Not always the most wonderful time of the year

A phenomenon many divorce attorneys like me encounter each year between mid-November and January 2 is the sudden drop-off of clients and client activity.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the holiday lull, the last-ditch effort to grasp the fast-fading warm feeling of family or at least the rational attempt to try to preserve the illusion that ‘everything is all right’ for the children.

DSCN0169Often, the holidays are a happy blurred memory batch from childhood, with ham dinners with families gathered at grandparents’ house, favorite (and not so favorite) presents we’ve received over the years, candlelit church services, carols and much more.

Overlay this with the commercial media blitz of glitter, bling (every kiss begins with k?? Who knew? Awesome!) and price cuts, and the secular Holidays take on an almost sacred tone of their own.

We want our children to experience this, to feel whole, to be glad and warm and loved. Often we are able to swallow our own pain–or drown it with well-doctored eggnog– long enough to let the little ones experience Santa and the magic.

But what we also see as the years pass is the carving up of these happy days with a broad knife, dividing the time the children “must” spend with father, mother, siblings, grandparents and others. When parents cannot look beyond their own needs to compromise with their children’s lives, the court will do it for them, with lack of emotion or feeling to guide it.

Four hours for mom. Two hours for grandma. Twelve hours for dad. Splitting the day so you have to be hauling kids on the road for two hours of the holiday you’d all rather spend at home. Weather? Schmeather. The court order says… Alternating years, so every other Christmas your hearth is empty and dark with no children to celebrate. Christmas Eve. Christmas Day. Thanksgiving Thursday. Friday? Maybe, if you’re lucky, a few extra days of the vacation when the children can have a parent all to themselves without other obligations.

DSCN0207There’s no good way to do it, so this yields the sucking-up and effort to maintain through the holidays “for the kids.”

In my generation, divorce was not as prevalent as today, and we visited in summers only, so our holidays, though father was absent, were not disrupted. My children, however, were subject to visitation orders, and spent most holidays with their fathers, which was fine with me. Holiday is a state of mind, as far as I’m concerned. You can have a special day on the 23rd, 25th, or even 31st, if you put your mind to it.

Many more children of my kids’ generation grew up in split parenting situations, so maybe for them, it’s not as traumatic for their own children to be visiting other households during these magic periods. And often, no matter how hard you’re trying to hold things together, the children are well aware of the tensions underlying the surface. If those tensions become toxic, then perhaps separation, even this time of year, could be the right choice, for everyone’s peace of mind. It’s important, though, not to compete with each other to “buy” the children with stuff.

But even if the magic fails on one front, there are many more, like these suggestions from Suzy Brown. As she says, “Holidays are about peace and sharing and gratitude and love. During tragedy, or divorce, or heartache we have to reach down and find those core things at a deeper level, a more meaningful level.”

It’s a tough time. I’m going through the single parent thing again for the first time in 15 years, and it’s a big readjustment. But it can be done. If you feel that you can’t hold on, for any reason, please seek professional help, whether in the form of legal counsel, psychological counsel, or just a heartfelt cup of cocoa with a good friend or close relative. Take time out for yourself. Most decisions about situations (absent actual danger) can be put off for a week or two. Give yourself and the children time in as de-stressed a manner as possible. This will pay off as they learn coping skills from you they can use all their lives.

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When do you surrender?

I’ve debated writing this post for several weeks. Overall, I was worried it would sound whiny or complaining, and I honestly try not to be like that (at least not too much). Most people have busy lives and problems of their own and don’t have time to invest in my issues.  I’ve finally decided to write it because it might inspire someone else to take control of their life, before it’s too late.

red flowers

red flowers

Fibromyalgia has been a part of my days for about 10 years now , and I’ve written about it from time to time. It’s steadily gotten worse to the point where I felt pretty handicapped. Going to the court house for work was difficult–if I couldn’t get a parking place nearby, I had a hell of a time getting there. I gave up my house for a small apartment with minimal stairs. My marriage suffered and eventually ended. Daily chronic pain was unrelieved by the mild exercise I could do without causing more pain.

My grown children were sympathetic, and we tried to work out a plan where I might go stay with one of them, so I didn’t have to manage a place on my own. Of course, Little Miss would have to go along, and she’s still in school.  And I wouldn’t have a job. Or insurance. And they’re not keen on giving disability for fibro. You know, since it’s not one of those “real” diseases.

Besides, why should any of that be imposed on one of my girls? Not their fault. They’ve got their own lives.

So, nothing worked out. Better yet, this year I’ve had a steady stream of diagnoses. Both knees’ cartilage totally destroyed. Torn retinas causing flashes in night vision. Sleep apnea. Neck and back arthritis. (Getting old just isn’t pretty, folks.)

Overwhelmed, I started wishing that whatever was wrong with me would just escalate and end me before the summer came and I had to make a decision. If I was dead, I wouldn’t have to deal with it any more…the day-long pain, the things I couldn’t do for myself any more, the knowledge that there would likely be more and more things like that. Sure, I could keep taking two Vicodin a day and muscle relaxers, and more and more anti-inflammatories that were eating away at my liver.  It wouldn’t make the pain vanish, but made it tolerable most days.

This is from someone who has a reasonable income that provides for our needs, an education, transportation, food on the table and a roof overhead. I can’t even imagine how this goes for someone who doesn’t have these things.

autoimmuneAnd then in late August, I got the topper–gout/arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. For those who don’t know, the latter is an autoimmune disease. My body had become so dense with inflammation, that it was attacking itself, no longer able to differentiate what was good and bad. That’s why my ribs ache. That’s why my knees are shot. Probably the retinas, too. I’d done it to myself.

That could have been the end.

Instead, I found myself galvanized into action. I’m still not sure what the difference was, but finding myself under official attack must have kicked my competitive nature into gear.  I started reading about RA and some of the treatments out there. I consulted with some friends about it, what worked for them, what didn’t. One of my daughters had a family that had gone on the paleo diet to help with my granddaughter’s thyroid issues, and she extended a hand. My sister Shawna had recently received a spinal arthritis dx and she was dealing with the same thing. I signed up for a monthly healing seminar. I have support.

I could do this.

The dietary changes to reduce inflammation seemed like the best first step. The next day, I went to the grocery store, armed with the AIP list of foods to eat and foods to avoid, and I’ve followed that for over six weeks now. Is it a bitch to eat no dairy or eggs, no beans, no nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, potatoes), no grains, no nuts or nut products, oils, etc, ? You betcha.

But my pain has dropped about 75%. Yes. I said 75%. My energy is up about 50%. I might take two Vicodin a week, instead of two a day, and some weeks not even that. I’m in physical therapy and try to walk on the days my knees don’t hurt–and there are those days. On cold rainy days, I used to curl up on the couch, unable to move. Now those days are just like any other day. I’m winning the battle, for now, anyway.

That’s all I can do. One day, then the next day, then the next.

Because I’ve got a lot more days out there, and without all the suffering, I know I’ll really enjoy them. I finally scored an appointment with a rheumatologist at the Cleveland Clinic for next month, so new options will become available. There may come a time when I have to give in, but I haven’t reached it yet, not with this new lease on life. Supporting those with chronic pain is hard. But knowing someone else’s outstretched hand is available– preferably holding a couple of spoons!–is priceless.

Do you ever outgrow inadequacy?

My stepmother killed herself when I was 13, on a night when I retreated to bury myself in The Wizard of Oz to avoid the fighting that led up to it. After that, I was the person in charge of the house, in charge of raising my sisters, in charge of my own life.

I’ve come to the conclusion that 13 is much too young to do that.

NOT ME.

NOT ME.

I mean, sure I did it. I cooked the meals and cleaned the house. I made sure my sisters were in by curfew (before I went off to college) and that they had clean clothes for school every day. I inspired myself, because my single father chose to drown his sorrows in bourbon and spend his nights at a local bar playing “resident psychologist” so he could feel like he had friends. At the time, I felt like I was doing a pretty good job. My dad paid me $10 a week (hey, it was 1970) and I thought I had things all right. Even when I had to skip some of my friend’s events to take care of kids. Even when I didn’t get to make trips my friends did. Even when I never had a real boyfriend all through high school.

But looking back after my third failed marriage, I think I didn’t have a handle on things. Without loving, adult guidance through those stressful teenage years, I didn’t learn how to relate well to a partner. Everything was just, “Get through the day and make sure you’re not losing any loose ends.” I’m good at that. Perhaps a bit of a control freak, even. So I’ve been told by every man who’s left me. Hard to deny it, I guess.

When you grow up having to mother everything in sight, I suppose that takes a swipe at your ability to choose a good partner who will be strong enough to help you, or Heaven forbid, actually take care of you. I’m sure the psychologists would say that I was drawn to men who needed to be taken care of instead. Well, that certainly played itself out.  Bottom line is I find myself older, damaged, and alone.

It’s pretty sad some days when the only empathy I get is from my dear autistic daughter, who struggles so hard with her own understanding of others’ inner lives.

Now that I’m spending days being introspective, I wonder if my flawed upbringing ruined my sisters’ chances for happiness. (Not that I carry all the blame for that–it’s a parental issue, but I still feel responsible.) Can I have demonstrated enough of a lesson for my daughters even to see, to incorporate in their own lives? I hope they’ve learned somehow, even just by cherry-picking the past for clues. Here it is, 40 years later, and I don’t know if I’ve learned anything myself, other than to get through each day and desperately chase the loose ends that seem to multiply the older I get. No matter what I’ve achieved–and I’ve met many of my life goals–I still feel like I’m that kid trying to juggle so many adult issues armed with a spatula and an old pair of Keds.

When do you finally feel like you’re good enough?

Why the drama, mamma?

As a family law attorney, I know that I’m going to be dealing with people’s emotional issues. After all, when these people come to see me, usually their lives are in turmoil. They may be newly separated. They may be struggling with financial stability. Parents living in two different homes may be battling over children who clearly can’t be ripped in two. I get that.

Really, I do.

We spend a good deal of time dissecting those situations and doing the very best we can to get people through those gauntlets in one piece, and hopefully arrive as close to their original goals as we can. 

What really makes me crazy are the people who must create more drama for their lives, because they love it. It makes them feel important. These people will have their cell phones at appointments with me and answer every call, because if they don’t, the world as they know it will come to an end. Now I don’t know Uncle Harry, and I’m sure his bowel issues might be very significant to him, but if you’re paying me in excess of a hundred dollars an hour, is it really worth discussing his condition with your mother and deciding whether he needs to take his medicine for ten minutes on my clock?  No problem. I’ll just check my email while you’re busy.

Then there’s the extremists. “I”m taking this all the way to the Supreme Court!” they exclaim. That’s all well and good, and I appreciate that determined spirit.  Of course, the fact that the Supreme Court/other federal courts don’t handle a lot of family law cases might be relevant. But there’s still a Superior Court and Supreme Court here in Pennsylvania, if you’re not happy with the order entered by the county court. None of which matters if you don’t return my calls, don’t provide me with the documentation I ask for, and you yell at the judges during our hearings because you ‘just have to be yourself.’

And listen, people. When you have a spouse, long-term partner or a teenaged kid, there’s one rule that applies across the board: any of these people have lived with you long enough that THEY KNOW HOW TO PUSH YOUR BUTTONS. This shouldn’t be news after all this time. Seriously. So when he or she does that ONE thing you can’t stand–whether it’s call you twenty times a day, shows up to pick up your kid ten minutes early every single time, or has their new boyfriend call to negotiate custody arrangements–you don’t have to call and tell me a hundred times. I cannot repair the person that you aren’t going to be with any more. I mean, that’s why you’re not with them any more, right? Just learn to ignore them. Planned ignoring, our therapists call it. It’s a real tactic. Read about it here. It’s free. Use it. 

I’ve said it before: Breaking up is hard to do. (Actually Neil Sedaka said it before me. And got paid better for saying it.) Some people deal with the stress by making themselves into the victim to gain sympathy from everyone around them. Some people try to prove that they’re in control by running roughshod over anyone they get a chance to crush, including social workers, court staff and other people trying to help. Some people just grasp at anything they can find to hold on to as though it were a life preserver, because they really have no clue what’s going to help.

I blame a lot of the need for drama on the current trend for reality show circuses. When you watch Big Brother or Jersey Shore or Wife Swap or Celebrity Rehab or Survivor–any of them, you get a fabulous lesson in how to manipulate people, how to portray yourself. how to make yourself more important by how you deal with everyone around you.

 But as far as I’m concerned, you’re hiring me to do a specific job: to get you through your life crisis with as little damage to your life as possible. I’m not here to deal with you while you’re waiting for your close-up. If that’s what you’re really after, please call me after your fifteen minutes is up. That way, I can preserve my sanity as well as yours.

Up for a visit?

I’m guest posting over at Jean Myles’ blog today on the subject of marriage and autistic children. Jean has two little boys, one with autism, and she now works at home so she can make sure her little guys have all the special support they need! 

I know I’ve talked about the subject of marriage stress and divorce before, and many of you commented on the study I cited.  But you know, for all the autism parents I know, so many of them are on the edge or have divorced over the issues their children have, that I stand by my position. It’s a hard life. Jean’s focus on early intervention is outstanding–what a difference this makes, as we’ve seen in our own house. My best wishes to her and to her readers.

Take a break from the summer heat to come by and say hello!

When do you say when?

Being a divorce/custody lawyer certainly opens one’s eyes to the possibilities and depths of despair in the world of relationships.

Once people commit to each other, they form a whole lot of ties that while easy to break in one way, as in, “Get your lame ass out of here,” they’re much harder to break in other ways.

For example, the woman I met last night who hates winter, hates snow, but her child’s father is entrenched here, and she can’t move (with the child) more than 25 miles away from him, thanks to their court order. Or the joint credit card that now has a balance of $20K that you had so much fun running up together, but neither of you can afford to pay it off. Or the mortgage on a house that you just can’t allow to foreclose because you need your credit rating for the next job you want to apply for. These days, a lot of couples are staying together because they can’t afford to live separately in this economy, especially if they have children.

Even women in abusive relationships find it difficult to leave, for many reasons that the average person doesn’t always understand. It’s hard to say “when.” Or in the words of Neil Sedaka, Breaking Up is Hard to Do.

A column at Discovery Health by Coulson Duerksen lists 10 things to consider when you’re trying to make that decision, including the existence of mutual benefit, avoidance and an imbalance of participation/contribution.

Even Oprah.com weighs in on this subject.

This being said, anyone who believes that a relationship will always be happy and unstressed is on better drugs than the rest of us. Ups and downs are a natural part of any relationship, and many factors play into that roller coaster, including seasonal affect problems, past baggage, holiday expectations and the effect of family members on the needs and demands of the relationship.

Those of my readers who have children on the autism spectrum know the demands that special need places on their families. One author says that “Oprah, Jenny McCarthy, and many others cite enormously high divorce rates among parents with autism. Those rates seem to range from 80-90%…” She goes on, as Missy points out, to show that figure to be some mystical number from who knows where–but the fact remains that among the parents of autistic children that I have spoken with in the western PA area and also online, the divorce rate is better than 50%.

That’s huge, my friends.

Considering how much more those children need the support and commitment of their parents, you’d think that would hold the families together. Sadly, the opposite seems to be true.

So many people inch along the border of saying “when,” sublimating their unhappiness for these and other reasons. My nurse-practitioner friend of many years would scold them if she could, sharing one of her favorite sayings, “Life is not a dress rehearsal.” True enough. How much time are these adults willing to waste before moving on, if it’s really time? A month? Six months? A year? Six years?

I’ve had clients dribble away years, waiting. Waiting till the car’s paid off. Waiting till the kids are grown and out of school (which might actually be worse on the children: see here). Waiting until…sometimes until their partner dies. Are their own lives really that unimportant that they can afford to choose not to live them?

When do you say when?

When superior is actually worse

A theme I hear increasing in my female clients’ divorce filings is the fact that they feel they do the lion’s share of work in the marriage. Many of them have work outside the home, many of them full-time, but they also end up with a full-time job at home, too. And their husbands let them handle it all.

When I look back at my grandparents’ generation, there seemed to be a much clearer division of labor. The men were usually responsible for what happened outside: checking and maintaining the cars, mowing the grass (but not planting the flowers, of course!), shoveling the driveway, taking out the garbage. Innate tendencies toward pyromania could be disguised by burning of trash and occasional searing of meat products on the old grill. The woman traditionally took care of the indoor tasks, cleaning, cooking and laundry, as well as whatever child care didn’t involve throwing some kind of ball at a helpless child expected to learn to catch it.

But as the years passed, those lines became less firm. Many men believe it is still their job to go out and provide for their family, and they concentrate their efforts in 10-hour days and bonus checks. At the same time, we did in fact experience the 1970s and women’s lib, and women now are out building careers as well. Or, as for many of my clients, they don’t have one of those men who think they should work, and as single mothers, they have to work to support their own families.

When I was a single mother, I found it much easier to regulate the “team.” I had certain jobs and the girls had certain jobs, and I just told them what to do, and it got done. But with a husband, that’s not quite the same. When you’re a parent, you’re in a superior position; as a spouse, you expect to be equal.

Reading recently, I found this article: Are Power Struggles Ruining Your Relationship? in Redbook Magazine. The article draws on a book called The Superior Wife Syndrome by psychologist Caren Rubenstein, and lays out Rubenstein’s belief that if women end up doing everything, it’s not only their own fault, but it could lead to the death of the marriage.

Many women in relationship are better managers. Their multi-tasking strengths are greater. They are better at seeing “the big picture:” who needs to be where, when; who’s due for doctor appointments, how to get a load of laundry in before the kids have school-day breakfast so the hot water can recharge in time to take a shower after the bus leaves, then load the dishwasher before running out the door to get to work, that sort of thing.

So it would seem natural that if you’re better at it, that your partner will defer to your superior ability.

The article/book go on to talk about how this seems like a simple solution, but actually contributes to the wife internally boiling as she carries the huge majority of tasks, while the husband sees everything skating along and thinks everything is just fine. With those blinders on, the situation only gets worse.

The solution, they say, is really to go back to my earlier team idea: let go of the idea that you both should be able to magically understand what needs to be done for a successful household. Tell your partner (specifically) what you want them to do, then let them handle it without interference, no matter how painful it might be to watch. Once you delegate the task, coming in with a rescue helicopter doesn’t teach your partner any more than it would teach your child. Sometimes, they’ll fail. Hopefully, they’ll learn. Everyone does, sooner or later.

In the words of Booth Tarkington: An ideal wife is any woman who has an ideal husband.

It takes two, my friends, it takes two.