Monday, March 30, 2009

In Praise of Going Backwards

As a little girl, I dreamed about meeting my prince charming and living happily ever after. Most little girls have this impossible dream thanks to every cartoon ever made. We dress them up in princess gowns and put tiaras on their heads and tell them how beautiful they are. The problem is that we keep this dream as we grow up and when happily ever after has come and gone, we feel like failures. For some reason, we all believe that there is a right way to do things. You meet your soul mate, get married, buy a house, have kids and grow old together. I, however, have never done things "the right way" and for a long time I thought I was missing out on something.

When I was pregnant with my first son, it was a surprise (ie. it wasn't planned). I walked around with a growing belly and no wedding ring. And while a lot of women take their rings off as their fingers swell, I was convinced that people knew when they looked at me that I was a single mom. While most people gets hugs and congratulations, I got, "what are you going to do?" My family and friends threw me a baby shower, but there was no father to help load the gifts into the car or put together the crib and it made me sad. I wasn't sad that the real father wasn't involved because it was probably for the best. I was sad that there wasn't a father involved. I was sad that I was going through it on my own, without the other half of the "fairy-tale" equation I always dreamed of having. On the up side I didn't have to share my son with anyone. I could give him whatever I wanted and discipline him however I saw fit. Being a single parent wasn't easy, but it did made me stronger in a way that I couldn't understand at the time.

So first I had my son, and then I bought my first home. Again, I did this all by myself. While this was definitely empowering, it still wasn't the way it was suppose to be. I went to bed alone every night and woke up alone every morning. There was one car parked in the driveway and I was the only one there to take out the trash. I loved my first house and because of it I learned how to use a drill, hang curtains and mow the lawn. It too made me stronger, but again, I couldn't really appreciate it.

And then I finally met my prince charming. But instead of focusing on being thankful for finding him (which I truly was), I focused on how it had happened all wrong. And when he finally moved in and I finally had my "family" it still wasn't right. We weren't married and I didn't even have a ring. I was obsessed with having a diamond on my finger as if somehow that gave me worth. Everywhere I went I would look at woman's hands and wonder what made them so special that someone gave them a ring. I would ask myself why wasn't I that special and why couldn't I have done things the right way.

What is it about society that tells us that we need that diamond ring to be of value as a woman? Who decided that there is a right way to do things and why the hell did they have to tell me?

And then I got my ring and it finally happened, I stopped wondering why and started focusing on how - how lucky I truly was. Unfortunately, it took me a silly (but beautiful) piece of jewelry to see what I had all along. I had this amazing man who loved me even though I had done it all wrong. He loved my son as if he was his own. He made me laugh and he truly was (and is) my best friend. I love coming home to him every night and would spend every moment with him if given the chance. He is a fantastic husband and even better father and I am thankful every day for him.

So my journey wasn't the way I had planned and it wasn't the way I thought it was suppose to go. But looking back I realize that my detours in life are the reason I am so happy today.
Through my travels, I discovered the things that make me happy in life and in a mate. And I learned not to settle because at the end of the day it makes everyone miserable and live is just too short. I know that my husband is everything I want and I will never have to second guess if there is someone out there who is a better fit for me.

I also learned that in order to be happy, you just have to be yourself. I spent so much time trying to figure out what other people wanted me to be that I lost myself in the process. So I never played those games with my husband. I have fully disclosed who I am with him since the beginning, skeletons and all. Lying about who you are and what you have done is just too much work and can cause a lot of stress. Being honest is truly the most freeing thing you can do.

So it turns out that doing things the wrong way turned out to be the right way for me. Life lessons are very powerful should you choose to learn from them. My husband and I know how lucky we are to have found someone that we honestly enjoy being with more each day. Life is too short to not be happy. The trick is not only figuring out the things in life that make you happy (which can be difficult enough by itself and usually comes from figuring out what makes you unhappy), but also making decisions that invite that happiness into your life every day.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Battle of the Sexes

One Friday, a couple weeks ago, I had one of "those mornings." You know the ones where you are running late, the baby cries when you put him down, the 8 year old cries because his video game got shut off, the husband picks a fight with the 8 year old and you are left to pick up the pieces, get everyone to school on time (after first explaining why they actually do need to go to school and that no, being sad about a video game does not warrant a sick day) and somehow get to work on time. And as I was finally enjoying my morning drive, thoughts about the morning episode started to creep into my precious alone time.

My thoughts seemed to focus on how can men and women can be so different. Honestly, no woman I know would fight with an 8 year old about a video game on a school morning - just let it go and get the hell out of the house. I love my husband, I truly do and I am very lucky because I consider him my best friend. But every now and then, the thought creeps in that my best girl friend would never do that. For example, the other night my husband was sitting in his recliner, watching basketball and playing on Facebook. It was 10 pm (way past my bedtime) and there I was, still folding laundry. He looked at me, completely serious, and asked me if I could get him a snack. Seriously?! This is when I think, "my girl-friends would never do that!"

So what exactly makes men and women so different? Who knows, definitely not me. They say it actually has to do with the way our brains work. I am not sure if I'm buying that, but now the mother to 4 boys I am reluctantly starting to agree. Like most females, I spent most of my life until now (and including now) living in frustration with the male gender. And most of you ladies will agree, they just don't get it. I was thoroughly convinced that they were all doing it on purpose to drive me crazy. Doing what you ask - everything! They were ignoring me, not returning my calls (or even avoiding them), making a mess, being gross, being immature, anything and everything opposite of me and my girlfriends - as if somehow they had a choice to be like them or to be like us.

And then I had my son.

When I found out I was having a boy, my first thought was what am I going to do with a boy? I don't even know how to handle the grown up ones, never mind the baby if a little alien was about to move in. Fast forward nine years, four boys and a husband later and I am still baffled most of the time. While I have learned to predict my boys' behaviors and have learned to co-exist better with them, I still wouldn't say I understand them. Why, for example, do they refuse to share their feelings? When guys are upset about something, regardless of whether they are 8 or 4o, they don't voluntarily share. Brooding is the best way I can explain it. They become quiet and grumpy and get mad about something stupid like what show you are watching on tv. And even when you ask, they won't admit that anything is wrong. So finally, 3 days and many fights later they will finally admit what is wrong - talk about wasting time. We girls will tell everyone who will listen what is wrong with-in seconds of the injustice. We will phone our friends, post it on Facebook and use it as a good excuse to drink a bottle of wine (as if we need one). And in an hour or so we will start to feel better - talk about saving time!

I should have known something was up when I took my first son to the playground when he was two. I can still picture it like it was yesterday. The swings and slides could not compare to the cars whizzing by on the other side of the chain-linked fence. I think he stood there for 30 minutes, his little hands holding onto the fence, just watching the cars go by with a huge smile on his face. Thirty minutes is along time for a two year old to stand still for anything, never mind something as boring as that. I guess that makes me a girl. So it turns out that the stereotypes mostly hold true that little boys like trucks, balls and destroying things while little girls like dolls, dressing up and tea-parties.

So where does that leave us? Pretty much right where we started, literally. We are born different, raised different and end up different. The trick is learning how to live with each other and try to appreciate those differences especially in moments of shear frustration. I can definitely appreciate the simplicity that men offer; usually what you see is what you get. I wish I could learn how to incorporate that outlook into my life a little bit more, as long as they would try to clean up the mess they swear they don't even see - just once!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Toughest Job You Will Ever Love

It's hard sometimes to define yourself as one thing. Like most women I know, I am a mother, a daughter, a wife, a sister, a friend, and more. All of these relationships bring their own set of rules and challenges and baggage. Sometimes it's hard to juggle all the personas and all the stuff that comes with each one; asking us to switch roles maybe 10 times in a day. I have become good at morphing to fit the image of what's expected with each role, a chameleon of sorts. Let's face it, we all act differently with each of our friends, our kids, our bosses, our mothers, our husbands and somehow we manage to keep everyone more or less happy. It can definitely take its emotional toll on us, wanting just once to have nothing expected of us. But we do it, as if second nature, cause that is who we are. For me however, there is one label where the rules are fuzzy and constantly changing, leaving me to wonder “how in the world do I ever get good at this?” That is my role as a stepmother.

First, let me explain how I have tried to step-parent. As the mother of two of my own children, I decided to simply be a mom. There are rules in our house that should be followed and consequences should they be ignored. I have tried hard not to play favorites, although inevitably not everyone agrees that I have been successful on that particular endeavor. I care about all four of my boys and try always to put their needs first. However, sometimes I feel that I care more than I have the right to. After all, I have no legal rights to these boys. I am not their guardian and, god forbid, should my husband die I may never see them again. My opinion on matters relating to my stepsons is just that, an opinion. And while I’d like to think that my husband and I make decisions as a team, they are still his kids. So I am stuck in this awkward, emotionally draining place where I am expected to act like their mother (doing their laundry, making their meals, driving them to football, asking how their day was, caring and loving them) but I am given none of the rights of being a parent to them. It’s a lonely road that I don’t even think my husband gets most of the time.

Now if my struggle internally was all I had to deal with, maybe I could get better at pretending it was easy. But it is dealing with all the other “relationships” that leave me flabbergasted. First, there is the obvious relationship with my two stepsons. I am not their mother so who gives me the right to tell them what to do. Plus, I am the reason their parents aren't together anymore, right? While neither is true, it’s hard to explain the intricacies of the situation to a child, especially when you don't really get them yourself. I love my stepsons. I love them as much as my own children and sometimes I think I love them more; I would have to. With our own children there is an instant bond that goes deeper than anything I knew could exist. It’s the reason you can stare at them in wonder for hours or why, when they are first born, it’s hard to distinguish where they leave off and you begin. It’s also the reason that my older son has lived to be 8 years old. It’s called unconditional love and its one of the great mysteries of life. I will love my sons no matter what, forever. I will also always love my stepsons, but this love is more of a work in progress, a reminder I offer myself each time one of them challenges me, and a promise I make every day. What it comes down to is hard work; it takes a lot more work to love my stepsons. And I am willing to work as hard as it takes. This sentiment, however, is often lost on the children. If you think being a parent is a thankless job, try being a step-parent.

This role also leaves my relationship with their father, my husband, in a fuzzy place when it comes to his children. I love my husband. I consider him my best friend because I can be myself 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and most of the time he actually likes me. I never have to pretend to be anything but me; except, that is, for when it comes to my stepsons. The gray area surrounding my thoughts on his 2 boys is murky at best and hard to navigate. This is the only time in which I am very careful to choose my words with him and even then it never comes out right. Much like the way we all take advice about our children from well meaning “outsiders,” sometimes he smiles politely and brushes me off, other times he flat out tells me to mind my own business. To me however, they are part of our family and therefore, they are my business. Do I blame him for feeling this way? Never, I get it. But I wish he would get where I am coming from too. I love those boys as if they were my own and I wish that at least he would take that into consideration even if the law doesn’t.

There is the obvious relationship with the ex-wife. I try to stay out of this one as much as possible. I am cordial in person and even try to see where she is coming from on occasion. And in turn, she smiles and pretends she doesn’t hate my guts. I am very conscience of what I say in front of the children and always make sure they respect their mother. I won’t begin to pretend that I know how she feels or what she is going through. But obviously she can put additional stress on my relationship with my stepsons and sometimes my husband. I still hope that someday we can all move past our petty differences and act like adults, especially when it’s in the best interest of the children. But it’s been over five years now so maybe that is too much to ask given the emotional depth of the whole situation.

At the end of the day, even with all of the frustrations and second-guessing that comes with being a stepmother, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love my stepsons and I love our family. They have enriched my life in ways I never planned and given my boys the bond of brotherhood that will last their lifetime. I will continue to fight for what I think is best for them, even if no one thinks my opinion matters because that is what you do for the people you love. I hope that they will grow up knowing that I love them and feeling that we have created a happy, safe place that they can call home.

Friday, March 20, 2009

This Mom's Take on Going Green

I am a thirty-something mom who thinks I am pretty cool and whose kids aren’t old enough yet to disagree with me. However, trendy is not a word I would use to describe myself. Let’s face it, the mini skirts and high heels that an 18 year old can pull off would look down right ridiculous as I chase after my 13 month old who just learned to walk, not to mention dangerous for me (I could twist an ankle or something). I don’t have time to worry about the latest hairdo or make my eyes look “smoky” if that is even in anymore. Hell, I don't even put on make up some days, and I'm talking work days. So while most of us moms past the age of 30 might not consider ourselves trendy, we might want to think again.

One of the biggest trends to hit in the last couple of years by far is to "go green." Okay you say, but this trend isn’t self indulgent and just for show – but isn’t it? Old habits die hard, and if you are used to keeping up with the Joneses then I know you have tried this particular aforementioned “trend.”

I am guilty of watching Oprah one day as she discussed the waste that one person can leave behind. She talked about alternatives to paper napkins, paper towels, leaving your computer on and cell phones plugged in. She even challenged a few families to a week without waste. They both came out of it better for the experience; a happier and closer family; and vowed to keep it going long after the week was over. My first thought was “I can do that!”

And so my own experiment began. I went right out and bought cloth napkins, more kitchen towels and the reusable bags they sell at the grocery stores. We changed light bulbs and turned off our computers and stopped using paper plates. I felt great knowing that I was doing something good for the environment and after all, Oprah made me feel like it was the cool thing to do. So, am I still doing it? Hell no!

While the family grumbled a little bit about the changes, it was really me who ended up feeling the brunt of the experiment. Cloth napkins and towels meant more laundry and more often – can’t be stuck with a spill and no clean towels. It meant doing more dishes as I wasn’t aloud to buy paper plates or cups anymore. I was never very good about turning off the television because I love sitting down at night and watching TV. Not to mention that I don’t have the death wish associated with making the kids give up their video games. And let’s face it, it keeps them entertained. And when my newborn son came along, I did toy with the idea of cloth diapers, but there was no way that idea was going to fly in my house. So I tried the next best thing and I bought “natural” diapers at Wholefoods. And this too lasted exactly one package of diapers in which time we experienced some pretty serious leaks and the pain in the ass of having to go to a special store to get them. And those great reusable bags for the grocery store? I had used them exactly once. They were still sitting in my pantry where I put them after my first shopping trip because I either bought groceries online (and as much as I protest, they bring all my groceries in plastic bags – and since they deliver I will continue to look the other way) or I completely forgot about them until I was at the check out.

Now I am still a big proponent of recycling and I try to recycle everything I can get my hands on. But again, they come to my house to pick it up and it doesn’t cost me anything. So, to sum up this experiment – as with most trends, it cost more time and money for me to “go green” than I have either of. And I started wondering if the energy and water I was using to wash everything might be outweighing or at least equaling the paper waste. Not to mention all the extra gas and emissions from me driving all over the place to find stores that carried the special “green” products. So while it might be the cool thing to do (and I know, good for the planet and all that), I am just too tired, busy and poor to be politically or environmentally correct on this one.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Our love hate relationship with our husbands

The other day I came across an article in Parenting Magazine entitled "Mad at Dad, We love our husbands -- so why are we so angry at them, so often?" So I sat there and read the 3 page article with bated breath looking for some answers. The article was right on, at least for me. I love my husband a lot and he is my best friend. (Although from time to time I have to remind myself that a female best friend is far different than a male best friend with whom you share a bathroom, kitchen, kids, etc. - more on that later). However, I find myself angry with him a lot and I was hoping this article would help.

The article touched on the topics of housework, parenting, "me time" and all the things we fight about constantly. And while it did make me feel better that I wasn't alone, it didn't offer me any insight into how to stop the anger, aside from "talk to your husband." Seriously?! My problem is that I have talked to my husband until I am blue in the face; that is when the yelling comes in, as if some how the volume level of my voice will actually make him listen.

As women we take on a lot of things, partly by choice (because lets face it, we usually do it better) and partly out of necessity (because if we don't do it, it just wouldn't get done). And as we get older and we have a bigger house, more kids, more activities, more responsibilities at work, it only gets worse. There are a lot of days where I wish that I had a wife cause lets face it, the husband usually gets off easy.

As I read on through stories of women like myself who are upset because they know they married smart, capable men who can make million dollar deals at work but can't figure out how to run the dishwasher, I felt myself getting angry. My husband was sitting next me while I read the article and thought I was stupid for reading an article that was making me mad at him when he hadn't actually done anything. But isn't that always the way; they forget quickly while we are mad and move on. But its not so easy for us - at least not for me. I tend to let the anger build and fester and once a month I let my hormones take over. And while my husband chaulks it up to PMS, I try to explain that I am angry for a reason, but maybe just more verbal about it today. Its not usually just one thing. If he just left the dirty dish on the counter right above the dishwasher I might over look it. But add that with the dirty laundry on the floor, the empty cup in the living room, the time spent playing hockey, and don't get me started on golf temperature starts to rise.

My husband did take the time to tell me the other day that he appreciates everything I do for our family and he loves me very much. I know I am lucky that he gets it from time to time. But honestly, I would rather never hear those words and have him clean the kitchen without having to be asked. So the question arises - why the hell are most men like this? Is it in their DNA, do they take some kind of class along the way? Has society told them that they don't need to learn these skills? Did their mothers ruin them for us? And I have to admit that with my four boys I do tend to take care of them a little too much cause quite honestly its easier than fighting with I guess I am part of the problem.

So my ultimate question is how do we stop being so angry and how do we get our men to help out more? I guess at the end of the day, the article didn't offer any solutions because if there were any, there wouldn't be an article (hope you follow that logic). I know I love my husband and at the end of the day I am lucky. He does make me laugh, he is a great dad and from time to time he realizes how much I do for our family. But I still say that I should leave him to fend for himself from a Tuesday to Thursday, driving the kids all over creation, doing laundry, cooking, and trying to work while I go to the spa - anyone want to join me?