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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A brief interlude

IMGP2184I got a chance to travel to Florida this weekend to a friend’s wedding, a long-time compatriot from my newspaper days. She was the matron of honor at my second wedding (or third, depending on how you count it), and I’m the godmother of her first son. That being said, we haven’t been closely in touch for years, though we do manage to have a face-to-face at least once every couple of years.

Florida is beautiful and sunny in May, though the temperatures were considerably higher than I was used to, after a long winter in the IMGP2180frozen Northlands. The wedding itself took place on the beach in Melbourne. Both the bride and groom wore white–before Memorial Day! *fans self*  Most of my lady friends in the South would have fainted dead away. It was short and sweet, and the view was delightful. The ceremony was followed by a small but energetic reception with some of the best food I’ve had in awhile–jerk IMGP2181chicken, reggae shrimp and this lovely cake:

I also fit in a trip to my dear friend Edde’s in Fort Pierce, where we had lovely weather except for the last night, when IMGP2190some serious dark clouds rolled in over the ocean, dragging thunder and lightning with them. But we still had a nice visit. She was feeling a good deal better than she had been in December, when last we visited, so that was something to be grateful for.

Little Miss spent the weekend with her dad, which I hope did them both some good. Certainly a little “me” time was appreciated. And of course, nothing says Florida like this:IMGP2172

Not something you see every day….

 

 

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.

As time goes by

And so you and I, We watch our years go by

We watch our sweet dreams fly, Far away but maybe someday…

I don’t know when, but we will dream again

And we’ll be happy then Till our time just drifts away  (Harry Chapin, Dreams Go By)

It’s a good thing humans celebrate their milestones: birthdays, holidays, anniversaries. Otherwise so much time would slip away unnoticed in the day-to-day turmoil and details.

The Cabana Boy and I marked one of those milestones this week: nine years of marriage. What different people we are now than we were then. He was barely out of the National Guard, a father of three under the age of 5; I was an established author and lawyer, with four daughters under my belt, one married with children, one in the Navy, one in college and only an 11 year old still at home.  Now he’s a tech school instructor in computer forensics, and I’ve adopted his children, who are 9, 10 and 13. We’ve raised them together through their autism and ADD diagnoses and treatment, and they’ve all survived so far.

To celebrate, we returned to the scene of the crime– the Meadville Community Theatre stage. In 2000, I was playing Ouiser in Steel Magnolias. The set was beautiful, the interior a softly decorated southern beauty shop, with flowers and bowls of fruit and giggly ladies making themselves pretty, while the exterior was a traditional white picket fence and other evidence southern charm. A good place to start, wouldn’t you say?

Last night, we waited breathlessly for the new show, a musical our little theatre troupe has been waiting to perform for years–Chicago. The set was beautiful again–but a stark contrast. The skyline was Chicago of the 1920s and the setting the Cook County jail where women were awaiting trials for the murder of their husbands. Is that a metaphor for where the past nine years have gotten us?

Let’s just say it’s a good thing neither of us are gum-poppers. 🙂


Speak up!

Commitment is a wonderful thing.

Whether you’re talking about marriage, a job, a faith, parenthood, any cause–the willingness to commit openly and faithfully is admirable. Especially if it’s unpopular or out of the norm. I applaud those who continue to speak out against vaccines for their children with autism, those who rally against the war even if they’re called un-American, those who defend gay and lesbian rights.

But I also support those who commit to points I don’t believe in, like Carrie Prejean, the Miss California contestant who answered contest judge Perez Hilton’s question about whether same sex-marriage should be legal in all the states as follows:

“Well, I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anyone out there, but that’s how I was raised, and that’s how I think it should be between a man and a woman.”

While I think she’s a little deluded that people in America “can choose” a marriage of either type, I think the storm of controversy that Hilton then generated over how horrible it was that she gave her true opinion is ridiculous.  As CNN commentator Roland S. Martin says: “Hey, Hilton, from a real journalist to a wanna-be who traffics in gossip: Never ask a question if you’re unprepared for the answer!”

Fact is, America, not all of us hold the same opinion about things. We vary on everything but the weather–and most of the time, even that too. I happen to support same-sex rights, but I sure don’t expect that I can make everyone else do so. If you don’t want a same-sex marriage, don’t have one.

Just like abortion, sex change operation, Star Trek addiction, left wing/right wing, Conservative Christian, evangelical Baptist, Hare Krishna, and many other topics, what you yourself  believe is your business, and you should be able to state your opinion without being attacked. You just shouldn’t be able to impose your belief on someone else and expect to force them to change.

I also appreciate the fact that she didn’t base this on her Christian beliefs and upbringing, only to have those racy photos show up the next week. (That would have been tacky.) She just said for HER, that’s what she believed. Good onya, Miss Prejean.

And thanks to Hilton, while Prejean won’t be Miss USA this go-round, she is now a spokesperson for the National Organization for Marriage and has appeared all over media circusland. I hope that she continues to speak her mind, as we all have the right to do.  I just won’t be listening.

On Husbands

Zsa Zsa Gabor, who ought to know, said, “Husbands are like fires; they go out if unattended.”

As I’ve said before, I’ve had three husbands (yes, yes, I did marry one of them twice, quit NAGGING me about that!), which is, perhaps more than my fair share. The three were very different, and perhaps each suited a particular life phase. As a comment on my earlier post about marriage pointed out, people grow and change throughout life, and expecting one person to be a perfect match all along is a real stretch.

Both husband #1 and I were starter spouses; neither of us was probably ready to get married, but we were ready to be done with college and be grown up. Or, in the vernacular, “seemed like the thing to do.” We dated while he finished his last college semester in Ohio, then he took a job in Montana. Zoom, there we went across the USA in our new used Ford Pinto station wagon.

We arrived in June, realized soon thereafter the job wasn’t going to work out, and bam, he joined the Air Force. He went off to basic training and I drove with our first child from Montana to Texas in December (who knows what I was thinking). We only slid off the road once because of black ice, and nearly got arrested in Colorado for driving the speed limit. By the time basic training was done, the Air Force decided to ship him to South Florida, because we had requested all the bases in Washington State, Idaho, Montana…you get the idea. Thank you, Uncle Sam.

Child #2 came along, much cheaper at the base hospital than the first had been, but by that time, the differences between us were becoming obvious. Within a year or so, we acknowledged it had been a mistake. I moved off base into an apartment, to continue my life as a newspaper reporter and single mom; he bought a motorcycle. Go figure.

Husband #2 was a police officer, more flash than dash. We met as the result of a news story I wrote where a fellow officer claimed my ex had framed him by putting drugs in his car. Well, we didn’t actually MEET then. First, the word was on the street he was out to get me because of the story. Then he demanded that I come talk to him about it, which I agreed to do, thinking he might incriminate himself further. 🙂

But what happened was quite the opposite. It appeared I’d been played by politics. So he and I started speaking when we’d meet on the street in his sleepy Southern town, then we had a few dates, including my kids and his. Turned out he liked kids and was pretty good with them. Big points in my book.

In the long run, though, it turned out he liked women too. Not just one at a time. In fact, there was one incident where I was at his apartment packing up the last camping supplies (he’d headed down to the campsite in the Florida Keys already, one of my daughters with him) when the phone rang. It turned out to be his fiancee. Which was somewhat amusing because he’d been seeing me for several months. Well, not so funny, really. She and I agreed to go down to camp and meet him together.

Now this is the funny part. My ex, who’s always been a big guy, close to 300 lbs., actually cleared a six-foot fence when he saw us pull up, according to the kids. Later he said he thought I had the gun and was planning to shoot him. As if. It’s still a family staple, that story. Needless to say, the other woman broke off the engagement and he and I eventually married. Lasted long enough to produce a host of interesting stories and a daughter. Ended because of a woman. Again.

Some time passed before I was brave enough, but then came the Cabana Boy, who you can read about here. He’s a water sign to my fire, he rolls with the figurative punches, he is loyal and tenacious as a bulldog. Thanks to his patience and insistence on discussion instead of slamming doors, we are still together, despite his addiction to World of Warcraft.

And he’s never suspected I had a gun and would shoot him. Not once. Though I bet he’s counting the days till the hot flashes stop. Yes, sirree.

Approaching equilibrium

You know, every once in awhile you just hit a real bump in the road.

So many of us “manage,” we do the best we can every day as spouses, as parents, to try to keep our fingers in the old dyck for as long as possible. But sooner or later, the water just gets too high, and your carefully-balanced house of cards is in danger of being washed away. When that happens, it’s time to stop and re-assess priorities before you lose touch with your life altogether.

Priorities in this house are: 1) safety and well-being of each person; 2) roof over head; 3) food on table. These are the same priorities I often share with my clients who are panicking about what to do. These three things you MUST have–the rest can come when they will.

No question here that everyone is safe. They have a home, a bed, their clothing, a wide selection of toys. (Grownups too.) The clothing is not always new. We buy, I’d guess, two-thirds of our clothes from Ebay, consignment and thrift shops for two reasons: the first, because they cost less, and second, because it conserves world resources. This is why we also donate our gently-used items back to the thrift shops as well. This may horrify some of my colleagues, whose children prefer to shop at Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister. Well, get over it.

We don’t drive new cars, though we each have a vehicle, because we work in different cities. Our house is over 100 years old and isn’t in a spiffy new subdivision. We may have eight computers in the house; all but one are recycled and repaired from someone else’s use. The adults can’t afford health insurance (the best quote we got was $800/month). We don’t vacation in the islands. For an attorney and a teacher, actually, the scope of our lifestyle is pretty narrow. The only real “luxuries” we enjoy, to rate ourselves against the news stories these days, is the privilege of dining out a couple of nights a week. That’s more to deal with the exhaustion of work and child care than the joy of something fabulous.

So the bills get paid, not much else, while both adults work out of the home, me about 5 hours a day, the Cabana Boy an average of 10 hours a day, Monday through Friday. (Even at that, my pay scale dictates I bring home about twice what he does.) He drives 70 miles a day to work–hello gas pump! Weekends are usually a blur, trying to catch up on all we didn’t get done through the week.

Now this is probably no different than many other two-career families in this “more, faster, now” society. But here’s the bump: we’re losing each other. The adults have almost no time together because of work hours and kid commitments, and resentments build over time when one or the other of us feels like we’re being neglected or put-upon– although we know the other is trying so hard just to keep up that we suck it down and try not to complain.

So what do we do? Someone has to be available to make sure all the therapy and appointments are made, prescriptions are refilled, kids everywhere they need to be. We can’t both work full-time, unless we had a nanny who lived in. Our needs are minimal; maybe we should both work part-time. It would put a pinch on, but we could deal with it. With summer coming on, there will be a lot of garden work to be done, again to save money and promote health, and kids out of school. Can we both keep up this schedule and still make it?

Where is the point at which life balances–enough time, enough love, enough resources? What can you give up and still survive? Who takes care of the ones who care for everyone else? Where do you get answers to these kind of questions?

I never thought I’d be quoting Martha Stewart, but this is apropos: “When I got married and had a child and went to work, my day was all day, all night. You lose your sense of balance. That was in the late ’60s, ’70s, women went to work, they went crazy. They thought the workplace was much more exciting than the home. They thought the family could wait. And you know what? The family can’t wait.”

So we’ll be talking about those priorities. We’ll see you on the other side.

What they say is true: parents, too are casualties of their child’s autism.