The Marriage Counselor Broke Up With Us Last Night ….

We started seeing Jeremy just after the baby was born. We’d been married less than a year and the blended family, shared home, and unplanned pregnancy made both of us think marriage #2 was a pretty bad idea. (I’m not a really pleasant pregnant woman. I’m not great at relationships either way, but I am especially difficult when pregnant. The whole experience makes me very crabby.) Between a couple of crazy exes, a few trips to custody and child support court, and children we were each guilt parenting on our own, the whole thing was breaking down quickly. I started going to a MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) group at a large church close to our home and noticed they had a counseling department. Since Darren had already told me (a few times) he couldn’t care less if I moved out, and I usually retorted with a very mature “F*** off,” or some other equally classy phrase, I figured counseling couldn’t make things worse. Plus, the counseling department offered free visits with their counseling interns, so we didn’t even have to commit financially to the future success of our relationship. We just had to show up.

The first time we met Jeremy, it struck me how young he is. I wondered if he would have anything relevant to offer two people working their way out of a second marriage and parenting children closer to his age than we were.   It must have struck him how angry we were, and how close we were to going over the cliff. He asked to see us weekly, and we agreed.

During that first few months, we drove to counseling in silence, yelled at each other most of the way through the session, and left angry. Jeremy drew us pictures. He explained relationship psychology to us. Mostly, however, he heard us. He picked up on each of our deepest issues and began to very gently poke at the injuries we were hiding. He made us face each other and say things we didn’t know how to say before. We took turns cradling our infant and talking about our families, our parents, our first marriages, and mostly, our kids. We cried (that was mostly me) and struggled. We moved a little forward and a lot back, but nobody moved out.

After a few months, Jeremy started celebrating our progress, and we believed because he did. We left counseling a few times holding hands, tightly. I started to believe that a man could actually see me, see all that I am, and not leave.   Darren started to believe a woman could actually love him, and not just need him.

Jeremy graduated from his counseling program and moved out of the church. We followed him. We took breaks from counseling, fell apart, and stumbled back in to his office, hearts bleeding. We began to make more forward progress. We spent longer periods of time really loving each other. Our kids resisted because as we got stronger, we guilt parented less, and our expectations of them rose. We fought, and learned to work through it without quitting. Jeremy was there every time, putting our pieces back together and cheering our success.

We went from seeing Jeremy weekly, to bi-weekly, to monthly, and back, as our ability to hold it together grew and weakened in cycles. For the past few months we’ve had monthly visits where we mostly refined communication skills. We narrowed down our biggest issues and talked about how solid we are, how far we’ve come.

Last night during one of those sessions, I confessed that I still save touchy issues for our meetings with Jeremy. It’s become my safe place. It’s where I can bring up things that are weighing on my heart and know there won’t be any backlash. But we have to be able to have a two-person marriage, and I am clinging to this counselor because with him I don’t really have to figure out how to say things to my husband. Jeremy does it for me.

Once again, our counselor saw right through us. We are coming up on a stressful circumstance, a situation that has been a trigger for us in the past, and I wanted to schedule another appointment during that time because I am afraid to go it alone with Darren. Jeremy refused to make an appointment. He told us that we could do it, and that we don’t need him. We can call if it doesn’t go well, but we have to try on our own.

I was filled with a deep sadness because I love our time with Jeremy. It’s where we grow. It’s so wonderful to sit with someone who knows us so well and supports us so wholly.  

Jeremy’s send off was bittersweet. We did come from such a rough place with so little hope. Because of our meetings with Jeremy, I have a marriage. For the first time in my life, I trust a man, I know deep and lifelong love, I feel secure in my home. I felt panicked and unable to say goodbye. “Thank you” seems like so mediocre a statement when you’re saying goodbye to someone who saved your life. Jeremy said he thinks we won’t call him. He said he might see us at the grocery store sometime. I hugged him on my way out, and held my husband’s hand tightly on the way to the car.

I hope that we don’t need to call Jeremy. I hope that he’s right about us. I believe it too, but I will miss our time in the office of the man who saved us.

Getting Cleaner

If you thought there was a chance that a product you were putting on your body could harm you, even cause your chances of developing cancer or Alzheimer’s disease to rise, would you stop using that product? If the FDA, Mayo Clinic, and web.md were all evasive about the connection, and resource sites like http://www.cancer.gov report inconclusive findings, stating there are, “conflicting results, additional research is needed to investigate this relationship and other factors that may be involved,” would you change your personal habits? Or would you go on your comfortable merry way, avoiding the mess, and hoping for the best?

 

I was the once the type to go on my merry way. I like being clean, smelling good (or at least attempting to,) and being comfortable. I like things in brightly wrapped packages that behave the way they are supposed to. I like knowing what to expect. And then, in October of 2011, my mother slipped into a coma after a long battle with a skin infection and was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s encephalopathy. I didn’t know what that meant and apparently most Denver doctors didn’t know either. A well-known neurosurgeon was called in, and in order to get information out of him, my sister and I had to Google up some questions so that he wouldn’t brush us off. It boils down to untreated hypothyroidism, coupled with an autoimmune disorder. And, good news, it seems to be more common among related females. So my sister and I got tested for Hashimoto’s disease and both came up positive. This was bad news for me, as I was already struggling with recovering from a third pregnancy that left me weak, overweight, and lethargic.

 

I went to see my doctor, who did not know anything about the disease. She was quick to write a thyroid prescription and hesitant to talk about other treatments. I saw a homeopathic doctor and a nutritionist, who both talked about food allergies, specifically to wheat and sugar.   Both also wanted to see me for more testing and consultations, but as the price tag approached $1000 I began to wonder if it were possible to get comprehensive medical advice from an experienced physician. I finally found a doctor who knew immediately what Hashimoto’s was. She put me on a no wheat, no sugar diet and changed my prescription. After a few months I was feeling better but not great.

 

I started asking more questions of friends and family as to how they stay healthy. The problem with asking for opinions is that you get them. And apparently, depending on whom you ask, everything causes cancer. Everything. Cell phones, electric cars, genetically modified soybeans, skittles, Coke, and bologna. No matter what you cut out of your life, there will always be something left that will cause cancer.  So you have to choose the things that work for you, and, well, hope for the best.

 

My sister was on her own journey while I was on mine. We have very different ideas about what is healthy and what is not, we are the perfect example of how two women of similar age with a similar diagnosis can take their own path toward health. I tried to be supportive of her choices but maintained strong opinions of my own. So, when she called and told me she gave up deodorant cold turkey, I was appalled, but kept silent. I considered disowning her, or at least avoiding any in person contact. I barely heard her tirade about the toxic chemicals in commercial deodorant and their relationship with breast cancer. I was too busy wondering if my husband would ever let her come over to our house again. After the initial shock, however, I began doing a little research of my own. What I found out caused me to jump on the chemical free bandwagon, although I did not make the jump deodorant free.

 

The Internet is full of personal accounts and testimonies about the health effects of chemicals in our beauty products. One belief that is gaining credibility among women is the possible link between antiperspirant/ deodorant use and the risk of breast cancer, due to the application of these products so close to breast tissue. Another belief circulating online is that exposure to aluminum found in antiperspirants may be linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, since aluminum affects the way the brain functions. However, our most trusted medical resources do not corroborate these findings. The politics that underlie the medical information we have access to are complicated and hotly debated, but a case can be made that pharmaceutical dollars are behind most of these resources. I decided to make my own assumptions.

 

Unless you are a chemist, you will find few familiar words on your average lotion, shampoo, or deodorant container.   The only word I recognize on my shampoo bottle is “water.”   This is followed by ingredients such as Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate, Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate, and Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, to name a few. My deodorant lists words I recognize (but don’t want to apply to my skin,) such as alcohol and hydrogenated castor oil. And then there are more words I can barely type into Google, much less pronounce, such as Cyclopentasiloxane and Dimethicone. As a non-scientist, it is impossible for me to determine, in the shampoo aisle at Target, whether or not any of these substances might be harmful to me. The warning labels on each product advise that “irritation” may occur. It is an easier logical jump for me that over exposure to chemicals may be worth avoiding, than that the FDA is perfect in its advice to the public. I wanted to go more “natural,” but am far too socially insecure to give up something like deodorant. I am not proud to say it, but I would honestly rather expose myself to cancer than have my husband’s coworkers avoid sitting next to me because of the smell.

 

I kept my chemical laden bath products and began to research alternatives. Online, I found an entire community of women (mostly mothers) who collaborated on advice in what is apparently referred to as “clean” or “sustainable” living. The first recipe I tried was for homemade deodorant, which is made with equal parts baking soda and arrowroot powder, and then added coconut oil until a creamy consistency is met. After a few days, my deodorant went into the trash. Previous to this discovery, I was a two different kinds, three times a day, always with a stick in the purse kind of deodorant user. Now, I apply the homemade version once a day. It even lasts through swimming. And I don’t smell. Trust me, I checked.

 

With this success came homemade shampoo, body soap, face wash, lotion, toothpaste, bug spray, and lip balm.   Good thing we have two sinks, because my husband can’t negotiate all of the jars and bottles around mine to unplug the drain. I’ve spent evenings at our dinner table, stirring mixtures of coconut and almond oils, various essential oils, mineral water, and Shea butter. I have refined the recipes in an effort to bring the consistency and feel of these homemade products closer to what I am used to from their commercial counterparts. My skin and hair are healthy, I am mosquito bite free, and I smell like coconuts. These benefits are worth the effort, but I have had to give up some of the convenience of store bought products. My deodorant is in a glass jar with a consistency that varies based on room temperature.   The water in my lotion separates out occasionally, and won’t pump out of a bottle. I have to dispense my homemade shampoo out of a spray bottle because it has too thin a consistency to pour onto my hands the way my old shampoo does. Despite these inconveniences, I am committed to walking down this path toward a more natural and inexpensive beauty regimen. If I’m wrong about the health effects of commercial products, I will save money and have a hobby. If I’m right, I will avoid some of the consequences my mother has experienced in aging. Either way, I am proof that cleaner and more sustainable living can be accomplished by anyone with a healthy curiosity and Internet access.

Father’s Day

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           I stood at the kitchen counter, knife in hand, contemplating the best way to chop bell peppers for kabobs. My eyes drifted to the sliding glass door and I gazed outside at my husband, who was filling his new Traeger grill with wood pellets. The grill is used, my dad gave it to us last weekend because it attracted bears to his mountain home. We don’t have many bears here in the suburbs so we accepted the hand me down happily.

         As I watched my husband fiddle with the grill in preparation for our Father’s Day barbeque, I thought about how complicated parenthood can be. We were having a classic Father’s Day by all outward appearances. We got up and took our kids to church. My in-laws would arrive shortly and we would sit outside and share food and conversation. My toddler gave his dad a drawing of an airplane (it looks like a spider to me.) My daughter gave him a new wallet, which he really needed. That’s where the classic Father’s Day stops for us, because we are a blended family and things are complicated for blended families. My oldest stepson is stationed in Florida with the US Navy, and we don’t know when he will be home again. My youngest stepson is with his mother for summer visitation. My daughter is grumpy because she’s here with us, instead of with her dad. My son Alex is with his dad, where he should be, but I still feel the sting of missing him.   Our toddler is very mommy needy right now and doesn’t care if it’s Father’s Day. He wants mama. My husband wiped his eyes, and I don’t think it was because of the smoke billowing out of the grill. We are missing three of our boys and a family celebration doesn’t feel quite right without them.

         My father parented with his heart. If I got a bad grade, he would sit with me and talk about how he wanted to be a scientist but didn’t work hard enough in college, so he ended up a banker. My father parented with his time. He showed up to everything I did. Every horrible piano recital, violin concert, track meet, and last in the district, always losing, painfully clumsy soccer game. He took me backpacking, which I didn’t fully appreciate until years later. My father parented with his resources. He drove the same truck for twenty years. He taught me to delay gratification and work hard. He saved and was never frivolous with money. However, if I wanted something, he would find a way for me to have it. He sent me to summer camp and bought me a used car. I never doubted I was loved, but when my father divorced my mom, something in me came apart. I spent most of my life trying to figure out how to marry a good man who would not leave.

         My husband struggles with the notion of fatherhood. He struggles with how to reward, when to discipline, when to stand aside, and when to jump in. He struggles with feelings of failure. He doesn’t know how incredible he is. He doesn’t know that he is the answer to all of my prayers. He doesn’t know that these little half formed personalities that fill our home are watching him every day. They watch him work 12-hour days to provide for us. They watch him show up at all of their events and activities. They watch him as he takes them camping, hiking, or just to throw a ball around in the back yard. They watch him fix a broken pipe, lay sod, trim the trees, and repair the backyard slide. They watch him but they don’t see him struggle. They just see him being dad.

         Today, on Father’s Day, he is doing exactly what a father should do. He is feeding his family. He is honoring his own father. He is loving a grumpy step-daughter, who wants to be somewhere else, even while he is desperately missing his boys. He is changing poopy diapers, taking out the trash, and pouring wine for his guests. I realize, watching him through the glass, he is the perfect kind of father for our messy, his-mine-and-ours blended family.  He stops fiddling with the grill and slides open the door. Our eyes meet and I know I’ve found my way home.

Socially Awkward

“Mom, they’re so socially awkward.” My 13-year-old daughter pointed toward the back seat, where my 10-year-old son and a boy from his class sat silently. Other than greeting each other, Alex and Jacob hadn’t said much. We had a 30 minute drive downtown to meet friends for lunch and neither of the boys looked excited to go.

 

I worry about Alex’s social life more than my other children. My 13-year-old daughter is beautiful, funny, well spoken, and well liked. She has so many girlfriends I can’t remember half their names when they come to our house. My two-year-old son is wild and free. If I don’t play when he wants me to play he begins an assault of pleading, pulling, and climbing on me until I relent.   His peers will befriend him or fear him.

 

Alex, on the other hand, is the sweet shy one.   He was speech delayed due to a cleft lip and has struggled with communication. He likes video games and isn’t terribly coordinated, so he doesn’t play sports. Despite my worries, he has always developed a few close friends in every grade. However, these boys relate differently than we girls are used to. They are as awkward as teens on a first date, often each staring out their own windows, not talking at all.

 

I took a deep breath and looked over at my daughter. She was turned as far around as she could be, straining against the seatbelt. She looked cross, as if their lack of conversation was an interference in her universe. I felt her strain, wanting to reach into the backseat and start a conversation, wanting Alex to feel a deep connection with his friend, wanting to see evidence of that connection so I could feel better. But I can’t change who he is and I can’t dictate his relationships. He has to learn his way through friendship on his own. I can take excursions and invite boys I think he will get along with, but I can’t control how it all turns out.

 

I patted my daughter on the leg and smiled. “They’ll be fine.” I whispered to her. “Just leave them alone.”

 

By the time we loaded up to go home, both boys were laughing hysterically. Alex said something Jacob found funny and they laughed about it most of the way home. They’re boys, so very foreign to me, but they really will be fine.

 

In three weeks, Alex will be going to his first overnight church camp. My heart clenches up when I think about it, but he wants to go and deserves to go no matter how much I don’t want to let go. And I know in the end, he will be fine.

Reflections on Mother’s Day

I’ve been reading online postings and articles on motherhood all week. One article was titled, “How not to be disappointed on Mother’s Day.” Another was a blog post from a high school friend of mine. All of the articles carried a similar theme. Motherhood is a calling, a sacrifice, a labor of love. Children, husbands, and elderly mothers don’t turn perfect on Mother’s Day. It is a celebration of what we do all year, which means moody teenagers will still be moody and poopy toddlers will still be poopy. I have finally reached a place in my life where I am ready to appreciate the task of motherhood. I am grateful to be home raising my children and caring for my mom. I have a supportive and loving husband. I have a great house that I take pride in keeping clean for my family and our guests. I am still (slowly) working my way through school. I thought there would be no issues for me on Mother’s Day. I don’t expect bedside breakfast or a pile of presents. I just wanted to find a moment to celebrate each of my children today.

 

You see, motherhood is complicated for me. I am a mother, a stepmother, a daughter, and a stepdaughter. My oldest two children don’t come bursting into my room in the morning because it isn’t their dad who sleeps next to me. My youngest stepson has to begrudgingly celebrate Mother’s Day with me because his mother is too erratic to show up for him.   My mother is much sweeter to me now that she is afflicted with dementia. She has always been emotionally unavailable and completely impossible to please, but seems to have forgotten most of the ways in which I’ve disappointed her. My stepmother doesn’t talk to me very much. Our relationship crashed during my divorce and she holds a very long grudge.

 

Regardless of all of the complications, motherhood is my favorite thing. When I was a single mom, my door was always open to my children. They would often end up sleeping in my bed, after laying down together to tell stories about their day. We would draw pictures on each other’s backs, and this inevitably would lead to tickling. As a single mom, I could give them my time, but I was emotionally and financially depleted.

 

As a married mom, I have so many resources, both emotional and financial, to offer them. The cost is that they are no longer my sole focus. I have a husband and a toddler now, so they have to share me.

 

As a stepmom, I have to always balance my role. I have a teenager I didn’t know when he was a toddler. I didn’t see his first smile, his first step, his first tooth. I didn’t walk him in to kindergarten. I didn’t bandage his knees the first summer he decided to be a skater. Part of what makes a teenager tolerable is the sweet memories you have of their childhood, and I have none of these to go on. I can’t avoid guiding him, it is my job regardless of how I came to it. I am not conducting a popularity contest with any of my children, but I do have to work harder at extending grace as a stepmother.

 

This morning I was given gifts by all of our children. Perhaps the best reminder of the simple joy of motherhood was a list my 10 year old son made for me. This is what he wrote, on the card he made (spelling and capitalization were kept authentic):

 

10 ways I Love you.

You surprize me

You wake me up evry day

You buy me candy

You buy me toys

You buy me food

You buy me water

Your the best mom ever

You help me get ice water

You help me get muffins

You Love me

 

5 ways your great at being my mom.

Your the greatest

You love me

You have a great sence of humen.

You be great to evryone

You be great to me

 

 

How beautiful it is to see myself through the eyes of a 10 year old.   How easy it makes motherhood. He doesn’t know all of my sacrifices. He believes I love him because I give him food and water. He thinks I’m the greatest because I help him get ice water and muffins. How amazing is that?

 

Today wasn’t perfect. It’s snowing, and I am longing for sunshine and outdoor eating. My husband hurt my daughter’s feelings, which isn’t hard to do but is harder to take when I’m not the one involved. We took my mother to church and she escaped us to talk to one of the greeters, who looked terribly confused when we caught up with them. I got a very polite and distant text message from my stepmother. My husband struggled with the first Mother’s Day since his own mother’s death. But, there were great moments, including the list I received from my 10 year old. I made the teenagers laugh. We all watched a movie together. We went out for frozen yogurt and the baby threw m&ms at us. This is motherhood. It is messy and complicated, and is still my favorite thing.

 

So, happy Mother’s Day to all. Let the snow fall, the teenager’s mood swing, and the baby poop. Bring it all on. I love this beautiful mess.

Bat Shit Crazy Mortality

When you invite your mother to move into your home, you get to stare in the face of your own mortality, your own potential future, every day. Do you know what I see when I stare in that face?

 

Bat Shit Crazy.

 

My mother has dementia. This, on top of a natural unawareness of anyone but herself, creates double toddler situation for me. I have my two year old, who asks the same questions over and over, repeats himself, gets very demanding when he is hungry, does not like my explanations for things, and interrupts me with abandon if I’m doing anything other than feeding or entertaining him. I also have my mother, who asks the same questions over and over, repeats herself, gets very demanding when she is hungry, does not like my explanations for things, and interrupts me with abandon if I’m doing anything other than feeding or entertaining her.

 

Unfortunately for my mom, these tendencies are not quite as endearing on her. When my two-year-old scrunches up his face at me and throws his toy on the ground, I figure he is learning how to cope, and that self-centeredness and impatience he is showing will not be life long markers on his personality. When my mother scrunches up her face at me, throws her lunch away and stomps downstairs, the same hope for the future does not rise to my mind.  

 

My mother has always been relatively self-centered. She lost her parents young and was told that nothing was her fault, that she would always be a victim of that loss. No one has ever been able to make that up to her, as much as she has expected us to. We were all supposed to be so good and so giving to her because she didn’t have parents. She couldn’t understand why her adult daughters weren’t solely focused on her, since she certainly would have been focused on her mom, if she had one living.

 

The dementia adds a special twist to my mother’s personality. Sometimes it’s even a gift. My mother has always held on to her hurts, brewing up a victim stew to serve up at any moment. Because of the dementia, she doesn’t remember many of the things that used to make her so angry. She doesn’t remember that I fed her breakfast, but she also doesn’t remember that I took my baby and moved away from her 13 years ago either. So, fair trade.

 

So today I take my two toddlers to Walgreen’s for prescriptions and Sprouts for produce. Both will try to wander away in the parking lot. Both will need to be told to hurry along. Both will want to touch things in the grocery store they don’t need to touch. One of them will grow up and out of this stage. The other will be my toddler for the next several years, until Jesus takes her home.