Those Stolen Moments
My daughter, E, nearly nine, is growing up. It’s her job, and one she takes very seriously. I respect that and do my best not to get in her way, and to honor the young lady that she’s becoming.
This is a beautiful and startling age–and since she’s my one and only (aside from my almost-stepson), in many ways all of her stages are as new and fresh to me as they are to her. Now in third grade, E and her friends are growing in so many ways, and dramatically. Seems every time we turn around they look different, have edged up another two inches, their faces now showing real signs of what they will look like when they are older. At this age, they’re picking up information about life, culture, society and assimilating it with astonishing vigor. They’re able to absorb it with a new level of depth and understanding, allowing for deeper, more nuanced discussions about matters large and small, from what it means to be a good person to whether I like blue more than green. (It’s a tie.) They are growing ever more sophisticated and are demanding that we treat them as the young women they’re turning into before our eyes.
I respect that and feel it’s my job to acknowledge and celebrate the big girl she’s becoming. As her mom, though, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt a little. This past summer, driving home from camp one afternoon, E asked me if it would be OK if she called me “Mom” from now on instead of “Mommy.” Gulp. Did she hear that in the back seat? I wondered. My mind said, “She’s growing up. You have to let it happen. Can’t hold her back.” My heart said, “I’ve been demoted!” Were the mushy years behind us? Wow, that went quick. Of course, I agreed–suggesting that if she wanted to call me “Mommy” in private sometimes, or if she just so happened to slip and called me “Mommy,” I was totally OK with that. (Had to get that in.) But if not, “Mom” was fine, too.
Some of the mushy moments we used to have are now being replaced by my awe of all she’s able to do now. On Monday nights, I revel in watching her at her ice skating lessons–not only because of how quickly she’s learning the moves and the excitement and energy she has on the ice, but also because I’m reminded of how far she’s come these past two years, since she was diagnosed with ITP, a rare blood disorder. After her diagnosis in December 2009, for many months she was not allowed to ice skate, participate in physical education, or recess. The risk of injury was too great; any sort of head injury, in particular, could have been life-threatening. Now when I see her zooming around on two blades with abandon, my heart soars as I reflect on how far she’s come and what a big girl she now is.
But the truth is, I don’t want the tenderness of early childhood to end fully. And what she’s teaching me about this age is that those moments may be more fleeting now–and sometimes they seem like stolen moments from another time–but they’re still something we both need and want from one another. I hope that never changes.
This morning at the bus stop reminded me of this evolution. There we were, embroiled in our typical hair-brushing power struggle, she running away from me, me offering her three options: 1) Let me brush the knots out of your hair; 2) You brush them out; or 3) I will make an appointment for a haircut to end all of this fun. (I notice the calmer I say #3, the least-preferred option, the more results I get. Today I was calm, so she came back willingly and brushed her own hair.)
Then, a block away we saw the bus. We had only one minute. This is when I usually would give her a staccato kiss, saying something like, “Quick! Before anyone sees!” Humorously, but acknowledging her desire that this be a private moment. So we did that. But then, just as the bus arrived, in full view of her friends, she gave me a big, long, mushy, impromptu hug.
The Santa Chronicles
The aspirational “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is upon us and I, lame Jew of little knowledge, once again find myself in regular talks with The Big Guy in the Red Suit, aka Santa.
It’s a curious situation, one I fell into on happenstance with little preparation or knowledge. Growing up with my mom and brother, ours was a Hanukkah-only home, where we lit candles when my mom remembered (typically five or six of the nights). The gift-giving went like this: The first night you received a nice present, the next night you got a book or album, the rest of the nights you got . . . socks. Needless to say, I always had Christmas envy, and not-so-secretly longed to be Catholic, because then I could go to CCD with my friends on Wednesdays, and I loved singing in Latin and always found the stained glass/candle combination to be pretty in a mysterious kind of way.
My mother worried about my impending conversion so much that I was forbidden to attend Midnight Mass until my senior year of high school. I’m not sure why she thought the Catholic Church would be interested in adding me to their roster, but when I was 17 she relented, my era of impressionability seemingly expired. She no longer was concerned that I would succumb to the pressure of Father Rob at St. John’s, the church down the block where many of my friends attended, in whose rectory I smoked my first cigarette at age 12.
Fast forward to 2003. Now 33, I became mom to a child who would celebrate Christmas and yes, believe in Santa Claus. My relationship with Santa–though relatively short-lived–is an intense one. You see, I have been bestowed with the mystical powers of a telepathic connection to SC, even in December, his busiest month. I know not to overuse this power, as he has a lot of lists to read right now, and is overseeing multiple elf-filled production lines to check them all off. Santa’s got a hard deadline, I’m well aware. So I keep it brief, these conversations.
It does come in handy, being able to talk directly to The Man and hearing his quick responses, always of the reassuring kind. You see, my Santa is a New Testament kind of guy. He forgives most kids their trespasses, as long as they’re good most of the time and they try really hard to be kind to others, even their almost-step-brothers, and don’t leave all of their doo-dads all over the house. The threat of coal-filled stockings is not one my Santa uses often. That’s saved only for truly evil children, and I know none of those. Truth be told, my Santa is a softy, a wise friend, a green lighter of wishes large and small. He offers constructive criticism but his overarching theme is being pleased with the progress. He’s an affable, big-picture guy.
While Santa came to me through marriage, after we split up, I was left in the dubious position of winging it with the Santa rules. Kind of like when you get a surprise essay test and try to psychobabble your way through it, not realizing that the more you write, the larger the hole you dig for yourself. This is all fine and good until your child reaches a certain age where they start to compare notes. Or when you end up in a blended family where your partner has more definitive rules (and scoffs at your made-up ones). Then you find out other protocols, such as:
- The aforementioned almost-stepbrother who, once a year, receives a phone call from Santa. This led to a heated discussion on cell phone reception in the North Pole. [I suggested that Santa came down to the U.S. for that call, which he does occasionally for test runs and to map out his route. This explanation was met with befuddlement (the boy) and affirmation (the girl).]
- The letter from Santa, all in cursive, that E’s friend received (who complained it was too long. Obviously not my child.)
- In my ex’s family, under “From” on the adhesive tags, it would read, “Santa, Mom and Dad.” Except for the big presents–those would just be from “Mom and Dad.” They didn’t want the Big Guy to get sole credit for any of it.
- In my fiance’s family, however, most of the gifts are from Santa alone; only one or two of the big ones are from us, with no Santa involvement whatsoever. We continue to negotiate our way around this sticking point.
- In fact, I’ve only uncovered one “universal” rule in all of this Santa-lore: Always leave the cookies out for him–and make sure he takes at least one bite, because there’s no better proof that The Big Guy was there.
Now that my daughter is almost nine, though, she may be onto some of my tricks. When she noticed some Amazon packages delivered to our door, she was quick to accept my lame explanation that some things are just too heavy for SC’s sleigh, what with all of the other presents and Donner having back issues lately. So he has them delivered. She also suggested we get wrapping paper, under the guise that since the elves are working 24/7 now, sometimes he asks me to finish the job. Seems my early fear–that she would one day be traumatized and angered by all of this mythology and deception–is being proven unwarranted. If she knows, she’s not letting on, because the payoff of believing–or seeming to believe–is just too good.
This would all be OK except for one complication: K, her 10-year-old almost-stepbrother who lives with us half the week, is a true believer. So Santa–with all of our conflicting protocols–remains a key part of Christmas. At least for now.
Before all that, though, comes Hanukkah. Today I will resurrect the menorah from the basement and vow to light the candles at least 60 percent of the nights, as I was taught long ago. E likes Hanukkah, and she likes socks, too. On some level, she knows she has it good, especially this time of year. Her only complaint came last week, upon exiting the school bus: “Mommy,” she implored, in that tone of half-annoyance that eight-year-old girls seem to master, “Why don’t we celebrate Kwanzaa?”
Happy Hanukkah. Merry Christmas. Happy Kwanzaa. And a Happy and Healthy 2012.
Time Is a Funny Thing
Today is one of those anniversaries you never forget. On December 5, 2009, one month after my 40th birthday, my daughter E was diagnosed with ITP.
To say our lives have not since been the same would not be overstatement. Still not “recovered,” E is so much better than she was when the ER doctor at Vassar Bros. confirmed his “worst-case scenario” diagnosis, her platelet count at an alarmingly low 3,000 (normal is 150,000 to 400,000) and we were rushed via ambulance down to Westchester Medical that snowy evening to receive her first of many emergency infusions.
We’re in a far better place now. E, now nearly nine, for the most part feels and looks fantastic these days. We are optimistic that she will continue to improve and yeah, maybe even beat this thing–or at least live with it on her own terms.
But it’s the anniversary of a very important day in our lives, and so I must reflect. It’s what I do. Writers write. I write about her illness in part for me–yes, it’s supremely cathartic–but also as a way to get some honest thought out there about what it would be like to go through something like this. As I’ve mentioned before, I do not offer advice. I offer candor, a look inside this world. I hope in writing about our struggles, our story is empathetic–to anyone who has or will have to go through anything similar. That is my intent. Sometimes when you put your innermost thoughts out there, it can ameliorate the shame or embarrassment and enable others to express what’s inside them, or at least find peace. I offer these thoughts to anyone who wonders what it would be like if one day, you woke up and suddenly your child was sick. Very sick. Hopefully that day will never, ever happen to you–but if it does, I know you’ll get through it. So I write to offer hope, too. Hope is a beautiful thing–like love, I’ve learned first-hand that we can’t really live without it.
Life-changing events like this, for me, are experienced through three lenses: snapshots (the imagery of vivid moments), time (sometimes slow motion, sometimes fast forwarded, sometimes out of sequence, a la “Pulp Fiction.” Often not linear, because hey, that’s just how I roll) and deep breaths–the moments you step back, close your eyes and try to absorb the salient lessons all of this reality should be offering you.
At two years in, here are some of the visual memories I have of our first few weeks:
1) This day two years ago. E woke up with blood on her pillow. That happened the night before, but not as much of it, and I chalked it up to the dry heat. (We had just started running the heat in the house full force, which had resulted in prior bloody noses. Though not like this.) On this Saturday morning, however, with a flash of horror I noticed unusual tiny pink dots covering both of her shins, along with a series of bruises. I brought B, my now-fiance, over to look at her legs: “What’s that?” I asked him. (He’s very knowledgeable about most things and it takes a lot to freak him out.) He didn’t know, but agreed it was strange and she needed to go to the doctor. The rest of the day was a blur of increasingly horrific details–the karate testing where my little dynamo could barely manage a front kick; the weekend after-hours clinic where the doctor had no idea what she had, but told us to get a blood test at the nearest hospital; the drive to the local ER through the first snowfall of the season, the longest 15 minutes of my life; the four nurses it took to hold E down to take her blood, the horror of her shrieking; the confirmed diagnosis; the hour-long ambulance ride down to Westchester Medical’s Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital, just E and me, the way it would be for so many of our hospital trips; the two days it took to get her levels back up, only to drop again a week later.
2) My solo train ride home. Not prepared for an overnight hospital stay, and needing to get back to take care of the dog and get showered/changed, etc., the next morning my ex took a turn for a few hours as I returned home by train to get a quick break and drive back with the car for my second overnight stay. (His stays at the hospital were far, far fewer than mine, which was partly my choice and partly his desire not to be there. Enough said.) On the platform in Tarrytown, more than 24 hours before my first wave of fear that something was wrong with my daughter, for the first time I allowed myself to cry. Not sob. Cry. Primal, from the gut, unrelenting waves of sorrow. Finally by myself, not needing to be the strong one for E, I let it out–the whole ride back.
3) Eight days later, our return trip back to the hospital. Having now read up on ITP, my hope was that this would go away as quickly as it had come, as it did with many children E’s age. But less than 10 days later, her levels had dropped precipitously and we were back at Westchester for another overnight stay. Little did I know that this would be our pattern for the next six months. The doctor sat me down, informed me that he wanted a bone marrow test, “To rule out anything more serious.” “You mean, you’re checking for leukemia, right?” I asked. “That’s right,” he said. The next morning, she was wheeled down for the test. I was with her, watched as they finally were able to calm her enough to put her out. The nurse–a pretty Russian of about 29–made the mistake of telling her they were going to give her something to put her into a “nice sleep.” E didn’t like that idea at all, made me promise they wouldn’t. When she was finally calmed down and the medicine was administered, I watched her stop mid-sentence, her eyes rolling back. Then I was quickly ushered out of the room to wait. “It won’t be long,” the doctor said–“15 minutes.” Nearly an hour went by–not a process guy, this doctor didn’t get me the buzzer so they couldn’t find me, even though I remained in the waiting room the whole time–and finally I was called in to the recovery room. “It’s ITP, no sign of anything else” the doctor said as he breezed by us. When E awakened, she was mad at me for not keeping my promise and allowing them to put her out.
These are just some of the early scenes we’ve shared these past two years. And while I don’t know what’s coming next, I’ve gone from “not jinxing it” to upholding a decidedly hopeful outlook. She is doing great. And no matter how difficult it’s been, we’ve been together on her road back to good health, determined to find our way back to the lives we once had.
Today, I am grateful. My heart swells with joy as I watch her on the ice skating rink Monday nights–something she never could have done two years ago. Though we can’t say this is fully behind us, where we are is a wonderful place to be. It’s great to appreciate what you have, a lesson I only fully learned from this experience.
“Even more important than the warmth and affection we receive, is the warmth and affection we give. It is by giving warmth and affection, by having a genuine sense of concern for others, in other words through compassion, that we gain the conditions for genuine happiness. More important than being loved, therefore, is to love.”–Dalai Lama
Between Two Worlds
Much like a comic book heroine, these days I operate in two different worlds with two distinct identities.
In the first frame, I’m much like many other working moms you know: juggling the hectic schedule of an active eight-year old with demanding clients, deadlines, conference calls and meetings. Some days, the circus culminates in a semi-comic frenzy of small details suddenly remembered, mishaps narrowly avoided, the denouement a later-than-preferred bedtime, 9:03, not nearly 8:30, a sigh of regret but then another acknowledging all of the balls not dropped, relishing the sweet goodnight of a content child. A good day. Others are more calamitous: the client who needs curbing; the child who needs deprogramming; the dinner not yet thought about, much less made; the bag for 6am trip tomorrow not yet packed (and it’s 10pm); the e-mails requiring answers filling up my in box. Not enough hours in the day, and not enough energy to tackle it all. The contagion of stress not escaping our goodnight rituals. A sigh of resignation, exhaustion at not being able to handle it all–at least not well. These are the flip sides of the world I’m mostly inhabiting these days.
But then there’s my other world: The one where I’m the mom with the sick kid, the one who dropped that first world to live fully in a completely different one–one with doctors and twice-a-week hospital stays and overnights and blood tests and medications and consultations with other doctors, therapists, and healers. Two weeks after contracting H1N1, my daughter, E, was diagnosed with ITP, a rare blood disorder in which her body’s antibodies kill off its platelets in alarming number and voracity. So in December 2009 I unwittingly got a new job: full-time caregiver. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had–even more challenging than parenting (that’s #2)–but one I wouldn’t have outsourced to anyone.
It became my mission to help E find her way back to good health, and nearly two years later, the prognosis is much more promising than ever. I’m ready to quit this job for good–and her progress has made that seem plausible now. But as with many autoimmune diseases, there is no one, sure path to recovery–in fact, her doctor won’t even use that word, since most chronic ITP cases at best go into remission vs. a full recovery, only to come back weeks, months or years later, sometimes inexplicably. So while her results have been excellent, surprising even, it will be years before we’ll know whether this return to good health signals an end or just a pause in a longer tale not yet written.
These days, though, I spend most of my time in the first world with brief forays in the second. Once a week I take E for her shot at her pediatrician; every night I give her a pill; at the recommendation of a different doctor, I mix vitamin D and acidophilus into her milk; and once a month we go to the hospital where her levels are checked, medication is adjusted, and I discuss her progress with her specialist, an amazing doctor who deserves the credit for her dramatic turnaround. And there are the consultations with school, discussions with friends and colleagues inquiring about her progress, and other moments where World #2 meets World #1. At these times, I recall that there’s something different about E, and I feel the dissonance of being between two worlds, the regular-working-mom world and the caregiver-with-child-with-chronic-illness world. It feels dizzying, a confusing array of facts and priorities and opinions and conflicting obligations–and sometimes I have trouble reorienting myself to get back to my center, the place where I can easily navigate what matters most and what my next move should be.
Undoubtedly, to a significant degree I have set the spinning in motion. Very early on in her treatment, I advocated that E be treated like every other kid as much as possible–a reorientation, too, from her first year with the disease. It’s not a denial–it’s more of a steadfast sallying forth that I’m advocating, for both of us. We cannot, will not, let this stop us. She cannot, will not, succumb to defining herself as a “sick kid.” Much of second grade was spent recalibrating her behavior–dealing with the psychological aftershocks and raising the bar on expectations so that she would be held accountable for her actions, just like any other kid her age. While I believe this is the right approach, there are times when my worlds collide and I’m left wondering which world I’m in and who I will need to be tomorrow.
Who Cares for the Caregivers?
A few weeks ago, on the way home from a day of meetings in New York City, I got a text from my fiance, B: “Just got off the phone with my mom. Dad is in ICU. Doesn’t look good right now. I am going to start looking for flights.” The next day we were off to Orlando, and the next two days were spent mostly in the hospital, where he was suffering from congestive heart failure and pneumonia.
That wasn’t the way I had wanted to meet his parents. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that life has a way of doing its own thing, often without your consent. There was his dad, sedated and hooked up to a ventilator and a plethora of machines monitoring heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen levels. And there was his mom, at his side, where she had stayed for nearly two days since he had coded and it took nine minutes to revive him.
I’ve spent quality time in hospitals these past few years. Any fear that I may have had before has long since disappeared since December 2009, when my daughter, E, was diagnosed with ITP, a rare blood disorder in which her body’s antibodies attack its platelets. For nearly a year we spent at least one day a week at one of three different area hospitals. In the first six months of her illness, there were many, many overnight stays, as sudden drops in platelet counts require immediate attention that goes beyond day- clinic hours. So when I came to see B’s dad, I was thinking as much about his mom and sister as I was his dad’s condition. I know how it feels to be the one sitting by the hospital bed. Waiting. Hoping. Praying. Trying to be strong.
Who cares for the caregivers? Somebody has to.
Here’s what I learned from being the one on the front lines: 1) A friend once told me, “People want to help you so let them.” I have always had a hard time taking from others–I’m a chronic giver, to a fault (see blogs on failed marriage)–so this idea is innately difficult for me. But exhaustion has a wonderful way of wearing down your pride. I accepted kindnesses from friends and family. I leaned heavily on my loved ones in all ways: B, my mom and brother especially. I was lucky–there was no shortage of support for me or E.
2) Replenish yourself. I have custody of E so we are together most of the week. But Sundays she is with her father, and this was my day to regroup. I overcame my guilt that I was supposed to be by her side 24/7 and took time for myself. Many a Sunday B and I would go hiking, go out for brunch, go swimming in a nearby lake, take the dog out for a walk. Sometimes I wouldn’t talk about E and her illness, sometimes it was all I could talk about. Our Sunday rituals replenished me so I could continue to be strong for E and whatever the next week would bring. (Side note: There’s nothing like a life-threatening illness to test your relationship. Our bond only strengthened; at long last, I had picked a great guy who was willing to stick with me no matter what.)
3) Get help when you feel you might be slipping. Some people like support groups, and I’m sure they can be very healing. In my case, since E’s illness is rare, the only support groups were online. I tried it, but reading about other people’s experiences was disconcerting, often discouraging to me. I saw a therapist, which helped for a while, though as time went on our bi-monthly sessions increasingly devolved into cry-a-thons.
After five months with little progress and no clear path toward recovery, I knew I was slipping into depression when her former doctors mentioned splenectomy and part of me thought, “At least then this might end.” Suddenly my mind wasn’t thinking clearly anymore. I went to my doctor instead, who confirmed that I was, in fact, suffering from depression. He explained that the human mind is not equipped to handle constant stress for more than a few months. After that, it breaks down. I was put on a three- to six-month course of antidepressants, which lifted my mood enough for me to get off of them after three months–my goal. (I’m an anti-pill sort by nature.) But they allowed me to think clearly again and regain a more hopeful outlook.
Who cares for the caregivers? First, we have to care for ourselves. But then we need to reach out and get the help we need so we can keep giving. And one day, if you find yourself in this role, reach out to me. I’d be so happy to help.
Taking the Plunge Into Parenthood
I had dinner with a friend a couple of weeks ago. She has a highly successful career, a great relationship with her husband and, in the 13 years in which I’ve known her, has vehemently denied any interest in having children. Now 37, she finds herself suddenly on the fence on this issue. She knows that if she and her husband do, in fact, decide to take that never-going-back plunge into parenthood, they can’t wait much longer. But she’s not sure whether they should. She quipped, “No one who has children will ever tell you they made a mistake.” True, that.
To Parent or Not to Parent. Obviously, their choice, not mine. I was not about to weigh in on what would likely be the biggest decision of their lives. There is no “right” answer. It’s what feels right to them that matters.
So I had no answers for her. But this made me think about the choice of becoming a parent. For those of us who had children later than when our biology may have liked us to, this is usually a conscious act. I had my daughter at 33 — like early November foliage in the Hudson Valley, a little past peak (which, if you went by the egg donor ads Sony Theaters used to run, is 18 to 32.) I took the leap after losing my job and deciding to become a freelancer. The time seemed right, the dog wasn’t quite cutting it anymore, and I felt ready — or as ready as I ever would be. My heart told me what I needed to know: I wanted to be a mother.
Split screen now to younger parents. I often wonder if they feel the need to soul search as much as those of us who waited longer. Does it feel like quite the same leap to a 23-year-old mom as it does to a 37-year-old one? Does age add complexity to what could just be seen as a natural next step, after finding a suitable mating partner? My hunch is that with younger parents, there is more action, less thought. Which makes sense: They haven’t had all of those years as adults without children, so there’s not the same basis for comparison: Life Before vs. Life After.
And when I think about my friends who took the plunge later, as I did, it brings me back to my journey with my daughter, as she fights her way back to good health. When I’ve relayed the story to fellow parents, many times they respond, “I can’t even imagine what that must be like.” Except here’s the thing: I think they can. When you’ve taken that conscious leap into parenting, having a child who gets sick — life-threateningly sick — is a scenario you’ve played. It stays in the back of your mind, in the “But what if?” part. You keep it back there for good reason — it would consume you if you brought it to the fore. We all have these fears, either the moment we choose to become parents or later, after our children are born.
And here’s the answer to that “What If?”: If that happened, you would do everything you could to make your child healthy again. Would that make you heroic? Brave? Not especially. It would make you what you already are — a parent. No matter what, I feel grateful and fortunate to have taken this plunge. My life has never been the same, and I mean that in the best possible way.
The First Goodbyes
Last week one of my old friends from college lost her mother to a particularly insidious form of cancer. We were roommates one year, so I knew her mom well–and always liked and admired her. She was funny, smart, and down-to-earth, and a terrific mother. She died too soon, at 67, leaving me feeling like the last few chapters of their story were unexpectedly deleted, felled by this terrible disease.
A loss this large has no words to make it better. From my own experience with the death of people close to me, I know that the sorrow comes in waves. It never fully retreats, although time morphs it into a different feeling–a sharp pain that comes now and again versus a tsunami. I still feel these pangs of longing for my grandparents, saviors of my childhood–even though my grandfather, for whom my daughter is named, died when I was seventeen (My grandmother passed away in 2003). I wish he could see me now, and meet this incredible child who, in many ways, reminds me of him: so sharp and funny, so full of life and love. He would be over the moon with her, this much I know.
But losing your mother. I can’t even fathom that. Now that my friends and I are in our forties, though, I’m noticing that the first round of goodbyes to our parents are starting to happen. While I feel great sorrow and empathy for my friend, invariably, your mind can’t help but put yourself in that person’s proverbial shoes. I feel ill-prepared for a loss this huge. I am not ready to take the baton and be the elder. The chasm of parental loss feels as vast and wide as the Grand Canyon to me.
So I cannot fully empathize. But if I were to say one thing that might be comforting, it is this: What I do know with some certainty is that we are stronger than we think we are. I learned that through E’s illness over the past year and a half. The human spirit is an amazing and resilient thing–we can take more than we ever thought we could. (If it hasn’t happened to you already, just wait until life throws a curve ball at you; you will see how strong you really are.) I know my friend is resilient, and she will get through this and continue to be a wonderful mom and role model to her children, a loving wife to her husband, and a support to her family and friends. I know that she will keep her mother alive in her fond memories of her, and in retelling the many wonderful times they shared together. I also know that being strong has very little to do with keeping your emotions together. If I could tell her one thing, it would be, “Let it out. Cry when you need to!” OK, maybe wait until the kids are off to school if you don’t want them to witness it. But when sorrow comes, be sure to let it in and acknowledge it. It will help you heal.
Ode to E
“Children are life’s reward.”–Kenyan proverb
Tomorrow marks my daughter, E’s, eighth birthday. I never realized how emotional children’s birthdays are for their parents until she was born. Every day I am grateful for her, but especially on this day. While motherhood does not solely define me, it has changed everything about my life and how I view the world. I am a better person because of her.
Eight years ago the most glorious little firecracker entered the world. From the start, she burst with energy and a remarkable zest for life. “Congratulations! A beautiful little girl!” Dr. P pronounced. A great surprise–almost everyone predicted a boy, and though we all say we just want a healthy baby, truth is, I secretly longed for a healthy girl.
Little Miss E was eager to learn what life was like out here, like she’d been tapping her toes waiting at the starting line for the race to begin already. The medical students who had suddenly piled into the delivery room gasped at her ready responses to the Apgar test.
All children are special in their own ways. Early on, E displayed intelligence, curiosity, and verbal capacity beyond her years. She spoke her first word at seven months; by a year, she was stringing together short phrases. Paragraphs would soon follow. When she was almost two, returning from day care one afternoon, she plopped herself in the driveway and pointed at the darkening sky. “Moon, please!” She wanted me to bring the moon to her so she could get a better look, make it hers. Walking didn’t come until nearly eighteen months, our first clue of her penchant for perfectionism. At three, she could recite “Horton Hears a Who” and “Thidwick, The Big Hearted Moose” verbatim, but one day she stopped doing it. “I’m mad,” she said. “Mad at who?” “Mad at the book!” She was angry she couldn’t actually read it yet.
Today, I honor her and the incredible person she is and will continue to become. My fiance, B, once remarked that next to the word, “spunky,” in the dictionary, there should be a picture of E. Of all the things I admire about her, I am most grateful for this attribute. Just as much as all of the love and support she received from friends and family, I am convinced that her indomitable spirit–her courage, tenacity, feistiness, and pluck, like a protective hard shell protecting her tender heart–is what got her through the troughs of her illness without succumbing to despair.
I cannot bring her the moon. But I can offer lots of love. And help guide her to become the best E that she can be, channeling her mercurial nature and helping her lean into her strengths. I expect great things from her, but not in the traditional sense. With her learning capabilities, inner drive and dogged work ethic, I know she will be an achiever in whatever she chooses to pursue professionally. But more importantly, to me at least, I am certain that she will do so with kindness and empathy. She will infect others with her zest for living, and in so doing, will bring more hope into world. God bless the child.
Where Your Mind Goes
Last night I had a nightmare. My daughter, E, and I were on a train together. Somehow, she got separated from me and was on a sidecar of sorts that could detach from the rest of the train. For a while, she was riding alongside me, but then the sidecar (yellow) detached. Frantically, I ran around to the fellow passengers to ask them what had happened. We all waited for what seemed like hours, but in fact, wasn’t. When it returned, we were all relieved. They were back, unharmed. Except E wasn’t there. She was lost. I frantically implored those in charge–who were then revealed to be her nurses at the hospital–to help me find her, but no one except me seemed to understand the urgency of my request. As the minutes ticked by with no sign of her, my calls for help became ever more desperate. Hope faded out.
I woke up then, not in a cold sweat as characters always do in the movies, but breathless. Then tears. Seems my subconscious is taking me where my conscious mind will not tread.
It made me wonder: What is the point of worry? Is it helpful to go to the worst-possible scenario to ready yourself for that remote possibility? I’m sure I am not alone in the caregiver community, grappling with these issues. How much do we allow ourselves to worry? Is a certain amount of worrying productive, or should we steadfastly stay somewhere between hopeful and realistic? Striking the balance is no easy task, at least for me.
We are at the crossroads again with E’s illness (ITP, a rare blood disorder). The last few months allowed us to relax a bit as her levels danced around within normal range. For some reason–we don’t know why–she is below normal again, though not alarmingly so. We don’t yet need to restrict her activities again, but we do need to monitor her more closely now. The threat of protracted stays in the hospital is not as remote as it was just a month ago.
What does this mean? We don’t know. At the very least, it tells us that she is not over ITP yet. I had allowed myself the luxury of believing that was where we were heading–that she was in remission or perhaps even cured. It’s still possible we are heading in one of those directions. But apparently not yet. It may be that her disorder will need to be managed for years, or her whole life. Issues like menstruation and pregnancy may usher in debilitating relapses. It may, in fact, not be advisable for her to give birth with this condition. In my darker moments, these are the more sorrowful thoughts that fill my mind.
My public face, meanwhile, is to keep things as normal as possible for her. I cannot, will not let her sense my renewed apprehension. So we stay busy with the usual activities that fill our days. And I quietly applaud myself when I have epiphanies like yesterday, when I checked her mouth for blood sores under the guise of checking out the new teeth that were growing in behind her baby teeth (there were none). She did not suspect. I haven’t had the need to check her for months, so to do so would be like elevating our threat level from yellow to orange–I didn’t think it necessary to make her worry, too.
So I try to calm myself and keep hopeful, because I learned last year that allowing yourself to succumb to the downward spiral of worry most definitely can (and, as it so happens, did) lead to depression. I cannot let myself go back there, especially now, when I’m digging my way back up.
At the same time, I feel like a skier readying herself for the downhill drop. I’m at the top of the mountain, and the view is beautiful. I want to take a moment to enjoy what I see, what it feels like up here. The sun is shining, but it’s cold (I am a summer person, so I do not welcome any feeling of cold on any part of my body. Every winter I wonder why I live in an area that has four full months of winter and way too much snow. But I digress.) Back to the sun: It’s warming my face, and it feels good. If I focus on the sun, maybe the rest of me will warm up, too. I know if I put my mind to it, I can make it happen.
But then there’s the mountain. It awaits me. Can I zip down it confidently? Or will I stumble? Can I be strong enough to face the fear of what may lie ahead? I ready myself, get myself in position. Is that what worry is? Readying yourself for whatever the next path looks like–even the steepest of slopes?
I have no answers to my own questions; I’m curious what you think. In my worst-possible scenario–one which I would do anything to prevent, and one which is not likely to happen–I am reminded of one of the most memorable scenes from a recent PBS Masterpiece Theater miniseries, “Any Human Heart.” Admittedly I don’t get out to the movies much these days, but it was the best drama I’ve seen in years–a haunting and beautiful depiction of one man’s extraordinary life and the inner workings of his heart. As he is dying, an old man now, protagonist Logan Mountstuart is reunited with his true love, Freya, who was killed by an air raid in WWII London, along with their daughter, Stella, and unborn child. For the rest of his life, he mourns this monumental loss, moving on but never fully recovering. When he rejoins her in death, she says to him, “We were lucky, Logan. You and I.”
I believe that. We are lucky to have each other–whatever and however long we have. No matter how heartbreaking, it seems to me that having loved like this–with your whole heart, with all of the worries and uncertainty–is much better than not having experienced that love at all.
Hail to the “Bad Mommy” Moment
When I started this blog last fall, I was ready to write about the many vivid experiences I’ve had over the past few years as a way of sharing and offering hope to others who may face similar challenges. At the time, I said flat-out that this is not an advice column.
Certainly you will not get parenting advice from me. First of all, I am dancing as fast as I can with my one daughter and soon-to-be stepson. So I am supremely unqualified; I’m sure you know more than I do. And frankly, I loathe the whole “mommy lit” genre and think most of it: a) is written to allay the fears of the writer or enter the writer in the aforementioned female pissing contest (see last blog); and b) makes no sense, since what works for one kid, more often than not, won’t for another. Like I said before, there is no cookie cutter way to parent. Because kids ain’t cookies.
But after my last post, I feel like I need to do a little bit of cheerleading to the moms (and sometimes dads) out there. The good news is, I got enough feedback to believe I didn’t make all this stuff up about our generation being a little too obsessional/worried about the way we parent. The unfortunate news is, if it is true that maybe we’re overthinking it, well, that’s probably not a good thing for us.
So, for those of you suffering from parent angst, I’d like to take a moment to be your cheerleader. I know you’re doing a better job than you give yourself credit for. Really. If you don’t believe me, because I may not be there to see it, OK, that’s fair. So go ask your husband (or wife). And then really listen to his (her) answer. Ask your best friend. And then listen to her answer. Would they lie to you? No! If you’re still feeling unsure, ask for specifics. Then listen. Repeat as necessary.
Here’s one little thing I do that helps me–and maybe it is sort of advice (but it’s not really parenting advice). When you have a less-than-stellar parenting day, where you wish there was a “replay” button, call it a Bad Mommy Moment™ (or Bad Daddy Moment™, or come up with your own term that works for you). My Bad Mommy Moments™ (BMM) help me deal with my imperfect actions and move on. After I’ve christened it a de facto BMM, I usually either: a) vent to spouse and seek reassurance that I’m not evil; or b) apologize to child; or, if needed, c) both. I acknowledge my sub-par performance, take action to rectify, take a deep breath to clear my head, and then I move on. There. Because it is a moment. I do not live in that bad mommy place, because I am not evil or usually a bad mommy. I had a bad moment. (As in moment in time–because one snappish evening is really a moment in time, in the grand scheme of things.)
More than anyone, my second-grade daughter has taught me that perfectionism is more curse than attribute. I’ve seen first-hand how her perfectionism has frustrated her and held her back. With the help of some fantastic teachers, though, she is now able to fully immerse herself in activities like art, reading and writing instead of stopping dead in her tracks at the first sign of a mistake. Though she is a natural student with an innately curious mind, E’s perfectionist streak is her biggest learning challenge.
Finally, when you have a “Good Mommy Moment™” (GMM), acknowledge that. Maybe just to yourself if you don’t want to seem like you’re bragging. But take a moment to feel good about yourself and the fun day you just shared with your kids. I am willing to bet there are far more of those than the bad ones.
The ‘Good Enough’ Mom
To my mind, Tiger Mom author and Yale academician Amy Chua is a genius–in much the the same way Madonna is. Her double whammy book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Wall Street Journal article, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” are quickly becoming runaway best-seller material. Kudos to Chua for deftly tapping into two of American society‘s most vulnerable trigger points right now: the “How can we stop America from falling behind?” and the “How do I measure up as a mom?” nerves. I’m going to address the latter here; I doubt I have anything enlightening to say about the former.
Make no mistake: My parenting style bears absolutely no resemblance to Ms. Chua’s, nor would I want it to. I disagree with most of her points, except the part about how sometimes you have to nudge your children in their pursuits–be they academic or extracurricular activities–to get them to reach a level of self-satisfaction and, eventually, mastery. I’ve seen this first-hand with my daughter in her study of karate. It wasn’t until she reached orange belt this past December that she started to really look forward to attending class. Still many years away, the vision of receiving her black belt seems tangible to her now. So I will keep pushing her to achieve that goal.
I don’t object to Chua’s ideas even though I may disagree with many of them. What troubles me more than her controversial parenting techniques is our reaction to them. The Tiger Mom is the most current popular culture example of our collective obsession with being the “perfect mom.” This pursuit has become competitive sport to some, elevating motherhood to the female equivalent of a pissing contest. And this, in my view, is not only misguided, it’s damaging on both a personal and communal level.
I first came to abhor this obsession with perfection when my daughter was a baby. Then, there was much talk–and misguided criticism–directed at Brooke Shields, who wrote a courageous book about postpartum depression, Down Came The Rain. The book hit home for me, as I suffered from several months of postpartum anxiety; a talented therapist worked me through it without the use of drugs, though in retrospect it may have resolved sooner had I medicated. At the time, I was dumbfounded by the hoopla this book received–it is estimated that one-third of all women experience some form of postpartum issues, be they “baby blues” or all-out depression–and that this percentage is likely low because many women are ashamed to admit anything but joy after giving birth. When I told my friends and family what I feared was happening to me, I was shocked to learn that two of my closest friends had similar experiences. They didn’t tell me, they said, because they didn’t want to admit it. It felt like defeat.
This again leads me to the conclusion that we are striving for an impossible standard: perfection. I’m not sure where we got this messaging, but it makes no sense to me. As if motherhood weren’t hard enough, do we need to make it harder on ourselves? In a word, no. No, we don’t. And we shouldn’t.
But for some reason, my generation of parents seems to be über aware of how we parent. We seem to revel in being “on” 24/7 for our kids. This is why we’ve been dubbed “helicopter parents.” My friends and I joke about how different parents today are versus when we were kids, basically left to our own devices for hours at a time, parents having only a vague notion of where we were. (“I’m going to the park.” From upstairs, “OK, be home before dinner.”) Parents today don’t let their kids walk to school alone before middle school. We pre-screen films (I know some who will watch a whole film before letting their kids see it.) Meanwhile, back in the fast-and-loose 1970s, I vividly recall my dad taking my brother and me to Animal House when I was eight! I’ll cut him some slack for this one; he mistakenly thought it was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. “This movie is a classic!” He said as we entered the theater. Ha! But why he took us to The Shining a year later, I have no idea. Thirty years later I still shudder, able to vividly recall the scene with the twin girls in the elevator. I still cannot watch horror films.
When I was new to motherhood, I recall the advice my father’s first cousin, Richard, an uncle figure to me, gave me. He said, “Don’t try so hard to be good all the time. Just be good enough.” (said slowly with emphasis. He is a theater director so he knows how to deliver a line.) You know in “The Graduate” when one of Ben’s father’s friends advises him that the future is all about “plastics”? But Ben, though now an adult, doesn’t live in his parents’ world of security and conventionality. He is experiencing a generational disconnect–this advice makes no sense to him at all. When Richard told me to strive for “good enough,” I couldn’t connect it, either. Shouldn’t I try to be the best?
But unlike “plastics,” I get Richard’s point now. And it’s a good one.
Let me ask you: Do you love your kids? Do you show them and tell them? Do you try to teach them right from wrong, how to work hard and achieve goals, how to be a good future citizen of the world, how to be a good friend, how to deal with disappointment? Are you there to celebrate their victories and listen to their sorrows? OK. So, some more questions: Do you make mistakes? Do you sometimes yell or act impatiently with them? Do you have trouble knowing what to say or do, and sometimes say the wrong thing? Do you worry about your children too much? Yeah. Me, too. Nobody’s perfect–not even moms! Many people seem to accept their imperfections with the rest of their lives, but don’t cut themselves enough slack when it comes to their parenting.
I’m not trying to be an apologist for mediocre parenting here. I think it’s good to be the best you can be and keep working on getting better. My strategy for continuous improvement involves keeping an open mind and knowing my strengths and weaknesses, leaning into the strengths and working on the weaknesses. My natural tendency, for example, is to be nurturing, empathetic and fun; I didn’t come into this role as a terribly good disciplinarian. Acknowledging what you lack and then working on these skills is half the battle. But just like the rest of your life, effective parenting is always a work-in-progress. There is no cookie cutter approach to it.
So no, I will never be a Tiger Mom. Or a perfect mom. I’m happy with being “good enough” now. Because in calm moments, I like to take a deep breath and think about what my daughter will be like when she grows up. I know that one day she’ll look back and think that I was good enough for her. And that’s the standard I hope to live up to.
When You Love Someone, Tell Them
I ran into a friend at the supermarket yesterday. We first met when our daughters went to pre-school together several years back. Then, I didn’t know her all that well, though I always liked her; last year, we reconnected as Facebook friends. We bonded because her son was going through a serious heath problem at the same time my daughter, E, was. His condition has vastly improved, luckily, as has E’s. Unfortunately, now her husband is grappling with a health crisis, meaning that this is her second year as caregiver, chief worrier, and schlepper to and from the hospital, her unwitting home away from home.
I noticed her latest post mentioned that she was back from the hospital, but I guess I haven’t kept up with his progress as I should have; last I heard he seemed to be making great strides. But when I saw her and inquired, immediately I could see the heartbreak. Things, it seemed, were not good right now. I felt guilty I hadn’t kept up, didn’t know what to say. What can you say? Thoughts like, Clearly, life is not fair! Why should you have to go through this again? God, I hope this gets better for you soon! What can I do? crowded my thought bubble, but we were at different checkout counters and it was just before 3pm, meaning school would be out soon. I hoped my expression conveyed the empathy and sorrow I was feeling for her, and vowed to reach out after in an e-mail to follow up.
When I was little, maybe five or six, my dad bought me one of those Hallmark porcelain figurines. It was a little girl standing holding a daisy, wearing a sweet sundress, big doe eyes and close-lipped, shy smile. There may or may not have been a cat at her feet–I can’t recall. (My memory says cat, but it is not to be fully trusted.) Underneath it read, “When You Love Someone, Tell Them.” For years, I looked to that statuette, with its moralistic slogan, for comfort and counsel. I still think of it today.
Last year, I learned first-hand that the comfort of family, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues can lift you up in times of distress, uncertainty, and sorrow. It might seem trite to leave a comment on Facebook, or to say words like, “If there’s anything I can do” in a supermarket aisle, but it’s not. Even in our darkest days, when E’s health was in peril, I always knew we were supported. Friends telling me I was brave, when I didn’t feel it at all, helped give me the courage to go on and face another difficult day. Sometimes not saying anything at all, but just listening, allowing me to vent, offering a knowing look or a hug, writing a little “thinking of you both” on my FB wall, lifted my spirits so I could then lift E’s. It made a difference.
If I can offer any advice at all, I would pass along what my little porcelain figurine taught me: When you love someone, tell them. Tell them especially when they need you most. Tell them in little ways, even if you think you’re saying what everyone else is saying. You don’t have to use the word “love” if that’s not right–just showing you care, that you’re thinking of them is meaningful. Even if you think they’re overwhelmed by all the attention they’re getting, it will make a difference. I promise you.
The Fear Hangover
It’s funny. So many times in my life I couldn’t wait to get to the end, thinking that would be the good part, the part where the satisfaction of a great accomplishment would be fully felt. There were all those self-imposed deadlines: finishing college in four years (tuition was steep), getting my first big promotion in my twenties (29), walking down the aisle before 30 (29 1/2), becoming a mom by 35 (33).
Lo and behold, the finish line wasn’t nearly what I expected. All too often, the sense of fulfillment I anticipated was replaced by a longing to achieve the next big goal. Not just arbitrary, those deadlines were downright damaging. They kept me from acknowledging my present, which meant that I couldn’t see what was right in front of me: an unhappy life.
A few years ago, a culmination of events shook me off the “what’s next” treadmill and enabled me to take a long, unflinching and uncomfortable look at my life. I started examining myself, my feelings, what and who mattered. I listened to my heart and found a path to the journey I wanted to take. A casual student of Eastern philosophy for several years, the abstract was finally resonating for me. I wanted to pay attention to every moment and try to enjoy what was happening right now versus what could happen in my future. I was on my way.
But then, my daughter, E (now seven), got sick. And our year of horror, now just behind us, left me humbled and more grounded than before. I learned more life lessons. First off, love really does trump all. If you have love and support, you can get through almost anything, even things you’d never imagine or wish on another human being. I learned to ask for help and to accept it when it was offered–and that people really want to help so let them. I learned to be strong in front of E, holding back the tears just long enough to get out of the room (and to always take tissues on cafeteria trips); to celebrate the fun times (some manufactured, some spontaneous); and to acknowledge the abject suckiness of it all but not be overtaken by despair.
So now I”d like to get back to a more Zen-like way. For seven months now, we’ve been able to manage her condition out of the ER and without the use of steroids or IVIG. Her doctor is one of the top hematologists in the world. He has been both savior and friend to us; I cannot adequately express the gratitude I have for him and his staff. The medication she takes now, the latest product from the biotech industry to manage platelet disorders, seems far more benign: By all appearances, E looks great; she’s lost the steroid puffiness and extra weight, has grown four inches since the summer, and has the energy of her old, healthy self. But before I can fully immerse myself in this much-improved present, I find myself replaying the flashbacks. Like a bad horror movie, the scenes just won’t go away:
At the ER at Westchester Medical, one of the residents put an IV in her artery instead of her vein. E complained her hand was cold; my mother then noticed it was turning blue and called the nurse in, who fixed the problem. The resident–a cocky sort–was too embarrassed to acknowledge his mistake, leaving the room mumbling excuses. But E forgave him, saying, “He didn’t mean to. It was an accident.” I was so proud of E for her empathy that day. She was a better person than I was.
Easter Sunday. Her father, having been five minutes from the hospital and noticing that she was showing signs of bleeding, made the decision to bring her back home, an hour and a half away, instead of taking her in for treatment. By the time I saw her, she looked terrible; her signs were multiplying. The laid-back doctor on call told me to bring her to our local hospital first thing the next morning where she could be treated; I brought her in at 7am, found out her levels were at an extremely low 2,000, and that he was wrong, she couldn’t be treated there. I had to get her down to Westchester. We arrived around noon. There, I begged the ER nurse to try to get the IVIG as soon as possible because she was so low; he brushed me off with a “We see this all the time.” Angered but determined, an hour and a half later I implored the new resident to try to hasten the process. I don’t know if she was incompetent or just disinterested, but I was met with deaf ears again. E did not receive treatment until 9:30 that night. The only small comfort was we were assigned our favorite night nurse, Crystal, who seemed as appalled as I was at the chain of events that had occurred and the lack of response from her colleagues. As she finally received her medication, my inner thought bubble recited, “This is bottom. It’s only up from here.” Of course, I didn’t know that for sure, but thinking that this could be the toughest moment helped me get through it.
Soon after, her former doctors threw up their hands and declared her a chronic case. They had exhausted their arsenal of ideas; the four-week chemotherapy drug didn’t work, so all they could do was continue to temporarily boost her with heavy-duty IVIG and steroids, sending us on the psychotic roller coaster yet again, just to return a week later needing more. My beautiful girl was unrecognizable to me now; she looked and felt awful much of the time. It was becoming obvious that their temporary fixes were almost as bad as her condition; the only other potential solution they could offer was a splenectomy. I knew it was time to defect.
Truth is, there were a few times where she could have died: Three percent of children with ITP die from bleeding out. According to the head nurse at our local hospital, E was the worst case she’d seen in her 17 years there. While we were going through this, I was so focused on getting through those difficult moments that I wouldn’t let the fear cripple me. Now I realize it is scarier from the rear-view mirror, when I can fully acknowledge how close we came. I now have a deeper empathy for what other parents with critically ill children experience. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
In the Bible, there’s the story of Lot’s wife. They are leaving the fiery ruins of Sodom, their hometown. Lot warns her not to look back. But she just can’t help herself. She can’t help but take one last look at the disaster, even though she knows no good would come of it. It feels a little like that for me right now: I can’t help but look back at what we’ve been through, even though I know what’s there and it’s not pretty. And I know that’s not where I should be looking.
What You Get to Choose
The past year and a half has been a time of extraordinary challenge and change for my daughter and me. And like anyone who has either experienced or had a loved one go through a life-threatening condition, invariably when you are able to take a step back you reflect on what’s happened. That’s human nature, and it’s why you hear cancer survivors like Lance Armstrong say they are thankful for the illness because it made them who they are today–people who are better able to appreciate their lives.
In my last year of high school, the senior play was “Our Town.” I played Mrs. Webb, Emily’s mother. One of my lines stuck with me, all these years later. After she scolds the precocious Emily for reading books at the breakfast table, Mrs. Webb explains, “As for me, I’d rather have my children healthy than bright.” (Haunting, given that Emily ends up dying in childbirth in Act Two.) Then, I didn’t understand that sentiment. I thought she sounded cold and sort of foolish. Who wouldn’t want a smart child? But now I do. Without your health, you really don’t have anything, do you?
My mom always said there’s nothing more important than your health, but this was just a catchphrase until one day my daughter woke up and didn’t have hers anymore. Months of good, bad, and horrible moments followed–far too many spent in hospital beds, too many needles, infusions, drugs, and far too much bleeding. Our Magic 8 ball, stored in our at-the-ready overnight bag, was little help: It offered as many positive as negative answers to our frequent queries about what would happen next.
Did we choose this reality? Of course not. It just happened. Or maybe it was meant to happen, to make us both stronger, better people. A “devout agnostic,” I don’t rule out the possibility of God or some sort of higher purpose, but I am not confident enough to tell you with certainty that there is a higher plan. Or maybe it was karma. I have tried to be a good person, but like anyone, have made my share of mistakes. Did I wrong someone so much that this was my payback? I didn’t think so, but did not completely rule out the possibility.
When something really bad happens, even a devout agnostic has to wonder about the grand design. There were weeks, early on, where the question that wouldn’t take leave of my thought bubble was, “Why?” or “Why is this happening to her/us?” Or the maternal version, “Why couldn’t it happen to me and not her?” I would have gladly taken the hit if it meant she wouldn’t have to. It was the sorrow and anger before the acceptance, the first few stages of grief that accompany a sweeping trauma.
Or maybe it was nutrition. My thought bubble filled with food items on dinner plates. She ate reasonably well; like many kids, E was a picky eater, but she also had a penchant for obscure vegetables and fruits like hearts of palm and currants. But perhaps she was lacking in some essential vitamin or mineral. It was true that I had yet to find a vitamin that she would willingly take, but I tried to make sure she had a well-balanced diet of good, often organic and local foods. And she had yet to step into a McDonald’s or drink soda. So while there was room for improvement, her diet was probably a B/B+ overall, I surmised.
It now seems clear that my daughter’s illness did not come to us because of God’s will, karma, or any preventative measure I failed to take to ensure her well-being. We all strive to be healthy and have robust, rosy-cheeked children who say “please” and “thank you” without so much as a knowing glance, but when the scales tip decidedly toward “sick,” the truth is, there is often little we could have done to prevent it. As a parent, this realization, while letting me off the proverbial hook, was disconcerting; we want to fix what’s broken, and up to that point, I was under the delusion that I had special powers to make almost anything disappear. But this was not my choice, and there was no quick fix to make it go away.
How, then, could I make it better? What did I get to choose? I flash back to a time long before mommyhood. It was early on in the fall semester of my freshman year at Syracuse University, an otherwise-wonderful place with far too much snow. (“Lake effect,” no less. Yikes.). I remember one crisp afternoon in September. I was walking across the Quad, returning to my dorm after my last class of the day. It was one of those mostly sunny postcard days where everything feels good and everyone seemed joyous, well before mid-terms. I took a deep breath and thought to myself, “I get to be the person I want to be here. I can start fresh.” And then: “I will choose to be positive. I will choose to be the fun person I can be–I will try, at least. I will not be a whiner. I will not bring others down with negativity.” That was the K of old–the high-school version, a typical teen suffering from complacency, big hair (It was New Jersey in the 1980s. Need I elaborate?), and a shortage of confidence. (In hindsight, those last two may have been related. But I digress.)
From that September afternoon on, I have tried to find the possibility, the good side of most situations, to be a person who offers a sense of hope to others. I’ve found that even when something bad happens, there are still helpful outcomes, even if it’s a sad but well-earned life lesson. (The following year, when 35 S.U. students were killed in Pam Am Flight 103, the prequel to 9-11, we learned that life is not fair, and can be fleeting, tragic, and unpredictable. And that bad things can–and do–sometimes happen to good people. But we also learned that we were together in our grief and that being part of a community of people who care about each other can be enormously powerful and healing.)
I am not blind to the negative. I, too, feel the need to vent about bad days or boneheaded things certain people do or say. (Whomever could I be thinking of? Hmmm . . .) These days, though, I just choose not to live there. I choose a different lens with which to color my life.
So, when faced with the challenge of E’s faltering health, I was determined to keep our spirits up, to fight for the best possible care, and to find a way out of the ER. Despite the fact that, according to the head nurse at our local hospital, E’s was the worst case of ITP she’d seen in her 18 years there, my daughter was going to get through this and get better. And, with a lot of help from my family and friends, I was going to do everything in my power to make it happen. And it started with staying positive.
And will she get better? These days, according to our Magic 8 ball, “It is decidedly so.” Maybe this positive thinking thing is contagious.
The Girl Who Cried Love
“Was it love, or was it the idea of being in love?”–Pink Floyd
The tag line for this blog, “confessions of a self-reforming loser in love,” was inspired by a conversation with my brother about a year and a half ago. We were en route to my old house so he could pick up the plethora of psychology books left to him by our cousin, Rachelle, who passed away a few years earlier. The house was on the market, I was clearing it out, and Danny was in town for the weekend. He had met my new boyfriend, B, at a dinner the night before.
I asked him what he thought. “He seems like a great guy,” he said. Then silence. Deafening silence. “And?” I prompted. Pause. “Just don’t rush into anything,” he said. Umm . . . OK. “What do you mean? ” I probed. He continued, “You’re a devoted mother, a smart woman, and you’ve accomplished a lot in your career.” Pause . . . “But, well . . .” Pause. “You don’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to relationships.”
DONG! Went the anvil. (It was a time of many anvils.) You can tell an understatement when you hear one. So being an unrelenting truth-seeker who never knows when to leave well enough alone, I continued my quest: “So what you’re really saying is, you think I’m a loser in love.” He replied, “Umm . . . yeah, I wouldn’t put it in those terms, but I guess that’s basically what I’m saying.”
You know in the cartoons where Wile E. Coyote gets pissed and he’s got the steam coming out of his ears? I became Wile E. I tried to defend myself, but it was no use. To the outer universe, his version of me was dead-on: For nearly 40 years, I never seemed to be able to get the love thing right. Picture my face, in the Love File, with big, red, capital letters stamped diagonally across: “LOSER!” No, I hadn’t gotten it right when I was supposed to, as my brother had, wedded at 26. Harrumph. Easy for you to judge, you up there on your high horse, I thought, steam spewing. How’s the view from your happily-married-the-first-time-to-the-right-person perch?
The “new me”–the evolved, therapized version, the one who ditched her bad marriage–was annoyed by the assumption that just because I hadn’t gotten it right didn’t mean I wouldn’t this time. Didn’t I get any credit for learning something, some points for personal development (my brother is, after all, a psychologist)? OK, maybe I was the girl who cried love so many times before, only to see or make it fall apart months, sometimes years later. But did that mean that it would never come together for me? Just because I was a loser in love, did that mean I was destined to remain so for the rest of my years?
As luck would have it, no. While I am no expert–in fact, quite the opposite–I do know this: Love shows up when it damned well feels like it. Love is not about shoulds or proper timing or what’s best for you at this very moment in your life. It doesn’t know its place. Sometimes it hides or runs for cover. But your heart knows when it’s there. And when it finds you, do yourself a favor and let it in.
I found B in the best of all possible places: online. It was Thanksgiving week 2008. The flirtation with the old friend having run its course, I felt ready to get out there and meet new people, despite the fact that one of my friends was adamant that I wait two years before dating. (Two years??? My therapist disagreed. He believed I had been sleepwalking through my marriage for over five years, so there was no harm in getting out there now. I figured he knew more. Besides, I liked his answer better.) The last time I was single in the mid-1990’s, online dating was in its infancy; it seemed to be the land of the lost. But since then, a number of people I’ve known have happily found their partners that way–and I would not describe any of them as desperate or even lonely hearted. I was willing to give it a try.
When I saw his profile, again, the anvil. But it wasn’t the photos that drew me in like quicksand–the one on the opening screen was black and white and, though I liked its artistry, it was hard to make out his features. No, what got me was his profile description. He wrote beautifully; in just a few sentences, my heart took in that he was sweet, funny, smart, humble, a devoted dad, and kind of shy. We had common interests–hiking, photography, reading, movies, animals. His son was a year older than my daughter, and he, too, was separated. He sounded so . . . sweet. Adorable. Someone I really wanted to meet. (After which I clicked through to the other pictures. Then I really wanted to meet him.)
So I sent him a “teaser” e-mail. But I didn’t hear back. At least, I thought I hadn’t heard back. I was disappointed, quite. A couple of weeks went by, and I decided to sign up for a six-month membership. It was then that I saw his reply, which came soon after I sent the teaser. I didn’t realize you had to sign up for the service to get the reply! Doh! I wrote back quickly, excited and nervous. Meanwhile, he had just about given up on online dating and was about to cancel his membership, but decided to check in one more time. And there was my reply to his reply in his inbox.
The rest, it seems, is history. We had a magical first date on Boxing Day and then didn’t see each other for nearly two weeks, because I was off to Florida the next day; upon my return I learned I had a double ear infection and was sidelined. But while I was away we spoke every night–he was my New Year’s Eve date via cellphone–and when I got back we spoke or e-mailed every night, and by the time our second date happened, I was pretty sure I was falling in love.
What makes this love different from the others? I’m older. I’m smarter. I’ve made enough mistakes by now, and yes, I’ve learned from them. And I decided that this time, I would look for someone who would love me for me, and who I would love for them. No molding, no putting anyone on pedestals.
As I write, it’s been nearly two years, and I have no doubt that B is the love of my life. The more time we spend together, the more certain I become. Our relationship was tested rigorously this past year with E’s health crisis, and time and again, he was my voice of reason, my rock. His support was unwavering. Lesser men would have said sayonara a few months in. Not him.
So can the Girl Who Cried Love actually find the real thing? Yes, she can! And she did. Even my brother now agrees.
An Act of Love and Friendship
As you can gather from what I’ve been writing about, these past two years have been extraordinary. It’s as if somewhere in the middle of 2008, the big, red curtain on my life’s Act One scurried to its close. Then, a short time later, Act Two trumpeted in; the curtains brushed open to an entirely new setting. Our main characters were the same, though one was relegated to the wings; and new characters emerged, their importance to be revealed.
It’s been high drama ever since, not fully by my own design. Several key plot points later, I reflect on what I’ve been offered that I have appreciated the most: the gift of listening.
My senior-year high school English teacher, the fabulous Mr. Franke, used to go around the classroom asking difficult, sometimes impossible questions about whatever we were reading–King Lear, The Bible, or one of the Greek tragedies, perhaps. No one wanted to be wrong, lest they get a zero for class participation that day. So most kids–even our top-ranked students–would just reply, “I don’t know, Mr. Franke.” Since I clearly was not going to be the class valedictorian, I figured, “Aw, hell! May as well try.” When he called on me, I’d offer something, anything; occasionally I’d hit on something that would garner an approving nod. But more often than not, he would hear me out, then deadpan (with a bemused smirk), “OK, I think I’ve heard enough psycho-babble for the day” and move onto someone else.
I’ve been doing more than my share of psycho-babbling these past few years. And while I think there’s meaning there (on most days), it is high time to say “thank you” for your ears and your attention.
Really listening to someone–without feeling the need to interject, offer comparisons to your own life, or solve the problem–seems to be an increasingly rare skill today. But it’s a beautiful act and one I think about a lot and try to emulate.
In the days of Jane Austen, the art of conversation was revered. But in the world of tweets and gadgets, fully engaging yourself in doing just one thing is almost unusual. Listening with your whole self requires empathy, patience, and self-control. But when you really take someone in, let them tell their story, and offer comfort by focusing on what they’re saying, it is one of the most generous things you can do. Without saying anything, you are showing them that they are important, that what they have to say matters and that they’re worthy of your time. It is, quite simply, an act of love.
So it’s the holiday season, and a good time to reflect on all of the generosities that have come my way. And given these high drama years, what I’m probably most grateful for are the friends and family who have been there, allowing me to vent, sometimes just psycho-babble, sometimes more, offering advice when needed, but often just listening. More than anything, thanks for that. I look forward to continuing to share the Second Act with you.
Surviving the Recovery
We are hard-wired for the happy ending. Maybe this is just human nature, American culture, or maybe it’s Disney’s fault. But I can’t offer you a happy ending right now; I can tell you we’re in a happier in-between space.
That’s the snapshot of our lives right now. There are more smiles and more laughter. The abject horror of our day-to-day reality has given way to stiller waters. But there is also trepidation of what’s next; the uncertainty is a challenge unto itself. The biggest unknown of all, of course, is whether E will continue on her upward climb; whether this will end in full recovery, continue to require ongoing management, or will regress to instability. The in-between space is hard to navigate and even harder to explain in three sentences or less, which is what the average person hopes to hear when they ask how she’s doing. But it’s trickier than elevator pitch timing would allow.
One of my oldest friends has had a much more difficult health crisis with her son, who just completed treatment for leukemia. I remember when we last spoke several months ago she told me that his treatments would end in September. Trying to be supportive, I offered, “I bet you’ll be so relieved.” No, mostly she feared that she would fall apart when his treatments were completed. Though his prognosis is very promising–a very high percentage achieve full recovery–come September they would enter the five-year wait-and-see phase before they could say for sure that he was cured.
Sometimes when you emerge from a crisis, it’s scary to look back or forward. As for us, we are doing lots better. E still needs her weekly shot and a pill every night that helps the shot work better. She is off the heavy-duty blood product, gamma globulins (IVIG) and the nasty steroids. (That, in and of itself, is cause for celebration.) Our once-weekly visits to the hospital are now monthly; the weeks in-between, an at-home nurse administers her medication. Her numbers have been high enough that there are no more restrictions on her activities, so she has been able to get back to karate, dance, physical education and outdoor recess at school. In many ways, she seems like every other kid.
But not exactly. I still need to check her for signs of bleeding every couple of days. She needs to take it easy when she gets a cold or a virus so her levels don’t take a nosedive. I still worry every day that she will wake up and tell me she feels something in her mouth. This is our reality.
We are both make-the-best-of-it people. But there is an emotional hangover to this kind of trauma. Physically she’s so much better. Emotionally, she’s improved quite a bit, too. The bouts of steroid-induced irrationality have given way to a much calmer child. But all those months of supreme bravery have taken their toll: She still grapples with mercurial ups and downs, is prone to tantrums and has trouble regulating her emotions. It’s as if her psyche has reached its quota. So we are rebuilding, but just like her illness, her emotional health will take time to fully heal.
I am hopeful that I will be able to report a happy ending . . . we’re just not quite there yet. When I look back to where we were, several times having witnessed near-death bleeding, it’s a nightmare that won’t go away. At those moments, the voice inside my head would say, “She will be OK. This is bottom. It’s uphill from here.” It took a few bottoms before we finally started clawing our way up. But I believed, in my heart, that we would get through it. And we’ll get through this, too.
Divorcing for the Kids’ Sake
One of my earlier blogs, “A Marriage Not Worth Saving: Signs That It’s More Than a Passing Pissed-Offedness” dealt with some of the litmus tests I used to determine that my marriage was, in fact, definitely not worth saving. A comment from a friend, though, led to a further discussion that I’d like to chime in on: When is it better for the kids for parents to stay together? And when it is better for the kids for parents to call it quits?
I am by no means an advocate for divorce. My parents split up when I was four and I swore I wouldn’t put my children through what my brother and I experienced. It was the 1970s and back then, the whole “amicable split” concept was pretty much unheard of, at least in suburban New Jersey. To our parents’ generation, divorce was sport; extra points for whoever best mirrored “War of the Roses” (and lived to tell about it). Forget about the whole ‘don’t put the kids in the middle of it’ idea that we espouse today. We were de facto hockey pucks.
My mom used to tell me that she left my father in no small part for us, that we would have been much worse off had they stayed together. Many times I tried to envision that scenario, but couldn’t fathom it–largely because I couldn’t even remember them together. So I never understood what she meant, and in some ways, thought that she was simply justifying her decision to assuage her guilt. Maybe in part she was, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t right.
Now I get it. Yes, I ended my marriage because of me–I was terribly unhappy, not in love and our relationship was neither sustainable nor healthy. It swallowed me up; I became a shell of who I used to be. But I also did it for my daughter. Somewhere along my path, it became clear that staying together would be one of the worst things I could do for her.
I have tremendous respect and admiration for couples who have problems but find ways to work it out because the love is still there, under the rubble somewhere. But in my view, couples who stay together solely for the kids’ sake–without the love, respect and trust that marriage is supposed to be built on–are doing those same kids’ a huge disservice.
Why? Enter Connie, a woman I worked with over a decade ago. Wickedly funny and smart, with an inability to mince words, she was then in her late thirties, married with one child and expecting her second. Connie told me that the most important way she could be a good mother was to put her relationship with her husband first. That seemed strange to me at the time–still in my twenties, I hadn’t wrapped my head around the whole ‘having a husband’ thing, much less a family. Whoa! But her words stuck with me, and I see the truth in them now.
Then there were a number of friends I’ve known over the years–more than a focus group, less than a quantitative study–whose parents stayed together despite the fact that they were miserable. In some cases, they were biding their time until the kids were out of the house; in others, they just stayed put, inert and unhappy, until death did them part. Uniformly, these children knew of their parents’ unhappiness–sometimes at very young ages–and fervently wished they had split up instead of staying together and spreading their tension and hostility around like a disease.
Then there was the grandmother of one of E’s friends who left her husband, but only after her three children were grown. (Her daughter, a friend of mine, belongs to the aforementioned group.) Now close to 70, she is living the life she imagined–traveling, spending time with friends, and being a devoted mother and grandmother. She practically hi-fived me when I told her of my separation, and said so many times she wished she had left her ex when her kids were young instead of waiting.
Then there was my mom. Remarried now, she was a single mom for all of my childhood. And no, life wasn’t perfect, but she wasn’t unhappy. She had a solid network of friends, loved to travel, had varied interests, built her own business and on most days, seemed to relish her role as mom. She was strong.
From all of this, I realized that if leaving the marriage meant E would have a more vibrant and happier mother (and hopefully eventually a happier father), wouldn’t that be better for her in the end? And, in the best of all possible worlds, if I could model for her what being in a healthy, loving relationship looked like–wouldn’t that be a good thing? But even if that didn’t happen, if I were happier, wouldn’t I be a better mother? It seemed to me that all of that would be better than what our “intact” reality had been.
Of course, at some point in their lives all children of divorce dream of having their parents back together. I do not mean to belittle this. It’s real, and it breaks my heart to think of E’s heartbreak. It’s been two and a half years, and I know she still struggles with this loss. But my hope–and strong belief–is that eventually, this heartbreak will give way to a deeper understanding of love. I hope she will learn from this to choose someone who will be a partner to her, who will respect and honor her for who she is, and she will have the capacity to reciprocate. And mostly, I hope that she will never, ever settle.
Staring Down the Fear
“Squeeze my hand if you’re scared,” E tells me. It is 5am and we are huddled together in bed, braving a violent thunderstorm. Terrified since lightning struck our home a few years before, I was trying to give comfort to her, my seven-year-old little dynamo. But she called me on it. She knew: I was probably more scared than she was.
One day I will learn whether she felt my fear about her illness much the same way, whether she saw through the brave face and semi-calm demeanor. It was a Saturday night, one year ago exactly–December 5, 2009–that E was diagnosed with ITP, a rare blood disorder in which her body’s antibodies kill off its platelets. Two days shy of Pearl Harbor Day, this was our own version of a day ‘that will live in infamy’ . . . the day that changed everything.
That morning, she woke up again with a bloody nose. This happened the night before, but it wasn’t excessive, not witnessing any other symptoms, I chalked it up to the dry heat. But on this morning, there was some dried blood on her pillow and her legs had several bruises with tiny pink dots surrounding them. And the sore on her lip–I assumed it was a chapped lip aggravated by biting, which she often did–seemed to have mushroomed overnight. No temperature, though, and she swore she felt just fine. She was aching to get to her karate testing that day to get her yellow belt. I agreed, but told her we would need to go to the doctor immediately afterward.
Once at the testing, another clue emerged. My little firecracker, so intent on getting to yellow, was positively phoning it in. She had zero energy, was barely able to complete any of the moves. I turned to B, my boyfriend (more on B later) and said, “Look at her. I’m worried.” He agreed. This wasn’t like her at all.
At the after-care facility later that afternoon, the doctor couldn’t tell me what it was, but told me I needed to get to the closest hospital’s ER for blood work immediately. I asked him what the worst-case scenario was. He said, “meningitis.” Gulp.
We left quickly. The snow that had started to fall earlier was starting to stick; visibility was poor. I am still unsure, given my sky-high anxiety and the poor road conditions, how I got us to the ER–a good 15 minutes away–safely. It was one of those out-of-body experiences where you just autopilot it, I guess.
The ER at Vassar was quick and professional. They got us in right away. Once the doctor came in, I asked them the same question about worst-case scenarios. This time, the reply was, “ITP.” It took four nurses to hold E down for the blood test. (We later joked that she got her yellow belt that morning and got to use it that evening.) Forty-five minutes later, with a platelet count of 3,000 (normal range is 150,000 to 400,000), the doctor confirmed that she did, in fact, have ITP and required immediate attention. An ambulance was on its way to take us down to Westchester Medical, where they had the specialists and a bed ready for E to receive treatment.
That was last December. Since then, we’ve logged in dozens of trips to the ER and overnights at the hospital, nail-biting moments awaiting results. On our second trip back–a little over a week after we were released–she was given a bone marrow test to make sure it wasn’t leukemia. But the doctor–a star but not a procedure guy–failed to give me the beeper to alert me when she was done, so what should have been a 15-minute wait went nearly an hour as they tried to locate me (umm . . . I was in the waiting room.) I was terrified that something happened to her, but when they finally did find me, the news was good: There was no evidence of cancer. It was definitely ITP.
We celebrated several of the major holidays–New Years, her birthday–in the hospital. As the months went by and our trips became more commonplace, I learned who to trust and who needed to be managed. Above-and-beyond nurses helped us as we endured more than one apathetic resident and waited for the doctor’s daily rounds to hear our fate. Were we getting out that afternoon? Or one more night? What next?
By early spring, it became clear that hers was a particularly bad case and needed more specialized care than the doctors at Westchester could give her. We defected to the top ITP doctor in New York City, a specialist who had experience using the latest treatments out of the biotech industry. The promise of better managing E’s condition and getting her off the steroids/IVIG bandwagon and avoiding a splenectomy, which one particularly hard-core doctor was advocating. But a spleen is not a vestigial organ, so the promise of this new treatment–called N Plate–offered new hope. I was game.
We struggled through the spring and half of the summer until the new treatment finally started working. I had to give up work for months to be there for her, a big sacrifice both professionally and financially. (My mom stepped in to help financially. Otherwise I honestly don’t know what we would have done.) In the spring, I was diagnosed with depression. Reluctantly, I went on medication for three and a half months, enduring the side effects to get me out of the fog and get clear-headed again.
No matter what, I made sure that every day, we found something to laugh about together. If I couldn’t fix her physically, I could use all my mommy muscle to keep her spirits up. On the good days, I planned play dates and activities so she always had something to look forward to. It wasn’t hard: We have been blessed to have such a strong and loving network of friends and family who made themselves available to us and went out of their way to help out. Hillary was right: It really does take a village. Sometimes you don’t know it, though, until you need all the villagers.
If there is a silver lining to having a child with a life-threatening illness, the biggest comfort has been that this has been a shared journey. As parents, we all want our children to know that we are there for them, physically, emotionally, spiritually. Children take comfort in the knowledge that we would do anything for them if the need presented itself. ITP allowed me to demonstrate to E that I would put my life aside to take care of her. She knows I have her back.
As I write, we are not out of the woods yet, but our lives have vastly improved. She is stable enough that our once-weekly hospital visits are now monthly; the at-home nurse administers E’s shot in the intermittent weeks. Getting our time back has meant a return to a mostly normal life for both of us–school and activities for her, freelance work (and the job of getting more freelance work) for me.
My biggest hope is that someday soon they will tell us she has fully recovered. And while we’re not there yet, today didn’t just mark E’s one-year anniversary with ITP. It was also the day she got her orange belt. And did so with gusto.
NOTES ON HER ILLNESS: In children under 10, ITP most often happens soon after recovering from a virus. She had H1N1 two weeks before, and we believe this was the trigger that began our most terrifying journey. For most children in this age group–80 percent–ITP goes away on its own within six months. E unfortunately has fallen into the 20 percent category of children who have chronic ITP, which means it may or may not go away, or it may go into remission only to return to her later in life (in particular, for girls with ITP menstruation and pregnancy can trigger a recurrence.) Every ITP case is different; there is no set pattern. Time will tell.
What I would say to the 25-year-old me
Some people are smart about things like life and love. I can think of several friends, for example, who got together with their partners in their twenties; in love as young newlyweds, they seem even more so now. These couples have managed to grow closer over the years as they faced life’s joys and sufferings together. Others aren’t so fortunate. Of the less lucky ones, a number of us get it wrong at the starting gate. I fall into that category–a self-reforming loser in love.
I have spent far too much energy metaphorically kicking myself for the time I spent in a damaging relationship (Momentary digression: If I could have literally done it, I would have. But try kicking yourself. Sadly, it can’t really be done.) If I’ve learned anything over the past two years, however, it’s that energy is finite; it’s not worth spending it all going down emotional rabbit holes. When I go to that dark place, where I see that time as the “lost years,” it only takes a quick look around to be reminded that without my past, I wouldn’t be here now. Most pointedly, I wouldn’t have my beautiful daughter.
Truth be told, sometimes I do indulge in a trip down that rabbit hole. Once there, I am filled with a yearning to go back in time and shake some sense into that young woman about to make some ill-fated choices. If I could, here’s what I would say to the 25-year-old, less-craggly-but-dumber me:
1) Don’t let the “shoulds” rule your life. Should be married before 30, should have kids before 35, should be in a serious relationship by 25. Shoulds were my undoing. Conversely, one of my college friends did the opposite. She seemed to let her life unfold and see where it took her without a set agenda. As she entered her thirties, several of us wondered when she would find someone. We worried she waited too long. But we were wrong. I’m happy to say that a few years ago, she married a longtime friend who became the love of her life. Leading with your heart, living your life fully and being true to yourself should trump any and all societal “shoulds.” She’s proof.
2) Put “sweet” on the top of your list. Wow, some women get this right off and some just . . .don’t, especially not young women. Why do so many otherwise-smart women choose not-nice jerks? I had a few chances in my early twenties to be with men who treated me beautifully and each time, I blew it. How did I equate arrogance and aloofness with desirability? Too many James Dean movies? Sean Penn movies? I was nearly 40 before I learned that sweet needs to be right up there with smart and funny as one of the top attributes to look for in a partner.
3) Avoid the big talkers. Showing trumps telling. Go for a guy who shows you he cares in dozens of little ways every day. I’m not suggesting you seek out a mute. He should also be able to tell you how much he loves you–but telling without showing amounts to a whole lot of bull–and resentment. No one wants to feel like she’s been played.
4) If you feel like Gumby when you’re with him, he’s not right for you. Of course, it’s good to sometimes be flexible. But if you feel like you need to be double-jointed to bend as much as he wants you to, something is amiss. Step back and view yourself from the balcony: Are you a different version of you when you’re with him than you are with your closest friends? Do you feel like you can’t fully relax when you’re together? You should be able to exhale when you’re together, not after he’s walked out the door.
A marriage not worth saving: Signs that it’s more than a passing pissed-offedness
I ended my nine-year marriage–swiftly and decisively, when the events mentioned earlier led to the brilliant if long overdue aha! moment that, Gadzooks, there was no “we” to us.
Now, when you make the decision to split, especially if there is a child involved (in this case, one daughter, five at the time), it’s kind of big deal telling people about it. But almost uniformly, I was shocked and gratified by all of the support and understanding that came my way. Part of what was so shocking was how obvious the problems in our marriage were to friends and family alike–and how little feedback I received from my circle about this (except from my mother, in many subtle and not-at-all subtle ways. But that’s what Jewish mothers are for.)
I was also dismayed at how much interest I received about my “aha” moment from some in my circle (in particular, fellow moms with young kids). My theory on this is that raising young children today can be so stressful, in particular, for moms who are trying to manage so much with the X factor being the kids (seems like every time I thought I understood my daughter’s patterns, she’d switch it up. Just to keep me on my toes!). But more than a few really wanted to know why I did it. How did I know it was a marriage worth ditching?
Truth is, it took me five years to realize how unfulfilled I was, in part because it can be difficult to discern what constitutes fundamental unhappiness vs. just-pissed-off-at-husband-for-his-latest-misguided maneuver. (No offense, guys, but moms with little kids vent a lot, and newsflash! sometimes we complain about you.) To hopefully allay my friends’ unspoken fears, I offered a few litmus tests, drawn from my own experience:
1) When you picture yourself in 15 years, with the kids out of the house and it being just the two of you, is that something that: a) you can’t wait for; b) you mostly look forward to; c) you have mixed feelings about; or d) fills you with a sense of unequivocal dread? Hint: Dread is not really where you want to be, but it was clearly where I was.
2) A smaller, less futuristic version of that: Date nights. Not that everyone always looks forward to them–you may be totally wiped and want to cancel–but your m.o. should not be to avoid them at all costs. Even if, for whatever reason (babysitter issues, financial issues, scheduling issues, guilt about leaving child when they’ve been away from you all day already, etc.) you may not be able to have a date night regularly, this should still fall under the category of something you might want to do before your child is, say, eighteen. If this sounds blasphemous to you, you may very well have a bigger problem.
3) Why do you divide and conquer? This one was hard to read because so many of us do this: Dad takes the kids Saturday mornings so mom can go to yoga class, mom gets them in the afternoon so dad can play in his softball game. This is a great strategy to give both parents a much-needed break and a chance to pursue their interests. But if you find yourself much preferring the company of just you and your kids without him, and, in fact, go out of your way to avoid having your husband with you for outings–this is probably not a good thing. By the last year of my marriage, nary a weekend would go by where we spent a significant portion of it together as a family. And this was how I wanted it to be.
So if your answers mirrored mine, you may, indeed, have a bigger problem. But if there is still that longing to be together, just the two of you, I would suggest you take the time to appreciate what you have right now and nurture it for tomorrow. Because I believe if the love is there, no matter how much stress surrounds it, it’s a marriage worth saving.
Life’s Big Epiphanies
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” —Yogi Berra
You know them when they happen: Like an anvil, you are struck with the certainty that your life has just shifted and now you are in a new, unfamiliar place. It can be a gradual awakening, or quite sudden. Maybe it’s because of a shift in you, or maybe it is due to an event so big, so important that it can literally leave you breathless. When you are at the precipice of the next big chapter in your life, it can be among the scariest–and most exhilarating–moments you will ever experience.
That was how it felt when I finally led with my heart and said it. Or, in my case, didn’t say it. Embroiled in one of our almost-daily arguments, my then-husband went for the “big dramatic moment” and asked: “Do you still love me?” He’d posed this one dozens of times as a way to close off any further conversation, and it worked. I always managed to answer “yes” or “of course” or something reassuring. But this time, something inside told me to be true to myself. My heart wouldn’t let me do it . . .not this time. So instead I took a deep breath and . . . said nothing.
That was the beginning of the end of a long and unhappy chapter in my life. The next day, he asked me the question again. This time I was able to answer: ‘No.” Allowing myself to voice what I had been feeling inside but was too afraid to say was nothing less than an emancipation: At long last, I was being true to the inner me. I knew my life was spinning into a whole new direction, but had no idea what I would find when I got there.
What made this night different from all other nights? Several recent events had come together to lead to this overdue epiphany. First, there was the death of my favorite former boss. He was like a father figure to me, and the loss was very sad. But the fact that I didn’t have a chance to say “goodbye” to him, even though I knew he had been battling cancer–I was angry at myself and angry at my husband, who discouraged me from making the drive to see Al in the hospital, as he had discouraged me so many times before from reaching out to people who did not further his cause.
Al’s death taught me a valuable lesson: Showing up for things really does matter. Showing people you care–not just saying the right things, but actually doing something to show them–is important. Words are nothing without the actions behind them. Around the same time, a member of our community died from a freak construction accident. Another reminder that life is short and you never know how much time you have–so why sleepwalk through it?
Then there was the playdate with another family in the area. Apropos of nothing, my husband thought it important to volunteer to this couple, both of whom were math teachers, how pathetic my math skills are. Another illustration of his willingness to put me down and keep me in a corner, as he always did, to fill whatever his current needs were–even if it was just coming up with small talk. It didn’t feel small to me, though. This is what started the argument that night.
And finally, there was the e-mail. A long-lost friend–never a boyfriend, but more of a “friend with benefits”–found me on a social networking site and sent me a note. Innocuous? Maybe. So I sent a nice note back, nothing untoward. But then a note came back that revealed more, became more personal. Soon I was thinking about him more than I wanted to admit. What was this? I had never cheated before. But it felt like a betrayal. Why was I engaging in this extracurricular flirtation, albeit online? It troubled me. At the same time, seeing myself through this old friend’s eyes–as someone attractive, smart, funny–gave me courage. He helped me see that maybe someone else out there would find me lovable, that there was life and yes, maybe even love, after this marriage.
“Do or do not–there is no try,” Yoda said.
Like you, I am many things: friend, mother, worker bee, daughter, sister, advocate, writer, lover of animals, nature and people of all stripes, and perhaps most of all, survivor. I listen and I speak; I write and read; I inspire and am inspired every day by the world and what it offers. I’ve been both overjoyed by life and struck by its unfairness and unpredictability.
For many years, I was a frustrated writer, stuck in a place where I felt I had nothing creative or interesting to offer. Now in my early forties, I realize I have stories to share and a new way to share them. I’ve lived through enough now to tell about them.
So here I am. In many ways, I feel like an everywoman. The only difference between me and most others around me is my willingness to “put it out there”–no matter how difficult the topic–as a way of questioning what is vs. what should be, healing myself, and finding common ground. This is not an advice column; I am not qualified to offer advice. I am more storyteller than sage. My hope is that, by sharing some of my more vivid and sometimes difficult life experiences candidly and honestly, we can create a sanctuary to protect us against judgmentalism, shame, guilt, and fear. Our world is rife with these negative emotions, and I am constantly reminded of how hurtful they are–and how our energy could be better spent focusing on more positive-minded pursuits.
We are all human, which means we make mistakes. The key is what you take away from them and where you go from there. Because fundamentally I believe that the world would be a vastly better place if we were all able to fully love and be loved, to have the opportunity and courage to pursue our dreams, and to find empathy in our hearts instead of leading with scorn and judgementalism. This is the world I hope our children will inherit. Please join me in creating that world.