Posts Tagged ‘Children’

I Am Not the Father

June 19, 2011

Lately, it’s become fashionable to wish single mothers Happy Father’s Day.

Miss me with that.

I am a single mother raising two kids alone. I do it by necessity, since my kids’ father has chosen, for the most part, to be absent from their lives since our divorce.

I also do it a little bit by choice. Some women in my shoes would have initiated a search for Mr. Stepdad a long time ago. Marrying a man for the sole purpose of providing my kids with a replacement father does not interest me in the least.

Being a single mother does not also make me a single father. Or some type of mother-father hybrid. I am a woman, and I can only approach parenting from a woman’s perspective. I grew up with my father and mother, but my mother was the more dominant influence in our home. For better or worse, I adopted her style of parenting even when I was married.

The notion that a woman raising children by herself is acting as both mother and father is misguided and harmful. It does a disservice to all of the fathers – including the single fathers – who are also working hard, every day, to raise their children. We single mothers enjoy the appreciation, but on Father’s Day, fathers, not mothers, deserve all the love.

My kids do benefit from positive male influences. Unfortunately, their father isn’t one. I don’t live near my family, so my children don’t have uncles and older male cousins who take the place of their absent father in providing this influence. They do have teachers. coaches, their friends’ fathers, and my significant other.

None of them can take the place of a loving, caring father, but my ex-husband is not a loving, caring father. They wouldn’t have a nuturing dad in their lives even if their dad were still around. A psychotherapist told me recently, if the absent parent does substantial damage to the child when he or she is present, it is better for that parent to remain absent. My children are not better off without a father, but they are better off without a father who is still so hurt from his own childhood that he inflicts pain upon his own children almost without knowing.

I am not a hero. I am not “holding it down.” I’m doing what I have to do. I take care of my children because I’m supposed to.

I take care of my kids because I love them and I need them and they need me. I do it alone because their father is unwilling and unable to participate. That doesn’t mean I fill both roles.

I am a mother. That’s more than enough.

So while I appreciate the acknowledgment of single mothers on Father’s Day, don’t wish me a Happy Father’s Day. I am a lot of things to my kids, but a father is most certainly not one of them.

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When Negative Is Positive

April 8, 2011

First of all, the good news: my biopsy results were fine. “Your results were fine, no problems, everything looks ok,” the radiologist told me when I called.

I thought about ending this post there.

But I still have a bandage on my breast. I still have the image of watching a needle poke into some weird thing inside my breast seared into my brain.

So let me describe the procedure.

I arrived at the Women’s Imaging Center at Weill Cornell Medical Center on time for my 9 am appointment. Outwardly, I was calm. My efforts to think positive thoughts had convinced me that this was some kind of divine comedic error, yet another example of God’s Monty Python-like sense of humor.

Things happened quickly. Within 15 minutes of my arrival, I was lying on my back in a hospital gown on a table in the ultrasound room.

In the two weeks since my mammogram, an odd thing had happened: I was no longer able to feel the lump. I had convinced myself, therefore, that the thing – whatever it was – had disappeared.

I mentioned to the ultrasound tech that I could no longer feel the lump. She nodded and applied the gel to the ultrasound wand, and began moving it around on my breast. I was about to ask her, “What happens if you can’t see it anymore?” when she said,

“Oh! There it is. I definitely see it. And these pictures look exactly like the ones that __________ got last time.”

So much for it disappearing.

And then I got scared.

During my last visit, I had peeked at the ultrasound screen, but none of what I saw made sense. I was reminded of my pregnancy ultrasounds, where I could discern the baby’s head, spine and heartbeat, but not much else.

This time, I saw it clearly.

The it, the thing, the lump that was causing all this trouble appeared on the ultrasound screen as a gelatinous bubble, like the movie The Blob. I had a Blob inside me. Of course, in the movie, the Blob consumed whatever was in its path.

I reminded myself that The Blob was a silly movie about killer Jello. But I couldn’t take my eyes off that screen.

The procedure I had is called an ultrasound-guided needle biopsy. A nurse and a doctor soon joined the ultrasound technician. While the ultrasound technician showed the doctor the pictures she had captured on screen, the nurse cleaned my breast for the procedure.

Everyone – doctors, nurse, ultrasound technician – was great about explaining to me what was happening, in terms that were simple but not dumbed down. I watched the doctor use a long, fine needle to fill my breast with Lidocaine so I wouldn’t feel any pain during the biopsy. I watched her insert a second thicker, hollow needle into my breast. She showed me the needle’s spring mechanism and explained that she would be activating the needle with a loud pop! sound to collect tissue samples, a process that would be repeated 5 times.

To my surprise, the doctor also announced that she would implant a small titanium clip into my breast to mark the location of the mass, since it was so subtle and not easy to detect, for the benefit of future radiologists. I didn’t like the idea of a titanium anything in my breast, but I gave my consent.

And then I turned my attention to the ultrasound screen.

I watched the needle probing and poking the blob. I saw the needle tip penetrate the mass. Even before the doctor gave me the “one-two-three” warning that she was about to activate the spring-loaded mechanism, I held my breath in anticipation.

I didn’t flinch.

“You’re doing great,” I was reassured, over and over again.

Inside, I wasn’t doing so great. I was overwhelmed by the odd and unsettling miracle of watching a needle enter my breast and cut away tiny pieces of some unidentifiable thing inside my breast.

It dawned on me that, no matter who you are in life, at some point, you will wind up in one of these hospital gowns, submitting your body to some procedure or another, hoping to discover that for you, life continues.

I couldn’t conceive of any other result. My children have no one but me. Their father is, um, unreliable. Their grandmother is gone. The family they know is in Michigan, where my children don’t want to be. They barely know their relatives in Philadelphia. And I am no longer as close as I once was to the women who were their godmothers.

The radiologist commended me for being so “good” throughout the procedure. I thought only about not orphaning my children.

My breast was a bit sore after the anesthesia wore off, but physically I was fine. Mentally and emotionally, though, the three-day wait for results was torture. I kept myself busy to keep from dwelling on it, but the bandage on my breast reminded me that, in the words of Madeline’s Miss Clavel, something was “not right.”

And now I know. The negative result is positive. I am relieved.

OK and fine do not, however, mean everything is back to “normal.”

For me, there is a new “normal.”

From now on, I will have a titanium clip in my breast. I will need to be diligent and consistent about getting annual mammograms. The breast biopsy joins the growing list of procedures and surgeries I have had recently, a list that replaces the “none” or “N/A” I used to routinely tick off on medical history questionnaires.

But still – I’m fine.

I’ll take it.

An Incivil Action: Child Custody Litigation

May 14, 2010

Writer Debra Dickerson shocked many when she revealed recently that, as a result of a five-and-a-half year custody battle with her ex-husband, she and her children are now homeless.

Dickerson and I crossed paths briefly at Harvard Law School: I was a 3L when she was a 1L.  I knew of her, though I can’t really say I knew her.  Dickerson chose not to practice law and became a writer instead.  I chose not to be poor and unable to repay $90,000 in law school debt, so I went on to practice, although the desire to write never left (hence, this blog).

I empathize with Dickerson, not because we have HLS in common, but because of my own experiences with never-ending child custody, visitation and support court battles.  I, too, had a lengthy and expensive divorce.  I, too, spent over $100,000 in legal fees — most of them in an unnecessarily protracted custody fight.  I contend my ex never really wanted custody, but included it among his demands to gain settlement leverage.   And unfortunately, because divorce = litigation, we had to fight it out. 

Child custody contests are indeed battles, ones in which the most forceful weapons are the children.  In litigation, someone has to win, and someone has to lose.  And when kids are used as weapons, whether intentionally or unintentionally, they’re the ones who get hurt.

I’m still in the midst of visitation issues with my ex.  And although I admire the professionals who are involved in my case, the process is completely illogical.  I strongly believe that child custody–and divorce, for that matter–should not be determined through litigation.  In New York, it is possible to avoid litigation if the parties negotiate a separation agreement (which they file with the court), remain separated for at least a year, and then file for a judgment of divorce based on the separation agreement.  But this approach will not work for everyone.

Negotiating a separation agreement can be a very expensive process.  A separation agreement is, in essence, a settlement agreement, and settlement negotiations are still quite adversarial.  Unlike a regular contract negotiation, a settlement negotiation involves two parties who would otherwise be suing each other, attempting to resolve their conflict by contract.  Therefore, the parties and their lawyers are often positional rather than conciliatory in approach, and unreasonable demands made out of anger and hurt can derail the process as easily as as in court.  In most cases, however, people who decide to divorce by separation agreement generally are motivated to agree and avoid litigation.

The underlying motivation is a key reason why separation agreements do not work in every divorce.  If one party wants to settle and move on, and the other party wants to fight to the death, trying to negotiate a separation agreement would be a colossal waste of time and money. 

I believe every divorcing party should be required to undergo counseling, and custody matters should be resolved through mediation. Mandatory counseling and mediation would create an atmosphere of resolution and agreement, not war.  A mediated child custody settlement, assisted by counselors skilled in navigating high conflict divorces, could keep both parties focused on the children’s best interests, since neither side would benefit from making false or overblown allegations.  The goal would be to reduce the number of pointless, endless custody and visitation battles that hurt everyone, especially the children involved.

The particulars of Dickerson’s situation do not matter to me.  I don’t want to know, nor do I care, which party is “at fault” or who has done or said what to whom in the last 5.5 years.  I’m sure, in 5.5 years, there’s probably plenty of blame to spread around.  But I feel compassion for the pain and suffering her family has endured and continues to endure.  I hope that, as news of her plight spreads, the court intervenes to force the parties to settle this lawsuit and resolve their differences in a way that allows for co-parenting and healing. 

I don’t know if my mediation and counseling proposal is workable in practice.  I do know that the current system is broken.  We need a better process for deciding custody cases.

Child/Spousal Support Awards of the Rich and Famous, and You

May 12, 2010

Every time there’s a news story about the divorce/custody battles of rich people, the Twitterverse explodes, with people complaining like their own pockets just got hit.  Reports that Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt will have to pay his estranged wife $637,000 in temporary spousal support sparked all kinds of outrage.  On Twitter, one man said, “I just don’t think you should get married if you can lose more than a 3rd world country in the divorce.”   Women, too, wondered if the prospect of going broke in divorce justifies delaying or avoiding marriage

Get a grip, people.

I’ve been married.  I’ve been divorced.  And I lost a whole lot of money in the process.  But the money didn’t go to my ex.  It went to our lawyers (both of whom I had to pay).  It went to the lawyers because instead of accepting a reasonable settlement offer, my ex went looking for one of those huge celebrity paydays and wound up with next to nothing. 

Anyone who is afraid to get married because of a celebrity divorce, or who expects their own divorce settlement will be like winning MegaMillions, is delusional.  The following facts may help you get over your fears or fantasies:

1. You’re probably not rich, and you’re probably not married to a rich person.  Accordingly, it’s unlikely you’d emerge from a divorce either super rich or financially devastated.  My marriage was coyote ugly, and I would have gnawed off an arm and a leg if that’s what it took to free myself.  Still, if we’d been able to settle, we both would have wound up better off.  Hopefully, your marriage won’t end in divorce, but if it does, divorce will cost a lot less, financially and emotionally, if neither party makes unreasonable and unrealistic demands.

2. Child support and spousal support are not the same.  Child support is awarded to help take care of the children’s needs.  Awards are made based on complex formulas that vary state-to-state, but that generally take each spouse’s then-current income and expenses into account.  The fact that Kelis may have sold a bunch of records 5 years ago is irrelevant to her current income and her child’s current needs.

3. Spousal support is where “big payback” fantasies go to die.  Spousal support is awarded to help take care of the needs of the spouse.  It is awarded most often in cases where a spouse has suspended his or her own career to support the career of the primary wage earner.  That’s probably not you.  If both spouses are working and earn enough to sustain themselves, it’s unlikely spousal support would be awarded to the lower wage-earner. 

Jamie McCourt’s job was being the wife of a rich baseball team owner.  She helped her husband maintain a certain community profile and image–including by being a non-working spouse.  As a result, she has every right to expect him to contribute towards her living expenses until the divorce judgment is final.

4. Rich people have expenses you can’t imagine.  Perhaps you think Kelis should be shopping for her child at The Children’s Place.  Maybe you think Jamie McCourt should move into a West Hollywood day rate motel until she can get a job at Hooters.  That’s what you’d do, right?

That’s why you’re not rich.

If a person’s net worth eclipses the GDP of a third world country, he’s expecting to have to shell out some dough to his soon-to-be ex.  News reports mention that Jamie McCourt originally sought $1 million per month in spousal support.  What’s really telling is that Frank McCourt offered her $150,000/month—nearly $100,000 more than the Kelis child support award that had people up in arms.  Truly rich?  Nas and Kelis aren’t even close.  If Frank McCourt could afford to offer $150K/month, another $500K/month probably isn’t going to bankrupt him.

5. For the benefit of the person who tweeted “The chick isn’t even hot” in reference to Jamie McCourt’s support award: hotness is not a factor considered by any court in entering an award of child or spousal support.  If it were, every star male athlete, actor and entertainer would be vying to marry the ugliest woman on the planet.

6. A pre-nup is unnecessary if you don’t have shyt to begin with.

So the next time you find yourself worried about the latest celebrity divorce payout, remember—unless you’re the celebrity in question, it’s just gossip to you.

Cameran’s Camera: The Pearl Talk Show Script

April 10, 2010

My daughter read John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl” for her 7th Grade ELA class, and was assigned to write a talk show script that identified the book’s central conflict.  She got a perfect score on the assignment.  I thought the work was so good, I decided to share it with you.  So, from my guest poster, Cameran: here’s the Cameran’s Camera script.

Cameran’s Camera

Me: Hello fans, and welcome to my show! My name is Cameran, and this is Cameran’s Camera!

Theme song plays

Me: Today we are doing a special segment on the world’s favorite piece of green paper: money, and how it can make people do the most unbelievable things. The show will be called “When Money Turns Other Types of Issues Green.” Here on the show with me today are various characters from the book The Pearl. Right now, I am going to bring out Kino, and he knows better than anyone how money can ruin your life. So here he is ladies and gentleman, Kino!

Crowd claps

Kino walks on stage

Me: Kino! Hi, how are you today?

Kino: Very well, thank you for having me.

Me: No problem, have a seat.

Kino sits

Me: So let’s cut to the chase, shall we? You know better than most people how badly you can screw up your life when money gets involved in the picture don’t you?

Kino: Umm…Well…I guess I do…

Me: Oh c’mon! Tell us the story!

Kino: Umm…Well it all started when my wife and I were fishing on the Gulf, and found the Pearl of the World.

Me: The Pearl of the World? That sounds intense, explain what you mean by that.

Kino: It is what we called it, because it was the largest pearl I had ever seen in my life. It was about the size of an ostrich egg. The pearl was also the most beautiful one too…I loved that pearl…

Kino sighs

Me: You keep talking about this in the past tense, what happened to you and this pearl?

Kino: That thing destroyed my life! It hurt my family, it hurt me, and it killed my baby! In the end, there was nothing left to do except throw it back into the sea where it belonged.

Me: The pearl could not have killed your baby and ruined your family itself…

Kino: Don’t be stupid, of course it did not do all of this itself. I became its slave. I did all those things to my family because I was trying to save the pearl so that I could give my family a better life.

Me: Wow, kind of ironic huh? You destroy your family by protecting the thing you think is going to save you, and then you end up just throwing it away in the end.

Kino: I know…and now my own wife will not even talk to me! As soon as we got back to our village, she left me! She said that I needed to know what I wanted before she could consider being with me again. She said that I needed to learn what was important in my life.

Me: If you could speak to her again, what would you say?

Kino: I would apologize for what happened to our son, I would tell her I loved her!

Me: Well today is your lucky day because tonight, I have her here, backstage in the studio, waiting to talk to you. Come on out Juana!

The crowd claps

Juana walks out

Me: Hello Juana, have a seat!

Juana sits

Juana: This is a waste of my time.

Juana rolls her eyes/crosses her arms

Me: Okay then…Kino, why don’t you say to Juana what you said to me just now.

Kino: Well…Umm, I—

Juana: Save it, do not waste your breath. There is nothing you can say to me now that will change my decision about leaving you!

Kino: But Juana, I love you!

Juana: How could you?! Why did you do what you did?! How could you!?

Kino: I only did it to save us! I thought that by doing whatever necessary to save the pearl, it would prove to you and to myself that I was worth it, and that we all deserved it!

Juana: But you know that I do not need all the material possessions to make me happy Kino! Why do you not understand that? I loved you Kino, and I still do, but you have always wanted so much more than what is right in front of you…Why couldn’t you just accept what we had?

Kino: We had nothing Juana! We barely had enough for the both of us, let alone…Coyotito…I am a man! And as a man, it is my job to make sure my family has everything!

Juana: Do you still not understand?! We did have everything, we had each other! But since you felt the need to have everything, we lost everything we had before. We lost our son, our house, our friends, our town, our pride…our marriage…

Me: Wow, this is intense…if you do not mind me asking, why can’t you just go back to the way things were before?

Juana: I cannot just go back to the way things were!!!!!! Do you know what it is like to want to lose so much when all you wanted is a little more??

Me: I know what it is like to want, and not get it…and that is what happened to you guys right?

Kino and Juana nod simultaneously

Me: To slightly alter the topic, I hear that there were some other people involved with the pearl. Is that true?

Kino and Juana: Ummm…

Me: So I take that as a yes right?

Kino: Sort of. The doctor “cured” Coyotito right after he found out we had the pearl, and said we could repay him when we got the money from it.

Me: That’s funny, because I have the doctor with me right now! Come on out doctor!

The doctor walks on stage

Crowd claps

Me: Hello doctor, why don’t you take a seat?

Doctor: Okay

Doctor sits

Me: You do remember the Pearl of the World right?

Doctor: Of course I do!  I was supposed to receive some of the money that was made from it, but Kino still cannot pay me back for my duties.

Kino: I could not sell the pearl, and I could not continue living with the evil it brought to my family and me.

Doctor: Not to worry, it is still the most prized possession in the village.

Me: Still? I thought Kino and Juana disposed of it?

Doctor smiles

Doctor: They may have thrown it back into the water, but they did not get rid of it. It only took a few weeks for the word to spread that you two were no longer in the possession of the pearl, and it only took a few more weeks after that for me to find where it was.

Doctor takes out package

Doctor opens package

Crowd gasps

Juana, Kino, and I gasp as well

Me: Is that…

Juana: Is that…??

Kino: THE PEARL

Doctor: Yes, now I have the Pearl of the World, and all the wealth will finally be mine! I will be getting what I deserve…

Juana: How…I do not understand, how could you have found it!?

Doctor rolls his eyes

Doctor: I have already explained this to you, I had my men search for it.

Kino: Why have you brought this to me!? Why have you brought back the evil to us!?

Doctor: What is so evil about a little extra money? I have brought it because I got an offer at the capital, and I believe you will find the price extremely reasonable

Doctor whispers in Kino’s ear

Kino’s eyes widen

Doctor: I am willing to split the money with you and your family, if you agree to come back to the village and be my personal pearl diver. You and your family would be able to stay in my mansion, and live the very luxurious life that I have. What do you think?

Kino: Oh. My. God.  Juana! We can—

Juana: NO! Absolutely NOT! There is no way I am having anything to do with that pearl Kino! Let him have it, let him live in hell until he gets rid of it, and realizes that no amount of money in the world is worth sacrificing sanity.

Kino hesitates

Doctor: I think Kino does not fully agree with you Juana, look at him! He is eyeing the pearl the way starving children admire food.

Juana looks back at Kino

Juana: Kino…

Kino:…

Juana: No, Kino!!!! NO!! This is exactly what I was talking about Kino, you always want more, ALWAYS! You are willing to give up being with me just so you can have a little extra money!

Kino: You could come—

Juana shakes her head

Juana: No Kino, You know that is not possible. It is either the money and the pearl, or me!

Kino buries his hands in his face

Kino: I need my brother! I need him to tell me what to do!

Me: Well you’re in luck, because he is here with us today! Come on out Juan Thomás!

Crowd claps

Juan Thomás walks on stage

Kino: BOTHER!!! Oh how I miss you!

Me: Hello! Why don’t you have a seat right next to Kino.

Juan Thomás sits

Me: If you have been tuning in to our show this past hour, many things have been going on. Now Kino has a decision to make, and he wants you to tell him what to do.

Juan Thomás: Kino, I cannot tell you what to do with your life, for in the end, you are the one making the decision. However, before you leave for wealth and riches, take a look at the people here with you today. Your old friends, old townspeople, fellow pearl divers, they are all here tonight to support you! Is the money worth giving up all of this?

Kino: But I don’t want to give it up! I want to have both! Why can I not have both?

Juan Thomás: Kino, you know that is not possible. The last time you tried to have both, you lost everything. You lost your son, Kino. If there is any reason for you not to go, it should be for him! Don’t do it for Coyotito!

Kino cries

Kino: You are right! I cannot do this, there is too much that could go wrong, and I cannot leave the people I love. I am doing this for Coyotito, and hopefully my again-soon-to-be-wife

Doctor: Fine! I was offering you wealth and happiness, but if you don’t want it, more for me! Go back to being poor and worthless!

Kino: Doctor, you are mistaken. I am not poor, nor was I ever poor, because I have all the wealth and worth I could ever ask for right here, in my family.

Kino hugs Juana and Juan Thomás

Crowd screams (in happiness)

Me: Well that concludes our time for today, so be here next time for our special surprise guest! Bye!

Audience leaves

Juana, Juan Thomás, the doctor, and Kino all exit

I smile as I leave, knowing that I have just changed someone’s life forever.

Fighting Christmas Depression

December 12, 2009

Used under license from FreeFoto.com

I wrote this on December 21, 2008.  A lot has changed in a year.

Everyone always says that Christmas is not — or shouldn’t be — about giving, but receiving. Over the years, people have offered me wonderful, well-meaning suggestions for raising children who want to spend Christmas serving others instead of being served, children who are more excited about giving than they are about receiving.

I have not met the children of these well-meaning folks. I am sure their children are terrific. But in my experience, young children are terrifically selfish and self-centered. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect them not to want stuff. A lot of it.

I tried out a few of those suggestions on Cami. Earlier today, I said, “Hey, how about next year, we stay home for Christmas and serve at a soup kitchen?”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No, I’m not kidding. Why would I kid about something like that?”

“Ummm . . . then no.”

“Why not?”

“Because – eww – I don’t want to spend my Christmas serving at a soup kitchen! Christmas is MY day! Christmas break is the longest break of the year. I don’t want to spend it serving other people. Let other people serve other people.”

“Well, Cami, if everyone said let someone else do it, then no one would do it.”

She looked at me. “Seriously, Mom, you don’t want to go to a soup kitchen, either. Where is this coming from, anyway?”

I knew better than to ask Randy.

My children are not, at this stage in their lives and development, interested in giving. They don’t even buy me a gift for Christmas. My children want stuff. A lot of it. And they’re not shy about demanding it.

I also wanted stuff at Christmastime when I was a kid, but I knew not to expect it. My father was a Ford auto worker. My mother worked only occasionally outside the home, typically in low-paying service jobs. And I am the youngest of six. Even in years where there were no worries about union strikes or company layoffs, big Christmases simply weren’t an option. I would study the JC Penney and Sears catalogs like I used to study our encyclopedias, and a trip to Hudson’s was like a trip to Heaven, but I wasn’t silly enough to actually think I was getting much of anything.

I make just enough money, I guess, to delude my children into thinking that they should have presents under a tree somewhere. Indeed, that there should be a tree somewhere, with presents for them under it. I suppose I have no one to blame for that but myself.

When I was married, my ex-husband and I shopped separately for the kids. As with everything else, we couldn’t agree on what to buy or how much to spend. While I was buying robots from Sharper Image and globes from Imaginarium and educational software and books from Barnes & Noble and magnetic building toys from Toys R Us and FAO Schwarz, he would be at some down-market toy store in or outside Philadelphia, buying up every marked-down, leftover, on sale toy he could find.

The net result was that the kids always had a lot of gifts under the tree. They treated each group of toys with equal disdain. They would ignore my educational toys until there was nothing, absolutely nothing, else to do. The stuff he bought would be played with, broken, and in the garbage by New Year’s Day. Yet, every year, they expected more, and we obliged.

The first year of my separation, I had no energy for Christmas. I couldn’t imagine trimming a tree and cooking and shopping and wrapping and baking and creating this wonderful special Christmas all by myself. I wasn’t feeling wonderful and I wasn’t feeling special. I was feeling broke. The divorce was nasty, contentious and expensive, and took place during a down economic cycle. I had just taken a job paying about 40% of what I used to earn as a law firm partner, and I watched legal bills, on top of day-to-day living expenses, eat through the rest of my savings like cartoon termites.

In desperation, I turned to my good friend Claire, who loves my children and Christmas seemingly in equal measure. Her own children are now adults, and she missed having little people at home baking cookies for Santa, decorating the tree, singing Christmas carols, and running downstairs at break-neck speed on Christmas morning to tear open wrapper after wrapper and squeal in delight. So I brought her my kids for Christmas. My mother loaned me some money to buy the kids a few presents – and Claire supplied the rest.

Going to Auntie Claire’s for Christmas has now become a tradition of sorts for us, if four years can make a tradition. My financial situation is more stable now, so I try to bring more than just greedy kids to Virginia. Despite my baking phobia, I even bake cookies at Claire’s – chocolate chip ones, following the recipe on the back of the Nestle’s chips. I’m told they’re good, and whether they actually are or not, someone always eats them. Thanks to Claire and her family, my kids get that wonderful, special Christmas experience that I couldn’t and still can’t provide them on my own.

But the kids’ Christmas gift expectations haven’t changed since the divorce, even though their father hasn’t participated in the spending frenzy in over three years. I still feel a certain amount of pressure every year to make sure that, in addition to tree-trimming and cookies for Santa and a fantastic Christmas feast, they also have a decent number of gifts under the tree.

It wears me out.

This year, Cami told me, “Oh, I only want two things for Christmas this year – a laptop and a pair of UGGs.”

“Oh, so only $2000, and I’m done with you?”

“You wouldn’t have to get such an expensive laptop,” she offered as a compromise.

Later, she added a Blackberry to the mix, in place of the iPhone requested previously. I have never, ever, in my entire life, received a $2000 Christmas gift. From anyone. Not even myself. The package is an easy no. Other than the Blackberry, which is patently ridiculous, the components are harder.

Cami makes a convincing argument for needing a laptop. She uses the computer a lot for school. She has a school e-mail account, which is supposed to be used to email assignments and communicate with teachers and peers about assignments. Of course, it is also used for gossip, chat, uploading songs and music videos, and other non-academic purposes. I wouldn’t mind the extra activity, except my daughter cannot multi-task. Excess socializing, at school and online, led to poor grades and placed her on academic probation for the first grading period. Her grades have improved recently, but I have decided she’s not mature enough to handle the responsibility of having a laptop in the privacy of her room. That’s part of the story – the part I tell her whenever she renews the laptop discussion.

The rest of the story is financial, because if I could afford a laptop, I’d buy one and figure out a way to enforce responsible use. The real reason I’m not buying Cami a laptop, even though it almost rises to the level of a “need,” is that I do not want to spend thousands of dollars on Christmas presents right now, with the economy in such bad shape. Watching friends get laid off from high six-figure Wall Street jobs serves as a reminder that my job is not guaranteed. It would be illogical to deplete the emergency fund so the kids can have a fabulous Christmas, and with tax season just around the corner and summer camp payments coming due right after that, Christmas needs to be a low-key affair this year.

I feel badly about always having to say no. I know many, if not most, of her friends at school have laptops. The layout of my apartment requires that the desktop computer remain in my room. She can use the computer in my room for homework, but after a while, I get tired of having her in my room, and I start demanding that she “get on with it.” I tell myself that I’m keeping her from wasting time and teaching her to be efficient, but mostly I’m just being a nag, and I know it.

And as for the UGGs – no, they’re not definitely not a need, any more than the Blackberry. Yet I remember ogling pearl-button angora sweaters at Hudson’s the same way she ogles the UGGs in my Bloomingdale’s catalogs. I would love to get her at least one thing she doesn’t need but just wants. In light of the tough economy and looming bills, I can’t justify buying the UGGs, either. It may be irrational, but that bothers me.

Then there’s my son. I thought he would be easy. When we first started talking about Santa lists, he mentioned only a Bakugan toy costing about $20 at Toys R Us. I guess he must have then spoken to Cami, because the next time we talked, his list had expanded to include a new Nintendo DS, a Wii, and a lot of new games. He still believes in Santa, so I told him that since a lot of mommies and daddies lost their jobs this year, Santa was not giving anyone a lot of Christmas gifts this year, and was instead helping the mommies and daddies with some of the things they need, too.

 He was fine with that explanation, but yesterday, I made the mistake of reminding Cami, in front of him, that “I’m not buying a lot of stuff this year.” He caught on.

“So, Mom, it’s you? Santa isn’t real?”

Cami immediately jumped up from the computer to whisper in my ear that they’d just had a discussion in her Philosophy class about the morality of perpetuating the Santa myth. I wasn’t interested in philosophy in that moment. I told her to shut up and sit down.

“Randy,” I said, “will it make a difference to you one way or the other?”

He didn’t hesitate. “I want Santa to be real.”

“Well, Randy,” Cami piped up, the weight of Kant behind her, “I have some bad news.”

I hissed at her the way our cat used to hiss at the dog we no longer have, the way I now hiss at the cat when she’s on my furniture. He already isn’t getting 75% of the items on his Christmas list. If Santa is still important to him, why take it away?

Cami often misses non-verbal clues, but between that hiss and the look on my face, she stopped cold.

“Well, then,” I told Randy, daring my daughter to contradict me, “if that’s what you want to believe, that’s what it is.”

He was momentarily satisfied, although he’s made a few doubting references to Santa since then.

I know it’s silly for me to be even slightly depressed about not being able to spend a lot of money on Christmas presents this year. I know – it’s meaningless, they won’t remember the presents but they’ll remember the great times with friends and family for a lifetime – yada yada yada.

And bull.

I don’t remember the presents I actually did receive, the few Christmases when we did get presents, but boy do I remember, even today, the stuff I wanted and didn’t get. Not all of it, of course, but a lot of it. I don’t yet know what I’m getting them, but they will have presents under the tree. Not everything they wanted, and some things – like clothing – that they don’t want, but definitely need.

I know we’ll have a great time at Claire’s, and the kids will be happy with whatever they get. I just hope, by Christmas morning, I manage to get over my own disappointment at not being able to do more.

Waiting

July 9, 2009

A day at Family Court is a day of waiting.

Although the cases are calendared, there is no set time for your case to be called.  You wait until you are called, which could, and sometimes does, take all day.  This type of waiting requires Zen-like patience.

Most of the people in Family Court — poor, uneducated (or under-educated), lower-class — are not patient.  So Family Court is noisy and uncivilized. 

It is also not a place where people dress like they are in court.  Unlike the U.S. federal or New York State Supreme Courts, only the lawyers and court workers wear suits, skirts and dresses.  Women wear tight tees stretched over sagging bellies and explosive muffin tops, their thighs and hips sausaged into low-rise jeans.  Men wear baggy jeans.  Everyone is tattooed. 

Most overheard conversations include liberal doses of the “f” word.

I have to go to work after I leave court, so I am one of the few petitioners or respondents who is dressed properly for a court appearance.  My dress and heels feel wrong on the benches with the masses.  I feel a greater kinship with the lawyers and caseworkers than the people sitting on the benches with me, waiting like I am for my case to be called. 

I feel out of place.

For the last sixteen months, I have been coming to Family Court every other month for a hearings in connection with a visitation petition filed by my ex-husband.  As the case is still pending, I will not comment on the merits or any of the specifics, except to note that  in those sixteen months, there have been approximately three or four face-to-face visits between my  husband and our kids.

I comply with my legal, moral and ethical obligations to appear on time for each court appearance, and to come back, and back, and back, with no end in sight.

Family Court is the only time I see my ex-husband.  I strongly prefer it that way.

Seeing him incites no feelings of nostalgia for our moribund relationship, no stirrings of attraction towards the man with whom I shared a bed for eight long years of my life.  My memories of our relationship are generally unpleasant.  The few fond ones have nothing to do with romance. 

He looks at me with disgust, and I look at him with confusion, trying to figure out, once again, how I ever wound up with him.  It is plainly obvious to me now that we simply never should have been together.  The mismatch is so clear to me now.  I can’t help but wonder how I overlooked it for so long.

There was a time when I wouldn’t look at him at all, fearing that he wanted to intimidate me with his glare.  Now, I stare openly at him as I try, in vain, to figure out what I ever saw in him.  I do this not to understand the past, but to avoid making that same mistake in the future.  He’s the one who drops his eyes to avoid my gaze. 

I notice he is reading The Daily News and carrying a book as well.  For a minute, I think, “well, that’s it — he always did read a lot, and I always admired that.”  But I don’t think I was desperate or shallow enough to marry a man just because he was literate.

We wait.

One of the men on the benches walks up to him and speaks.  He rises and greets the man with the universal not-a-hug, not-a-handshake gesture that seems peculiar to black men.  Or at least, black men of a certain ilk; those who have been steeped in black culture.  My 8-year-old son has not yet learned that gesture from his father, and won’t learn it from me.  I am not OK with all the ways that I can’t teach my son how to be a black man, but since I wasn’t planning to be a single parent when he was conceived, I accept it.

The gentleman speaking to my ex is not anyone I ever met while we were together.  I guess that the man is the same age as my ex, although he looks much older and, in his baggy low-rise shorts, dresses much younger.   He is of a type that became familiar to me during the time I was with my ex.  My ex is a substance abuse counselor, and many of his friends are recovering addicts.  On the man’s weathered, limping legs are legions of scars.  Healed injection sites.

I am not sitting close enough to overhear their conversation, but my ex has made a few covert gestures in my direction.  I imagine he is categorizing all the different types of bitches I am, especially since I have dared to not just roll over in these proceedings.  He doesn’t introduce me to his friend, nor do I expect him to.  We are not friends; I’m not sure we ever were.

We wait.

We are both pro se in these proceedings, meaning we are each representing ourselves, without benefit of counsel.  Although I am a lawyer, I do not practice family law, and my legal training gives me no advantages here.  I have done nothing to prepare for this routine court appearance.  There is nothing to prepare.  At this point, I can anticipate — accurately — what will happen.  Hiring a lawyer for this would have been a complete waste of time.

Today there will be no surprises.

We wait.

I am writing in my journal when he approaches me, wordlessly, and hands me a cold bottle of Poland Springs from an unseen vending machine.  I accept it and say, “Thank you.”  He does not respond.  Perhaps he grunts a response I don’t expect, and so do not hear.

I make sure the seal is intact before I open it and take a sip.

It dawns on me that I haven’t yet seen the law guardian assigned to represent the children in our case, and I realize her absence is the reason we are still waiting.  I know she has been ill, and I hope she’s well enough to attend today’s session.   If she is not there, the case will be adjourned and re-calendared, and I would have missed a morning of work for nothing. 

Just as I complete that thought, I see her.  She looks well.  We chat briefly, and I look around for my ex, who is convinced that she and I are conspiring against him.  I know the sight of the two of us chatting fuels his conspiracy theories.  I don’t see him.

Finally, our case is called, and it goes exactly as I expect it to.  In sum — nothing happens.  We are scheduled to return in September.

The court officer hands me a slip of paper with the date and time of our next scheduled appearance.  I try to take my time leaving the courtroom, but when I reach the elevator lobby, he is still there, waiting for the next elevator down. 

I walk past him and duck into the ladies’ room.  I stand in the full-length mirror, adjust my dress and admire my calves until I figure enough time has passed for Elvis to have left the building.

He is gone when I return to the elevator lobby, but still I take my time to get downstairs.  He is not smoking a cigarette outside, not waiting to ambush me as he has done in the past, but still I wait. 

I take out my journal again, writing as I watch and listen to a man and woman arguing about how he treated their kid during his last visit.  It isn’t long before the argument settles into a tired, worn groove of arguments past:

“You spend all day at the beach instead of working,” she says. 

“You can’t hurt me anymore,” he says.

I put my head down and keep writing.  I no longer feel out of place.  I used to have these arguments with my ex in the hallways outside of the courtroom during my divorce proceedings.  My advanced degree didn’t shield me from this drama.  My ex and I don’t have these arguments anymore, because we simply don’t talk at all.  

However, I would never tell him he can’t hurt me anymore, because he can — by hurting my kids.  They are hurt most by the lack of a meaningful relationship with their father. That’s why I continue to participate in these proceedings, hearing after hearing — because I hope that this will somehow lead to some type of renewed relationship among my ex and the children.

But I am tired of waiting.

I’ll Get It!!!

May 13, 2009

I wrote this piece when my daughter, who is now 12, was 8, and just starting to talk to her friends on the phone.  Now that she’s 12, I find that things have turned out pretty much as I predicted back then…

“I’ll get it!” my daughter shouted over the din of the TV, some wannabe singer screeching out something on American Idol.  She practically jumped off the top bunk down to the floor.  “It might be Nick!”

Before I could say anything, she had answered the phone and was talking into it.  “It’s me!  Hey, Nick!”  Then to me: “Mom, I’m going to go get the other phone.  Can you hang up when I pick up?”

I nodded, still shell-shocked.  This child, who just a few minutes earlier had been arguing with me about the Idol wannabes (“Mo-om, Carrie soooo can sing!”), was no teenager.  She wasn’t even a pre-teen or tweener.  She had just celebrated her eighth birthday two months earlier. 

Granted, there was the whole early puberty thing — she had just undergone a whole series of tests to determine why she was already budding breasts and sprouting hairs, and earlier that week I finally had to stop denying her the right to wear the little training bras she had received as a Christmas present from her former babysitter.  (I still don’t know what a training bra is “training” the breasts to do.)  But I wasn’t ready for her to fly off the bed and grab the phone because she was expecting some boy to call.  And as I half-listened to my daughter’s side of her conversation with Nick, I was both satisfied that the conversation was entirely innocent, and disturbed by the harbinger of things to come.

My daughter has always found boys easier to befriend than girls.  Boys tend not to judge you based on what you’re wearing, or what clique you do or don’t belong to, or how cool anyone thinks you are.  At the same time, she has always longed for that one true girlfriend.  This eighth year of her life has been especially difficult, because with all the changes going on already in her body, she seems to need that elusive best girlfriend now more than ever.  Eight-year-old boys, who are silly and irritating most of the time, are a poor substitute.  

In my daughter’s case, with the simmering hormones of precocious puberty stirring up all kinds of emotions she can’t yet identify, let alone name, it’s inevitable that she’s going to start becoming truly aware that the boys she chats on the phone with, hangs out with after school, and has playdates and even sleepovers with, is a bona fide member of the opposite sex.  And, come to think of it, they’re kind of cute.  In my experience, that recognition usually blows the friendship to pieces.  I’m grateful she’s too young for that recognition to occur, but I know it’s going to happen — and when it does, I suspect (and fear) some of her male friendships won’t survive.

I listened to my daughter in the other room, talking to Nick about school, other kids and parents.  She spoke in cool, calm tones, without any of that exaggerated language, copied from Nickeledeon and Disney Channel tween-focused shows, that 8 year olds use when they want to talk the way they imagine teenagers do.  There was no “what-EVER!,” no “Oh.My.GOD!!!!”  It all sounded frighteningly grown up. 

After a few minutes, I had to see what was going on, because suddenly I couldn’t hear her side of the conversation.  Her voice seemed to have dropped an octave or two, and that’s when I knew it was time to get her off the phone.

“Okay, Cami, five minutes,” I said anxiously, trying to be fair, but wishing I’d just told her it was time to hang up.

“Okay!” came the again-audible response.  Phone privileges were still pretty new to her, so she was unusually malleable.

A few minutes later, I again couldn’t hear my daughter’s voice.  “Cami, time to get off!”

“I’m already off!  Nick’s mom told him it was time to hang up already!”

I smiled.  I knew there was a reason I liked Nick’s mom.  I was glad at least one of us hadn’t wimped out of our responsibility.

The next day, as I was leaving my daughter’s school after dropping her off, I ran into Nick and his mom. 

“So, our guys have become quite the little phone pals, I see,” I said.

“Yeah,” she grunted.  We shared a knowing smile, an unspoken expression of relief that they were still only 8.  Nick was oblivious to the parental disdain going on above his head.  But he didn’t call that night.  Fortunately, being only 8, my daughter didn’t even notice.

Field of Dreams

April 9, 2009

One of the most confusing things about my childhood was the endless series of contradictions that was and is my mother.  My mother was strict.  So strict we had to come inside when the street lights came on.  So strict that we had to walk home along the same route, every day, and straying from that path meant trouble, and in all likelihood, a whuppin’.  My sisters and I were not allowed to let other little girls play in our hair.  We had to sleep in bras from the moment the first breast buds made their awkward appearance.  There were more rules than any child could possibly remember, and the devil to pay if you broke any of them.

And yet, with Mama’s permission, our brothers smoked weed in the house, every day.

My parents converted our attic into a shared bedroom for my three brothers when puberty made the already infeasible — three boy children and three girl children in one bedroom — downright impossible.  We didn’t have air conditioning, so on hot summer days, my brothers would crouch to catch whatever breezes blew into the small windows of a hot attic, and blow smoke back out.  As I walked home from school, I smelled our house long before I got to it.  Once inside, the familiar smell wafted down the stairs and into the rest of the house, overpowering my mother’s more pleasant cooking aromas.  

My mother didn’t like it, but rationalized it this way:  “If they’re going to do it, I’d rather they do it in the house, rather than out in the street somewhere.” 

In The Street was a place my mother distrusted with all her heart.  I grew up thinking In The Street was actually a street where everything imaginable took place.  Of all the questionable streets in the City of Detroit, I never could figure out which street In The Street actually was.  When I was old enough to start going out by myself or with friends, I began to understand that In The Street was, for my mother, anyplace off our front lawn.

My brothers’ friends knew our house was the place to be when the time came to get your smoke on.  We lost track of how many guys came to our house every day, trudging through the house to the kitchen and up to the attic bedroom.  Even if they’d never been to our house before, they needed no directions; like dogs, they would track the scent straight through the house — past my father on the living room couch, watching Tiger baseball; past us girls in the dining room, talking on the phone or doing homework; past my mother cooking or washing dishes in the kitchen; and up the attic stairs to my brothers’ room. 

And, like dogs, sometimes they would get themselves in trouble by lingering just a bit too long, staring just a bit too hard at us girls as they made their pilgrimage.  The smart ones figured out how to sneak their looks as they walked past, or bought themselves some time by pretending to make small talk with my parents along the way.  The dumb ones just stopped and gawked.  The dumb ones generally weren’t repeat visitors.

Deliberately or by accident, marijuana seeds, tossed out of open attic windows, landed in the fruit and vegetable garden my mother kept, and still keeps, in our backyard. 

Like all the houses on our block, our house was a tiny structure on a relatively large lot.  The backyard lawn had been reduced to postage stamp size to make room for Mama’s garden, which extended along the two edges not occupied by house or driveway.  A peach tree just to the right of the back porch grew the peaches that went into her completely homemade peach pies (she refused to call them “cobblers”).  Along the fence that separated our property from the neighbors, she grew tomatoes and cucumbers.  Beyond the far edge of the lawn, Mama’s garden extended from the garage to the alley.  In this larger space grew collards, mustards, and broccoli.  Mama collected the rinds, peels, stems, skin and pulp of all the fruits and vegetables we ate, and every day, she scattered them throughout her garden.  Accordingly, the soil stayed rich and full of nutrients. 

As a child, I had no idea Mama’s garden kept us fed through UAW strikes, plant closings, and Daddy just being too trifling to come home with enough grocery money to feed two adults and six children.  I just figured that she, having grown up a farmer in Mississippi, was used to having fresh produce in her backyard and had chosen to carry on familiar traditions even after moving to Detroit.  

Sometimes, either my sister Caroletta or I would ask my mother if we could try growing something else in her garden, in addition to the staples she planted year after year.  When Mama was willing, we grew carrots, potatoes, strawberries, sweet corn and beets.  We planted the seeds experimentally, but nothing ever failed.   My mother’s garden was like our very own field of dreams — if you planted it, it would not only grow, but flourish.  (When I read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, I kept imagining all the weird dead things that would come to life if planted in Mama’s garden.) 

It was no surprise to any of us how quickly the discarded marijuana seeds sprouted and grew in Mama’s garden.  My mother complained bitterly about the little plants that started popping up.  She was aware they were marijuana plants, but to her, they were literally weeds. 

For some reason, however, she took a liking to one plant and let it grow.  Before too long, we had a knee-high marijuana plant in our yard.

My brothers were amused at first.  They would go to the back door to see how big the plant had gotten, and then ask, “Ma, how long you gon’ let that grow?”

“I don’t know,” was always her response.

The plant grew bigger and bigger.  My brothers told her, “You know the cops could come after you if they saw that.”

“I’m not going to do anything with it,” she would counter, as if her lack of intent to sell or use the plant was dispositive.

My brothers argued constantly about whether or not the plant would actually yield any good smoke.  Michigan summers were too short, one brother opined.  Marijuana needed lots of sunlight to develop high levels of THC.  The weed wouldn’t be potent enough to be any good.  Yeah, the other brother would say, but that plant’s been growing in Mama’s garden.  You know how good that soil is.  And on and on the debate would rage.  It was their version of Batman v. Superman.

I liked the plant, and thought it was too bad it was illegal.  It was pretty.  It grew as well as the sweet corn we grew one year which yielded the sweetest, most tender ears of corn I have ever eaten.  I had no idea back then what good smoke actually meant, but in the ongoing debate, I silently took the side of the brother who voted in favor of Mama’s garden.  That soil was the truth. 

My neighbors were not amused by the new plant growing in Mama’s garden.  One neighbor constantly threatened to call the cops about the plant.  We took the threat seriously.  This was a neighbor who had “handicapped only” parking signs installed in front of her house — even though she wasn’t handicapped and didn’t have a car.  She would call the cops if anyone parked, or even left their car idling too long, in front of her house.

Every time this neighbor saw my mother in her garden, she would come to the fence and complain about the marijuana plant.  “That plant’s not bothering you,” my mother would say, dismissively.

Still, we were getting nervous.  As the plant approached the height of the back fence that separated our property from that of the bitchy neighbor’s, the possibility of police intervention became more real.  The plant was growing large enough to be visible from a distance.  If a police car happened to drive by and see a huge, well-tended marijuana plant growing in someone’s backyard, they were likely to stop and at least ask questions. 

My brothers — aware of their own upstairs stashes, and I suppose out of concern for my mother and our family as well — started trying to talk my mother into chopping down the plant.  It had gotten to a size where chopping would be required. 

My mother, by her dismissive remarks, clearly didn’t want to destroy the plant.  It had grown big, fast, proving yet again the superiority of her garden soil and organic farming methods.  But logic and sensibility prevailed. 

One day, the plant was gone.  I never knew exactly how she got rid of it.  I am pretty sure my brothers didn’t smoke it.  And I can’t imagine she set fire to it.  Whatever she did, it was gone, and that was that.

Except, for a while, it wasn’t.  For a few more summers, marijuana plants sprouted in the garden.  My mother would let them grow for a couple of weeks, and then dutifully pull them while they were still ankle-high. 

But now we had a new problem — the seeds, kept in the attic and no longer tossed into the garden, attracted mice.  On more than one occasion when I went up to my brothers’ room (most likely to read about secretaries’ panties), I saw baby mice stumbling about and moving very slowly.  Fortunately, high mice proved pretty easy to trap and kill.

Clouds and Panties

March 21, 2009

Blue Sky with clouds

When I was eight or nine, I developed a fascination with our World Book Encyclopedias.  I thought all the knowledge in the world was contained in those 28 volumes, and I intended to read each one.  I knew if I did that, I’d be the smartest person in the world.

 

The encyclopedias were kept on the bookshelf of the attic that had been converted into one huge bedroom for my three brothers.  For some reason, the “upstairs” was off-limits, unless you went with one specific purpose in mind and left once you’d accomplished that purpose.  This was not an edict issued by my brothers, it was an understood rule of the house, which meant that my mother had deemed it necessary. 

 

At eight, I paid my brothers no attention.  They were all several years older than me and all in high school.  Greg, the youngest of the three, was sixteen, an age that seemed unfathomable to me then.  I was simply the little pest, and the secrets of “upstairs” didn’t fascinate me at all.  I wanted those encyclopedias.

 

I don’t remember if Caroletta coaxed me into it or if it was the other way around, but my older sister and I started going upstairs (after Mama said it was okay) and bringing down one volume at a time.  We agreed that the A volume was too big; we’d save it for later.  The Ci-Cz volume was a good starting place – it was thin and, we decided, easy to finish.  We skimmed through it, looking for interesting topics, and Caroletta stopped on the section entitled “Clouds.”

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