Tuesday, February 14, 2017

“We-ness” and the Common Enemy

Relationships are strengthened by alliance. The us-against-them challenges create camaraderie and reassure us that we’ve got each other’s backs. Tension mounts when our partner offers excuses or explanations for the entity that’s causing us grief. If we have a frustrating call with customer service and regale our partner with the awfulness of that experience, we’re not looking to be talked into having compassion and understanding for the agent on the phone. We want our ally, our friend, to stand by our side and agree with how awful that must’ve been and empathize with how difficult it is to keep cool in those types of conversations. We want understanding, validation, reassurance that we are still likable, loveable, and most of all connected because those types of experiences usually make us feel decidedly unconnected and our reactions sometimes cause us to doubt whether we are in fact the “good person” we aspire to be and whether we can in fact handle the things in life that we have to face. We look to our partner for grace, forgiveness, absolution, and encouragement.
We might later be able to hear strategies for future improvement, might even actually seek out advice. We might find ourselves, if we’ve been comforted and believe it’s safe, trusting our partner enough to admit that we didn’t behave quite as well as we’d have liked and the other person maybe wasn’t as bad as we portrayed. We might even come to the point of acknowledging that our partner seems to have a knack for handling those kinds of situations and recognizing that they rarely have a negative experience with customer service calls. Out of that, we could end up asking for their secret sauce for keeping those types of conversations calm and productive, or come to some sort of agreement that, because those situations are so easy for them, from now on they’re going to take the lead on all customer service calls and we’ll pick up the slack in some area that’s easier for us to handle, like emptying the kitty litter box (just as an example).
What happens when the challenging situation, the other party with whom we’ve had the difficult interaction, is a child? In traditional marriages, that may be one of the perks of parenthood – to have the freedom to occasionally align together as a couple against the tiny mendicant who at times seems to be insatiable in saying, “I want, I want, I want . . .” They can sigh in exhaustion together, laugh in frustration, and be wistful in how fleeting they know this moment will be, all at the same time. It’s less likely that either of them will doubt the other’s endurance as a parent, happiness that the child is in their lives, or generosity when the reasonable and necessary “no” is occasionally given. The best and strongest times in the patriotism of a country is often in a time of war, a time of conflict with a common enemy where the citizens bond in their allegiance to a common mission and vision – to preserve the union and win the war (note that it’s not always necessary to utterly destroy the enemy to achieve that). Parents in traditional marriages can cling to each other in the midst of a child’s unappealing behavior and say, “Let’s raise this baby right so she grows up to be a decent person who we like being around!”
Couples bringing children into a marriage, rather than creating children out of their marriage, suffer systemic insecurity and an inevitable barrier to the experience of “we-ness.” Colluding in mockery of the exes is a decadent pleasure couples can indulge in for the we versus a common enemy fix. In first marriages, that ex is usually just a girlfriend or a boyfriend – the dumper or dumpee. But in “blended families,” even that indulgence is tainted because the ex cannot be wholly bad. He or she is the father or mother of the children, who must be wholly good, so the guilty pleasure of commiserating about what an annoying wench or angry a$$ the ex is, gets clouded and suppressed – it can’t be done around the children and it makes each of you feel a little sick inside because those beasts are part of the children and therefore the easy black and whiteness of it, the simplicity of otherness, is clouded and our fantasy of us against the world has to be melded with realism. What a downer.
Even worse, when children frustrate the partner who isn’t their birth parent, to whom can that partner turn for empathy, understanding, and relief? Often, if the partner looks to their spouse, their source of “we-ness,” instead of finding an ally for themselves against a common enemy, they find a pre-existing us that consists of the parent and child. An “us” alliance that appears, in this moment, to be stronger than the marriage we and, by default, positions the partner who most needs reassurance as their common enemy. All the fun and delight of the secret society of marriage, the rituals of their club, and the truths or dares they’ve shared during nights of slumber parties take a step down in value and immediately feel outdated and overblown. The partner stands there, feeling foolish, reaching out for the special handshake and finding their spouse’s hand already taken by that mendicant. Suddenly displaced, their fear of being an outsider is confirmed, their stature diminished, their foundation shaken. The one solid they thought they had, the exclusive deal they believed they’d made, turns out instead to be a tertiary alliance at best. Available for many situations, most in fact, just not this. A prior allegiance exists, a pact to which they were not a party and a treaty to which they are subordinate.
Do you know that sinking feeling? It’s sort of a mix of shame and powerlessness. Foolishness mixed in at thinking you had this close-knit tie of the first order, equal in allegiance to one another. And then you discover, or are reminded, oh yes, this one, this is off-limits sometimes. It was a mistake to look for support here, to look for understanding vis a vis this situation. In fact, I’ve been misunderstood, have in fact significantly downgraded myself because I’m now seen as attacking the primary. From an American perspective, it’s perhaps akin to a US alliance with Japan. Sturdy friends until Japan turns against the United Kingdom and all of a sudden Japan is going to find swift and sure distance established between themselves and the US; America’s first and foremost alliance is always going to be with Great Britain.
In the personal realm, there’s a backing away, there’s an itemization of the things that YOU do – you, other than; you, not us; you, not we. Where I thought I was relating from a shared perspective and where I believed my words and feelings would be placed in a context of commiseration and, oh yes, I’ve been there too and we can get through this together, it becomes rather a stiffening. There’s a comparison, a reasoning, an explanation, a talking down of the frustration, a now really, you shouldn’t be so upset, understand your position, they’re just a child, really, you’re an adult, don’t you realize how hard this is for them?
HOW HARD THIS IS FOR THEM?!? Good God, yes, I realize that, every day. How hard this – how hard I am for them to live with. How tough it is to be a kid. How AWFUL it is to be a kid in this situation. I WAS a kid in this situation. At this moment, however, that is hardly my point, my friend – aren’t you my friend? I was in fact coming to you for comfort, for solace, for relief and compassion. For a respite from having to be gracious and understanding, and oh, so adult because sometimes I just get tired of it. Sometimes I’m not very good at it.
Sometimes happens for EVERY PARENT, but only SOME parents are allowed to express it. Only some parents can admit to their spouse, without their spouse being put in the position of having the hair stand up on the back of their neck and a deep guttural growl murmur in their throat as instinct senses an adversary against their child. They would lay down their life and die for their child. They would kill for their child and now this entity, this being, who dares express fatigue or occasional displeasure with the state of the bathroom, the piled-up garbage, the dirty dishes in the sink, the belongings strewn throughout the house, the dried boogers stuck to the new chair, is a threat and the behavior of the child matters not. The behavior of the child, even if acknowledged, is irrelevant. You HAVE TO understand what they’re going through.
I HAVE TO, do I? I DO understand, which is part of what makes the frustration so hard to bear, because it’s laced with guilt and shame and grief. It’s slathered in knowing that the situation will never be quite right, that no matter how much I love this child, it will never be enough, it will never count as truly real, it will never be certain, it will always be subject to doubt. And that in and of itself is utterly exhausting. Isolated from the source of love and energy of the partnership, how does one find the sustenance to go on, where does one turn for support if not to their spouse? It would be abject betrayal to turn outside the home because there is a “we” with the children – the whole reason the behavior can lead to a need to vent is because those children are a part of our lives, because we spend time thinking about them, caring for them, providing for them, figuring out how better to love them and knowing we still will fail.
But instead of being able to commiserate in failure, that failure is punished further by isolation, by a removal from the innermost circle by virtue of sensing the tension that rises, the strain in the face of oh here we go again, from the true parent who is themselves in a most impossible situation of what they perceive and experience as divided loyalty. How can they justify in their minds the idea of them being a good parent if they allow such a personal complaint against their child? They can agree with their spouse lightly and occasionally, but if they do it too often or too enthusiastically then they’ve betrayed their primal loyalty, they’ve abandoned their cubs and this, perhaps untrustworthy, spouse might do harm. There must be some guard that’s kept up.
In traditional marriages, the couple can actually join together and put that guard up against the children (not that all do), but is it ever possible, or even wise, for spouses who didn’t birth the children together to wholly trust and defend one another at all costs and against any enemy, perceived or real, even if it’s a child? And if, when push comes to shove as they say, the partner believes they must align with their children to honor their duty as a parent and abandon their partner and the marriage because they’re an adult and are supposed to be able to handle themselves, is there enough “we-ness” left to hold onto? For the partner who’s not the birth parent, it is the not knowing – the stepping out over the abyss where you thought your partner had lain a plank for you and finding that they pulled it out and gave it to someone else, that mendicant, just as you were about to cross. But all you wanted them to do was let you get to the other side and then the two of you would have held out the plank to make a way for the child you love, together.
In some ways, the togetherness of marriage weakens us. Where someone might be quite strong enough on their own, once they become interdependent, once they give up their separate self to join in marriage, is there enough left to hold their own and stay together – especially if they’re each having to hold their own against the other? We say leave and cleave about adults disengaging from their parents to firmly attach to their spouse, but we can’t really say that for our children who are dependent on us. And perhaps it’s not the right phrasing or comparison, because it really ought to be that by cleaving together we are able to stay saner and be more stable and be a force of two together for our little ones, whether they are being good or bad.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Thanks for All of It

It’s been some time now that I’ve associated the idea of midlife crisis with the end of the “I can be anything and do anything” opportunities and optimism of younger years when most everything in life is still at least a theoretical possibility.
I now reflect that a contributing factor to whatever sort of midlife ennui is experienced may also be associated with the unnerving awareness that the morning when I wake up and sense I am fully equipped to handle whatever this day brings may not come.
Only a decade ago, I was aspirational that I could follow a plan and get things in order based on an underlying paradigm that there was a certain age at which, if one tried hard enough, one arrived at the place of knowing how life worked. Even five years ago, I still believed that I could learn enough, improve enough, practice enough to really get the hang of living life and at least master most of the basics – leaving myself open, of course, for new adventures. The idea that I would someday arrive at a place where I no longer feared that the day might prove too much for me was plausible.
Midlife – crisis or no – in my life is a stretch where time turns and twists, managing to warp hours as I used to know them. A period of five years, which as a child was an entire lifetime, can pass like a month and a year can happen in a week. I look at Little One, our youngest, and expect to see a child that never existed – a combination of her at ages three, seven and ten, and get startled by her height, mature voice and demeanor, and the stunning fact that she is nearly 13.
The midlife celebration, which asserts that the 40s are fabulous (and they are) may follow a honorable adios to getting it all together. There’s freedom in recognizing I will never know enough or do enough to be fully prepared for even my regular and habitual circumstances. If I’m not going to work or learn my way to the place where I’ve got it down, where I’m fully what I thought “adult” would be, then what relief.
I may continue for the rest of my days to awake with some doubt about my capacity to do what needs to be done. Allowing that possibility, I’m suddenly released from striving for an illusory achievement. There’s room to shift to simply alright, maybe going so far as aight. Instead of hoping for some distant future when I’m really grown-up and have this life down, I’m at liberty to keep stumbling along and, if I really want to, stressing out. I can consider a work project, or deal with a relationship issue, welcome my old friend inadequacy and say “Hey, I guess we’re doing this together so we may as well have fun and get on with it.” I’m free to say “Thanks for all of it,” whatever each day brings and however prepared I am for it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

We Need More Words for Snow

It’s one of those grade school lessons – the Eskimos have 50 words for snow because it’s a central part of their landscape and because it comes in so many variations and forms. We continental folk see snow, and hail and sleet, but those are different. Really, if it’s white and it floats from the sky when it’s cold, we call it snow.
We need more words for mother. The biological parties to the family of origin are a male and female, father and mother. Relationally, that is the most familiar form. But we know by now that many, many children experience other forms of parenting – either in addition to or in place of the biological dad and mom. Our vocabulary remains severely limited in describing and capturing the many varieties of parenting. We add a prefix to the words mother and father but the initial connotation is not that of a close and loving relationship, it’s more scary person than safe parent.
Somehow we understand the language labeling children and grandparents, aunts and uncles, to encompass multiples, each of whom is likely loved, but we haven’t expanded the definition of dad or mom to allow for more than one. If, as a stepmom, I identify myself as my kids’ mom, it feels like I’m somehow usurping or displacing their other mom – their first mom, the one who gave them birth.
Am I a real mom or not? I feel like a real parent. If I were to take an assessment test and check off the boxes that diagnose parenting, a sufficient number would be marked to qualify me. Sometimes it’s acceptable for me to say I’m a mom – when it’s just easier than explaining the whole situation or when it’s Mother’s Day and my husband and I are someplace public where they want all the moms to stand up for applause and appreciation, and he urges me to stand up and be recognized. (This experience used to invariably induce involuntary gagging – the calling out, not his encouragement – but I’ve learned to control the reflex, for the most part, although I do still fear that a spotlight will zoom in on me and an alarm sound as the loudspeaker blares, “IMPOSTER! We’ve got an imposter! Get her out of here!”)
I’m snow, I’m just a slightly different form of snow and there’s not yet a good word for me. I’m not the snow piled up on the ground that we see all around. I don’t think anyone would describe me as softly falling snow – there’s not much soft about me and when I fall, it’s hard and fast. Maybe I’m snow that’s slightly icy and good to drive a sled, or a more crystalline form of snow – the kind that you don’t recognize the texture of until you scoop up a handful to make a snowball and find it doesn’t pack together very well. Whatever I am, I’m not what people expect when they hear the label mom because I didn’t carry my kids in my uterus and I haven’t been with them from the beginning. And they have a mom.
I sometimes get labeled a “Bonus Mom” – which is cute, and friendly and sort of a sweet way to attempt to deal with this vocabulary problem. But it’s also somewhat dismissive and extraneous and a word you almost have to say with a fake smile because it’s oh so super extra special and everybody wants one! I really don’t have a solution, I just know I live in this awkward, in-between place at soccer games, graduations, on school emails, and introductions, and on Mother’s Day when I stand kind of part way up, keeping my knees slightly bent, my body turned to the side and my hand on the back of my chair, ready to sit back down quickly the moment I see a skeptical glance that tells me someone is going to pull the warning signal, setting off the “She’s not a real mom!” siren.

But, I love my children, we are in each other’s lives now as a family and that’s real – whatever you decide to call it.