Happily Divorced – Celebrating Graduation

Ah, graduation.  Parents of many children probably celebrate this quite differently in their minds and hearts than those of us who have only one child.  And married parents too look to this as an opportunity to transition their relationship back to what it was pre-child.  For me, it represented the end of so many things I love about being a mom and co-parent never to be revisited again.

First there was high school graduation.  I started dreading that about halfway through Ian’s junior year when he started visiting colleges and taking college entrance exams.  He was going to leave home.  I wouldn’t be able to be there for him when he finished his day.  I wouldn’t be able to make a healthy dinner for him.  There would be no more high school football games or parades to see him perform at (not that there wouldn’t be more performances in his case of course).  The high school experience which I once loathed for myself but now looked back on fondly was coming to an end for him.  As for my relationship with Bob, there would be far fewer reasons for us to talk.  Would this mean our friendship would fade?  Would I never have the pleasure of hearing his funny tales or get to spend time with Bob’s family.  Quite frankly, I was overwhelmed with sadness for about 18 months.  I felt my worth and usefulness as a mom was fast diminishing.  My identity was coming to an end.  This may all sound overly dramatic but it really is what I felt.

ian-grad-entranceThankfully, Ian chose to attend college close to home.  So by the time his second semester of his senior year of high school rolled around, I no longer had to consider what I might do if he chose to head off to Southern California or Florida.  He would be able to drive 20 minutes or so from campus to home and I could do the same.  What a relief!

The first senior event Bob and I jointly participated in was senior night during football season.  Senior football players, cheerleaders, and band members were all honored by being given an opportunity to walk across the field with their parents, have their pictures taken at the other side, and be introduced over the PA to the audience.  Bob and I never considered doing it any other way.  In fact, I might even go as far as to say that other parents of Ian’s friends who had divorced later than us chose to follow our lead and do the same having been subjected to our example for Ian’s entire academic career.  I like to think we inspired others anyway.  So we proudly took the field together and have another snapshot of the three of us to take forward through our lifetime of memories.

OOHS Ian Harlow Snare DrummerNext on the list was to create a memorable graduation experience for Ian – one that both of our families could join in together.  I wanted Ian to have a graduation party.  I had not had one and honestly at the time didn’t miss it.  But realized not only did I miss out on marking this occasion in a special way, but I also missed out on gathering some much needed funding for what comes next in life through presents offered by those in attendance.

In our case, the last thing I wanted was to make Ian split time between families during his celebration.  And since we were all on such good terms and genuinely enjoyed each other’s company, why shouldn’t we hold one big joint celebration?  Bob suggested we hold the party at his house since the backyard was better positioned to set up the tents and tables for guests.  Since we were only a quarter mile apart as the crow flies, it would be easy enough for everyone to find it that may not know where Ian’s “other home” was.  We split the costs of food and decorations.  And I was free to invite my friends and family to Bob’s house, which I did without concern.  Bob’s wife Brandi helped with a lot of the details and making sure we got our guest list together and invitations made out in time.  I created an invitation using several pictures arranged into a collage and we jointly addressed and mailed them.  I created a couple of picture posters with snapshots throughout Ian’s life.  I was extra-careful to make sure that family members and friends from both sides were represented so that everyone would feel like they were included in this great celebration and were recognized for their significance in Ian’s life.  I would have not dreamed of doing it any other way.

Contrast this with the experience of my divorced friend when his daughter graduated.  Her mom created a board that had not one picture of the father represented.  This is unfortunately the path too many take when they divorce… simply forgetting to consider the feelings of not only the other person but of the child to whom that other parent is definitely important.

When the big day arrived, we sat together at the graduation ceremony and took pictures together afterward.  Then we set out to create our everlasting memories of the graduation party.  Bob’s large local family contingent was there.  And while my parents and other family members weren’t there, I did invite Brian’s family and several close friends and neighbors.  So there was a reasonable balance representing both sides.

During the party, I and Bob were both careful to make sure we intermingled the groups introducing those who didn’t know each other and encouraging cross-over conversations, if you will.  It was nice to see Ian so relaxed being able to enjoy himself and not worrying about having to leave to go to the other parent’s celebration.  He could do what all the other kids did and leave his own party to attend the party of friends while the parent celebration continued. Ha!

 

Co-Parenting and Discipline – A United Front

Of all the parenting topics I cover, this one is central to why we needed to get this co-parenting thing right.  I refused to let Ian be a casualty of my choices.  And I have to say, I think both Bob and I tackled the subjects of limits, responsibility, and discipline beautifully.

One of the saddest things I’ve witnessed in observing other divorce situations is the inability of divorced couples to effectively discipline their children and teach them how to make good life choices.  The divorced parent becomes so fearful of the possibility that their child will reject them that they choose not to engage in any conversations that might jeopardize their relationship.  I have seen it so many times.  Fathers with limited visitation who cannot fathom making even one precious moment unhappy with their children during the short hours they spend to have it taken up by confrontations of any kind.  Mothers who buy their kids everything they ask for so that the children don’t consider whether they may have more material rewards if they lived with Dad.  On and on it goes.  The child isn’t given any responsibilities and is never told no.  They are constantly showered with compliments on how great and beautiful they are and never denied anything.  From having no household chores to never living without something because “mom said so”, the kids of divorced parents are running the show.  No wonder we now have the “me” generation.

You may be thinking, “So what if everyone’s happy all the time?”  Is it so bad to have only positive interactions with your child?  Frankly, YES!  First of all, if you don’t teach your children about things like washing the dishes and doing laundry, who do you think is going to do that?  Or are you planning to supply your child with a staff of household servants after they move out?  Or maybe you’re ok with them wallowing in filth later on because they never learn the value of basic home cleanliness and how it can affect their physical and mental health.  Could you be unwittingly raising a future hoarder to be featured on the cable series Hoarders, Buried Alive?  Maybe you too were raised without being expected to help around the house and think this is just fine.  Afterall, look at you.  You turned out fine.  But I bet if you think about it, you had more responsibilities than you are willing to admit since it challenges your current course of action.

But this is about so much more than learning how to clean the house.  What happens to a person who is never told no, denied anything, or challenged on their thinking?  You got it!  They grow up to be spoiled, self-serving narcissist.  Even if they somehow escape their values descending into complete self-absorption, they will be ill equipped to deal with the real world where they will most certainly be told no by someone.  There will eventually be someone who disagrees with them or denies them something they desperately want.  And you have failed to prepare them for this event.  They will be devastated and have no idea how to respond appropriately and productively to failure, going without, or having to think of others first.

So if you think the above is a lot of preaching from me without a lot of evidence that it doesn’t have to be this way, I’ll share with you our experience.  You might recall in my earlier blog posts I mentioned that it will be much easier to effectively co-parent if both parents share foundational values.  This is probably more important in the areas of discipline, setting limits, and teaching responsibility than any other.

Remember when you first learned you were going to be a parent?  If you’re like me, you probably were profoundly struck simultaneously with fear and excitement at the prospect that you would be raising a human being that with God’s grace would someday positively influence humanity.  Sure you may have dreamed of them growing up to be famous or rich or beautiful.  But I doubt anyone hopes their child grows up to be a self-absorbed asshole.  So we must be careful not to raise one.  In fact we need to live in fear that we may very well do that if we don’t take responsibility ourselves for ensuring that doesn’t happen.  Again, if you don’t do it, are you expecting someone else will?  Why the hell are they going to do your job for you?  This is the cornerstone of parenting.  Beyond the contribution of your DNA, this is your next most important responsibility.  And I take it VERY SERIOUSLY.

When Bob and I divorced, I was fortunate enough to know that we shared very similar core values.  Of course there are nuances.  Otherwise, we might have never gotten divorced at all.  But we both took and still take the responsibility of parenting very seriously and personally.  We both realize that while we want our child to like us, liking us is not more likely because we give him everything he wants.  We accept that it is our responsibility to teach Ian kindness, generosity, and responsibility as well as providing him opportunities to succeed in life.  However, I have known many people who were seemingly given every opportunity to succeed by way of paid college tuition and financial assistance of all sorts who still fell flat on their face precisely because it was given to them.  I know multimillionaires whose children seem to have no idea what it means to be responsible or make good life choices.

I grew up in a home where my dad had a convenient excuse to give me when he and mom didn’t want me to have something.  “We can’t afford it,” he’d say.  It’s a perfect alibi.  Growing up I always said to myself that when I had kids, I didn’t want to have to tell them they couldn’t have something because “we couldn’t afford it”.  So I set out to make sure that wasn’t going to be the case only to find out that it is much easier to say, We can’t afford it” than it is to teach some more difficult life lesson to our child such as you can’t have it because it is bad for you.  If you simply say you can’t afford it, that pretty much shuts down all debate.  So in one sense, it’s brilliant because the end is the same and maybe the child is less distressed than if you tell them they can’t have something because you think it is too extravagant.  Aren’t they important enough for you to part with your precious money over?  Let the parental guilt trip begin.  Stop with the need to explain.  Revert to what our parents did or our grandparents before them.  They said, “No.”  The end.  If you dared to ask why, you got the ever popular “because I said so”.  And if you dared challenge this reasoning, you might well have ended up grounded or worse yet slapped, spanked, or even beaten.  What is this obsessive compulsion to over-explain our parental logic to our children?  Give it up.  Because they ARE children, they cannot be expected to understand.

Now that I’ve laid down the hardline, I will dial back a bit to the reality of my personal approach which I think in the majority of situations worked.  I said no when I thought something was not in my child’s best interest AND I offered my reasoning for this in simple matter-of-fact terms.  While I didn’t allow Ian to debate me on my decision, I did listen to what he had to say in response as an opportunity to confirm whether or not he understood my rationale – even if he didn’t agree with it.  And therein lies the difference.  I was NOT focused on whether or not my child agreed with me.  I was most concerned with his wellbeing and conveying to him that regardless of anything else, my priority had to be to protect him from harm of any kind.  That was my #1 job even when it made me unpopular with him.  It’s the risk I had to take.  And I knew it’s what Ian both wanted and expected from me too.  All our kids us to protect them.  And this requires setting limits.  So I sat limits and stuck to them and I shared those limits with Bob.  We would sometime negotiate on the finer details such as video game ratings or curfews.  And we didn’t agree on all these details either.  But our foundation was the same.  First priority – protect Ian from harm – physical, mental, and emotional.

Here’s another problem I see with the idea of never having a negative experience with your child.  What happens when they eventually have that imperfect day?  Are they going to be equipped to handle it or are they going to shatter into a million pieces and be unable to recover or learn from the experience?  We must teach our kids how to deal with disappointment and rejection or it will be a shock that will potentially devastate them when you are not around to catch them as they fall back to Earth from the high perch above the rest of the universe.  Ian and I most certainly had our negative days.  Some because he pushed it and some because maybe I had a bad day to work, was too exhausted to think straight or was PMSing.  But these were invaluable exercises in communication, problem-solving, self-control and compromise for Ian.  Sure they also offered these benefits to me as well.  But this was his first rodeo and I was the clown protecting him from being trampled by the bull.

But what do you do when you and your child simply can’t get to common ground?  When you’re still married to the other parent, you can call them in for reinforcement.  But what about when you’re divorced?  Can you still do that?  You can but you have to be very secure in your relationship with the ex.  Calling in the other parent for reinforcement isn’t a workable plan if they are going to use the event against you either to badmouth you to the child or to build a case that you are an unfit parent.  Unfortunately, I know for many divorced parents this is the reality.  But for others, its simply a fear, a personal insecurity.  If your spouse has not brought legal action against you seeking to reduce your parenting time or interaction with them, I implore to partner with them in matters of discipline.  After all, I’m pretty sure they don’t want to spend their days with an asshole of their own making either.  So herein lay an opportunity to find common ground – a precious commodity among divorced co-parents.

There was a time during Ian’s middleschool years where he and I had the most trouble communicating.  I think Ian was sure he was being judged by everyone including me all the time.  He, like any other pre-teen, lacked confidence and at the same time felt compelled to wield control over something, anything, even if that was a heated conversation with mom.  Now I’m going to say something I’m sure some of you will hate me for.  But it’s what I believe based on my own personal feelings and observations.  Children fear dad more than mom… at least in a physical harm sense that is.  Sure, mom can make you feel like a piece of shit in words, but you won’t bleed or lose a limb from it.  So the pain she can inflict just doesn’t carry the same fear factor as the potential damage dad can do with that extra weight and muscle to throw at you.  Even if dad has never touched you.  I know this because I felt this way.  My dad had never laid a finger on me but at one point during my teens, I pushed him too hard and he grabbed both of my arms and shook me.  It scared the hell out of me, not because it hurt but because it reminded me that he had the capacity to hurt me if he so chose to.  With that, my human survival instinct kicked in and forced me to shut my smart mouth.  I’m sure there are exceptions where the mom is more physically intimidating than the dad.  But I’d venture to say that with dad’s deeper voice and larger stature, most kids can’t battle the human instinct to protect themselves from physical harm by acquiescing to the one that is physically superior to them.

Anyway, after arguing with Ian for several hours about helping out around the house and him doing everything in his power to fight me on the point, I had had enough.  We were getting nowhere.  I don’t really remember the details of our actual argument.  But I do remember feeling like we had devolved into a circular conversation that was simply not going to resolve without a radical change in strategy.  So I called Bob and asked if he would talk to Ian.  Bob of course didn’t hesitate and came over to my house immediately.  He laid it on the line with Ian and told him he was not to talk to me in the tone and manner he was.  He reinforced my points telling Ian that mom was right and that he needed to do what I said.  In short, Bob was being a good father.  I don’t really get why this was so effective.  Maybe it had nothing to do with the male versus female presence at all.  Maybe it was simply the fact that bringing the other parent in tipped the opinion scale.  Once Ian saw that Bob and I were on the same side, he realized he was outnumbered and was not going to win this one.  So he conceded and life returned to normal for everyone.  Yea for us.  We didn’t raise an asshole!

Happily Divorced – Nurturing the Musician

From before the time when Ian entered this world, I fully expected to give birth to a musician, or at least a person that had a keen appreciation and aptitude for music. When I was four years old, I realized that I had a strong singing voice and was able to match pitch with great precision.  I dabbled in music over the years never setting aside my fear enough to really go after a career as a musician.

This dabbling persisted after Bob and I met when, one night out early in our relationship, we found ourselves at a Japanese karaoke bar.  Yeah, I know.  Very stereotypical.  Yet, nonetheless true.  After enduring renditions of various American pop standards crooned by old Japanese men, I decided to infuse something different.  So I asked the person running the karaoke to queue up Hopelessly Devoted to You, an Olivia Newton John song from the Grease movie soundtrack.

Until this point, Bob had only heard me sing a little in the car.  But when I hit the chorus and belted out the melody with all the power that came so easily to me, I leaned right over Bob’s shoulder to emphasis the shock he was about to get.  Belting the words “But now…” I glanced at Bob, who was both shocked and delighted to hear what had just emitted from my soul out into the room.  Bob and his friends were very impressed and I once again was reminded I had something special to share with this world in the way of music.  Over the next five years, with Bob’s encouragement, or one might even say insistence, I hopped up with friends’ bands and eventually became the lead singer in a couple local cover bands.  Still, the reward of anywhere from free drinks to $50 didn’t seem to meet with the expectations of my potential.

Meanwhile, I toiled away in corporate America building a stable career so that we could enjoy a comfortable life while my soul languished dreaming of something greater.  At this point, Bob and I had turned our thoughts and efforts toward starting a family.  So after two long years, and nearly giving up on our fertility, I proceeded to do two nights of shows at a dump in the north end of Columbus called Whiskey Dicks – a bar I wouldn’t dream of going to had we not been playing.  It was my birthday that Saturday.  But I was in my mid-twenties and still had a relatively strong ability to recover quickly from over indulgence.

Completely exasperated by my inability to get pregnant, I conceded that it was probably never going to happen.  I was due to start my period and go through the disappointment yet again for a 25th straight month.  So instead of facing that, I got hammered Friday and then proceeded to take it up a notch on Saturday with several shots of Tequila, an episode of climbing up on a table and ripping off a drunken and very appropriate-to-the-moment rendition of Shelly West’s country music tune Jose Quervo, and doing who knows what else on stage after that in what could only be described as a blackout.

That Sunday, I lost a day of my life, so hung over that I don’t think I ever left the bed.  But this wasn’t my first rodeo.  I knew I’d feel better as soon as enough time had passed and my body had purged all the toxins and healed itself from the incredible pollution which I had inflicted.  Then Monday came and oddly, I was still hung over.  I thought this was really weird.  Sure I had drank too much but a two day hangover?  Come on!  I didn’t think it rose to that level of bodily destruction.  Then it dawned on me.  I was about 3 days late for my period.  I became both instantly panicked and cautiously excited as it occurred to me that I might have really done it this time.  I might be pregnant and I might have just poisoned my unborn child with a deluge of shitty tequila as well.

By about noon, I decided to do a home pregnancy test just to see if it was possible that I was carrying a hungover embryo.  The test was positive. Oh my God!  None of them had ever come back positive.  Better make a doctor’s appointment to see if this is for real.  I phoned my doctor, went in that afternoon and they confirmed my pregnancy.  I went home and unable to contain myself, decided I better detox anything alcoholic left in my system and cleanse my bloodstream as fast as possible.  So I went for a two-mile run and drank about a gallon of water.  Then when Bob got home, I shared the news with him that he was going to be a dad and from that moment on really, I always expected I would give birth to a son and probably a musician.

About 19 weeks later, the son was confirmed on ultrasound.  At that point, we began to contemplate names.  Bob requested that the first name be Robert as he and his father before him.  I was fine with this but proclaimed, “Ok, but I’d like to pick the middle name.  I’d like it to be Ian, and also, we have enough Bobs and Bobbies in this family.  So I’d like him to go by his middle name.  It is the name of a really attractive and cool guy I knew during high school.  Plus it’s a great rock and roll name, right?”  Bob, not convinced by my first argument was totally on board with the latter proceeding to rip off the names Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), Ian Gillan (Deep Purple), and Ian Astbury (the Cult & The Doors) as supporting examples.  And so Ian’s musician fate was sealed with an appropriate name.

Bob and I went to five concerts together in that nine months during my pregnancy; more than I had in any other similar period of time in my life.  Nurturing my little musician had already begun.  Steely Dan, Dream Theater, and Lenny Kravitz were among Ian’s prenatal inspirations.

Ian’s earliest exposure to music of course came in the form of mommy’s serenades.  As it turned out, after I returned to work and Ian was about three months old, I had to sing the song Material Girl live at a work function.  So as I practiced singing the song, Ian heard it a lot as he lay on the changing table.  He really liked that Madonna tune back in the day.  Flash-forward to when Ian was about 9 months old, in the back of my Honda civic with him in the car seat and a new style of rock had taken America by storm – Grunge – the Seattle sound.  Stone Temple Pilots’ Interstate Love Song came over the radio and I glanced in the rear view mirror to catch Ian “air-drumming” in perfect time to the rhythm of the music.  Wait.  What?  Is he going to be drummer?  No way.  My most challenging relationships had always been those with my drummers.  I couldn’t have possibly given birth to one.  Of all band members, they were always the ones I had conflicts with.  So yeah, of course he would be a drummer because getting along with a drummer was apparently a life lesson for me.

And so it began.  First with a plastic baby drum kit from Grandma and Papaw on his first birthday, then upgraded to a metal kit with paper heads on birthday #2, proceeded by a junior size full drum kit with real hardware and heads at age 4.  Apparently Grandma and Papaw thought they were getting some kind of revenge on their son.  Little did they know that it was just was daddy wanted.  It didn’t bother mommy either since I had remained in local cover bands until about six months into my pregnancy and took it up more aggressively once Ian turned a year old.  At that point, I became the lead singer in a local band we called Random Order.  We always liked to snicker about the oxymoronic quality of the name.  Anyway, Ian had been subjected to listening to my band practices from the age of one.  So when he showed interest, it thrilled me.

I continued singing in local cover bands for several years past the point of our divorce.  And while this was a passion, it was a hard choice because there were many weekends where it was my weekend with Ian but I had a show and ended up asking Bob and Brandi to keep him, had Ian stay with a friend, or got a babysitter.  Now I wasn’t only missing out on half of his life. I was missing out on the other half too.

During this phase, Bob and Brandi were what I would call apprehensively supportive.  Honestly, I totally understood where they were coming from.  As I neared my 40th birthday, things began to wind down for me.  I was finally feeling more and more frequently like I’d rather not spend my weekend in a bar I wouldn’t choose to be in otherwise.  And it wasn’t like we were writing original material.  So we weren’t on the brink of a record deal.  My son on the other hand, was in fifth grade by this time and decided to start a rock band.  I suspended my band membership for the foreseeable future preferring instead to put my energy to helping Ian to grow his dream.

There were five band members in Flame Brain as Ian’s band was called in those days.  And their instruments were quite literally bigger than they were.  But they had it all figured out.  I remember Ian telling me one day that he wanted to be in a band when he grew up but he added, “No offense mom, but we’re going to write original music.”  I told him sweetly that I wasn’t offended by his statement.  Let’s face it.  Besides Weird Al Yankovic, there are very spotty examples of unknowns making it solely on the basis of covering someone else’s material.

So at the tender age of ten, Ian set out on his journey as a musician.  He organized regular band practices.  And since I had some experience and owned a PA, I offered to mentor the boys and let them practice at my house.  The truth is nothing could have been more thrilling for me.   Of course their first cover was the favorite first song of many a cover band, Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water.  I’m sure many of my musician friends can relate to this early experience.  The boys proceeded to put together a full set of cover material.  In sixth grade they gained agreement from both their middle school and the teacher who was also a part-time DJ, the opportunity to play five songs at the middle school dance.

I asked one of my former guitarists to assist with some equipment needed for the show and to help the boys get properly tuned.  As this newly formed possibly future phenomenon took the stage, I witnessed what can only be described as a Beatles-style audience response complete with swooning screaming tween girls.  I was standing with all the band parents who were simultaneously overjoyed and laughing our asses off.  It was, after all, not an airport, concert hall, or stadium.  It was the middle-school cafeteria.  But as lead singer Joe, egged on by his older eighth-grade brother, staged-dived into the crowd, the boys experienced that rush of acceptance and positive energy that so many musicians become invariably addicted to.

Flame Brain continued to play throughout middle school at dances, benefits, band battles, and local restaurants.  They wrote their first original song for a band battle in eighth-grade and took second place amongst a very crowded much older roster of players.  Soon after that, they concluded that they had outgrown their band name and changed it to Evadale Drive, a name taken from a street in our neighborhood.  How sweet?

Amazingly this band stayed together through the end of high school, going through good times and bad, often fighting like brothers, and sometimes facing challenges with bad choices that many teens encountered.  I always reminded them to look out for each other and keep each other safe.  I couldn’t help but imagine that if they continued, it was inevitable at some band battle, someone would offer them something backstage while the parents weren’t watching.  So I had to instill in the boys some responsibility for each other’s safety that I could only hope would ward off the worst of these dangers.

As band gigs continued, all of us band-parents were very supportive, each bringing something to the table.  Not only was this our children’s journey, it was ours as parents.  Let’s face it.  It was the closest any of us was going to get to being rock stars.  During these years, Bob provided a lot of opportunities for the band to play, bought sound equipment and ran sound frequently for the band. He also brought consistent crowds of friends and family with him to the shows.  Mike videotaped every show, editing and distributing copies to all band members and parents.  Anita created countless posters, flyers, business cards, and press packs.  She and Mike even created a second practice location in their house complete with another drum kit for Ian to use in their home.  Nikki offered her photography skills and worked hard to keep her son on the straight and narrow.  Mike and Melissa booked shows and helped as “roadies” striving to learn the proper technique for wrapping up miles of speaker, PA, and instrument cables.  I was the consummate stage mom and assisted with everything from vocal coaching, to advice on stage presence, and even attitude counseling.  My motto for them was “check your ego at the door.”  Oh and did I mention we all served as “roadies”, a cool term assigned to those who are charged with carting hundreds of pounds of gear up and down stairs, in and out of vehicles and setting up and all the shows.  It was so great when the boys were finally big enough to carry their own stuff.

There were many aspects of raising our young musician that required a great deal of shared parenting coordination including financing music gear purchases, paying for instrument lessons, managing schedules, riding together to shows, and sometimes discussing at great length the many little dramas that inevitably afflict all bands.  I’m so glad Bob and I remained friends throughout these years so that we could offer the best version of support to our son and, rather than add stress to his events, work together to enhance his early musical experiences.

I guess I could write a whole book on my son the aspiring musician and maybe someday I will.  I so look forward to the unfolding of his talent for the world to experience.  May your rock name serve you well on your journey, Ian Harlow.

Shared Parenting Vacation Planning

Vacations are absolutely about a thousand percent harder to plan for a family where divorce is involved than where it is not.  Why?  Well let’s see… first you have to consider your schedule, the child’s schedule if they are involved in sports or other activities, and the other parent’s schedule.  Then, if either parent is remarried or in a serious relationship, you have to consider the other partner’s schedule and desires.  If they too are divorced with children, you have to work around the schedule of the other parent and the other children’s schedule.  Then finally, if the said vacation is a group event based on years of tradition, you may not even be at much liberty to dictate changes to the vacation schedule.  Seriously, scheduling a family vacation is among the most challenging of acts to pull off when all of these dynamics are simultaneously in play.  And I haven’t even added in the considerations for the location, the weather, and modes of travel.  What a fricking nightmare!

Scheduling family vacations has offered me one of my most profound lessons when it came to learning about compromise and also standing up for myself and my relationship with my son.

The years preceding when I met my fiancé Brian were easier on vacation scheduling since I didn’t have all the extra schedules to consider and I could be more flexible on my end.  Bob, on the other hand, never seemed to be in a position of setting his own schedule.  As Ian entered high school and I met Brian, things became more challenging.  Between Ian’s marching band schedule and Bob’s unmovable vacation schedule, we started to face some real challenges.  Ian had about one month off from band each summer during which Bob and I would both scramble to fit in the family vacation.  Brian’s family had a 50 year standing tradition of vacationing in upper Michigan on the same week each July.  Of course, this week conflicted directly with the schedule Bob’s friends had also kept for years.  The first year we faced this dilemma, Ian spent the first week of a two-week camping venture with his dad.  I hung back in Columbus until Ian was driven back with someone who was returning early.  Then I drove up with Ian to Michigan to join Brian and his family about four days later.  This was a hectic grind for Ian and made me feel a bit awkward.  I didn’t like making him leave early from his vacation with his dad and I didn’t like us arriving late to our family vacation either.

When the next year rolled around, we faced the same dilemma and I didn’t want to have the same awkward outcome.  So I asked Bob if he could shift the dates of his vacation.  At first, he couldn’t believe I was asking him to do this since, in his mind, he had no say in the dates and I could have picked any other week.  But once I explained the long-standing tradition of Brian’s family and the fact I could not after 50 years attempt to impose a drastic shift in the schedule, he agreed to talk to his contingent and negotiate a different set of dates.  Had I not spoken up, Ian might have missed out on several years of enjoyment with his future step-siblings and extended step-family at a wonderful location in northern Michigan wakeboarding, swimming, and enjoying these precious years with his mother at his side.

As the years progressed, I came to appreciate Bob’s quick rectification of the vacation schedule as our family vacation became the victim of many battles between Brian and his ex who, every year, seemed to find some activity that his daughter or son absolutely couldn’t bear to miss and that would inevitable interrupt our vacation schedule.  Of course, as step-parent, I simply didn’t have the same influence over this situation and had to all-too-frequently just grin and bear it.  But more on that in a future writing.

So as we head into summer vacation season, I have a few suggestions to offer based on my experience.

  1. Plan ahead

I’m sorry but you need to concede your spontaneous nature if you expect things to go smoothly in this department.  If that bothers you, I’ll just ask you to consider if you like it when people spring things on you and impact your schedule without even thinking about how it might affect your life.  So be kind and discuss the plan even if it’s just the dates, as soon as you know them.  That way if there are conflicts to overcome, you can start resolving those issues now and head into your vacation relaxed… as nature intended it.

  1. Be flexible

Yeah, I know. This one is hard because when I say flexible, it may require you bending over backwards to make everything work out.  But don’t assume your large group, ex-spouse, or new companion is inflexible on dates.  Explain your circumstances rationally to decide on the best dates that will present the least conflicts for everyone.

  1. Stick up for yourself and your child

It’s important to understand that when I say be flexible, that doesn’t mean you should always give in to the ex-spouse and forego your vacation desires. If your conflicts are impassable year after year, suggest alternating.  One year he gets his way and the next year you get yours.  If this doesn’t work, ask him for suggestions that don’t call for you being the only one to compromise.  If this still doesn’t work, you may have to be a little more assertive with the situation by expressing to the ex-spouse that all you really want is to spend a nice family vacation with your child and to make sure he gets to do the same with his dad.  When the father sees that you are trying to consider him in the equation, he may back off or offer up reasonable solutions.  If not, then you’re probably struggling with them on a number of fronts which requires a deeper conversation with them to get on a path that is more conducive to cooperation.

  1. Remember what you really want

What do I mean by this? Well you don’t want to get your way if this means your child will be left feeling awful about the situation.  If they are going to miss a monumental family event or a once-in-a-lifetime experience by not joining a particular vacation, you’ll want to do everything in your power to ensure they are included.  Later on when the whole family is sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table together reminiscing about that time in Paris, your child won’t be the only one who wasn’t there.

You don’ want to get your way if it means destroying future prospects of cooperation with your ex-spouse or others with whom you are still connected within his group.  Like so many other circumstances in our lives, we have to think of others and the impact our actions have on them and decide if the way they feel as a result of these actions makes us happy or not.  If our child isn’t happy you’re probably not going to be either.  So this may mean that if your child could go to Disney with dad or on the annual family camping trip with you one year, they might enjoy Disney more and you should probably let them choose Disney guilt-free.  Now if this happens every year, to me it signals that the other parent is manipulating the situation intentionally and that’s not cool either.  When this happens, refer back to #3.

In any case, be sure not to turn the family vacation into a weapon used to guilt your child or your ex, to win favor in your child’s eyes, or to worst of all, deny them unforgettable childhood experiences just so that you impose your will.

Soccer Mom (and Dad)

To Go or Not to Go – That is not a question!

Like the parents of most elementary-age kids, we wanted to give our son the opportunity to try lots of different things to let him figure out what he is good at and what he likes.  Of course, every time one of these activities is added, it’s another situation the divorced parents must face where they will inevitably be in the same place together lest they miss out on the whole experience that their child has.  So what do you do?  Do you figure out an alternating schedule?  Do you just not go and disappoint your child by not being there?  And don’t forget, it’s not just the ex you’ll have to face but probably other family members, and maybe a girlfriend or new spouse.  Sounds like another trip down Misery Lane, doesn’t it?

ian-soccer-2006Well it doesn’t have to be!  How about you just go and enjoy watching your child do his or her thing?  I personally never considered any other option and I don’t think Bob did either.  We both went.  Of course, we did more than this to enhance the overall experience for ourselves, our son, and all those around us.  We usually sat together and marveled in our son’s greatness.  Oh stop it!  We all do that!  But look, in this case, it’s a valuable bridge between your child’s other parent and you.  It’s something you are likely to have in common – maybe the only thing.  So consider this an advantage you can use to enhance the situation.  You will actually enjoy the experience more by exchanging thoughts about your shared admiration as you revel in your child’s efforts.

What do you mean by “he should try another sport”?

Okay, I have to admit, you will also be faced with some other possibilities.  Like maybe your child won’t be great at something.  Maybe he will struggle.  Maybe he will not enjoy a particular activity.  Ian wasn’t particularly fond of playing Lacrosse.  Maybe there will be nothing marvelous about what the two of you witness together.  Guess what?  This too is a positive.  What do I mean by that?  Well you will both witness it for yourself and not have to rely on the opinion of another.  You may also talk about it together to form a unified strategy for addressing the situation whether that is to provide opportunities for improvement, allowing your child to bow out of a given activity, or consoling her when she faces disappointment.  It is always better to be fully armed with the truth and it is usually better to put two heads together to address a problem.  Again, you have common ground.  You want your child to be happy.

The gangs all here!

Ian played baseball for a few years and then focused his attention on soccer through the end of middle school.  During that time, Bob and I went to the games and usually sat together.  When he remarried, Brandi went to most games and we’d all sit together.  When I became serious with Brian, he attended the games and we all sat together.  On many occasions, Bob’s mom and step dad, sister and her husband, Ian’s cousins, and Bob’s dad and step-mom attended games.  Each time, without hesitation or trepidation, we sat together and drank in the moments of my son’s childhood together.  Who knew this is what they really meant by “for better or worse”.

I believe this experience served not only our purpose but also provided a great example to others of a choice they too could make.  On several occasions throughout the years, I was told by other parents that they thought it was great how Bob and I got along and sat at the games together and enjoyed each other’s company.  Not only did they appreciate the fact they weren’t dealt an awkward situation, but they weren’t forced to choose between us either.  They could freely communicate with both of us without some weird aura.

Communication – Still required for a happy divorce and happy child

Now we did a really good job but we weren’t perfect.  There was a year – I think it might have been 4th grade spring season when Ian complained incessantly about going to practice.  Every time we’d get ready to head to practice, it was a battle.  “I like playing games.  I don’t like practice,” He would say.  I told him time and again, “This is part of the deal.  You made a commitment and if you want to play the games, you have to go to practice.”  Finally, exasperated after having this fight repeatedly over the course of almost an entire season, I told Ian he wouldn’t be playing the next year if he continued to complain.  He dug in his heels and complained anyway and I announced to him as the season was coming to a close that I had every intention of following through on my threat.  There was no way I was going to sacrifice precious time dragging him unwillingly to practice for a game he enjoyed playing.  So I had made up my mind that I wasn’t going to sign him up next season.  He didn’t complain.  He seemed to accept his plight.

Flash forward a few months until fall sign ups rolled around and Bob informed me that he had signed Ian up for soccer.  I told him that I had not intended to have Ian signed up this season.  He said well it’s already done and paid for now.  I guess I had failed to communicate my plan to Bob. At first I was angry that I wasn’t going to be able to follow through as I am careful to always do so with Ian.  Whether it is what I will reward him for good behavior, penalize him for bad behavior, or just commitments I make to him in general.  I think people accept outcomes and consequences even if they don’t like them if they have been given fair notice in advance.  Too many kids are threatened that they will lose a privilege if they do a particular thing only to have the parent chicken out and give in.  What this teaches the child in my opinion is that they are no consequences for the choices they make.  And this is just not real life.  So they better learn that while they’re young or face a lot of disappointment that they feel was thrust upon them by someone else rather than by their own actions.

I am such a meanie!

In spite of my concerns about not following through with consequences, I decided to make sure Ian understood that he was getting one final reprieve on this but that I would not stand for his continued behavior which led to the earlier decision to not sign him up for the next season. I told him in no uncertain terms, “Your dad signed you up for soccer this season because he was not aware of our deal. So here’s how this is going to work.  Complain one time about going to practice and you will be done with soccer immediately.  I will take you home and neither your father nor I will take you again. You’ll be done with soccer.  So make your choice.  If you want to play, go to the practices and don’t complain about it. It’s that simple.”  Ian never complained about going to soccer practice again and enjoyed another 4 years of playing the sport.   And we enjoyed watching… together… with the whole family.

Step Parenting

Of course we’re all evil!

The story of Cinderella pretty much sealed the fate on this one.  There shall be no admiration for any step parent anywhere so help us God.  They are all evil I tell you.  Mean to the core.  They hate their step children and want only the worst outcomes for them.  Ok, I’m calling bullshit before this gets completely out of hand!

Most, not all, stepparents feel many of the same emotions with regard to their step-kids as blood parents do.  They feel their pain and their joy.  They take pride in their accomplishments and worry about their futures.  They want the best things in life for them.  They just don’t have a lot of say in the matter.

Having been a parent for 23 years and (unofficial) step parent for almost ten, I can say unequivocally that step parenting is much harder and far more frustrating.  You still feel all the burdens of parenting but wield next to no influence over the situation.  Now I’m sure the nature of this experience depends greatly on the other parents involved.  But certainly attempting to blend parenting styles that may have already fully developed into their own beasts is difficult to say the least.

Parenting Styles

I like to think my parenting style is well balanced.  I nurture but I don’t coddle.  I make sacrifices for my kids but I refuse to be a martyr. I support and advise but I don’t impose my freewill on them.  Then there are the other kinds of parents.  You might have heard some referred to as helicopter parents or maybe tiger moms.  But I would venture to say that there is a breed even more imposing than these. It’s the mothers who orchestrate their children’s popularity in school by buying them ridiculously lavish clothes, cars, and stupid shit that only people from a first world country would even value.  It’s the fathers who, so afraid of alienating their children during precious visitation hours, allow the kids to dictate food choices, select every TV show, and never never never ask them to do anything uncomfortable such as picking up a dish while at their house.  I know many well-intended parents that do way too much for their kids only to wonder why they are so self-absorbed and incapable of adjusting to life beyond the home when they head off to college.  If only they realized that their children’s love really is unconditional.  They are going to love you even if you are not perfect.  To be fair, this seems to be happening not just with families of divorce, but across all types of families these days.

I’ve pondered the reasons behind all of this crazed coddling for some time now.  And now we’re starting to see these kids enter the work force and sit in a cube right next to us.  You’ve probably encountered the millennial.  I’ll tell you that my son hates that label.  Of course he hates all labels and I would tend to side with him on the whole judgement-based identity-labeling pandemic that has taken over our culture.  If you ask me, people are way too focused on splicing who they are up into these little identity cultures causing them to lose sight of the fact that they are part of the human race.  One must identify their race, heritage, religion, gender, sexual preferences, and diet choices to define themselves.  Then they complain when anyone describes them using these very same adjectives.  Listen up.  We’re all in this together.

Anyway, with regard to parenting styles, I believe there are many things provoking this incessant need to ensure our children never have a bad day.  For one, maybe we remember having bad days and our parents just telling us tough shit.  Life isn’t fair so suck it up. As it turns out, that wasn’t such bad advice after all.  But at the time, it left us feeling disconnected from them.  We thought they didn’t understand what we were going through.  Or we thought they didn’t care.  But they did and by telling us to suck it up, they were arming us with the tools of adaptation that would benefit us as we traveled through this thing called life.  So with good intentions at the heart of it, we as parents try doing things differently so that our children might feel more loved along the way.

Of course, there are the homes where both parents work and they of course feel guilty about the slivers of time and energy they have left to do family stuff.  There are the over-scheduled homes which seek to expose their children to every sport, art, and childhood activity imaginable so that their kids don’t someday blame them for their lack of agility, talent, or popularity among their peers.  Of course, what they will end up blaming them for are poor eating habits and a lack of cooking skills since these same kids are too busy to ever sit down for a home cooked family meal, much less help prepare it.  And clean up after it?  Forget it.  How do you load a dishwasher anyway?

Blending Parenting Styles

Okay, so I’ve gotten a little off-track.  What I’m trying to say is that there are lots of parenting styles which are molded in us by our own parents and for better or for worse, by the parenting styles of our ex-spouses.  By the time many of us end up in blended family scenarios, we’re pretty set in our ways.  And the last thing we want is someone who hasn’t known our child his or her whole life telling us how we should or shouldn’t raise them.  So back off step parent, future step parent, or potential step parent.  Your services are not welcome here.

When you put two parents together who developed their parenting styles along independent tracts, there are bound to be conflicts.  It’s just different than when you become parents for the first time and learn how to be parents together.  I think in those first terrifying days when it occurs to you that you are responsible for another human life, you become supremely aware of how woefully unprepared you are for the job.  But at least in my case, those were the happier days of our marriage and Bob and I got through that stuff together acknowledging our inexperience and helping each other out rather than judging each other’s parental missteps.

As young parents, in some cases you developed bad habits which you will inevitably carry forward beyond your divorce as you become an independent parent.  Then suddenly when you join up with another partner to create that perfect blended Brady Bunch family, stark differences in style begin to emerge.  These differences may be so vast between you and a new mate that you wonder if you can even stay with the other person (or if they will stay with you).  No one can answer that but you.  However, attempting it might give you the opportunity to grow as a parent and improve on your own parenting style.

Now some may get lucky and have very mature new partners who recognize your superior parental guidance and gladly accept it.  But more likely, the first time you tell your significant other’s child to pick something up off the floor, you’re going to get the stink-eye.

Some of the preceding situations may or may not describe my own personal experience.  To protect the innocent, I’ll leave it at that. But enough about me.  Let me tell you about Ian’s step mom, Brandi.

Brandi

In November, 2002, Ian met Brandi, his then-future stepmom.  I also met her in relatively the same time period.  She seemed nice and normal, thank goodness!  It was also obvious she liked Bob a lot, which I was happy to see since after all, I still considered him my friend and wanted him to find someone that could give him the love I felt I could not.

As I got to know Brandi a little better I often thought that she was the kind of female that had I met her out by herself, I’d want to be friends with.  We have a lot in common besides our red hair too.  She is in a very similar line of work as me.  She was previously married.  She is very rational and strong.  Even her relationship with her mother shares some similarities to my relationship with my mom.  Of course, there are many differences too.  Brandi is crafty, has what seems to be a more nurturing personality than me, and unlike me, does not belong to the IBTC.  I used to joke with Bob congratulating him on that last point.  For those of you who don’t know what the IBTC is, you must not be a member.  Ha!  Finally, as they are still together after 10 years, I can only assume that Brandi has far more patience than I in dealing with Bob’s sarcastic approach to conversation.

As Bob and Brandi’s relationship blossomed, I never once felt like she was working against me or trying to take my place as mother to Ian.  This is really important because it’s very difficult to not feel threatened by the new woman in your young son’s life.  What if he ends up liking her more than me?  What if he chooses her over me?  What if I lose his heart to her?  This is what I believe is at the root of so many divorce conflicts.  Mom (or Dad) is threatened by the new mate and what that person’s role is in their child’s life.  A self-defense mechanism kicks in.  You want to crush your competition and win.  Of course, the fact is nobody wins in that type of competition but there will definitely be losers. And it is usually the child.

Fortunately for me, I was able to discern this rationale very quickly and refused to let my competitive nature rear its ugly head.  I instead chose to be happy that Bob had picked someone to share in my son’s life that is a good person with a caring heart and mothering qualities that I admire.

Through the years, Brandi has been there to support Ian in so many ways.  In addition to going to soccer games and band performances, she’s helped plan and host many birthday parties, graduation parties, and other celebrations for Ian.  She’s hand-sewn Halloween costumes, something I never bothered to learn from my amazingly talented seamstress mother.  She’s given him many other experiences to add to his album of childhood memories.

When I fell on difficult financial times, Brandi was there to support me by ensuring Ian always had medical insurance and contributing financially to other things he needed that came up during those rough times.

I will always be grateful to Brandi for being there for my son and for me.  We are both very fortunate that she came into all of our lives.  So Brandi, if I am your “favorite ex-wife”, I guess that makes you my favorite wife.  All the best my friend!

Have I left anything out?

Absolutely!  I have witnessed some really atrocious parenting and step-parenting behaviors.  To be honest, I think I could dedicate an entire book to this topic alone.  Everything from the unintended slights to the completely calculated lengths some parents go to in order to prevent the step parent and step child from developing productive and loving relationships.  And of course, there are tragic stories of the step-father or step-mother who treats the step-child horribly either emotionally, physically or both.  But I really believe these are the outliers rather than the norm and that most step-parents really just want to have a happy family and to be loved.

Revisiting My Mission

I haven’t written in a while since the last post I put out there was met with a bit of a backlash from some.  So I needed to take a timeout to revisit the reasons why I decided to do this in the first place and to also get clear on what I am not trying to accomplish with this journey I’ve found myself traveling.

First, what I don’t expect these writings to accomplish…

I DO NOT expect my accounts to be met with full agreement from others who were part of these experiences.  I said at the beginning that I am presenting my perspective and that I fully expect my ex, my son, or others to remember these events and how they felt about them differently.  Of course they will.  They are not me and while we all know each other well, we all own our personal reaction to the events in our lives.   So I am NOT shocked to get a response of “That’s not how it went at all” from anyone at any time.  What I did not expect was to provoke genuinely new anger or sadness toward me from anyone for events that took place 17 years ago.  Why do that?  I certainly can’t change any decisions I made back then now even if I wanted to.  So I guess when Ian and a few of my friends referred to me as brave for doing this blog, now I kind of get what they were talking about.

As for the desire to relive painful events from the past, it’s not that I want to do that but it is not something I can worry about either.  I have a mission to accomplish.  I’ve cried enough tears for shit that happened a long time ago and it hasn’t changed any of it.  So how about let’s just take account of the lessons we learned, recognize that some of what we chose worked out pretty well, share our experience with the world, and move on with it.

I am not writing this blog to suggest that this way of doing things is the right way or even a good way of handling anything.  It was just our way and as a result, I have a well-adjusted son that feels he had a happy childhood in which both parents were involved and loved him.  I also have an ex-spouse, ex-in-laws, and even his new wife and many of his friends to call my friends too.  So even if some of us saw things differently, we stuck with it and ended up on the good side of the equation overall.

As I write about certain topics, I seek to evoke in my reader the emotion that I felt at that time.  But to get there, I do more than call upon one experience in my life.  When I write about the emotions that surround a particular event, I’m not necessarily drawing up how I felt in any one moment with any single person but rather I draw upon my collective experience with that emotion – all the times I’ve felt love, happiness, pain, or sorrow.  In fact, I might even draw upon imagery of love stories from movies I’ve watched to describe to you the reader the emotional depth that I hope you will feel as you read a certain passage.  So not everything I write is a purely literal account of what happened or what I felt in any given moment.  Hopefully this serves to allay any discomfort some feel as they read events to which they were close in those days.

So again, why am I doing this?  I’m sharing our story, or at least my version of our story, because this is important.  Raising a child is a big responsibility.  And we as parents will leave our mark on this world through our kids – good or bad.  If you hope to contribute to the greater good, raise a responsible, kind, and caring human being. Just because a marriage ends doesn’t let you off the hook.  If your child treats people with disrespect or anger, no one is going to give them a pass because their parents got divorced.  If your kid doesn’t have a childhood on which they can look back and reflect fondly, you don’t get a do-over because you handled a divorce situations badly.  But if you handle it well, you may still end up with a child who has happy memories to reflect on. If your kid has a failed marriage in which children are involved and doesn’t manage to maintain a good relationship with his ex-spouse or children, that may not be your fault.  But you will know you did what you could and didn’t leave him or her to guess what that would look like.

Parenting is tough.  Divorced-parenting may be tougher.  I’m not really sure.  And being a single parent or remarried parent certainly complicates the already difficult task of raising a child.  So I feel that the more we can learn from each other, the better.  What works for one may or may not work for another. But sometimes just the act of thinking about something from a different perspective brings about new ideas one might have never thought of otherwise.

Am I brave?  I don’t really know. But one thing is for sure.  In the face of some pretty hurtful criticism, I’m going to forge ahead to share this story.  It is just too needed in this world to go untold.