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Solitude On Saturday

14 Sep

It’s Saturday, and by now you know the drill. Me too. I think I may have finally, after four years, accepted it.

Most weekends without my kids are “me” weekends filled with activity that, truth be told, are just distractions from the reality of single parenthood. I’ve hiked and biked and day tripped. I’ve cleaned with fury, and exerted myself to the point of exhaustion in my yard. I’ve gone on dates like a person who has starved and doesn’t know when she might eat again.

This weekend, I just worked. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t go go go. Later in the evening I decided to take myself to a movie I’d been wanting to see, and the thought of being accompanied by a date, while it crossed my mind, didn’t even feel appealing. For the first time in a long time, I craved solitude.

First I took myself to the new Southern Seasons store that just opened up in Richmond. This place makes Whole Foods look like it’s charging “Walmart prices.” It’s a gourmet foods store. I bought myself a $5 pint of soup and $5 slice of artisan cheese. Browsing the candy section, I felt like Audrey Hepburn’s character window shopping at Tiffany’s. Who pays $2.50 for a candy the size of a quarter? I don’t care how pretty it looks!

Then I took myself to see Boyhood. It’s a “slice of life” movie filmed with the same ensemble of actors over the course of 15 years, following the characters as they grow up (or just get older). It was the perfect movie for this single mom of little kids on the cusp of herb39th birthday. The story is told from the perspective of the boy in the family, but actually it is about each one of the members of the family and how their life choices affect them.

Some of the mom’s life choices echoed my own, and seeing how those choices played out long term was both painful and inspiring. She also was a single mom, and she was distracted from focusing on her kids under the guise of trying to make their lives better: moving near her mother, going back to college, dating men who appeared to be mature, while feeding her resentment and self-righteousness toward her kids’ slow-to-grow-up but good-hearted dad. By the end of the movie she has gone through two alcoholic husbands, several moves, with only one or two friendships with other women as an emotional support system. Near the end when her son is packing for college, she explodes at him with grief and frustration, sobbing, “I just thought there would be more.”

I do not want to end up like her.

After 15 years of being apart from her children’s father, she never did learn to be comfortable in her own skin. She was so focused on making a better life that she missed out on just being present to her kids. She wasn’t a “bad” mom; she cared about her kids, and she protected them from abuse. But never was there a scene where she just had fun with them. At one point early on in the film, the son complained about the jerk she married, to which she responded, “I wanted us to be a family.” He says, with the wisdom only a nine year old boy can have, “We already were a family.”

I haven’t been dating jerks, and I certainly haven’t had my sights set on marriage in order to “complete” my family. I was married long enough to know how much work feeding and nurturing a love relationship is, and there’s not enough of “me” to give to parenting and marriage, at least not right now. I’m sure a lot of married moms feel that way, too; I did. But at least when you are married to your children’s father, the work is like a long-term investment so that when the kids do finally fly from the nest, you have a relationship with someone who has shared the whole gut-wrenching journey with you. Being single, any significant energy I give to romance is robbing it from my kids.

It’s Saturday, and today I’m investing in myself. I’m committed to being present to my kids. I’m grateful for solitude, for the strong, heathy women who are my role models, and for the men whose friendship (with and without “benefits”) has made no demands or promises.

Single On Labor Day

8 Sep

It’s Saturday, I’m single, and I’m calling into question beliefs I didn’t even know I had until they were revealed by the events of my Labor Day weekend.

Perhaps you’ve heard the following words coming out of the mouth of a self-righteous office manager, or your ex. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” It’s a snarky, judgmental thing to say, isn’t it? I don’t think I’ve ever said it, but I’ve certainly thought it, especially in my past professional life working at a stressful magazine advertising job.

I didn’t realize until last weekend that I’ve attributed this very common human attitude to my divine Higher Power.

Last Sunday afternoon I headed to the mountains to join a backpacking Meetup group from Washington, DC. I thought I knew where I was going. I didn’t read the directions, much less print them out. We would be camping and hiking in Shenandoah National Park, and I knew how to get there. I felt totally confident winging it. I even left early.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t realize is the parking lot for our camp site was NOT in the park. It was about a 45 minute drive from any park entrance. And I didn’t discover this critical detail until 6:30 pm, the time I was supposed to be joining them.

I could have tried to find the lot on my own in the setting sun and hike in the dark for a mile to the campsite, but that didn’t seem like a very safe choice. The park ranger who was helping me with the map suggested I just stay there at the campground in the park; after all, there were plenty of open sites, and it would be dark in an hour. I’ve never camped solo, but I didn’t really want to drive all the way home, either; after all, I’d come ready for sleeping outside in a tent. So I decided to stay, do a little writing, go to sleep early, and drive to my group at dawn.

I was pretty humbled by a hard lesson in preparation and thinking I know more than I do. Being solo was my divine punishment, I reasoned. I’ve never truly believed in a “punishing” God in the traditional sense, but rather a God who doesn’t stand in the way of the natural consequences of my mistakes. Clearly, I had made some this time, and I believed I deserved to be alone, “sent to my room” as it were, to think about what I’d done.

I did not believe in a God that blesses someone who makes a mistake in judgement. The God I believed in would have said, “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” The God I believed in would have left me to reap what I’d sown. And this was the God who, until this past weekend, I was attempting to trust? No wonder I had difficulty!

The God I believed in would never “reward” me with a serendipitous invitation to an bluegrass concert in the nearest college town with two interesting strangers who showed me the best night I’ve had in years.

Fortunately, the God I believed in is not the God who showed up at that camp site Sunday night. And because the God who DID show up did indeed bless me with a serendipitous adventure the likes of which I’ve never had, I’ve decided that’s the God I’m going to believe in from now on.

But buried within my distorted belief about God were some even more distorted beliefs unconsciously operating for some time.

1. Being alone is punishment, or at the very least, a natural consequence.

I’m not sure where this belief originated, but it’s an old one, and it has been reinforced by countless experiences where isolation and rejection were the natural consequences of being my awkward, imaginative, open hearted, genuine self. Over time I’ve developed some skills to avoid this consequence – becoming a chameleon, intuiting other people’s desires, giving them what they want, being someone they are comfortable around. These tools have served me well professionally, but at the cost of remembering how to be myself.

2. If I’m alone, obviously it’s my own fault and I’ve done something wrong to deserve it.

I’m an introvert and I do like some solitude now and then. I definitely prefer working independently rather than as part of a group. But I crave regular social connection. Introverts get lonely, too.

Prolonged loneliness has done its share of damage to my sense of self-worth. There’s nothing more human than to ask, “What have I done to deserve this?” when I’m in pain, and loneliness is painful. But that kind of self-pity is just a subtle attempt to control the uncontrollable. The truth is, I may not have done anything wrong. Rejection is not always about me; sometimes, it’s about the other person or group, and sometimes it’s God’s way of protecting me. Obsessively trying to find fault in myself, and then twisting myself into a pretzel to change, is about the most self-centered approach I could take to loneliness, and it has definitely added more pain to my life.

3. I deserve to be alone.

Obsessive fault-finding naturally leads to this ridiculous belief. This is resignation, not acceptance, and it is patently false. What I deserve is healthy relationships and a balanced approach to solitude and sociability.

4. Being alone is unsafe, or at the very least, difficult.

The people who invited me to the bluegrass concert were both Shenandoah National Park employees in their twenties. They were seasonal workers living there in the park. And when I told them I was nervous about camping there by myself, they both brushed it off. Melissa, age 23, said, “I love camping by myself. There’s always lots of other people and families around who will get to know you and include you.” Matt, age 27, said, “You’re never really alone in the park.”

It is true. When I had been there with hiking groups, everyone walked at their own pace, and I ended up walking by myself a lot, which was lovely. I passed other people on the trail, and made brief connections with other hikers who were not part of the group. The trails are well marked, and there are frequent sign posts to direct you. So I decided I didn’t need meet up with my D.C. group on Monday morning. I picked a nearby loop trail, got myself a paper map at the visitor’s center, and set out on my own.

I rediscovered solitude. I didn’t worry about keeping up with people who hike faster than me, and I didn’t feel the need to slow my pace to keep an eye on the stragglers behind. If I wanted to climb down a rocky ledge to get a better view of the waterfall, I did it. If I wanted to take pictures of the valley or return the calls of a crow flying overhead, no one was around making fun of my bird noises.

For three years of being a single parent, I’ve been focused almost entirely on the limitations of flying solo. I can’t just go to the grocery store when I need milk. I can’t keep my house as clean as I could when I had someone else to mow the grass. I run late a lot, and family outings are a lot harder with only two hands instead of four.

One Saturday this summer I took the kids to see fireworks with another single parent who has two kids. Five kids between us, but the extra set of hands to carry drinks and snacks, those shoulders to carry my little one when the walk got too long, the second set of eyes when the girls had strayed from the picnic blanket too far, and mostly having someone else to enjoy watching our kids be kids was like a cold glass of water after being in a desert.

I found myself feeling deeply depressed that it was only a temporary relief from the limitations of being single. Single on Sunday sucked. But two months later I can see it is my long-term aloneness that gives me such deep appreciation and gratitude for a simple moment of togetherness. I never had that gratitude when I was married and had partnership every day. And as difficult as being a single parent can be, being a married parent was even more difficult in some ways.

Life is hard, single or not. It’s my experiences of isolation and fear of rejection that have made me capable of unconditional love and acceptance of the people who do cross my path now. Some of them are quite different from me, but they have become the truest friends I’ve ever had. I may not share my home or my bed with any of them, but I do share my emotional life, by burdens and joys, and my stories of adventure and lessons learned.

Being single, whether as a parent or on the trail, may have its limitations, but nothing is more limiting than operating under old beliefs that do me more harm than good. It’s my attitude that is my greatest limitation. I’m so grateful for my mistake last weekend. It forced me to face some of those old attitudes and try out some new ones.

Serenity On Saturday

23 Aug

It’s Saturday, I’m single, and for the first time in my life, I’ve experienced serenity.

Not this Saturday. This Saturday I’m my usual hot mess. It was last Saturday when I went on my son’s Boy Scout camping trip. The boys went to a “lake” that was actually a 120 foot deep shale quarry filled with crystal clear water. You couldn’t see the bottom, and there was no beach to gradually wade in. All of us had to wear life jackets as we enjoyed a zip line and a multitude of inflatable climbing structures. My son was a bit intimidated by it all, but he enjoyed the canoe and the paddle boat.

They warned us to take off rings, earrings, or anything else valuable. When I went in the water, I left my glasses on dry land. But in the canoe, I never thought to take them off. I really can’t see without them.

We were paddling along the sharp cliff wall of the quarry, where there were blackberry brambles growing out from the cracks in the rocks. As we paddled under those brambles, a branch brushed the side of my glasses and knocked them off my head into the water, where they sunk into the blackness before I could even blink.

In about 5 seconds’ time, I experienced all the stages of grief compressed. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately acceptance. It was nearly instant. My heart raced for a moment, and then serenity washed over me. Complete acceptance that my glasses were gone. And I laughed. What else could I do? I spend hours every summer pillaging blackberry bushes for the plumpest, sweetest berries, and now they were having their revenge!

My son thought I was losing my mind that I was so calm. He was horrified at what happened and was frantically calling for the lifeguard who was patrolling the area in his kayak. I joined in the effort to get his attention, but not because I thought there was anything that could be done.

In that moment, I had totally surrendered. I let go absolutely. I had prescription sunglasses back at the campsite, and I’d go to LensCrafters when we got home Sunday. Until then, I’d be ok.

I can’t think of a another time in my life that I’ve been so at peace about something I couldn’t control, especially so quickly. Usually the journey to acceptance is a long winding road that involves a lot of crying and backtracking. Of course, letting go of people and situations is not like letting go of a pair of glasses, either. But it was a wonderful concrete example of what serenity is and how it actually works.

Since the incident with the glasses last weekend, I’ve had to do more letting go, and every time I’m tempted to “pick up” again, I take a deep breath and say to myself, “The glasses are under 100 feet of water.” The thing for which I want to grasp is gone, if it was ever there in the first place.

But that’s not the end of the story. One of the park’s employees had diving gear. He got suited up and found the glasses about 20 feet down, stuck on a rock ledge. I truly never thought I’d see them again, but grace came through yet again.

We’ve all heard that cliche, “If you love something, let it go. If it doesn’t return it was never really yours.” Well, I’ve had lots of “boomerangs” in my life, lots of second and third chances with work situations, relationships, friends and family. And I can say from experience that even if it does come back (which is never a guarantee) it’s still not really mine. It was never really mine, ever.

That’s the heart of serenity.

Raising Adults

12 Jul

It’s Saturday, I’m single, and my son came home from camp today. A week ago, I had to carry him down the stairs, and his father had to push him toward the car, and the Scoutmaster had to pry him away from his dad’s arms at the camp entrance. Aside from the day we told the kids we were getting a divorce, camp send off is the hardest thing I’ve had to do as a parent.

I’ve spent the better part of this past week questioning whether I’d done the right thing. Thank goodness for all my guy friends who’ve assured me that, yes, he’s going to be better off having gone to camp, in spite of his resistance. He will thank me one day, they said. And God bless the Scoutmaster who sent email and photo updates of the boys every day. It was my lifeline.

Through his Sunday morning tears, my son told me the reason he was so upset was that he didn’t have any say in the decision; we decided for him. I told him we’ve been making decisions for him for 11 years, because he’s been a little boy. And now that he’s getting older, we will have to let him start making some of his own decisions. After he got back from camp, of course.

I’m looking forward to that about as much as I look forward to the end of summer break.

It’s gotten me thinking about why I sent him to camp in the first place – to foster his independence and help him find the confidence and community he needs to sustain him as he makes the journey toward adulthood. As hard as it has been to deliberately remove my son from his comfort zone, what got me through my self doubt was continually reminding myself that I’m not supposed to be raising a child. I’m raising an adult.

Based on the current outcome, I’m really good at raising children. I have three really well-behaved kids who sit still in restaurants (even without the aid of electronics), listen attentively on guided tours of historical places, are quiet in church, go to bed when I ask, and do their homework without much prompting. They are “free range kids” who have their run of the house and can be trusted (mostly) not to eat all the junk food if I sleep late in the morning. Occasionally they make their own beds and clean their own rooms, although the little one hasn’t caught on to this yet. They work out most of their sibling conflicts without much parental brokering. I’ve followed my mother’s method of childrearing – let kids be kids within boundaries which keep them safe, keep them on a predictable schedule and a regular routine, and use encouragement and scolding in equal parts. It has worked.

However, I know very little about raising adults. I am not convinced that I am one myself, and I’m not so sure I want to be one.

It’s Saturday, and I’m still a child on the inside. I want to go to camp. I want to pick blackberries. I want to play at the river. I want someone else to do the cooking. When I really was a child, I thought being an adult meant being able to do what I wanted, when I wanted. Turns out, that’s not what it is at all. Being an adult means having to wake up when I’d rather sleep, go to work when I’d rather play, cook and clean when I’d rather be out on my bike.

It’s Saturday, and being an adult doesn’t mean I get to make all the decisions for myself. Not really. It’s Saturday, and my kids make my decisions, whether or not they realize it. My clients and employers make my decisions. My mortgage company and utilities companies and banking institutions make my decisions.

My only real choice is my attitude. Will I decide to have an attitude of resignation, or an attitude of rebellion? Neither one suits me. How about an attitude of denial? That one works for a while, until it doesn’t. The bills and the laundry and the dishes pile up, demanding attention. The children whine more, and I wine more. Or crush candies.

It’s Saturday, and I choose an attitude of acceptance. And as my son opened the car door to face his mom again, he had a smile on his face. He was beaming, actually. He apparently chose an attitude of acceptance, too.

It’s Saturday, and he’s not going to be thrilled to learn that adulthood doesn’t mean doing whatever he wants. But, he’s off playing with his friends now. I’ll let that lesson wait until Sunday.

Single (Dads) On Sunday

16 Jun

It’s Sunday, I’m single, and it’s Father’s Day.

Being single, one of the things I miss the most about family life is seeing my kids with their dad. My son, who turned eleven yesterday, was born on the Saturday before Father’s Day, and I recall that Sunday in the hospital vividly. Less than 24 hours postpartum, I was a mess -physically exhausted and emotionally shell-shocked. He was calm, he counted wet and poopy diapers, he cuddled that baby boy who spent no time in the hospital nursery thanks to his loving respect for my maternal wishes. Once I’d recovered, I swooped in with confidence and became “mom” – the only one who could feed, clothe, change, or calm. But for that one day, Father’s Day 2003, he was the competent one.

Like most men I know, including my own dad, my kids’ father was and is a deeply emotional man who didn’t always know how to express those deep emotions. It spilled out in fits of silliness. Occasionally there were moments of tenderness in a touch or a look. There was awkward affection, and repressed anger. Being young and female, I thought there was something wrong with all of that. But once our son, and later our first daughter, came into the family, they opened up the tap on his emotions. A father playing with his children demonstrates an intimacy he can’t always achieve with his spouse, no matter how much he may genuinely love her.

When I see a man loving his child in his own way, I see his true nature. Even when he struggles with losing his cool or being able to connect, the fact that he tries is beautiful. It is a privilege to witness.

I’ve got a lot of dads in my life. Some have been like fathers to me, guiding me, chiding me, cheering me. Others have been partners in love, partners in friendship, and partners in single parenthood as they’ve shared their experiences, and have walked with me through mine.

I truly believe that God did not intend for anyone to do parenting on their own. It takes a father. Not just as a loving role model for the kids, but as a nurturer of their mom. I will always believe that marriage is the ideal environment for this kind of nurturing. But being single on Sunday, I don’t have the ideal, so I sure am glad God has brought so many beautiful and diverse dads into my life. You all are amazing and humbling, and you make me a better mom just by allowing me to witness your being the best dad you can be.

It’s Sunday and I’m a single mom, loving all the single and married daddies who love their babies. Who make the sacrifices. Who make the best of a less than ideal hand. Who show me what love looks like.

Stepdads On Saturday

7 Jun

“I wonder if we’ll ever have a stepdad.” This sentence occasionally escapes my 8 year old daughter’s lips, and it takes my breath away every time.

The first time she said it, I thought she was worried that there would be a stepdad one day, but after a conversation with her, I learned that she was kind of hoping there would be. I’m not sure which is worse.

I mentioned it to a single father friend whose kids are about ten years older than mine. He said they used to ask him the same question a lot when they were little (swapping genders, that is). He suggested that the question may be her way of saying she misses having a dad at home, or missing having two parents living together. Her way of coming to acceptance about a less than perfect family situation.

There is a stepmom. She is awesome. She knits them beautiful stuff (I can’t remember the last time I handmade anything). She makes them clean up after themselves on the weekends they stay with she and their dad (it’s all I can do to get them to put candy wrappers in the trash can and laundry in the hamper). Mostly, she and their dad are doing a pretty good job of modeling what a healthy married couple looks like, and for that I am grateful. That was and still is one of my biggest regrets in dissolving my union with their father.

Ironically, my daughter’s “stepdad” comments are now my opportunity to model healthy marriage decision making. Every time the topic surfaces (this week it was in the car on the way to the baseball game) I get the chance to tell the kids that the decision to get married is a very serious one, and that even though I may have some very nice male friends, it takes more than just “niceness” or even love to make a partnership that is supposed to be forever.

This week I had the chance to take the conversation a little further. “God brings lots of interesting people into our lives,” I said. “As you get older and you want to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, you’ll learn about this, too. You’ll learn what you like and don’t like about lots of different types of people, and sometimes you’ll like someone a lot as a friend, but you wouldn’t want to share a house with them. Or you might like them more than they like you and your feelings might get hurt,” I continued. My inner child was listening to the monologue, too; I wish someone had said these words to me. Not that I would have heard them.

“Here’s what I’ve learned. When God brings someone special into your life, and you start to have those feelings, there are three important things to do. First, be honest with each other. Always. Second, don’t ever change yourself to please the other person, or ask them to change for you. Finally, keep God in the middle. Pray for knowledge about what kind of relationship God wants you to have, and God will let you know.”

I wish I could say I came up with that on my own, but I didn’t. It was the advice my own “spiritual mama” gave me recently. It’s what she and her beloved did when they found themselves falling in love, and apparently it worked. They are now married, but I’m sure if God wanted their relationship to be just a stop along the journey, they would have handled that scenario with just as much grace and witness to God’s guidance.

I know some divorced people who do not allow their kids any view of their romantic lives. For good reason. Why have a revolving door into their home and their hearts? When I first ventured into post-marriage dating, I kept my romantic life completely secret. I was very skeptical when their dad wanted to introduce them to the woman who (unbeknownst to any of us at the time) would become their stepmother. After all, what if this was just a rebound? What if they got confused?

He had a different attitude. For him, keeping a relationship secret would be the worst thing he could do. If someone was special to him, he wanted to share that with the kids and share them with the person he loved. I’m glad I didn’t stand in the way of that, even if it did require me to suspend my judgement and my insecurity, and trust that whatever the outcome, my kids would be okay.

I may not be able to model a healthy marriage to my kids, but I can model healthy dating. I want to teach them there is nothing shameful about having romantic feelings for someone. I want them to know their “single mom” is also a woman who believes men are generally good. I want to demonstrate that friendship is the best foundation for “something more.” I want them to see it’s okay to feel excited about someone’s attention, and I also want them to see having a “significant other” doesn’t have to mean you “have” to get married to each other or the relationship was a failure. The only failure is in not learning from each other. I want them to know it’s normal to feel sad when special relationships come to an end, and I want to show them that goodbye can be just as healthy as a lifelong commitment if it’s done with love and grace.

It’s Saturday, and I’m a single momma. This is not the path I would have chosen for myself 15 years ago when I started dating my children’s father. But it’s the path I’m on, and I’m going to make the most of every lesson I get. For me. And for them.

Surprised On Saturday

15 Feb

It’s Saturday, I’m single, and love is not what I expected.

I was spending time with my “valentine” last evening – a single dad who has proven to be a wonderful shepherd into the world of divorce, parenting, healing – and this Alan Jackson song came on the radio. We paused in our conversation as he turned up the radio, because he likes the song so much.

It’s called “Remember When,” and this song encapsulates what I once upon a time expected of love. My friend likes the nostalgia and good old fashioned “country” sound of it, but listening to it makes me feel sad.

I expected everything in this song. I expected that “my first” would also be my “last and only.” I expected that when life threw curves and we broke each other’s hearts, we’d learn to trust each other again. I expected co-creating new life would bring us closer together. I expected that on any given day, if you’d asked me, I would say I would do it all again. And unfortunately, none of that was my reality.

My reality was that on our first Valentine’s Day as a married couple, I boycotted the holiday without telling my spouse. Which is kind of a metaphor for the rest of our marriage, when I think about it. My reality was working through my anger and resentment until there was only love left, which meant loving him enough to stop wasting his time with my unrealistic expectations, and letting go of the fantasy.

Yesterday, he posted a picture on his Facebook page from his recent remarriage. He and “Wife 2.0″ as I affectionately refer to her were kissing in front of crossed Star Wars lightsabers. I love Star Wars, but there’s no way I’d have had a Star Wars themed wedding. Whatever regrets or sadness I may have about my divorce, when I look at that picture, I know in my heart that I did the right thing, freeing him to find his match. I was SO not “the one.” Love was having the courage to admit that and hurt him in the short term so that he could be free to find happiness in the long term. Love is not at all what I expected.

“Sometimes we forget the difference between symbols and substance when Valentine’s Day rolls around,” according to these wise words from the 12-step book Believing In Myself. “Romantic tokens are flattering and fun–but tokens aren’t love itself. Many of the valentine tokens being given today are inspired by a sense of obligation–because old Hubert or Billy or Sam knows what’s good for him! Some are even given to reduce guilt or to show off. Love itself costs a lot more than long-stemmed roses or even diamonds.

“Real love is measured out in steadiness, commitment, and unselfishness over the long haul. It has to do with willingness and forgiveness and just plain fortitude. It means being consistently mindful of someone else’s welfare. If we are engaged in such relationships, we are fortunate indeed, whether or not we have someone on hand today to tell us how wonderful we are. It’s love itself that’s wonderful, not the tokens.”

That sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? It’s Saturday, I’m single, and I’m living that kind of love. It may not look like a marriage that withstood the test of time. But it’s in failing at marriage that I found the ability to love unselfishly, consistently reminded of another’s welfare.

I’m still sad, but I’m also glad for all the life I’ve had, when I remember when.

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