The Long Winter

This has been just a bizarrely transformative time for me, and I think for the whole family (and by “family” I mean my parents and kids, as well as Doug).

I graduated, and gave up my house thinking I’d land in a new one right away, and then I didn’t and it all kind of went to hell, with a bunch of fallen-through business plans and my parents spending most of their time 600 miles away taking care of my 98-year-old grandmother and a new schooling situation for our older son and then The Heart Attack. And trying to regain equilibrium after the heart attack, when everything we’d constructed so carefully to keep us in harmony had all fallen apart, and we were left with old hurts and feelings that are never going to be resolved.

The polar vortex didn’t help.

I didn’t notice at the time how depressed I was. I was functioning, and holding a lot of things together. I fell in love (fell hard) and then had my heart smashed into a soggy pulp. I drifted away from things that made me feel competent.

And in the midst of all of that, some flowers grew inside me and started poking their way to the surface:

A few weeks ago I offered to solve any problem (business or personal) for $250 in around 24 hours. I’m really good at it and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had.

And I’m starting a company with a mission so big it scares me. More on that later.

Some friends stepped in, in ways that have opened me up a lot. It makes me tear up a little.

And my children are thriving.

(And this is just what happened to me. I can’t tell my parents’ story or Doug’s story or my kids’ story. But they’ve all had big years, too.)

This co-parenting thing, we’re piecing it back together. I don’t know if it will ever be as seamless as it was before. You can insert your own “stronger at the broken places” aphorism here. I never know if aphorisms are true or not. This is hard.

But it’s still easier than it was being married to each other. So there’s a lot to be grateful for, every day. And as everything else improves, the co-parenting gets easier again.

Some families are messed up, while others are fine

When you’re divorced, the holiday season can be a rough time. Your mailbox and whatever social media outlets you pay attention to are filled with news and images of picturesque homes decorated by happy, intact families who want to tell you all about how fabulous their lives are.

During the first couple of winters after my divorce, I became a Holiday Hermit. I didn’t open the Christmas cards and tuned out of Facebook, because all of that Holiday Cheer was just a grim reminder of what my Christmas was destined not to be. I was bitter and jealous enough to have earned a pair of Scrooge-ian muttonchops.

Eventually, it helped me to remember that much of that cheer was just a PR sham manufactured for our consumption, and many of those people were secretly as miserable as I was.

And eventually, as I re-discovered my happier self, I wasn’t even all that pissed off at the couples who still did love each other and whose houses looked like the December edition of Architectural Digest. If they were still happily together, they’d probably worked really hard at it and deserved whatever they had.

Even now that my holiday mood has returned mostly to normal, I still get occasional twinges of what could have been. It’s stupid and sentimental and pointless, I know. But I’ve lived long enough to know that a part of me will always indulge stupid, pointless sentimentality.

Last month, Moxie asked me to come over and take a picture of her and the boys for her Christmas card. I was happy to do it, and I got a great shot of them laughing and hugging on her front stoop. There’s been an unexpected development, though: When I look at it on my phone I can’t help but feel a small frisson of loss. I mean, we had a great (sort-of) family moment while they posed for the picture and I made dopey faces to make the kids laugh. But in the end, it’s a picture of the three of them, and even though I was right there, not two feet away, I’m not in it. I’m on the outside, separate from those three smiling faces. And that small, twinge-susceptible part of me that will never go away thought I should be on that side of the camera, with them, instead of alone over here.

The super-majority of me, however, is comforted by the fact that the joy in that picture is not a manufactured sham. We are genuinely getting happier, because we’ve worked really hard at it and deserve whatever we have.

Breaking the first rule

Last weekend, while I was in class all day Saturday (Supply Chain Management–woo-hoo!), LOD texted and asked me if he and the kids could watch the football game at my house (I get the channel it was on, and he doesn’t). I said it was fine. When I got home that night they were gone, but LOD had left two beers in my fridge as a thank-you.

I posted about that on Facebook, and so many of my friends said things like, “Wow, you guys have such a great (and weird) relationship!”

What I replied was that I think LOD and I are getting better at knowing what interactions we can have success with, and are trying to only have those interactions, and not others.

We used to fight about all sorts of stuff. Even when we didn’t realize we were fighting, we were fighting. Or at the very least competing. The fights were all the same. The competition was all the same. The fight was always, “You are a bad, inadequate person, and I don’t value what you have to offer.”

Now that we don’t have to be yoked together, and we’re essentially just co-workers working together to parent these kids (and to write this blog), it doesn’t matter who we are. And the things we have to offer the kids are things the other values. So it’s easier to have successful interactions most of the time.

Having said that, we still fight, because we both have hard heads. Some discussions (not actual fights) we’ve had lately have included:

whether or not I (Moxie) am a hypocrite because I am adamantly opposed to leggings as pants when I used to wear (in the late ’90s) tight black pants that LOD asserts were at least as revealing as leggings.
which college football team/conference is the equivalent of the NY Yankees in arrogance.
XM Radio stations: Backspin (me) vs. 1st Wave (LOD)
whether it’s advisable to cook beef in the crock pot with a can of Coke

Boring is really freeing. But there is one actual fight that we have that’s ongoing, and it’s caused us a lot of pain. It’s about having our younger son in the Boy Scouts. We are both very passionate about how we feel about the Boy Scouts, and I know it causes me a lot of pain and guilt and frustration to be in the middle of this fight. However, the two huge differences in how this fight feels vs. how fighting when we were married felt are that: a) we each get to go home and not keep having the fight constantly, and b) it feels like we’re getting somewhere. Slowly. But it feels like there’s motion. So stay tuned on the Boy Scouts issue, because it might turn out OK for us.

Anyway, yes. Successful interactions. I’ve noticed that for us, successful interactions seem to involve either beer or coffee. But Halloween’s coming up next week, so maybe we’ll be able to add Fun Size Snickers to that list. (And I’m going to let LOD tell you the story of Last Halloween and How We Were Both Left Speechless.)

There’s a whole helluva lot in a name

How we named this blog speaks a lot to why we get along as co-parents so much better than we do as spouses. As you can tell from her suggestions, Moxie prefers a very blunt, no-nonsense approach to things. This is why her site has been such a success, and why, when our 10-year-old asks what a clitoris is, she can describe it as impassively as if she were listing instructions for building an IKEA bookshelf.

My writing, conversely, is more narrative and painstakingly agonized over crafted. And yes, I like obscure cultural references. I like bands with names like BR 549 and Toad the Wet Sprocket. I like puns and turns of phrase and other yes-nonsense that she usually just shrugs off. This may shed light on why she remembers my suggestion as “Pooping in the Enameled Tub,” because if something I say doesn’t register immediately, she mentally files it under Crap.

My favorite name was actually “Dogs in the Bathtub,” which I thought of while we were estranged but still living together in our not-large Manhattan apartment. If you’ve ever washed a small, easily vexed dog, you know how they can tend to get agitated and leap out, but their claws’ complete lack of traction against the porcelain makes the whole effort futile. Imagine two in the same tub, threatened by each other and yapping at each other’s tails, running around in clumsy ovals and ultimately getting nowhere. That was us.

I like “When The Flames Go Up” very much (and not just because the band spends most of the video performing perilously close to the edge of a cliff). The song’s title and anthemic melody have always felt life-affirming. And as she said, I got it as soon as she suggested it.

That little spark of commonality is a nice allegory for the blog itself, a little stronghold in the ever-shrinking overlap of our personalities’ Venn diagram.

That’s the best chance we have to make this bathtub confinement as pleasant as possible, especially for the pups.

When you hear hoofbeats, think zebra cake

Last week was LOD’s birthday, which was a little weird because he was traveling for work almost the entire week, including his actual birthday, and was only in town the night before his birthday. So I had the kids all week, except for the night before his birthday, when they were having a special birthday dinner.

The boys talked about making him something, but then the older one said there was something he wanted to give his dad, and the younger signed on to that, so we got it: a crock pot. (Apparently my crock pot efforts over the last year have been good enough for them to think their dad needed one, too.) It was a biggish kind of box, so they decided not to wrap it, but just to give it to him as is. We wrote some of our favorite recipes on file cards to give to him with the crock pot. I was feeling good that the kids were going to be able to give their dad what they wanted to give him and see him the next night when he was home for the birthday dinner.

And then my older son walked out from his room after he’d gone to bed and asked me, “Mom, will you make a birthday cake for Dad tomorrow since I can’t ’cause I’ll be at school all day?”
Hmm. I was not expecting that. And I didn’t want to make my ex-husband a birthday cake.

I would have been completely ok with going to Kroger and buying LOD a cake. But there’s something personal about making a cake. And LOD and I aren’t personal.

But my son wanted me to.

It just didn’t feel right. It seemed a little creepy, even, to make a birthday cake for an ex. Like something I wouldn’t tell anyone else about, because how could I explain it?

But what kind of jerk doesn’t let their kid give their father a birthday cake? So I said I would.

And then I remembered: LOD’s favorite cake is not a baked cake at all, but a Zebra Cake, which is concocted of Famous Chocolate Wafers, whipped cream, and time in the refrigerator to set. So I didn’t have to bake anything, and I only needed two ingredients, and as long I got it done first thing in the morning it would be done and ready by afternoon.

I’m not sure why putting together an icebox cake seemed ok where baking a cake seemed too far over a border. But the Zebra Cake resolved my internal conflict, and I put it together and even put it on my favorite platter (pristine turquoise melmac obtained at a garage sale, which somehow seems perfect for an icebox cake).

The kids were thrilled with the Zebra Cake. LOD was shocked, by the cake and the gift. I still think it was probably too a little too much closeness, but I’m glad the kids got to give their dad a cake and I decided not to be a jerk just because I was uncomfortable.

This Hallmark holiday doesn’t live here anymore

Father’s Day is coming up this Sunday in the US, as everyone who writes a blog knows, because we’ve been getting pitches for weeks. “Best Fathers’ Day Gift For Your Husband!” “Treat Your Husband Right This Father’s Day!” “Something Special For The Special Dad In Your Life”

Sigh.

Even if I put aside the heterosexism there, it’s so obvious that the people sending me the pitches don’t read my website. I never hide the fact that I’m divorced, so I don’t have a husband. And I guess the “special dad in my life” could be my own dad, except that he’s more of a grandpa these days than a dad, and I highly doubt that he wants all the gadgets these email pitches are touting since he’s pretty much happy with a non-fiction book and a cookie.

While Mothers’ Day doesn’t challenge me at all, and has gotten better since the divorce (I just buy myself a gift and say it’s from the kids, and there’s never an ounce of disappointment), Father’s Day is still a little weird. During the years in which we were divorcing but not yet divorced, I could not stomach the thought of contributing to a gift for LOD in any way. I knew that I needed to facilitate my kids’ interest in their father, but it felt like selling myself out to be a material participant in giving him anything. Our amazing babysitter understood that, so when the kids’ schools didn’t have them make anything for him, she helped them pick out or make cards. It was a true kindness from her to me, and to him, since he got something for Fathers’ Day that wasn’t tainted with the anger between the two of us.

As the divorce wears into a more comfortable track, though, it seems more and more reasonable to help the kids do whatever they want to do for him on the day. Which is why I asked them after church on Sunday to think about what they wanted to make for him, so we could stop at the craft store and get whatever supplies they needed. They ultimately decided on making cards with materials we had at home (sorry for the spoiler, LOD), but what made me stop and think was that while I would never consider giving them money to buy some item for him, I was definitely willing to spend actual cash on supplies they needed if they wanted to make him something requiring clay, paint, yarn, etc.

Slowly…

Like this:

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I was told Javier Bardem would be here

Everybody is talking this weekend about “Eat Pray Love,” the movie adaptation of the bestseller about a woman who travels around the world when she gets divorced and finds enlightenment. Now, in theory, I should be all over this bookmovie because I do feel like going through a divorce allowed me to know myself and see my place in the world in ways that would have been impossible otherwise. In almost every way, the process of divorce has been a hero’s quest for me.

But. I’m a mom. So I couldn’t just take off to exotic destinations and eat artisanal pasta and mess around with foreign eyecandy, and that’s where the book lost me. I’d rather read a book about my experience and the experience so many of my parent friends tell me about instead:

Eat: When it all hits the fan initially, you pretty much can’t eat, so you lose 20 pounds without even noticing it. Then you get so stressed out that you start eating to relieve the stress. Lots and lots of ice cream, homemade chocolate pudding (I finish mine by sprinkling some dark brown sugar on the top so it melts in and forms kind of a sauce), cookies, and pizza. Of course, all this emotional eating is done after your kids are in bed asleep, because you attack their diets with renewed energy–there’s nothing like divorce to make you feel like you have to be SuperParent, and part of that is packing bento boxes full of whole-grain, vegetable-rich meals which your kids will then trade for lunchables and Oreos in the school cafeteria.

Pray: First you pray that you won’t lose your kids somehow in the divorce, or all your savings. Then you pray you can pay your rent, now that you’re a one-income family. The whole time you’re praying that your kids will grow up emotionally healthy, that getting divorced will save them instead of hurting them even more. Then you start praying that you can have a good relationship with your ex, so that the disease that broke your marriage apart won’t stay with both of you for the rest of your lives. I actually thought this prayer was in vain, but I’m starting to think the healing is sprinkling down so gently I didn’t notice it initially.

Love: You love your children. so much and so fiercely that you don’t need any other love for a long, long time. And while the logistical and legal wheels turn you find that you love yourself more than you had since you were 17. Another miracle is that the people around you–even those you didn’t think cared about you–turn and put their hands out, so when you fall they catch you. Love is all around, and it’s all you need.

Going through the stages is important. I couldn’t be a truly good parent (and co-parent) for my children until I let myself be who I am, and that meant I had to go through a lot of grief and anger and ice cream to get to being happy with my place in the world. It’s not easy and it hurts, still. Not every day anymore, but a few times a week, at least.

This gentle balance, the maturity (as some of you have said in the comments) required to co-parent with LOD, has been hard-won for me. But I do not regret the fight, and I’m optimistic about the outcome.

But I do miss my kids. It’s Day 6.