LESSONS


educate your child“While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.” ~ Angela Schwindt

With two school-age children, mornings are a pretty tight operation in our house.  It can get a little chaotic preparing to get our two boys out the door to school but I am grateful for our morning hustle because it invariably offers unexpected discussions in the car.  Our routine for drop-off is simple.  First my younger son gets out at his elementary school and then my older son and I spend the bit longer journey to middle school mostly in silence while he usually plays with his phone.  I will try to make idle chit-chat with him that, far too often, results in eye rolling but, every now and then, he shares something that is, inexplicably and inevitably, discussion-provoking.  With a middle schooler, I get very few opportunities for conversation and, those I do, are almost always dictated by him.  He determines how much information he is going to share and when and how he does so.  Long gone are the days where I can sit him down with a snack after school and try to pump him for information about his day, his friends, his trials of life.  Instead, I sometimes get a stammering opening into a discussion that usually ends with him needing something from me (more often than not, his need involves cash).  I cherish those rare moments that he chooses to open up to me and I am very strategic about trying to capitalize on them whenever I can.

That morning chit-chat, with just the two of us, can yield openings to conversations that lend themselves to  moments of guidance on subjects that are clearly on my son’s mind.  But, with just a few minutes, they are sprints, no deep dives.  Whether he is conscious of it or not, he is very calculating about his timing.  He has five minutes in the car alone with me and, typically, he waits until we are about 3 blocks from his school before he opens his mouth.  Earlier this week, on the first day back at school after our weeklong spring break, at just about the exact same spot as usual, my son opened his mouth and what came out provided assurance that he is genetically connected to me.  If I ever had any concerns about him being switched at birth, watching him blossom into a teenager and hearing some of his rumination, confirm that they sent us home with the correct child.

“It’s going to really suck to see all those kids with tans at school today.”  The moment he said it, I knew where he was going.  I also knew that this had been on his mind for a while now.  “I’m really glad we didn’t go away like everyone else.  It would suck to have get back to reality today.  I hate the end of vacation so I am glad we didn’t go.”

Really?  Such intense rationalization at 12 years old?

My poor son. I, being the mother, reminded him that all of his close friends were home during spring break.  He then pointed out that it was all the rich kids – the kids from the other side of town – who had gone away.

“That would be so hard.  I hate that about vacation.  I’d rather not go.” He lamented.

Oh crap, he is not me.  He is my mother! 

I offered some basic wisdom to him, reminded him that we will, again, go on vacation and that, yes, going away can be very bittersweet because of re-entry but it is all worth it in the end.  Oh yeah, and take lots of pictures.  They will help you cope with the malaise that falls over you when you are back to your daily grind and cannot remember what it was like to be soaking in the sunshine on the beach or languishing by the pool.  The photos will remind you that, in fact, it was not just a wonderful dream.  You were there.

After I dropped him at school and tried to push aside all the guilt I often experience during these brief but meaningful discussions, I thought about our little chat.  I thought about his patterns of behavior and his need to share these little nuggets with me during our morning routine.  I reflected on his growing maturity and witnessing an observable shift to processing disappointment rather than having a temper tantrum (which, quite frankly, is what I want to do most of the time – thank goodness I have my children around to teach me appropriate behavior).  He mentioned only about one hundred times how he wished we had gone away for spring break.  He complained about how boring it was to stay home, especially when his parents had to work and were taking shifts to entertain him and his brother so they did not spend exactly 11 days in exactly the same indented spots on the sofa playing xbox.  I could see his point of view and, while I felt sad that he was wishing for a vacation (aren’t we all?), I appreciated that he was not too burdened by it.  But, of course, I wonder what goes on in that mini-adult brain.  I wonder what he sees through his lens.  He knows that he is not one of the rich kids – and that was the word that stung the most.  He feels lacking and I don’t ever want money to be the definition of happiness for either of my children.  My husband and I have struggled to shield my children from any financial woes we may have had at any point in time but, now, it is crystal clear that he knows.  He knows we are not rich.  At least not financially.

Earlier this year, we had a discussion with both of our children about money.  We explained that this was going to be a tight year for us all because I am involved in a start-up business and I’m spending a good chunk of the year without a salary.  Any money we have is going towards supporting us during the phase.  This means no vacations this year.  There will be no disposable income for eating out several times a week or for mindless shopping at Target.  Every dollar is accounted for and earmarked to help change our lives, hopefully.  We have explained all this to the kids and, to the best of their ability, they understand.  But, they are young and they also remember wonderful spring break trips and beach vacations.  (They, of course, do not remember how miserable they were on some of those trips and how much they tortured us but that is for another day.)  We have been very honest with our children, not because we want to burden them with any of our challenges, but to allow them to understand that this is temporary and that we have a bigger plan in mind.  We want to teach them about decision-making and hard choices and show them the silver linings that come with that.  We never want to deprive them and probably have been over-generous with them to compensate for our own lacking childhoods.  Our main goal is that, when it is time for them to leave their childhoods behind, they will feel that they were loved deeply and provided with a solid foundation.  They will remember the vacations and they will appreciate, at some point, all of the hard work their parents put in so they could live a pretty nice life but I want them to also understand the struggle.  There is no entitlement in life except for the entitlement of self-worth.   Everything else comes at a price.

I am watching my son, half a year away from turning 13, begin to process life.  I am trying to crawl inside his head to see how he puts the pieces together in his mind.  When he says things to me that seem so far beyond his age, so much more wise than I expect my little baby to be, I am startled and overjoyed.  I love that my children are growing and maturing.  I love that I can have intellectual conversations with them and explore the world with a whole new dimension.  And, at the same time, it breaks my heart just a little bit.  I realize that, with this maturity, comes a transparency.  We can no longer whisper, spell things out or use code words because they know.  They get it.  They understand what we are talking about.  And, with sons, they are not about to let you know they know what you’re saying until they can strategically use it against you.  They are not inquisitive about the travails of life.  They do not ask for guidance.  At least my kids don’t.  Not until the road is dark and they cannot find a light to show them the way will they reach out, arms outspread, and say “Mommy, help me.”  My son, already an inch taller than me, stands tall and proud and locks it all up inside.  Then, every now and again, perhaps because he is slumped down in the car seat and not on the top of his game at the moment, he will exhale and a little gem will come slipping out.  Sometimes I get a little periscope to see inside and catch a little glimpse of that maturing mind.

I learn from my children every single day.  They show me what it is like to be happy and fulfilled young people.  Their lives are not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, and I die a little bit inside every time I see another piece of their innocence lost.  I struggle with not solving their problems and letting them learn and figure out how to navigate the increasingly challenging waters of life.  Yet, they teach me how to love and be loved.  They remind me why I get up every day.  They fill my heart with love and then have the capability of breaking it, with a sneer, a disapproving glance or the infamous eye roll.

This morning?  Not a word.  Some groans and a hasty goodbye when it was time for him to get out of the car.  But, you know what?  I’ll take it.

MARRIAGE


marriage“A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.” – Unknown

My husband came home from work today, after hanging out with some guys at the bar to watch the Masters, and said “I think we are becoming a minority.” Knowing my husband as I do, I could have gone in so many different directions with that comment. I looked quizzically at him and, as has happened hundreds of times in the 21 years we have been together, he realized I had no idea what he was referring to. “It seems like we are the only ones left married,” he said smirking. I laughed, knowing he was being facetious but I also stopped for a second and took in a deep breath. He is right. Maybe it’s because of our age, maybe it’s because of where we live, maybe it’s because of our circle of friends and acquaintances but, whatever the reason, it seems like every day we learn of more and more couples splitting up. Today he learned about yet another and, as is always the case, it sends chills down your spine. You can’t help but wonder if one day it will be you. I cannot deny that there have been moments – more than I care to admit – that I wondered if our marriage would survive.

I entered into marriage completely clueless. I had no role models. I had no reference point. Frankly, I had no interest in getting married. I had determined, at a pretty young age, that I wanted to have a fantastic career and would not submit to giving up my dreams for any man. And, I certainly did not want to have kids. Sure, I was a feminist. I was also broken from all that I had experienced in my childhood that I couldn’t even imagine a reality where I could be happily married. By the time I was in college, my mother had been married and divorced 3 times and was on her way to her fourth. My father had 2 under his belt and my sister, 14 years my senior, had just split up with her husband. She would go on to marry 2 more times. I wanted nothing to do with all this. I was not interested in participating in this ritual that seemingly always had an unhappy ending.

I was a serial dater after I got out of college. I would meet guys, date them, break up, find another, date them, break up, find another and the cycle went on and on. Nobody lasted more than weeks or maybe a few months and the relationships never went very deep. I had so much intimacy with all of my gay boyfriends that I never felt needy in that way. If it were not for sex, I would have been content to hang with my gay posse forever, collect some cats and become a living, breathing stereotype. I simply did not see a pathway that would ever lead me to wedded bliss. I had a great career, was starting to make some money and had, what I believed to be, a relatively glamorous life. I worked for a major movie studio optioning books for movies so I spent my evenings going to plays, movie premieres, parties, fancy dinners – all surrounded by the largest group of gay men imaginable. I guess, perhaps one of the reasons I could not see the pathway was because there were not very many suitable candidates crossing my lane.

I met my husband when I was 24. When I think about it now, I realize how I was still an emotional amoeba. I simply knew nothing about the world yet I had lived what felt like 5 lifetimes sorting through the turmoil of my family’s drama. We met as friends – he and I were both dating other people (he was living with someone!) so there was no pressure on the relationship. He seemed like a nice enough guy and, much to my amazement, I found myself quickly intrigued by him. The relationship became romantic very quickly and, after we sorted out our other conflicts, we started dating for real. Both of us being somewhat impulsive, dating lasted about two minutes before we fell remarkably, passionately, overwhelmingly in love. He was my soulmate. I could not imagine how I could spend one minute away from him, which was extraordinarily difficult since he lived 3000 miles away on the other side of the country. We managed to find ways to see each other several times a month and each visit was filled with anticipation – heart-racing, soulful expectation. And every goodbye was marked with tears, sometimes painful and gut-wrenching, because we could not imagine how we would be able to fill our lungs with oxygen without the other to move the diaphragm. We so quickly became a symbiotic unit and every thought I ever had about not wanting to marry went out the window like a paper floating away in a brisk March wind. My fears or uncertainty about how I could sustain a relationship seemed foolish and immature. Here I was madly in love and all I could think about, even at the tender age of 25, was how fast I could begin my life as his wife.

We got engaged in less than 6 months and just a little more than 2 years after we met, we walked down the aisle in a lovely spring wedding and began a whole new chapter in our lives. We set out to right the wrongs of our parents. We vowed to do it differently. We committed to break the cycle. We blindly, ignorantly, whimsically set out on what seemed like a perfectly paved pathway together.

Next month will be 19 years since that lovely spring wedding. 19 years – nearly two decades! In contrast, his parents’ marriage lasted 13 years, my parents stuck it out for 15 before they separated, my sister’s ended at year 14. There was a moment, several years ago, that we realized that we had hit some magical milestone in our family. We were officially the longest married couple. We made a toast. And returned to our blissfully banal life. We have expanded our symbiotic union by two with sons that keep us grounded and focused and remind us why we decided to enter this extremely challenging and complex obstacle course.

In 19 years we have had more than our share of fights and far too many moments, through tears, that we each gritted our teeth and questioned our beliefs. That perfectly paved pathway has revealed many cracks, uprooted roots that have pushed up the concrete and we have tripped and fallen many, many times. We have been challenged to find the intoxicating love that left us in tears when we could not be together every moment of the day. Now the tears were rage-filled and that love was nowhere to be found. Well, actually, it was buried beneath piles and piles of hurt feelings, unkind words, bad choices, anger, resentment and all the wonderful things that are often hallmarks of long-term relationships riddled with financial woes, exhaustion from child rearing and general disappointments that life did not turn out to have the fairy tale ending you dreamt of. For some couples that is where it all goes awry. For many, the challenges become too untenable and the relationship dissolves. For us, we had many sleepless nights, raging battles and days where we could barely look at each other because we loathed the sight of the other but we pushed through. Perhaps the fear of splitting up was more overwhelming than the notion of trying to tolerate each other another day, but we persevered. Despite our efforts to hold it together, I was certain we were doomed. Everyone around us seemed so happy. Their marriages looked so healthy. Everyone seemed to be having sex ALL THE TIME while I couldn’t muster the energy to even think about it most of the time. Everyone appeared to be blissfully in love, even after the trials of marriage had weathered their bond. They all seemed to have a healthier, stronger, more powerful attachment and I didn’t see how my marriage could ever compare.

The joke was on me, of course. Sure, some couples seem to have the good fortune of peaceful and loving relationships and personalities that are not like firecrackers with short fuses and a lit match. Many couples, however, put on a good show when everyone is looking in order to make the pain of their own unhappiness less visible in hopes that it will make their misery more manageable. They sweep it under the rug and put on a good face, hoping no one will notice, existing in silent desperation. For me, I had to learn to stop looking around for comps and spend more time looking at my own relationship and understanding what it needed to work properly. When I searched my soul, I knew I loved my husband on the deepest level and could not imagine a life without him. I needed to focus in on that and stop worrying about the window dressing. None of that shit mattered.

As I watched so many friends delight in the sparkle of new relationships after their marriages ended and they were reborn into these new loves, I had to dig deep to find a way to reconnect with the man who changed my life and brought peace to a war-torn girl. I doubted, I questioned, I ached, I cried, I searched, I begged for mercy. And then I fell in love all over again. This time, I fell in love with the old pair of shoes lying in the back of the closet that I had forgotten were hiding out, stuffed underneath some boxes of new shoes that were so shiny and inviting. I slipped into those shoes and they felt warm and comfortable, and my feet knew exactly how to mold themselves into the leather. They were perfectly suited for me. I exhaled and I opened my eyes wide to find that nothing ever changed between my husband and me. We still loved each other deeply – in fact, we were much more in love than we had ever been but we had lost our way. We fell victim to the complications of life. We stopped paying attention, took our eyes off the road as the car careened into the woods. It was a bit dented but still ran pretty well and just needed someone to get behind the wheel and steer it onto a new road.

I love my husband more today than I ever could have imagined that pretty spring day 19 years ago. I look into the eyes I have stared into millions of times and I see our lifetime together. Soon we will be together longer than we have not. Now we fit together like two puzzle pieces that slide together so easily. There were days we had to shove ourselves together, taking a second look to see if, in fact, we were the right pair of pieces but, now, it is easier. Sure, we still take each other for granted at times and we still have trouble finding time and energy to have quiet intimate moments but I know, without any uncertainty, that there is no one else I would travel the road of life with. We are a real story, a 3-dimensional, full-color, reality of married life. We are imperfect, we hurt each other, we make mistakes. And, we love each other with everything we have. And we fall in love over and over again.