went from testing a full grade below her current level in math to testing a grade and a half above her current level. She’s found an outlet for her passion for music in the cello, which is in turn helping her develop the ability to commit to goals and the work ethic to achieve them. It’s impossible to say at this point how successful my daughter will ultimately be or how much of her future success can ever be attributed to my influence. It is reasonable to conclude, however, that these are not the sort of results typically achieved with lousy parenting.

As I’ve processed these deeply personal and hateful attacks on my character, the most dominant emotion I’ve felt toward my accuser is anger. Today, though, I realized that selective compassion is what allowed that anger to take root in the first place. The moment I recognized myself as someone who doles out compassion discriminately, the anger dissipated. Likewise, the moment I recognized selective compassion in my accuser, her words lost any power to hurt me.

The next time someone tries to provoke you, ask yourself where compassion fits into the picture. Are you choosing to forgo compassion by engaging in their drama? Are they choosing to forgo compassion with their provocative words or actions? Chances are, the answer to both questions is a resounding yes. That is certainly true in my experience with the Angry Reader.

I don’t know how consistently or universally I can really expect to feel compassion for others, but expanding the depth and breadth of my compassion is something I plan to consciously work on now that I understand how quickly and easily compassion neutralizes drama.

Change Management

The only constant any of us can really count on these days is change. We Reamys have been in a state of flux since last July when my husband’s ex-wife was suddenly struck with a serious medical condition. We had to scramble to move my stepdaughter into our home and enroll her in a new school in our local district. Virtually overnight I went from being a weekend warrior to a full-time mom.

Luckily, my stepdaughter is an easy kid to love. She’s wickedly smart and funny, just like her father. She has a sunny disposition, and as an only child, she’s mature for her age. And the icing on the cake? She’s every bit as horse crazy as I am. I truly hit the stepchild jackpot—I couldn’t ask for a better daughter. Still, it’s taken every bit of the past nine months for me to get a handle on this new parenting gig.

Being a wife is easy. Being a stepmom is perhaps the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced. When I look back on my life, though, it’s easy to see that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I’ve been preparing for this role for most of my life.

None of us grow up in a perfect environment. If even a small percentage of us did, I suspect the world would be a very different place. The environment in which I was raised was volatile, to say the least. My father is a violent alcoholic with an explosive temper and a hair trigger. My mom did her best to take care of us, and against all odds, she managed surprisingly well. I am continually amazed by her determination and resilience, but even the strongest among us can’t endure sustained abuse for long without becoming permanently scarred.

My most significant advantage in life is the fact that I am the youngest member of my family. My two siblings are five and six years older than me. Our age difference gave me the opportunity to watch and learn in ways that I never fully appreciated until I became a parent. I learned to see how my family members interacted, for better or worse, and I carefully observed the choices my parents and siblings made. By witnessing the consequences of their actions, I was able to make better choices for myself. I was mostly spared the trouble of learning things the hard way, though I’ve had my share of hard knocks.

Basically, I learned to navigate the world by observing others for examples of what not to do. How not to behave. Which choices not to make. Which company not to keep. Negative examples were pretty much all I had to work with, but rather than emulating those examples, I sought out more positive alternatives. And that has made all the difference.

It’s been over two months since I’ve published a blog post. I’ve had so much to say during that hiatus, and I’ve drafted more than a few unpublished posts. You see, the biggest change we Reamys have experienced in these past few months is that my husband and I were awarded permanent custody of our daughter after what was possibly the shortest, if not the least contentious, custody battle in the history of Colorado. It took just 45 days from initial motion to signed court order, but it’s taking much longer than that to fully process my emotions. For my daughter’s sake, I’ve chosen to keep my thoughts about how all of this went down private. All she really needs to know is that she is dearly loved, safe, and secure. She’s a very perceptive child, though. I suspect she’s fully aware of so much more than that.

We’ve all been on an emotional rollercoaster for the past several weeks. I am at once elated that we won full custody of our daughter and heartbroken that we had to enter that battle in the first place. I’ve struggled to overcome my prejudices toward her mother only to learn new information that reaffirms them.

I’ve held my tongue while enduring unsolicited advice from people who know nothing of our situation. My sister tried to shame me for suggesting that my daughter is better off with my husband and me than with her mom. She’s never even met my daughter or my husband’s ex-wife. She’s only met my husband on two very brief occasions, for that matter, but that didn’t stop her from sticking her nose into our business.

My mother-in-law, bless her heart, wants everyone to simply get along and resolve things amicably. She still thinks of The Ex as family. I don’t. Frankly, I resent the suggestion that I should embrace and befriend someone who openly and blatantly disrespects my husband. Part of the reason we sought custody in the first place is because The Ex was manipulating our daughter’s feelings about everything from her school to my husband and me in very destructive and dangerous ways. I’ve worked hard to free myself from the emotional abusers and manipulators of my past, so I’m not about to invite another one into my life, give her free rein to challenge my husband’s authority in his own household and to chip away at our daughter’s self-esteem.

All of this has put my change management skills to the ultimate test. I’ve had to scrape up every ounce of tact and diplomacy I could muster to deal with the unsolicited and unhelpful opinions of others. Empathizing with my daughter is easy because I remember clearly what it’s like to be a child with no real control or autonomy. Standing by my husband and fully supporting the decision to fight for custody was easy because it was so clearly the right choice. Figuring out how to finance that fight was another significant test of my change management skills, but I effectively pulled that off, too. Who knew that all those years of being a corporate drone would ultimately pay off in such a strange and unexpected way? A lifetime of dysfunctional family dynamics and couple of decades of experience in the business world turned out to be the perfect training ground for becoming an empathetic wife and mother.

My daughter is too young to fully understand the significance of this year, but her ability to think critically grows daily. Someday she’ll look back on this year and realize that it’s the year she reclaimed her childhood. Perhaps more importantly, I think she’ll recognize that this was the year in which she finally started getting the sort of parental support and guidance necessary to achieve her full potential. She already has bigger dreams today than she had a year ago, and I look forward to watching her dreams continue to expand and evolve.

Change is good. It’s not always easy, but nothing grows without it. The past couple of months have been both mentally and emotionally exhausting for all three of us, but I am so very grateful for this experience because it’s opened the door to some fabulous opportunities for our little family.

Change is inevitable. Embrace it. And if someone you know is going through a significant life change, allow them to embrace it–even if you can’t. Navigating change is difficult enough without some well-meaning (or perhaps not-so-well-meaning) friend or relative trying to keep you bound to a person, place, or thing from which you are ready to break free.

Change is benevolent. I haven’t always believed that to be true, but the events of this past year have convinced me, once and for all, that things really do have a way of working out for the greatest good.

Stepping Up to Step-parenting

I suck at parenting. I admit it, I’m a bad mom. I could make a million excuses for my failure. After all, I didn’t give birth to my daughter. She came into my life as a bright and bubbly 9-year-old fourth grader with a fully formed personality and a real mom to whom she is profoundly attached.

I always wanted to be a mom, and because I like kids, I always believed I’d be good at it. Imagine my surprise, then, when I realized that I suck at parenting. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, depending on the way you look at it), I’m not alone. The truth of the matter is that most parents suck at parenting. I know very few parents who are actually good at it. Most of us are just winging it.

We manage to feed and clothe our kiddos, and we try to make good choices in terms of their education. When it comes to the hard stuff, though, we all pretty much stumble around blindly. What separates those of us with the potential to become good parents from those who will perpetually suck at parenting is our ability to accept that our children are unique individuals, separate from us, with their own lives to live. They’re not extensions of us. Our own identities should not be inextricably tied to our kids, yet I see that in so many parents. I see it in my daughter’s mother.

I’ve often joked that my past reads more as a cautionary tale than a fairy tale. My recent foray into parenting is proving to be no exception in that regard. I read a wonderful blog post recently, An Open Letter to My Daughter’s Stepmom, that made me realize how far my daughter’s mother and I are from being a good co-parenting team. Unlike the Mom/Stepmom pair in that letter, our relationship was adversarial from the beginning, and it’s grown progressively worse in the months since our daughter came to live with her dad and me.

I don’t want to be the enemy. I don’t want to be the demon who has stolen a mother’s daughter. All I want—all I’ve ever wanted—is what’s best for a bright little girl who was unfairly dealt a bad hand. If that makes me the enemy, so be it. If teaching our daughter to be independent and to think critically about the things that people (including those she loves most) say and do makes me a demon, so be it. If the fact that our daughter has thrived in the months she’s lived under our roof makes me the source of all evil, I can accept that.

I may very well suck at parenting. But if my willingness to put an innocent little girl’s needs above my own and my ability to distinguish between her identity and mine are any indication, at least I can take comfort in the fact that I have the potential to become a good parent. Someday.

Postcarrus Depression

We hear about postpartum depression all the time. The baby blues. I’ve known women who have suffered from this affliction, and it’s awful. All the more so because society insists that women should be rejoicing in the birth of their child; not wallowing in depression. As if it’s a choice.

As I’ve been purging old paperwork from my past, I’ve had an opportunity to revisit the highlights of my career. I’ve unearthed old recognition awards, letters of appreciation, and even a couple of articles I co-authored that were published in technical journals. If you were ever an avid reader of Disaster Recovery Journal or Site Magazine, you might have read one of my articles about the potential hazards of operating and maintaining lead acid battery banks in telecom environments. Pretty riveting stuff!

I’ve reviewed old tax returns—the ones where my income was steadily climbing—only to be reminded of how successful I was and how much promise I had professionally. And as I reviewed my more recent tax returns, of course I was reminded of how far I’ve fallen.

I’ve looked for an appropriate label for my current state of depression, but I couldn’t find one. So I made up my own:

postcarrus depression (noun)
1.    a period of sadness or emotional withdrawal following the abrupt end or loss of a career or livelihood.

When I got married last year, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to go back to work fulltime. The plan was for me to take a few months off so I could finish my degree and get acquainted with a new city. I enjoyed those first few months of staying home because I knew they were only temporary, and I was absolutely confident in my ability to find work as soon as I was ready to jump back in the workforce. And then my stepdaughter came to live with us, and everything changed.

My husband recently accepted a new job that has tremendous potential for his own career. He had to accept this new opportunity, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he has been essentially hamstrung in his current position by upper management’s unwillingness to face reality. That’s a frustrating place to be—I’ve been there several times myself—so I couldn’t very well tell my husband that he should stick with his current job. The truth is that his current employer is heading straight for an iceberg, and the captain of the ship is stubbornly determined to stay the course.

The project will inevitably fail without a dramatic course correction, and my husband would likely be out of a job when that happens anyway. So his best option was to start looking for a new job. Another opportunity came along synchronistically almost the moment he fully committed to a new job search. It was one of those things that just fell into his lap, apparently from out of nowhere, so he took it. He’s the right guy for the job for certain. Whether or not the organization is the right one for him remains to be seen, but I’m proud of him. He’s going to learn a lot in his new role, and he’ll make some important network connections that will help him reach his ultimate goal of working overseas. It’s a huge step in the right direction for him. For us, really, but where does it leave me?

Essentially, it leaves me even more beholden to my stepdaughter’s needs than ever. My husband is going to have a brutal commute when he starts his new gig, so there’s virtually no chance that he’ll be able to either drop off or pick up the kiddo at school. She was a latchkey kid while living with her mom, and she spent most of her time in a dark and dreary daycare facility where she, as the oldest kid of the bunch, was expected to entertain the little ones. She rarely complained about that situation, but we could see the toll it took in the way she would retreat to her room for hours when she got to our house. Much like her father and I, she’s an introvert, so she needs solitude in order to recharge. She enjoys socializing with other kids, but too much noise and chaos wears her out.

Knowing this about my stepdaughter, I can’t very well force her go back to being a latchkey kid—not now while she’s still living under our roof anyway. So I’m stuck. I can’t very well put aside her needs so I can pursue my own selfish interests. The right answer to the question is obviously that her needs are a higher priority than my own. Friends and family not so subtly remind me of this fact whenever the subject comes up. I’ve heard all the clichés about how I’m making a positive difference in the life of a child; I’m giving my stepdaughter greater opportunities; children at the most important work; yadda, yadda, yadda…

Intellectually, I get it. Emotionally, I’m not there yet.

Step-Parenting: It’s Not for Sissies

The first nine months of our marriage were blissfully happy. We took long drives, long walks, and we talked for hours. We talked about our future. We laughed a lot. We dreamed of the places we would go and the things we would see and do. And suddenly, everything changed.

When I married my husband, I did so with my eyes wide open. I knew he had a daughter, and I knew his relationship with The Ex was… well… strained, to say the least. Truthfully, when he and I reconnected in January 2013 after a two-year hiatus, I was hesitant to get seriously involved with him because of that fact. I learned long before I met my husband that I am not mentally or emotionally suited to deal with a bitter ex-wife who uses her child as a pawn in her quest to make her ex-husband miserable.

My husband was royally screwed by the court system during his divorce, as fathers so often are. The Ex was awarded residential custody of his daughter, and he was granted visitation just every other weekend and alternating holidays. How that actually played out in reality is that The Ex would “let” him have his daughter whenever it suited her. It wasn’t long into our engagement that I learned her MO. She dictates the terms, and my husband complies, mostly because it isn’t worth the trouble to argue with her. It made me angry that The Ex lords his daughter over him like a weapon, but I let it go because I agreed it wasn’t worth fighting over a few hours here and there on the visit schedule. Shortly after we married, I began to notice that The Ex seemed to be trying to make visits particularly inconvenient for us by arranging inconsistent pick-up times. Sometimes she’d demand that we return our daughter early. Other times, she’d insist she couldn’t pick her up until Monday morning, which meant the poor kid had to get up at the crack of dawn and endure a 60-minute commute to school. This sort of passive-aggressive behavior is typical of many divorced parents, I think. It seems to be particularly evident among divorced mothers, but I’ve often wondered to what end.

Is this really the sort of interpersonal behavior we want to model for the generation that will be responsible for taking care of us in our final years?

I think not, but what do I know? I’m not a parent. I’m a step-parent, which I’ve discovered over these past several weeks is a lot like being a project manager in that you own all of the responsibility, but you have no real authority. I was a PM for most of my professional career, and that imbalance of power is the only aspect of the job that I never liked. And now that imbalance between responsibility and authority has infiltrated my personal life in ways I never imagined possible.

My step-daughter has been with us continually since July 11, 2014. She was scheduled to be with us from July 11th through the 27th, and then she was to return to her mother’s house. Since school would start shortly thereafter, we expected to resume the usual schedule of visits every other weekend following that two-week stay. Midway into the second week of that visit, however, my husband received an urgent phone call from The Ex’s sister. The Ex had been admitted to the hospital after a trip to the emergency room and was scheduled to have surgery the following day to remove a massive brain tumor. The Ex’s sister called to ask if she could take our daughter to see her mom before the surgery. We agreed, naturally. With a hasty introduction in the lobby at my husband’s workplace, I met my daughter’s aunt for the first time and reluctantly handed a scared little girl over to her care, wondering all the while what sort of terrifying hospital scene was waiting for her.

When we picked her up that evening, she was clearly shaken, but she insisted she was okay. Later, my husband pointed out to The Ex’s family that school was scheduled to start in less than three weeks while The Ex was likely to be hospitalized for a month or more. It was plainly evident that the timing of these two events hadn’t occurred to The Ex or her family amidst the chaos between the ER visit and a highly invasive medical procedure.

We offered to keep our daughter for the school year, and The Ex’s family reluctantly agreed that was the best course of action. And with that agreement, three lives were irrevocably changed. The weeks that followed the decision to move our daughter into our home for the 2014/15 school year were a blur of activity. There was paperwork to be gathered and multiple road trips to withdraw her from her old school so we could transfer her to a school in our local district. Our apartment had to be rearranged to turn what was previously a guest room into her private bedroom, and there were mountains of school clothes and supplies to be purchased. The poor kid had very little at her mom’s house that she felt she needed to bring to our house. When we took her there to gather her things, she came out with her backpack, lunchbox, her favorite fleece jacket, and a couple of Barbie dolls.

The first week of school was tough on her. It’s never fun to be the new kid, and it took her a while to make new friends. Fortunately, we were able to obtain the address of her best friend from her old school so the two of them could keep in touch. Those first few days of school, she lived for the moment she could check the mail to see if she received a letter. As the weeks marched on, however, she began to take root and thrive in her new school. She made friends. We enrolled her in dance, choir, and orchestra; and she joined the school’s news team as a camera operator. Her teacher raves about what a great student she is; and we’re finally able to spend the time needed to get her caught up in math, which has been a constant source of frustration for all three of us over this past year.

Now when I listen to her practicing the cello or singing to herself as she’s doing the dinner dishes, I worry that this new life is going to be ripped out from under her when The Ex demands that we send her back at the end of this school year. No more dance, orchestra, or news team. Another new school—this one the dreaded middle school. And no more carefully structured life that revolves wholly around her.

It’ll be back to the chaos that was her life prior to living with us. She’ll be spending most of her evenings alone at a dreary daycare facility. No one will check her homework or help her with her math homework. She’ll be eating more junk food and fewer home cooked meals. Because The Ex is likely to require regular medical observation for the rest of her life, there will be even more running from here to there, and a lot less time to simply be a kid. And I’ll have no choice but to let her go because I have no parental rights where this child of mine is concerned.

I miss the life that my husband and I enjoyed prior to July. It seems that most of the conversations we have now are about our daughter and her school. I miss the conversations about our future, but I’ll miss my daughter even more if I have to let her go back to live with The Ex next year.