Parenting: Are We Getting a Raw Deal?

Summer 1974. I’m 9 years old. By 7:30 am, I’m up and out of the house, or if it’s Saturday I’m up and doing exactly what my father, Big Jerry, has told me to do. Might be raking, mowing, digging holes, or washing cars.

Summer 2016. I’m tiptoeing out of the house, on my way to work, in an effort not to wake my children who will undoubtedly sleep until 11 am. They may complete a couple of the chores I’ve left in a list on the kitchen counter for them, or they may eat stale Cheez-its that were left in their rooms 3 days ago, in order to avoid the kitchen at all costs and “not see” the list.

If you haven’t noticed, we’re getting a raw deal where this parenting gig is concerned. When did adults start caring whether or not their kids were safe, happy, or popular? I can assure you that Ginny and Big Jerry were not wiling away the hours wondering if my brother and I were fulfilled. Big Jerry was stoking the fires of his retirement savings and working, and working some more. Ginny was double bolting the door in order to keep us out of the house, and talking on the phone while she smoked a Kent. Meanwhile, we were three neighborhoods away, playing with some kids we’d never met, and we had crossed 2 major highways on bicycles with semi-flat tires to get there. Odds are, one of us had crashed at some point and was bleeding pretty impressively. No one cared. We were kids and if we weren’t acting as free labor, we were supposed to be out of the house and out of the way.

My personal belief is that the same “woman with too little to do”, that decided it was necessary to give 4- year old guests a gift for coming to a birthday party, is the same loon who decided we were here to serve our kids and not the other way around. Think about it. As a kid, what was your costume for Halloween? If you were really lucky, your mom jabbed a pair of scissors in an old sheet, cut two eye holes, and you were a ghost. If her friend was coming over to frost her hair and showed up early, you got one eye hole cut and spent the next 45 minutes using a sharp stick to jab a second hole that was about two inches lower than its partner. I watched my cousin run directly into a parked car due to this very costume one year. He was still yelling, “Trick or Treat” as he slid down the rear quarter panel of a Buick, mildly concussed. When my son was 3 years old, we had a clown costume made by a seamstress, complete with pointy clown hat, and grease makeup. His grandmother spent more having that costume made than she did on my prom dress.

At some point in the last 25 years, the tide shifted and the parents started getting the marginal cars and the cheap clothes while the kids live like rock stars. We spend enormous amounts of money on private instruction, the best sports gear money can buy, and adhere to psycho competition schedules. I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ve bought the $300 baseball bats with money that should have been invested in a retirement account, traveled from many an AAU basketball game, or travel baseball game, to a dance competition in the course of one day, and failed to even consider why. Remember Hank Aaron? He didn’t need a $300 bat to be great. Your kid isn’t going pro and neither is mine, but you are going to retire one day and dumpster diving isn’t for the elderly. My brother and I still laugh about how, when he played high school baseball, there was one good bat and the entire team used it.

Remember your clothes in the 70’s? Despite my best efforts to block it out, I can still remember my desperate need to have a pair of authentic Converse shoes. Did I get them? Negative. Oh, was it a punch in the gut when my mother presented me with the Archdale knock-offs she found somewhere between my hometown and Greensboro. Trust me. They weren’t even close. Did I complain? Hell, no. I’m still alive, aren’t I? We’ve got an entire generation of kids spitting up on outfits that cost more than my monthly electric bill. There were no designer baby clothes when we were kids. Why? Because our parents weren’t crazy enough to spend $60 on an outfit for us to have explosive diarrhea in or vomit on. Our parents were focused on saving for their retirement and paying their house off. The real beauty of it is that none of these kids are going to score a job straight out of college that will allow them to pay for the necessities of life, brand new cars, and $150 jeans, so guess who’s going to be getting the phone call when they can’t make rent? Yep, we are.

Think back; way, way back. Who cleaned the house and did the yard work when you were a kid? You did. In fact, that’s why some people had children. We were free labor. My mother served as supervisor for the indoor chores, and the house damn well better be spotless when my father came through the door at 5:35. The battle cry went something like this, “Oh, no! Your father will be home in 15 minutes! Get those toys put away nooooow!” The rest of our evening was spent getting up to turn the television on demand, and only to what Dad wanted to watch.

On weekends Dad was in charge of outdoor work and if you were thirsty you drank out of the hose, because 2 minutes of air conditioning and a glass of water from the faucet might make you soft. Who does the housework and yardwork now? The cleaning lady that comes on Thursday, and the landscaping crew that comes every other Tuesday. Most teenage boys have never touched a mower, and if you asked my daughter to clean a toilet, she would come back with a four page paper on the various kinds of deadly bacteria present on toilet seats. Everyone is too busy doing stuff to take care of the stuff they already have. But don’t get confused, they aren’t working or anything crazy like that. Juggling school assignments, extracurricular activities, and spending our money could become stressful if they had to work.

I don’t recall anyone being worried about my workload being stressful, or my mental health in general. I don’t think my father was even certain about my birthday until about 10 years ago. Jerry and Ginny had grownup stuff to worry about. As teenagers, we managed our own social lives and school affairs. If Karen, while executing a hair flip, told me my new Rave perm made me look like shit and there was no way Kevin would ever go out with my scrawny ass, my mother wasn’t even going to know about it; much less call Karen’s mother and arrange a meeting where we could iron out our misunderstanding and take a selfie together. Additionally, no phone calls were ever made to any of my teachers or coaches. Ever. If we sat the bench, we sat the bench. Our dads were at work anyway. They only knew what we told them. I can’t even conceive of my dad leaving work to come watch a ballgame. If I made a 92.999 and got a B, I got a B. No thinly veiled threats were made and no money changed hands to get me that A. Ok, full disclosure, in my case we would be looking at an 84.9999. I was the poster child for underachievement.

Back in our day, high school was a testing ground for life. We were learning to be adults under the semi-vigilant supervision of our parents. We had jobs because we wanted cars, and we wanted to be able to put gas in our cars, and wear Jordache jeans and Candies. Without jobs, we had Archdale sneakers and Wranglers, and borrowed our mother’s Chevrolet Caprice, affectionately known as the “land yacht”, on Friday night. No one, I mean, no one, got a new car. I was considered fairly lucky because my parents bought me a car at all. I use the term “car” loosely. If I tell you it was a red convertible and stop right here, you might think me special. I wasn’t. My car was a red MG Midget, possibly a ’74 and certainly a death trap.

Look at your coffee table. Now imagine it having a steering wheel and driving it. I promise you, it’s bigger than my car was. The starter was bad, so after school I had the pleasure of popping the hood and using two screwdrivers to cross the solenoids or waiting for the football players to come out of the dressing room headed to practice. Those guys pushing my car while I popped the clutch, is a memory no 16-year old girl around here will ever have, and it’s a great one. Had I driven that car in high winds, it’s likely I would have ended up airborne, and there were probably some serious safety infractions committed the night I took 6 people in togas to a convenience store, but I wouldn’t go back and trade it out for a new 280Z, even if I had the chance. I was a challenging teenager, and in retrospect the fact that it was pretty impressive every time I made it home alive, may not have been an accident on the part of my parents. Go to the high school now. These kids are driving cars that grown men working 55 hours a week can’t afford, and they aren’t paying for them with their jobs.

And those new cars don’t do a thing for telling a good story. I tell my kids all the time, the very best stories from my teen and college years involve Ann’s yellow Plymouth Duster with the “swirling dust” graphic, Randy’s Valiant with the broken gas gauge, and Carla’s burgundy Nissan that may or may not have had a complete floorboard. A story that starts, “Remember that time we were heading to the beach in Carla’s Nissan and your wallet fell through the floorboard onto the highway?” is so much more interesting than, “Remember that time we were going to the beach in your brand new SUV, filled up with gas that your parents paid for, and the…well, no, never mind. Nothing happened. We just drove down there.” To top it all off, most of them head off to college without a clue what it’s like to look for a job, apply for it, interview, and show up on time, as scheduled. If they have a job, it’s because someone owed their dad a favor…and then they work when it “fits their schedule”.

We all love our kids, and we want to see them happy and fulfilled, but I fear we’re robbing them of the experiences that make life memorable and make them capable, responsible, confident adults. For the majority of us, the very nice things we had as teenagers, we purchased with money we earned after saving for some ungodly amount of time. Our children are given most everything, and sometimes I wonder whether it’s for them or to make us feel like good parents. The bottom line is that you never value something you were given, as much as something you worked for. There were lessons in our experiences, even though we didn’t know it at the time. All those high school cat fights, and battles with teachers we clashed with, were an opportunity for us to learn how to negotiate and how to compromise. It also taught us that the world isn’t fair. Sometimes people just don’t like you, and sometimes you’ll work your ass off and still get screwed. We left high school, problem solvers. I’m afraid our kids are leaving high school with mommy and daddy on speed dial.

We just don’t have the cojones our parents had. We aren’t prepared to tell our kids that they won’t have it if they don’t work for it, because we can’t bear to see them go without and we can’t bear to see them fail. We’ve given them a whole lot of stuff; stuff that will break down, wear out, get lost, go out of style, and lose value. As parents, I suppose some of us feel pretty proud about how we’ve contributed in a material way to our kid’s popularity and paved an easy street for them. I don’t, and I know there are many of you that are just as frustrated by it as I am. I worry about what we’ve robbed them of, which I’ve listed below, in the process of giving them everything.

  • Delayed gratification is a really good thing. It teaches you perseverance and how to determine the true value of something. Our kids don’t know a damn thing about delayed gratification. To them, delayed gratification is waiting for their phone to charge.
  • Problem-solving skills and the ability to manage emotion are crucial life skills. Kids now have every problem solved for them. Good luck calling their college professor to argue about how they should have another shot at that final because they had two other finals to study for and were stressed. Don’t laugh, parents have tried it.
  • Independence allows you to discover who you really are, instead of being what someone else expects you to be. It was something I craved. These kids have traded independence for new cars and Citizen jeans. They will live under someone’s thumb forever, if it means cool stuff. I would have lived in borderline condemned housing, and survived off of crackers and popsicles to maintain my independence. Oh wait, I actually did that. It pisses me off. You’re supposed to WANT to grow up and forge your way in the world; not live on someone else’s dime, under someone else’s rule, and too often these days, under someone else’s roof.
  • Common sense is that little something extra that allows you to figure out which direction is north, how to put air in your tires, or the best route to take at a certain time of day to avoid traffic. You develop common sense by making mistakes and learning from them. It’s a skill best acquired in a setting where it’s safe to fail, and is only mastered by actually doing things for yourself. By micromanaging our kids all the time, we’re setting them up for a lifetime of cluelessness and ineptitude. At a certain age, that cluelessness becomes dangerous. I’ve seen women marry to avoid thinking for themselves, and for some it was the wisest course of action.
  • Mental toughness is what allows a person to keep going despite everything going wrong. People with mental toughness are the ones who come out on top. They battle through job losses, difficult relationships, illness, and failure. It is a quality born from adversity. Adversity is a GOOD thing. It teaches you what you’re made of. It puts into practice the old saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. It’s life’s teacher. Our bubble-wrapped kids are so sheltered from adversity, I wonder how the mental health professionals will handle them all after the world chews them up and spits them out a few times.

I know you’re calling me names right now, and mentally listing all the reasons this doesn’t apply to you and your kid, but remember I’m including myself in this. My kids aren’t as bad as some, because I’m too poor and too lazy to indulge them beyond a certain point. And I’m certainly not saying that our parents did everything right. God knows all that second hand smoke I was exposed to, and those Sunday afternoon drives where Dad was drinking a Schlitz and I was standing on the front seat like a human projectile, were less than ideal; but I do think parents in the 70’s defined their roles in a way we never have.I worry that our kids are leaving home with more intellectual ability than we did, but without the life skills that will give them the success and independence that we’ve enjoyed.

Then again, maybe it’s not us parents that are getting the raw end of this deal after all.

Stuff I’ve Learned the Hard Way

1) Love, when done right, is an endless act of forgiveness, under-promising, and over-delivering.

2) Tequila, when consumed, should always be chilled and chased with OJ.

3) It is not enough to have a goal, you must also have a plan that outlines how you’re going to get there.

4) Children should be celebrated for who they were born to be, not molded into who we want them to be.

5) Travel is important…especially for children. And while I love the beach, I don’t mean just that.

6) The laziest person you know will get a job because of who they know. Connections are everything.

7) Everyone has the power to make a difference for someone.

8) Being dependent is dangerous, especially if you’re a woman.

9) Allowing someone to be dependent upon you is dangerous, especially if you’re a man.

10) All pets should be spayed and neutered, regardless of how cute they might be. There are lots of really cute, really awesome dogs and cats out there looking for a home, right now.

11) Always buy white towels and linens.

12) What’s inside a person can make the outside really attractive….and vice versa.

13) There’s no intimacy without vulnerability.

14) If you still have your best friend from when you were 12, at 50, you’re pretty darn lucky. I’m pretty darn lucky. Raise your hand, Sarah Williams Fisher.

15) I may be as wise now, as I believed I was in my 20’s.

16) Always put your best foot forward, but don’t stress too much. Not once, in my adult life, has anyone ever asked what my class rank was or what kind of GPA I graduated with…..thank god.

17) There’s always going to be someone prettier, smarter, and more successful than I…and I’m good with that.

18) Personal integrity is not overrated. Look for people who have it. Keep them in your circle.

19) Parents should never coach their kids.  You’re much better suited to be a #1 fan. If you’re the coach, they are never really sure how good they are.

20) Eat the damn doughnut; but only once in a while, not every day.

21) If you have a personal struggle, the best way to combat it is to get outside of yourself and do something for someone else.

22) Watching too much TV kills productivity and creativity. Turn it off.

23) Expose your children to information and encourage them to develop their decision-making skills. Don’t force feed them your beliefs. Critical thinking skills are crucial to survival. The internet and helicopter parenting have created a world full of followers.

24) Gossiping about what other people’s children are doing is a slippery slope.  After all, did your parents know everything you were doing? Do you think you know everything your kids are doing?

25) Once your children are in high school, the die is cast. Stalk them all you want to but they’ll find a way to do exactly what they want to do, and it will erode your relationship in the process. Instead, set reasonable boundaries and resist the urge to freak out when they come to you with something you kind of wish you didn’t know.

26) Some days you won’t like your significant other….at all. Guess what? That means you’re normal.

27) The right man or woman will love your kids from a previous marriage as much as you do.

28) Regular exercise fixes a lot of problems that medications, therapists, and booze won’t.

29) Nobody likes an idiot. Don’t be one. And yes, it’s a choice. Read a book.

30) Down time with your kids is essential. No TV, no phones.  Just conversation, and maybe a card game or some Scrabble.

31) If your relationships aren’t working, it’s because your selection criteria sucks.

32) Being positive gets you a whole lot farther down the road than negativity ever will.

33) Almost everyone looks good in pink.

34) Whatever you’re currently saving for your retirement, probably isn’t enough.

35) The reason that church and state need to remain separate is because this is where the majority of corruption lives. To combine the two would be catastrophic.

36) You will open your heart and trust people. Some of them will betray that trust. Only an ass does that. Move on.

37) Fresh cut flowers make a house a home.

38) Beneath anger you will almost always find a thick layer of hurt.

39) Emotional people never make good decisions. Close your mouth and wait.

40) There will be times you have to choose between your job and your children. Choose your children every single time. They grow up entirely too fast and this Merry-Go-Round only makes one rotation.  Enjoy every single moment.

When that Time Comes….

Sixty yards offshore on New Year’s Day and I watch as she tosses her head back, laughing with delight. Her smile infectious, even with the braces that she’s scheduled to wear another five months. A couple of hundred feet off the back of the boat, a dolphin breaches the surface, shiny and gray. Beautiful in the grace and simplicity of its silent swim. As I watch it curve effortlessly, I think just how perfect the moment is; the potential of a new year in its infancy, the wide, full smile of my 13 year old daughter, and that lone dolphin seemingly joining in on the fun. But that’s typical of my daughter, McRae. She’s human glitter. No matter the occasion, her presence always ups the ante a little. She and her friends, Addi and Payton, step to the edge of the boat, clasp hands and fling themselves into space, laughing through their screams, as their brightly colored tutus hit the 58 degrees Fahrenheit ocean. Their first New Year’s Day Penguin Plunge together is complete.

There is not one thing we do on this earth more rewarding, or more challenging to our self-confidence, than parenting our children. Despite all of our grand expectations of who and what our children will be, they show up with a plan all their own. Sometimes our expectations and their personality merge; but more often they do not. One thing is consistent: Our underlying fear that we’re failing them in a myriad of ways. You could have six of them, and no two would need to be loved in the same way. It’s a dance of sorts where the longer you’ve been together, the more graceful you become in finding a rhythm that serves both of you. Like dance partners though, the interaction is more instinctive with some than with others.

My son, from day one, was in step with me. He didn’t sleep unless he was in my arms. The temptation of finger painting and snack time with friends wasn’t even close to enough to keep him from crying until he was officially a Mother’s Morning Out flunky. As he grew into a boy, the relationship between us was effortless. We share the same sense of humor, the same taste in music, and our mutual interest in sports means that we always have something to discuss that we’re both engaged in. At 16, he’s easily my favorite person to trade a sarcastic barb with or make reference to the satirical genius of South Park, resting comfortably in the knowledge that he gets it too. Every parent, if they’re honest, has one child they know would have been their best friend had the universe made them biology lab partners instead of parent and child.

Over the years though, I’ve seen McRae as she watches us. Seemingly a little distant, almost certainly feeling like the one that walked up on the joke about 30 seconds too late. I know in my heart that she thinks for a hundred different reasons that he’s my favorite; our relationship is less combative, he looks like me, we are quick-witted and sarcastic, we’re homebodies and introverted, we love sports, and Jake is the “easy” kid.  When my patience is at its end because I’ve asked them to put their clothes away five times, to no avail, Jake diffuses my anger by cajoling me; teasing me about “watching my blood pressure” and my “advanced age”, and fulfilling my request. McRae fires back at me. Challenging my statement that I’ve asked her five times with, “No, you haven’t. It’s only been three times,” or trying to procrastinate just a little longer by needing to finish doing “this one thing”.  I don’t have to tell you how well that goes over. And so, with Jake and I, it’s like two old friends sparing over a beer. With McRae, it’s like a matador and a bull. Each dancing around the other, challenging and withdrawing, but prepared to fight to the death.

I wonder if the fire that she sends in my direction is just the hormone fueled angst of being a teenaged girl, or something deeper. Maybe I’m the deserving target of an anger that’s a result of our struggle for control, and my clumsy attempts to do a better job of relating to her. It leaves me with a hollow ache to think that there are times she might feel left out in our little family of three.

As I watch her break the surface of the ocean, face toward the sky and mouth open, gasping at the shock of the cold water, I’m overwhelmed with love for her and all that I want her to know about this complicated union we have. I want to pull her into my lap and explain that while Jake and I may share a sense of humor and a love for sports and music, she is everything I ever wanted to be. I can almost see her future stretched out before me, and I’m both excited and a little frightened by who I know she’s destined to be. Whether she realizes it or not, there are parts of her that are distinctly me; her fierce independence and brave front are fruits plucked from my genetic tree. Because of this, I know that there’s no telling her anything at this age. She will be driven to decipher life on her own, and I love this about her. McRae is unique in a way that I always wished to be, and I’m fascinated by all that she is every single day.

I know and understand her struggle as she swims against the current of emotional and physical biology that’s taking her from child to woman. She’s still fighting to understand herself. I know that the wrong word or tone can slam the door to her heart shut, and the opportunity to connect with her will be gone.  So, instead of telling her aloud all that I want to say; I arrange the words carefully in my mind and shelve them for the perfect moment when I sense that she might be receptive. Because there will be those times the door will crack open, and I will get to offer her my carefully constructed love in doses that she can accept. Nuggets of wisdom that will remind her how much she is loved, and give her a soft place to rest when life isn’t going so great.

So, when that time comes…..

I will tell her how I look at her full lips and long eyelashes and marvel at just how beautiful she is. She’s never gone through an “awkward stage”, while I spent a large part of my life in one. She doesn’t realize it now, but I refrain from complimenting her on her physical beauty and focus instead on her very brilliant mind, because I want her self-worth tied to something concrete instead of something fleeting. She will need something she’s sure of when other girls treat her poorly out of sheer jealousy. I wish I could pretend they won’t, but I know all too well they will.

I will tell her how I hold my breath every single time she takes the stage, dancing for the pure joy of performing, because I lacked the self-esteem to open myself up to the criticism of the world. I will tell her of my admiration for the way she faces every challenge with the underlying attitude of a winner; and how, on those occasions when she isn’t the victor, she possesses the confidence to lose with grace and a sense of humor. Only I know that, in that moment, she’s mentally formulating a plan to be better next time.

I will tell her how the enthusiasm she has for life is one of the things that makes her so extraordinarily beautiful.  It’s as if she has some sixth sense and already realizes just how tenuous the thread of life is. It will someday draw the perfect partner to her, but I will warn her that it will draw a score of imperfect ones too. It will be up to her to develop a selection process that serves her well, and trust her instincts.

I will tell her to embrace her intelligence and exercise the muscle that is her brain. I will caution her that while men say they want a woman who is smart, there are many that can’t handle the competition. I will threaten her within an inch of her life if she ever dims her light to make one of those who can’t handle her at full bore, more comfortable. She has an obligation to seek knowledge and embrace new ideas. She must reach her full potential because her mother did not.

I will tell her to use all of her fire and conviction to foster her independence. I want her to know that, if she lets it, her courage and adventurous spirit will gain her  incredible experiences that she will never forget.  I will encourage her to travel with friends, live in a new city, chase her career dreams, and become exactly who she is meant to be; before she marries and starts to make sacrifices for another.

I will tell her that while you can have children and a career, despite what people tell you, it’s impossible to devote equal energy to both. From time to time, one area will suffer some and it should always be her career. Co-worker’s can give presentations, complete budgets, and follow up with customers; but it’s her face that her child should look up and see at awards day and her arms that should comfort her baby sick with fever.

And when the door is open far enough, I will push my way inside and I will hold court. I will tell her that over all of these years, the relationship between us has been more complicated, but no less soaked in love than the one I’ve shared with Jake. I want her to know that, that’s just how it is with mothers and their daughters. I will share how I look at her and see all the potential she has in a world ripe with possibility; not to fulfill my dreams, but with opportunity to fulfill hers. I will tell her how I see those possibilities for Jake as well, but with her the fear is greater because, as a woman, I know the very specific obstacles she will face. I will tell her how I worry that I will fail her by not delivering all of the knowledge I have in a way that she can accept it. I will tell her how, at my core, I know that she will be the one who leaves me to explore the world at its outermost edges; and how that thrills and terrifies me simultaneously. I will point out to her how unique she is in a world full of people willing to settle for the standard, and I will cheer her on and encourage her to be what most of us aren’t capable of being.

But until then, until she has allowed that door to swing open enough for me to slip inside, I will wait patiently. I will hold her hand when she lets me. I will kiss her cheek at bedtime. I will applaud her accomplishments. I will grit my teeth and struggle through the synthesized pop music, and bite my tongue when she shares the latest Kardashian tidbit.

And I will love her on her terms, until then.

 

I’ll Take What’s Behind Door #3

Not too long after I finished my first blog post, which was a little like giving birth with no epidural, someone sent me a message and said, “Hey, how about writing something for us single people on your blog?” I replied that I would be happy to, and I’ve been struggling with it ever since.

When you’re young and beautiful, dating is fun and exciting. You’re free to go out anytime and stay out until the wee hours. If you don’t hit it off with this one, there’s another one just around the corner. Your skin is dewy and smooth, your energy is endless, and you have all the time in the world.

Not so when you’re 50. At 50, the game is a changed one. What once was an ocean of potential lovers, has become a wading pool of the potentially tolerable. Dates are scheduled around your children’s ballgames, school projects, and job obligations. Forget beautiful, we’re just hoping for passable. Our once luminous skin is dull and wrinkled at worst; freshly exfoliated and wrinkled at best.

After a crazy work week running kids to extracurricular activities, doing laundry, and cooking (okay, full disclosure: picking up takeout) we’re just hoping to make it through dessert without falling asleep in our tiramisu.

Too often, what was once an exciting process of getting to know someone and their hopes and dreams, has morphed into spending an entire evening listening to a one-sided account of how and why, your date’s former spouse is cheating scum and now married to their former neighbor/boss/best friend/best friend’s spouse. Its torture; and suffering through the unabridged version is rarely worth the cost of the meal.

My dating history is long and storied. You know the part of your brain that made getting a Rave perm a week prior to your senior pictures seem like an excellent idea?  That’s the part of my brain that’s been responsible for the majority of my relationship choices.

For me, college was a time to focus on doing the bare minimum to keep from ending up on academic probation, regularly changing majors to avoid graduating, and a record-setting amount of fun. While other girls were settling down and flipping through issues of “Brides”, I was systematically eliminating any man who could even spell responsible. If they had Peter Pan syndrome, struggled with monogamy, or had career aspirations that included living in a hut on the beach so that they could jump on the best waves first, I was in.

While other girls were quietly scooping up the responsible, level-headed men with a secure future; I was running from them. I remember this med student, in particular. I went on one date with him. He was cute, outgoing, quick-witted, and pursuing a surgical career.  I ran from him like he was Ted Bundy. To someone like me, who had the emotional maturity of SpongeBob SquarePants, marriage and children sounded like some sad, last resort for people who lacked creativity and a sense of humor.

Many years later, when I had run out of single friends to have fun with, I married. Remember that part of the brain I mentioned earlier, that part that made the Rave perm a week before senior pictures seem like a great idea? It was working overtime. I won’t elaborate because I want you to finish reading and still think me sane. It ended, not a moment too soon, and I focused on my nearly perfect children, and insuring that they never felt like they were competing with anyone for my attention or affection.

Some years passed and, as fate would have it, I became reacquainted with a gentleman from my college days who was a genuinely nice man.  The timing was right and we began dating. I couldn’t imagine a better situation. I already knew him so I didn’t have to worry that he was some sociopath, he was handsome, attentive, and we still shared mutual friends. We lived in different cities and our work schedules weren’t the same, but I was committed.

Our relationship moved along fairly effortlessly. It wasn’t too long before I knew he was the love of my life. My heart was home. He felt the same way and over the years, we settled into a life of driving back and forth between houses and becoming a long distance family, of sorts. I looked forward to the future and growing old with him. We would still hold hands when we were 80, make each other coffee in the morning, and our house would be full on holidays. He loved me just as much as I loved him. I really believed I had it right this time.

When he proposed earlier this year, I was over the moon. He had two children and a family I had come to adore, and was clearly choosing to overlook my ever-expanding wrinkle collection and the fact that, despite my endless squats and running, my butt seemed determined to take up residence somewhere around the backs of my thighs.

Less than six months later, about a month into our 6th year together, he broke off the engagement. There was no “deal breaking” behavior; no infidelity, no lying, no substance abuse or physical abuse. He just felt that our obstacles of distance and differing work schedules were too great and he wasn’t happy anymore.

Saying I was devastated would be like saying Mother Teresa is a nice lady. I wanted to be angry with him, but I couldn’t be.  This man is a good man. He didn’t want to hurt me, and I’ve no doubt in my mind that he gave me everything he was capable of giving me.

I spent the first few days ugly crying in the fetal position, before it finally occurred to me that not everyone’s “forever” means forever. The hard truth is, if he were going to give up on us this easily, there is no way we would have ever made it all the way to the warm family holidays, and the coffee-making and holding hands in our 80’s.

You, dear reader, are going to be the beneficiary of the soul-searching and contemplation that resulted from the excruciating pain I suffered. In order to survive, I had to make sense of it all.

Life is brutal. It comes at you from all sides.  It’s tempting, you know, to think of every single undesirable trait you have when a relationship fails. I know I “go internal” when I have a problem and shut people out, I forget to return phone calls, I hate to cook, read when I should probably be talking, and don’t know how to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n.  There are a million negatives to offset my wit and charming personality, and render me undeserving of love.

Here’s the thing though, every day people lose their jobs, battle exhausting, financially debilitating diseases, try to save their children from drug addiction, confess infidelity, and care for aging parents. In my world, love is what you combat the inevitable obstacles with. If I love someone, I don’t give up on them. That applies whether you are my lover, my child, my family, or my friend. “There is a solution for every problem.”  It’s my motto.  In fact, when you tell someone you love them, I believe you’re actually saying, “I will always give you the benefit of the doubt. I will stand beside you through the very worst of what life throws at us, and love you when you’re not very loveable. You will never face anything alone. I will be honest even when it hurts, and every single day, I will wake up and choose you.”  And I swear I did not rip that off from some Lifetime movie, or Lloyd in “Say Anything”. That little nugget is all mine.

When you get down to it, those married couples out there aren’t that different from those of us still looking. As individuals, most of us want similar things out of life. No one wants to die alone.  We want to feel safe, appreciated, and understood.  We want to know someone is out there who will celebrate our accomplishments, pluck us from the wreckage when everything implodes, and kick us in the ass when it’s required.

Ultimately, we want someone to share with that we can trust. The highs are that much higher when there’s someone else lifting you up; and when times are bad, they’re not nearly as overwhelming when there’s someone helping hold your head above water. Because, here it is: We are all imperfect.

Most of us go out into the world every day with good intentions. The problem is none of us are whole, so we use up our best behavior on the people we barely know and unleash the demons on the ones we love. Some of us do it a whole lot less than others, but we all do it. This is where it gets tricky, because we don’t choose WHO we love, but we do choose to STAY in love. This is where we single people differ from those couples you know that have been married 20 years.

No matter what we might think, they don’t have the perfect, blissful marriage full of sex, playful banter, and exotic vacations. What they do have are two emotionally mature people, who are doing their best to communicate their needs, and who are consciously choosing each other and choosing to stay in love each and every day.

My children are the reluctant recipients of my wisdom. I’ve told them time and again, “The good times will pass, and so will the bad. Don’t get too caught up in either one of them.” This is something people in successful relationships know instinctively….they aren’t always going to be happy, and they aren’t going to stay sad or angry. They expect the roller coaster, they ride it, and they never, ever give up. They CHOOSE to continue to love their partner.  Finding someone to fall in love with is the easy part, the challenge is finding someone who will always choose you, even when it might seem easier to walk away.

What we’re all looking for is a warrior. Someone who sees past our imperfections and the armor we wear every day, and loves us for our potential, our passions, and our own unique set of gifts.

What I’ve learned is that romantic relationships aren’t anything more than friendships on steroids with physical attraction. Aristotle believed that there are three main categories of friends:

  • Those who love you because you’re useful to them.
  • Those who love you because your company provides them with pleasure.
  • Those who love you because you’re a good person.

People who are a part of your life primarily because you’re useful to them, or your company provides them with pleasure, will always end up leaving. I don’t know about you but as hard as I try, I’m not always useful and my company is sometimes anything but pleasurable. Why? Because, I’m imperfect. Because there are times in my life I’m a dream come true, and there are times you would probably just want to fast forward through a couple of weeks.

Someone that loves you based on your usefulness and/or the pleasure you bring them, will almost always stop choosing to love you and abandon ship when they hit high seas. It’s category #3 you’re looking for; the relationships that are based on your partner’s ability to see you as a good person are the ones that last. The first two types of relationships exist when one person wants to “be loved” more than they want “to love”. They’re looking for someone to flatter them and fill them up. Real, lasting relationships are the result of two people who are more focused on the act of loving. When someone loves you for your inherent goodness, they love you through the times you just don’t have what it takes to be useful or pleasing, and their focus isn’t on what they are or aren’t getting from you. They stay focused on what they can give. They continue to choose you, even in the worst of times. While there are obvious differences in the physical properties of a parent/child relationship and a romantic relationship, the quality of the love we extend should be the same.

Just today, I read an article that a hospice chaplain wrote about ministering to the dying. She said that many people were surprised to hear that the dying didn’t talk about their religion or God. They overwhelmingly talk about love. They talk about the love they gave and received. They talk about love that they felt in their lifetime, and love that should have been unconditional but wasn’t.  Many talked about love they withheld, or never knew how to offer. Sometimes they talked about love they walked away from and shouldn’t have.

We’re surrounded by opportunities to choose love every day in our interactions with our family, our friends, and our children. I believe that every act of love leaves us more beautiful than we were before.

After a loss, our first instinct is to tell ourselves we’re done. We’re giving up. But let’s face it, there is no greater gift in life than love and the conscious commitment to choose that love over and over again. While I still catch myself at stop lights every now and again, drifting off and wondering where I fell short, I’m pretty sure that up until this point I’ve spent most of my time in relationships with men whose love was rooted in categories 1 and 2. And while my life is full of love from some amazing people, I’m still hopeful that someday I’m going to find a category 3 kind of romantic love, and join the ranks of all those couples who figured it out way before I did.

But you know, when you think about it, a full house during holidays, making each other coffee and holding hands at 80, are all rooted in giving love and goodness. Maybe, just maybe, I’m headed in the right direction.

Saving Seven

I’ve had a number of people, over time, encourage me to write a book or start a blog. Primarily due to the stories I tell about my children, Jake and McRae. They supply funny material daily.  So, about a month ago, I finally sat down and created this blog, my intention being to share my funny stories in a place where people could see them if they liked, but not have them “forced” on them via Facebook’s timeline. This wasn’t what I had planned for my first post, but it needs to be shared.

Life has a way of taking a swing at us when we least expect it. You think it’s all going great, you’ve got your ducks in a row, and WHAM. Out of nowhere the love of your life decides they’re not up for pushing through the bad times, the company you work for decides they don’t need you anymore, or your dishwasher springs a leak and floods your hardwoods. It happens, and when it does we can get consumed by it. Feeling sorry for yourself is easy.  I’ve had some disappointments of my own lately, and I was all prepared to assume the fetal position, when someone reminded me that life is about showing up when times are tough. It’s easy to show up during the good times. Everyone loves “happy”; everyone loves “easy”, don’t they?

Imagine being one of seven children. Seven children whose parents have failed them so many times, that Social Services has finally stepped in and said that the people who brought you into this world, aren’t fit to provide you basic care each day. If you’re one of those seven children the prospect must be terrifying, because this is the only home you’ve ever known. If you’re one of the older siblings, you know enough to know that you’re not going to be living with your brothers and sisters anymore. The system will split you up and farm you out, and there’s a possibility that you’ll never see some of them again. Imagine that for just a second.

If this were Hollywood, a rich white couple would swoop in and save all seven, and after some dramatic, ticket-selling moments, all seven would grow up and prosper. But, this isn’t Hollywood, it’s rural North Carolina and the clock is ticking. Would you open your home? Those of us that are responsible have budgets. We don’t buy houses we can’t afford, we don’t have children we can’t support, and we skip vacations because the money isn’t there. As a single mother, I know all about not having enough resources and saying, “no”.  I also know that today, my household couldn’t take on a cat without serious consideration, much less more children. If you know someone who would step up for seven children, raise your hand. Guess what? You can’t see me, but I’m raising mine.

On Sunday, July 19th I received a text message from one of the men I work with.  As a little benefit, I manage in-house savings accounts for them and he was requesting that I send him all he had.  His wife’s sister and her husband were losing their children and he and his wife weren’t about to let them become part of the system.

David and Charlene are people that have done everything right. They are hard workers, are active in their church and community, and are working hard to raise two teenagers of their own. They are kind and they are good. They, like most of us, pay their bills and try to put a little back for unexpected emergencies. They do not live in a McMansion with multiple guest rooms, but they came up with a plan; David and his wife would take four of the children and David’s mother-in-law would take three. David and Charlene’s children went from having rooms of their own to graciously sharing their space. David and Charlene went from parenting two teens to adding a 14 year old, a 12 year old, a 3 year old, and a 1 year old. Charlene’s mom went from an empty nest, to parenting a 4 year old, a 7 year old, and an 8 year old.

The children came with nothing but the clothes on their backs. No one had bothered to take the time to potty train the 3 year old or teach the 7 year old to tie his shoes. Someone had taken the time, however, to tell the 14 year old girl that she was worthless and ugly, as often as possible, so she arrived without any self-esteem. I can’t talk about her or think about her without crying. Seriously crying and I don’t do that often.

Your parents are supposed to be your soft place. They’re supposed to be the people who believe you to be better than you even are. They aren’t supposed to chip away at your soul every day until someone else takes the knife away.  In so many ways, our parents are a mirror that we look at as kids to see who we are and what we’re capable of achieving. This 14 year old child has been looking in that mirror and seeing nothing. Charlene tells me that they’re working hard to build this young lady up. She’s learning that she does look pretty when she dresses for church and that she has capabilities in school that she never dreamed she could have.

David has taught her that it isn’t acceptable for a man to call her names like “bitch”. For the first time, she’s getting to see what a gentleman is, so she will be able to recognize them when she’s ready to date. I wish I could tell her 50 times a day for the next 10 years that she is beautiful, that she is smart, and that she is worthy of love and respect. But I know that even if I could, it would never be enough to completely undo that damage. Within the first week of their arrival, this young lady thanked Charlene and told her that she felt safe for the first time in her life. Think about that. At 14, she feels safe for the first time in her life. All seven children have many challenges to overcome. I could fill page after page with the simple things that the children have never been taught or shown. David, Charlene, and Charlene’s mother are working together to help them catch up in school and in life. They have a long road ahead of them.

Here’s the thing, it would have been easy for these people to say no. No one would have faulted them. They could have listed 100 valid reasons this was more than they could handle, but they looked for a way to say “yes” instead. They looked beyond the financial burden, the loss of personal space, and sleep and time. They stepped up when it wasn’t the easy thing to do, and I’m sure they have days when they look at each other and say, “What were we thinking?” So often, the right thing isn’t the easy thing. In my book they’re heroes, pure and simple.

It’s been said that, “Courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s the ability to act in the presence of it.” Action isn’t without risk, but with risk comes the possibility of reward. If you always stay in your corner and play it safe, you will never grow spiritually, intellectually, or emotionally. I’m trying really hard to watch and learn from my friends because I know I have plenty of room left for growing, as do my children. These kids haven’t had many opportunities to feel “special” in their lives, while my two get to feel special every single day.

So my kids and I sat down and discussed it. We discussed how, every year at Christmas, they agonize over coming up with a list of items they want. They have everything they NEED and they know it. Although we don’t have a big budget at Christmas, they readily agreed to picking a few items they could put to good use and directing the rest of our budget toward making sure that these seven children had a Christmas they could remember.  I feel certain that this won’t just be a great Christmas for these seven, beautiful kids who are full of promise they haven’t even realized yet, it will be a great Christmas for my kids too.

If you’re reading this, you’re one of my friends. We would like to invite you to make a difference too. I really want to show David’s family and these children that they have a village behind them. For the record, they don’t have a clue what I’m up to and I hope to keep it that way. If you feel moved to participate, email me at rstephens2@windstream.net and I’ll be sure to include you in our plans. Thank you for reading. I’ll try to deliver something funny next time. I promise.