A Decade on a Dock: Musings of a Single Mother before Marriage Part 1

on the dock, standing tall
on the dock, standing tall

 

This recent self portrait represents who I have often wanted the world to see when they look at me: heroic, larger than life, capable, confident, and self reliant for starters. My convoluted sense of who I believed I needed everyone to think I was started to take shape almost exactly a decade ago as my journey to becoming a parent, on my own, began.

I remember standing on the end of that very same dock asking the “Lady of the Lake” as I call her, if I was ready to become a parent on my own? I had come to this little cabin for a solo weekend in June 2004, with gobs of paperwork to complete to submit to the adoption agency the following week. I knew that this was the one place that I could listen truthfully to my own fears, and leave my doubts at the bottom of the lake if I decided to say yes. I had been coming here since I was seven.  It is my spiritual home.

I showed up at the lake with a little more than a change of clothes, a jar of instant coffee, and my favorite pen. In the plastic bag that I had bawled up in the bottom of my backpack was my secret: a full length fleece bear costume for an infant-size six to twelve months.  By the end of the night, I would be dancing around the cabin in front of the fireplace rocking my imaginary child back and forth. I had placed a towel inside the onesie to give it some heft. I wanted to know what that little body would feel like in my arms. I was intoxicated with the possibility.

Like Athena popping out of her father Zeus’s head in full armor and ready to go, my single mother persona emerged from the dock certain that I could prove to the world, I had what it took to be a stellar parent all by myself. I probably fell in love with my potential and my image of my single motherhood that night. I knew I was crazy to do this on my own.  I just didn’t know how crazy. I imagined that it would be hard, and expensive, and lonely, and confusing too. But I also believed that I had mothering and loving to give to a child in a fierce way. My determination and commitment to make the  transformation from single woman to single mother was in motion, and there was no turning back.

Each time a friend or parent seemed the least bit questioning of my decision to adopt, I would get bigger, not smaller. I would smile wide, and offer them a chance to come help out when the baby arrived. I put together the crib by myself, and bought a big freezer for all the food I had asked my friends to make for me when the time came. I interviewed day care centers, and pediatricians.  I read books, prayed, and sought out others who came before me. I had purpose. I was reinventing myself for a higher calling.  I was ready.

Becoming a mother was not something I did in partnership, like most do. Becoming a single mother meant that I didn’t need a partner. I convinced everyone, and especially me, that I was so capable, and so gigantic that I didn’t need a partner to do this. I had many close friends who made up our chosen family. At least three times a week friends arrived with meals, encouragement and open arms to hold Sammy while I got a shower, or a much needed run around the boulevard. As he grew, and our family grew to include Marcel my network grew too.  I was parenting, blogging, teaching full time, working out,  accepting interviews, and speaking engagements. I was all that.

Once, I had a friend tell me in secret from the other side of the playground; “my husband is worried that if I spend too much time with you, I’ll start to think I’d be better off on my own…” I had to keep myself from agreeing, because I really did think her husband was probably right, and I liked the guy a lot.  Daycare providers, teachers, doctors, parents, and coaches knew that I was flying solo, and that was just fine. With each successful milestone passed, I grew more and more into my role. So much so, that to an extent  I was not Sam’s mom, or Marcel’s mom, I was “Catherine the single mother who makes it look easy…”  I had a lot at stake at keeping up that image, but little to no understanding of  what I was letting go of in the process: the chance to open my heart to a loving romantic partnership.

Sure, I dated a few times in the last few years. I drew wonderful people towards me and the boys. But I had no business doing so. To say I wasn’t ready would be false. I was to busy celebrating my own daily accomplishments, and those of my kids. Every letter from the tooth fairy, or successful parent teacher conference and I deserved a gold star. I was amazing. Who could possibly add up.

Then I met Shrek.

Becoming an almost  married person,  I am discovering, is not something one can do alone. In the next few weeks, leading up to the wedding I am hoping to shed a little more light on just how complex and powerful, and yes radical an act it is for me to agree and want to be married. When we were at the lake a few weeks ago, Shrek called out from the grill where he was creating yet another magnificent feast for the boys and I; “Maybe you can be a married single mother?” To be continued…

Morning coffee delivery
Morning coffee delivery: Looking at you Shrek

And we’re live: The AARP Modern Family has arrived!

Shrek!
Shrek! (outtake)

 

 

AARP photo shoot.
AARP photo shoot final shot. Photo by Gregg Segal

The story, the video, the piece we have all been eagerly waiting for is finally here. For the entire online story please go right to the source! If you are a member of the AARP family (#46isthenew50) crack the magazine and see our story in print too.

 

 

 

Love Potion 101: Get out of Dodge for at least three days-ALONE

Falling at the falls
Falling at the falls

 

A week ago, Shrek and I went on an international adventure, alone, for three and half days. We dropped the boys off with Uncle and my father and his wife on a Thursday in Massachusetts and drove across the Canadian border the next morning.

We spent three days and two nights in Quebec City. We had not spent more then one night together alone, without any of our seven kids in the entire two and half years we have been together.

If you are trying to navigate the richly rewarding and intensely complex world of a blended family follow our lead and plan a get away trip as soon as you are able. If you have been with your honey since before the littles came onto the scene, I bet the same logic applies.

Ten reasons to leave the kids behind and get away together now:

1. Being alone in your own house (for even one night) without the kids in the next room allows you to feel like a grown up in your own home. How you spend that time is up to you. We chose the station on the radio, and didn’t have to worry if the music was too loud after 8:30pm. A cuddle on the couch was not at risk of being interrupted.

2. Planning a trip without one whit of consideration about what we do with the kids once we got there, meant we didn’t really have to plan a thing! I checked out a book about Canada from the library the day before we left, because I could. I haven’t allowed myself that kind of “ease” or lack of planning in a decade.

3. A six hour road trip can be leisurely. You can have NPR on, lingering uninterrupted adult conversation and no prepared snacks. It does not include fear of dead gadget batteries, DVD players malfunctioning, or sudden panic struck forays into unknown strip malls for a public bathroom because I HAVE TO PEE RIGHT NOW MOMMY!!!

4. The car stays clean.

5. When you pass through customs, there is not confusion about if the kids are your kids, or his kids, or someone else’s kids. There are no letters or birth certificates to provide on demand, or explanations of what a donor is or isn’t, or why there is no father named on the birth certificate of the one you adopted or birthed.

6. At the hotel, you actually get to choose to sleep in the same bed as your husband, fiance, or partner. You do not have to promise to sleep next to one kid on one day, hold hands with the other the next, or give them all your pillows, and leave all the lights on to make sure they can go to sleep.

7. You can eat whatever, and whenever you want. You can be the quiet table. You can wander slowly in the streets afterwords, and be the sweet couple in the window of the bar where the local blues musician is playing some deep and slow wrap your heart around these notes rift that is wafting onto the cobble stone street. You can look into your honey’s eyes for an extended period of time, and realize you had no idea they were that green.

8. When it is raining out, you can still hold hands and walk along the river for several hours in a frightfully American looking parka that could be mistaken for a tent, and compose an entire poem in your head because you have space remember it.

9. A museum does not have to have the word children in it anywhere to be on your list of possible destinations. You can stroll through a gallery in a museum and actively loathe the painting you see, and not need to explain that while the artist may have been trying their best, you do not actually have to agree that it is worthy of an entire wall. You can sit in the cafe and eat all of the cookie you bought for yourself, or share some with your honey. You can linger in front of one image for twenty minutes, and even come back to it, and not have to thank the guard for helping you find your missing child, or be horrified when she asks you to leave because playing tag in front of the Degas is forbidden. You can put your head on your sweetheart’s shoulder while he talks about why they like a print, and notice that they are kind of sharp in a way you hadn’t noticed before.

10. After almost four days of uninterrupted time with your partner, you remember the sixty-two original reasons you fell in love with them, and add at least seventy-three more. In a way it feels like I finally met the man I have been waiting to fall in love with for the last two and half years. Or, I finally recognized in myself, a woman who was ready to deepen and deeply trust in this relationship. But, for me, this had to happen independent of parenting.  I didn’t realize just how much more to us there could be when we finally created the chance to find out. Or maybe I was afraid that I wasn’t ready to show up as a partner, and a woman independent of my super woman single mom identity? That identity was formed long before Shrek came into the picture, so it was critical for me to get outside of that me, in order to lay down a solid foundation for loving Shrek as Shrek first, and then as Shrek the bonus dad, and father.

 

What you might be thinking: Take away the necessity of caring for the kids and what will we discover?  What if we don’t enjoy each others company when we are alone? What if we don’t know how? Is it a skill we could learn?  I now in my case, it wasn’t until we were on the road, with passports in hand that I knew we were about to find out. Bottom line? I couldn’t be more happy that we did.

 

Where am I? Where I am.

Here I am.

I’ve been feeling a little unplaced the last few weeks.
Journeying between my rich old life and this rich new one.
We say old to mean the past, the former, what we no longer have or do:

Our old house, our old dog, our old job.

My “old” is living alone as a single mama-on one floor of a two family home.
The upstairs was Uncle’s old apartment.

Now we (Shrek+boys+me) are living in the entire two family home-as one NEW family.

Shrek’s grown children are also our new family.  They visit and do their laundry, eat birthday cake, and just hang out with their dad on the couch in the late afternoon. It is so new for all of us. A new that can only become an old, through several loads of laundry, and your feet hanging over the couch that used to be in his old house too.

How do they take in these two bonus boys climbing all over their sphere of understanding about who their dad is? What does it feel like to them to see the sawdust in Shrek’s hair from the loft beds he made for these sons-and little brothers-in-training? Of course they are being nothing short of magnificent with all of us. I feel so blessed by my bonus kids too. It allows me to tap into a way of being that feels so easy, and natural for me, as I have many young people their age in my life already.

Then there is Shrek and his experience of all of their adjusting. How is he reconciling his old and his new?  My deepest sense is that we are all falling into family with each other right on pace.  It is, after all another kind of love–family love. It has awkward moments, but really they are just moments that are. Just leaves around this growing family tree scattered about. Colorful, rich, and vibrant.

Then there are the days that I go from feeling like I was really good at being a single mom, to feeling like I am really rotten at being a co-parent, a partner, a fiance-in-trainning (no not yet mom) all the time. Then, sometimes I feel like I have all my plates spinning in sync and I don’t dare exhale. I can do this. I can. I think I can. Hey look! I’m doing it…

CRASH!

Pieces everywhere.
Who picks them up now?
Do I pick them up alone?
Do I know how to really ask for his help?
Do I get scared he’ll say no if I do ask?
Do I get resentful when he doesn’t just pick them up without my asking?
Do I get defensive if he picks them up his way, and not my way?
Do I remember how to be appreciative when he finds a different way to put them back together that works too?

Like  Marcel’s Harold and the Purple Crayon imitation up the stairwell wall all the way in to the living room, and ending on the cushions of Shrek’s couch (with a washable-thank you Universe-marker) was a recent straw on this camel’s back.

I felt ashamed. Shrek seemed stunned. Marcel washed the walls, Shrek cleaned the couch, and the apology letter was crafted. Dust settled. It was not the end of the world. I sat alone for a moment wondering if this “trail” Marcel drew was an indication things were moving too fast for him? For all of us? Was Shrek upstairs wondering if this was more than he bargained for?

In the next breath I wondered if it wasn’t the story-teller in Marcel, just marking the transition, and asking us all to notice, he was making his way up the stairs too.

A new do, for the old Marcel. HERE I AM

Alas, we are here.

Behind leaves, and with shaved heads*.

We are upstairs, and we are downstairs.

We are old and we are new.

_______

* Sometimes it is time for a change, and sometimes that change is dramatic, and turns out to be just what you needed.

Things in flight, and the boots under the table

It’s been, uh, let’s say rather full around here.

Kindergarten is big. It is about as demanding a shift on a little guy as it gets. A thousand new things to learn how to do well. Add a a zillion hundred new names of your new friends. Take away your mom and brother’s easing, reassuring words, looks, and hugs all day and you are setting up a little person for hard patch.  He’s handling it beautifully at school. His teacher has nothing but great things to say. He is smiling when I pick him up.

getting away as fast as he can…

Then we get home. Two words: OVERWHELMED EMOTIONS.  This looks like outbursts of the vocal and physical variety. Things in flight: toys, fists, demands. Often his entire four year old self racing as fast as he can (which is FAST) in the opposite direction from me. Shrek and I have had some great conversations about how to best support him. Reasoning wasn’t working. Time outs were turning into complete mayhem. Then we reached out to other circles as well. What we’ve come up with that seems to be really helping-more connection-more hugging-less time outs-and lots of reassurance that these are BIG EMOTIONS and they are OK and that he is DOING GREAT.

An example of a successful switch it up intervention was last night. He and Sam were watching a movie. He lost track of the plot because one of the characters spoke in a heavy accent. He stands up right in front of the television screaming; “I HATE THIS. IT MAKES NO SENSE. I AM GOING TO TURN IT OFF NOW!!!” Asking him to please sit down, or count to three with the promise of a time out would lead him strait to Melt Down Avenue before you could say; “Don’t throw that remote!”. Instead Shrek suggested that I stop folding the laundry in the other room, and offer to sit with him in my lap, and explain the narrative when necessary. He was cuddled in my lap, quietly watching and laughing in seconds. When the dishes were done, Shrek joined us too. Maybe this seems completely obvious to you. But to me–who was so into CONSEQUENCES for everything, it has been a great reminder to switch it up, CONNECT MORE and find what works better.  It has also been great to realize that what works for one fantastic kid, is not necessarily working for the other fantastic kid. Why this was an ah-ha this late in the game?

What is the parable about the rabbi who tells the man that if his home feels crowded and overwhelming it is time to buy a goat, a cow, a horse and so on and so on?

Establishing trust with the new bird.

Yesterday we welcomed “Friendly” or “Sky” or “Bird” depending on who you ask into our home. Sam in particular is thrilled to have a parakeet. I’m enjoying it too. Lots of opportunity for literacy; “Read to us what he can’t eat again Sam?” and “Parakeets really need quiet in the house to adjust.” It was really sweet to have this be a FAMILY decision, including Shrek, to get the bird or not after a student’s family asked us if we’d be interested in the bird, cage and all. Having a pet is a big deal, and this felt like a great place to start. A bird requires daily attention, and care, but it doesn’t poop on your floor, or bark.

So, why did they want to part with such a beauty?  SHE’S ANNOYING according to the daughter. Huh. To be discovered?

Now to some seeing a large pair of industrial strength boots under your kitchen table might be annoying too. Or perhaps it just a sign of a welcomed change, a growing family, and wait what was that parable getting at?

Shrek’s boots on my, I mean, our kitchen floor.

So although I still feel a rather palpable feeling of loss when I walk around the community pool near the skate park and see this:

in a few steps I have the pleasure of watching Sam leaping into his own in magical ways, that remind me how precious it all is, and not just in the summer time.

I hope your new starts and transitions are not all feeling like “dropping into the big bowl”, but if so, remember that once you leap, you do reach the bottom, with another chance to climb up, up, up, and try it again!

his vase, my flowers

His vase.
Flowers from my garden.
His chair.
My table.
Our new home.

Shrek is moving in.

My chest seizes.
My breath slows.

Surrender I’m told.

Don’t think I haven’t heard that before.

I don’t know how to depend on anyone.

Except me.

I start to cry. I tell him that I want to believe in this, and it is so hard for me to believe in this. I need him to believe even more than I do in this right now. Because depending on anyone to really show up, and be present for me and these boys is not the cloth I am cut from.

I started a family on my own for a reason.

It is all I have really known for almost nine years.

I’ve gotten so good at doing this alone.

What if I’m not as good at doing this with someone else?

Do you see this as a good thing? Do you see that being in a committed loving relationship will make it easier?

The pause is pregnant. I want to. I know that I want to. I am almost there an awful lot of the time. I’m not there a lot of the time too. It must be hard to believe in me at those moments. But he does. Because I need him to. Because he needs to too.

When I can’t seem to get myself from the middle where my panic in this transition lives, to the new place where he seems to be dancing alone on our new island humming; “I’m having the time of my life,” I think of that vase.

Alone a vase has a great deal of potential for beauty.

Cut flowers on a counter, are not going to survive very long that way.

But when you put them together?

Something new and stunning happens.

Of course, wild flowers outdoors look magnificent there too.

Yes, they do, and they run the course of their lives intentionally that way.
Then they shrivel up, and return to the soil, and come back up next year, and do it again,

and again.

In a vase, or outside.

Impermanent radiance.

Yes, I want to tell him, I do feel the benefit, the thrill, the love, the possibility
and at the same time I also fear that which is so terribly unknown.

I love all that we can be, these flowers and this vase. I love how open you are, and how you hold me in all my glory for every fleeting moment that is now, always. I love your strength, and your fragility. I love your stance. I love your dance. I love your patience and your desire.  I love this vase, and how much more purposeful you become with me inside you.

His vase.
My flowers.

Shrek is moving in.

Oh so brave (a post from all four of us)

Because of how brave Ruby was…

I hate getting on planes. I’m going to be brave today, by getting on that plane. This made me think about the picture (above) that I took earlier this week of Marcel superimposed next to the famous Rockwell of Ruby Bridges. I explained to him how brave she was over fifty years ago, to go into a school where she was the first brown skin student “invited” to study. (I framed it in terms of how brown skin kids did not have the same choices about where to go to school as creamy colored kids did. ) So today in honor of Memorial Day, and our trip in a few hours to Washington, DC, the Martin Luther King Memorial,  the Lincoln Memorial, the Air and Space and our walk by President Obama’s house.. I thought I’d ask my family, and you what it means to you to be brave today. Continue reading “Oh so brave (a post from all four of us)”

Round and round, round, round, round, round round round.

I was looking over the pictures from the week, and noticed that there was something round about all of them. Perhaps it was the approaching supermoon last night, or just the way I am seeing the world today. In the “first at bat” photo, the round is hidden under our amazingly patient coach’s hand. Can you find them all?

We are doing beautifully today. After cooking us the most amazing biscuit and egg breakfast,  Shrek is off playing baseball with the lads, so I can blog exercise. We have been doing some huge relationship growth stuff, and with that comes some big excitement about future collaborations… The coolest part? I am fully in this, and not freaking out about any of it. As he and I consider future plans, and progress I am feeling more and more confident and present in this relationship. How did that shift happen?

Life is magically full. To keeping it light and loving today. Enjoy your week, hope it is full of your own Supermoons!

Red, red, green and gold, gold

This color makes me happy too Mommy!

On the lighter side, a few images from the week. Highlights include: “birds of paradise” the color I have always wanted in my kitchen, as applied by Shrek, Sam and Marcel while I was presenting another “I can talk about race in the classroom” workshop to educators in Augusta. All time highs in the warm weather department that brought out gliders and long afternoons with sweet friends on the beach. Sam’s parent teacher conference affirmed what we already knew: he’s doing beautifully, is a remarkably strong reader, and all systems are a go go. I even managed to spend a record three hours working on a fiction entry to the NPR short fiction competition that has an 11:59 pm deadline tonight amidst 15 hours of my own parent teacher conference obligations, and workshop prep.  My family, my heart, my work, my voice all feel clear, and empowered. The months ahead feel as if they are poised for something grand in so many tangible and abstract ways. I am feeling truly blessed. Continue reading “Red, red, green and gold, gold”