The Storm Before the Calm

torn piece of paper with divorce text and paper couple figures

A Dear One is divorcing and her teen daughter hates her.

“Don’t try to fix it.” I advise.  “Let her be angry.” The truth is, this girl wants to be angry and divorce is a well-suited excuse to unleash her rage.

You want your daughter to see from adult eyes – to feel even a tidbit of hope that divorce will make life better instead of worse.  But this girl’s heart is not ready to mend, for it has just begun its breaking open.  In youthful naivete, this tender thing was blind-sided.  In time, she may forgive.  Or not.  Some carry torches of pain for a lifetime.  This will be her choice.  Your job is to love through it as best you can.  Love her.  Love yourself.  Love the circumstances that challenge you to rise above.

You asked my advice and hoped for a remedy to a situation that is unsolvable in a sentence or a phone call or a pocket-guide.  Finding neutral for yourself and your revised family unit will take time that you don’t want to spare and patience you don’t think you possess.

You speak to me of plots and plans and you admit that you’re not thinking straight.  How can you? You are being tossed against obstacles like a tiny boat in a raging sea and you fear you may drown.

My job is not to dive in after you at risk of getting swept up by the current.  I will not agree or disagree with your manic declarations.  It won’t serve anyone if I immerse myself in the drama.  I need to stay on solid ground like the lighthouse keeper, shining a light so you know which direction to move in.

I would remind you that you are stronger than you realize.  You are a survivor.  But remember, strength doesn’t always look pretty.  It cries sometimes.  It reveals things that otherwise wouldn’t be exposed. Vulnerability is a place of healing.  Trust the process. Let it transform you.  Permit yourself to be human.  Forgive yourself twenty times a day.  Then do it again.

These are ugly times.  Hard times.  But not impossible times.  You have come so far.  It took courage to say the ‘D’ word and mean it.  You must continue to be brave to survive the fallout.

Those who love you will endure with you.  Please keep your faith.  Even the most terrifying storms pass.  This darkness will lift and reveal a new calm.  Your sweet, conflicted daughter will surface.  You will learn that you can stand alone in your own shoes.  And one day, you will smile without trying because joy has returned.

Deb

Letter to My Future Daughter-In-Law

daughter-in-law-Dear Future Daughter-In-Law,

I don’t know you yet, or even if you exist.  But I think about you a lot.  You’ve influenced so many of my parenting choices while raising a son.

I was thinking of you when I taught my son how to do laundry at the age of 6, and to make his own meals and clean the house.  He will not assume that these jobs belong to someone else – especially not a female companion.

My son was raised to be self-sufficient for his benefit and for yours.  He is capable of a great many things because his father and I allowed him to try and to fail.   But he is not perfect.  Please don’t berate him for the things he doesn’t do for you or your house or your children.  No man can be everything. And every man needs appreciation.

I’m sure he’ll complain to you about the fact that he never got an allowance and always paid for the privilege of using a cell phone.  Perhaps you had a similar upbringing, or not.  Together, you will have to decide if this is a good idea for your own children.  Will you think of it as an undue burden or as a worthwhile discipline?  Will you be the saver and he, the spender?  Just remember that money has only the meaning and power you assign to it.  Don’t let it come between you.

I wonder about your parents too.  What values did they instill?  Will we all get along when we sit across the table from each other at a family gathering?  Or will it be stressful work to endure each other?  As a daughter-in-law myself, I know that it is a lifelong practice to find balance with extended family.  But it can be done.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t fear the time when I have to surrender my boy to you.  I know you won’t be ‘taking’ him from me because he has already begun his process of separating.  But I also know that he will defer to you, as he should, and that you will have a greater influence on him than I.  I won’t be that stereotypical interfering mother-in-law. I will respect you and commit to seeing what my son sees in you.  All I ask is that you afford me the same generosity in return.

I hope that we will love each other and be equally pleased in gaining our unique relationship.  But even if this is not the reality, we still have something very important in common- we love the same spectacular boy who deserves the best we can give him.  Let’s, at the very least, agree to unite where he is concerned.

My dear girl, I am praying for you.  May you honor and learn from every experience that leads you to my son so that when the time comes, you will recognize and appreciate the gift that was groomed especially for you.

On Grown & Flown

I’m delighted to contribute an essay to Grown & Flown, a wonderful website and blog about parenting teens and young adults. My current piece about birth order and the emptying nest was just published. As parents we try to give our kids what we think they need, but they may have different ideas about what they want. And it may relate to their birth order.

If you’re interested, please find the piece here.

Thanks! Deb

The Evolving College Student and the Reluctant Mother

EDThe honeymoon period is over for my college freshman. Roommates are no longer vested in showing only their best selves. Their patience for each other and for their cramped living quarters is wearing thin. Par for the course, I inform my daughter, but my advice is unsatisfying. She is the one who has to live with the stress.

During our rare visit with her, I notice a new nervous habit and reach out to steady her shaking leg. My people-pleasing first-born feels the weight of her own expectations for academics, sports, and social pressure. And she hasn’t yet discovered the impossibility of satisfying every demand.

Observing her in her college atmosphere feels like observing an animal in the wild. She is familiar enough, yet so very different from the girl who nervously parted from me with a crushing hug and tremulous voice just six months ago.

One senses a maturity-in-residence, not quite adult-like or permanent, but more of a stepping-up-to-the-plate persona. Having had to ‘rise to the occasion’ and exert independence in a variety of new, and sometimes terrifying situations, she radiates elevated self-esteem.

My observations of this transformation mystify me. I notice myself withdrawing into my own thoughts, stepping back a pace or two for fear of disturbing the natural order of things. Here, on my daughter’s turf, I am not in charge – not by a long shot. I know that I am welcome, but what is my role?

I dissect the situation like a wildlife researcher and get the strange feeling that I am actually part of the study – as if I am part of a documentary film narrated by Jane Goodall.

Look at how the baby monkey has adapted to its new environment, slipping into place in an unfamiliar social structure. Now watch how the mother monkey, when allowed to visit the baby, displays uncharacteristic behaviors. She offers ritualized mothering gestures but carefully takes cues from her baby about how much is acceptable. She appears to be out of sorts, almost neurotic, in this habitat. Notice how she follows the baby, never leading the way. She seems unable to take her eyes off the baby.

True, this. My every thought and attention is directed toward my daughter. I snap endless photos of her as I did when she was first born, trying to capture her essence. I anticipate pulling out my photo library for friends when I return home, boring them to tears with elementary stories of my daughter’s every expression. ‘In this photo, she was telling a joke. In this one, she was waving goodbye….’

My mind can hardly process the evolution of my college student, which is happening at warp speed.

We sit down to dinner at a restaurant of my daughter’s choosing and she remarks about her favorite items on the menu. She orders first then leads the conversation with questions for her father about his job. (What?!)

He takes the bait and they launch into a mutual exchange of questions and answers. This unusual conversation is followed by a debate on current politics. (I begin to feel dizzy.)

After a lively exchange, daughter turns her attention to me and asks, “Mom, how are you? Tell me about your life.”

By now I am close to fainting from shock.

“That’s it,” I think. “Who are you and what have you done with my daughter?”

Where are the dramatic teen stories? The complaints about teachers? I’m loaded with advice about these topics. Perhaps you’d like to know how to get a stain out of your favorite shirt? Oh, you figured it out? Good on you.

Adjusting to this new, poised version of my 18 year old is a challenge I hadn’t prepared for. Where my husband easily jumped aboard the speeding train that is our daughter, I had barely arrived at the station. In our absence, our little girl blossomed.

I am ecstatic, truly. But the expression on my face betrays melancholy, if not utter confusion. Disappointment in myself sets in, for I am unable to pull myself together to be the beacon of light I wish to be.

My daughter doesn’t seem to notice my struggle, or is too polite to mention it.
I absentmindedly wonder what else she isn’t saying. Is this a performance of sorts to reassure the nervous parent? My mind simply cannot settle on acceptance of what is unfolding before me.

The long ride home is silent, punctuated by tentative queries from Husband about my emotional well-being. ‘I’m fine,” I reply without conviction, then take to letter-writing by way of explanation to my daughter who may also be bewildered about my strange behavior.

Upon unpacking at home, I am surprised to find a letter stuffed into my bag by my daughter. In it, she details her own mixed feelings, offering an awareness of the major changes taking place within her.

‘I find it thrilling and scary to be taking control of my life, yet am pleased to feel confident in making decisions.’ she reveals.

The letter closes with a dose of gratitude and an affirmation of devotion to a family who is ‘never far from my mind and whose advice I still seek and appreciate.’

Cue the waterworks and the narrator:

“See how, despite the baby monkey’s independence, it checks in with the mother’s response for feedback and reassurance. The mother is placated and begins to assimilate her level of involvement accordingly. This mother-baby pair is learning how to individuate whilst honoring the bond between them.”

One day, this experience of separation, full of confusion and transformation, will all come together in a fond memory of how it felt to be a family in flux, emerging as it must into a new phase of life.

When Life Takes an Unexpected Turn

emergencyOne almost hopes that when you arrive at the Emergency Department of a hospital, the triage nurse will be as incredulous as you are about your current medical crisis. The reality is that she’ll look, listen, and feel to determine if you’re dying at the rate you think you are and inevitably give you the same instruction as the other ten people who have settled in misery in the waiting area – Take A Seat.

These healthcare professionals aren’t heartless, just desensitized, and thus, not easily alarmed unless you have stopped, or will soon stop breathing. Clearly, Husband’s situation is not impressive enough so we queue up in line like customers at a deli counter, waiting for our number to be called. Husband and I joke that he should have led with reports of chest pain in order to bump him up on the list of priorities.

An absurd Monty Python scene comes to mind as I speculate that one could saunter into the ED holding one’s severed limb and still fail to elicit more than a raised eyebrow from the stoic nurse. “Merely a flesh wound” she’d say.

Into the wee hours of the morning, Husband and I played the waiting game, only occasionally being interrupted by this test, that doctor…A diagnosis revealed itself and necessitated further workup, guaranteeing an all-nighter. We were hostages to the system and ever so glad for the privilege.

Despite the uncomfortable circumstances, it was easy to be grateful. At times like these, when one brushes up against mortality, priorities have a way of lining themselves up. Most days I’m apt to complain about traffic or the dishes that have been left unwashed. On an average day, the minutia take on importance and carry me off to a place where no triviality is too small to annoy me. But at the hospital, amidst an endless stream of medical crises, I am contrite.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think there’s room for improvement in the health care system. Whilst seated in a flimsy plastic hospital chair that makes my buttocks numb, it crosses my mind that an upgrade in the comfort of this waiting space in which people spend many stressful hours is not out of the question. But the thought trails off like a feather in a light breeze and is easily replaced with more pressing concerns like, ‘Will my loved one survive the night?’

I listen through drawn privacy curtains at an argument between a delusional drunk patient and a doctor over the patient’s perceived rights and the hospital’s responsibilities. I watch the police officers, active players in this drama, as they attempt to contain the inflammatory situation. I notice the worn expression on the nurse who started her shift at 3 a.m. And I think, no one here gets paid enough.

At sunrise, Husband was released from the suspended animation of the ED and sent home to recover without the comfort of medical supervision. He is freshly wounded by an acute awareness of his brush with death and is faced with the task of establishing a new modus operandi. He cannot go on pretending that he is the same invincible athletic man that he thought he was one week ago.

This is unfamiliar territory for Husband who is used to more glorious challenges like triathlons and ultra-marathons. But I anticipate that his history of achieving BHAGs will serve him well as he climbs his way back to health. He will draw from a well-established arsenal of resources, both external and internal. He will utilize patience, emotional fortitude, an elevated level of self-care, and a sense of humor. These skills belong to him from years of training and will be applied to his current condition.

There will be no medal ceremony at the end. And the ‘end’ may be obscure. But there will be a prize – the same prize we get every day without much of a mention. LIFE.

Feedback or Criticism? Your Choice.

I’ve been told that yoga is the gateway to self-realization. Me-thinks this is a ridiculously tall order for a stretching and breathing routine. And yet, I can’t deny that magical things (not always glorious) happen when I practice.

Enter Yoga Bitch – a tyrant of an instructor in a Barbie doll body. I purposely avoid her classes because of her uber-corrective style of teaching. I prefer a more subtle approach – the kind that favors ‘come as you are and do your best.’ But here she was, filled to the brim with critique and ready to release it with fervor.

Her perpetual corrections to each student amounted to a barrage of noise in my head that threatened to fracture my composure and release the hateful thoughts swirling around in my head. As my annoyance escalated, I tried desperately to force benevolence. But so convinced was I of my rightness and the teacher’s wrongness, that I couldn’t concentrate.

‘This is a test.’ I thought. ‘FOCUS!’

The harder I fought to block her out, the greater my anxiety.

Yoga Bitch broke protocol and began circling the room like a shark which further deteriorated my resolve. I feared for her safety as I imagined an unrestrained Hulk emerging from within me. Then the unthinkable happened – she TOUCHED a fellow yogi!

A quick disclaimer followed – she wouldn’t touch a student unless she had known them for a long time and had his or her permission. Note to self: don’t become too friendly with yoga instructor.

Assuming that my fellow yogi felt as agitated as I did for him, I glued my attention in his direction, expecting and maybe even hoping that he would lash out at her and send her scrambling back to the front of the room where she belonged. Instead, he softly and sincerely said, “Thank you.”

Thank you?! Cue the scratching record sound. I could hardly believe my ears. Did he mean that sarcastically like, ‘Thank you sir, I’ll have another?’

I froze in my posture, stunned, while my brain flipped over, showing me the other side of the coin.

Tails: She’s so critical and annoying.
Heads: She’s trying to help. Say thank you.
Tails: But it’s not helpful. I don’t want to say thank you.
Heads: Don’t be childish. It’s for your benefit. Just make a different choice and you will find peace.

The ability to reframe my perspective so completely and with such speed came as a sort of shock. One second I was raging and the next I was mollified, simply by choosing a new thought.

I’ve been known to preach that everything in life is a gift for which we can be grateful – even criticism. Hadn’t I just told my 12 year old as much when she complained that her English teacher’s review of an essay was unfair? It’s so easy to hold onto pride and so difficult to swallow it in the name of self-improvement.

Later that day I tried my gratitude trick on other difficult situations. “Thank you,” I replied to the boss who micromanages my work. “I won’t make that mistake again.”

Choosing this response, albeit with an experimental amount of sincerity, changed me. There was no resentment or anger or impatience for this person or the situation. And it changed the woman’s response to me. In the absence of defensiveness, both sides were free to be kind. My appreciation for her ‘help’ generated an in-kind donation of gratitude for all my ‘hard work and commitment to growth.’ Go figure.

I’ve read that a good yoga teacher will show you the way toward yourself. She cannot bring you there. You must find your own way. And should you run into your shadow along the way, you’ll know that you’re on the right path.

I’m not going to lie and say that I suddenly love being critiqued. But I do have a more mature appreciation for it and a sense of gratitude to those who are brave enough to dole it out. Which simply means that my beloved yoga studio, and the world, are (for now) safe from the defensive beast that is me.

The Language of Dis-ease

UnderwaterTreasure2Illness and injury get no respect. They are the pariahs of the human experience, cast off and despised as adversaries or at the very least, inconvenient truths. If we took the time to acquaint ourselves with these repudiated occurrences, we’d not only lessen our misery but also emerge as victors who have captured an extraordinary prize.

My career allows me to work with the infirm on a daily basis. As such, I am privy to the language of dis-ease, which, I would claim, is one of the richest and most complicated languages of any I’ve heard.

Dis-ease speaks in unlimited dialects unique to each person – a language unto itself that can only be fully understood by the person to whom it is being spoken. The problem and the blessing is that most of us aren’t fluent in this language. Even those, or especially those, who suffer chronically, struggle to understand the messages of their dis-ease.

A young woman has cancer but is in denial. Months past her diagnosis she won’t let her thoughts attach to the idea that her body is under siege and could inevitably succumb. To do so would feel too vulnerable – like opening the front door and setting out a welcome mat. She pretends that she is the same woman now as she was before, fiercely self-reliant and insanely productive.

As many do, she mistakes denial for survival mentality and thinks that if she refuses to let cancer change the outward appearance of her life, it will not change the inner.

“Good idea.” we agree. “Think positive. Don’t give in.” We look on dis-ease as the ultimate enemy – the criminal who robs us. But dis-ease is not the enemy. Our resistance to it is the actual thief.

A man has had surgery after an accident and will be out of commission for weeks. He has felt angry and impatient. He berates himself for the imagined avoid-ability of it all. This is akin to thinking that one could skip 7th grade if only one had been more careful.

There are lessons to be learned from difficult times that simply cannot be passed over. Setbacks are perfectly-placed opportunities for learning. How would we learn true patience if we weren’t frustrated beyond sanity? How could we know the depths of compassion from others if we weren’t ever desperate for help?

In my children’s elementary school they set aside an educational block called WIN – What I Need. During this time, the students break off into groups tailored to an area of deficiency. Life School has What I Need. Naturally, we’d rather go to recess than to WIN. But on that one day, perhaps a very difficult day when we’ve all but given up, something clicks and we GET IT. We get that we need to:

accept help
face mortality
learn how to prioritize
ask for what we need and want
shed vanity
learn how to channel anger and jealousy
surrender our agenda…….

The lightbulb turns on and we realize what life, our teacher, has been trying to teach us all these years. We have seen this problem before – back in ‘Relationship Breakup Class’ and in ‘Becoming a New Parent Class’, and in ‘Loss of a Job Class.’ It took another crisis for us to see it, but it all makes sense now. Life, the best teacher ever, refuses to give up on us. It keeps presenting us with new opportunities to learn.

Sister found me half-asleep, curled up on a couch in a quiet room away from the other partygoers for whom I had been pretending to be well. Ever so tenderly, she covered me with a blanket then silently crept away. A single tear materialized and a relaxed rush of emotion spread through my aching body. This one simple gesture was an enormous gift of caring that moved me and saddened me. How long had it been since someone had mothered me? How long since I allowed someone to try? Sickness was the circuit-breaker that blew my fuse, presenting the darkness I needed where I wouldn’t otherwise choose to shut down the overload.

If illness is knocking at your door, you can pretend you’re not home but it won’t go away. It’s there FOR you. Everything that happens TO us happens FOR us. Perhaps, instead of cursing dis-ease, we could thank it. Even if we don’t clearly see the lesson plan, we can be assured that there is one and can be grateful that this teacher has shown up to present it.

If we refuse to stretch our awareness and refuse to relax our grip on our incomplete understanding of life, we risk becoming bitter and fear-filled. Anxiety reigns in those who believe in ghosts. Dis-ease doesn’t want to hurt us and leave us empty-handed. It’s not looking for a fight, this sheep in wolves’ clothing. It wants us to grow.

Sometimes dis-ease brings us to the brink of death and dysfunction in order to see. Don’t be afraid. Open your eyes. Look with your heart. Let your mind expand. Find the gifts that are hidden beneath the surface like buried treasure.

There is beauty in dis-ease. I insist. I’ve seen it. Not in the person who ‘survived’ for the sake of living and returning to a premorbid state of being. The real beauty is found in the vulnerable one who dares to surrender to the message. The one who says, “I accept this poker hand and I raise the bet. I bet that even if I don’t win the pot at the end, I will still have learned something about playing the game. And I am content with that.”

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